Saturday, December 8, 2012

Tommy's Take on The Grimm RPG



Teach Your Kids To Game Week may technically be over, I’m not sure how that works, but I had one more review I wanted to post for that reason that I didn’t get to earlier this week: Grimm by Fantasy Flight Games.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The version I am reviewing is the standalone, non-d20 version from 2007, that is apparently long out of print (with Amazon prices in the low $100s). The PDF is available on RPGNow for $20. This review is of the hardback version of the book. Grimm is an RPG about kids being sucked into a fairy tale world where the fairy tales have gone twisted (slightly more so than the original versions in some cases, anyway).

Fantasy Flight RPGs, at least at the time, used a common format of a full color flavor section at the front of the book, followed by the rules and such in black and white.

The world of Grimm is one in which the Brothers Grimm stumbled across the Giant trapped in the beanstalk, and forced him to give them a mystical book full of tales that had yet to be completed…and as they completed those tales they created a new world, The Grimm Lands. Kids occasionally find their way to the Grimm Lands, where they become what other people define them as: The Jock, The Nerd, The Bully, The Popular, The Outcast or The Dreamer. Inside the Grimm Lands they find humans (who are also more archetypes rather than full people), talking animals, mythical monsters and stuff that is truly bizarre (The Moon will purposefully shine its beams on you to alert predators to your location).

In character creation, you use one of the six archetypes and customize your character, spending 8 credits to increase your Traits, which are grouped together as Core Traits, Playground Traits and Study Traits. You can even lower one Trait to raise another. Traits use “Grades” as their level, ranking from 1st Grade to 12th Grade. You also have a single Iconic Core Trait, which is the Trait that most clearly defines you, and gives you something extra you can do with that Trait. Then you can select either a single Talent, or a second Talent called an Origin Talent, which provides a bonus while inflicting a penalty. As you finish a story arc, your Personal Grade goes up, giving you more Wounds, 8 more credits, and a new Talent.

The Bully is a fighter who is at an advantage when he’s either ganging up on an enemy or intimidating those smaller than them. They can, however, learn to become a Protector, learning to interject themselves between a weaker ally and an opponent.

The Dreamer has trouble focusing on the “real” world…but that’s okay, because they are no longer in the real world. Dreamers can cast spells spontaneously and eventually imagine themselves into being the True Hero they always thought they were. However, they are more vulnerable than most to charms, spells and illusions.

The Jock has a undeniable Will To Win that the others don’t, a by-product of their sports focus.

The Nerd is physically lacking, but can actually force logic into the Grimm Lands, fending off some creatures by filibustering it with an explanation of how it shouldn’t exist.

The Normal Kid is so normal that he fades into the crowd. You probably don’t even remember that he was at your birthday party. The Normal Kid is always the one the monsters of The Grimm Lands focus on first, though. However, the Normal Kid can pick up Traits and Talents from other kids (when they are knocked out), and can eventually assume an Unusual Heritage (three sample ones are provided, including being Grimm Lands royalty, being a werewolf and being a fairy, though the GM is encouraged to create a unique one for the PC).

The Outcast just never seems to fit in, though this allows them to become the rogues of the game, slipping in and out of the shadows, picking pockets and deceiving others.

The Popular Kid can shred others’ self confidence, and can “go with” another character (PC or NPC), increasing their stats and self-worth by doing so. Of course, breaking up has the opposite effect on the poor character that the Popular Kid dumps…

The Core Traits cover Cool, Pluck, Imagination, Luck and Muscle. Each entry not only describes when the Trait might be used, but provides sample difficulties and a special use of the Trait for those that have selected it as an Iconic Trait (like using Muscle to shake off all Wound Penalties for a scene). Playground Traits are things like Hide, Seek, Scamper, Scrap and Throw…essentially, Traits you would use when you *do* stuff. Study Traits encompass 4-H, Book Learning, Boy Scouts, Country Club, Gaming (which covers everything from the rules for checkers to turning a witch into a frog), Home Ec, Industrial Arts and Juvie.

The Origin Talents include The City Kid (+2 to Grades while in Civilization, but -1 in the wild) or Home Schooled (which gives a bonus to Study Traits but a penalty rto Scamper and Throw).

General Talents cover a lot of ground, like Against The Odds (where you stand up to something that should overwhelm you), Cute As A Button (which can force even monsters to pause before attacking you), Dr. Doolittle (which lets you acquire animal friends), Grip on Reality (a bonus against illusions), I Don’t Want To Grow Up! (improve two Playground traits at the cost of a penalty against despair or temptation), In The Nards! (double the effect from a cheap shot), Spoiled (throw a tantrum to gain a bonus to certain rolls), Taunter (to get under people’s skins, of course) and many, many more.

The mechanic is called the Linear d6 system and works under the assumption that you will almost always perform at your level of ability. When you roll a die, you roll a d6, and on a 2-5, you perform at your listed level of ability. Roll a 1, and you perform at a Grade lower…but you also roll again, and if you roll another 1, it’s at ANOTHER grade lower. Repeat until you stop rolling 1s. So it is possible, but not likely, that a character with a 10th Grade rank in Seek may perform at a 2nd Grade level by rolling very badly. Alternately, if you roll a 6, your performance goes up a Grade and you roll again…another 6, another boost, until you stop rolling 6s. Now, there are other things you can do to affect your rolls, like having relevant Talents or Focusing to increase your Boost range.

In an interesting bit, everyone is assumed to only have a single d6, with the GM providing all bonus dice. When you are helping someone else perform an action, you don’t roll…you physically hand them your die as a symbolic gesture saying “Hey, I’ve got you.”

Action Scenes begin with a Dramatic Moment (Ambushes, Scares, Surprises), then goes into determining Turn Order (usually deciding who should logically act first), declaring actions, then performing actions.

Combat is surprisingly tactical, with options for fighting, evading, guarding and so on…and even multiple movement options (like intercepting an ogre trying to crush your Nerd buddy).

The equipment chapter generalizes a lot of things (light hand weapons, heavy hand weapons, so on), as well a general equipment list straight out of a D&D player’s handbook…but also includes Keepsakes (like crayons that let you draw a door that lets you pass through a wall, a baseball bat that lets you turn any small object into a missile weapon by tossing it up and hitting it, or a flashlight that can pierce illusions as well as darkness). Even more potently, there are Talismans like a Bag of Breadcrumbs (which leaves a trail but summons crows), Crystal Slippers (that provide a bonus to Cool tests, unless they have the Spoiled Talent), or the Sword of St. George which is a Big Time weapon but requires a pure heart.

Characters who have Imagination as their Iconic trait can use Imaginings, which go up in levels (Level 1 might provide a candy cane “found” in your pocket, Level 2 may heal your of two wounds, Level 3 can cause it to rain and the only upper limit is decided by the amount of Imagination expended).

Magic is also important in the Grimm Lands, though using Magic weakens kids and can actually change and warp them over time. There are six types of Magic, ranked in six Circles. Artificers can make an object immune to normal damage at the 2nd Circle, for instance, and can turn straw to gold (or any other material into another) at the 5th Circle. Enchanters can cause people to become fascinated with them at the 1st Circle, or Worship them at the 6th Circle. Guardians can Inspire people at the 3rd Circle, or raise a Ward from the dead at the 6th Circle. Seers can get brief flashes of the future at the 1st Circle, or pluck information from people’s minds at the 6th. Witches can cause Blemishes that can get worse with higher Circles, and even utterly destroy villages that have offended them at the 6th Circle. Finally, Wizards can Summon creatures to their aid, unleash powerful Blasts and grant Protection. Note, in every case these are just samples of each Circle.

The GMing chapter targets how to make a Grimm Saga, starting with the Goals: Presumably, the kids want to escape…but maybe they want to heal the Grimm Lands, or maybe it’s not about an ultimate goal, but about the kids growing up. Tone is also discussed, as Grimm has horror, fantasy and adventure elements, but you can also make it light hearted, especially in parts.

One handy section provides ideas on how to give each archetype room to shine, like Bullies having to whip a town into shape in order to fight bandits, The Normal Kid having the one Trait needed to accomplish something because the other kids are so over specialized and so on.

The setting chapter immediately sets out to flip the fairy tales on their ears. For instance, gnomes have hollowed out the Beanstalk, and use it to help those willing to pay the price travel from one part of the kingdom to another. The Checkerboard Kingdoms is the place where all the kingdoms that were sucked into the Grimm Lands were forced into one area, each taking a perfectly square position. The Glorious Empire is ruled by The Emperor with No Clothes. The Land of Fear is ruled by the Fearless King and the only village is haunted constantly. The Great and Awful Forest has magical streams that can poison you, give you the ability to small magic, heal you and more…and the Forest is also the hunting grounds of the Big Bad Wolf. It is also home to The Cottage of the Three Bears, The Gingerbread House and the old woman who used to live in a shoe. The Rioting River has the London Bridge, barely being held together by blind mice, as well as the River Styx. The Sea is a haven of oddities and exploration, with this section filled with random charts to roll on. The World’s Edge Mountains is home to Snow White and the Seventeen Dwarfs, as well as the Headless Knights of the Headless Heights.

The bestiary covers animals, carnivorous plants, faeries of all types, giant bugs, giants, living objects, trolls,  and knights…as well as major characters like the Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella, The Dragon, The Rotten King, Mother Goose, Rapunzel and more. And just about every one of them are twisted in ways that are pretty horrifying.

The book concludes with a few summary charts and an index.

WHAT WORKS: I love the archetypes. The world is very, very expansive and has a lot of room to play around in. Great production values (love the picture of the Wolf Man being kicked in the nards). Plenty of options without getting overly complicated. I always like a magic system that has a little risk to it.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: Imagination may be a tad overpowered, as may the Dreamer archetype in general. Despite often being promoted as being a suitable RPG for kids, the default Grimm Lands may be too dark for that. Grimm was originally a setting for the d20 system, and you can still see a few d20isms floating around in it.

CONCLUSION: I was a big fan of Fantasy Flight Games when they were producing stuff like this, Dawnforge and Midnight. The Grimm RPG line only ever had the one book released for it, but it is really complete with enough material in the book to run a full campaign and enough examples for you to expand the game if you need to (such as with Keepsakes and the like). The biggest flaw that the game has is that it doesn’t make a compelling case to not use Imagination as your Iconic Trait or pick The Dreamer over the other archetypes, from a min-max standpoint. Grimm seems like it could be amazing fun for groups willing to play kids…especially since the kids definitely have the ability to kick butt as they grow.