Sunday, November 2, 2014

Tommy's Take on Era: The Consortium

Running a bit late on this one...Era: The Consortium is a new sci-fi RPG that is in its final week on Kickstarter right now.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The Kickstarter is funded, with over twice its goal pledged. $23 gets you everything digitally, and $50 gets you the full, 300 page rulebook in print.

This review is from a preview draft of the rulebook, so not all of the art is present, layout may not be complete, and so on.

The book is divided into five parts, so I'm going to tackle the review in those five parts, starting with Part 1: The History of the Future.

The History of the Future is an extensive look at what led humanity from Earth to the stars, well told in a timeline with short, in-character inserts of characters' logs about events, such as the entry at 111CE (CE being the establishment of the new, off-world colony for humanity) about the establishment of a penal colony for life sentences followed by the in-character thoughts of someone on the prison colony of Sirona, reading the writings on the wall of someone before them descending into desperation and, presumably, death. 184CE sees first contact with an alien race, complete with a gorgeous depiction of the ruthless bloodshed that followed, and an equally stirring in character piece of a young woman assuming a seat of power beyond her age and experience, bolstered by messages of wisdom and encouragement from her ancestors. Other benchmarks are hit, such as the waxing and waning of the power of the Senate, the Consortium winning their alien war under hideous, hidden circumstances, contact with other aliens, the rise in cybernetics, and so on. At nearly 100 pages, it's a LOT of history, but the in character segments actually make the events feel real, and like they mattered, not just footnotes in a fictional timeline. Given that the game is meant to be playable at any point in the Consortium's 500 year history, that makes sense, but I rarely see backstory done as interestingly as this (and as organized).

This brings it to the "now": The Big Eight (the seven largest human corporations and, for the first time, an alien corporation) are the major ruling power of The Consortium. The Consortium have made contact with three alien races, the bug-like Ximian, the tree-like Vilithii and the very advanced, aquatic Eulutians (who squeeze into human shaped suits to interact with people), but The Resistance believes that The Big Eight are up to sinister means that would eradicate alien life in the face of humanity, and they have set out to stop it. Each company in The Big Eight is broken down, providing an overview of resources and their role in The Big Eight (which is constructed of largely symbiotic relationships), as well as the major companies in The Senate, plus the structure of The Resistance (it's a group of underground cells, of course). Most of the major planets get a page each and major space stations get a couple of paragraphs, a surprising amount of brevity for a book that spends 100 pages on the timeline, but I'd wager that in most cases it's plenty of information for an enterprising GM to run with. Each race also gets broken down as well.

Part 2 is character creation, and all four racial option are present: Humans, Ximian, Vilithii and Eulutians, complete with discussions of their roles within The Consortium and The Resistance alike. Era has a Moralities system, which is actually player defined, but suggestions are provided like "Instrument of Chaos", "Angelic" or "The Ultimate Good". Quirks are minor hindrances, and I love "More Enthusiasm Than Skill", in which  your attack dice are doubled, but rolls of 1 are actually taken as attacks on allies (because you're overzealous, see). The layout of stats is very similar to the Storyteller System, with three groups of stats that you then prioritize point allocations to. Skills are similarly grouped, with specialties that you can take if you have more than three points in a given skill. Advancement is through GM defined leveling up (rather than tracking experience points or just gaining character points that you can spend), but you can also boost skills through repeated use (including skills you don't actually have, so you would be rolling just an attribute and attempting to succeed).

Part 3 is essentially equipment, though in this case it includes cybernetic implants and spaceships. The cybernetics actually show the advancement of cybernetics at various points in history, so you can properly identify how they operate if you opt to run a game earlier in Consortium history. The implants range from quality-of-life stuff, like automatic injection systems for medication, to facial morphers that actually move the bones in your face to appear like someone else. Shockingly, law enforcement doesn't care for some of these. Weapons also run the gamut, from basic swords and knives and laser guns to flamethrowers, arc guns and even what amounts to a glue gun for non lethal attacks. There is even one horrific gun that fires grubs that eat Vilithii, though no one seems to know who makes that one. Vehicles run the full range, from tanks, dropships and capital ships, and even a mech, while the armor section has multiple pictures showing how each type of armor would fit on each of the three racial body types in the game. Once again, entries are tagged with the date they were invented, so you can properly restrict the list if you want to play earlier in the campaign history.

Part 4 is the rules, and the Era d10 ruleset is a d10-based dice pool system, rolling d10s equal to a stat and a skill, aiming for a target number, with 10s being rerolled to achieve additional successes. If you roll more 1s than successes, you fumble. You can roll Luck with an Attribute to try to succeed at something if you don't have the skill, but your target number (or Threshold) is 10 and fumbles become even more likely.

Combat is actually pretty lethal, with weapons having a "Kill Threshold", which can instantly kill an NPC foe. I could see this being a divisive element for folks, but it does do a nice job of setting the game apart from other, similar entries. Each type of combat (unarmed, ranged, area effect, vehicle) etc., has a flowchart that, I think, make combat look more complicated than it really is, but I think I'd rather see something like this included for those that need it.

The mechanical applications of each skill is also talked about here, including how fumbles for each skill may manifest.

Part 5 is the GM section, providing lets of short snippets of advice, as well as campaign suggestions, complete with session breakdowns if you like, including potential points of conflict and questions to be answered. While there is plenty of action and drama in each campaign, it sure seems to me that The Bug War and The Resistance campaigns would be the easiest to sink your teeth into.

There is an appendix for "hardcore rules" which, among other things, extend the Kill Threshold to PCs, as well as setting up a death spiral for damage (taking penalties as damage mounts) and penalties to actions for lower attributes. The book rounds out with sample statblocks and even worked up rules examples (and an index still waiting to be filled in).

WHAT WORKS: The timeline is one of the best executed in an RPG I have ever seen. Most of the commissioned art is absolutely gorgeous. Lots of examples provided for clarity, and lots of setting information provided to help you get a feel for it, but still left open enough to give you room to do what you like. The rules system isn't super crunchy, hitting about Storyteller system level, a plus for me as I don't like super crunchy or super light systems. So many campaign options and you could still do something completely different, like maybe have a new alien race attack The Consortium in the middle of the War with the Resistance or so on. There WILL be an index. The advancement system is neat, though there are some concerns...

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The layout feels just a tad too spartan compared to the beautiful artwork. This is particularly noticeable in the equipment and rules chapters (the inserts of in character entries in Part 1 makes this less noticeable. I'm not a huge fan of dice pools, and there are a few modifiers here than can turn it into Buckets O' Dice quick. If you are concerned about Game Balance or GM Fiat, the advancement system is liable to drive you up the wall.

CONCLUSION: Given the modest budget, it sure looks like Shades of Vengeance did most of the funding out of pocket, just needed help getting through the printing and shipping, and they have produced an interesting, expansive sci-fi setting with a few flourishes that really stand out to me (though I'm not the world's biggest sci-fi fan, so there may be games that hit these points first). A LOT of the art is truly gorgeous, and the in character writing supplementing the timeline makes it one of the easiest "history of" reads I can recall. Very much worth checking out if you're wanting a sci-fi game that doesn't feel at all like Star Wars, but still has a very real sense of familiarity to it.

And don't screw anyone that doesn't have it coming.

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