Sunday, February 24, 2013

Tommy's Take on Storm Battalion

One of those “perks of the blog” kinda things: I sometimes get to see things before they are printed. Case in point: Storm Battalion by Brennan Bishop, powered by the Dynamic Gaming System made famous by Third Eye Games’ Apocalypse Prevention Inc., Wu Xing and Part-Time Gods.
The cover, sans trade dress.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: This game is currently on IndieGoGo, trying to muster up its production budget. Also, while I have no direct hand in the production of this RPG, the author and I have a mutual respect for one another, which has in turn led to an NPC in the book being named after me.

Storm Battalion is set in an alternate reality in which mysterious storms have broken out over Canada, diverting the development of the world’s events and continuing to keep the Americans locked in warfare with the British on the Canadian front, while the European Union is making encroachments due to the advancements of the British and the indigenous peoples of Canada are trying to push everyone out of the country that they feel is rightfully theirs. There’s also the freaky monsters that emerge from the storms and the bizarre temporal effects. Nikolas Tesla tried to harness the power of the storms, but was frustrated when his efforts were used to power military weapons, rather than providing peaceful developments.

The storms not only wreak havoc in their wake, but also warp and mutate the world around them, from people to animals to even plant life. The storms also have another horrifying effect: They raise the dead. Some folks come back as essentially mindless zombies, but others come back as The Risen – people with another chance at life, now imbued with superhuman abilities, and often drafted into military units.

It is worth noting that the game is HEAVILY focused on Canada (what with the author being Canadian and all), with extensive descriptions of the state of Canada provided, though the US, British and European militaries are also covered in the opening section of the book, as well as the Kegintagi, the indigenous peoples of Canada who are fighting for their own survival as well.

There is a section on the elements of warfare, like the abuses perpetrated on the civilian populations of battlefronts, as well as looting, resistance and so on. All valuable themes and elements that can be used, either as adventures in their own right, or complications to missions.

Additionally, there are more than four groups jockeying for control, like the 4th Army (composed entirely of The Risen), Virtues Army (“peacemongers” who commit horrible atrocities while spreading their message) and the Blue 88s (a Jazz band who is secretly a spy ring).

Character creation, like other DGS-based games, is point-based, with players taking a pool of 70 points and creating from there. A few more choices remain before you actually spend points, like Passion (what you fight for, be it Revenge, Love, Code of Honor or what have you), Class (with choices like Medic, Infantry, Scientist and Sentient Teleautomaton, each of which provide their own bonuses, with Teleautomatons having their own Advantages and Disadvantages, too), and Country (with choices being Canadian, British, American, Kegintagi and European Union, each of which lets you purchase an aspect of character creation at half cost). Some of the more and less useful bonuses are balanced somewhat by having higher and lower morale scores accordingly (British have high Morale scores because they are fighting in fear of the Throne, not because they are necessarily braver).

Each character has six base stats (Power, Agility, Vigor, Intellect, Insight and Charm) which are used to derive stats further. Additionally, there are twenty non-combat skills and four combat skills to build your character from, and you select four of them to be directly affected by your Morale score.

If you are familiar with the other DGS games, you’ll notice that a lot of this sounds familiar (as it should). The Advantages and Disadvantages also have a lot of familiar entries, though Storm Battalion does add some nice new ones that fit the military setting, like Army Buddy (which gives you a bonus to skill checks as long as your buddy is in proximity…just hope they don’t die), Booming Voice (allowing you to be heard over firefights on the battlefield) and even Personal Airship, which is expensive but grants you just that: A personal airship, complete with a crew. Teleautomatons can also have advantages like bullet resistant armor, being Lifeless (which means they don’t scare easily or lose morale), or being able to electrocute their own body in order to zap enemies. Disadvantages include having loose screws (which makes firing weapons with recoil harder) and being squeaky (which kinda kills stealth for them).

Due to the Teslapunk nature of the game, the equipment chapter is cooler than usual, with stuff like boots that serve as conductors for anything you need powered to heated bedrolls…to much flashier stuff like earthquake generators, Clappers (electromagnetic gauntlets that allow wearers to climb metallic surfaces), Poppers (which are designed entirely to blow the batteries that other troops tend to wear), as well as a list of abandoned technology like Icarus Vests (essentially helicopter vests) and Stompers (30 foot tall robots that fell out of fashion due to being 30 feet tall).

The Risen have Kewl Powerz granted to them by the Storms known as Twists, and the Twists are generally ranked in three levels, from a basic Kewl Power to something terrifying. Take Bloat for instance. The basic function of the power allows you to twist and unlock your jaw to take a massive bite out of an opponent. At level 1, you can use this to heal. At Level 2, you can use this consumed matter to stretch your limbs. At level 3, you can actually regenerate lost limbs and organs, or even grow NEW ones (eyes in the back of your head, anyone?)!

Claws provides, well, claws…which can be used for melee attacks. At level 1, you can also use them to climb. At level 2, they can now shred armor, and at level 3, they emit a corrosive poison that makes them extra destructive!

There is an Unkillable Twist as well, which functions as it sounds! At Level 1, you can’t die inside a Storm. At Level 2, you cannot be killed period and at Level 3, not only are you unkillable, but you heal VERY quickly.

Two Twists also exist that allow you to influence how the Storms react, or even allow you to generate storms yourself! So, there are some nice, fun options for powers.

Morale is kind of a big thing in this game, as important to it as Yin and Yang are to Wu Xing. As Morale grows, you gain bonuses to skill rolls and at the highest levels, you can even boost the morale of others! At the lower levels you face penalties, and when your morale bottoms out, it can push your character into dark, suicidal places.

Special mention goes to the “object durability” listings, for folks hiding behind cover, which includes the durability rating of dead cows. Not sure how often that’s going to come up in play, or if it’s just the author’s twisted sense of humor, but its inclusion did make me chuckle.

Most of the rules stuff is going to be familiar to folks who play Wu Xing or API, but Storm Battalion does also include an extensive section on Storms and the effect they have on those within them, infecting them with Contamination (which is what Risen use to power their Twists). It’s not really a good idea for non-Risen to enter a storm at all, and it’s not really a good idea for ANYONE to enter a 3rd level (Reckoning) or 4th level (Maelstrom) storm.

The bestiary includes human opponents, provided as a base statline that is then modified by the human’s country (like Americans having more Health but basic equipment, and Canadians having a higher chance of being Risen).

Then we get into creepier options, like contaminated humans who are turned into things like Titans (giant powerhouses), Boogiemen (smaller, sneaky stalkers) and Bonesnappers (who hunt in packs and like to break the necks of their opponents). Contaminated animals include Grendels (mutated dogs), Gores (deer, moose or pretty much anything with antlers) and Threshers (mutated bears, as if regular bears weren’t scary enough).

Some introductory adventures are included, the first of which meant to be fairly loose, as it is not set in a specific geographic region, and it doesn’t assume the PCs to belong to a specific military faction, instead providing customization options depending on whether your players want to be Canadian, British, American, EU or Kegintagi. In a nutshell, a Lieutenant of the same army is reporting a growing number of his men going missing, and the PCs are sent to investigate. It’s a good starting point, as it features the horrific monsters in the setting, dealing directly with a Storm as well as running head to head with an enemy force.

The second adventure is more military and less weirdness, with the PCs having to infiltrate and stop an airship that is trying to absolutely demolish one of their bases. The two adventures provide a good cross section of the kinds of adventures Storm Battalion provides.

WHAT WORKS: The book feels complete while having room for expansion if the game proves to be a success. The equipment chapter is one of the funner equipment chapters I’ve read recently, and I really like the Twists. Like the previous games before it, Storm Battalion uses the solid base of the DGS, while making its own relevant tweaks to make the Teslapunk Military feel of the game come through.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The Canadian-centric setting and viewpoint is jarring to me, because I’m a Typical American that sees things from this perspective first. I like point buy well enough, but I don’t like big point pools, and due to the half-costs of certain aspects this game has, it gets into spending half-points, which I really don’t care for.

CONCLUSION: A worthy addition to the DGS family, Storm Battalion is a gonzo mish-mash in a World That Never Was, with humans simultaneously dealing with the fallout of the Storms while trying to harness their powers, both in the form of new technology and in the Risen. Naming an NPC after me also helps. My gut says that the military aspect would play beautifully in Savage Worlds, but I’m not sure the work required to make the powers fit would be worth it.

If you grumble about American-centric games, or if you like non-standard military or alternate history games, or if you just dig games where you play zombie soldiers with kewl powerz who are waging war with rival nations and freaky storms that spit out stuff that would be at home in Stephen King’s The Mist, you might oughta check this out. I’m planning on putting my money where my mouth is, just debating between PDF, print and print + t-shirt (I just feel like it would be right at home with my API, Wu Xing and Part-Time Gods t-shirts).