SO...I was going to get back to my 4E delving (and I will, I will!), but in the meantime I wanted to talk about a different RPG I had the chance to pick up and read the last couple days: Cascade Failure, a little self-published, space opera game, built on the usual (D&Dish) class-race-level chassis with D20s and saving throws and whatnot. Oh, yeah...it's in my favorite price range: free (not even "pay what you want;" you can't give this guy money). PDF only, of course.
You might guess that such an offering was pretty crappy (i.e. amateurish, derivative) offering. If so, you'd be very, very wrong.
Greg Christopher's game is downright beautiful, with amazing production values. The full color artwork ranges from excellent to amazing...it's on par with some of Fantasy Flight Games more recent offerings, certainly a step up from D&D 4E, maybe around the same level as the last couple Shadowrun books (for me, these are all "high water marks" in RPG art). Even for folks who just dig on good SciFi art (I've written before how I find good art to be incredibly inspiring), you could due worse than taking a look...I did mention it's free, right? Check out this cover:
|Really not this blurry.|
That shit is just awesome.
[sorry about the grey borders...I'm terrible at this kind of image manipulation]
But, hey, all prettiness aside, my main interest with all these RPGs is their design and potential for play. Maybe you're wondering if my "downright beautiful" description applied only to the look and layout. No...the game's pretty sweet, too.
Cascade Failure (download here) claims to be a public BETA (version 1.2, in fact), but I've seen other games that had a lot less going for them than what it has going on. The PDF is all of 95 pages (y'all know I like a low page count) and many of those pages are cover, or full page illos, or one of three (different style) character sheets, or a star map, or an OGL, or whatever. Thing is pretty, yet compact. Now what does it do in those pages? Let's put together some bullet points:
- Uses a streamlined D20 mechanic, where everything is "roll under attribute (plus modifiers)." There are two types of checks (called "responses") in the core mechanic: proactive (using skills, attacks, etc.) and reactive (saving throws). All use attributes as their base, sometimes with a level modifier (depending on class). For folks familiar with it, there are shades of 4E here, but without target numbers. I've toyed with similar designs, so I'm partial to the idea; however, "roll low" isn't the most intuitive thing for folks (outside the BRP/Chaosium crowd) and I've read complaints about this in some reviews of Cascade Failure. That being said, there are ways to fix this...but for me, it's fine as is.
- A very cool setting: immediate post-apocalypse (28 years after the fall) of an interstellar society. The whole thing is very cool, and provides a lot of different "hooks" for characters. I've spoken before that, for me, I need something more than an interesting "wide open" setting to make a game run. Even without providing a list of "adventure seeds," the setting in Cascade Failure suggests plenty of things to do and concrete directions to take, which is something I rarely encounter in SciFi games. For example, you might have some sort of war as part of a setting whether covert (Star Frontiers) or not (Star Wars), but RPGs really fall short (IMO) when this is the driving campaign arc (I should write about this sometime...look at Dragonlance as an example). The setting here...one of survival and salvage, provides motivation for small scale (i.e. personal) conflicts of the sort that would involve a party of wandering adventurers. And there's enough background fluff (without being overwhelming) to provide objectives for said adventures. Dig it.
- Really like how humans are used in the setting. They are responsible for the empire, they are responsible for the fall, they have the (stronger) potential for getting shit back together. It's human centric but humans are far from fallible and have a lot to answer for. Nice themes.
- An interesting and (for me) distinct set of classes, compared to other games. Various non-human races are fine depending on your cup o tea; they're fine but easily discarded or modified (none are "integral" to the setting). The game distinguishes race from class which (I've noted before) I prefer in the space opera genre: if you're going to posit a number of sentient races with spacefaring capacity, they might as well be able to have different occupations.
- The empath and kinetic classes are excellent...I'll return to these at the end of this post.
- Saving throws specific to the setting (all based on attributes): very nicely done. Dig "breath" (to see if you can hold your breath...like when your spaceship suddenly holed), "pain" (for taking actions after your totally abstract HPs have been depleted), "snap" (the "reflex" save, but also used as a "full defense" type action in combat...like when you need to dodge laser bolts and have nothing with which to shoot back), and "fear" (the PC version of morale). Also love "listen" and "spot" as saving throws: makes perfect sense with the core mechanic to use these as reactive saves.
- Ambitions. Wow. Remember how much shit I gave White Star for its cop-out experience system? Here's an innovative system that works with the genre, and its got two tracks. Each character has a major ambition, something that (if achieved) they'll retire and give up adventuring; examples include acquiring a space ship, finding one's true love, avenging a wrong, or whatever. It's a built-in end-game and story driver, and (similar to The Riddle of Steel's spiritual attributes) provides bonuses in play when characters are taking actions that directly apply to the ambition (it also acts as a directional "guide" for players). Minor ambitions, on the other hand, are chosen in-play, on the fly, based on the situation at hand (i.e. both the adventure hooks and events that occur). Minor ambitions provide no mechanical bonuses, but (when achieved) award PCs XP based on the ambition. And here's the kicker: the amount of XP awarded for achieving a minor ambition is negotiated up-front between the player and the GM. Awesome...so, for example, the players discover there's a band of marauders terrorizing the local village and pose a minor ambition to shut it down for 100xp and the GM says, heck I'll give you 500xp, cluing in the PCs that the opposition is tougher than they think. OR players can "up the ante" saying they have a minor ambition to reconcile with the bandits peacefully and make them productive members of the village or some such for a fat bonus. OR the players can add an extra ambition (for extra XP) that they want to humiliate the bandit leader in the process and steal his high tech gear that he's been using to lord it over the peasants. Very hip mechanic and one I can't ever remember seeing before.
- Morality. Wow again. This is Cascade Failure's take on "alignment." You assign 7 points to three impulses: adherence (which is kind of like "law & order"), consensus (your conformity to your peer group/friends/family), and efficiency (your impulse to "get things done" in expedient fashion). The values assigned to these impulses act as role-playing guide-posts to the players, and can be used by the GM as a bonus/penalty if applicable and if "it would make the game more enjoyable." Shades of both The Riddle of Steel (again) and Pendragon virtues.
- Characters are given an age attribute (Young, Adult, or Mature) that influences how cognizant of the pre-apocalypse galaxy. Being younger gives you a bonus to physical attributes (duh) but being older gives you bonuses to figure out old tech. Remember, the setting is post-apoc so shades of Gamma World figuring out gear...however, I'm not really doing a good job of selling the setting: even though the author doesn't give us a highly detailed galaxy with pages and pages of history and planets, what he does give us is an important overview of what tech allowed interstellar colonization in the first place, how it was interrelated, and how it's breakdown (due to the interstellar war) has led to the collapse of the society. He gives you enough of the information you need. It's really spot on and elegant.
- Gosh, there's a luck score (rolled randomly; humans start with more) that can be spent in-play and never gets "replenished" (except by GM fiat). However, rather than a "get out of jail free card" (as in other RPGs), luck is used to flat modify rolls by your current luck value, decreasing by a point with every use. Man, I love this. At the beginning of a character's career, they can thus expect a lot of lucky breaks ("beginner's luck," right?) but as the game progresses their luck eventually runs out.
- Hit points are abstract and, once depleted, additional damage is applied directly to attributes (as in Classic Traveller). The attribute affected is determined by random roll and attributes correspond with wound locations...like a shot to the hand decreases DEX, while a shot to the head decreases INT. There are some rules for getting maimed and whatnot...all good, though I would have liked some cyborg parts to replace lost limbs (easily added, though).
- Equipment is nice, a short and streamlined list fine for the setting, the usual weapons/armor are on display. Includes cybernetic enhancements (though no 'borg prosthetics). The barter currency with "Value Units" is cool and setting appropriate. The various spacecraft/vehicles (these aren't available for purchase...how many chickens are you going to trade for a battle tank?) are good...abstract and they fit the marks needed...but there seems to be a missing chart here, as the text states vehicles are described by four values and we've got no idea what the range of those values are for any of these vehicles. Maybe that's why this is the "Beta" version? Vehicle combat is a mirror of personal combat which is fine, by the way.
- Factions are neat. The example factions are all very good. You can see where other space opera fiction has inspired some of these ideas (Space Battleship Yamato, for example), but they still feel very original. Especially dig the non-hostile nature of most of these (they have desires, but they aren't pitted to destroy each other). They all make good story seeds.
- Finally we have "Gifts" which are just lightweight "feats" that PCs acquire every other level (starting at 2nd level). I like these, too, especially the kinetic ones.
Okay, that's a lot of slobbering over the game. Can you tell it's my new favorite space opera RPG? That this is one I'd actually like to run?
Now, long time readers of the blog know that I'm a big fan of Star Wars, but have had issues with (pretty much) every Star Wars game that's ever been offered for consumption...from West End Games to WotC's D20 (and Saga) to FFG's most recent version. A lot of folks have touted White Star as THE "Star Wars game"...at least as far as light-ruled, old school (D&D style) chassis are concerned. I wrote myself that it's the closest such game I've seen.
Cascade Failure is closer.
And I say this even given that the setting is NOTHING like "Star Wars." No, what I mean is that is that the system, as is, is VERY EASILY adaptable to the Star Wars setting, should one care to do so. You'll have to cut out aspects like power armor and such...but then again, there are no hard rules for such, and who's to say you can't scale mecha or power armor up to the size of AT-ATs and AT-STs?
The existing CF classes of Empaths and Kinetics can, be easily adapted to Jedi and Sith (respectively) with near zero modification...if one is willing to forgo all the "canon" nonsense found in RPGs and prequel trilogies. Using the original trilogy (solo) as a base...something I've often considered doing but always failed failed failed in ALL my designs...the "Force" users could easily be modeled on these character classes withOUT such a thing as "the Force" (the Force being instead relegated to a religion or mythological belief of the setting as a way of explaining the existing of such sixth sense powers). Personally, I prefer the Cascade Failure version of such powers to anything I've yet seen, including my own designs. These two variations of "people with strange powers" (which, again, can be classed to any species...a failure of White Star when it comes to genre emulation) will also work well for other space opera settings. In fact, they seem almost out of place in the post-apocalyptic setting of Cascade Failure (nothing about the setting material mentions folks with psychic powers, not even as minor players in the events occurring before, during, and after). But for a CF knock-off in a Lucas-style, original trilogy setting, they find a ready home.
In my opinion.
[no there's nothing like the "Dark Side" or psychic corruption in the game...imagine, for a moment, that Yoda and Ben's discussions of such a supernatural force are simply over-blown and rooted in superstition. Call it a "Force-Atheistic" version of Star Wars. Which itself is pretty cool]
Look, it appears to be a good game. It's free. It's pretty to look at. Go ahead and download it, write to the author, tell him to get his act together and put together a chart of vehicle stats and start charging something for it. Inform him that this should be available in hardcopy (it ain't, not even print-on-demand). The fact it has a 2011 copyright and I've never seen/heard of it is a crying shame. I've been looking for a space opera game this cool for a looooong time.
[by the way, thanks to Age of Ravens for hipping me to this thing through his latest post-apocalyptic RPG post. You can read his review here]