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Exploding Dice
By Jonathan Woodward
May 10, 2004

And we dive into another review column here at Exploding Dice...

Big Hardcover, Teeny Little Print

BESM d20 ( HREF="" target="_blank">Guardians of Order, 144 pages,
hardcover, black and white, $29.95) is the most recent example of the Guardians
porting their unexpectedly generic Tri-Stat system to another set of
core mechanics. (Indeed, the BESM brand is apparently so strong that
they feel no need to explain what "BESM" stands for until page
6.) Still, their loyalty to the anime look-n-feel is out in force, boasting
mostly-gorgeous art (with only the occasional example of tracing, like the
slightly-modified ZZ Gundam on p. 78), and a bold (and probably intentional)
Japanese flag on the cover. Some of the art is downright inspirational, like
the p. 31 depiction of a Frankensteinian angel, a spider-themed knife-wielder,
and a scaly lady of indeterminate origin.

The system welds a generic front end onto d20 mechanics, with far more
success than you'd expect. Character generation becomes point-based, and some
of the combat oddities of d20 (hit points increasing with level, armor that
doesn't absorb damage) are removed or made optional. Despite these heroic
efforts, the system still feels slightly duct-taped together. E.g., you roll up
your ability scores (just like in D&D), then pay for them with
character points. Call me a stick-in-the-mud GURPS-head, but I don't
want random factors forcing me to spend points. Meanwhile, the new classes range
from utterly generic (the Adventurer is essentially roll-your-own, with each
level providing nothing but character points) to very specific (Giant Robot,
Sentai Member, and Pet Monster Trainer). They are relentlessly balanced --
indeed, the book goes on to criticize the balance of the standard D&D
classes, then whips them into shape according to GoO's house formulas. I didn't
crunch their math, but I can't fault their intent.

Given that anime isn't really a genre, this book nevertheless manages to
provide excellent suggestions on how to get an anime feel, including guidelines
for GMs and players, and a shopping list of elements common in anime (catgirls,
giant robots, etc.). You honestly won't find an RPG with more anime fidelity.

The editing is good if not perfect (one "e" in "Bebop",
folks), and includes the usual number of homonym errors (compliment for
complement, hoards for hordes, principle for principal). There are also two
examples missing entirely on p. 130. Still, it's more than readable. So,
overall, not particularly recommended to people who already own another version
of BESM (you've already got a flexible anime RPG), strongly
recommended to people who want a generic d20 system, and even more strongly
recommended to anime fans who have only ever played D&D.

(And, hey, if you want to look before you pay (or, indeed, instead of
paying), the BESM d20 System Reference Document is absolutely free at
the GoO site.)

Not Just a Spinoff

The Angel Roleplaying Game
(Eden Studios, 256
pages, hardcover, color, $40.00) faces an uphill struggle. The first challenge
comes from those who wonder why it isn't just a supplement for the
Buffy Roleplaying Game.
The simple and short answer is: The owners of the license (Twentieth Century
Fox, et al) consider Buffy and Angel to be two separate and
equal TV shows, and they required the game writers to follow suit. Here endeth
that lesson.

Of course, that leads to the question: Can the Angel RPG
stand on its own as a separate game? Does it have enough distinct identity to
make it worth purchasing? The answer seems to be "Mostly, yes." The
book covers a lot of new ground, both rules-wise and thematically. Up front it
states that, while Buffy was about teenage problems in the horror format
(getting a date is complicated by love spells), Angel is about adult
problems (getting an apartment is complicated by ghosts). This is neatly
illustrated with examples from the show and potential new ground to cover . . .
and then they warn against including a lesson in every episode. Good to see
them step back from the brink like that.

For rules, this book's new contributions include a demon construction kit,
which could be the core of a reasonable superhero system. The other big new
thing is the organization rules which are innovative while, paradoxically,
somehow missing the point. They're intended to cover anything from Angel
Investigations to Wolfram & Hart to, hypothetically, the Initiative, the
Watchers, or whatever covens and cabals you like. Financial clout, physical and
mystical security, and access to a cool motor pool are some of the factors that
get put together to determine the organization's point total. The balancing
mechanic is, the more powerful the organization, the less important the PCs are
in its power structure. Angel the Brooder can run Angel Investigations (10
points), but if he joined Wolfram & Hart (39 points), he'd have to work as
an administrative assistant. Which, of course, neatly points out the problem:
As of the 5th season of Angel, the lead characters are in charge of that
very 39-point organization, and while access to all that money and power changes
the kind of problems they face, and how they deal with them, it
doesn't change their validity as a model for RPGs. I.e., the neat balancing
mechanic is demonstrated to be unnecessary by the source material. (Which, to
be fair, only covers seasons one through three, so they didn't see this coming.)

And, of course, this book has a season-by-season summary of Angel,
and character sheets for all the heroes from the show (dammit, Doyle deserves a
point of Attractiveness), with seasonal variations. The new instant-PC
archetypes are a bit nudge-nudge cute (the Rogue Demon Hunter being a rogue
demon, the Barbarian Queen looking a little xenaphilic), but they'd be fun to
play. The Unisystem is just as solid as it ever was (including the Drama Point
mechanic that balances characters with different apparent power levels, like
Angel and Cordelia). The writing style is very conversational, and some
are going to find it silly. I have no complaints about the layout, the choice
of snappy quotes, or the photographic art (the painted art is middling to good).
The editing is mostly good, with an error every few pages ("prophecy-with-a-c"
is a noun, but "prophesy-with-an-s" is a verb, guys)
and, again, homonyms run amuck (bailing for baling, cannon for canon). So, to
sum up, the Angel RPG is strongly recommended to fans of the show, and
moderately recommended to people looking for a solid modern horror RPG (or who
already own a lot of Buffy RPG material).

Ooo, Master, You Are So Good To Igor!

My Life With Master
(by Paul Czege and Half Meme Press, 64
small pages with big margins, paperback, black and white, $13.00) is a clever
little game about nasty little people in service to Mad Scientists. The PCs are
all minions, in thrall to a Master who is prone to cackling and messing about
with lightning generators. The plots of each game move forward with a structure
as implacable as an episode of "Scooby-Doo" (and, indeed, with much
the same ambience) leading to the Master's inevitable death.

This game manages to be smart and evocative on very simple mechanics. You
won't find a game that's less generic than this, and that's intended as
a compliment. The writing and art supports the mood, being stark and, well,
moody. (If occasionally odd; "consequence" is not a verb.)
The character and master creation process is exactly detailed enough, providing
basic bones to hang personality off of.

The main dice mechanic is intriguing, and involves rolling competing pools
of d4s, with the highest total winning. The complication is that every die that
comes up a 4 is discarded. At first glace, this is just weird, but it's
actually pretty clever. It means that you're effectively rolling Xd4 - X, or
(if you like) rolling d4s which are marked 0-1-2-3 (instead of 1-2-3-4). With a
conventional roll, a 1d4 pool has no way to beat a 5d4 pool. Here, any size
pool can theoretically roll a total of zero, so very small pools can beat very
big ones.

This is good, because some of the mandatory mechanics can pit shrinking
pools against stable or growing ones. For example, when making an Overture to a
Love Connection, the hapless minion rolls Reason minus Self-Loathing vs. Fear
minus Reason. (Yes, Reason acts to the minion's benefit on both sides of the
formula. There are only five stats, so you encounter some repeatedly.) If the
minion fails, he gains Self-Loathing, which means the next roll is that much
harder. Similar effects occur with failed acts of Violence, and failed attempts
to destroy the Master. As you can imagine, this tends to draw things out,
particularly since I couldn't find any mechanics for reducing Weariness or
Self-Loathing -- essentially, things get worse and worse until the PC gets

Further, there's nothing in the rules to prevent the minion from being stuck
with a zero-die pool. This is probably a mistake; the text explicitly says that
any negative pool is treated as having one die, but it says nothing
about zero pools, so if Love minus Weariness equals -1, you get to roll
1d4, but if your Love is one greater, (nominally a good thing) you get
scrod. GMs should presumably use their judgment here. There's also some odd
ambivalence about the setting. It explicitly states that the game should be set
in generic early 19th century Europe, but there is only a sentence or two of
description of that period, and many of the examples (e.g., P.T. Barnum as a
potential Master) are from other times and places entirely. It makes the world
seem curiously arbitrary.

All those caveats aside, My Life With Master is worth a look for
those interested in small game design. Strongly recommended to them, mildly
recommended to anyone who enjoys classic horror cliches, but not recommended to
people who want great depth, breadth, or genericness.

Next Month: Arcana and Dreams reviewed, most likely.

Want me to review your game? I'm delighted to accept
review copies care of Blue Blood.