Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tommy's Take on Squawk Role-Playing Game

One thing I love about the modern age is how the publishing barriers are disappearing. If you have the will to see your project through, it is becoming increasingly easier to ensure that it gets out there into people's hands.

Seth and Benjamin Galbraith have done just that with the Squawk Role-Playing Game, publishing it through Amazon's Createspace for $19.95 and at RPGnow for $12.95 (in PDF).

Squawk is a 196 page sci-fi/fantasy RPG featuring mostly dinosaurs and no humans.

I have the CreateSpace version and it's a very nice digest-sized book with a gorgeous, colorful front cover. The back cover is a fairly low key map of the Abaddon system, Abaddon being the name of the run in their setting. As for the naming, some of the planets draw names from Norse myth (such as Midgard), and I caught at least one real moon on the list. The book itself is black and white with unimpressive art, and though several page seem to have a lot of white space at the bottom, the pages still seem pretty full.

From the sample on RPGnow, I can see that some of the images are in full color, if that helps.

I won't be focusing as much on the PDF this go around, since I'm reviewing from a physical book, but I can tell you that not only did they put in a table of contents, but an extensive, six page index.

INTRODUCTION

Pretty basic stuff, giving the pitch of "Dinosaurs with swords", as well as revealing that the Scratch system that the game uses is available under a Creative Commons license.

SQUAWK SETTING

We start with a one page breakdown of the Abaddon system. There are Lower Worlds, which are essentially an asteroid cluster, Middle Worlds (the more temperate worlds) and the Upper Worlds (which don't receive the same level of heat or light). Many of these places are orbited by artificial habitats like small vehicles, space stations and so on.

Another map is provided here, showing the orbits of the major planets.

Seventeen intelligent species are provided, starting with the bird-like aeolyte and including the intelligent gremian, the predatory lyndwyrms, the blood-sucking phages and the massive titans. Every species has an illustration (usually multiple) and every species has certain minimums that must be met.

PCs are defined by 16 abilities, and you have 12 points to divide among at least three of them. Similar to the Resolute RPG, if you don't buy any levels in an ability, you don't have that ability. Fighting, shooting, flying, quickness and command are among the abilities used.

Given that it is meant to be a space-faring game, the rules stipulate that one PC must have the piloting skill to ensure that they PCs can get where they need to go. Helpful tips are provided on useful skills for other character types, such as politicians, hunters and spies. One character type I found interesting is the Surgeons, which come in two types: One makes golems and the other chimeras. The golems are insect-like contstructs while the chimeras are made from pieces of the reptilian races sewn together. A dozen sample characters of wildly varying types is included, each with a picture, which should give you a good jumping off point for most of the common character types.

Space travel is almost like a little minigame and is very time consuming, with even short journies taking weeks. There is a special map provided for space travel, showing the paths that do and don't have spaceports, as well as providing training caps for any given location. There is also "Solar Sailing", which are spacelanes that allow you to travel without using fuel, but only allow travel along the set lanes. Fifteen spacecraft are included, and some of them harken back to the classic Spelljammer days, being made from roots of giant trees, or more closely resembling asteroids than space ships. The stat blocks for the ships are simple to read, looking a lot like the stat blocks for characters.

40 pages or so is devoted to detailing the worlds, broken into three sections: Lower Worlds, Middle Worlds and Upper Worlds.

The Lower Worlds section is the smallest, as the Lower Worlds are basically an asteroid field with relatively simple technology, due to the solar radiation inflicting much damage to traditional technology.

The Middle Worlds is the largest section, being the more temperate region of the galaxy. I should note that the planetary listings have a lot of scientific notations about mass and gravity that is frankly lost on me...I like my science fast and loose, and that's just how it is. Each of the sizeable planets and moons gets treatment here, and they all have that kind of "Star Wars" feel where each planet pretty much "is" something...like Monopolis is pretty much a giant city-planet. In fact, Monopolis is kind of cool in that only the uppermost levels are inhabited...the inhabitants just keep building up, so you could run a "dungeon crawl" exploring the remnants of previous cultures on the lower levels. Edegene is a planet that was being terraformed by Spider Golems...who are now *becoming* the planet's societal base. And one of the planets, Trydeen, is actually a planet sized being, not a planet at all.

The Upper Worlds only consist of four entries, two of which state that the PCs have no reason to ever visit there. I don't know if I like the idea of a book definitively stating what a PC does or does not have a reason to do, but there you go. Clearly, the bulk of the adventuring is meant to be done in the Middle Worlds either way.

APPENDIX A: SCRATCH ROLE-PLAYING SYSTEM

The rules themselves only take up about twenty pages. The core mechanic is simple: Roll a 20 sided die, add relevant ability, compare to difficult, succeed or fail. All of the Abilities (except Surgery) are explained in detail here, with a few relevant examples (like The Boss, who has Command 4, which gives him 4 thugs at his disposal).

Toughness is used to calculate hit points, and characters falling below half of their hit points are Injured, which seems mostly to matter in regards to the effects certain attacks have on characters.

A two page sample combat is included, using characters with a decent spread of abilities, to give you an idea as to how it all breaks down, depicting two bounty hunters battling an outlaw.

Vehicle rules follow, breaking down Vehicle Abilities like the character abilities (although a lot of them are going to work pretty much how you expect at this point: Guns 3 is going to add 3 to your attempt to shoot someone with your guns, for instance). In fact, a two page Vehicle Combat example follows, just so you can see how everything works here as well.

Guidelines for using miniatures are included, and are pretty straightforward, but hardly required. In fact, both hex and square grids are covered, leaving the decisions of what grid, if any, up to you.

Finally, two alternate game mechanics are included for those who don't have (or who hate) d20s, the first being a little chart that you roll 2d6 on, and the second being a chart that you use a card deck with (after removing face cards). Either would work, I suppose, but if you have d20s (and if you have an RPG, you probably have d20s), I would just use that.

APPENDIX B: EYE FOR AN EYE

The next 80 pages is a campaign for the game, spanning most of the known galaxy. It begins with the PCs escaping from pirates (providing a convenient excuse to toss them together, regardless of their character type) and builds to a final battle with a bit of a deranged vigilante who is hoping to destroy (or come close to it) Monopolis.

Each of the worlds open for visitation are broken down with encounters that the GM can use as needed, or by randomly rolling if the PCs visit without a specific purpose in mind. It's not a complete sandbox, but it's also very open for PC exploration. Once they have hit the important beats and return to (or head to) the section of space holding Monopolis, then the final battle begins (win, lose or draw). In fact, I don't think any section had less than four encounters, with some of them being specific, happening once, and then done, while others amounted to little more than combat scenes that could be repeated.

I completely applaud the inclusion of the campaign, because it answers the question that far too many games fail to, which is: "Okay, but what do I DO with it?" I also like the openness of the campaign, giving the PCs room to pick and choose how they move around it (with clues sprinkled about, for them to follow up on, but I saw very little railroading other than "eventually, this big fight happens").

After all of that, we get the very big index and the acknowledgments.

THOUGHTS

The interior art does not live up the cover art, but that happens. And while a lot of the pieces are kind of...weak...it does help that basically EVERYTHING is illustrated, leaving little guesswork as to what something is supposed to look like.

Space-faring dinosaurs is not something I've seen a lot of, especially since there is NO human element whatsoever. Definite points for originality. The system, on the surface at least, does remind me a bit of Resolute (with the abilities that you either have or don't have, though the mechanic is completely different).

The book took me a bit to get into, and I don't know if it was the writing that did it or if it was the lack of anything really "human" that caused me to have a disconnect. Don't misunderstand me, either...the writing isn't bad, it's just purely functional. But there is a LOT of new, non-standard names, such as somme of the planets, species, cultural groups, etc...without that "human" perspective that you get in basically everything else. I don't hold that against the game, I just say that's a bit of a disconnect between me, personally, and the setting, nothing more.

The places that they want you to visit are given a good amount of detail, but nothing is so heavily written that it feels stifling.  Even the campaign, with just shy of 100 unique encounters, can easily be tweaked, changed or flipped around as need be.

Not a bad pick if you can embrace the dinosaurs and don't mind a complete lack of humans in your sci-fi.