Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tommy's Take on Totems of the Dead: Player's Guide to the Untamed Lands


My apologies for not getting that last preview in, my time management skills absolutely suck. Totems of the Dead has been unleashed on the world after being split into two books...and this is the review of the first: Totems of the Dead - Player's Guide to the Untamed Lands.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Currently available in PDF format for $15, Totems of the Dead is a swords and sorcery setting with more than a bit of Native American flavor. The Player's Guide is 161 pages and includes an overview of the setting as well as character creation. We covered character creation in a preview recently, as well as magic. The character creation layout is very similar to the standard Savage Worlds layout, with a list of common archetypes before getting into the specific mechanics of character creation, such as new, altered or restricted Edges and Hindrances, as well as setting rules like Violence Beyond Rank, which allows you to ignore rank restrictions for a single Edge.

I am a very big fan of some of the new additions, including Edges like Blood Brothers (allowing two characters to gain bonuses to fear based Spirit rolls as long as they are in sight of each other), Totem Animal (which hasa variable benefit depending on the specific animal, and there's a pretty big list), a whole slew of combat edges and seven Legendary Edges allowing PCs to almost resemble an archetype, such as Legendary Champion, Legendary Shadow and Legendary Trickster.

The equipment chapter lists prices in beads, but also provides some guidelines for bartering. The gear chapter does go the extra mile to make culter specific designations where applicable, which is helpful given the large number of cultures present in the setting.

I also provided a look at Sorcery and Magic in an earlier preview, and I must say that I am particularly a fan of the Corruption rules...to the point that it was annoyingly similar to something I was working on. In addition to the variety of new spells, Totems of the Dead also includes magic items, such as Dream Catchers (which shield a sleeper from all outside mental influence) and Demon Breakers (magical knives made from rocks that break when used to kill a demon).

The setting rules feature some fairly extensive modifications to the Savage Worlds rules, starting with tweaks to the Tricks to a nice rule called Combat Openings, in which characters who score a raise can forgo their bonus damage to either take a free action against the target or give themselves or an ally a +2 to a trait roll. Counting coup is a nonviolent way for a skilled warrior to end a conflict (if the other side has any sense of honor), and a number of rules cover cultural rituals from dancing and singing (and their effect on people) to generic sports rules!

The last half or so of the book covers the various deities of the Untamed Lands, from Atlantean deities such as Dagun (who is NOT a nice guy) to Gods such as Xotec the Flayed One (Who Is Not At All Xipe Totec), as well as the gazetteer to the world. Each region discusses the peoples, architectures, events and so forth, and with a little squinting you can see the real world inspirations for most places (except maybe Atlantis...or especially Atlantis...you decide). A little mention is even given to Lands Across the Sea, like the Dark Continent of Borea and the sprawling landmass Eurashi (as well as the countries within).

WHAT WORKS: No Power Points as well as a TON of useful mechanical material and options that can be used even if you're not necessarily a fan of the setting. A swords and sworcery setting with a bit of a different feel to it than what you typically see. The art is some of the most gorgeous and evocative art, especially in a black and white book. Each piece helps drive home the "feel" of the world.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The split into two books hurts it...especially while the second half is yet to be released, with no bestiary present in the Player's Guide, no GM's section, no Savage Tales, etc. Some of the human cultures seem imbalanced among each other, with some gaining bonuses above and beyond the others without any harsher drawbacks than what is faced by the others...(for instance, two cultures being illiterate but one also gaining a skill bonus to boot).

CONCLUSION: While swords and sorcery has been done, Totems of the Dead does look at it through a different lens, as pre-Colonial Americas isn't the most used setting (or even setting inspiration), so it is nice to see a new approach to a classic genre. The layout is as eye pleasing as any black and white book I recall seeing, not a surprise given the company. It just really feels like it needs that "part 2" to make it complete (and I think I would feel that way even if I hadn't already seen at least most of the material). A fantastic offering by Gun Metal Games that shows they are capable of more than just Cyberpunk.