Ethics in Gaming Journalism Disclaimer: I was provided a free PDF copy for review. Additionally, this review will contain links to the RPGNow website. These links include my affiliate ID, and making purchases through those links may provide this blog with a portion of the sale, which is then typically used to buy more product that often winds up reviewed here.
Just The Facts: The PDF of the book is $14.99 at RPGNow or the Precis Intermedia website. The softcover is also available to order from the Precis Intermedia site at $34.99, and you can even order the PDF first, then upgrade later. This corebook is 258 pages and the publisher, Brett Bernstein, has indicated that more releases are coming. The PDF is layered, so you can turn of backgrounds for printing, as well as fully searchable and indexed.
Proclaiming itself as a "Fantasy-Noir Roleplaying" game, it is set on the world of Marl, which is functionally a fantasy "Points of Light" setting in which the cities are isolated in the wilderness, using magical means to communicate and travel. The Wilderness is only partially charted, and even the map included in the book warns that its accuracy is not to be trusted. Magic is an every day part of life, and other dimensions are acknowledged as The Second Godwar rages in the background of the setting between forces of Order and Chaos.
A chapter in the back of the book covers the city of Selastos, which has a lot of typical noir tropes, with fantasy flourishes. For instance, the Taxim helped the rich break the backs of labor, providing cheap workers through possessing the dead...then went on strike and scored one of the few victories over the wealthy in the city. A good start to get your game going without detailing a city from scratch.
The book makes it a point to explicitly state that the characters of the game are not "heroes", which totally fits in the noir vibe. A character's species can come from six different classifications:
Pure: Humans - the only "pure" species available in Bloodshadows.
Breeds: Catrarms - basically humans, except they have four arms; Elkists - the crossbreed between some unknown demon and ghouls; Gris - a magic experiment gone wrong, these big, burly creatures eat garbage; Hugors - the result of crossbreeding between humans and ogres; Humbi - what happens when a human mates with an incubus or a succubus, bastards with few rights of their own; Skethspawn - the end result of humans mating with Sketh, small, sneaky, minor demons; Skitter-rats - rat people, because humans will breed with literally anything, apparently.
Demons: Succubi/Incubi - The only playable demon option, at least in the rulebook, are succubi and incubi, life-draining demons who feed on strong emotion and opting for lust and arousal over fear or anger.
Shifters: Face-Shifters - These guys look like humans, they can just change their face at will. Once someone is outed as a Face-Shifter, folks tend to not trust them very much; Granis - these shapeshifters are made of stone, and claim no relation to humans; Werewolves - you probably know what these are if you're reading this blog. Interestingly, werewolves are often utilized alongside the police force.
Undead: Ghouls - They feast off the dead, but the more human-like can pass as human, while others pose as vampires; Orris - lumpy, undead shapeshifters who feed off of bone; Taxims - demons who possess the bodies of dead humans; Vampires - blood drinking undead.
From there you pick a Role (like Crook, Private Detective, Spellslinger, Sentinel or Socialite), then Alignment (which is pretty much how you feel about the forces in the Godwar, if you do at all).
Character creation is point buy among five Abilities (on a scale of 0-5, with 0 being a disability and a few rare creatures reaching a 6). These are Fitness, Awareness, Creativity, Reasoning and Influence. Pursuits are basically skills, ranked from -1 to +4, and are divided into groups tied to the Abilities (such as Firearms being a Fitness pursuit, Stealth an Awareness pursuit, Disguise a Creativity pursuit, Lore a Reasoning pursuit or Street-Talk an Influence pursuit). The exceptions are the list of Magic-casting pursuits (like Necromancy or Sorcery), and Composure, which is pretty much keeping your wits about you in the face of pain or terror.
The next bit that define characters are Gimmicks, which further modify abilities, applying an extra bit of granularity and customization above and beyond the five Attributes. Like a character may have Fitness of 3 and the Strength +2 gimmick in order to show that their sheer brute force is higher, even if their overall Fitness is about average. A character may have the Writing gimmick to modify their Writing ability, or even the Chastity gimmick to modify their resistance to seduction (which comes up a lot when Incubi and Succubi are floating around). Cultural Gimmicks include things like being a Bigot, being Wealthy, having a Natural Compass or owing a Debt. Special Gimmicks get into freaky stuff like a Face-Shifter's ability to change faces, the Taxim's Custody ability (possessing dead bodies), having Night Vision or even having a symbiotic relationship with another character.
The system is largely pretty simple. You generally take an Attribute, add a Pursuit and roll 2d6, trying to beat a target number. If you roll double sixes, it's an automatic success and you get to roll an additional d6 to attempt to hit a higher degree of success. Rolling double ones can be an automatic failure if no Pursuit rating was used, or can be a calamity (essentially a botch that makes sense in the context of the scene). The combat chapter includes random Calamity tables for different physical or social conflicts.
If you beat the target number by higher than five points, you can get an Exploit, such as reducing the time it takes, reducing difficulty on other tasks with that pursuit in the scene or even inspiring trust in others.
Magic is cool and scary, just how I like it. Most everyone can TRY magic, but the less versed you are, the more likely things are to go bad for you. This is exemplified by Feedback, which can have no real effect, generate Fatigue, cause you to lose your voice, cause you to lose one of your Pursuits (you can spend 2 XP to get it back), rip open a portal to...somewhere else...or even create a massive crater, killing everything in the area, including the caster. That last one takes a pretty big surge.
There are tons of spells in the book, but those are just considered "known" spells and you can work out new spells. Examples include:
Cantrips: Find, Breeze and Groom. All pretty basic magic effects.
Chronomancy: Sense Past, Sidestep (through time), and Waiting in Time (shunting an object ten minutes into the future).
Elementalism: Air Barrier, Fireball and Quicksand
Necromancy: Animate Things (for when you need to animate limbs and not a whole corpse), Speak to the Dead and Rot (which thankfully only targets undead).
Photomancy: Blind, Create Shadow and False Images
Somniomancy: Dream Jump (which lets you move from dream to dream), Quiet Night (prevent nightmares) and Make Physical (allowing you to drag a nightmare into reality).
Sorcery: Doorway (which creates a doorway), Quick Phase (becoming incorporeal) and View (which lets you scry on a location. You can then cast Walk to try to transport there.)
Technomancy: Bullet (for when someone needs to be shot and you just don't have a gun), Lockpick and Rain of Razors (when you need lots of sharp things flying at an opponent and fast).
Vitomancy: Glass Jaw (a favorite among those looking to rig boxing matches), First Aid (because healing magic) and Read Mind.
Wizardry: Bind Demon, Destroy Magic and Summon Demon.
Again, these are merely non-exhaustive samples AND a guide to creating new spells is included.
A healthy selection of monsters are included in The Unnatural chapter, intentionally avoiding anything that as provided as a playable character. This section includes the Sketh, Ghosts, Revenants, Skins (the creepy reanimated skins of the dead, when a necromancer doesn't want to waste anything), Hollow Men (who are similar to Taxim, being demons that inhabit the dead) and even a good selection of creatures for the Wilderness.
Two adventures are included in the book, one a missing persons case in which the PCs are approached by a guy who has blacked out and lost two days, and his lady friend is now missing (standard stuff, with the requisite fantasy twist), and the second story involving a smuggling operation.
The GMing chapter provides tons of guidance on using suitably noir-like locations for your adventures, as well as hooking the PCs in, including random tables to use to hook each of the Roles. Additional guidance is used to address Wilderness travel/adventures, for those characters who need to venture into the wild.
Lastly, conversion rules are included to port characters over from Ghostories or Mean Streets, the Masterbook version of Bloodshadows or even the Pacesetter system that powered the original Chill, or its spiritual descendant Cryptworld.
- I like the openness of the world. Given how undocumented the world is, it's easy to insert pretty much whatever you want, from places to creatures. Doubly so when you factor in that the setting explicitly hasn't closed its doors to other dimensions.
- I am a huge fan of the magic system. Reminds me a bit of the system from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which has both a similar flexibility and danger.
- The book is black and white, and the whole aesthetic feeds into the "noir" tone of setting very well. None of the art is very bad, most of it is very fitting, and a lot of it is downright great.
- The species options almost seem a little over the top. With 16 options, some of them seem excessive (or downright weird, looking at you, Orrim). While I generally err on the side of "give them choices", the "Points of Light" setting with humans at the top of a food chain that includes 15 other viable species (plus the NPC options) feels like a stretch to me, unless each species is in such low of numbers that they have no real power. This clearly doesn't apply to Taxim, at least, as they are the most powerful union in Selastos.
- I've always like the idea of exploits in GenreDiversion. I've never tried the system in play, but I'd be willing to.
- Experience can be used in ways other than advancement, as "creative editing/story control" that allows you to introduce subplots to the game, or invoke specific features based on your role (like a Sentinel being able to call in reinforcements or a Private Detective automatically noticing a clue). I dig mechanics like this in games, especially when it's light and unobtrusive.
- It's weird and doesn't make any sense, but the setting is juuuuust a bit harder to wrap my head around than it should be, even though it's really just a fantasy setting with fewer swords and orcs and more gumshoes and night clubs. I love the concept (and the magic..a lot) and I like the game mechanics, but I just gotta get past that setting hump (since noir assumptions are no weirder than quasi-Middle Ages assumption in any other fantasy setting).
Thumbs up on this one, even if I'm not convinced I wouldn't be too intimidated by the weirdness of a few of the setting elements to make it work at my table.