Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of requests for reviews of products and supplements. Doing reviews takes a decent bit of time, so we’ve decided to give you a small taste of what some of the things coming across our gnome sized desks are like in a Mini-review Monday. For the first installment, here are our takes on two very different products that came our way.
Claustrophobia! was sent to us by Rodney Sloan of Rising Phoenix games. It looked interesting and it featured Gnomes… of course I was intrigued. Starting in on checking out the 28 page PDF we were sent, I immediately came across this description on the front page:
“Welcome to Claustrophobia!, the game about crazy gnome explorers on board the doomed nuclear subterrine (a gnomish vessel made from surplus garden supplies) , the sentient vessel HMS Keeton.
When standing around in the garden becomes too much, garden gnomes turn to a life of adventuring or crime, the latter being the preferred, less hazardous change of occupation.
For those upstanding, daring gnomes, there is but one choice, take up their shovel, wheel barrow or fishing rod, and tackle the greatest quest any gnome can undertake: a journey to the center of the Earth.”
Okay, color me intrigued. Gnomes and snarky, punny humour. This is pretty much up our alley. So what is the game actually like?
Fairly light on rules, the game uses multiple d6’s (15 per player is recommended, yowza!) and 3 stats (spheres) called Mental, Physical, and Social. When you need to determine success, you roll d6’s from your dice pool and a 4, 5, or 6 is a success. You are aiming for a number of successes. At times opposed rolls are required where more successes wins. The majority of mechanical work seems to come from Challenges, which are large obstacles or events that require multiple attempts to take down. Gnomes can share dice from their pools with each other and your sentient vessel can be cannibalized for parts to add dice. Who needs a nuclear reactor built out of disused lawn equipment anyways? Gear adds minor benefits to a single die roll. Experience at the end of a session is handed out in the form of “awards” that people can achieve for specific categories like having the most interesting death scene or giving the most interesting name to something in the game.
Combat is slightly more complicated than regular challenges, but merely adds in health dice damage and a sort of initiative system. The same rules cover physical combat as social or mental combat, and an interesting rule has a Gnome character’s name adding in some benefit. Kilty McBeardface may gain a benefit to running because they can spread their legs farther while McClain the Brain Drain might gain an advantage in mental combats, depending on how much the player can sell it to the other players.
“A Special Note on Hats
Hats are a sensitive issue for gnomes, and the topic is not often discussed, especially not in public or in printed material such as this. It is, however, generally considered that a gnome’s hat is as much a part of their bodies as their hands and feet. I think it’s best to leave it at that.”
The setting is comprised of the Human world and the world beneath, where Gnomes do their adventuring. The deeper you go from the Surface, through the Crust, the Upper Mantle, the Lower Mantle, and the Core (inner and outer), the more dangerous it gets to travel in your sentient ship. “More manure for the nuclear reactor!” The Doom Master or Doom Mistress controls the action and makes up the challenges, pulling from a grimoire of Cinder Worms, Drats, “Horrors”, Pink Flamingos, and the unknown things that live in flower pots…
The quality of the art and layout is good, with a very stark but appealing black and white style. The writing is simple and evocative, setting up a simple narrative concept for the world and rules that don’t get in the way of roleplaying out funny moments. It’s definitely the sort of game that would be good for a quick aside of funny, gnome-centric roleplaying and glorious deaths. I’m a fan of quick games like this and this is evocative and interesting, without over-developing the concept. Developed as part of a 24 hour RPG writing challenge, it’s a nice fit for a quick game of funny challenges. Claustrophobia! is available from DriveThruRpg for $6.99.
“You dreamed this. This was your life before, a life you barely remember, forty-eight or fifty cycles through life and birth and death and life and birth; you sleep sometimes, and you imagine the Sky-Chariots, the spires, the Golden Gates, the dream of Atlantis.”
A review copy of Chariot was provided to us by Howard “Wood” Ingham and has a warning about the use of nudity and mature themes. The themes are fairly light and nudity is not of the chainmail bikini sort, merely from these ancient cultures having different dress styles.
Chariot is a tabletop RPG set in a fictional pre-history time of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu. Drawing heavily from occult books written in the Victorian time of Atlantis, the setting is definitely not a traditional fantasy one, and that is part of its appeal. The continents are about to be sunken by a catyclysm of epic proportions. Your character is one of the fated who has dreamed of their death occurring during the event. That gives them a power to effect some positive change and save others, though their fate is sealed. In the author’s own words, the Atlantis here is not the pulp fiction or pop culture Atlantis, but:
“I’m talking about the dream Atlantis of Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner, William Scott-Elliot and Charles Leadbeater. The Hyperborean age of the Lhas. The Lost Lemuria. I’m talking about a world invented by and for psychics. Mystics. Dreamers.”
The author recounts coming back to the books that inspired him as a child and looking at them through an adult lens — realizing that they were written with agendas and an unfortunate undercurrent of Victorian racism and imperialism. He wanted to revisit this idea, but in a better way.
“So I made a game where the point is altruism. Seriously, your character is a demigod, doomed, yes, but unable to be beaten. There’s no point in self-actualisation; your character is already about as far as you can go on that road. No, the struggle, and the point, is in making a difference in a larger sense. It lies in freeing the slaves, standing as an accusation against the horrendous human sin we call “empire” and getting people off the land when it sinks, when the bombs fall and the meteorites hit and the land breaks in two. You fight a harder battle.”
Chariot bills itself as much like conventional role-playing games in many ways, using a narrator and players. It’s resolution mechanic is what makes it unique in that there are no dice, but instead Tarot cards. Other unique factors of the mechanical setup are that characters cannot die in play, they each have a vision of their deaths in the cataclysm to come and until then they are invincible. Their fates are sealed, but in the time between they plan to make as much difference as they can.
While claiming a mantle of being a fairly convention RPG, one way that Chariot is unique is in its resolution mechanic. Rather than any dice usage, players use Tarot cards wagered and played from a hand to determine the outcome of Conflicts (larger scene issues) and Obstacles (smaller individual issues that would likely be a single die roll). The resolution mechanic has the Narrator setting the scene and challenges, then dealing six cards to every player.
The Narrator gets a hand based on what adversaries or NPCs are present at the scene. To defeat an Obstacle, the Narrator chooses the suit based on what challenge is in play and the players use their attributes and the cards in their hand of that suit to attempt to gain a 9 and overcome. You can overcome on lower than a 9, but you must spend points from a pool of points on your character sheet to do so.
“So, for example, you’ve had a long day and you need to keep watch all night, the Narrator may ask you to add Pentacles + Will. If you’re making a beautifully crafted thing, Cups + Hands. If you’re knocking someone out, Wands + Body. If you’re decoding an ancient diary, Swords + Will. If you’re trying to fix the engine of a downed Sky-Chariot, Cups + Machines. And so on.”
Reading it, the mechanic was a bit hard to grok at first, but after getting how it worked, I can see that it would be easier to understand in play. Reading through the example was where it started to gel together for me. It is definitely more complicated than roll d# and add a modifier, but it does evoke a feeling of unique narrative. Playing out and choosing what resources from your hand of Tarot cards you are applying to individual Obstacles and greater Conflicts is more strategic and leads to consideration of the story overall rather than feeling like things are left to chance.
Character creation is done by choosing a culture (the various sub-classes of humans who existed at the time and hold different statuses), a social station (decides what is acceptable for your character within the Atlantean society), a Fate (such as Trickster, Healer, Wayfarer, etc. all of which are based off of Tarot Cards) which is something your character is the best at, dividing a pool of points that will go into various Suits that you can use to affect card plays, and then relationships with NPCs that you can use narratively.
Magic In The Game
Some characters are capable of casting magic, but magic has a few rules based in a metaphysical setup and actual boundaries of phsyics. There are things you cannot do with magic, such as raising the dead, controlling minds, teleporting, or splitting the body or soul. Putting together the various magical effects is somewhat like putting together ingredients in a witches cauldron, picking from each suit of cards based on their meanings and that causing the effects. Some forumlae are given, but players can put together their own combinations. The suits are once again called, but they have different in-world connections to different essences of magic such as Apas, essence of Water and Life (Cups) that need to be evoked for certain effects. Here are some sample formulae:
Make several people fly
Harnessing of Vayu, big
(Wands 1, Swords 2)
Make enough rain to end a drought
Precipitation of Apas,creating, lasting, very big
(Pentacles 2, Cups 4)
Know who last held a murder weapon
Clairvoyance of Prithivi
(Swords 1, Pentacles 1)
Writing and Setting
The story that is being played is the one leading up to the catastrophe, and more and more signs of the coming end occur throughout the game. There is a helpful list that has multiple signs and events that can occur as the end draws nigh as you play through sessions. The setting and concepts are detailed well and the writing is evocative, focusing on the social connections and interactions between the different classes of society. The struggles between class structures and the different people is showcased well, with a prime conflict being slavery and consent. Each of the Four Peoples have a unique and distinct culture without dipping into fantasy tropes or surface differences to define the characters. The setting is well thought out and heartily detailed. Aside from this being a game, it is a great backstory and setting that feels fresh and ancient at the same time.
The writing is good, but dense. It is quite a read, even at only 170 pages. Chariot is the sort of book you can sit down with and get lost in, drawing you into its depths with a curiosity for just a bit more. The production values could definitely be improved, but they speak to the labor of love that the book is and the hardcover (seen but not owned) shows them off better than the PDF. The book is packed with art, and there is definite improvement. The world is built out and detailed, and there is nothing here quite like what you find in standard fantasy games. A bibliography of further reading and research is included at the end, as well as more unpacking of what the game is and how some of the source material was problematic.
The one place that Chariot lacks as much polish is in the production values. The art is a simple watercolor style, which can look unimpressive when compared to the standards of high budget roleplaying games currently out. Art is always the most expensive part of a game, and what Chariot lacks in a large art budget, it makes up for with a simple and pure style that calls back nostalgically to the watercolor illustrations that were in books I read as a child in the late 70s and early 80s. The best of the art had a certain feeling to it that spoke to a younger me pawing through those older books and being captivated by these pieces that hinted at something just beyond the frame.
There are some 3D models in the pages, and some of the art is of higher quality than others. You definitely shouldn’t be put off by the fact that the art in the book was not produced at the same level that WOTC can afford. The more I looked at the art, the more it felt unique, despite its lack of polish. When you consider that the art was done by the author, and is better than what I could do myself, it feels more impressive. I had a chance to see a physical copy of the book at Origins 2016, and the production values are much better when viewed on the page than on the screen. Something about the physical copy gives the art more depth than the digitally painted pieces I’m used to viewing through a monitor. The physical book (in hardcover) had a beautiful textured feel to it as well.
This is definitely a game for thinking people, it’s not light, but that is part of its charm. It takes a little work to dig into it, but the effort is rewarded. The author speaks in a personal style, and the concepts presented here are unique and succint, offering up a certain play style and delivering it well. This is the sort of book that you won’t digest in a quick read, but you will likely cogitate and ponder as you pick it up again and again over the course of a few nights. If you are looking for something that is different than the standard play experience of a crunchy game, but not the light fare of a one-shot, Chariot is a game well worth considering. Chariot is at DriveThruRPG at $12.00 for the PDF and starts at $23 for the softcover with higher quality versions available.