Saturday, October 6, 2012

Tommy's Take on VS Monsters Deluxe Edition



Allow me to preface this review by pointing out that it was originally written back in 2007 and posted on RPG.net for their Horror Week. Given the impending Halloween season, it seemed like a good time to bring it to the blog.

VS Monsters is quite the interesting game. I can’t completely get the feel of the game, at least as its written, and I can’t help but wonder if Phil Reed didn’t intend for that to happen. It is the game of timeless horror…and bashing monsters. At times it seems to alternate between a fairly serious horror RPG, and a parody of one.

Or maybe I’m just missing the point…which is possible.

This review is of the VS Monsters Deluxe Edition PDF, available on the Ronin Arts website but it is also available in print from Lulu.com. It was originally a 24 Hour RPG that received quite a following, so Mr. Reed beefed it up and unleashed the Deluxe version. As good as the original was, and it was an interesting read, the Deluxe edition is better. The question? Is the Deluxe edition worth paying for when you can still find the original for free?

The PDF
For a black and white PDF, this is an impressive looking document. The art placed throughout it is very evocative of a gothic mood. A few pieces are kind of weak, but a handful are truly impressive. The art is all over the book, but doesn't feel like its there in place of text, if you know what I mean. I never get the impression of wasted space here. However, there is a downside to this, as it makes for a less-than-printer-friendly document. I haven’t actually printed it out yet, mostly because it looks like I’m going to have to dedicate an ink cartridge to it. The PDF is $7 and the POD from Lulu is $15 (80 pages, perfect bound), so for just over double the price, you can have the printing trouble saved for you.

The PDF is fully searchable, which is a nice feature but not as necessary in such a short document as it might be in, say, Blood Games II. Copy and paste is also available, in case you need to remove a piece of text, a feature that is handy but, again, probably unnecessary.
Mr. Reed writes in a conversational tone that makes the book very easy to read, even in the “dry” parts, such as the mechanics section. He also includes sidebars about various aspects, such as things he added from the original and why he did so, explaining design choices and even providing a few optional rules. I don’t like my RPGs textbooky, so this is a definite high point, in my opinion, as he manages to hit that perfect line between “conversational” and “professional”.

In all, the presentation is phenomenal, considering the scale – a self-published PDF written, edited and produced by one man…my only real concern is the cost efficiency of printing it out, and whether or not it would be cheaper to just go POD and get it bound as well.

The World of VS Monsters

The setting is described in the broadest strokes possible, again striking that odd contradiction of serious homage and near-parody. Set in “The America That Never Was”, The PCs live in a town, called The Town, that is up The Road from The Village, which borders The Forest, etc. It (deliberately) is a series of set-pieces, covering the basic horror tropes, while leaving room for your Graveyard(s), Haunted House(s) and the like. This invokes the satirical feel I mentioned earlier, but then the description of The Forest is such that only the most foolhardy of heroes would venture there, for certain doom awaits, going back to the horror feel.

I like the broad strokes. I don’t know if I would want to play it SO loose as to just have The Town, The Village, etc…but it does a nice job reminding you of all the olde horror hotspots.

Characters

VS Monsters characters have four attributes: Fighting, Defending, Thinking and Running. Fighting and Defending are the offensive and defensive sides of combat, while Thinking covers all other mental activities and Running covers all other physical activities. You are given scores of 6, 4, 3 and 3 to divide up among your four attributes, to decide what kind of character you want to play.

For further customization, you can take Good Stuff and Bad Stuff, which can grant you handy abilities (Veteran raises your damage cap on weapons, while Attractive gives you an extra card during social situations with the opposite sex) or boost your attributes (like Speedy, which raises Running by one). For every Good Stuff you take, you have to take a Bad Stuff, but if you get greedy and go for more than two (the max is four), then you must also reduce an attribute by one for each additional Good Stuff. Bad Stuff includes things like Inexperienced, where you can freeze up round to round in combat, and Restless, which can disrupt your sleep with nightmares.

If you must, the game also allows for Advancement rules…with four rewards offered to the players: Removal of one “Bad Stuff” (within reason), gaining one “Good Stuff” (within reason), improvement of an attribute and drawing a free card from the deck to hold with your character sheet, to replace a card draw in a later game session.

This whole chapter reinforces that dichotomy that’s haunted me throughout the book. Mr. Reed almost condescendingly ushers you to the Combat chapter when speaking about Fighting, and – to a reader immune to sarcasm, perhaps – makes light of things like “background” and “personality”.

All that said, character creation is some of the simplest I have seen in some time. It’s not so freeform as to provide an overwhelming amount of options, especially for a newbie, but has a decent amount of customization, with the various arrangements of the four attributes and scores, and the combinations of the Good Stuff and Bad Stuff, which could easily be added to if you decide the game doesn't have something you want, or if you do want to juggle the setting a bit.

Equipment
This chapter is short and sweet, providing a “price list” for equipment, something completely excluded from the original, and providing a mechanic for “purchasing” equipment. Simply put, at the start of each session, every player picks a piece of equipment they want, draw a card and compare. If the card value is equal to, or greater than the value of the equipment, they get to keep it and draw again, until they fail a draw.

Cannons are expensive, btw. If you’re wanting in-depth pricing charts and tons of real-world research, you’re going to be disappointed…but then, this probably isn’t the game for you, anyway, if that’s the case.

Mechanics
VS Monsters uses a playing card-based mechanic. I have no inherent opposition to this…in fact, my favorite RPG uses cards (Marvel SAGA). For clarifications sake, those of you who don’t know, this doesn't mean VS Monsters isn't an RPG…dice, while perfectly great and certainly common, do not an RPG make, nor do they break.

The mechanic is straightforward. You have a task, the GM gives a target number, you draw a number of cards equal to the relevant attribute and if the highest card is equal to or greater than the difficulty, you succeed. If not, you fail.

Combat is a little more involved…in fact, three initiative options are provided: Starting with the left of the GM, everyone takes a turn. The first alternative uses card draws to determine initiative, while the second uses attributes. Those latter options were only included grudgingly, it seems, as Mr. Reed had definitely kept everything simple to this point…however, with combat resolution, things do take a step into mild over complication  First, you draw a number of cards equal to your Fighting, compare with the opponent’s Defending. If you have the high card (ties go to attacker), then you compare all cards used for the attack to the defending value. For every card that “hit”, you draw a card, and for every one of THOSE cards that is equal to, or less than, your weapon’s damage cap, reduce the target’s health by 1. That…yeah…it seems like an unnecessarily clumsy mechanic for a game that, to this point, has been pretty loose. Still, I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand without experiencing it in-game, but I do have my reservations about it.

Optional Rules
A whole chapter on optional rules, called “Unnecessary Complexities”, if that gives you any insight into how the author feels about them, is included. They include Fear Checks (Mr. Reed states that he believes that VS Monsters heroes should be largely immune to these, but they are included for those that want them), Called Shots, Multiple Attacks, Aiming rules...all things that do feel a tad out of place in this place, but are adequately elaborated upon in the VS Monsters engine. While I do agree with the author’s sentiments that they are unnecessary, I applaud the thought he did put into them.

GMing VS Monsters
Yep, a GM section…and, once more, I get that “both sides of the coin” feeling. The first section is about making NPCs, complete with NPC-specific Stuff like Minion and Wealthy.

A handful of adventure seeds follow, pretty basic stuff, including a stock Haunted House plot and a zombie horde. When in doubt, the monster section of this book alone has some ideas, but you can mine a century’s worth of horror movies for plots, I promise.

Last comes some advice on setting mood, which definitely tips the book back in the direction of “horror” over “satire”. The chapter concludes with a plug of Ken Hite’s Nightmares of Mine, which I have long heard is an indispensable volume for horror GMs.

Oh yeah, Monsters
The last chapter is a bestiary of the common, suitable types of monsters. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, cultists and even Cthuloid monsters are present, with full stats and their most common means of execution. There’s a good list here, hardly all-inclusive, but easily expandable when you absolutely need the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Finally, the book ends with a character sheet for your copy and use.

Conclusion
The Deluxe edition is much larger than the original 24 hour RPG version of VS Monsters, and is a very cool game. It’s definitely a lite RPG that probably won’t satisfy the GURPS Horror crowd, but it doesn’t try to. Mechanically, the only issue I have is the damage system makes me wince reading it, but who knows? After a session or two, I may not even notice it.

Stylistically, I love the approach of “the America That Never Was”, filled with set-pieces instead of nailed-down locations. After reading, and now reviewing, VS Monsters I think I may have figured out why I can’t nail down the tone of the writing. It is a decidedly serious game about hunting and fighting monsters, its just a horror game that doesn't take itself too seriously, something I’m just not used to. Meant for fast and loose gameplay, embracing the legacy of horror while not turning a blind eye to its camp, VS Monsters is an elegant little game that’s well deserving of its cult following.

Definitely worth checking out.