Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Continuing my break from the cold war…a review of Engines and and Empires !

So, I thought I’d do some fanboy reviews of games that I’ve fallen in love with. First up, Engines and Empires.

How bout a quick summary before you start blathering ?

Okay.....Engines and Emrires is a BEMX/Holmes inspired set of rules via Labyrinth Lord, and allows play in a fantasy milleaux that is technologically similar to the pre or earlier victorian era.  Mainly self contained setting and rules. It seems pretty much play-out-of- the- box ready, possibly with some need for LL in the spells. Whatever, nothing a competent DM or creative noob couldn’t handle. 200 + pages with no crucial part being overlong.  Rules, spells, campaign equiptment, chargen mass combat, extras, options, you name it.  All there. Vampires, Elves, lightning cannon, fireballs and rifled musketry, man.  Vampires and lightning cannon, man ! Hobbits with muskets ! With muskets ! Yowsa !
Authors blurb:
ENGINES & EMPIRES is a campaign setting designed for use with the LABYRINTH LORD fantasy RPG. Sitting at the crossroads of heroic high fantasy and Victorian gaslight romance, E&E pits magic and science against an ancient darkness intent on once again enveloping the world of Gaia... along with all the Free Folk that now dwell thereupon.
John Higgins , 257 pages. 
Free PDF,and  very reasonably priced print available from Lulu, here.

Now, the froth and fluff part.

 Okay, here’s the deal, I am of the firm opinion that the further one gets past the pseudo medievalesque setting, the less sense class and level systems make; the same with different class membership and abilities by race (which really should be species). Plus, I’ve always cordially dispised " race as class" from its first presentation in Holmes (which, with BEMX I’ve always shunned). That said, E&E would seem to be a long shot for me to obsess about and fall in love with. But it is….fantastic.

Possibly its becuase it's vaguely post Napoleonic,early Victorian setting exactly defines the last period where class/level systems work (for me); possibly because it’s an actual non-dark/dystopic steampunk (gaslight, actually) setting or possibly because its a different take on human and non-human coexistence in a game world – but probably because it’s so well written, presented and a hell of a hoot.  Heck.  I even forgive it for Class as level because it makes it work (see below).

But Doc, why have you gone over to the dark side of emphasising setting over rules ?

Because E&E is  that rarest of rare things, a rules set+setting that is well presented, flavorful, creative and not just another world of Greyhawk with or without some kind of edgy tweak. Unusually for me, the setting is a big part of the attraction, the rules are fine too, but there are lots of rules in the world. The rules work for the setting, and don't require a vast investment of time in learning the authors new d17-d4 action resolution skill and trait based semi-level system. And the setting rocks, and not just becuase it's edgy gritty or has cognitively dissonant elements merged together (Spelljammer anyone ? Mechs in Creeks and crawdads ?)

And how is it not just another D&D elfy welfy eurocentric greyhawk only with mecha carved out of Ents and trains that run on spellpoints drained from gelflings ?

Well, primarily, the setting is self-contained and almost unique – early steampunk without as much punk, also known as a gaslight romance –except that romance now pretty much means relationship romance, and not fantastical. What sets it apart from lots of steam inspired RPG’s is that steampunk usually either pushes magic in an almost modern world (Falkenstein,most vampire/werewolf settings) or focuses on the crazy science (1889, most of the steam mecha). E&E does a good job of including both; magic is old, but science is new –it’s the exact overlap of gizmo invention and academic magic and spiritualism.
Also, whereas much steampunk has been edging closer to 1900, E&E drops back to clearly before the 1860’s, probably to 1820ish (Crimean war ?) with some anachronisms. Inventors work with steam and chemistry, electricity is a new and yet to be tamed force, cap and ball rifles and revolvers exist alongside swords and suchlike, people ride horses, sail in clippers or steam side-wheelers, and flight is reserved for balloons and creatures with wings. Oh yeah –plus the undead and magic, both of which have a much more Victorian penny dreadful flavor.

AND, it’s not just set in an earth alternate. It is similar physically to earth, but it is a world where lots of the non-human species (elves, dwarves fey,niads,centaurs,halflings) coexist as equals and humans are just another kind of race. Humans don’t dominate, nor are the other species declining. Even the frikkin hobbits have a kingdom or two, and IIRC, a napoleon analogue is a gnome. (Laugh at the committee for public safety, if you laugh at me, monsieur).  It has a history, and a gazeteer of the kingdoms at a reasonable level of detail, with lots of places and plaothooks for the GM to use.

Finally, while it clearly is shoving a Gygaxian fantasy world into a later setting, its fairly well thought out, and isn’t just an attempt to represent a particular modern or SF trope only this time made using steam and cocoanut shells (any fantasy/steam age star trek or mecha game, I’m looking at you)

And lots of cool hand drawn maps !  Did I mention the maps ?  I love maps. 

Any actual discussion of mechanics besides fanboy love ?

Like, what else do you need ?  Okay, okay.
The rules are Labyrinth Lord derived, with custom classes and all the basics of Old style D&D mechanics and feel are there. It has the defining race as class mechanisms of the Holmes/BEMX family of games, and is scaled for a 36 level character track, paralleling the basic/advanced/master/expert kinds of plateaus. Usually these would be problematic , but the class level works well enough, and has the benefit of similar non-humans have different classes –so, an elfy character has some options, just some are called Fey, and etc. Similarly, the 36 level scaling (who the heck has time for a 36 level campaign now that we are out of middle school….) seems much more doable with an custom advancement scheme that avoids XP altogether, and is based on game session. I think the assumption is that a character should level up every4-6 sessions. That’s still a long way to level 36, but doesn’t involve having to kill Gods to get enough XP to level up….. Chargen is bog standard. Combat is very abstract, but with options for old farts like me to use to complicate things. Of note is a skill system that is simple, and not very granular – much like the d20 lite systems use. If you like the skill granularity to be very fine, this may not work for you, but it is very consistent with the style of the game.

The basic D&D classes are there (Fighter, Mage, Cleric, and Thief) in some campaign appropriate disguises, with some different skills and abilities. New classes include the inventor, a requirement for any steampunk/gaslight setting. Clerics are scholars (kind of a cross between VanHelsing and Seminary trained types), mages use charisma, fighters are soldiers, monks are Boxers (Fisticuffs AND Marquis of Queensbury, wot!), Thieves are experts/professionals, and inventors have a fully developed set of rules for tinkering, gizmonics and infernal device creation.

How does it play ?

Overall, the style of play seems fast, but not truly cinematic, if you accept that john Wu films are the baseline for cinematic RPG style. Remember, it’s a world where the fastest communication is still birds, and the fastest land transport is a horse. Whereas a cinematic game simply cuts to the action and then to more action with a brief précis of between the scenes events, the action in E&E would seem to be fast, and frequent but with a fair amount of development of the intermediate play sequences. Yes, you get to fight cannibal apes, but you also get to role-play a court feast and negotiate a treaty with the king of the gnomish cannibals.

The rules are simple and familiar enough to be essentially transparent.  One plays the game, not the rules.

Anything to look out for ?

I sorta wish it was available in an 8.5 x 11 size, and/or hardback.  But , one can print the PDF that way.
It really doesn;t have any sandbox rules, although encounter tables and world detail is provided -but no Judges guild style hex contents genrator tables - but thats fine, as it comes with a dandy setting already installed.
 If you are expecting high graphic hex bases map projections, the ones provided will not satisfy. The art is (I think) entirely period B&W clip art; you'll either love it or hate it. Combat isn't very granular, but if I want that, I have Frappe or Colonial age skirmish.
Liking a rules set with 36 levels, post medieval class and level and Holmsian  race as class makes me experience cognitive dissonance.

Oh yeah.  Gnomes are treated as if they were worth existing.  Can't support that. next thing you know, it'll be sapient ducks........

Anything else ?

E&E is a different RPG using familiar tropes and rules.  Its exactly what I think is the goal of the OSR -not just cloning, but developing from the neccessary clones. Its all to easy to become  obsessed with the basics (ie rules cloning) and lose sight of the fact that it is not an end in itself.  Or, more academically, "Don;t convert vital ideological praxis into rarified ideology. Get out on the barricades !"

Anything else that doesn't hint at absurdist mockery of GNS games theory ?

Yeah.  Who the hell are you, anyway ?

Look. I love it. It’s honest to god adventure from the last age of explorers, Burton and Speke, guns and mystic mysteries vs. the glory of science, all in a world different enough that it need not be haunted by the dark side of steam (such as colonialism, satanic mills and factory cities, and…well, the killing floor of world war one). Full marks. . I have the free version, and two copies of the print version, and I’m a known cheap bastard.


Other reviews are to be found here and here .

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