KC and I were fluttering about my kitchen, making dinner, or fixing coffee, I can’t remember exactly when the conversation occurred, and I was grousing about the absence of role-playing games in my immediate future. I could feel the itch; I was twitching for the clatter of dice, the shoulder-to-shoulder squeeze around the dining room table, the cringe of a forced story hook, and the exhilaration of slaughtering the villain and hocking his possessions at the village pawnshop. KC asked if the next time we played, she could sit nearby and listen, cautiously displaying her interest in a realm of nerd that she’s never approached before. “Sit nearby,” I guffawed, “Hell you can play,” and I proceeded to tell her one of the nefarious geek-plots I had been mulling over in my feverish mind.
KC has been reading “Fables” lately, the collected comic-book stories by Bill Willingham. I don’t care for them, and I don’t know why. I should like them. I liked Willingham’s older work, especially “Thessaly – Witch for Hire”. I admire his career path, starting with role-playing games and venturing on with his own fiction. He draws, he writes, he uses mythology and fairy tales as inspiration, what’s not to like? KC loves them, and has been gobbling the collected volumes ever since we discovered them at the Tompkins County Public Library, our fantastic local library (which sits in the old Woolworths building, where I bought my M1A1 carbine twenty-some years ago). As I’ve mentioned, I prefer European graphic novels over US graphic novels, normally, and as KC was checking out volumes 11, 12, and 13, I checked out Baranko’s “The Horde” and “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec” (which Luc Besson – The Fifth Element and The Professional – made into an extremely entertaining film a couple years ago).
Back to fluttering in the kitchen. KC liked “Fables” so I told her about “Grimm“, a role-playing game in which players control kid characters who have been sucked into The Grimm Lands, an alternate reality based on the Brothers fairy tales, but more warped, twisted, and evil, if such a thing could be imagined. My son would join us, perhaps my friends Dan and Nat depending on schedules, and we’d make an evening of it. She liked the idea, and without further hesitation I snatched Grimm from the bookshelf, plopped down on the couch, and spent most of Saturday and Sunday, when I wasn’t shoveling snow (hell of a winter we’re having), reading.
Like many stand-alone role-playing books, Grimm starts with a short story that sets the scene and attempts to pull the reader into the imagined setting. It’s alright. Not terrible, like Cook’s Numenera – which really is terrible and the guy could have shaved a couple of dimes off the art budget to hire a competent editor for St Huck’s sake – and it isn’t as good as Stolze’s opening fiction for “Break Today” (see an earlier post). It does what it’s supposed to do, and then we roll into the game. Grimm is a beautiful book, published by a major player in the gaming industry, Fantasy Flight Games. It looks like a corporate product; it’s polished and professional and certainly looks like it was worth the 40 or 50 bucks I paid for it. Who can remember? Apparently you can’t buy it anymore, only a digital pdf copy. I also notice on the company website that there is no support for the game. Published in 2007, there hasn’t been a single supplement since. Not a good sign.
The rules are simple, and their finer points hidden in the text, making it suffer from the same problem that plagues many role-playing games. There is a rule for whatever situation your players find themselves in, but finding that rule will be impossible in play – “I know I read it somewhere” – and will only reveal itself days later when you are looking for another rule that’s also seemingly disappeared from the page. Characters are kids, one of six archetypes, Bully, Nerd, Jock, etc. They have Traits, things they can do, e. g. Scamper (run), Seek (search), and Cool (covering social situations). There are Core Traits, Playground Traits, and Study Traits, which starts to stretch the kid-world terminology. Each Trait has a Grade – now the kid-world terminology is cumbersome – from 1st to 12th. A character untrained in a skill has a Kindergarten in that Trait. Apparently “untrained” was trademarked by a bigger gaming company. The game uses a six-sided die. If you roll a 6, you perform at one grade higher than your grade listed for said Trait. If you roll a 1, you guessed it, you perform one grade lower. So, most of the time your character will perform at the level of expertise that you paid for during character generation.
Challenges are determined by a grade level. Climbing a beanstalk is 6th grade Scamper test, for example. If you made a character with only a 4th grade Scamper, you have to get lucky to climb the beanstalk. Roll a 6, to improve to 5th grade Scamper, then another 6 (in gaming we call this an “exploding die”, which doesn’t sound as much fun as if the bugger actually blew up while you were playing) and you’ve made it. Don’t roll back-to-back 6’s and you’re screwed, ‘cos naturally the Big Bad Wolf is chasing you which made you want to climb the beanstalk in the first place. I’ll tell you how this actually works at the table. My hesitation is that there isn’t enough range in the randomness of success and the kids (players) will be hard pressed to do anything. We’ll see.
The rules have nuances, which many systems have and I wonder if they need. You can help each other (good), you can focus (which takes a turn and decreases the number you’ll roll again on from 6 to 5, do it again and you can roll again on a 4-6, etc.), and step up (same thing as “take ten”). These are explained and easy to find. Certain situations give you an Advantage, which increases a specific Trait by one or two grades. Other situations give you a Disadvantage, which is readily evident what a Disadvantage does (decreases a Trait by one or two grades), but is never explained in the rules. Try to find “Disadvantage” in the index. Ring me when you’ve found it.
I can figure out what a Disadvantage does, rules wise, but I can’t figure out every mystery rule. Combat Moves, for example, let a player spend points to do certain flourishes during combat. One Combat Move and you can disarm an antagonist. Two Combat Moves and you can push him backwards. So far so good. However, the games doesn’t explain how a character amasses Combat Moves. I see how to spend them, how do you get them? I’d love for someone to find that rule, because I can’t. (Now some bugger will reply, “Duh, it’s right there are page 115, section 2,” and please do, because I can’t find it at all.)
Here is another hidden rule, Stature, the character’s size, plays a huge part of the rule system in combat. It determines how many wounds you deal to an opponent, and how much protection from his wounds your character has. Vitally important and noncommittally addressed in a side-bar, titled “Oh By the Way”. I expect a certain about of ambiguity with role-playing rules, and Grimm’s got it in spades. I think there is enough there for Saturday – oh, we’re playing Saturday, hee, hee – and I’m creative enough to just wave my hands and say “let’s do it this way,” so I’m not unduly concerned. I’m not confident, but I’m not concerned.
There is no starting adventure. Starting adventures are great for players and gamemasters (the idiot volunteering to run a role-playing game session) because it shows them what a typical session is like. “Here are the rules, and here are specific examples of how to use the rules in play.” This isn’t a new idea. The now-ancient D&D Blue Book included a small sample adventure, and we’re talking 1977 folks. Off the top of my head I can think of several games that include a sample adventure right in the core rule book: Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 2nd Edition, Dying Earth Role-Playing Game, Call of Cthulhu . . . does Numenera have a sample adventure in it? I’m too afraid to look. I know the adventure “The Devil’s Spine”, which is meant as a starting adventure for new players, is awful. It’s the worst case of bad editing, repetitive instruction, unprofessional tone, blatant railroading, and hackneyed prose that I’ve even read. And from someone who many consider an industry giant, it really is appalling.
Anyway, Grimm doesn’t have a sample adventure, so I’ll have to design something for Saturday. I’ve got a good start in mind and have done several drawings in my sketchbook. Many of my adventures start with doodles, as I get my brain wrapped around what I’m hoping to create. Maybe someday I’ll post the creation-stage doodles of the published adventures I’ve written, which could be fun. If you are counting, by the way, Ars Magica 5th Edition doesn’t have a sample adventure in the core rule book. I think it should, but I’m just a freelance greaser, and nobody asked me. I’m not concerned about the story Saturday. It will take an hour to make characters, leaving us only one or two for the game. All I need a few soldiers, a wolf here and there, a mysterious dark woods, a path that looks fair, a choice that seems foul, a few snarling carnivorous oaks, and a lion hiding under a sheepskin and I’ll be all set. Barring any misfortunes, I’ll post the results next week.