Friday, July 29, 2016

Review of Perdition

I received my copy of Perdition from Lulu a few days ago, and wanted to share a few thoughts. I don’t normally review things, so bear with me.

I like it. It smells good. I liked the PDF enough to whip up a character sheet:

I tend to do this for new systems/games frequently, since the Character Sheet is an important component of how the Player ends up experiencing the game. Even if a talented Game Master/Agonarch can reliably hijack the interceding nerve receptors for imaginary eyes/ears/tongues/noses during play, Character Sheets are still the silver cord that ties the player to the plane of play.

The catechistic act of creating a Character Sheet is also often the easiest way for me to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanics and system. This is especially useful for something that diverges quite a bit from traditional D&D ruleset like Perdition. Not too far mind you, just far enough that falling back to previous system experience could result in the reader failing to implement important and interesting bits.

Here are a few thoughts:

Setting as Mechanics is an ambitious goal, and this is one of the first attempts I’ve seen and more importantly enjoyed. I’ve personally grown quite weary of books bogged down with setting information that never seems to be truly player accessible. The alternative (“just rules”) is usually completely devoid of setting, and this genericism can leave one uninspired. Perdition isn’t strictly an attempt to compromise between these methods, nor is it a hybridization of both approaches, it’s a novel and artful mutation from standard presuppositions of what a role-playing game book should do.

In Perdition the pitch is short, to the point, and although the premise may not appeal to every table, it is expertly telegraphed through the choices players make as they generate their characters, the equipment list, and codified within how the rules are invoked.

The discovery of Perdition's setting is one that takes place incrementally throughout, for as one encounters new rules and mechanics these in turn perform a double duty by dovetailing directly into the world. A game that treats “Wickedness” as an Ability Score or features rules for adjudicating Infernal Contracts immediately intimates some stark setting implications.

This process of setting exploration as one reads through the rules was pleasurable to me. Perusing Perdition for setting acquaintanceship is akin to eating an artichoke. You start on the outside, pulling off petals and scraping the small pulpy portion between your teeth for a trifling taste of the heart here and there. With each ensuing bract, you’re getting more to ruminate.

This is not to say the setting is spoon-fed or parsimoniously trickled out, it’s simply persistently present within the very tools you will be using to play the game, as opposed to padding the page-count with prose. Setting investiture for players needs these sorts of short cuts. Handouts or homework seldom work for the majority of gaming groups. Perdition's lack of roadside attraction fluff-prose may be a bit jarring at first, but the sly marriage of mechanics and setting consecrated here is a very elegant way to arrive at the destination.

To reiterate: This isn't an "implied setting" in any sense, it percolates throughout, emulsified within the rules you use to explore the very world portrayed. It's nifty that way.

I also appreciate the candor of voice, and any reader of Courtney’s blog probably has at least a passing familiarity with his writing style. Perdition’s text is refreshingly frank and uncompromising, especially in terms of the tidbits of advice for the Agonarch incorporated throughout. There's even a bit of humor here and there.

It’s the primary tone of the text that could cause some to ruffle quills at a perceived didacticism creeping in intermittently, but I think it’s important to read on, and see that the motives behind the occasional sweeping intransigent statement are frequently succinctly provided. This is quite nice. Rather than simply admonishing the reader to “Do this” there are frequent explanations as to the “why it’s important.” I don’t find it condescending – it’s an improvement over the normal homebrew heartbreaker, which can sometimes err on the side of almost too chummy elbow-rib-jabbing. This in turn can result in something that may be easy to read, but is either honeycombed with lacuna or largely consists of prosaic and repetitive advice for its own sake.

I’d be remiss to fail to mention that there are also some contributions from the exceptional Arnold K. I could be mistaken, but his fingerprints seem to be all over the especially evocative Fiendish Patrons. The accompanying illustrations had a cockle-warming familiarity to them at first glance, and imagine my surprise to discover they were by none other than the marvelous Russ Nicholson. It's one of many examples of a lovely interblending of the new and old here.

I tend to find insight into the design process to be useful and fascinating, and would like to see more of it. Anyone familiar with some of the great things to come out of game development over the last several years with the Old School Renaissance will  see some things that hearken to it. I particularly liked the “Sombreros May Be Splintered” permutation. 

Even if the recommendations and rules are not all new and groundbreaking, they are still a bit like the joy of discovering a new pocket in an old overcoat. Perdition provides a splendid blend between the old, comfortable familiarity of this style of play alongside multiple neoteric and thought-provoking morsels.

I’m still digesting, but so far my gripes are surprisingly few and mostly on the side of nit-picky. I enjoy the implementation of Physical and Mental Hit Die, and Struggles may finally be the grappling/psionic rule solution I loot first.

The near-symmetry of some things system-wise may prove a minor bother though, as some may be spoiled by more unified mechanics. This came to light in the character sheet design, as I noticed that some components of the system clicked in ingeniously similar ways, but others still stood out, seemingly disconnected at first glance.

I understand why there are no Social Hit Dice, or a true Social Armor Class to compliment the Physical and Mental counterparts, but this may seem to some a little like a missed opportunity to streamline the ruleset a little further. Still, I do feel that the persistence of the 2D6 bell curve and Courtney’s excellent previous work mechanizing Social Interaction with the Reaction Roll and Social Encounters in On the Non-Player Character are important, and this lack of unification doesn’t come across as a tall poppy or proud nail. Most fans of the older games are not averse to the inclusion of subsystems, and like the wonderful dice-pool Magic System, it helps set these “attack types” apart. In a good way.

Could it be raided for new rules/ideas? Absolutely. Grab the PDF if you are curious and I think there are some Free Basic Rules in the works. There are several very interesting and different approaches within this book (I’m still wrapping my head around the way Initiative Dice are handled) and most will fit in fine with D&D of all flavors, streamlining where necessary and elsewhere plugging directly into the chassis where additional subsystems are wanted. Is it possible to reskin or extract all the underlying rules and run this game using a different setting? I don’t really think so. The truly intriguing thing about Perdition is how intrinsically symbiotic most of the the mechanics seem to be to the setting, and I fear that the painstaking process of extracting one from the other wouldn’t result in anything with near as much flavor and function. 

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