Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tommy's Take on Ghostories Expanded RPG


I reviewed my first genreDiversion game last year, Bold & Brave, and found it to be pretty cool...it just got overlooked in the (ongoing) glut of supers games.

The Ghostories Expanded RPG uses the same basic game system, and incorporates the other Ghostories PDFs that had been made available.

The PDF weighs in at 128 pages, black and white, and allows for copy and pasting, searching and is fully bookmarked.

INTRODUCTION

This is a one page summary of what you're getting into with Ghostories, which are meant for Supernatural Mystery Roleplaying. You can play the supernatural as being mythical, as being real but people are unaware of it, or as being real and being an accepted part of life. Obviously, each approach will alter how your game looks.

PART 1: RULES OF PLAY

CHARACTERS

Every character has five abilities: Fitness, Awareness, Creativity, Reasoning and Influence, ranking from 0 to 5. Skills are scaled from 1 to 8...(well, you can technically have a skill of 0, it just means you're unskilled).

Every character has a Role, which provides access to certain gimmicks and recommended skills. Roles are essentially what you do in life, such as Criminal, Executive, Martial Artist or Professor.

You also need a Pursuit, which is really the driving force for you. Again, this can gain you access to certain gimmicks or skills. Some Pursuits include Faith, Magic, Science or Vigilantism. They can be innocent or tainted, and if the latter, they allow access to certain gimmicks and freakishness.

Health is measured on three tracks, ranked from 1-5: Fatigue, Injury and Dementia. The first makes you pass out, the second makes you die, the third makes you lose control of your character until he becomes a little more sane.

Abilities have a point buy method (12 points) and a random roll method, whichever you prefer, with an optional "heroic" method for more points. Characters get 30 points for skills, and any gimmicks dictated by their Role and Pursuit. You can get additional gimmicks at the cost of either one ability point or three skill points, or take detrimental gimmicks, which give an ability point or three skill points...(essentially, you can take positive and negative gimmicks at a one for one, since the points would balance out).

There are a pretty large number of skills, but almost half of them are tied to specific tainted Pursuits, which means the effective list is going to be much smaller than it looks. To me, that's a Good Thing.

Gimmicks run through some pretty common stuff: There is an extensive list of Contacts categories, for instance, from Paparazzi to Covens to Law Enforcement to the Underground. From there, you get into things like Legal Authority and Military rank, or Acute Senses.

Detrimental Gimmicks are things as basic as being Depressed or Color-Blind, to crazy stuff like having a False Destiny or even a False Power that the PC has tricked themselves into thinking it works!

Finally, each tainted pursuit has a whole number of gimmicks that allow things like channeling Divine Energy, drawing magical energy into a focal device or being able to sense if someone is truly possessed. There are quite a few options here to differentiate your characters with.

GETTING THINGS DONE

The basic mechanic entails adding a skill and an ability together, and trying to roll under that number with 2d6. The GM can assign a Difficulty, which is essentially the Margin of Success that the player needs to beat their Skill Total by when rolling. If the margin is 2, you need to roll under by 2 or more. If it's 4, then 4 or more. Snake eyes are automatic successes, double sixes are automatic failures. Optional rules exist for Calamities and Triumphs, which amount to critical successes and failures.

Other rules can modify attempts, such as taking a level of fatigue to reduce the required Difficulty. A scale is also provided for Composure Tasks, which can inflict Dementia damage...if a character hits 5 grades of dementia, he goes a little loopy and can have such reactions as hitting the fetal position, permanently blocking the memory of what happened, or attacking an ally, believing them to be a threat.

Combat is handled under "Violence" tasks. Initiative is governed under "reaction", which is determined by rolling a die and adding fitness and awareness to it. Actions are declared from lowest to highest, and resolved (mostly) simultaneously. Ranged attacks go first, resolved in order. Melee attacks are resolved as contested rolls, with only the highest one winning in a given conflict. Different weapons have damage ratings, with some only doing Fatigue while others do Injury damage, and armor can negate that damage. The rules do cover common eventualities and conditions: Using off-hand weapons, called shots, hit locations, knockdowns, etc.

Miscellaneous sources of damage, like asphyxiation, fire and even being dragged by vehicles (which wouldn't be terribly common, you would think) are included, as well as recovery rules.

TAINTED WORKINGS

And here we get into the Kewl Powers.

Second Sight is up first, and it requires a gimmick: Animal Sight allows you to sense the emotional state of animals, Innocent Sight allows you to sense the emotions of anyone who is untainted by the supernatural, Locus sight is residual emotional trauma in a location and Spirit sight focuses on any ghost or bound spirit. From there, you can learn other skills, such as Clairvoyance, Telepathic Sense and Postcognition.

Divine Arts requires either the Divine Benediction, Divine Symbol or Divine Consecration gimmicks. Divine Arts lets you channel Divine energy for several uses, such as Exorcising, Healing and even Illuminating the area.

Sorcery requires that you have at least one of the following gimmicks: Circles, Foci or Inscriptions, which dictates how you use magic. Magic itself has three major uses: Creating things, creating illusions of things and creating wards.

Revelations are visions that the character can have, which can be active or subconscious. People with this can also gain Expressions, which are special effects that they can learn to control based off of the visions. For instance, a character with Revelation of Passion can have visions relating to works of art and can use the Expression that allows them a -2Diff when attempting to seduce someone. Each Revelation also has an Overuse penalty...Passion gives a character the Guilt-Ridden, Liar or Selfish gimmicks for overuse. There are 9 different Revelations to choose from.

Unholy Arts require either the Quorums, Rituals or Sacrifices gimmick, and allows the characters to summon Phantoms, which can provide information, act on your behalf or provide you with Endowments that can range from boosting Abilities or providing new gimmicks. None of these powers are "free lunches"...they all require doing something for the phantom.

Binding Lore allows the character to infuse spirits into constructs or even creatures...making zombies, gargoyles, gremlins and creepy possessed people.

Heritage of Egis manifests among those with an overdeveloped sense of justice. There is a slight contradiction here, as one paragraph says you cannot have more than one of these gimmicks, while the other says that you can have two - in extremely rare circumstances.

Supernatural relics are the final entry, provide six sample relics that the GM can give the PCs instead of actual powers for the characters themselves.

The chapter ends with a chart summarizing the powers.

One thing I find interesting is that very few of the powers are inherently offensive abilities. A few of the Heritage gimmicks provide bonuses to attacks or damage, and you can boost your combat capabilities with Endowments from the Unholy Arts, but there is not a lot of flashy, damage dealing powers like you tend to expect from modern supernatural horror games that have such abilities. I think that is not only a nice change of pace, but also helps set the tone for the game.

TAINTED ENTITIES

As you may have guessed, this is the bestiary. It starts off with Etheria, which is the "health" for the horrors in the book, rather than the three types of health PCs have. The also have the Interaction skill here, which is what horrors without a physical form use to manifest with.

A whole slew of Special Gimmicks are present for the Horrors write-ups, explained at the end of the section. The entries are divided up into larger sections, with subsections as needed, and sample stat blocks.

Ghosts are the spiritual remnants of the deceased, and are bound by their unfinished business.

Embodied Spirits are the kinds of things you can make with the Binding Lore. Gremlins, golems, imps, zombies and dybbukim, which are spirits bound to electronics, masses of solid material, animals, dead humans and living humans respectively.

Phantoms are not unlike demons, and come in a few variants: Twilight bogies appear in people's nightmares, beguilers are succubi and incubi, kinders appears as children, fiends try to push people into violence, unholies appear as clergymen and hordes are just creepy, creepy monsters.

Banes possess people, and come in four varieties with specific M.O.s.

Brownies are fairies, and have the interesting variants of dwarves, elves and gnomes.

Liches are also known as vampires and have four variations, including an Asian vampire variant, classic nosferatu, modernized vampires, and more "classic" vampires.

Lost souls are mortals who lost themselves in meditative trances and are now twisted, disembodied remnants of people who can only take physical form from humans breach their domain.

Skinwalkers are a catch-all for shapeshifters, from werewolves to the bizarre fetches - which take on the form of a person and use it with little thought as to the consequences of what wearing their chosen face does to the person they stole it from.

Trolls are big, violent brutes that come in five varieties, most of which are just variations on a theme, but do also include hags.

Misguided Innocents are humans that may cross your path, either relatively well-meaning types like ghost hunters, clueless innocents like goths, and deranged serial killers.

Misguided Tainted are humans with powers who are likely to get in your way, like mad scientists and evil sorcerers. No stats are given for Innocents or Tainted, as you can use the standard character generation rules to build them.

Nearly 70 special gimmicks are detailed to give the horrors that extra necessary punch.

THE WORLD AROUND US

This is pretty much the GM chapter, but it does go further than just "how to run horror" and the like. While it does get into the elements of horror, it also focuses on making sure to make the most of gimmicks and pursuits, and talks about the reactions different groups, like police and media, are likely to have to the supernatural.

A section is included on investigations and research at various levels of the setting (Myth, Fantastic, Reality), and twenty or so plot seeds are provided, from a small scale zombie rampage to cult activity to hauntings.

EXPANDING THE GAME

Here we have character advancement rules, abstracting down extras so you don't need full stat blocks for every cop, thug, etc...variants to town down the dice rolling or ramp up the level of "heroics", lasting injuries and a few more optional gimmicks for "extreme" horrors.

Precis Intermedia has a couple of systems it supports, and while this game is powered by the genreDiversion system, conversion rules for Impresa (which powers Iron Gauntlets) is included, as well as the Unbidden RPG (which I'm pretty sure got the genreDiversion treatment in the genreDiversion 3 book...ah, yeah, there it is...I read the rules in that book, but didn't make it to the setting stuff). Precis Intermedia also purchased Bloodshadows and Masterbook recently, and conversions from there to Ghostories are also included, as well as updating from the original release of Ghostories to this one.

So...even if you didn't have enough options (and there are quite a few), you have more. Plus, it's compatible with other genreDiversions games, like Mean Streets, for some horror-noir fun. In fact, a page or so is dedicated to just that, and not from a rules standpoint, but meshing the two implied settings.

Diceless rules are included, as well as a very cool system for tracking "The Veil" between realities and its effect on magic and such...(for example, Samhain gives all Sorcery and Unholy Arts rolls -2DIFF, Horrors get a similar bonus on Interaction rolls, and Second Sight rolls get a +2DIFF penalty.

THE STORIES

These are actually nine complete adventures for you to us. Since the game only has an implied setting and not a concrete setting, these should be fairly easy to drop on somewhere.

Not Forgotten is a ghost story murder mystery meant for beginning characters, and sets up a potential recurring NPC. It is laid out in scenes, so you can skip ahead if the PCs fail to take the bait somewhere, so it's not an extreme railroad. It also provides another ghost that you can use for inspiration, especially with it's hauntings being in action in the adventure.

Desecration is in a different gear, as the PCs should be known troubleshooters, and this time they get to face a mad scientist and his zombie minion. This one leaves the end game open enough that it could prove more or less difficult depending on when the PCs find and confront the bad guy.

Web of Seduction is an interesting blackmail case flipped on its head...and no, it doesn't matter if the PCs don't deal in blackmail normally, as a connection to the case is built in for them.

Dark Tremors has potential to turn into a cataclysmic affair if the PCs don't work quickly and correctly, in a nice change of pace showing a much larger scale than the earlier adventures worked on.

From the Past is the first that requires a given character type, as one person must be a medium for the adventure. This one features an old friend of one of the PCs who has inherited a haunted estate, and is much more location based than event based as the previous adventures were.

Amends is meant for Innocents with no supernatural experience at all...meaning it should make for a decent introductory adventure...and thus should probably have led off this whole section.  Although, it isn't quite as fleshed out as the others.

The Reverend also requires a medium and leadsin interesting conflict with a cult leader...who is over 150 years old.

The Cup Runneth is meant to have some extra compatibility with Mean Streets if you feel so inclined...pitting the PCs against a killer who has found the key to eternal life.

Tears of Joy is probably the best of the adventures, and is a suitable introductory adventure as well, complete with pre-generated characters (if needed). If nothing else, it is worth the GM reading for some ideas on how to incorporate meditations and visions into their game.

REFERENCE

This section is a series reference charts (shockingly!) for the game, as well as a full page character sheet, a smaller, "3 to a page" character sheet, and a "3 to a page" set of sheets for recording your horrors on.

TEMPLATES

21 ready made characters, with the first 15 having template names instead of character names, with the final six being named characters designed for the "Tears of Joy" adventure. Some of these templates include Vigilante Cop, Millionaire Magician, Medium Housewife, Upstanding Sorcerer and Stalker by Night.

Finally, if you lack dice, you can print off and assemble Disposable Dice from the back of the book.

THOUGHTS

If I had to pick on something, I'm not a big fan of some of the naming conventions with the Horrors...especially in cases such as Phantoms, which invokes a certain type of imagery...but they are pretty much demons. It's not a HUGE quibble, mind you.

Honestly, I am surprised at the depth of the book, given the title. It really is pretty much an all purpose horror game, hitting most of your major "monster types", while giving you plenty of tools and example to expand even from there. If anything, it's got me excited about cracking into Mean Streets (my next review, which I was already excited about) and seeing just what kind of mixing and matching can be done...(yeah, there is a section in this book about it, but it lacks the proper context for me, since I haven't read Mean Streets yet). Toss in being able to convert Bloodshadows and using the Unbidden material from the genreDiversion 3e manual and this is a *really* impressive product. While I don't think it's just BRUTALLY lethal (actual play could certainly prove me wrong here), it also certainly isn't high powered (especially with the Tainted powers having so few combat applications), making it a great horror game with a real sense of danger.

Comparing the content from the first Ghostories release to this one is a pretty dramatic step up, with this one feeling far more complete, and far more impressive. A great amount of information for the price, especially since there is no hard setting, so you can easily drop any elements you don't like. Strong recommendation.