Thursday, March 7, 2013

RPG review - The Everlasting: Book of the Unliving

The Everlasting:  Book of the Unliving

I volunteered to review The Everlasting: Book of the Unliving when Chip Dobbs, owner of Visionary Entertainment Studios Inc, posted a request asking for reviewers.  Little did I know what I was getting into.

My prior experience with the Book of the Unliving had been a brief browse through it at the local game store, then putting it back down considering it to be just another Vampire clone.  I carried this misconception with me until I actually began reading the game after it arrived.

So what is The Everlasting: Book of the Unliving?

Set in a modern backdrop, the world of the Everlasting is one of the fantastique.  Immortals live and walk among humans, places of fantasy exist alongside normal establishments.  Not that normal humans can see this.  No, only the Everlasting and other magical kin can see the true world of the Reverie.

The Reverie, the true world as it is in the Everlasting, is a larger world than our real world.  The real world exists as a part of the true world.  Those who have some psychic or magical talent can see the Reverie, though they may not even be aware of it unless they discuss with others and discover the differences in perceptions.  The book posits that those who have visions, hallucinations, or schizophrenia may actually be seeing the Reverie, but because it differs from the real world, they are treated or locked up as insane.

One nice side effect of this is that you can use any real world location as a backdrop and insert a dungeon or an elven village or a ghul cryptorium next door.  The fact that the Reverie goes ‘deeper’ than our reality sets up many options that seem to be left out of a lot of modern-day horror games.  You are not limited to just using our world with monsters alive.  You use the real world and can add whatever fantasy world in the background, which only a small percentage of mortals can see, but with which the Eldritch can interact.

The Book of the Unliving is the first of four foundation books in the Everlasting series.  Each book introduces different archetypes into the world of the Everlasting.   The other foundation books are Book of the Light, Book of the Spirits, and Book of the Fantastic.

What can I be in The Everlasting: Book of the Unliving?

In the Book of the Unliving, we get, well, the Unliving.  Sometimes called Undead, which isn’t too accurate a term, since some of these are dead.  Just mobile dead.  This book introduces three primary types of Unliving, as well as two secondary types of Unliving.  For the three main types, you have Ghuls, Revenants, and Vampires.  In addition to these primary races, there are also Dead Souls and Reanimates.  Each of these races, called gentes in the game, have subraces.

Ghuls are created when individuals drink an Elixir of Immortality.  This elixir is a mixed blessing that is foisted upon the unsuspecting mortal looking for immortality.  Drinking the elixir causes a mortal to live the rest of their life in the next few hours, then grow weak and die a painful death.  They wake hours later with a hunger for flesh.  Human flesh, to be precise.  Most other types of flesh are unpalatable.  Also accompanying their new unlife is a stench of the grave, which can barely be covered by perfumes.

Ghuls are divided into five subraces, though only four of them are available as player character races.  There are the Bhuta, which are the standard ghul.  Their appearance and mind degenerates over time, until they eventually become mindless beasts with the stench of death.  Next are the Faitour, ghuls who do not degenerate physically, only mentally.  They can still pass in the world of the living, as long as they can cover up their stench.  Then there are the Grotesquery, a breed of ghuls that become horribly disfigured by their transformation into unlife.  With this physical deformity comes great toughness and strength.  The Vetala are a special breed of ghul that become leaders among their kind.  They are smarter, stronger, and bigger than they were in life as well as most other ghuls except Grotesqueries.  Last are the breed that are unplayable as characters, the Mindless Ones.  A portion of ghuls are born to this breed from their birth into unlife.  Their mental degeneration is complete from the start.  Other ghuls always have the danger of degenerating into mindless ones.  When this happens, they become mere animals living by instinct rather than intelligence and reason.

Revenants are dead souls who have managed to return to the real world clothed once again in flesh.  They have different ways of doing this, one of which is buying the body of a living being in the Underworld.  Others will even seek their own bodies out.  What they all have in common is that they feed off of the life force of the living, kind of like a spiritual vampire.  When they feed off the mortals, they age them.  However, they are able to feed off the life force of animals and plants as well.

Revenants are divided into two subraces, Sarkomenos and EkimmuSarkomenos are walking dead, that is, souls that have animated dead bodies.  These are the ones who occasionally look for their own corpse to reanimate.  Ekimmu are souls that have possessed the bodies of living beings.  Among the Ekimmu, there are a few groups.  There are the Salariat, members who play in the power games of the undead realm.  There are the Renunciates, those who refuse to play in the power struggles of the realm.  Last are the Abaddon, kind of like Death’s own enforcers.  This breed is the avenging angel of death, doing double duty as the Grim Reaper taking the souls of mortals into death, as well as hunting down other Revenants.  Other revenants are considered to be great traitors to death, having cheated the big guy, so the Abaddon seek them down and destroy them.

Vampires are, well, vampires.  Chances are you know what a vampire is.  On the off chance you don’t, vampires are normally undead that feed on the blood of the living.  I say normally because there is a subtype of vampire in the Book of the Unliving which are actually living.  This subtype is known as the dhampir.  The other subtypes are genitors, the originators of the vampiric bloodlines, and the scions, the standard kind of vampire.

Each of these subtypes belongs to a bloodline, or consanguinity as they are called in the Book of the Unliving.  There are twelve different bloodlines given detailed descriptions in the main book, though there are other bloodlines.  The bloodlines presented are the Bathora, Cihuateteo, Sakinis, Dracul, Kingu, Lamiae, Lilim, Nosferatu, Obayifo, Penanggalans, Tantalusi, and Xiang Shi.  The Bathora are descended of Countess Bathory.  They have no fangs and tend to practice blood magic.  The Cihuateteo are descended of an ancient Aztec Decapitator god.  They become more and more spider-like over time.  The Dakinis are the descendents of Kali.  Many carry on as assassins in Kali’s service, and some even develop the ability to mimic their progenitor and grow six additional arms.  The Dracul are descendents of Vlad Tepes, Dracula.  Dracul are the typical vampire from movies and television.

The Kingu are descendents of the ancient Babylonian god of darkness.  Members of this bloodline are masters of illusion and darkness.  The Lamiae descend from an ancient Libyan queen named Lamia.  They are the children of the White Worm, and actually transform into white serpents for periods throughout the year.  The Lilim are descended from Lilith, the ancient goddess demon.  The Lilim have become known as succubi and incubi over the ages, many having demonic aspects.  The Nosferatu are descended from an ancient plague bearer known by many names, the most common of which is Czarnobog.  The Nosferatu develop distorted countenances, their faces turning rat-like, along with other physical degeneration.

The Obayifo are descendents of Asema, an ancient African witch that lived a life of decadence torturing and killing others for pleasure.  They have no fangs, but can develop the ability to be come floating balls of light.  The Penanggalans are descended of an ancient Malaysian sorceress named Langsuyar.  They have the ability to detach their body parts and control them telekinetically.  The Tantalusi are descended of a mortal by the name of Tantalus, who in jealousy of the immortals turned to cannibalism to capture immortality.  Their white hair, brass colored eyes, and their unnerving effect on animals mark members of his bloodline.  The Xiang Shi are descendents of an ancient Chinese warrior-king.  They resemble typical vampires (or the Dracul, if you prefer).

The first of the secondary types of undead actually has some cross-over with the Revenants.  These are the Dead Souls.  There are a few varieties of dead souls, one of which is the ankou.  The ankou are actually the same as the Abaddon of the Revenant breed.   They are the grim reapers, the agents of death.  The other types of dead souls are ghosts, phantoms, and shades.  One thing they all have in common is the ability to shift between four different forms.  They can appear as they did in life, how they looked at their time of death, how they looked at their burial, and how they would appear now (in whatever state of decomposition).

The other secondary type of undead are the Reanimates.  Fleshfreaks are creatures composed of body parts from different sources, sewn together and reanimated with a dead soul.  Deathmechs are combinations of machinery and corpses, animated by dead souls.  Golems are creatures of clay with dead souls bound within them, animated by magic.  Most reanimates have enhanced strength and resilience, some with enhanced speed as well.

What about creating a character?

The first step in character creation is determining what race you will play.  Choose a gente and a subtype.  Then develop a character concept.  The character creation section provides a handy list of 20 questions to help in developing the character.  Then you choose your character’s ethos, basically what the ideology behind the character is.  This could be Child, which means the character will go through a period of growth in the game.  An ethos of Martyr means the character will be going through a story of sacrifice for the greater good.  Essentially, the ethos gives the Guide a huge plot-hook to build on with the character.

Next you choose a character’s persona.  There are 4 categories of persona: Beliefs, Passions, Outlook, and Relations.  Beliefs can be things such as “Mortals are weak”, Religion, or Pacifism.  Outlooks are qualities such as Hedonistic, Calm, or Greedy.  Passions are qualities such as “Become leader of a household”, “Become a media icon”, or “Find missing brother”.  Relations are qualities such as “Love sister”, “Harm the weak”, or “Attack demons on sight”.  You can also take Dementia with persona points.  A character can have from 4 to 9 points of personas, but must have at least one point in each category.  The scores in personas range from 0 to 7, though a starting character will range from 0 to 6.  0 indicates the character is typical for humans in that particular quality.  There are 3 methods given to generate the persona scores.  First, there is a point-allocation method where you get 15 points to divide among 4 to 9 qualities.  A random card-draw method where you draw 2 cards and total their values for the number of points to divide among 4 to 9 qualities.  Last you have a random dice-roll method where you roll 2d12 and total the results to get the number of points to divide among 4 to 9 qualities. 

Next come the Aspects.  Each character has nine Aspects, divided into three families.  There are the Mind (Mental) Aspects consisting of Instincts, Intellect, and Perception.  The Body (Physical) aspects are Dexterity, Resilience, and Strength.  The Soul (Spiritual) Aspects are Inspiration, Presence, and Spirit.  Each Aspect for protagonists ranges from 1 through 12, though starting characters will rarely have anything beyond a 6.  You are given 3 ways to generate Aspects.

The first is a point allocation method where you assign one aspect a score of 6 and have 30 points to divide between the remaining 8 aspects.  Second is a random card draw where you draw nine cards, dividing the result for each card by 2, and having that many points to divide between the aspects.  The third method is a random dice roll, where you roll 9d12, dividing the result for each die by 2, and having that many points to divide between the aspects.  In the random card and die methods, you get a bonus draw or roll, again divided by 2, that gives you bonus points to assign.  In each of these, no aspect may start off higher than 6.

In addition to Aspects, there are Aptitudes and Skills.  Essentially, Aptitudes are broad skill groups.  They consist of qualities such as Athletics, Criminal, Sciences, and Supernatural.  Each aptitude has skills under it, such that Athletics covers Accuracy, Acrobatics, Climb, Dance, Focus, Run, and Swim.  It is possible to add other skills and aptitudes as well.  To generate aptitude scores, you again have 3 methods.  In the point-allocation method, you have 15 points to spend on aptitudes and 30 points to spend on skills. Under the random card-draw method, you draw 2 cards and total the point value, which gives you the points to divide among the aptitudes.  Then you draw 5 cards and total the point values to get the points you can spend on skills.  With the random die-roll method, you roll 2d12 and total the points to get the amount to spend on aptitudes.  You then roll 5d12 to get the amount of points to spend on skills. When you assign points to an aptitude, all skills under it start at that level.  None of the aptitudes or skills may start with a value higher than 5.  So if you put 4 points in Athletics, you could only put 1 more point in Acrobatics.

After aptitudes and skills, you choose distinctions.  There are 9 distinctions: Biography, Eldritch Ties, Physique, Psyche, Resources, Servitors, Spirituality, Supernature, and Temporal Ties. There are the 3 methods of generation present here as well.  With the point-allocation method, you have a positive balance of 9 points to use.  With the card-draw method, you draw 1 card and add 3 to the value to get the number of points to use.  With the die-roll method, you roll 1d12 and add 3 to the value to get the number of points to use. The distinctions can have positive or negative scores.  You spend these points on distinctions, and can get extra points by taking negative scores in distinctions.  The scores in distinctions range from -9 to 9.

The next step in character creation is purchasing Preternaturae and Magick.  Each race has specific preternaturae, magical powers of their race, they automatically receive.  In addition to this, you get points to spend on other preternaturae and/or magick.  With the point-allocation method, you get 30 points to divide between different preternaturae and/or magick.  With the card-draw method, you draw 5 cards, total the values, then round that to the nearest multiple of 5 to get the number of points to use.  With the die-roll method, you roll 5d12, total the values, then round that to the nearest multiple of 5 to get the number of points to use.  You can spend all, some, or none of these points at character creation, with the option to spend them later for powers you might not be able to afford at the time.

The last step in character creation are the final details.  The character’s level (yes, this is a level based system, but only in name), the character’s speed, life points, and amount of animus.  Characters start off at level 3, though this is just used as a gauge for the character’s overall power.  Their speed determines how often they act in combat, life is the amount of damage they can sustain, and animus is the amount of supernatural energy at their disposal.

How does it work?

The action resolution system for The Everlasting: Book of the Unliving uses a pool.  I would say dice pool, but that would only be telling part of the story.  The Book of the Unliving provides several different options for play, including using a dice pool, using a percentile system, using cards,  and free-form.  When using cards, the recommended type of cards are Tarot cards.  The standard resolution uses the minor arcana, but each game the players get to draw from the major arcana to allow them to take control of the story at points.

So how does the system work?  Well, for the card based and the dice pool based resolution, it goes like this.  The Guide provides the difficulty number and specifies what Aspect to use.  The protagonist draws a number of cards or rolls a number of dice equal to the aspect.  The difficulty number is modified by any appropriate skill the character has, along with any other modifiers determined by the Guide.  Each die or card over the modified difficulty number is a success.  For example, if a character is trying to climb a wall, they are using their Dexterity aspect.  If the Guide determines the difficulty is average, it is equal to a 9.  So a protagonist with a Dexterity of 4 and a climb skill of 3 would draw 4 cards, with any totaling 6 or greater counting as a success.

When handling contested actions, such as a race or combat, each opponent performs their own draws or rolls and the number of successes are compared.  The greater number of successes wins, with the degree of success being the number of the winner’s successes minus the number of the loser’s successes.  In this case, each participant has their own difficulty numbers rather than numbers determined by the opponent.

In both the die-roll and card-draw methods, a roll of 1 or a draw of an ace counts against you.  Each 1 or ace subtracts one from the number of successes.  If you have more 1 or aces than successes, you suffer a disaster.  The number of ‘negative successes’ determines the severity of the disaster.

But what about fighting?

Combat runs using a speed chart similar to the one used in Hero System.  However, the chart in The Everlasting has 10 phases instead of 12 in Hero System.  Your speed tells what phases you act on.  Each type of weapon has a difficulty number assigned to it, which is what you use as the base difficulty when attacking.  Dodging and blocking have their own assigned difficulty numbers as well. 

When an attacker has more successes on his attack roll than the defender does on his defense roll, he succeeds in hitting the defender.  The number of additional successes are added to the weapon’s damage score.  The defender can resist the damage with a Resilience roll or draw.  The defender makes a draw or roll against a difficulty of 7, with no wound penalties counting against him.  For each success, the damage is reduced by 1 point.  Any damage points not resisted are applied to the defenders life score.  When a character takes less than ¼ their life score in damage, they are considered bruised.  If they take ¼ of their life score but less than ½, they are lightly wounded and suffer a +1 penalty to difficulty numbers.  If they take ½ their life score but less than ¾, they are seriously wounded and suffer a +3 penalty to difficulty numbers.  If they take ¾ of their life score but less than all of it, they are grievously wounded and suffer a +5 penalty to difficulty numbers.  If they take all of their life score, they are considered lethally wounded and are unable to perform actions.

Anything else?

Characters accumulate Destiny Points and Backlash Points throughout the games.  Destiny points are used by the protagonists to affect elements of the game, bending them to favor the protagonist.  Destiny points can have small effects, such as 1 automatic success for 1 destiny point.  They can also have major effects, such as changing a major event to favor the protagonist for 7 points.  Backlash points are used by the Guide to negatively affect the protagonist, possibly snatching victory from the grasp of the character.  Backlash points range from causing instant failure in an action for 1 backlash point to a permanent serious curse for 10 backlash points.

The magick section includes a free-form system with a few example spells from different schools of magick.  There are three forms of magick; spontaneous, spells, and rituals.  In the core book, only spontaneous castings and spells are discussed.  The book refers to The Magician’s Companion (an unreleased supplement) for details on rituals.  Essentially, spontaneous magicks are used when a caster doesn’t know a particular spell to create the effect.  They are more draining on the character’s animus and tend to be more difficult to cast.  Spells are magicks that have set effects and descriptions, but which require less personal energy and tend to be easier.  By continually casting the same spontaneous magick, it is possible to have it become a spell after repeated castings.

The free-form magick system is used to build spontaneous and spell magicks.  For spontaneous magicks, you determine the intent of the caster, then the subject who is being affected.  You compare these to a table to get the base animus cost and difficulty number of the magick.  You determine the magnitude of the spell, then multiply the number form the table times the magnitude to get the animus cost.  The final number from the table modifies the difficulty number.  Spells have a base difficulty number 2 less than spontaneous magicks, as well as only costing half the animus for the same effect.  It is possible for spontaneous magicks to become so used that they become spell magicks.

The book winds up with a section on gamemastering in the Reverie.  In this section, there are many tips given to help you create or have a more enjoyable experience.  Many of the tips focus on ways to make the roleplaying session become a life-changing growth experience for the player, to the point of having opening and closing rituals for sessions.  This section also discusses ways to develop lucid dreaming so you can continue your adventures in the dreams.

How does it look?

The book has an attractive cover with a blood red top and bottom border with the title in gold lettering.  There is a wrap-around picture, with the cover depicting a member of the Dakini bloodline manifesting the 8 arms of Kali with skeletons rising from the ground in front of her.  The back cover portion has two very similar looking ghuls stalking forward from the cemetery.  I think the cover is one of the more eye-catching and attractive covers on an RPG book.

The interior art ranges from old woodcuts to mood-setting photographs to somewhat gruesome modern art.  There is a good use of old art such as the woodcuts.  The woodcuts go quite well with the book and give it a good feel.  The rest of the art ranges in quality from poor to okay to good, as with most roleplaying games.  Art is, of course, a very subjective subject.

The writing is enjoyable, though there are occasional typos in the text.  More annoying than the typos were a couple of layout errors I noticed.  In one such error, the sidebar text ends in mid-sentence, with no continuation anywhere.  Another such error was a stylized large letter that was supposed to being a paragraph appears to be missing.  These issues did not create problems with understanding what was being said.  More troublesome to me was the tendency for the layout of the book to change.  Most of the book is done in double-column format.  However, there were parts of the book where the format would change to single-column or three-column, sometimes on a page with two columns.  This is a personal preference, but I prefer consistency, as I find the change distracting.

The fiction in the book is acceptable.  It is not what I would call novel quality, but it is not poor quality either.  As far as fiction in roleplaying games goes, I would say it is about average to a little above average.  One thing I did not like was the opening story.  The story itself is interesting and fits in members of different gentes, not all of which are in this book.  This is not an issue since it shows the world intermingling.  My problem with the opening fiction is that it ends in this book, and is continued in the Book of the Light.  I would prefer to have the fiction self-contained in the single volume.

Speaking of being self-contained in a single volume, this is an area where the game shines.  With this core book, you get the rules for playing several different types of undead, each of which have different subtypes.  So this book gives you rules and guidelines on a large number of options.  I definitely prefer this to being offered rules for one type of undead in the book.  However, on the opposite side, this book also refers you to a couple of supplements that have not been published yet.  As mentioned in the magick comments above, you are referred to The Magician’s Companion for additional rules on magick.  Other sections refer you to the Codex of Immortality, another unpublished supplement.  Hopefully these books will see the light of day some time.

My last comments on the book deal with the book itself.  I have had my copy since July of this year.  Pages are already falling out, and I tend to be very meticulous with my books.  Many of my books appear new after I own them for years.  I wish this one had been the same.  I contacted Chip Dobbs, the owner of Visionary Entertainment Studios Inc, and he has a policy of replacing the defective books.  Apparently some of the early printings had an issue with the binding, but not all of them.  If you buy a defective copy, you can go to the company website to contact Chip for resolution.

All in all, I like the book.  It is attractive and reads well.  In play, the system works, and there are several systems to try if one doesn’t suit you.  Given that the character creation is a point-based character creation, it is possible to make combat monsters, just as in many point-based games.  However, with a Guide and players working together, it is a simple thing to make a decent, well-rounded character that isn’t a min-maxed combat vehicle.

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