Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tommy's Take on Spite: The Second Book of Pandemonium

Holy sheez...Spite: The Second Book of Pandemonium is 428 pages of horrorific action. The standalone sequel to Dread, The First Book of Pandemonium (featuring drifters, addicts and criminals waging war against demons) features the good and devout trying to save the world from angels.

Spite and Dread are designed to stand alone, be used together, or picked and choosed from, with their thematically similar/opposite set-ups.

The scene is set with some visceral art pieces and a series of journal entries featuring a Zealot who is hunting Angels with her team, and then talking about being brutally attacked before being saved by another Zealot.

CHAPTER ONE: PANDEMONIUM

Spite uses D12s, and this the author provides a very good rationale for it, citing how there were 12 disciples, each side of a d12 is a pentagon, etc. That said, I'm not sure I'm pumped about needing a bunch of d12s for a game, but we'll see how this plays out.

The premise is simple: You play a Zealot, a once normal person who is now tasked with hunting and killing angels who are, apparently, quite bad. Zealots are formed in Cadres and Cadres answer to Monitors, who are the beings that transform people into Zealots.

On 8/8/8 (August 8th, 2008), Angels visited the earth and declared war, killing 1.5 million people. The government hushed it up, let it look like a terrorist attack...but things are just getting started. Monitors are picking up people and turning them into Zealots, giving them the power to hunt and kill Angels, who are here to judge humanity...with either outcome ending life on Earth.

The Cadres are set up as isolated cells who don't even know where their Monitors live, for the greater good in case of capture and torture.

An overview follows of the things that a Zealot should know, common knowledge provided by the Monitors, including basic information on the types of Angels. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, it is not uncommon to have to face cultists who worship Angels as well and, as they are wholly human, that can be hairy.

When the Angels (a specific subset is what has attacked the earth, actually, The Fallen) get the opportunity, they "judge" a human...giving them the Passion, if they are righteous or The Harrowing if not...either way, nothing remains of their victim.

CHAPTER TWO: OVERVIEW

Our journal entries continue from before, as our Zealot recalls waking up in the hospital missing her limbs...and regrowing them.

Here we learn the details of the Disciple 12 system: Roll a number of d12s equal to your skill or ability and take the high roll.

Simple enough, right? Except of you roll multiples, (say, two sixes) you add the number of multiples to the number...(in this case, two sixes equals 6+2 for an 8)...and now, if you had rolled an 8 as well, then getting another 8 in that manner means you have 8+2 for a total of 10. That can get...mindboggling, sometimes. There is also the "Cool Rule", where you can gain an extra die for describing your actions in a cool manner. I'm okay with that, so long as it doesn't get abused...(the game slowing down as every action gets an elaborate description).

Spite provides a decent list of inspirations, specifically TV shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dexter, Angel and X-Files stand out, as do Sons of Anarchy and 24), fiction and music.

CHAPTER THREE: CHARACTERS

More journal entries, as our POV character finds out what the fight actually is...and then it's off to character creation.

Zealots have short code names, having given their old lives the heave-ho. So come up with something quick and pithy, and bypass the "Bob Jenkins" type names.

Next, you need a Persona, of which there are (officially) five: Crusader, Leper, Messiah, Prophet and Sinner. Each has a specific approach to the mission, and each has two special abilities that they grant to the PC...such as the Messiah drawing all attention to them or the Sinner being able to automatically take down (or kill) a normal human.

There are three attributes, on a scale of 1 to 6: Strength, Sense and Soul...eessentially a physical, mental, spiritual split. You have 9 points to divide among them, and whatever comes out the highest is pretty much your character class, of which there are Fighter, Investigator and Sorceror, each of which has three powers available to them, and your PC can start with one. Note that they are not all combat abilities, either, but are very much keyed to their roles...the Fighter fights, the Investigator investigates and the Sorcerer casts spells.

The skill list is pretty broad, and is ranked like the Attributes. You wind up with a number of skill points equal to twice your Sense score. In addition to descriptions of the skills, there are helpful ideas as to jobs your PC may have performed because of the high skill scores.

Next is your Drive, which is a single word that serves as the major motivating factor for your hero. If you can tie an action into your Drive, you get a bonus die.

Additionally, you select two Contacts that you can call on throughout the campaign.

Next, every PC has 12 Fury points, which can be used for Stunts and to fuel Powers...here we get a helpful list of Stunts like Bloody Sanchez (an incredibly bloody combat maneuver which allows the player to reroll anything less than a 4).

Buying stuff is handled with Cash dice. At the beginning of each adventure, you roll your Cash dice (generally starting with 1) and that's how many points worth of gear you can acquire...and all gear has a point cost attached to it. I like it. I'm totally cool with abstracted wealth systems.

CHAPTER FOUR: MAGIC

In the journal entries, our POV character meets the rest of her Cadre for the first time.

Time in the game is measured in Cases, not in days, weeks, hours, etc. Your Zealot starts a case and runs themselves ragged until it's finished. Zealots get a number of spells equal to twice their Soul score and can cast a number of spells per case equal to their Soul score.

The spells are given a one word summary for a quick skim and pick list, and then are described in full over the next several pages. Some example spells are Absolution (allows you to create armor around an ally), Alter (a demon erupts from your bowels and attacks the opponents), Baptism (surrounds a target in water...and can drown them), Confessor (forces the target to answer three Yes or No questions), Judgement (creates a giant plant demon), and so on.

Next, we get Anathemas, which only Sorcerers can access, and which are designed to exorcise Angels who are possessing humans. It is worth noting that each one is named after a fairly infamous demon such as Belial or Asmodeus.

Blasphemies are the purview of Fighters, and they are...disturbing...like Vituperation, which causes the casters(!) hands and feet to turn into two large, fleshy poles from which the caster is suspended...but the mere sight of this causes all humans who witness it to do harm on themselves until the effect ends.

Desecrations are used by Investigators and have such charming effects as compelling every human in the area to rush a targeted Angel, at least some of which will be meeting their doom in doing so.

Maledictions belong to Sorcerers, who have subtle effects like plucking the souls of city's murdered into their body and becoming hulking beasts with spikes and tentacles.

I have to say...the magic in the game is certainly visceral.

CHAPTER FIVE: COMBAT

Initiative is handled with everyone rolling one die and starting with the high roll. No attributes affecting it or the like. There are attack rolls and defense rolls, and damage applied is the difference between the two. If the attack and defense rolls are tied, you move to the next highest on each until there isn't a tie. If there are multiple ties and the attacker runs out of dice, the attack fails. If the defender runs out of dice, and is an NPC, then they have a defensive value of 0...but if the defender is a PC, then the attack still fails, presumably because they have plot immunity.

Spite is not for the faint of heart, and so injuries are meant to be described, based on severity. A handy chart is provided for tips. Once Life hits 4 points, then penalties start coming into play for the wounded. If the Zealot's Life reaches 0, they are "retired"...what that means is that their Life immediately returns to 12 AND their Fury doubles to 24...they pursue the end of their case and then the player narrates their demise as their will collapses.

I dig this, as it gives the whole "cinematic death" thing, but it justifies it within the context of the setting: Zealots are altered by Angels to do this stuff...when it's time to go, they go out strong.

CHAPTER SIX: ADVANCEMENT

Here we get experience awards and how to spend them. You can improve skills, add skills, add powers, add magic, improve attributes and create items.

Item creation comes in three flavors:

Aspergilia - Common weapons imbued with your life force and given Kewl Powerz
Osteons - Items created from the flesh (or bones) of a dead angel(!)
War Machines - These are custom badass vehicles, and the whole Cadre pitches in on them.

CHAPTER SEVEN: PREGENS

We get three PCs, the three that have been in the Journals, a Fighter, Investigator and Sorcerer.

Three Monitors are provided as well, but they just get personalities and not stats.

Three Contacts are listed for use or inspiration, as are three Headquarters.

CHAPTER EIGHT: QUICKSTART

I'm liking the game so far, but...there's a joke inherent in the Quickstart showing up 168 pages in.

I have to admit, though, it actually is useful. It's a recommendation that the first game be designated as a one shot, and it streamlines the character creation process to get in, go crazy, and get out...and if everyone enjoys it, then you come back and make your PCs and really dig into the world.

CHAPTER NINE: APPENDIX

Here is a glossary of game terms, as well as useful game world slang, and a pronunciation guide. It's worth noting that this is the end of the Player's section, and everything up through this point is available as a free download.

CHAPTER TEN: DIRECTION

And here is where the Director takes over.

Spite sessions are designed with five points, helpfully laid out here: Trigger, Investigation, Conflict, Revelation and Takedown.

Trigger: This stage is where you bait the hook for the Cadre, putting them on the path of the Angel they will be hunting.
Investigation: Here is where they are trying to either find the Angel or find out what KIND of Angel they are dealing with.
Conflict: This isn't just conflict with the Angel, but they could raise the hackles of others during their investigation.
Revelation: Revelations are new pieces of the puzzle to their be Investigated or pieced together leading to the
Takedown: And this is culmination of the Case, where the Zealots confront the Angel.

There is a lot of good advice here, including reinforcing the one shot mentality for the first game.

However, the chapter also does a nice job with setting up a Campaign Progression as well, from getting their feet wet to building to a showdown with an ultimate nemesis. It can all be played in a very "Buffy" way...albeit a bit more...hardcore.

For those who want to go with a more "collaborative storytelling" route, a system is included for "worldbuilding" with everyone, including the Director, getting five points to spend in order to add characters, backstories, alliances and so forth to world.

The chapter ends with some campaign variations, in case you don't want to play Zealots Against Angels To The Death.

There are even guidelines for running a game that begins before they are attacked by a Seraphim and selected by a Monitor...which I would be sorely tempted to give a go.

CHAPTER ELEVEN: SETTING

The backstory of Spite plays into the setting of Dread...apparently the Disciples called in Dread are postponing the Final Battle, holding off an invasion by Heaven by killing demons.

I won't spoil any further on this regard...but there is a...tremendous...revelation about the nature of the conflict that would make for an amazing campaign revelation.

We get a breakdown of the two major armies, Angels and Demons...as well as hints at a third army, with a "Pshaw, they're not real", that sounds like another game (or supplement) that'll probably never be made now.

Finally, a discussion of the themes is present, such as Isolation and Heroism, as well as reinforcing that Spite is meant to be a gruesome game.

I don't mean to feel like I'm shortchanging this chapter...but there is just some stuff that I don't want to spoil in a review.

CHAPTER TWELVE: ANGELS

The primary antagonists of the game...here we learn about Angels.

Some great advice is given on using and describing angels, especially focusing on the effects of Angels on the world around them. They are not natural, and they have serious effects on natural things.

Angels have Grace to counter a Zealot's Fury...and they have ten Benisons, which can crush mere mortals...Zealots stand a chance of resisting their effects. Some of the nicer effects just blast the victims into a catatonic state...it gets decidedly worse from there.

Seraphim are described in general terms, and then 40 of them are detailed, complete with stats, standard methods of killing and a typical Takedown for that particular Seraphim...and don't think you're getting muscular guys with curly locks and feathered wings...these people are creepy and not safe for work.

The Ophanim are massive monstrosities capable of destroying cities and are absoluely not meant to be fought by rookies.

One or two of these things can almost be rationalized as something like dinosaurs...the rest are just bizarre.

Erelim are biomechanical angelic hunters...some of whom appear mostly "normal", while others, again, veer into the bizarre...with mechanical spider legs or appearing to be almost entirely machine. But these bad boys are sent entirely to hunt and kill half-breeds...like zealots.

Rephiam are much less dangerous, and less intelligent than the rest. They are meant to be good "introductory" Angels.

The chapter awesomely ends with a selection of "normal" monsters like aliens, vampires, werewolves, gargoyles, mummies, etc...you can use them to take a "break", you can bait-and-switch a "normal" horror game by having the PCs picked off by a Seraphim at the climax and then being saved by their new Monitor and so on.

Very nice touch.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: HUMANS

It's not all monsters and angels, though...sooner or later, your Zealots will have to cross paths with humans.

We have Apostles (Disciples who have joined the Angels), Saviors (Zealots who have joined the Angels), Antinomians (Disciples who have joined the Demons) and Hellions (Zealots who have joined the Demons)...mechanically, a Disciple is a Disciple is a Disciple, same with Zealots...where they differ are their outlooks and motives.

Eucharites are humans who have developed a taste for Angel flesh...yeah. The best part is that it almost always has a side effect...and if you are lucky, that side effect will just be death for the Eucharites.

Genstructs are humans who have been biological modified through a strange serum and are largely employed by the Department of Defense.

FATES and ANGELS Operatives are mercenaries who are genetically modified in ways somewhat more stable than Genstructs.

A series of Factions are also present, from Angel worshipping cults to government agencies to devil worshippers. Each faction also includes relevant stat blocks for members of the organization.

The chapter ends with a table full of quick statblocks for tons of humans from cops and private eyes to ninjas and samurai.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: SCENARIOS

This is really more "Scenario"...as a single scenario is laid out in the format mentioned in the "Direction" chapter. Not to spoil too much, but it kicks off with two angels killing a guy who has run afoul of the Russian mob, and has the PCs and the Mob both poking their heads into the incident...and a couple of (relatively) innocents caught in the middle. A nice model for setting up your own Spite cases.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: APPENDIX

This is mostly a chapter of random tables for cooking up scenarios when you're stumped.

As *anyone* who reads my reviews knows, I LOVE random tables. Absolutely freaking love them. There's also a page of scenario hooks to help you out, followed by a pronunciation guide.

Finally, the book ends with an index, contributor bios, some plugs for other RPG books and a character sheet.

THOUGHTS

So...while the book is, admittedly, over the top, and thus not for everybody...it isn't just relying on shock value to sell it. There are some great ideas in here, and a system that neither feels too clunky nor too "lite".

Anyone out there familiar with the RPG Heaven & Earth? This is kind of like that, but without any subtlety. I'm not knocking Spite for that...just saying: Two similiar premises...two completely different executions. While one is a low key investigative game, this one is a balls to the wall, splatterpunk, action hero game...and it seems like a very cool one, in fact. The creator graciously comped me the entire Books of Pandemonium bundle (six books for under $15) and I'll be eagerly devouring Dread now.

I recall hearing that Mr. Chandler, for his own reasons, basically left RPGs...leaving the books available, just said that there wouldn't be any more. If Spite is any indication, that's our loss as gamers. He's also a swell guy, because the proceeds from the sales of all of his currently available books go to the Noel Orphanage in Choimim, Kenya...that means that buying this awesome RPG (and its sister RPGs) goes to a good cause.

So...what are you waiting for?