Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A review on Neoclassical Geek Revival

This is (kind of) a review of Zzarchov Kowolski’s Neoclassical Geek Revival (or NGR).  Zzarchov is the author behind excellent OSR modules like The Gnomes of Levnec, Thulian Echoes and ScenicDunnsmouth.

What astonished me about NGR is [First] that it is a game released back in 2011 that I have never heard about and [Second] that it is a wonderful package of ideas and gaming principles, all of which are amazingly easy to steal for your home games/systems.

This little post is based on NGR’s No Art Version (a 112 pages PDF available from DriveThruRPG - link above).

NGR is clearly inspired by the OSR but it is not (technically) a retroclone. Although I hate the term, you could say it’s a fantasy heartbreaker. It’s definitely Zzarchov’s ideas and esthetics for a generic fantasy game system, but you can clearly see some of its gaming roots.

The book start with rules for “rolling dice” (that definitely are in the spirit of OSR and the first games). My favorite ones are those for limiting bonus, the “?d#” roll (where you roll a dice until getting its maximum result, with a ?d6 meaning you roll a 1d6 until you hit 6) and the inverted die. NGR also uses a chain of dice progression, almost like DCCRPG. There’s also the awesome ‘The Known Rule’, which gives bonus to the players every time the GM has to stop the game session to check for rules in the book (I understood that the same rules forbids players from checking if they can’t remember how a rule works… just roll with it and keep gaming!).

Character creation is simple. Each character has 6 attributes: Strength, Agility, Health, Perception, Intelligence, Charisma and Will (all self-explanatory). Each attribute has a score, a modifier and a die, all used for different stuff (and NGR does uses the score itself, which is good since I believe D&D 3rd/Pathfinder could follow M&M and stop using them). Attributes scores usually vary between 1-20, with 10 being the baseline.

The next step is Species (i.e. Races). We get the usual suspects here: Mankind, Dwarves, Elves, Wee Folk (Halflings, Gnomes etc.) and Wodewose (half-giants, ogres etc.). At first, there’s nothing new here, but Zzarchov’s approach to Species is excellent and illuminating. NGR does not lose its time giving bonus and modifiers for Species. The author believes that a Specie should be foremost about flavor, so he gives them a lot of unique and interesting benefits or drawbacks (all mechanically minor; again, you don’t see bonus/penalties here, which I found excellent). For example, NGR’s Dwarves are color-blind (except for gold, silver and gemstones) and they only age when their skin is exposed to sunlight (and “getting old” for a dwarf means get slowly petrified) – this oozes flavor and I’m tempted to steal it for all my Dwarves henceforth.

Next we’re introduced to a concept that I’ve been trying to implement in my OSR/Pathfinder games since reading games like FATE or I AM ZOMBIE – the Schrodinger’s Character. Basically, you build your character during the first game session, by playing it. It’s an amazing concept, very useful for grognards like me (or just adult gamers in general) which have precious little time for their beloved hobbies due to jobs, daily responsibilities, family etc.

After that we get to the Pie System, which is basically NGR’s approach to a class system. Each character gets a number of “pie pieces” to choose from six options: Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, Bard, Bard, Priest and Fool. The number of pie pieces you place on each “class” dictates how many abilities you gain and your progression.

Each class come with a selection of 6 powers to choose from, besides a Locked Power (which you only get if you pick 4 pie pieces from that class) and rules for the class’s Personal Item (from a Warrior’s trademark item to a Priest’s relic). I won’t lose time with the class details here, except for two: the Bard and the Fool.

NGR’s Bard is my kind of Bard. Forget spellcasting minstrels or cumbersome jack-of-all-trades, NGR’s Bard is a social master. All his abilities are potent social traits and his ‘Personal Item’ are henchmen (Perfect!).

Finally, we get the Fool. This isn’t a class, but a pie piece that dictates how Luck Points progress for a character, besides also giving bonuses to awesome rolls (more on that later). Luck Points are NGR’s answer to hit points – they’re definitely abstract, they can be spent to keep the character safe from a lot of harmful effects (not only physical damage) and they’re recovered in true Sword & Sorcery fashion (Parties, Celebrations, Ho-Downs, Shindigs & Box Socials!). In other words: they’re hit points that make sense. In case you’re wondering: if you get 0 Luck Points, physical damage goes straight to your Health (i.e. Constitution in d20 games), but we’ll get to that.

Awesome rolls, mentioned above, remind a little of experience rolls in BRP, but here they’re used at end of the game session to gain Fate Points (which are NGR ‘action point’/FATE point system).

The character’s pie pieces in each class also determine their progression bonus in the following universal modifiers: Combat, Presence, Stealth, Occult and Faith (each linked to a class and an attribute). For example, Combat equals a character’s Warrior bonus plus their Agility modifier).

The next steps are ‘Character Traits’ and ‘Skills and Knowledges’. Traits are selected only at character creating (2 at most) and give a character advantages and disadvantages. For example, if you’re Arrogant it’s hard to hit you in social conflict, but when you fumble in such conflict, you lose a lot more Influence. Skills and Knowledges are divided in three basic types: Languages, Knowledges and Weapons.

Before picking up equipment each character chooses 2 Relationships, one linked to the player seated to the left, the other to the player seated to the right. Relationships help to bring the group together and are simple things like ‘Life Debt’ or ‘Family’ (they also have a small mechanic effect). NGR uses a simple and practical encumbrance system, which remind me of Lamentations of the Flame Princess and other OSR approaches to equipment/load.

Thank the gods, NGR provides starting equipment packages (I can’t say why but these days buying equipment is the dumbest and more boring part of character creation for me, which is why I absolutely love the dK System’s Preparation skill).

Finally, you choose your Morality (i.e. Alignment), Lucky Number (a famous OSR blog rule) and fill the last numbers of the sheet – Mana for Wizards, Piety for Clerics, Destiny (which is 0 for beginners, unless it’s your birthday) and XP.

The system basic check uses a d20, but you must the check the ‘Keeping Your Cool’ rule. This basic rule is the core of the system and states that when a character is CALM he can roll a d20 or just pick d10. He can also choose to go ON EDGE and roll 3d6 instead of 20. Or he can just go RECKLESS and roll d20. Once you go from CALM to any other stance, you can‘t go back until you get a restful night of sleep in a safe area. Checks in NGR are either opposed or against a target number; you roll your die (following the ‘Keeping Your Cool’ rule) and add the relevant score.

NGR has a very interesting take on saving throw, one that reminds me of Chainmail. In NGR a saving throw is a check that a player can request when nothing else applies and his character is in danger. Only characters with a milestone can request a saving throw (a milestone is a very interesting parallel advancement system of NGR, linked to story deeds and accomplished quests). Now, the cool bit of the saving throw is that the exact effect of failure or success are based on the player character response to the threat. Is his idea to avoid the threat standard? (“I duck the lightning bolt”) Then a failure means normal damage and success means half damage. Is the PC’s idea crazy enough to work? (“I used my metal staff to discharge the lightning bolt around me, nullifying it!”) Then is double or nothing. As I said, it’s a very cool rule.

NGR has a considerably narrative and modern approach to damage. You can have any number of different damage types, each linked to a different (or the same) attribute. The game provides a (extensive) list of “common” types of damage ([Physical] Damage, Stun, Stress, Suspicion, Influence…) and “uncommon” types (Toxicants, Fear, Mutation…). Some kinds of damage stack. For example, stun and [physical] damage both affect Health. Also, NGR uses a brutal death spiral rule for most types of damage. For example, [physical] damage to Heath inflicts a -1 penalty per point of damage to base checks (the d20/3d6/take 10 check mentioned above or “dX” as it’s called). That’s why Luck Points are such important (and awesome) resource, they allow to ignore ANY type of damage.

NGR damage system is possibly the game’s most interesting and hard to grasp rule (for me at least). For example: NGR has a Suspicion damage track, based on Perception, which means that sneaking is now a conflict. That’s a great rule because it ads tension to scenes where the group is trying to ambush an orc scout party or get past a dragon guarding the dungeon’s only exit. However, I feel that NGR would benefit A LOT by giving examples for each kind of damage (maybe describing an actual play encounter for each type of conflict or damage). Other damage types could benefit also from a few tips – like the Mutation Damage, where I missed at least a table of possible effects or other more concrete suggestions. Social Damage like Influence and Infamy also gave me headache, especially in conflicts dealing with multiple characters and different intents (for example, one PC is trying to befriend the NPC while another is trying to seduce him… does both attempts stack? Do I keep track of “different” Influence damages?).

NGR does provide a compressive set of rules for hazards, conflict types, mass combat, trials, investigations, enemies of different sizes etc. I won’t get in details here, because I’m focusing on the game’s parts that attracted me most.

NGR provide further support for Warriors (Combat Tricks), together with the now class stuff for Wizards (Spells) and Clerics (Miracles). Combat Tricks are martial maneuvers that Warriors can learn. Wizardly Spells are basic templates (like Powers in Savage Worlds), that must be enriched with flavor – it’s not just a Bolt spell, but Marvin’s Magnificent Lightning Bolt! The magic system uses Mana Points and is a bit bland for me, but these days I consider myself extremely spoiled by games like Warhammer 2nd and DCCRPG. The author, however, does pull very flavorful mechanics – especially the Price and Magic Components rules. There’s also the excellent and weird (in a good way) rule that states that a spell’s power is inversely related to the numbers of casters that know it (which is THE BEST explanation about why wizards are such greedy and jealous bastards when it comes to their spells). Priestly Miracles are based on a caster’s divine patron and how many Piety Points he has. The Piety rules are the best part of the chapter and give divine spellcasters a flavorful style, totally different from Wizards.

NGR’s next chapter deal with Fate Points (that you gain at the end of each session through the ‘Rolling for Awesomeness’ check) and Destiny Points (which are very hard to gain but allow you to totally own a situation). This chapter also has an advancement track, Milestones rules, how to gain XP etc. The last bit is the Rolling “The 2d6” – which is a rule pertaining to each character’s Personal Item (or henchmen for Bards). NGR’s final chapter deal with ending a campaign (the game’s top level is 10).

After all this material the only thing that I missed were information and stats on monsters and NPCs, which seem to be available through a separate PDF product.

Zzarchov Kowolski’s Neoclassical Geek Revival is a unique and imaginative fantasy system, that will enrich any gamer’s library. For me this is the ideal game book – one that even if I never use in my table (and I intend to use it) makes me read other books with new eyes and gives me tons of ideas about how adapt campaigns and other games to me needs (yeah, that’s a 5-star review).

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