Earlier this week I received an email from Richard Hetley, a writer & game designer from Megara Entertainment. Magara have a new kickstarter-funded project, and Richard was inviting me to write an article about that project.

I’ve received a number of such invitations in the past, and turned them down (politely and with words of encouragement where appropriate) (and sincere well-wishes, regardless) for a variety of reasons – most frequently because there did not seem to be enough appeal to our readership, and/or because by the time the article was written and posted online, the funding window would have closed.

Richard managed to avoid the first of those opportunities to roll a catastrophic “1″, and the product itself interested me enough to avoid the second – not for what the project is, per se, but for what gaming value I could get from it.

The latter is what I’m going to be writing about, but the proper place to start is by introducing the project itself.

Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories

Here’s the press release describing the project and a couple of links to both the kickstarter page and a free preview adventure:

Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories is a full-color print gamebook now on Kickstarter

“Gamebooks” are a type of RPG more commonly known as “Choose Your Own Adventure” books in years past: stories where you control the plot yourself, deciding what a character does in each scene and turning to some other indicated page to see what happens next. Arcana Agency puts the reader in control of a team of paranormal investigators in 1930′s New York City. It’s written in third person (“he,” “she”) instead of second person (“you”), which is a departure from other gamebooks, and allows you to control multiple characters at once (like an adventuring party in print book form). It also does those little stunts that you can only manage in a book, like “Go to the page number that matches the combination on this lock,” making play more interesting and challenging than just a series of paths (and avoiding “Darn, wrong path, I’ll cheat and take the other one”).

There is a free “demo” available (both links are to the same file):

Arcana Agency: The Case of the Unghostly Ghost (link 1)

Arcana Agency: The Case of the Unghostly Ghost (link 2)

This download, The Case of the Unghostly Ghost, is a playable prequel that links up to the Kickstarter gamebook at the end. The last full day to pledge to Arcana Agency and help bring The Thief of Memories into the world is 12/12/12.

Gamebooks In General

Most “gamebooks” don’t excite me all that much, I’ll be honest. The choices of action are frequently confining and limited, and sometimes ridiculously stupid or shortsighted. At other times, you are forced to make a choice on too little information. You are often in the roleplaying guise of a character that is insufficiently defined, up front, for you to make the decisions required. I often want to make a different choice mid-paragraph to the railroad tracks laid down by the authors. And sometimes these products just seem horribly capricious and random (and I’m thinking specifically of some of the TSR “Choose Your Own Adventure” products here).

Frankly, in general, if given the choice between an “gamebook” of this sort or a game supplement or module, I would choose the supplement/module any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

What’s Different about Arcana Agency:

In a nutshell: The eye candy. The kickstarter project describes the book as “richly illustrated” and folks, they aren’t kidding.

At the top of each page is a relatively small panel containing an illustration:

like the one above from paragraph 48 (near the start of the adventure, I think), or the one below from paragraph 540.

A clarification courtesy of Richard, who commented below, and is part of the project team: The illustrations at the head of each page are a consistent banner used for an entire adventure and not different on each page. It seems the two that I have presented above are from the Thief Of Memory and the Case Of The Unghostly Ghost. Each banner is also an excerpt from a larger image within the adventure. We don’t want people to expect more than they are getting – but at the same time, what they are getting is so tremendous that it’s a minor point.

Beneath that is a section of text – over a full-color textured panel, mind – and then the real reason for the size of those smaller upper illustrations becomes clear. Half the page or thereabouts is a glorious full color illustration – and, to judge by the examples proffered, an illustration not so much of the action but of the setting.

Click on the thumbnail for a much larger image.

Check out the above excerpt from pararaph? section? 48 – the Brooklyn Museum, or the one below for an alleyway scene.

The Game Value

So, the reason I am so enthusiastic about this project is because even if the adventure totally blows (and I have no indication that it does fit that worst-case description), I can use these illustrations in my pulp campaign or my supers campaign, I can just add anything unusual or distinctive to the scene verbally.

I once advised that ‘One picture should be worth 1,000 words’. Using The Thief Of Memories as a game resource, over and above any enjoyment that can be derived from the adventure itself saves me 1,000 words of flavor text, enabling me to focus on distinctive features. I could use that “Brooklyn Museum” illustration for any museum or the study of any wealthy individual just by describing some changes to the window dressing:

  • “The painting is a gothic castle backed by storm clouds. As you watch, lightning flashes from the painted clouds and you hear the rumble of distant thunder.”
  • “At the end of the corridor is a polished suit of plate mail with brightly-colored enamel on the breastplate. The crest is that of the Family Plantagenet.”
  • “The painting is surprisingly cheap and tacky, heavily faded, and looks out of place.”
  • “The walls and floor are painted an antiseptic green, now stained with wild splatters of blood.”
  • “The mysterious woman in scarlet turns the corner, but when you reach the corridor down which she fled but a moment earlier, all you see is this…”

Click the thumbnail for a larger image

Similarly, the alley setting can be used as any alley, anywhere, enabling me to get straight to the point:

  • “As you pass the drunken beggar, his eyes glow a bright green.”
  • “You are just in time to see the caped and hooded figure slipping into the shadowed doorway down the alley.”
  • “The water in the dingy back alley appears – mysteriously – to be running uphill.”
  • “Completely out of place in this era of steamships comes the distant sound of an electronic whine.”
  • “The painting of an alley is breathtakingly realistic, and you almost feel like you could step through the frame and into that past era. Unexpectedly, the beggar raises his hand toward you in a pitiful gesture of need, his outstretched hand emerging from the canvas…”

You don’t need to know what any of these examples means – the visual and the narrative alone are enough to hook you into whatever the adventure is going to be.

I could have written a lot more on this subject, but I rather think that the visuals speak for themselves. The ability to frame your own explanations around whatever is illustrated there makes this a lavish collection of top-quality game resources – and well worth the admission fee. So if you’re the GM of a Pulp-era game, or a Steampunk game, or a Modern-era game of any sort, or any of several other genres – check out this Kickstarter and consider backing the project. The rewards make it definitely worthwhile. So check out the fundraising page at kickstarter and consider backing the project. Here’s that link again

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