10.11.2018

EZG reviews Club Anyone: An Interface Zero Novel

An Endzeitgeist.com review



And now for something completely different!

Club Anyone is a novel that clocks in at a total of 308 pages of content, with visual representations of the setting helping to envision the setting, TRIC city, on Mars.

This review was requested by one of my readers. I have received a print copy of the book for the purpose of an unbiased review.

It should be noted that this book contains well-written descriptions of sex, substance abuse and the like – these are not gratuitous, and they are written in a concise and well-presented manner, but I felt the need to state this for your convenience. While I try to be as SPOILER-free as possible in my discussion below, I do SPOIL some structural surprises that the book has to offer. I only do so in an abstract manner, but I do so nonetheless in my discussion below; if you like the notion of cyberpunk/scifi-noir, then check this out sans reading further; if you’re skeptical regarding the genre, then you may want to continue reading.

So, let me preface this review with a couple of observations: This book takes place in Gun Metal Games’ Interface Zero setting, which means that it can draw upon a wide variety of different concepts and established lore – at least in theory.

This is, at once, a potential boon for the book, and, if one takes a look at the books released for other roleplaying games settings, a potentially huge issue. Don’t get me wrong: I have devoured a ton of Dragonlance, Forgotten realms, etc. novels in my day…but at one point, they all started to bore me to some degree. A central issue of books based on roleplaying systems is the question of system-adherence and structure: Roleplaying settings, system-immanently, expect not a single protagonist, but rather a whole party of them, and in my experience, there’s a pretty good chance that one or more characters end up as annoying – and the more such protagonists there are, the more disjointed is the sense of immersion, the less room you have to develop the characters in question. We can add to that the huge issue of the adherence to the system, which represents a gigantic Catch 22-scenario: If you deviate from the system’s realities, you end up disappointing the expectations of those wishing for a faithful depiction of the realities of the setting. If you adhere to them, you’re often left with issues regarding the story that you actually want to tell – the rules don’t always lend themselves to helping make the experience of telling a novel’s story exciting.

The second issue pertains lore-depth: You can’t assume every reader to be intensely familiar with obscure setting-details, but explaining them all in detail can result in huge, and potentially boring exposition dumps. This is an issue that we can observe with many comic books nowadays, where the interconnectedness and background canon has reached a ridiculous depth that makes them less accessible than they once were.

Thirdly, there is the issue of the type of story: Many books falter due to trying to tell a pen-and-paper-RPG-story in the guise of a linear book; perhaps one with only 2 – 3 players, but nonetheless. Combined with the above, this makes for quite a burden for the author, even before taking the need to be canonical into account.

Let it be known that “Club Anyone” manages to navigate these pitfalls admirably; to the point where the book made me intensely curious to read more from the setting. It does so in a pretty smart manner: Instead of jamming exposition dumps into the narrative where they wouldn’t fit, the book introduces a precious few concepts that all characters would be familiar with (and thus not talk about) in the beginning of a few of the chapters, in the guise of Encyclopedia Brasilia entries or a delightfully amusing advertisement for a piece of tech. Note that I experimented with skipping these, and the story and plotline STILL work without a hitch; they just serve to bring you up to speed with the setting.

The more important decision, and what really ultimately made this book work, is the protagonist Derek Tobbit. He is not a superhero, an outlaw, a chosen one. He is just a regular megacorp programmer, one who specializes in bioroids – think of these basically as lobotomized, programmable clone/machine hybrids. In the first chapter, the prologue if you will, we witness Derek become a hero of sorts on his first day at work on Mars after migrating there for the job…only to have him plunged into a personal catastrophe that spirals out of control on a personal and more global scale.

This approach manages to achieve something rather impressive, namely that it, by letting us share in the protagonist’s triumph, immediately generate sympathy for the man, which is then further developed upon. We have a relatable main character from the get-go. This is so important, because the novel could be described as a scifi-noir-thriller: We do have a very human and fragile individual here, not an iron-clad superman, but the cynicism that is so prevalent in noir aesthetics, is, at least in the beginning, absent.

Aforementioned personal tragedy and struggle then proceed to have this average Joe become pretty much steeped in the vortex of grime and twilight that we associate with noir aesthetics; in this, the early section of the book, the writing becomes pretty bleak, cynical and suffused with a rather potent sense of pessimism, one constantly enhanced by the dystopian corporate control, the omnipresence of augmented reality. It is here that, at least for me, some of the most remarkable (and wise) sentences throughout the book exist. The interaction with the severely limited cab-service AI Aygee, which poignantly remarks “Sorrow exists, Derek Tobbit,” serves as one example of this notion, and also as a kind of leitmotif. It should be noted though, that the book remains more personal and never reaches the sense of cosmic bleakness and nihilism that e.g. suffuses the “Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” or similar books by Dick et al. We remain deeply entrenched in the noir-aesthetics, and indeed, the book, without putting too fine a point on it, manages to retain the human dimension that is so crucial for noir-aesthetics. In a way, the Augmented Reality angle that is so important throughout the book represents a subtextual transgression of the boundaries of how reality is read by the characters, and proves to be the catalyst for the most potent narrative forces, both benign and malignant.

Indeed, one could argue that “Club Anyone” is exceedingly successfully and engrossing in the way it manages to encapsulate the tropes of the noir genre, and then proceeds to slowly subvert them; yes, there are plenty of examples regarding the tropes you’d expect within, but they are, on an intrinsic level, subverted in their tone and outcome. In a way, the book, like the leitmotifs of augmented reality and corporate control, controls them on a structural level, but transforms them in a rather benign and surprising manner; at one point, the narrative ceases to revel in the grime of Blade Runner-esque darkness, and transforms into a page-turner, a high-octane conspiracy high-scifi page-turner.

It is this bait and switch that represents one of the strongest points of the novel, and one of its weaknesses, depending on how you read it: On the one hand, there is careful deliberation in the motif of rebirth, which is also applied to genre that you’d associate this book with. On the other hand, I’d lie if I said that I didn’t get a kind of thematic whiplash during this turning point. Once it has passed, things happen quickly and ferociously, and the plot speeds up significantly. At least for me personally, this second part of the book felt like it could have used a couple of extra pages. There are a lot of unique and captivating ideas and set-pieces briefly touched upon, but ultimately, this section rushes to the inevitable conclusion in a more sped up manner than I would have liked; with 50 – 100 extra pages fully developing the transition in genres and character growths during it, the book would have ranked as one of my all-time favorite scifi novels.

As written, the almost post-modern playfulness with genres and expectations does not realize its full potential in this second half of the book. However, that is not to say I did not enjoy myself – quite the contrary! While this second half loses a bit of the gravitas of the first half, it did, even in its imho weaker sections, provide more entertainment than the entirety of the sluggish blandfest of oh-so-critically-acclaimed “2312”; it’s also smarter and, in my opinion, more successful in its world-building/setting-utilization than that book.

In short: “Club Anyone” is a surprisingly fun and intelligent novel; it sports interesting and well-written characters you can relate to; its plot and tweaks actually managed to entertain and often, even surprise ole’ me. It’s also the least bleak noir-story that can still be called “noir” I have ever read, and for that alone, deserves accolades. Whether you consider the very condensed narrative a plus or minus depends on your perspective; personally, I could have seen this cover a full trilogy of books – easily! That being said, in spite of not being 100% enamored with the second half of the book, I have rarely found myself this profoundly touched by a science-fiction novel, as in the first half of this book. Considering that this is Lou Agresta’s first published novel, it represents an impressive achievement in more than one area: The characters are relatable and interesting, the pacing had me turn page after page; the prose is oftentimes profound without being artificially obtuse, and the deviations from genre-conventions make the book stand out. Similes and metaphors, both cleverly tweaked and original ones, provide an optional cosmos of associations for the well-read that adds a surprising level of associative depth to the proceedings.

Club Anyone is a really captivating proof of a very promising talent, one that has me excited for future offerings. Taking the freshman bonus into account, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. Even if you absolutely loathe noir storylines, this is worth checking out.

Sorrow exists, yes…but so does happiness.


You can get this fascinating novel here on OBS!

Want print? You can find that here on amazon!



Endzeitgeist out.

7.06.2018

Ultimate Covenant Magic

Ultimate Covenant Magic



This massive supplement clocks in at 160 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 3 pages of SRD, leaving us with a massive 155 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

So, long, long before, back in 2013, before we even could conceive of Occult Adventures becoming such a great Paizo book, there was a humble pdf that fluttered on my digital shelves. It came with an unpretentious cover that read: Legendary Classes: Covenant Magic. It included a base class, then called “medium”, which proceeded to blow my mind, earning the supplement a spot among my Top Ten PFRPG products. Then, there were expansions, and these actually managed to retain the quality and imaginary vision of covenant magic.

In a way, this was an occult class, before “occult class” was a thing; you know, a class with a complex and rewarding action economy and player agency that does not simply escalate numbers, but instead has unobtrusive and rewarding ROLEplaying angles baked right into its very design. This may just be me, but with the release of Occult Adventures, I never stopped thinking of Covenant Magic as pretty much one of the origins of this rewarding school of class- and RPPG- design.

Now, it should be noted that Ultimate Covenant Magic is NOT simply a rehash of the previously released material; Purple Duck Games have gone the extra mile here, which should be obvious from the get-go when simply comparing pagecount; moreover, the ducks have went through Covenant Magic with a  finetooth-comb and reassessed all components herein, ironing out the very few rough patches the original files offered, while heaping new content galore on top – this is how compilations should be!

Fast forward to today and the issue of nomenclature: We get this – the ginormous, ultimate iteration of an already stellar system. With Occult Adventures’ release, this book renames its first class covenant mage. The covenant mage gets d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, ¾ BAB-progression and Charisma-governed spellcasting of up to 6th level – however, in a radical and daring departure from most classes, these are actually spell-like abilities, with all that entails. It is testament to the robustness of the engine and the skill of the designers involved that this never breaks the game. Covenant mages may not learn aligned spells, unless the covenant mage matches the alignment…OR has a covenant with a creature of that alignment! Yes, you can actually cast evil spells as the good guy here…with all that entails.

Now, as the name makes abundantly clear, the focus here are covenants. But wait, sounds familiar? Isn’t there the phenomenal “Grimoire of Lost Souls” already out there? Well, yes, but Purple Duck Games’ system has a radically different focus – covenants are themed around general themes, not necessarily individual spirits – you could have a covenant with a sidhe court, with qlippoths and the like, as opposed to pacts with singular entities. The focus sounds similar on paper, but in practice and roleplaying, actually is radically different. It should also be noted that the systems work remarkably smoothly and distinctly when used in the same game, and could allow for a covenant/pact-only game without much hassle. One of these days, that’s just the campaign I’m going to run!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was talking about player agency before, and the class, from level one onwards, and again at 3rd, 7th, 11th, 15th and 19th level, gets a spirit boon – basically the talent-list of the covenant mage: These are not simple “You get class feature xyz”-tricks, btw. Wanted to sap speed with a touch attack? You can do that. Conjure forth a shield of roiling spirits? Once more, you can do that! Of course, a better, detective-style speak with dead can be found here, and the basic themes you’d expect have representations, but the list brims with enthusiasm and design-glee – one that is based in the scaling guidance imparted on the covenant mage by virtue of their spirit guide; and yes, while intangible (so no phantom-like pet), this lone, humble ability can engender great roleplaying all on its own…and changes the system in exciting ways, for some abilities require that the spirit guide be sent away/used in a specific manner. If you’re familiar with shadow-usage in shadow magic-based systems, you’ll get what I’m talking about. This could have just been, mechanically, a cool-down timer. Instead, it has this nifty little narrative angle that you can take or leave. It should be noted that the already pretty impressive list of spirit boons is expanded on later levels – multiple times. These alone provide more options than many classes have.

Now, a central component of the covenant mage’s engine and perhaps one of the most impressive and concise rules-operations for a caster I know, would be their trance: 4 + Charisma modifier rounds, +2 rounds per class level after 1st; this trance may be entered as a move action, nets you rage-like bonuses to Constitution and Charisma as you channel entities, and allows the spirits to speak through you – which is a GREAT idea to explain why you can’t use spell completion/trigger items in a trance. It’s these little components, where even the tiniest thing makes sense from a narrative point of view, that set this apart…of, and then, there would be the covenants. Oh, and being knocked unconscious nets you +1 free, final round of trance. No, you can’t abuse it, but it does allow the respective entities to deliver threats etc. and corresponds with the classic and evocative tropes.

Now, a covenant mage selects an influence – these can, for example, be angelic choirs, abyssal hordes, draconic, the occult, the unity, etc. Here, we have a bloodline-ish ability suite that nets a bonus language and determines the capstone of the class. However, they ALSO govern special spell-like abilities while in trance (scaling with levels) and trance covenants, which also scale. Sounds a bit bland for you? Nothing could be further from the truth! Just take the qlippothic redeemer. Some qlippoths argue that extinction of mortal life may not be the way to go to reclaim the abyss – you just have to ensure that no more chaotic evil souls go down there! Hence, there is a qlippoth-sponsored influence with the goal of redeeming everyone! I ADORE this. Doing the right things, for horrifically wrong reasons can make for a fantastic character concept and interaction with an influence that is malign and alien and just wants everyone to get along. That’s the yarn great tales are spun from.

Covenants are grouped in 5 groups, which are progressively granted by the respective influence chosen: Least (1st level), minor (5th level), major (9th level), greater (13th level) and superior (17th level), just fyi. It should be noted that each influence notes a variety of creatures associated with the influence in question, and that such creatures may be called by the covenant mage with their séance ability. Did I mention that these fellows can deal with haunts (You really should take one along next time you go into that haunted mansion/ancient, haunted battlefield…), that the trance engine scales and that item activation etc. also follows a concise progression? The covenant mage is a class you have to play to truly appreciate, but oh boy. Ähem. Sorry. Did it sound like I might that class a wee bit? ;)

Anyways, this is NOT where the book stops; where, previously, we had but this one covenant-devoted class, we now get two: The book introduces the dervish, who gets d10 HD, 4+ Int skills per level, proficiency with simple and martial weaponry and light armor and light shields, as well as fast movement, full BAB-progression and a good Ref-save 4th level nets the SPs of the covenant mage style, once more governed by Charisma, scaling up to 4th spell level. You may have deduced as much from the presence of fast movement, but uncanny dodge at 2nd level would be another good indicator what we have here – a hybrid class of covenant mage and barbarian.

And, I know what you’re thinking: “Now Endy will whip out the uninspired hybrid-bat.” Well, frankly, that’s not required. Quite the contrary, in fact. The class employs the trance engine; it has paths, which are the equivalent of influences (and yes, we get a ton of them, though not one for every single influence, only for those that make sense in the frame provided); it gets trance powers (kinda akin to rage powers and paths come with suggested trance powers) – oh, and the class is actually a solid skirmisher! I kid you not! Heck, path chosen influences, at high levels, the DR, with 8 different DRs noted, to account for thematic differences! This level of care is impressive; indeed, I’d like to state that the warrior-mystic angle has rarely been done this well; while the parent classes are obvious from the design choices made, the dervish manages to feel and play unique and exciting, rendering it one of the very rare examples of a hybrid class that deserves its name, that deserves being included in the game, that has its own identity and soul.

Now, here begin the 28 pages of archetypes – and while both covenant mage and dervish get AMPLE of choices here, it is my pleasure to mention that they are not alone: Wanted a covenant-using summoner? You can find that here. Inner Eye Fighters represent a rewarding covenant fighter option…oh, and did I mention that the book comes with full occult support, providing a means for Paizo’s often maligned medium class to become cooler via covenants? Or the death negotiator spiritualist? Does haggling with spirits for power sounds like a story that reminds you a cherished villain/hero in a comic book? Well, guess what: We even get a vigilante archetype here, with the spirit-chosen! Oh, and what about covenant-related hexes for both witch and shaman?? Want a covenant magic with anti-tech guide tricks? An engine-tweak by donning masks? Covenant mages with hexes, revelations or bloodlines? Yep, you’re covered. Similarly, if you want a divine dervish, unarmed mendicants or mounted dervishes, you’ll find what you’re looking for inside.

Now, beyond influences, covenant magic as a system is NOT hard-baked into classes; or, well, it kinda is in a way, but in theory, pretty much anyone could use it! Why? Well, the 5 different covenant ability strengths are concisely codified for Gm and players alike, with save DCs based on the patron’s Charisma and HD. This may come off as surprising, but the mere existence of this simple and easy to grasp component (with prices, assuring WBL-consistency) helps against the murder-hobo syndrome. Players are less likely to want to slaughter, for example, the fey over there, when coming to diplomatic terms with them could provide cool, unique powers…and from the GM’s perspective, that is a rewarding way to dish out treasure and segue into new adventures. The gp-value table makes this pretty much a no-brainer task – look at a table, done. It doesn’t get more comfortable than this.  Now, if all this contract-stuff sounds dry or too wishy-washy for you, rest assured that you’re not left hanging: The details and components are discussed in a concise and helpful manner, including the consequences of breaking covenants, etc.

So, the covenants – the list of covenants included here, you know, the one that handily lists all the covenants alphabetically, ordered by power…is 4+ pages long. We’re talking about over 30 pages of such abilities, which allow you to breach through barriers, gain a kind of truespeech, a literally stunning voice, high level save-rerolls – they make sense! Want, for example, control of the strands of fate? Well, you better find a really potent being with mythic power or hero points…or a norn! Have a new buddy from the elemental plane of earth? Stone fists. Just sayin’! Know a potent undead or outsider with energy drain? Hej, when you get on with them, you may learn the art of the Soul Stealer… There also are a couple here, obviously, that are more limited, but you get the idea – this OOZES flavor. And yes, the classic restoration of youth can be bargained for… This is, in essence, a continuation of the design-paradigm that made the class options stand out – and it’s, in a way, the beating heart of the book; this is where we not only get material that can easily be integrated into any game, we have enough covenants provided and succinct, clear guidelines, that designing new ones should not prove too big a problem for anyone. This may sound dumb coming from me, with my love of fiddly, highly complex systems, but this level of accessibility is amazing. You could hand this to players and have them tinker with it. The system is that accessible. Oh, did I mention the page of mythic covenants that help if you’re playing mythic games? Oh yeah.

Now, I should note that, usually, only covenant mages and dervishes can strike covenants, but the 10-page character-options section provides the feat-basis for universal access, though higher-powered games can ostensibly ignore these; as a whole, this provides the grit and investment decision I love to see, while the aforementioned detailed explanation of the covenants themselves allows the system to be used without prescriptively requiring them. If you’re playing a regular game, use the feats; if you’re going for high-fantasy, go the direct route – simple. Oh, and guess what? Mythic feats AND rewarding Story-feats included! As an example, Spiritual Defiance allows you to enhance the numerical bonuses of trance sans gaining the usual abilities, as you defy your influence. You’re grinning right now, right? I know I am! Really cool: The pdf acknowledges modifying three feats from Pact Magic’s chassis – in the TEXT, not just the SRD. That bespeaks of integrity. Oh, and yes, we also get both traits and drawbacks – and yes, bonus types are TIGHT. There also are a couple of new spells to be found, and we even get two background tables, Ultimate Campaign style, for Covenant Mages and Dervishes. Want advice, and I mean EXTENSIVE advice on running covenants in your campaign, on negotiating contracts, a ton of sample potential patrons for covenant-users? Variant offerings that codify life force, souls and even integrate with Horror Adventure’s corruption-mechanics? This delivers. Heck, we even get two cool sample organizations! Oh, and guess what? Two templates, a ton of NPCs (yep, up to CR 19…), and we even get two ready-made PCs for the new classes, at level 1 and 7.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch. From bonus type to rules language integrity, this is an achievement of a tome. Layout adheres to a nice, printer-friendly 2-column standard with purple highlights. The pdf sports a significant amount of nice full-color artwork, though fans of Purple Duck games may be familiar with the pieces. The pdf comes with extensive, nested and detailed bookmarks, making the use of the material herein super simple. Oh, and this being Purple Duck games, the whole text is open content. Yes. This is too rarely mentioned, but it’s one of the things I adore about Purple Duck Games.

David N. Ross and Julian Neale, with additional writing by Mike Myler, provide a masterpiece. I mean it. This is the OG of the Occult design philosophy, and it is superbly impressive, more so than it ever was before – and that’s saying something!

You see, I am very much cognizant that my love for complex, fiddly systems à la Interjection Games’ tinker or Michael Sayre’s Akasha is no secret; at the same time, complex systems are not for everyone; while a new system may provide a unique playstyle, not every player enjoys trying to wrap their heads around, for example, an engine like the kineticists. This is where covenant magic comes in. The genius of the design employed here is twofold: For one, the book manages to provide a crunchy system that is rich in story and actual roleplaying potential, which is not something many books achieve. But more importantly, it marries this potential with a playing experience that is utterly distinct and different from all Paizo-classes…while not requiring that you learn one bit of new system! This book manages the impossible feat of having the cake and eating it, too – it teases, coaxes and persuades the d20-system underlying Pathfinder in new and exciting shapes and forms.

If you’ve read the Paizo-classes, you can play this. This is the most accessible subsystem I know, at least in this range of excellence; for, while it retains its superb accessibility, it also manages to do utterly unique things with its engine; it manages to carve out its own, distinct and design-as well as flavor-wise, unique identity.

This ranks among my favorite 3pp-crunch books out there. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “Ultimate Psionics” or the “Grimoire of Lost Souls.” Yes. That good.
Let me put it differently: I have a policy regarding my Top Ten-list: If the components of a compilation have won a spot on my Top Ten, the compilation can’t be featured on it once more. I have never been this tempted to break this rule. I won’t, as that would be unfair. But oh boy, do I want to!

Ultimate Covenant Magic is a masterpiece that oozes passion, care and attention to details; it’s, as noted, the small things that add up, that elevate this book to the lofty place it occupies in my esteem. My final verdict for this masterpiece, unsurprisingly after my glowing review, will be 5 stars + seal of approval. This also gets my EZG-Essentials-tag as a book I wouldn’t want to miss in my games. Why? Think about it: You can use covenants to combat that Christmas Tree syndrome of PCs with too much gear…replace magic item-rewards with boons and blessings that come with obligations and your game will take on a whole new direction.

Anyways, while it can’t feature on this year’s Top Ten list, this does get the candidate for my Top Ten of 2018 tag as well – to mark it as a book that has number 1-contender qualities.

One more thing: Purple Duck Games is currently designing their Porphyra RPG – they will carry the torch of Pathfinder’s first edition with their very own spin. Books like this are what this game needs, so if that sounds like something you’d love, support the Purple Ducks!


You can get this glorious book here on OBS!

You can directly support Purple Duck Games here on patreon!



Endzeitgeist out.

5.17.2018

FAITH - The Sci-Fi RPG Core Rules 2.0 (RpC Engine)

FAITH - The Sci-Fi RPG Core Rules 2.0 (RpC Engine)



This massive RPG clocks in at 433 pages minus the covers etc.; once you take credits and the detailed, general index away, you’re left with 426 pages, not including the 4 pregens and 3 general sheets included for your convenience.

This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue due to me receiving a print copy of the book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. The review is based on the massive full-color hardcover.

All right, I am going to deviate somewhat from my usual reviewing style while tackling this beast and separate the review in 3 sections, namely formal qualities, game engine and setting.

The first thing you’ll notice upon laying eyes on the book, is that the cover image evokes a sense of advanced Cyberpunk-ish aesthetics. There is a reason for that, an Altered Carbon flashbacks you may have are entirely justified, as the game does not necessarily lend itself to Shadowrun-ish cyberpunk, but works rather well in more extreme versions for the genre. That being said, make no mistake: FAITH is very much a sci-fi game in aesthetics and its ambition, and not one of the many space-opera-ish games out there. But we’ll get back to that later. The second thing you’ll notice upon opening the book, would be layout and artwork. From color-coded riders on the side to boxed texts, the layout of the book is engineered to make its use simple: Advanced rules have their own, shaded boxes, as do examples of play/rules in action. This provides clear visual cues for the use of the game.

And then there would be the aesthetic component. FAITH is easily one of the most beautiful RPG books I have ever laid my eyes upon. I am not kidding. See that cover? I’d actually argue that it’s one of the weakest artworks in the book. We get panoramic vistas of alien cityscapes and planets, drop-dead gorgeous depictions of the races, and the quality of the artwork throughout is on par with expensive video-game artwork books. I am not kidding when I’m saying that many a conceptual artwork unlocked in current triple A-videogame titles pales before the sheer aesthetic joy evoked by many of the artworks within. Even better, the book actually has a distinct and unified art style, which is 100% coherent and concise. Now, it should be noted that the artworks for the races include nude renditions of the alien and human races, so if any depiction of a non-sexualized human body offends you due to some irrational taboo, then that’s something to look out for. Then again, if that’s the case, you probably wouldn’t get anything out of this book in such a case, as it is a book that focuses on big questions in a plethora of ways.

As stunning and gorgeous the book is on a visual level, I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing for the editing. While the vast majority of the book is presented in a level of precision and care you’d expect from such a big core book, and thus remains very much a precise, well-crafted book, there are sections interspersed throughout the book where concentration seems to have wavered, one of which, unfortunately, is the introductory section, where e.g. a doubled paragraph and more formal glitches can be found than you’d expect from a book that showcases such stunning visuals. The somewhat uneven editing remains one of the most obvious imperfections of the book.

Now, I have seen some reviews accusing FAITH of being a hybrid between a card/board-game and a RPG. I’d frankly argue that this is a folly. FAITH employs cards as randomizers, yes, but the book does not require any special cards, miniatures, etc.. You can purchase the FAITH-specific decks, sure, but the game works just as well with regular decks of cards. It should be noted that e.g. items all come with their gorgeous artworks, and while these can be had as cards, the book also features them, including their gorgeous artworks. As a card-based game, the game spends some time advising on how many card decks you should have. Personally, I’d strongly advise in favor of each player and GM having their own decks. The value of an ace is 1, jack 11, queen 12, king 13. That’s pretty much all you need to know, value-wise, to play FAITH with regular cards. Now, the FAITH deck (which I do not own and haven’t used) knows 4 suits: Wilderness, Urban, Space and OS – all of these suits have their own icon and correspond to one of the suits of the classic poker deck. Jokers are special: They can only be played in specific circumstances: After declaring successes and failures, you may play a joker to improve the level of success of one success, or decrease the success of an enemy by one step. So yeah, no one should feel that tracking these basics overexerts their mental faculties.

It should be noted that a key concept of FAITH is that each player has 7 cards (humans may have up to 8), and may not look into deck or discard pile. Players may not share the values of the cards in their hands, not show them o other players, but they can provide general hints of how well they’re doing. When do you draw again? Well, that is one of the most intriguing aspects of the FAITH game: It grants the GM pretty much perfect control over the difficulty setting, if you will, of any given sequence. FAITH divides the game into scenes, and at the beginning of a scene, everyone draws up to their maximum hand-size of cards – usually 7. The hand-size is a general indicator of physical and mental fatigue. Characters are assumed to succeed in most regular actions, unless contested. Initiative is governed by its own Skill, and turn are taken according to set value. However, a character may choose to Rush, by discarding one card and adding its value to their initiative score, but only at the start of a round. There are two statuses a PC can have each round: Ready and Spent. If the character is Ready, he can perform an action or wait – if the character is Spent, he can’t do something and must wait for the next round – this is important, as the PCs can attempt counteractions, which, obviously, means that they use their action. This basic framework allows for surprisingly dynamic engagements.

At the end of the round, there is the so-called maintenance phase, where each character that is not traumatized currently and hasn’t taken neural damage that round, regains a point of neural health. After that, the next round starts. Maintenance phases can happen in non-combat situations as well. As noted before, FAITH assumes actions to be successful and knows three degrees of success: Regular, decisive and critical – decisive successes are successes by 5+, critical ones by 10+. Simple. If an action is difficult to perform due to time constraints, or the opposition of environment, characters, etc., then we enter a “Confrontation.” The triggering character determines the action, with related skill and attribute used, using up to one Activated and one Sustained effect. The GM declares the number of cards to be played. Any affected characters aware of the action declare counteractions. Interesting here: Counteractions, unlike the action triggering the confrontation, may only affect the triggering individual. Played values of cards are compared and if the counteraction surpasses the value of the triggering action, it cancels the triggering action. It is only successful versus targets with a lower value. For example, if you throw a grenade into a room with two targets, and one declares to jump out of the room’s window, while the other attempts to run away, and the former is successful, but the latter isn’t, you still blow up the guy that attempted to run, while the guy jumping through the window got away. If the first guy had chosen to kick the grenade back, you’d have been in trouble…

Whenever a character performs an action, he uses a skill. If a skill value is 0, the character suffers a disadvantage. Skill values are decreased by 1 for each damage point (physical and neural) suffered, to a minimum of 0. Neural damage suffered from Activated or Sustained actions occurs as the action resolves, and hence does not penalize the action. Advantage and disadvantages are represented by plus and minus-symbols and add/subtract 5 from the value, respectively.

Now, I’ve already mentioned attributes: The respective attribute determines how many cards you can play per round to add to the values set by the skill. When a player plays a card whose value is equal or less than the Skill, he may draw another card. When the environment in which a card is played corresponds to the suit of the card, the player may also draw a card. This is called ambience. A character also have an affinity with a suit: When playing a card that corresponds to the affinity and in the proper ambience, the player instead draws two cards, one of them in hand, the other must be either be placed on top of the deck or discarded. In case you were wondering: There are only 12 skills, and to state explicitly what I implicitly mentioned before. At character creation, you assign fixed values to them: one 5, one 4, two 3s, two 2s, 3 1s and 3 of your skills will be 0s. You also get 60 points to assign to the 6 attributes (Agility, Constitution, Dexterity, Faith, Link and Mind) and skills, allowing for further customization. Now, it should be noted that Skills and Attributes do not necessarily have a fixed connection. Athletic skill, for example, can be used with Constitution or Agility. Attributes also have maximum limits, depending on the race chosen and the traits of that race – those would be basically a combination of racial and cultural components; planetside and spaceborn characters have different traits, for example.

The game knows both physical and neural health as hit point-like resource, with physical health being twice Constitution, neural health being equal to twice the Mind value. = neural health knocks you out, 0 physical health means you’re bleeding out. The game knows an additional damage that does not apply to characters directly, ACS, adaptive circuit severance, usually inflicted by hacking and neural assaults. Repairing and recovering health via Medicine and Surgery are btw. not something you’ll do instantly, so damage does matter. And that’s already pretty much the whole basic system.

If that sounded somewhat hard to grasp, then that’s not due to the system being complex, but due to the fact that the game system plays rather differently from most RPGs. Miniature play is supported, should you choose, but unlike most d20-based games, it is by no means required to get the most out of it, you can play FAITH in full theatre of the mind-mode sans any issues. All rules, including play examples etc., fit comfortably on 113 pages, with the basic core rules only taking up 25 pages. FAITH is easier to grasp if you approach it without preconceptions from other games.

Now, once you compare the total page-count with the amount of pages taken up by the rules themselves, you’ll end up with 300 pages unaccounted for. Indeed, the book presents these BEFORE the rules of the game. The vast majority of this book is devoted to the setting, and there are two different aspects that set this massive setting apart.

The first of these aspects would be the importance of “Religion” – now, I am putting this term in quotation marks, as, while the game is called FAITH, I’d argue in favor of the game actually lacking faith in the traditional sense. Faith, as a term, denotes belief in something without empirical evidence, often in spite of it. In fact, as an atheist, this aspect had me very concerned. Science-fiction often makes sense due to the lack of supernatural elements, and once you introduce too much magical aspects, it’s progressively harder to maintain your suspension of disbelief without the game becoming space opera-ish. Now, I have commented on the like before, but while I *like* space opera-style gameplay, I expect more from any game that designates itself as sci-fi; I expect an internal cohesion, that things make sense. Faith, per definition, lacks sense, lacks the empirical foundation that lies at the heart of good science-fiction. So how does FAITH handle this aspect, how does it sell you on the concepts of deities in an otherwise rational universe?

Well, I’d argue that the gods are not really gods in the way that we think about them. Instead, they should be seen as a combination of a Weltanschauung, Zeitgeist and general, value-based ideology; 5 such deities have been identified, with their true names collated from thousands of different representations across different cultures. These concepts/beings are Ergon (cooperation, empathy, teamwork, social concerns), Hexia (intuition, vision, learning, self-improvement), Kaliva (competition, action, adaptability, strength and struggle), Vexal (change, freedom, passion, movement and hope) and Ledger (opposition to all dogma and rules, the trickster/adversary that seeks to undo the work of the other gods). So, while the gods exist undoubtedly, they are basically distilled powers of philosophies, extremes of moral and rational values, and each has a vision of sorts for the universe, each represents the core principals for a plethora of different factions. Now, why do I think that there is no faith in FAITH? (Again, a good thing, in my book!) Well, because the gods are ideas manifest that exist. There’s empiric proof that they exist, and people embodying the ideals of their gods have divine powers of significant proportions. Each god has a diverse set of commandments, and since adhering to these grants powers, as soulbenders can twist reality in accordance with the doctrines of the deity.

Ultimately, there is no question that requires faith; there is no REQUIREMENT to believe in something uncertain with a lack of evidence. “Belief”, arguably, does not enter the picture at all. After all, the gods are a fact, they are ideals made manifest, and as such, are subject to scientific inquiry within the context of the setting; not pseudo-science à la creationism etc., mind you. In the universe of FAITH, philosophy and, indeed, faith itself, is as tangible a force as intelligence, education, etc. is in our world. This focus on the empirical realities also extends to the fact that there is no afterlife myth for any of the gods – irrational notions of heaven or hell have been abandoned when the gods were proven to actually exist in the tangible, material universe. This way of integrating gods into a sci-fi context did a remarkably good job at conveying not only the wonders, but also the horrors that spring forth from the philosophies represented by the deities. So yes, this is an intelligent, creative and genius way to establish general philosophical baselines that transcend the conditions of existence of vastly different species.

Speaking of which: Know how many games that take place in space, how many universes/franchises spam you with differently-colored humans? FAITH does no such thing. There are 4 races to play, with a lot of variance within the races to account for different environments and cultures. Here, the book does something genius: You see, we as human readers are presented the realities of the setting, but considering how universal translation has pretty much gotten rid of language barriers, the alien races are linguistically coded – one, for example, employs Inuit nomenclature, while another uses Chinese terminology. Considering the very dominant role of English and associated nomenclature in RPGs, this adds a linguistically based marker for alterity. There is a reason for these choices hard-coded into the setting as well.

There is another component that sets this game apart from e.g. Star Trek and similar franchises; somewhat akin to e.g. Mass Effect, humans are relative newcomers to the universe. You see, mankind manages to bomb itself back to post-apocalypse and wrecked earth. For a not clearly defined timeframe, we have basically lived on a constant downhill slope. Meanwhile, a rather nasty alien species of conquerors saw its empire fall, a former slave race rise to the status of empire, and another take to the stars. We, as a species, only enter the stage of FAITH’s universe as second-class citizens, for, as it turns out, humans may suck at adapting to space, but we’re actually physically really powerful in comparison and we make formidable soldiers. Thus, a majority of humans in FAITH are sterilized second-class citizens and feared soldiers that fight the battles for the two major competing empires, with post-apocalyptic gameplay being still very much possible in the ruins of earth.

Anyways, the second race that acts in a similar manner would be the Raag, who have marsupial-like pouches and are the only race to be physically more potent than humans. The Raag have a matriarchal system, with males being more impulse-driven and violent than females, and it should come as no surprise that they are somewhat connotated as spacefaring nomads/soldiers, with a rigid clan-structure (where adoption into a clan is a significant step) and serious differences between the clans regarding their outlook on life. The Raag serve as an example for something that the book does PHENOMENALLY well. This would be the depiction not only of biological realities of the species within, but also of the cultures that sprang forth due to their collective experiences. The way in which the races are depicted is, without engaging in hyperbole, pure genius and a triumph of fantastic prose-writing and world-building. The cultures and traditions depicted are absolutely stunning in how alien they are to the human reader, and in how believable they still remain at the same time. There is a staggering amount of detail and internal cohesion and logical interconnectedness that renders all of the different cultures presented more alive than 99.99% of alien cultures depicted in science-fiction media, regardless of whether in roleplaying context or beyond that; if more sci-fi novels had this compelling and engrossing prose, I’d be reading more in the genre.

The interconnectedness of lore also extends, unsurprisingly, to the influence of the deities, which tie in with churches, factions, groups, etc., so yes, the world-building is absolutely mind-blowing and compelling – to the point where I had a hard time putting the book down.

This is, at least for me, even more true regarding the two massive empires, the Iz’kal and the Corvo. The Corvo are the guys that “found” humans, and their vast empire, the Corvosphere, represents pretty much the default made of play assumed by FAITH, with the vast Dyson Ring (yes, gravity works properly!) of Tiantang being probably the default starting area for most groups. Now, the Corvo are somewhat insectoid, but remain actually kinda sympathetic…in a, for humans, utterly horrifying manner. You see, Corvo psychology has basically taken Keansian economic ideology and upped it. The Corvo have developed a truly uncompromising hyper-capitalist meritocracy that may be well read as a scathing satire on Western, first-world culture and Chinese economies, but what would be just a satire is further enhanced by the vast differences in the way that Corvo psychology works. Sans the human need to cling to ideals and certain societal structures, the rampant, one would say virulent, growth of the Corvo made them superbly adaptable and cutting-edge; there is a sense of backstabbing and uncompromising harshness ingrained in them, but logically, a society this advanced would have issues, right? Automation, after all, already is problematic for us, much less an even more advanced culture! The Corvo, with a wise taboo on AI, are primitive in one way that makes their culture work: They have developed a direct-to-brain-interface, and a vast amount of the poorer populace must lease out the processing power of their minds for hours and days on end, powering the complex calculations required by the advanced society. This is a stringent and poignant way to depict the fact that we, ultimately, sell the time of our lives in every form of work, job, etc. – it’s the one finite resource, and being required to cease being conscious, to lose sovereignty over your mind and body for the time, can be a thoroughly twisted concept from a human perspective. This, combined with the vast Corvo megacorps that de facto rule the race, means that the Corvosphere can easily provide all the Cyberpunk and Transhumanist context you might require. All the themes of exploitation of the individual, all the struggles versus corporate greed and intrigue – all this is firmly at home in an empire that, ultimately, is familiar to human readers, yet absolutely, distinctly radical and uncompromising. Alien. Uncanny. I love it.

After the phenomenal prose depicting the Corvo empire, of how wondrous and at the same time, horrifying, it turned out to be, I couldn’t fathom how the empire of the Iz’kal could hold a candle to it. Well, if you thought the Corvo are strange, you’ll be blown away by the Iz’kal. This race ‘s most defining characteristic is undoubtedly them being empaths; their physiology allows them to commune with each other, and their society is build on their premise. It’s also bereft of currency. Yes, you read right. Neither is there trade per se. In a lesser book, in the hands of lesser writers, the Iz’kal would have become a utopian counterproposal to the Corvo, but they, ultimately, are just as frightening. Birth rates are controlled, and your aptitude is judged by the state, which then proceeds to assign careers to you. If you need a piano, you’ll get one, but if you don’t use it, it’ll be withdrawn and assigned to another being. In short, the Iz’kal society is one that is characterized by submission of any form of personal agency to the collective will of the state and society. The in-character prose, pieces of which are interspersed throughout the whole book, drives that home just as well, as the fall of a Corvo paragon did in the previous chapter: The Iz’kal are NOT humans with a thin alien-coating; they are radically different in their psychology and the way in which their society is depicted made me truly SHUDDER. As someone who generally did not identify with the status quo, with the dominant opinions and cultural streams from a young age, I was truly horrified by this seemingly utopian, willful loss of individual agency, assumed by a whole species.

Think about it. You like singing. You’re good at it. The state determines that, genetically, you’re better suited to become an engineer, a task that brings you no joy. You’ll be an engineer, no discussion. In a way, we have a Kantian utopia that goes to the logical conclusion, that loses what we consider a very basic right. A *human* right. The Iz’kal are not human, and it becomes ever more apparent as you read, as you learn that the compromised self-determination even extends to the integrity of their own DNA, with genetic adaption being another aspect that the state exerts influence over. Those that lose the empathic/telepathic organ or have it damaged, become something…else. Indeed, the society of the Iz’kal is predicated on this physiological peculiarity, and as such, is much less welcoming than that of the Corvo.  Now, there are movements, there is diversity here – but it is one that is rooted in a mindset that is utterly different from anything you usually get to see. In a way, this chapter can be read as just as scathing a satire as the chapter on the Corvo, but once more, reducing the Iz’kal to that would do a disservice to the superb writing.

While I have depicted both of these empires and cultures as somewhat horrifying, they, at the same time, are beautiful in a way; in gleefully vapid, prejudice-free consumerism that accepts beyond social status, race, etc.; in a harmony that seems utterly impossible to achieve. I knew after finishing reading about these 4 races, that I’d fail the book. Indeed, I rewrote this whole section more than once, and every time, I ended up disliking what I wrote; every time, I felt like I failed to encapsulate the vast complexity, the logical connections, that make these cultures and races feel so alive. As such, please take my word for it: What I wrote here barely scratches the surface of the races and their cultures, as each chapter introduces a vast array of factions and organizations, as well as a ton of adventure hooks and sample NPCs, which include a ton of movers and shakers. If you’re not inspired to run whole campaigns after each chapter, I don’t know what will do the trick. The writing here is frankly one of the best I have ever had the pleasure to read in a RPG-book.

So, is everything amazing regarding the world-building? Well…no. There is one aspect that feels, at least to me, like a foreign body in an otherwise inspired setting. That would be the Ravagers. These fellows are basically the xenomorphs/Tyranids/boogiemen that made Iz’kal and Corvo enter a truce of sorts. The Ravagers are a species that assimilate biomatter, reproduce it and basically can duplicate anything they absorbed. This allows for doppelgängers, we have vast, planet-sized queens, collective intelligence – it’s basically the swarm. Now, the prose in the chapter, in the form of scientific logs, feels aptly apocalyptic and horrifying, and the choice in favor of black backgrounds here emphasizes the level of threat these seek to evoke, but as the big, bad race, the Ravagers lack the same super-inspiring complexity of ideologies and cultures that the playable races offered, and their angle, while somewhat distinct from the aforementioned frame-of-reference aliens from various franchises, never reaches the same level of pure creativity of the playable races. In short, they are just good/very good, in a massive section that provides pure, intellectually-exhilarating excellence.

Conclusion:
Formatting is very good, while editing, as mentioned before, is slightly inconsistent and represents the one formally not perfect aspect of the book. The layout and particularly, the artworks employed throughout are amazing. The artwork is particularly impressive and the interior artwork is actually even better than the cover artwork! The massive hardcover employs thick, glossy, high-quality paper and the production value of the massive book are impressive.

Okay, so I’m not sure regarding who did what in this book, so I’ll list the authors in their noted roles: As producers, we have Jon Egia and Helio de Grado listed; game designers would be Carlos Gómez Quintana, Mauricio Gómez Alonso and Helio de Grado, while writer credits go to J. C. Alvarez and Carlos Gómez “Quntana” (I assume a missing “I” here), with E.G. Quinzel as a guest-writer.

Now, as far as game design is concerned, I felt like the sequence of the rules-presentation could have been slightly streamlined; since playing FAITH is pretty different from your regular RPG, reading the rules required some close attention on my part. That being said, if you do not have a ton of experience with RPGs, that aspect will actually be easier. The system puts control firmly where in belongs, into the hands of the GM. Rules-wise, this s an interesting change of pace that is easy to grasp and master once you’ve managed to understand the basic premises. So yes, FAITH is a good game.

That being said, I firmly believe that, even if you have no interest WHATSOEVER in the system FAITH uses, in the game aspect of this book, even then, you will probably love this tome.

I cannot overstate how excellent the world-building is. I cannot overstate how logical, how clever, how intellectually-stimulating this book is. This book provided the most compelling example of world-building I have read in a long, long time. In fact, all of the different societies are so compelling that you really want to play in these environments. The attention to detail given to the Corvo and Iz’kal makes them and their cultures feel alien, and freed of the constraints of hegemonic storytelling traditions. This really manages to feel like you’re a human reading, through a universal translation about societies and people that are utterly different from anything you usually experience in either real life, or fictional media. There is an attention to detail, to narrative options, that, from the take on the gods, to the societies and factions, suffused all levels, from the global to the personal. This is distinctly a science-fiction book; it is intelligent and tackles the big questions of morality, identity, nurture vs. nature, consciousness, etc. - you name it, FAITH provides. Heck, you can alternate between more cyberpunkish sessions, exploration of the wormhole-labyrinth/final frontier, operations vs. the ravagers, post-apocalyptic survival, diplomacy, infiltration…the game engine is robust, but the campaign setting, the utterly GLORIOUS setting, is what makes you stay. Heck, even if you prefer another game-system, it is my fervent belief that you’ll find a huge treasure trove of pure, amazing excellence in this tome. While not as refined as I’d like it to be regarding the copy editing and sequence of rules-presentation, this book hence still constitutes a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. The game represents a great change of pace, and the world- and culture-building is inspired on a nigh-unprecedented level. This book is definitely worth 5 stars + seal of approval, and is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017.

You can get this great setting/game here on OBS!

Want print + cards? You can find the bundle here!

Endzeitgeist out.