Monday, August 23, 2010

Tommy's Take on Apocalypse Prevention, Inc. Core Rulebook

Apocalypse Prevention Inc. is a cool game that was offered up as part of the awesome Haiti Bundle on DriveThruRPG earlier this year, and as cool as it looked, I got more than a tad overwhelmed with EVERYTHING that came in the bundle.  However, API has caught my attention all over again, because Third Eye Games just announced at GenCon that API will be coming to Savage Worlds as a Savage Setting!  That tickles me pink, I'll be honest...'cause I loves me some Savage Worlds.  This review, however, is for the first edition of the game, using Third Eye Games' Dynamic Gaming System.

The cover is a striking black and orange, with the silhouette of a city skyline up top and what appears to be flames behind it.  On the center of the page is a blood splatter in the shape of the continents.  The PDF itself is fully bookmarked and searchable, and is available for $12.95 at RPGnow.  Additionally, a print version is available for $24.95.

Written by Eloy Lasanta, API is an action-horror RPG with a bit of a comedy twist...or, as I've heard it mentioned before, it's “Joss Whedon's Men in Black”.  The book begins with a brief overview of the setting, which is about a shadow corporation protecting the world from all the ooky demons that might threaten it, and touching briefly on just what those demons are (many of which are playable races in the game).  As well, it gives a brief paragraph about the core mechanic of the system, which is d20+attribute+skill.

A “What Is Roleplaying” section follows, but it keeps it brief.  Not bad, but nothing you haven't read before, and I appreciate the brevity.

Finally, an in-character memo is posted, welcoming the “New Agent” to Apocalypse Prevention Inc.

The table of contents is a bit broad, listing just the chapter headings...but since there is a full index (as well as bookmarks in the PDF), this isn't a huge strike.  Even in the hardcopy version I would forgive it because of the index.

Character Creation is up first, and broken down into five steps, the first of which is Concept, Passion and Race.

Concept is pretty broad, but should be distilled to a couple of words or so.  Passion is picked from a list, each of which has a situation in which the PC can earn bonus XP, such as Honor providing XP whenever the PC abides by their code even in the face of negative consequences, Rivalry giving a bonus when you get a leg up over your rival, or Death providing bonus XP whenever you survive a near death experience.  As well, a helpful sidebar is provided, giving examples of how different Passions can alter the same Concept.  Finally, you select your race: Human, Burners (fire demons), Changelings (shape shifting demons), Lochs (giant fish demons), Spectrals (ghosts who failed to move on), Taylari (living vampires) and Wolf People (kinda like werewolves).  As well, there are three “illegal” races provided, Carriors (disease eating demons), Oracles (demons who can see the future) and Tarks (massive demonic hulks).  The illegals are held to the back of the book, but are playable with GM permission.

For concept, I'm going with “Boring Pencil Pusher”.  Passion?  Revenge.  Race: Spectral.  Bart Angleman was an API file clerk who had fallen in love with Alyssa, a lovely changeling of indeterminate age.  They cohabitated for a few years, though Alyssa never really returned Bart's feelings, but privately told those she spoke with that “he loves me enough for the both of us”.  Bart, for his part, subconsciously understood that Alyssa needed more than him, and rarely questioned her comings and goings.  He returned home from the office to find their apartment wrecked, and Alyssa dying on the floor.  Angleman never realized that the trio of hunters that had tracked her down and attacked her were still there, and murdered him, assuming him to be a Changeling as well.  He was not...he was just a heartbroken schlub who refused to let go of the mortal coil...now, he walks the earth as a Spectral Agent of API, specializing in shutting down monster hunters who would kill otherwise harmless, friendly demons.

Next, we spend 30 points on our attributes, which are Power, Agility, Vigor, Intellect, Insight and Charm.  These are ranked from 1-10, with 9-10 costing 2 points per level instead of one.  Being a pencil pusher, we're going to go a little heavier on the mental than physical attributes, I think.

POW: 3  AGI: 2  VIG: 4  IQ:  9  INS: 7  CHM: 4

There we go...I think that'll work nicely.

Step 3: Distribute 30 skill points, plus an additional point for every level of IQ.  There are 20 standard skills, plus 12 combat skills, as well as a list of Spectral Skills, which is what Bart will need in order to actually affect the outside world.  At different thresholds (4, 7 and 10), the PC gets a Specialty for the skill (when available) as well, something to keep in mind.

Affect Senses (Repetitive Typing Sounds) 4, Computers 5, Float 4, Knowledge (Bureaucracy, Demonology) 8, Manifestation 8, Possess Object (computers) 5, Stir (Typing) 5.

There we go: His main marketable skills from API are represented, and he's quickly become a fast study on the ghost stuff.  Good times.

Unless I am horrible mistaken, Bart gets Appearance (Fear 13), plus Ghost Form and the Drawback Sealed Inner Circles for being a Spectral.  This essentially means he's kinda creepy, and can't affect anything (or even be seen, other than giving people a cold chill) without the skills he took above, and he can't use much in the way of magic.  He also gets a further 10 points to spend on Gifts (or Attributes and Skills if he chooses), but he can also take up to 10 points in Drawbacks.

Perfect Memory (3) seems like a good one for Bart.  Let's take Punctual (1) as well.  Years inside a cubicle has given him Iron Will (4), and he has amassed a huge Library (4).  Now he needs at least 2 points of Drawbacks...I'm thinking Speech Impediment.  Howabout...Stuttering?

Now derived stats:  Using the formulas in the book we get Health of 22, Initiative of 9, Stamina 33, Walking is 5 ft and running speed is 100 yards per minute.  Jumping is only 3 ft horizontally, and he can't swim...poor guy.

Not bad, not bad.  The concept may have been kinda grim for setting, but I could see it working.  Especially with lots of “Office Space” humor.

It's worth noting that there is a lot more depth in the skill system getting into the combat skills, I just ventured entirely into a non-combat character here.  The six attributes are pretty much the d20 Ability Scores renamed, while a lot of the character generation reminds me of White Wolf's character creation standards.  Definitely not a rip-off of either, but I do see what appears to be influence, especially from White Wolf.  In fact, much like White Wolf's books, API provides a character generation summary nestled into the first couple of pages of the section, where it gives an overview of Concept and spells out the Passions and their rewards.

From there, each of the legal Races get a profile, including common nicknames for the race (such as Humans being called Baselines or Spectrals being known as  Caspers), as well as common stereotypes (Burners are hot-headed, Lochs are wise).  Each section, about two pages or so on average, gives the story of the species, their common lifestyles,  how they are commonly recruited into API (Changelings make great spies), any starting Gifts or Drawbacks a well as unique ones available for each race to purchase.  Finally, each race has a picture included, as well as a sample NPC representative of the race, complete with a hook for using them in your game.  There are some nice quirks here: Taylari drink blood, are allergic to garlic and dislike sunlight, but are otherwise living and breathing beings.  However, if they die, they become feral Taylari Mortus.  Lochs are a fallen noble race who mate with humans when they can in order to propagate their species...but humans die in childbirth with a Loch child. 

The Attributes section is well laid out, listing each of the six attributes, with relevant tables and formulas immediately underneath each Attribute (such as the formula for holding one's breath under Vigor).

Skills have a very basic formula for difficulties: 10 is the base difficulty, and each level of complexity one tries to achieve is ten points higher, with a 40 being near impossible...(as it would require having a 10 in the Attribute, 10 in the relevant Skill and rolling a 20, or an 18 with a relevant specialty).  Untrained Skill Checks don't have penalties, they are just Attribute-only checks.  Natural 20s are an automatic success, Natural 1s an automatic failure.  Specialties provide an additional +2 on a roll.  It's a straightforward system, laid out very clearly.  Each skill listing provides common specialties, as well as examples as to just what each benchmark may entail, like a Moderate (20) Discipline check helping you keep your cool in a gunfight.

Combat Skills are a little different, as only Fighting Style: Basic can be purchased through normal skill points alone...each of the trained styles require a a Gift to unlock them.  Each style has a table showing your bonuses at each level, and you gain a Technique at levels 4, 7 and 10, ala Skill Specialties.  Probably my biggest gripe here is the combat Technique “Close Line”.  As a pro wrestler, I HAVE to point out that it should be “clothesline”.  Other than that, the Combat Skills provide a fairly crunchy system without being overwhelming, reminiscent somewhat of the old Palladium Martial Arts system, in a good way.

Gifts and Drawbacks are explained in detail, though a handy reference with point totals is provided at the beginning of this section.  There's very likely room for expansion, but there's still a good number of Gifts and Drawbacks provided here.  Access to Magic is bought through here, as well as quirky Gifts like Dumpster Stomach, which allow the PC to eat pretty much whatever he wants with no issue.

Equipment acquisition is handled through the Wealth Gift, which ranges from 0 to 5.  Every item has a Cost score, and you simply compare your Wealth to the Cost to see if you can purchase it...and yes, people can combine Wealth for more expensive items.

Some of the items listed are fairly normal: Nightvision goggles, first-aid kit, gas mask...but there are also faerie guns, which fire a foam that kills faeries (and also rats), image emitters (which Lochs often use to get humans to mate with them), ectoplasmic reorganizers (which let Spectrals change their “death” appearance) and Blood Beer (a human-safe alternative for Taylari that don't want to kill).

The weapons list hits a number of common favorites, such as swords (including the ever-popular katana), axes, chainsaws and ranged weapons from bows to boomerangs to shotguns.  Armor is also listed, from chain mail to kevlar and rules for breaking objects.

There is a pretty big sci-fi aspect to the game as well, and rules are included for cybernetics.  You use Bonus Points to buy your enhancements, with “aftermarket” cybernetics being cheaper but coming with some “quirks”.  Each basic implant also includes a list of potential upgrades, one of my favorites being the grenade launcher loaded into the cybernetic leg.

Combat is the biggest break I've seen in the game, system wise, from anything I've played before.  Each combat round has 20 Counts, each Count lasting half a second.  Everyone rolls initiative, with the winner starting on Count 1, and for every four points that each other participant rolled below him, they start one Count up.  I.e., if Zachariah the Taylari rolls an initiative total of 25 and the cyborg killer DED-HED only got a 16, Zachariah starts at Count 1.  DED-HED is 9 less than Zachariah, which moves him down the track by three steps, starting him at Count 4.  Typically, each character gets two Actions per round, and every action costs both Stamina and Speed.  The Speed cost means that performing the action moves you that many spaces down the Combat Tracker.  Your opponent can take Reactions, which cost Stamina and Speed, but don't count against actions.  Some of the Reactions have very low Speeds, the lowest being “Take The Hit”...so if you think you can handle what your opponent is swinging with, put your chin out and there's a good chance you'll get to strike him next.  If you go full defense, he's liable to keep pressing the attack before you get a go.

If your actions taken push you past the Count of 20, then for every Count you go over, you get a -2 on the next Round's initiative.  So if you roll a bad initiative, unless you are just convinced you can take the opponent out, you're probably better off letting some actions go, and rerolling an unpenalized initiative the next round.

A natural 20 is a big deal on both Actions and Reactions, including bonus damage or, in the case of some Reactions, draining Stamina from the attacker.  Similarly, rolling a 1 is bad, no matter what you're doing when you do it.

There is just a fairly shocking amount of depth in the combat rules, including an extensive list of Grappling options that include turning an opponent's weapon on them, using a grappled opponent as a Meat Shield and more.  Other combat options including sacrificing Health for Stamina, Feints, and three levels of basic strikes, starting with quicker and weaker and ending with slower and stronger.

The ranged combat rules remove a common RPG trope, which is the Dodge skill being used with firearms.  Doesn't happen here unless someone is at extremely close range, making guns incredibly useful.

The chapter rounds out with a number of common modifiers, such as Targeted Strikes (called shots), Blind Fighting and more, as well as a number of common damage rules such as fire, falling, poison, etc.  Finally, a two page example of the combat system, in full glory (including Combat Tracker) for clarification's sake.

Again, as noted in the styles: It's definitely crunchy, but I think it's laid out in such a way that it's not overwhelmingly so, especially once you get the initiative/combat tracker stuff down.

Chapter Three brings on the magic section.  API magic does spell lists, divided up into 18 “Paths”.  Anyone who can cast spells is an Adept.  You can dip around into Paths, so you don't have to focus on any one.  The Paths have three Circles, with magic effects getting more and more mindbending as you go.  For instance, one of the spells in the 1st Circle of The Path of Death allows you to commune with the dead.  With the 2nd circle, you can exorcise spirits.  With the 3rd, you can raise the dead (think zombie, not resurrecting a buddy back to full health).  Magic is powered by Mana, which you get by converting Stamina.

Half a dozen magical Orders are provided, each focused on a certain type of magic.  As well, the book clearly states that magic is not inherently good or evil, but is based off of the intent of the spell...and using magic for good or evil over time can have a transformative effect, making one glow with a holy aura, or aging them prematurely, etc.

As well, while the magic system uses spell lists, you can use experience points to upgrade your spells, tweaking the ones that you like to use, by making them stronger, or less draining to use, and so on.  Much like the combat system, the API magic system comes across as a very robust, yet not overwhelming system...with enough crunch to play around in it.  If you're all about freeform magic, you're probably not going to be thrilled with this...but it does look far less tedious than, say, the D&D tomes of spells system.

Chapter Four delves into the world in general, and the organization specifically.  History, especially in the US, makes a pretty large divergence in 2008 when the first female President is elected, and she manages to dramatically restrict gun ownership rights (remember the paranoia from gunowners when Obama was elected?  Yeah, a lot like that, but actually executed by the governnment).  API itself has been around in some form since the 1600s, and is a corporation with approximately 120,000 employees.  It is a known entity, but just what it really IS is the part that the public is unaware of.

API has a main HQ in California and a secondary HQ in Florida, with two cells per state, giving you a good amount of flexibility with the campaign structure.  As well, there are other worldwide HQs, and the entire HQ structure is given a full page (note that Canada and Europe each have their own sourcebooks while I will review as well).

API enforces registration on the part of demons, monsters and anyone interacting with the supernatural, and penalties for infractions can range from small fines up through death or incarceration.

As well, API stays on top of all manner of prophecies, be it from The Bible, Nostradamus, The Dead Sea Scrolls or what have you, and tries to discern the true trouble points.

This chapter also delves into the recruitment and training of Agents, as well as providing details on Elite Martial Arts training, which has some cool tricks to it like Mana Leak, which causes an Adept to lose extra Mana when trying to cast a spell after this is hit.

The details for an Agent cutting ties with their old life are detailed, which even include subtle DNA alterations...once you're in the system, you are no longer who you once were.  A section is devoted to Agents going rogue, which API does take very seriously...however, since they tend to give their Agents the benefit of the doubt, the Agents tend to do a fair amount of damage before API comes down on them.

A sidebar is devoted to The Watchers, a mysterious organization who doesn't actively interfere with API, but is amassing information at a rapid rate.  The belief is that they are hording the information in the event that API fails...but no one has been able to confirm this yet.

Finally, this chapter also covers the effect of cybernetics on the world, which include underground cybernetic fight clubs and doctors that implant extra goodies in their patients, making cyber-slaves out of them.

Chapter Five deals specifically with demons, such as the Trench Coat Rule (meaning that if a demon is making an attempt to be MOSTLY covered, the human mind will fill in the rest).  This chapter also takes the six demonic races from earlier in the book and relays their full racial history, from their home dimension to how they fit into earth society, including how Lochs try to breed with humans and exactly why humans tend to not survive the breeding process.

This chapter is a lot of information that never feels overblown or unnecessary.  It is very easy for game settings to go too far to opposite extremes when detailing their racial options...either painting them with too broad of a stroke to make it easy to grasp just how they are different, or go into sooooooo much detail that, frankly, you just stop caring.  I think API hits a pretty good sweet spot with this chapter.

The final chapter is the GMing chapter, starting with the three main themes: action, horror and humor.  Common squad structures are provided, as are tips for setting up the game world.  A very nice section is included for playing within the game world, but outside of API, from PIs to beings in the supernatural underground to monster hunters who have decided they've had enough.

Two adventure hooks are given for three difference experience levels (rookies, 30+ xp and 50+ xp), giving you some ideas for what it appropriate for a given group within the setting.  Suggested experience awards are also provided here, as well as the point costs for character advancement.

A slew of stock statistics are provided, from basic animals to different types of people (normal schmoes, mental patients, monster hunters) to various demon types, including stock stats for the PC races.  A Random Demon Maker is also provided, in a d20 table that you roll twice on...this can be used for PCs or a random NPC you need quickly.

The chapter ends with the three “illegal” NPC races: Carriers, Oracles and Tarks.  Carriers are often peaceful, but are outlaws because they unleash their digested diseases upon their deaths, leading to a potential pandemic.  Oracles, as well, are not inherently evil...but they cause bad luck around them, and since it does not effect them, they tend to not care about the effects.  Tarks are sent to earth for the express purpose of abducting babies and toddlers, and thus are treated as pretty much a massive honking threat.

The book rounds out with a glossary, index, character sheet and combat tracker that you can print off.

 I think parts of the system are going to be a tad crunchy for some folks...but I dig this game.  After doing this review, I'd not only love to give the game a spin, but I'm pretty pumped about tackling the rest of the game line.  The book is very clearly written, which is a must no matter how crunchy or lite a system is, and while humor is an important part of the setting, the author doesn't beat you over the head with it like, say, the Demon Hunters (from Margaret Weis Productions) or even the Buffy the Vampire Slayer core rules do.  On the flip side, it also doesn't take itself nearly as seriously as CJ Carella's Witchcraft or The World of Darkness does.  The art in the book isn't anything GREAT, but I didn't see anything actively bad, either.  Fully functional and thematic.


I'm going to be awfully intrigued to see the Savage Worlds version, as there are some areas where I could see SW really fitting it, and a few areas where I hope API actually steps Savage Worlds up a bit (I'd personally like to see API bring more to the Powers System, rather than just force the Paths into the existing Powers System, but we'll see).

With good, but not GREAT, production values, Apocalypse Prevention Inc. really brings the goods with the substance, as the corebook alone is chock full of goodies, but the line has a good amount of support ready to go as well.  Remember how I said earlier that it reminded me a fair bit of a mixture of d20 and White Wolf stuff?  It still does, with a little bit of Palladium thrown in...I just like it a lot more than I do any of the above.  Strong recommendation.