5.22.2019

Grimmerspace: Abattoir 8 (SFRPG)

EZG reviews Grimmerspace: Abattoir 8 (SFRPG)



This massive module clocks in at 90 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, 15 pages of advertisement, leaving us with 70 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Wait, first, let’s talk pregens – level 1 and 2 pregens are provided, with ready to print out character sheets – and guess what? 22 pages of them! Yeah, that is quite a load of work off your shoulders.

This module begins with 4 – 6 PCs at 1st level and, at the end of the module, PCs that survive should have 2nd or 3rd level; a handy appendix lists XP by encounter zone for your convenience. What’s that, you ask? Think of those as the same as a part or sub-chapter, focused on a general region. Think of an encounter zone as a sub-level of a dungeon. I’ve certainly played scenarios with less meat on their bones than one of the encounter zones herein has. While these XP-by-zone-guidelines are provided, the module does suggest leveling up depending on the demands of the story instead. And yes, you read that right -there is a very real chance of PC death here; this is not a cakewalk – after all, Grimmerspace is a science-fantasy horror setting! This module is the first part of a two-parter that may be expanded further, but rest assured that it works rather well as a stand-alone adventure. As a horror-supplement, the usual disclaimers apply – if you want happy-go-lucky, then why are you checking out a horror module by none other than Richard Pett? ;)

Kidding aside, this pdf is actually rather neat in that it (like future Grimmerspace supplements!) has a chart that shows you the TYPE of horror! Does your group really dislike religious themes or excessive gore? One look at the chart and you’ll know what to expect and make an informed decision. Really neat!

There is another aspect to Grimmerspace that everybody, including potential players, should know: It takes a radical departure of sorts from Starfinder’s default assumptions, in that it reframes very basic assumptions of the very space opera/science-fantasy themes of the games to better suit its needs without making serious incisions into the game: You see, Grimmerspace’s default-setting, the Gliding Rim Galaxy, is pretty humanocentric and saw a constant expansion of the “safe zones” of space towards the edge. It also was utterly mundane – only in recent years, a strange phenomenon started introducing magic as a new force – there is a Tear, and with it, magic has come to the G-Rim (the parlance for this frontier – and reason for the term “Grimmer” for the hardened locals…)

It should also be noted that this module comes with a pretty massive FREE map-pack. This map-pack contains a gorgeous, isometric full-color map of the adventure’s location, and also provides handout-style versions of the full-color artworks presented within. (YES! This should have been industry standard ages ago!) Beyond that, we get jpg-versions of the respective encounter area-maps in full-color – two of them per map, in fact. Yep, we do get GM-versions AND player-friendly versions! AWESOME.

Speaking of which – the module begins with a distress call that just begs to be printed out and used as a handout…and guess what? Yep, we do get a handout for it. It’s not the only one: Anotehr note is provided, and a mini-game of sorts comes with an isometric map/visual representation that also acts as a handout.

As far as GM-skill is concerned, this is one of the most newbie-friendly horror-adventures I’ve seen in my reviewing career. It comes with a full page of mood-setting dressing, including a check-list to determine how often you used them – oh, and darkvision gets different entries! Why? The chemicals freed make darkvision capable of seeing certain protein-splatters, which can be really disturbing! Similarly, there is a neat survival-aspect, with an environmental protections-tracker-sheet included. As far as supplemental materials go, this seriously raises the stakes for the game! It should also be noted that the pdf provides a lot of very well-written read-aloud text, and supplements them with pro-tips in sidebars that help you troubleshoot potential problems, provide guidelines, etc. Heck, it even provides guidelines of when session-breaks would make sense. Kudos!

On a technical level and more relevant for veteran GMs would be that this module makes rather clever use of general level-features/hazards – from power surges to loose cables and hot hydraulic sprays, there are several such hazards that are tied to PC-actions; these can be used to enhance the danger of the situation and provide what I like to call “global” effects, adding to how organic the station feels. Beyond these, we have “electroconductive” as a new condition – because you#re wet, you more easily conduct electricity. THANK YOU. Particularly in the slightly more scifi-centric Grimmerspace, this makes ample sense.  It should come as no surprise, but yes, there are different adventure hooks provided, and yes, the adventure does come with its own rumor table for PCs that like to think of their PCs as capable of doing some research beforehand. Also relevant: Details like whether or not detect thoughts works? Yep, they’ve thought of that! Oh, and technically, this is NOT a linear module!

This being an adventure-review, the following obviously contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump ahead to the conclusion.

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All right, only GMs around? Great! So, Abattoir 8 is an agricultural place that handles food processing, distribution and also acts as a trade hub of sorts. Maintained by the Attien Combine, t orbits the automated agricultural outpost Conviction. The PCs arrive on Abattoir 8 via one of the so-called slingshot ferries, but no one is to be seen. If you’ve played Dead Space 1 (the only creepy one in the franchise), you’ll have a good inkling of the atmosphere that expects you. No necromorphs abound – instead, we have Big Boy Thrask as basically an insane cyborg-slasher-cannibal villain – and easily one of the most striking and gut-wrenching murder-tableaus I’ve seen in a RPG – two of his victims have been decapitated, their bodies turned into clothes-wrapped meat, their arms reimagined as sausages that touch; the victims’ decapitated heads have been placed on the meat-piles in a grotesque caricature, facing each other…and as a final kick, “Love is…” has been written in blood between them. This is some Grade A+ twisted gore! Thrask is btw. the fine gentleman on the cover – and yes, he has custom items. His statblock provides a couple of unique tricks – and, interestingly, he has some smart (and scary) tactics that interplay with aforementioned global effects/hazards – and his goal is kidnapping PCs and dragging them to his aptly-named murder closet. Did I mention the mad zero-G welder who wrecked a section of the station, requiring that the PCs face the cold vastness of space (and, potentially, end out there?)…or the fact that all of this, including the global effects I mentioned in my examples so far, are actually all from the first encounter zone? Did I mention the guy who had his head replaced with a thunk (the cattle-equivalent), and said macabre head? Stuffed with grenades. OUCH.

Yep. The mechanic-turned-crossover of Hellraiser and Texas Chainsaw Massacre? That’s kind of the prologue. Sure, a prologue that wants to dismember you, and that seriously hunts you through the complex, but a prologue of sorts nonetheless. You see, the escape shuttle? It is way up there, between the two massive silos that make up Abattoir 8. And guess what? Getting up those silos? Easier said than done! The PCs can, for example, attempt to get up the malfunctioning thunk silo, where robotic arms can be rather dangerous….but the reprocessing plant is no better: Singapore-style interior fields, where dangerous harvest bots abound – and yes, they have long, sharp blades… That being said, it may actually not be that bad of an idea (from a story-perspective) to have the PCs  traversing  the thunk silo fall – why? Because zone 3 is the abattoir, and it is disturbing. Hardcore. You know, I’ve grown up in the middle of nowhere; I’m familiar with butchering, where meat comes from, etc. – and I’ve seen industrial meat-processing up close. It’s not pretty. Now, picture a malfunctioning super-high-tech version of that – a huge pile of half dismembered carcasses, drones that summarily execute anything that moves and process it…it’s visceral. Really, really visceral. The module is more than just a sick serial killer, industrial processing gone haywire and the like – it also features insane cannibals! Oh, and two people that actually can be talked to and reasoned with. Okay, one of them may be totally bonkers, a cannibal, and someone who’s been eating his own arm…but hey, in this place, that’s as good as it gets…right?

The module concludes with the PCs hopefully taking the fully statted escape vessel towards the Scavenger’s Voice – or safety, if you don’t want to get on board of the Grimmerspace train. But seriously, after this adventure, I’d be very surprised if that’d be the case.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are excellent on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a gorgeous two-column full-color standard that is easy to both read and print out (you can save a bit of ink/toner by turning the border off), and yet aesthetically pleasing. The full-color artworks depicting key-scenes deserve special mention: They are drop dead gorgeous and on first-party quality levels. The hand-drawn maps, with full player-friendly map support, the handouts and presence of cool isometric maps to complement the more tactical top-down maps is another plus. While the pdf has bookmarks, they are somewhat rudimentary and are only labeled (incorrectly) as “_GoBack” – a minor snafu there, but one more than made up for by e.g. the handouts!

This is the most hard-R horror adventure Richard Pett, Rone Barton and Lou Agresta produce so far; grisly, visceral and brutal, Abattoir 8 is more than shock-value; it’s not just heaps of gore; it is disturbing because it makes perfect use of the blending of anxiety at the industrialized and automated process, the fear of consumption, and the vastness of space. In short: This is an extremely effective scenario, and is absolutely glorious. It’s also the one of highest quality FREE products I’ve ever seen. Where other companies provide a brief sidetrek, a teaser, a race, we get a fully-functional, inspired horror adventure here – FOR FREE! This is absolutely awesome, and personally, I can’t wait to hold my Grimmerspace books in my hands!

My final verdict? 5 stars + seal of approval, given without hesitation. This also deserves my "Best of..."-tag as one of the best FREE adventures I've seen. What are you waiting for? There currently are no better deals for Starfinder out there! A masterclass premium adventure for FREE! Download it now!

You can get this glorious adventure here for FREE on OBS!

You can get the FREE map-pack here!

And, obviously, you can (and should) support the massive Grimmerspace Kickstarter here - it went live TODAY and is already funded. With an all-star author-cast, Sean Astin as creative director and none other than Lou Agresta and Rone Barton at the helm, these scifi-horror books look awesome. (And I've seen interior art - worthy of more than one cackle, gibber and drool!) Oh, and even if you've so far avoided Starfinder, fret not - there are pledge-levels that ALSO include the Starfinder rule books!! Check it out here!

As always: If you consider my reviews to be useful, please consider donating to my patreon - every little bit matters!





















Endzeitgeist out.

5.03.2019

What Ho, Frog Demons! (OSR)

What Ho, Frog Demons! (OSR)



The fourth Hill Cantons book clocks in at a massive 112 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 106 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair review. My review is primarily based on the print version, to be precise, on the full-color version. That POD-version has one full-color artwork inside, but uses a better quality of paper, so personally, I’d recommend paying the extra buck for the better quality paper. Unlike previous Hill Cantons-books, this one does have proper bookmarks, making navigation of the pdf version, which I also consulted, painless and simple.

Now, if you’ve been following my reviews of the Hill Cantons books, you’ll know that I am a fan of these strange books; if you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll know that the previous releases include the wilderness area of the SlumberingUrsine Dunes, the city-supplement Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and the Misty Islesof the Eld.

Rules-wise, this employs the Labyrinth Lord rules, which means use with B/X is painless, and conversion to other OSR rules isn’t too difficult either. The overall region depicted is best suited for low to mid-level play, and the two adventure-locations included are designated for 4 – 7 characters level 2 – 4. It should be noted that one of these locations is much more dangerous than the other; indeed, the fully-fleshed out locations can be rather deadly and will probably serve to challenge higher level parties as well with minimal fuss.

This book, then presents the hexcrawl umbrella-setting that includes all of these previously-released locations and more, contextualizing them in the greater canton; there is no content overlap with these previous releases.

I’d be somewhat hard-pressed to find a common theme between the Hill Cantons books released so far; while Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld both feature a somewhat psychedelic metal aesthetic with some surreal components and pretty subdued pop culture references, Marlinko as a city and its content was more gonzo and tongue-in-cheek. This book, then, is closest to Fever-Dreaming Marlinko in theme, in that is it stuffed to the brim with nerd-culture references, particularly regarding the (OSR-)roleplaying scene, and can be designated as capital letters GONZO.

This book does not necessarily take itself all too seriously, and as such, whether this hits the spot for you, humor-wise, will determine significantly how much you enjoy this. It should be noted that the book does include profanity, so if you’re sensitive to the like or easily offended, you will have chances to take umbrage here.

It should be noted that the following does contain SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

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Only referees around? Great!

All right, before we get into the nit and grit of the material herein, it should be noted that the book contains a “bucolic village generator”, which includes a name-generator (including inappropriate monikers), strange villager quirks. These are…well…quirky. To give you an example from the table:

“Sad-faced men and bright-cheeked wives paint bluebirds and vampires and pig designs on sandals. Every sunset and every sunrise the men are strapped to holy cows and spanked with the sandals. The villagers are adamant that this keeps the vampire pigs away.” If this made you smile, then chances are that this has quite a lot to offer. The generator also includes d8 rustic and strange characters, 20 misadventures to have around the canton villages and even a proper carousing table.

The book also contains a bestiary section, which features the alkonost, a giant bird with a long neck and the head of a woman, and an entrancing and dangerous song that makes the listener forget progressively more of their own being. The bukavac is a pretty hilarious (and deadly) predator: The hexapod attacks in a unique manner. To quote the book: “The bukavac attacks by jumping above its chosen target and, bizarrely hanging in midair, pounding them to a pulp with its six feet. The resulting red ruin is then scooped up by its long tongue. This jump is invariably accompanied by the joyous hell-scream of “BWAAAAHHH!” – theoretically charming, if it were not for the carnage that near-invariably follows.” In case you haven’t noticed: Yes, this book is suffused with a lush and precise prose that often manages to blend the creative with the hilarious. Few books over the years have entertained me to this extent.  The book also provdes stats for the dwarf-hobbit crossbreed Kudůki, characterized by extreme identity-confusion. Robo-dwarves and vodnik alongside wereworms (with a nightmare-fuel artwork) may be food, and of course, there are frog-demons to be found. Quite a few of them, actually. (As an aside: There will be a stand-alone supplemental Frog Demon generator at one point, but so far, the hydras haven’t finished it.)

And then there would be the deodands. As a fan of Vance’s writing, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the hydras managed to score the rights for the inclusion of this cult critter. But they are indeed played for laughs, and in a way that may break the immersion of some folks. There is, for example, a purple-skinned variant, the zeodand, that targets folks with sophistry and useless arguments. Oh, and the main lure of deodands? They try to lure in folks with time-share offers. No, I am not kidding.

See, and this is, kinda, where the book loses me. I’m not embroiled within the politics and bickering that one can see in the roleplaying game scene, at least not to the extent that others are. And still, I found a metric ton of wink-wink-nudge-nudge “eastereggs” – of course, there is the Staff of the Ragygi as a treasure. It can, oddly, be used to backstab, and lets the wielder cast Nystul’s Magical Kickstarter, which works as Magic Aura. …if you didn’t get why this somewhat annoyed me, you have more of a life outside of RPGs than I do. ;P Kidding aside, there are a TON of those wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments; more so than even in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and here, they somewhat…bothered me. Unlike in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, there is no dungeon made on a weird character’s concept from the Hill Cantons campaign. (Though there are plenty of notes how stuff from that game worked out – this time around, I considered these tidbits to be inspiring!) Instead, we have a ton of such meta-jokes.

The per se challenging Frog Demon Temple, for example, has a sidebar that displays “D10bestsellers of Hot Hell” that includes “Three Word Title: A Guide to the Naming of Products Auteur and Ludic” or “The Iron Doom Crawling Red Monolith of the Cursed Pod-God Maze.” Did these make me chuckle? Yes. Yes they did. Heck, we even get an artwork of the cover of “Applied Hedonics”, which made me grin indeed. None of these meta-jokes are bad; they’re genuinely funny. There simply are…so…many…of them, that it started to break my immersion. Seeing an illustrated frog demon idol that looks like Kermit? AWESOME. Aforementioned jabs and meta-jokes? Cool. But their accumulation can start to wear on you.

This is purely my personal opinion, but I think the Hill Cantons are better when their humor is less in your face; it’s the contrast between the regularly fantastic and the gonzo strangeness that makes them work; for me, Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld hit a better balance there. This, however, is, and let me emphasize that, HIGHLY subjective. It may also be a genre thing – I tend to mind such references less in scifi or space opera games than in fantasy. So no, this will not negatively influence the final verdict, but for once, I found myself wishing I got less of the allusions and references herein.

Now, I briefly mentioned that the book does mention in a few places how it worked in the original Hill Cantons game: One such example would be Bad Rajetz, a settlement known for the production of fetish-wear, which, alongside the condo-reference, was the second jarring anachronism that I really didn’t like. (And I’ve been practicing BDSM for the better part of my adult life) – it just comes out of nowhere. The notes here state that the factions in the original game had a 4-way Red Nails-ish standoff, which frankly made me want to see that adventure, that context. Instead, I got a throwaway anachronism-oh-so-quirky line.

On the huge plus-side of things, there is a ton to be loved herein as well: We have an inconvenient, but immaculately-constructed highway fashioned by Hyperboreans; we have strange signposts that are rumored (accurately, as it turns out!) to be cursed. We have some of the best rumor-sections I have read in any book – false components are italicized for your convenience, and most rumors are actually pretty damn creative and oftentimes funny adventure hooks that tie in with the other Hill Canton books. Such references are clearly and precisely noted, which brings me to the component of usability – this book is extremely well-crafted in that context. You won’t need to do a lot of flipping back and forth, with stats noted where required, important information highlighted by being bolded, clever use of italics, etc. As one minor formal complaint, three “see p. XX”-remnants have remained within the book.

The book, somewhat like Marlinko, also features an array of truly intriguing encounters, both for the individual locales and for the cantons in general. From the war-bear PREVED! (who likes to intrude upon humans in certain circumstances, yelling at the top of his lungs) to the daughter of freakishly honest and racist Fraza, the characters succeed at the great tightrope act of being both intriguing and amusing. A lady with a hierarchy of husbands who then ritually consume the least favored husband, strange trees, the horned oracle “Ozbej the Gighacksian” (yep, another wink-wink-nudge-nudge-moment), talking badgers, a context for the FREE “Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid” and more may be found. It is impossible to even touch upon all the components herein without bloating this review beyond any usefulness.

So, let us talk about the adventure sites: The Frog Demon Temple is a straight-forward dungeon-crawl, and I’ve touched upon some of its peculiarities before; it is intended to be deadly; the PCs may or may not take a brief trip to a salon where frog demons lounge in the Hot Hells and, in a cool angle, finding one of the primary hooks for the dungeon exploration is actually pretty difficult.

The second fully-fleshed out scenario would be more unique – it is a genuine horror-satire, and it WORKS. It lampoons its genre just enough, stays serious and dangerous just enough, to be one of the precious few instances where a satire adventure actually is properly playable, fun to play, funny, and challenging.  You see, Ritek, son of Ritek, doesn’t have an easy life. Being secretly an evil priest is hard, particularly when your second half is also…evil. The constant complaints about a lack of social advancement, about sufficient self-case, etc. made him snap one day.
““Did you remember to send the gilt-and-gore-edged invitations to the latest moonlight coven
coffee and cake soirée to the Lumpeks, the Neprespans, and those neophyte Novaks?”
In a midlife crisis moment of rage, Ritek slew his wife Maliska, buried her, and inadvertently created a funnel for a demonic spirit to inhabit a beet, which then proceeded to grow to monstrous proportions. When the village foreman attempted to…ähem…do things with the beet, he became BEETNIK ZERO!

And thus, we have a beet spawn epidemic that will slowly consume…not much, beyond a few backwater villages and folks. The folks in the hill cantons are incompetent, but not THAT incompetent. The bumbling evildoer’s wife is now a harmless ghost and tries to pin the infection on Ritek, while the demonic beet seeks to spread its influence! Today, the sty, tomorrow the world! The book presents an index that allows for the simple tracking of how far the beet infection/cult has spread, and the fields of the hamlet Ctyri Ctvrt is depicted in a modular point crawl, which allows you t use it an infection index 0 (boring hamlet mode) and at higher infection levels. There is, much to my groaning, an Onionator to be encountered. (This, once more is something that, while kinda funny, I could live without. This is just “lol, oh so random” – it’s trying too hard.) On the plus-side, even though the book does make fun of the notion, there is a sidebar that proposes 5 “Jane Austen – unglamorous backwater edition”-style sidequests I found hilarious and fun it their relatable pettiness.

The PCs can witness a ginormous Beaver that is regularly renewed by beavers, tuber-beetles and cows as a result of the infection, and obviously, time is of the essence. Beyond the general environment, the more detailed aspects of this part of the book are fully mapped as well, making this one of the precious few genuinely awesome and replayable funny adventures I’ve read over the year. And yes, it *can* be played as creepy. In fact, I’d recommend in favor of playing this with a straight face – makes for a great contrast to the outrageous and gonzo angle.

As a whole, I consider both detailed locations to be resounding successes, which continues the trend started in Misty Isles of the Eld, where the individual adventure locations started to become as awesome as the general setting/world/wilderness.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level, with only very few typo/oversight-level snafus. On a rules-language level, the book is precise and well-wrought. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard without much frills, and the book has A LOT of awesome, original b/w-artworks. The cartography in b/w is similarly great, but much to my chagrin, we do not get player-friendly, unlabeled versions to print out or use in conjunction with VTTs. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked (FINALLY!), and the perfect bound softcover features the title on the spine. On my copy, a bit of the color bled to the spine, but that’s just cosmetic.

Chris Kutalik has a thoroughly unique voice, and Luka Rejec (also responsible for the artworks) makes for a great co-author. This book, as a kind of encompassing regional source/adventure-book, had a tougher job than the previous Hill Canton books, and as such, it is fascinating to note how good it is. Extremely usable, this DRIPS ideas on every page, with easily half a year worth of surreal and fantastic gaming, at the very least, that can be wrung from its pages.

That being said, I am pretty sure that this book will be more divisive than the other Hill Canton books. It is very strongly tongue-in-cheek, and not everybody will consider the sheer sequence and extent of insider-jokes and meta-humor to their liking. Personally, I vastly preferred the Misty Isles of the Eld’s balance there. That being said, humor is very subjective.

As a reviewer, this leaves me with the formal criteria, and frankly, I found myself positively surprised by both adventure locales. The horror-satire module is genius and exceedingly fun and funny; the dungeon-crawl may be the strongest dungeon featured in the whole of the Hill Cantons books so far, provided you can stomach the insider jokes. Still, this is one excellent book, and one that has a voice unlike any other; it attempts a tone we usually do not get to see, and in the instances it succeeds, it does so triumphantly – to the degree where, frankly, I consider this a candidate for my Top Ten of 2018 in spite of its humor not always hitting home for me. It is different, creative and plain fun, and perhaps, just perhaps, the roleplaying games scene needs more books like this; books that drive home that we shouldn’t always take our little elfgames too seriously and embrace what they are…fun.  Unsurprisingly, my final verdict will be 5 stars, and this does get my seal of approval.


You can get this amazing adventure/satire here on OBS!

Missed the other Hill Canton books?
Slumbering Ursine Dunes can be found here!
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is right here!
And the glorious Misty Isles of the Eld can be found here!

You can directly support the creation of Hill Cantons material here on patreon!

Luka Rejec also has a patreon funding unique projects here!


Finally, your humble reviewer would appreciate it, if you would contemplate supporting the cause of providing more reviews. If you enjoy having my reviews around, please consider supporting my patreon here. 




Endzeitgeist out.

12.07.2018

Advanced Skill Guide (SFRPG)

Advanced Skill Guide (SFRPG)



This massive supplement clocks in at 151 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 4 pages of handy index, 1 page KS-thanks, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 140 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
…who am I kidding, I’d have moved this one up in my queue, even if it hadn’t been for that request.

Why? Because this is the book that translates easily my favorite PFRPG-crunch book EVER to SFRPG. I am, of course, talking about the winner of my Top Ten of 2017, the “Skill Challenge Handbook”.

You know, the book that, like no other before or since, should have been part of the core rules.
Yeah, if you’re like me, you probably have started smiling just a bit right then and there.

However, and this must be made abundantly clear by even a cursory glance at the page-count, this is obviously not all there is to it. We do not have a simple translation of a book to another system here – oh no. This book begins with a chapter on Leadership. Yep, you guessed it. This also is the Starfinder-equivalent of Ultimate Charisma, yet another masterpiece of a book.

But, once more, there is more to it, so let’s take a look at the nit and grit, shall we? After a brief piece of introductory prose, we begin with a glossary of terms: In case you’re not familiar with the terms “cohort” and “follower”, the pdf clearly and concisely defines them. Same goes for the basic mechanics: A Leadership check is a d20 roll, to which total level and Charisma modifier are added, and Leadership checks are treated as either Diplomacy or Intimidate, depending on the style of leadership employed. Leadership modifiers are determined by the GM, and are the result of your playstyle.

There also would be the Leadership score, which is the sum of character level + Charisma modifier, + a bonus to indicate fame. Further modifiers can apply, and concise tables provide sample check DCs by difficulty, as well as a selection of suggested modifiers. If you need a representation of a group effort, there would be PLS – Party Leadership Score, which is calculated and explained in similar and easy to comprehend terms.

Things become a bit more detailed when we take a look at cohort creation – here, the book deviates strongly from previous iteration, in that it employs (gainfully, I might add), the Alien Archive’s NPC-creation guidelines with minor tweaks to allow for an overall very smooth and painless creature creation. Different methods of cohort creation, from promotion to recruitment (including costs to hire) are presented and the book does present different degrees of simulation depth for cohort progression: If you, for example, don’t have the inclination of tracking cohort XP in the traditional sense, you can check out the option presented for one-roll adventuring abstraction, which does not bog down the game. (Of course, you could play cohort-only sidetrek adventures as well…) If that is still too intrusive, you can resort to the autoleveling guidelines, and if that sounds like a hassle – rest assured that tips for players and GMs alike are included to make the process of adding cohorts to the game simple and smooth.

Followers, then, are more akin to redshirts with names and personalities – once your players have a massive space ship with a huge crew, you may well want to have example followers – and indeed, the pdf provides; once more, in an organic manner: The concept of good and master skills is used in abbreviated form for the different roles these fellows may have, once more allowing for a super smooth integration that distinctly can be identified as a Starfinder-centric solution.

The book goes further. In the next chapter, we take a gander at reputation. Fame is a representation of how well you’re liked and known within an organization or region. On the flipside, there would be infamy, of course. These two are collectively known as reputation. “Deeds” would be the term assigned for things you are famous or infamous for, and as a whole, the rules use Starfinder’s “significant threat” rule and transpose it to organizations – in short, reputation only matters and should come into play with significant organizations. I am not kidding when I am, time and again, emphasizing how Starfinder-centric these concepts have been realigned: The reputation section, for example, takes theme-choices into account.

While reputation, as a whole, is a more narrative system, it is not one that leaves the GM or player hanging or in doubt regarding precise implementation. Instead, we receive detailed and precise guidance pertaining reputation shifts, sample fame rewards for certain thresholds…and favor. Favor goes hand in hand with fame and represents basically your ability to call in favors, a kind of social currency. Both favor purchases and deeds, just fyi, have been supplemented with handy tables that provide amply guidelines to run the system or smoothly expand upon it.

But perhaps you and your group are less interested in empire-building and the grand game, and rather would develop the way in which the PCs interact with NPCs and one another? Fret not, for if you’ve been dissatisfied with “I roll once and change the attitude” type of scenarios, if you enjoy the more personal takes and exploration of bonds, whether they be among rivals and enemies, families or lovers, then you’ll very much enjoy the next chapter, for here we take a look at relationships. For simplicity’s sake, they are grouped in 4 rough categories: Animosity, familial, peer and friendship. All of these are tightly defined. The relationships themselves may be roughly categorized in the healthy and dysfunctional departments, somewhat akin to the dichotomy used for the reputation system, and while this is a bit of a simplification, there is a difference here: The system tracks not an objective value of good/evil, but rather the intensity of the relationship! This is VERY cool and a smart choice. It eliminates the “love”-threshold. You know, “reach this many points to get love.” Instead, each character will have different preferences, reactions and the like, and relationships are dynamic. You can actually switch from a familial relationship to animosity to friendship, for example. And yes, you can fake relationships. You can, of course, roleplay all of this, but in case your group tends to favor quicker resolutions, they are provided once more. And yes, they have been designed to allow for quick and painless resolutions. They will not slow down your game – unless you and your group choose to explore them.

The next section also can tie in with that – it pertains alternate and secret identities, and it is one chapter that I wish had been slightly more Starfinderized: The default assumption here would be that a series of Disguise checks is sufficient to establish a secret identity, which, while quick and painless, struck me as a bit…easy, at least in the long run. For brief covert identities and the like, sure, but for long-term identity change, some notes on the use of Computers to delete electronic trails and the like would have made sense to me. (But then again, I’ll return to that aspect down below – and why I don’t consider it to be an issue here.) the subchapter does talk about different means of compromising your identity, and how secret identities and shifts can influence reputation and relationships. And guess what: Having your cover blown is not a pleasant experience. Juggling multiple secret identities is btw. also noted.

Now, the pounding heart of this book, obviously, would be the skill challenges. If you’re familiar with the “Skill Challenges Handbook”, you’ll notice some overlap here and will be already familiar with the central concept.

Basically, a skill challenge represents an encounter-situation that can range from a group dealing with a super-computer’s complex self-defense system,a s it’s steering the vessel into a black hole, in the mainframe to a game of chess. Skill Challenges may be undertaken between teams (representing contests), and can span different increments of time: From long trips across the surface of a blasted planet under a dead sun, to a high-speed chase, the engine can cover pretty much anything. Running a skill challenge may seem daunting afirst, but once you’ve read the rules, turns out to be exceedingly simple: You determine awareness first, so yeah, there can be a surprise round. Then, you determine initiative order and proceed to run it akin to a combat, save that it is not a combat, but a collective task.

“Winning” a skill challenge is referred to as “clearing” it, and, depending on the skill challenge, you have several methods: Some skill challenges may require an accumulation. Drawing that moon rover from the ditch, for example? Accumulation.  When working against an opposing team, points can be used. Movement-related ones track squares, and for straight win/lose situations with a less pronounced focus on grades of success, “successes” are the tracked method makes most sense.  It should be noted that there are actions noted for PCs to in-game interact with the respective skill challenge – obscuring trails, for example, is relevant when embarking on a skill challenge that is based on squares as clearance method.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How do you beat an accumulation skill challenge? Well, let#s say your researching who the replicant-serial killer is, all right? You research, and roll a relevant skill, as determined by the GM. You have a success, and then take a look at the progress rating. For example, 22. Since you succeeded at the task, you accumulate value of by 1d4 + the ability score modifier associated with that check. Once you’ve beaten the progress, you’ve cleared the skill challenge. Being particularly good grants you bonuses, and may move you up in the dice-chain. Class skill? You roll one die size larger. High enough insight bonus? Ditto. To keep things interesting, these skill challenges generally have thresholds noted, where things happen, complications can occur, etc. Let’s say you’ve repaired a part of the mainframe of a desolate space station as you cleared threshold value 8 – electricity is suddenly restored…and the cargo doors open as part of the booting system, freeing whatever was locked inside…

This is perhaps one of the most potent and remarkable aspects of this system – while it can work on pretty much any timeframe, it similarly can slot in seamlessly with combat...and back out of it. What Do I mean by that? Well, you can easily slot skill challenge into skill challenge, Matroishka- or Inception-style.

Let’s say the planet the PCs are currently on is blowing up, and they are escaping the interstellar tyrants that have their homebase on the planet. The PCs embark on a grand skill challenge tracking abstract squares, as they hustle across the planet towards the dilapidated orbital elevators: Atop those, there is a ring of space stations surrounding the planet. (Yes, unrepentant Gundam fanboy here…) As they arrive at the elevators, the planet starts breaking apart…but the damn bullet train is old and needs to be fixed and maintained. Unfortunately, an alien species feeds on the thing, eating it while the PCs try to get it to start – enter a contest. As they finally get the thing running, the kill-squad sent from the tyrants has infiltrated the train – as the PCs make a desperate race for the top, trying to accumulate enough resources, combat breaks out….and even if they succeed, they’ll still need to get out of the system…

That is but one example of interwoven skill challenges, and once you get how these work, space’s the limit. Scratch that, not even that! To infinity and beyond! (Sorry, will punch myself later for that one…) The system may look daunting at first, but one glance at a statblock for such a challenge should tell you a lot about it…and once you understand it, you’ll realize how elegantly this one skill challenge statblock codifies a complex series of circumstances. In use, the system is so smooth, you basically don’t even need to make a statblock. You can run this spontaneously. The precision of all the definitions for increments, time pressure etc. are ultimately there to adhere to the conventions of the game, but in person, I can explain this whole system in under a minute. Heck, I actually implemented it without telling anyone, and it works. A quick-thinking GM can assign PC actions to the general actions within the respective skill challenge.

Basically, what the rules here do, is to allow you to structure how you think about the mechanic presentation of the challenges within. No GM really needs stated that some skill challenges can only allow for a certain amount of failures. Still, the rules are presented within, in order to allow you to write a quick and concise challenge. Similarly, backlash by hazards, traps and attacks, demerits (losing progress) – all there. Beyond thresholds, there also are obstacles – exemplified with the sample task of steering a vessel through an asteroid field. Chases would, obviously, be another example, and one that gets its own coverage – in detail.

If you need further means to modify these skill challenges and want an even tighter array of subrules, you’ll have a whole chapter of special qualities to modify them with: Obstacles, and, as noted, opposition, are covered. When you’re bodyguards for the ambassador’s daughter, whose word may save the galaxy, if you can only convince her… then you’ll want to take a look at the section on influence challenges. If you’re familiar with the way in which Ultimate Intrigue etc. structured social situations and cross that with skill challenges, then you’ll have an idea of how the system works: We basically get a “social” variant of a statblock that focuses more on personality and background, noting biases and strengths as well as weaknesses.

If you instead plan to talk in front of the board of directors of an interstellar megacorp, then you’ll want to check out the section on verbal duels. From allegory to mockery, this is indeed the first of these subsystems/skill challenges that I’d categorize as a mini-game of sorts. Knowledge of associated strategies and how they interact is important…but know what? It actually puts an end to the endless discussions that go nowhere, and it can make social interaction exciting for tables that usually prefer the tactical aspects of combat over storytelling.

For all of these, samples are provided, though, and let me make that abundantly clear: This is not a plug-and-play book of ready encounters. Instead, this teaches you how to use the system and make it your own. Extra design advice, a table of suggested sample DCs by difficulty rating and CR, suggested accumulation, square and success values by CR – ultimately, this is a ginormous guide that aims to teach you an easy system that can make literally everything, from treks across blasted desert planets to researching galactic archives, potentially exciting and interesting. It’s a system that inserts player agenda into what usually amounts to boring, singular pass/fail die-rolls and cutscenes, instead emphasizing the collective experience.

Okay, but we’re still not done. There is another massive chapter – and it’s called combat maneuvers. This chapter introduces an alternative means of resolving, bingo, combat maneuvers. Design-wise, the alternate maneuver system mirrors the way in which Starfinder treats AC: The Maneuver Defense (MD) value is subdivided into PMD (Physical Maneuver Defense) and MMD (Mental Maneuver Defense). The values are calculated as follows: 10 + ½ BAB + Strength modifier (PMD) or Charisma modifier (MMD). All combat maneuvers, and the feint and demoralize skill uses, as well as the Antagonize feat, target these now. Yes. Non-feat taxed antagonize is back. Honestly, it was one aspect of SFRPG that puzzled me as much as in PFRPG. Why lock insulting an enemy, arguably something pretty much anyone can do, behind a feat, while feinting, something I IRL would suck at, is available via skills? But I digress. Maneuvers are listed alphabetically, and are listed with action to activate, skills that can be used, and effects. Descriptors, if any, are noted as well. You basically check the skill against the respective MD. Crushing foes, scaling them…simple. Less simple would be the act of determining these values fro critters. Thankfully, a massive table lists suggested values by CR and array. (As an aside: The array is called spellcaster, not mystic…) Don’t like that? There is a means to use the system in conjunction with the standard KAC +8 solution.

What’s the effect of implementing it? Well, PCs are more likely to succeed at combat maneuvers…but so are enemies. If you are dissatisfied with how hard combat maneuvers are to execute in Starfinder, then this will yield approximately a 25% increase in chance to execute them, which can, particularly in more melee-centric situations, make them game more versatile and nuanced. The new “humiliated” condition is also introduced herein – and, in case you were wondering, there is a whole, massive array of feats that allow you to further customize your characters to make maximum use of this new system. In a rather embarrassing slip-up, the feats refer to the Improved Combat Maneuver feat – which has been rebranded as Improved Maneuver to avoid confusion with the Starfinder core feat. Unfortunately, the references of the feat in the section’s prerequisite lines have not been adjusted that way. It’s a cosmetic glitch, but still a pretty nasty one. Particularly since the Improved Maneuver feat’s special line even erroneously references itself as Improved Combat Maneuver… Also in this section would be the Unlock Skill feat.

Which ties in with…the Skill Unlocks. These can be gained by feats, themes or awarded freely, depending on your preferred playstyle, and include several that interact with other components of the book. At Fame 20, you can, for example, be Aloof without taking a penalty to Leadership score. With Blood Kin, you have a better rapport with your relatives, with Accomplished Climber, you gain a climb speed. Tehre are more unlocks here than I can conceivably cover without ruining the functionality of this review – suffice to say, a handy table organizes them by area of interest – looking for reputation unlocks? All collected in one section. If this notion was not indicator enough: One of the interesting and impressive components of this book would be the fact that all of these can be combined. The pdf does, for example, provide guidance and notes that skill unlocks can make for great relationship rewards…

Of course, considering the new combat options, we also receive a couple of new tricks for character classes: 4 new envoy improvisations, and an expertise talent, as well as tricks, for mechanics, soldiers and operatives may be found. The pdf then closes with 4 solid themes: Contender, scion, fixer and vigilante, before providing a handy glossar. Slightly hilarious: The vigilante gets the “Duel Identity” class feature. No, he is not particularly adept at dueling. That’s a typo.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting on a rules-language level, as a whole, are very good. However, on a formal level, the pdf does suffer a bit and is not 100% up to level we usually get to see from Everyman Gaming. Particularly in the few instances where a typo can make a rule slightly harder to understand, I couldn’t help but cringe slightly. Don’t get me wrong; this is still a tightly-presented book. Layout adheres to the two-column full-color standard of the Star Log.EM-series, adapted to the big book, and the pdf sports a ton of Jacob Blackmon artworks, many of which are brand new and pretty massive. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. My physical copy hasn’t yet arrived as per the writing of this review.

Alexander Augunas and Matt Morris deliver what can be considered to be a crown jewel among SFRPG supplements; we get a book with a sheer impact and coolness, a mighty toolkit that usually only sees the light of day in this extent towards the end of a system’s lifecycle. Having this near the beginning of Starfinder’s lifecycle is amazing. Simple as that. It is no secret that I consider many of the concepts within this book, the whole notion of skill challenges, to be pretty much a stroke of sheer genius. Having them coupled with some of my favorite tricks, as inheritors of Ultimate Charisma’s legacy, puts just icing on the cake. I applaud the degree in which the systems herein have been modified to represents Starfinder’s peculiarities, and once more, I am left to say, clearly and explicitly, that the very concept herein should have found its way into the core rules.

Now, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have some potential complaints to field: The editing, as noted, could have been tighter. I also would have loved to see more space combat-y things and peculiarities – sure, you can easily simply adjust what’s here to the space context, and the skill challenges present actually do just that…but some exclusives would have been nice. But that is not a fair complaint to field. You see, at first glance, there are a lot of similarities between this and the original PFRPG files; if you own the original files, you will constantly feel the casual familiarity that you expected to find…but once you take a more in-depth look, you will get to see the work that went into this tome…and the achievement that codifying the skill challenges this way, ultimately is. Regardless of system. This book was branded as the tome that will bring skill challenges to SFRPG – and more.

And, editing snafus be damned, it succeeds admirably. At this point, this is the most rewarding toolkit for SFRPG I am aware of. It will literally enhance any game it’s used in, and a GM who understands how this operates gets some of the mightiest narrative tools for a d20-game you can fathom on their hands. The concept itself may no longer be novel in all but its implementation into the system, but it doesn’t have to be. What you see on the cover, the exciting teamwork challenge? That can be yours.

Skill challenges have enriched my games like no other crunch supplement. If you play Starfinder and are not yet familiar with the notion, or if you don’t want to do the math and all those little tweaks…well then gets this ASAP! It is a mind-blowing experience. Now, if I were to rate this solely on its formal properties and disregard the content and its vast impact, I’d frankly have to rate this down to 4.5 stars, rounded down, due to the editing glitches. However, even if I were to divorce skill challenges from all the other components, which elegantly entwine, yet remain optional, they’d suffice to make the editing snafus as but trivial.

To state this in an abundantly clear manner: This book can radically improve pretty much every aspect of your game, of your GMing, of your playing experience. You don’t have to read everything. You don’t have to implement what you don’t want to – you can just cherry-pick what’s right for your and your group. Once you’ve understood this, you can implement its components on the fly, you can tell exciting stories that you couldn’t before. In short: This is, formal snafus or none, still a milestone and a masterpiece. I consider this to be perhaps the most important Starfinder supplement currently released by a 3pp. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This also gets my EZG Essentials-tag for Starfinder. And had its predecessor not won last year’s Top Ten, and thus disqualified this one from being a candidate for my Top Ten of 2018, you could find it there as well.  This is, by all accounts, a must-own supplement for Starfinder.

…now, can we have a sequel book with more skill challenges, tricks and tweaks? 

You can get this inspired tome here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.