Today I have two Kickstarters and some related and unrelated products to tell readers about, all well worth your hard-won cash.
ERA: The Consortium
The first of the products I’m featuring is “The Secret War”, which is part of The Consortium setting for the RPG engine, ERA. Shades of Vengeance were kind enough to send me a whole heap of review materials, and I have to say they were impressive.
The Core Book
The place to start is with a quick overview of the Core Setting Book. This is 302 pages of material and available from the Shades of Vengeance website, but don’t rush off to buy it just yet! The paperback is US$45 (£30), the hardcover is US$60 (£40), and the PDF is a mere $20 (£13). Having looked through the PDF extensively, I have to say that I would definitely list the hardcover as my first preference and the paperback as my second, it would be well worth the extra expense for the absolutely gorgeous artwork and ability to hop quickly from one page to another. “Random Access, not Sequential Access,” as one of my programmer friends used to say!
So, what’s in it?
Fully 1/3 of the book – and a bit more – relates the history of The Consortium. The size is necessary because the Consortium Setting covers 500 years of future history, and a game can be set at any point in that history.
As this is the heart of the setting, and central to the new product, I looked closely at it. Most of it is written from the perspective of one or more participants in events, and that is both its blessing and its curse:
Blessing because it gives the background an immediacy and flavor that is very useful for the GM planning to use the setting, and Curse in that you have to continuously get used to a new protagonist and new perspective. I was forever asking, “okay, who’s telling this part of the story?”
This wasn’t helped by the fact that the whole story is one continuous stream, delineated only by the timeline excerpts. I would have found it far more useful if it had been broken into period subsections with a general introduction to each era. Heck, even starting each entry with the name of the speaker in bold followed by a colon would have made it more accessible.
Once you knew it forwards and backwards, that might not have been necessary, but until you did, there are a lot of pages to flip through trying to find what you are looking for. This would be less burdensome in a physical copy, but it’s a pain in the Digital version.
The Content is excellent, and should appeal to anyone into Sci-Fi, Exploration, Politics, or Society. In particular, fans of Star Wars, Stargate SG-1, and Babylon-5 will find something of interest.
“Era: The Consortium is the story of a Colony Ship launched from Earth and the habitable world it discovers, Taranis. The game follows the inhabitants of Taranis as they create a society, encounter alien races and explore the space nearby.”
There are one or two gaps in the logic – only one of seven major corporations and an unknown number of smaller ones kept backups of their data? Not credible – but (perhaps because of the way my mind works) each of these immediately presented plotline opportunities to explain the seeming discrepancy in logic.
The setting also includes the basic rules for running a campaign. No purchase of an additional “core rulebook” required. As I looked through the other review materials provided, I found that this was a routine practice for Shades Of Vengeance, and one that gets a big tick in my book, as it means that the game system is simple enough to be just one section in a book, and yet sophisticated enough to be used in a great many different ways. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself.
One of the features that I definitely liked was the list of campaigns suggested. There were six of these, but I found that this was understating the gaming opportunities massively.
Each campaign is divided into a number of “sessions” but in reality you could use each of these as a separate campaign, or as phases in a much larger campaign. For example, from the “Big Seven” campaign, Session 2: The piratical actions of the citizens of the outer colonies have become too extensive to be ignored – they are raiding many ships, from Hardcastle Haulage to private transport vessels. The pirates have to be tracked down and stopped. This is described as a single session; but I could easily get four or five adventures out that alone, each lasting three-to-five game sessions. Given that this is just one of six parts to this “campaign”, even assuming that the others are not as rich in potential plot, it’s easy to suggest that this “campaign” is not six sessions worth of material, it’s easy to call this 54 game sessions, or a full year of weekly play.
Even better, each of these cross-indexes back to the relevant parts of the history.
And that’s all without dropping in additional plotlines of the GM’s own devising. The history is rich and complex, and could be easily used to provide a whole heap more single-shot adventures and campaigns.
The races and gadgets/equipment sections are both invaluable for anyone running a sci-fi or superhero campaign, even separating them out from the rest of the background. The alien races are very well realized and different from each other.
The Production Values
The production values are first-rate. Lately, there have been a succession of games raising the bar in this area – and I love to recommend them! – and this fits right into that category.
I did spot the occasional typo – mostly of the grammatical nature, where something has been rephrased – but I know from personal experience that in any work of this size, finding all of those is virtually impossible. Nothing caused more than a momentary confusion.
I also love the way the credits have been used to generate the flavor of the book from the outset. A minor touch, but it adds considerably to the immersion value.
I want to especially call out the index, which is amongst the best that I’ve ever seen in a commercial RPG product. These are notorious, as a general rule, for poor indexing (because it takes as long to do the index as it does to do the rest of the product, and that’s all time that can more profitably be spent working on another product). Kudos, kudos, kudos to the producers!
The Secret War
Which brings me to the latest offering in the product line, The Secret War. “…loads of new options for characters, implants, weapons & missions!”
“The known history of the Consortium takes a more sinister turn when you look back and realize that it has been manipulated for all of its existence by elite operatives, ‘Shades’,>/em> that work for [The] Hayden Bank. They have strengthened the grip of the most politically powerful and financially wealthy company in their society through murder, blackmail and theft. Supported by Hayden Bank’s huge infrastructure, they have had access to technology and weapons that are only dreamed of by other factions.”
The Resistance responds, creating a corps of ‘Phantoms’, specially trained to fight Shades. These operatives track and prevent Shades from completing their missions, providing new hope to the Resistance.
In other words, what we have here is James Bond / Mission Impossible / Super-spies in a futuristic Sci-Fi / Cyberpunk / Action-Adventure setting. Then throw in time travel and a race to prevent the End Of The World… That’s a recipe that is very hard to resist!
I’m not the only person to have found that to be the case. Shades of Vengeance are currently running a kickstarter (5 days to go) to earn funding for the printing of this new supplement, and so far they are about 200% funded with backing from 48 perspicacious fans.
There’s a lot to like about the way they have gone about this fundraising campaign. I like the planned spending breakdown, for example: 10% goes to the writers, 50% goes on printing copies of the new supplement, Kickstarter get their 5%, and the balance will be invested in producing the next Consortium expansion.
This is significant because it means that development of this product is mostly complete already, and the team at Shades of Vengeance are busy planning for the future.
Here’s another lovely little touch: Each of reward comes with/on a Shades Of Vengeance -branded 4Gb flash drive that is going to be filled with little extras – art, notes, etc – and the author of the supplement is trying to ensure that the content mix of each is unique. Succeed or fail, that’s awesome!
The best news yet: The Core Book (reviewed above) come with the game supplement. With corrections and errata that may well have fixed some or all of those little glitches that I mentioned earlier! But, if you already have it, you can opt for a cheaper commitment and just get the expansion.
Now, every time I’ve seen something similar, it’s been the digital version that’s usually offered. Not this time – we’re talking about the physical Core Book, either Paperback or Hardcover. Drool, drool, drool. In fact, there are no less than 26 different backer levels, and a clear and easy-to-use chart to help you decide which one is right for you.
As I’ve said before, I love Kickstarters that have already met their funding goals and are reaching for the stars, because you have a much better chance of getting what you’re investing in. But time is short – so reach for those credit cards or paypal accounts and check out “The Secret War” kickstarter page Right Now! (Link opens in a new window – don’t worry, I’ll wait here for you!)
Other ERA products
Still not convinced? or interested in why this can be even better value for money than you already thought it was?
There are a whole bunch of other game products in different genres from Shades of Vengeance that all use the same core mechanics. Not similar mechanics, as was the case with the d20 line, and not evolutions of a core mechanic, as is the case with the Hero System and it’s variants like Pulp Hero, Fantasy Hero, and Star Hero. Exactly the same core mechanics, plus a modular plug-in.
Those modular plug-ins (they aren’t described as such, but that’s what they are) provide cross-compatibility across the entire product line. So let’s take a quick look at what’s available:
Lyres is a fantasy RPG. Sort of. You play “Lyres” (read “Liars”) who tell tall tales (that you actually roleplay), telling “stories of adventures you never had” for the entertainment (and coins) of tavern patrons – but boasting of the wrong thing can have “real world” consequences for you, should the wrong person overhear. So there are multiple levels of game participation occurring simultaneously, producing a richer “tapestry” than many RPGs can achieve.
But there are creatures in the bestiary that would need little conversion/adjustment to find a place on the alien worlds of The Consortium, just as the aliens would need only a little tweaking (to appropriate technological standards) to find a place in your Lyres game setting.
Heck, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you adapting Lyres to function as a “campfire chat” game or equivalent social practice within your Consortium game, just as a routine change-of-pace and campaign-within-a-campaign.
The product I was offered for review is the Deluxe Digital Version [US$15 (£10)], but it also comes in deluxe paperback [US$28 (£18)] or Hardcover [US$37 (£25)] from the Shades Of Vengeance online store [NB: scroll up to get to the Consortium section or vice-versa if you already have the page opened]. Some of the art is more primitive in style than the glossy fantastic-realism of the Consortium setting, but that’s not inappropriate given that these are supposed to be imaginary creatures!
But that’s not the only Fantasy-oriented offering coming from Shades of Vengeance.
Era: Silence (in development)
Era: Silence is a game in development, described as “A Fantasy RPG about earning your name as a warrior by completing the challenges on the Isle of Silence!” Why do I have the impression that many prospective challengers will stop off at the Taverns and joust wits with the Lyers en route? or that creatures from one might represent the “reality” of the Lyers? There are so many ways these two could synergise! Bookmark the page to keep abreast of developments on this game.
ERA: Survival (in development)
Era: Survival is all about “The last of Humanity struggle for survival in a dangerous world” – in fact, a post-apocalyptic world, from the look of it. Again, Bookmark the page I’ve linked to if you want to keep track of this product.
The Consortium setting makes a big deal about the fact that all records of the past were lost when the generation ship crash-landed at the beginning of their history, leaving Earth as a half-mythical unknown. They don’t know why the ship left Earth, or if they are the only one. It wouldn’t take too much effort to unite the two settings – perhaps the effort of constructing the ships bankrupted society, leading to the ultimate breakdown in law and order? Or maybe there was a cataclysm but some were spared? Or perhaps it was not so easy, and the last of humanity aren’t just struggling to survive, but to launch a golden hope for a new home for humanity on another world?
The possibilities are endless.
ERA: The Empowered (in development)
Era: The Empowered is a superheroic offering. ERA supplied me with a copy of the rulebook primer as it currently stands – I think it’s in its final form, but I’m not sure*. This is essentially the “core rules” for the superheroic variation. But with the science of the Consortium, I’m quite certain that paranormal abilities are within their capabilities, and, of course, Shades and Phantoms (not to mention the aliens) could fit very easily into an Empowered game setting. Once more, I have provided a link to bookmark for news.
* I hope not, as some of the character generation explanations are not as clear as they are in the other supplements, and there’s no real example of the “power trees”. But “Final Rev2” appears in the internal title of the PDF, so I suspect those, like the technologies of the Consortium, will have to wait for a full Core Rulebook.
Synergies and Common Patterns
These products (at least, all the ones I saw) all share a unified core system, as explained earlier, and a fundamentally similar layout and set of production values, each enhanced or tweaked stylistically to fit the target genre, and yet clearly part of the same product “family”.
Each can synergize and supplement the others in various ways, and the more of them that you invest in, the more bang you get for each buck (or pound). And that makes each of them an even more attractive proposition.
Super-spies and Super-heroics are a natural match, provided that power levels are not too discontinuous – and the commonality of the game system means that “The Secret War” and “The Empowered”, in particular, are a natural match.
The Final Analysis
“Era: Consortium – The Secret War” ultimately can’t rely on synergies to be value for money. Fortunately, as the success of the Kickstarter shows, it is more than capable of standing on its own merits.
With backer levels that actually yield product starting as low as $6, can you not afford to take a look? Here, once again is the link to the kickstarter page.
The second product that I have for your consideration is “Tavern Tales” by Dabney Bailey. This is a very interesting product for many reasons, not least of which is the flexibility of character creation. A talking dog is no stretch at all, as the comments from playtesters show, so there really are no constraints on your imagination.
Tavern Tales was released into an open beta about two years ago. Since then, Dabney has been working closely with the community to polish, improve, and expand the game.
One of the playtesters, Wesley, says “…I can say with absolute certainty that this game is unlike any other; it offers you unrivaled creative license to play what you have always wanted to play. It strips away the unnecessary mechanics that muck up systems while emphasizing cinematics and creativity at the same time, allowing you to really get into your character, sit back, and play the game.”
From the Tavern Tales website: The core mechanic in Tavern Tales is called a “Tale,” which highlights the game’s emphasis on storytelling. Outside of the dice rolling mechanic, Tavern Tales uses virtually no numbers whatsoever. The game focuses on cinematic, exciting effects. Your power comes from your ability to affect the story, rather than from numeric bonuses like “+1 damage.”
The Kickstarter further describes the game system: “Rather than using the classic ‘race+class’ combo of other RPGs, Tavern Tales give you access to a huge list of themes like Undeath, Dragon, and Thievery. Each theme has traits, which you can purchase for your character. For example, Undeath traits let you do things like come back to life after you die, or drain a creature’s soul. This no-limits freedom gives you the power to build the character you’ve always wanted to play. Here’s a very small sampling of characters you can build at character creation:
- Any classical archetype like mages, rogues, barbarians, paladins, etc.
- A flying, fire-breathing dragon.
- A druidic pirate who sails a living treant-ship.
- A blacksmith who wears steam-powered golem armor.
- An intelligent psionic dog who communicates telepathically.
- An undead lich who can’t be killed unless your phylactery is destroyed.
Which all sounds very promising, doesn’t it?
The Core Mechanic
So let’s take a look at that Core Mechanic. When you want to do something, you roll 3d20. In most cases, you take the middle result, ignoring the highest and lowest; some circumstances mandate using one of the highest or lowest result.
That’s a very interesting concept, mathematically. The lower your lowest roll, the more scope there is for your highest roll to be close to the mathematical average result; as a result, the middle roll is almost certain to be somewhere in the middle, average range. It’s as though there were a pressure from both sides pushing toward a moderate result, neither spectacularly high nor low; but without ever quite being able to completely eliminate the possibility of an extreme result.
A full analysis is way beyond the scope of what time will permit. I did a few sample rolls and got middle results of 6, 8, 4, 12, 4, 17, 14, 17, 14, 9, 11, 17, and 9 – which averages out to 15.2, but is hardly a big enough sample to give really valid results. What is does show is that extreme results become less likely, while average results remain virtually unchanged in absolute terms – which, in effect, makes them more likely, in relative terms.
In ten rolls, there should have been at least one result higher than 17 or lower than 4 – but these were “censored out” by the die roll mechanism, because in order for a ‘3’ to be the middle result, for example, it requires another of the d20s to have rolled a three or lower – and that only happens 15% of the time. The combination will only happen three four-hundredths of a time – and that’s ignoring the need for the third die to be four or more (which will almost always happen).
Free Playtest PDF
Both the website and the Kickstarter page are unique in offering as a download a free rough draft of the rules. You may then ask, why back the Kickstarter? The page itself answers the question: “The final product will be substantially more polished, and will include much more content.”
I’ve checked and both sources link to the same file. This is the closest thing to a “test drive” that I’ve ever seen offered by a fundraising campaign.
A quick skim through the kickstarter makes it clear that there is an active and enthusiastic gaming community behind this project. There is a forum on Reddit which is clearly busy. Threads include “Questions regarding Barrier”, “Questions about minions 1.01”, and other rules clarifications that will undoubtedly feed into the final product. The game’s creator is, as you would expect, one of the most active users of the Forum, and the fundraising campaign clearly invites participation by both backers and tentative backers.
Interestingly, the only link to the forum on the website is an unassuming reddit icon alongside the other social media buttons – tweet, like on facebook, etc. So this is close to being a “hidden extra” (whether it was meant that way or not).
With nothing more than the plain-text “rough draft” of the rules to go on, it’s hard to assess the production values.
There are two indicators, though, and those are pretty conclusive in my book.
The first is the website itself, which is straightforward but very slick in appearance. The links at the top of the page simply take you to different anchor points on the main page.
The second is something shared by both the website and the kickstarter page: what art has been produced so far is absolutely gorgeous, as you can see from the limited selection reproduced.
In fact, don’t rely on the limited-resolution shrunken-in-size renditions to make up your mind: go take a look at the site and the kickstarter page!
To do that, of course, you will need a link, so here it is.
In terms of value for money, I have to say that the price per page is higher than that being charged by Shades Of Vengeance, and that might mislead some readers into making an unfair comparison. This is the first Kickstarter for this product, whereas the Era: Consortium supplement is an established and growing line. In effect, backers of “The Secret War” are the beneficiaries of past investment by previous backers of the game system. As a result, volume discounts on the production costs would be far easier to negotiate for Shades Of Vengeance.
So far, the fundraising effort has raised promises of over $8000 – which may be only half of the funding target, but is roughly eight times the commitment so far to “The Secret War”. That tells me two things: comparing these two campaigns is like comparing grapes with grapefruit: they may both be fruits, but that’s where the comparisons end!
You do have a little more time to make up your mind about Tavern Tales – as of this writing, 16 days, 11 hours, 40 minutes, and 26 seconds – so go check it out.
A further bonus
In their own ways, both Tavern Tales and Shades Of Vengeance reinvest in the gaming community. Tavern Tales, as the much smaller startup, does so on a smaller scale, through the forum and the commitment that it carries to improving, and expanding on, their product. This gives you direct access to experts in the game and the game author on an ongoing basis. Think about that for a moment (and if anyone spams them because of it, I’ll be really ticked off).
Shades Of Vengeance, on the other hand, help others realize their own creative endeavors, employing their experience and obvious success at fundraising to produce things like comics and independent games.
When I first started outlining this article, I was struggling to find a unifying thread that would tie it all together. In retrospect, that connection seems obvious:
Both are products by gamers for gamers.
And that brings me neatly to product #3…
Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound by F. Wesley Schneider
I mentioned this product the last time I did one of these fundraiser roundups, last November. At that point in time, it was not yet published, and simply sounded promising.
This is the first novel by one of the co-creators of Pathfinder. Paizo are another of those game companies that “give back” to the game community, and this is a definite product by one gamer for others!
Well, my review copy arrived late last week…
The book is physically larger than I was expecting, and the gloss on the cover gave the whole thing a very comfortable solidity. The font is also slightly larger than is common on many modern books, which made it very comfortable to read.
The first page is a frontispiece excerpt from within the book and it’s an excellent launchpad, imparting flavor and contextual space before you even read the first word of the ‘real’ novel. This might be a design consideration from the Publishers, Tor Books, and it’s a technique that I have seen misused horribly in the past – usually by a poor choice of excerpt (I have even seen a publisher give away the plot twist!) – but in this case, it works very well.
So far, I haven’t had time to do more than skim-read the first chapter, so my first impressions are about all I have to go on. What I can say is that the style is very vivid and easy to read, conveying the essentials of a situation with a minimum of dressing, which keeps the pace moving along. Schneider’s style is very easy to read, and he has a knack for both setting and characterization that is fairly uncommon, and that all works very well with the design and layout choices of the publisher.
So much so that my skim kept bouncing through paragraphs only to find that I had missed something important and had to back-track.
I’ve read other novels where you could scan every second paragraph and still get the gist of what was going on; this isn’t like them. The editing has been done to a very taut standard, and there is very little wasted text as a result. This is a book that demands to be read, not skimmed.
Analyzing The Amazon Reviews
One of the defining characteristics of this novel is a shared-first-person perspective. Some people love this, some people hate it. It’s a very gamist technique, demonstrating that the author has gotten deep under the skin of his protagonists, and inviting the reader to share in that experience.
There has been one negative review which was based entirely upon an extreme dislike for this technique. Aside from that, the book has received entirely 4 and 5 star reviews – at least one of the latter being, in part, because of the use of this technique.
For me, the lesson is clear – if you don’t mind the technique, you can enjoy this book, but if you dislike it, you won’t.
Which raises a very interesting question: to what extent are concept and delivery entwined in an RPG, generally?
I think that exactly the same principle holds: a given technique won’t make you enjoy content any more than it merits, but may impair the capacity to engage with that content. You can have the greatest plotline or characters or setting in the world, but none of that matters if the content is drowned out by the shape of the message.
There are no universal rules about delivery style, though tradition creates some expectations. A James Bond film wouldn’t be the same without the pre-title action sequence, for example, which may or may not have any relevance to the main plot (depending on which film you are watching.
However, genre creates a preference for some styles over others, and individual plots may also do so. A political thriller almost-universally needs a slow-buildup in which the players and their respective personalities and circumstances are made clear before the point of conflict arises. Crime stories can have either low-octane or high-octane beginnings.
This is all about the emotional pacing of the story, making sure that fatigue doesn’t set in, and that things nevertheless build to a satisfactory climax. (For more information on Emotional Pacing in RPGs, I refer the reader to my two-part article on the subject – Part One, Part Two).
There are a number of techniques that you – or a novelist – can use to set the emotional starting level of their plot to whatever the combination of genre and plot demand:
- the excerpt, which most RPGs don’t have available because players change the story as it is played;
- omniscient narration, in which a narrative “framework” is provided by a cosmic voice-over man, much as Rod Serling used to do every week on the Twilight Zone;
- omniscient perspective, in which players/readers are told of an event that their characters/the protagonist cannot possibly witness, but which they will come to know about;
- an ordinary day, in which a slice of life is used to contrast normality with abnormality, and peace with danger;
- the mid-action parachute, in which the adventure begins half-way through an action sequence (usually but not always irrelevant to the main plot) that is designed to kick-start the adrenalin;
- the voice of doom, in which another cosmic narrator tells of a prophecy of some sort or of a threat that is going to materialize, or of the effects that the day will have on the protagonists.
That’s just a small sampling, there are many more. Sometimes, the context of the introduction doesn’t become clear until the denouement!
This isn’t the primary subject of this article, so I’m going to leave the discussion at this point, save to admonish GMs to think about the opening sequences of their adventures a lot more than most do.
Getting back to the point, then, the style of this book may put you off; but if it doesn’t (and I expect fewer gamers to have problems with it than the general public, simply because they are used to the shift from in-game perspective to player / game mechanics perspective), it’s definitely worth thinking about if you like a bit of Gothic fantasy adventure. Available now from Amazon Books for Kindle and paperback.
So There We Have It
Between that diverse collection, there should be something for just about everyone. So I’d like to end with a roundup of the relevant links from this article:
- Era: Consortium ‘Secret War’ / Shades Of Vengeance
- The ‘Shades Of Vengeance’ Store (Consortium section)
- The ‘Shades Of Vengeance’ Store (Lyres section)
- The ‘Era: Silence’ product-in-development page
- The ‘Era: Survival’ product-in-development page
- The ‘Era: The Empowered’ product-in-development page
- The ‘Era: Consortium ‘Secret War” kickstarter page (approx 5 days to go)
- Tavern Tales / Dabney Bailey
- Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound / F. Wesley Schneider
- Swell and Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs / Campaign Mastery