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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review of the Neoclassical Geek Revival RPG-

I have taken entirely too long to write this review. I will say that part of that time, however, was spent playing the game with three characters in such far ranging settings as Elven Africa, Fantasy Norway, and Hollywood Renaissance Italy.

My characters have consisted of a half-elven spell-caster/bard, and two swashbuckler fighter/thieves, to use standard FRP terminology, which do not do full justice to Zzarchov's 110 page slim hardback volume.

Having been a long time subscriber to Unofficial Games blog, I was able to see the construction process underway, and argued with Zzarchov more than a bit during those months (years?), p'd off at his arcane choice at the time to have the rules in a computer-dependent format rather than text (since then 'fixed'). Rules aspects of what was then known as Piecemeal seemed too weird, although intriguing, and the fact that I hadn't deigned to use the odd platform to read the rules as they stood made the whole thing rather jumbled in my already busy mind.

Let me say that upon first read of the game, much of the confusion was still present. That isn't an indictment against the writing, design, or organisation of the contents, rather, it is a warning to approach NGR on its own terms and not to presume thing one about how it plays. Zzarchov's Pie-Piece approach to Class is pretty darned cool, and 'fixes' much of what has been wrong with other FRP attempts to allow the player to craft a rules-basis for the sort of character they want to play. Next, his duh-brilliantly-simple Inventory and Skills selection cannot be overlooked, as it is one of the major stumbling blocks of so many games, Fantasy or other genre.

Regarding Skills, don't sweat their inclusion, as they function much, much better and simpler than anything I've seen in a good long while. The average Target Number, if you will, is 20, on d20, but the Ability being tested is added whole-cloth to the roll. If the PC's total is not 20, then they narratively explain how each of the skills they propose to utilise in their attempt adds (+2 each) to get the total to 20 (or whatever it is). The effect of this narrative cajoling is the exact opposite of the desperate lawyering common to less draconian D&D games, and in fact, enhances the gameplay by rewarding the player's shared construction of the outcome without gelding the GM of his/her power to make executive decisions.

This is the point in the review where I must explain how the mindset of NGR affects the design and gameplay, as it may not readily suit everyone's tastes -- but I assure you that with very little mechanical tweaking (like, 30 seconds, perhaps?) even this aspect of the game can be steered onto the course the GM envisages for their particular brand of Loot & Scoot.

Zzarchov is not only a cunning trickster, a big fan of schlock fantasy clich├ęs and tropes, but apparently also that of crappy 80's low-budget fantasy flicks. His post-session rewards mechanisms revolve more around 'Awesomeness' than Hack & Slash, with deliberate play towards the 'wrong course of action' being more awesome than sound tactical choices otherwise encouraged in the slew of generic FRPs out there. In fact, defeating without killing yields more points, with trap-defeating and travel to cool locales being a Major XP reward source.
Back to Awesomeness: Fate points allow for re-rolls, refreshing Luck (like HP above 0 in the D&Ds), and perhaps something else I cannot immediately recall [Any help, Zzarchov?]. Totting up the Awesomeness modifier derived by the above formula for Cinematic success, the Player rolls that number or less, or a nat-20, to gain an additional Fate point. If they succeed, and roll lower than the number indicated, they may roll again, and again, until that number drops below 1, possibly gaining more than one additional Fate point.

I could go on about other aspects of how Luck points are increased as one levels, or Lucky or Signature items, the acquisition of Henchmen, etc., but there has to be something you, the reader, discover on your own.

The two aspects of gameplay that I am least familiar with are Magic and Miracles, but I'll say a bit about them now. Magic is pumped-up by expending more Power or Mana, which increases all dimensions/axes of the spell's functionality at once. The most recent export to Jeff R's game via Evan Elkin's Wessex character is the Bees spell. In NGR, a cone 5' long and 5' wide at the long end of the cone, of angry magic bees fly out and vex those in the AoE. But, pumping up the Power on the spell can be done as desired (and as can be paid) rather than waiting to 'level-up' as per the D&D's.

Miracles are a horse of an entirely different colour than the D&D Clerical 'spells', and function more like Palladium Psionics, but that doesn't really convey their true function and the overall versatility of Piety Points, nor the sharp cost of more powerful effects. Likewise the Priest (or layperson) must be really active to act upon their faith's tenets (however morally sketchy) to gain Piety.

Can the criteria of Awesomeness be altered without hobbling the system? Absolutely. A certain game and setting designer I know is thinking of releasing a version of her notoriously non-Fantasy RPG using Neoclassical Geek Revival because she really digs how the entire system functions in tandem. Her game would most definitely not reward Awesomeness based upon the wearing of cloaks, eye-patches, or mullets, but instead reward Vruned -- acting towards the advancement of the Vrun cause, and other, Native, ideals. But all of that is just rumour, you understand.

My overall rating of Neoclassical Geek Revival: Buy a copy or two. This is possibly the best FRP I've read in decades, as much for what it simplifies as for what it enhances.