I always knew I was going to want to review this game from the moment I added my pledge to the Kickstarter. I have always wanted to play a pure horror game like Call of the Cthulhu or something similar and have owned that game in various versions over my gaming career. Problem is I never could get a game together with my friends being more pulp fantasy or sci-fi oriented. Now, with the advent of the awesomeness of high speed internet and the assistance of places like Google+ I can get games like this up and running and it was time to finally realise a true horror game built with my own hands with Kevin Crawford guiding me.
The Book and Art
I have a load of PDF’s but I find that I still miss holding a book, especially those that I have high hopes for and so I bought the hardcover version of Silent Legions from DrivethruRPG (affiliate links are provided throughout this post), and downloaded the PDF. I read up until the point where it talks about making your own world with the PDF and then decided to wait for the slow mail crawl from wherever it gets printed to Tasmania to hold it in my hands and do the rolls. I am glad I did.
Just recently I heard from someone that they just could not bring themselves to read the book because the cover is atrocious. This is really disappointing to me because a) I like the cover and b) it is a marvelous game. I will grant the person that made the comment that there is something not quite right about the cover in much the same way that I watch a computer generated human in a game or animated movie and can tell that there is something wrong. I think though that might have been part of the reason that this is the cover. In what other game is the focus on material that is not quite right? It works, and the fact that they seem to be rushing to do a ritual to save the world (or at least their own hides) seems appropriate.
I think another thing to consider here, inclusive of the black and white art that fills the book, is that this game is an Old School Renaissance (OSR) styled game. It seeks to connect the reader to what it was like playing games in the late 70’s and through the early to mid eighties. The cover is in fact superb compared to those times and if you received this cover then there would be people going mad about it. In the days of today though where glossy, fully professional covers like Pathfinder and D&D hold sway this instead seems to make it stand out for criticism. Not from me though. One of the very cool things too is that Kevin Crawford made sure that he paid for all the art so others can use it royalty free anywhere! Now that is awesome and it is something unheard of in this day and age. You can get the images from DriveThru also for FREE!
I do really like the style of the art inside this book a lot. It really does touch my love of the OSR perfectly and when I look at it I do get the feeling that I had when I used to flick through the games I used to play as a kid thoroughly like Super Squadron, James Bond RPG, MegaTraveller and Maelstrom. This combined with the well printed and presented book made me extremely happy to have bought the hardcover copy. It is well bound, has very crisp, clear text and is very easy to read. The font is a generous size and was not shrunken down to a tiny setting to save on pages (of which it has 184).
Rules and a Read Through
I finished the book last night as I lay in bed. It has taken me a while to get through the book in its entirety but it is not because it was a hard book to read. Quite the contrary, it is because I wanted to soak it all in and the past month and a half have been super busy for me professionally. The book is split into three sections. The first covers Character Generation and the Rules. The second section looks at the creation of a mythos and establishing a sandbox game for your players to play in and the final section are bonuses and extras that were part of the Kickstarter rewards for some of the backers and add some ideas on how to implement some ideas into the game. By far and large the major section of the book is the one that relates to the making of the Sandbox and while the rules section comes first I think I will start by talking about the creation of the sandbox.
Creating the Sandbox
A massive amount of this book really relates to helping the GM in running the game and playing the game in a Sandbox. What is a sandbox is described in one of my older posts here. Kevin Crawford is very well known for his sandbox game implementations. Probably the most famous of his games being the sandbox science fiction game Stars Without Number. I have read that game and I really liked the sandbox that he provided but I did not like a class based system for a science fiction game so I never ran it. I have many friends that love it.
Silent Legions reads very like Stars Without Number in supporting a sandbox. It creates the sandbox that the players will be involved in via a very top down approach, building one thing at a time. It tends to be mostly created with a bunch of randomized charts that the GM rolls and then collates the randomness into their own take on how it all fits together. It is very well thought out and makes the GM think about connections as they go. From each of these connections builds up a believable, deep setting that has richness and a life apart from the GM. It truly creates a world of possibility.
Part of the cleverness in these rules are the suggestions that the GM uses areas that they are familiar with and have visited to build their mythos. The game that I ran used such places and because I was using those settings I gave it more colour naturally from my own knowledge. I had actually been planning to do this myself before I even got to the sections on the locations and was pleasantly surprised to find that Kevin had the same kind of thoughts.
The Sandbox section takes you from the Gods of the Mythos inclusive of perhaps the pantheons they inhabit and unpronounceable alien names! Then you move into the strange and alien races that serve the gods, or against them, that the players will likely encounter. Like the Deep Ones of Cthulhu you will find ways to create completely insane, weird life forms to drive your characters insane with. Beyond that they give you the rules for location building and the building of cults and Kelipah (other planar places) that fully fill your world with intrigue, plot and danger.
Among this material are the directions on how to create an “Adventure Template”. I found this slightly strange in the book as they talk about the adventure template, and while they did I followed on and created the template that I used for the game I ran. Once they were finished describing how to use it though they then gave a whole heap of random tables to create the template and they suggested you have a few generic ones on hand that could be applied to any of the locations. I am not sure why they described it twice in this instance.
The other issue that I have with the Sandbox section is there is a section that is designed to show progression in the world. I have no problem that this exists, plots go on even if players do not investigate them and so they may have to deal with the consequences, the issue I have with it is the section is overly complex and confusing. It is in Stars Without Number as well and while the one in Silent Legions is a lot better than SWN it still lacks for want of examples. I would love to see a developed plan here to show me scope, usage, development and results of a downtime development session. It really needs it. I find myself way too confused as to what I should apply where and why some of the arbitrary rules in it are, well, so arbitrary. For me, I will just develop the world by eye and GM judgement because I do not understand the rules written here or their application.
Rules and Character Creation
This is actually a moderately small portion of the entire book. There are only four character classes (Investigator, Scholar, Socialite and Tough) who are represented in a class/level system that actually fits this game as it allows for good levels of skill differentiation and individualising of each character. The character rules are pretty close to what they were in the Red Box version of Dungeons and Dragons and hence will be well understood by most players who have ever played a game of the same ilk. Characters are simple rather than complicated and it works to allow the player to fill the character with their own ideas rather than a convoluted layering of game mechanics to make them individual.
Skills are the driving force in the game. The check system is very simple and described in only a couple of pages completely as is combat. In fact all of the rules, complete with art and flowery text all fit into a ten page space. No real confusion to them. They are functional and quick. In fact, when I ran my game I had forgotten much of them because of the time between reading them and running the game so I did a quick skim and then used the one page Quick Reference sheet on page 31 to run the entire nights gaming with no confusion. In fact there were no rules questions and everyone pretty well understood what the go was in around 4 minutes of discussion that powered us through the rest of the night.
There is a sorcery section that I did not use in that game. It is also pretty easy to use. Familiarity with the spells may be an issue in game as it is with many games. That said though it is likely that a game which includes the sorcery spells in this book will focus on only one or two spells a night and thus a bit of research will go a long way. They do offer the ability to port other spells in from other systems too.
The Extra Material
There are a swag of extra little bits from random tables to create Old One names through to societies that have been requested by Kickstarter backers. There are also some guides on how to move the material from Silent Legions into other game systems including Stars Without Number and the likes of them.
I found each of these sections interesting but I am unlikely to ever use any of them based on how well the sandbox that I made turned out. None of these others really fit the setting and so it would be just too much work to re fix them into it. That siad it was interesting to take a look at some of the other ideas that people had and even more cool when I realised one of the contributors was Jason Blalock, one of my favourite people on G+.
I am going to label the creature section under the Extras largely because it does not fit perfectly anywhere else. This bestiary was really well done. There are a smattering of weird critters here and some undead but the real focus is the chart that they provide you that allows you to build any creature you want quickly. A page for the chart offers up all sorts of cool opportunities and there is a good guide that goes along with it also showing how you can mix and match your way to precisely what you want. It is such a smarter way of approaching the creature creation rather than an extensive section that would more than likely not be what each individual campaign calls for.
Now, I have already produced a post on what running a game of this was like and if you missed it you can find it here. What I am comfortable reiterating here are a few points. The first of those is that the system is so invisible in this game. Truly there is just so little to know when you are actually in the game. It feels like a narrative game like FATE without the awkwardness of having to ask “Can I use this aspect for this?” or “What does a scene aspect do again?”. Instead it just drives the story forward and I can only remember one rule mention when one of the players used the socialites special ability to get one of the guests at the party talking.
Secondly, it delivers on the theme in abundance. We had great fun role playing things up and laughter was had but when they were confronted with scenes that would probably garner an R rating at a cinema I heard the change. I felt the mood at the game turn serious and darker as they heard the images I was presenting and they were trying to rationalise it in character. This can be a very hard thing to achieve in the game and the system does not necessarily support it (apart from through madness attribute) but the direction in building that sandbox focuses on garnering this result from the very first random ideal to the last.
That said, this is a very particular brand of horror. I am not so certain how a general ghost story or the like would fare but for a horror of uncertainty and suspense there is nothing quite like this game. I am sure you could do a simple ghost story but for most of the talk of spirits in the book they talk more about possessing ghosts and poltergeists which is not really what I see as a good ghost story.
Finally, the adventure template idea worked very well in play. After building my template for the one shot that I ran I heard the players discussing some of the hints I put in about other mysteries that were part of my locations. Inclusive of this was n unexpected trip that they took to another one of the locations, so strong was the hint. If this game were to continue the story would most certainly have been a case of following the players direction of investigation and no need to have them start in a bar with a mysterious stranger giving them hooks. They would already have them based on other investigations.
I am not sure that terribly many of you would expect me to say any different but this is one stunning game. The delivery of a simple narrative game that promises horror and a greatly detailed sandbox styled system is a winner. kevin Crawford knows how to take advantage of his particular building systems and applying them to appropriate themes. I can see why people quickly become Kevin Crawford fans. I know I certainly am. I am even questioning if my decision to not run Stars Without Number was the right thing to do.
I do still believe that the sections that look at running plots etc. in downtime are the weakest part of his system. They are confusing, look time consuming and really would benefit from a detailed explanation to show precisely what he means. This does not break the game though. As with everything else that is in the book it is a modular addition that you can use or not. I am an experienced GM so I could just as easily use my own judgement as to what happens in between the play sessions, how things change and what it changes for the players.
Regardless of my minor problems with that portion of the system I do think that this really should be the book that people think of when they think horror. In comparison to others it is sleek, modular and allows for freedom of the GM to build pretty much whatever they want regardless of the historic notions already in place. This is the game that H.P. Lovecraft would be playing because he wanted people to use his stories to build on or come up with new material and it is that creative, new idea that really excited H.P. Lovecraft. So do yourself a favour and get this game. Don’t just grab it and say you will play it one day, grab it and play it. Get a game ready for Halloween or for a Friday the 13th and see what your regular gamers or just people that want to give it a go have to say about it. Keep rolling!
All art included in this review has come from the actual art of the book and is made from the creative hands of Nikola Avramovic, David L. Johnson, Luigi Castellani, Joyce Maureira, Earl Geir or Miguel Santos.