Now, just before we go all Australian on you (well, me at least – we have a couple more reviews from beyond our borders due from a couple of the other writers) I have had a good look at the recent release of The City of Judas. This is a dark, gritty historical fantasy Apocalypse World hack that is very well done. But, and there is a but, the content of this game is quite likely not for every gamer out there as it deals with at least a portion of reality.
These series of books are really well put together. You get some quick-start rules, some playbooks, the rule-book, handouts and GM materials. They are all excellently presented and the layout is superb. The writing itself is a little wordy in patches but really well written. I never felt like I could not read anymore or I needed a break.
Some of the sections in here are brilliant little additions to this style of game. Things like “I am a confused player” and it breaks down the things that will help you play and feel more comfortable. Likewise there is a “I am a confused GM” section that aims to help out there as well. The writing in this book also helped me understand Fronts a bit better for the GM as well. Now Fronts, according to everyone I have discussed them with, are confusing and one day you will just get it. I found that the writing in the Fronts section did just that and helped me to better understand their purpose.
It is a fantasy world, there is magic, monsters and all manner of things that go bump in the night – but it is also historical and centers around the city of Jerusalem, also known as the city of Judas after one of Jesus’ disciples. It is a game set in the middle east and focusses strongly on the turmoil that existed there at the time of the crusades. I found the discussion and writing on these times to be very informative and although it is not an area I was overly familiar with I think I could take this detail and run a game well.
The art in this is also really quite unusual, and great. It consists largely of silhouettes of figures and filling the silhouette is a picture of the times similar to woodcuts etc. It works really well.
What makes me uncomfortable about this game is the use of actual religions in an almost realistic manner. Right from the get go they talk about having Christianity and Judaism play a central role to the game and although your character can be of any religion they see this as forming a sense of tension and conflict to be discovered during the playing of the game. The one thing that also struck me as odd here is that there was a third major religion of the time, Islam, that existed but the authors steer well clear of it. They mention it and say that this can be included as a fictional religion that follows the book of Q and in no way suggest that you actually use Islam.
I am not certain of why this is the case but I can see that there can be some people that would be instantly turned off of play in this game for its central religious themes based on actual religions. I am also certain that playing out religious controversies through a character is possibly not the healthiest way of exploring these themes.
There is nothing ugly about this game. It does gritty fantasy really well and for those that are fascinated by that age this is a game you will want to look at. But, again I must strongly urge you to consider how you want to face the religious overtones here that are based solidly in religion of our own world, regardless of how many hydras they may face.
This is a seriously good game that could create a blindingly brilliant campaign. The thing is it will really suit players that are prepared to face the religious overtones that a game set in the middle-east during the crusades is going to bring. If this is something you want to explore, you have the game now to do it in a stylish fashion. If the initial thought of running a game centered on real world religions makes you a bit nervous, it is not likely the game for you. I am a total atheist but looking at that and thinking of the possible repercussions has made me put this one back on the shelf and use it as a way to help me run Dungeon World. Keep rolling!
Shortly after writing this review the designer/author Davide Pignedoli replied with the following comments which are important to take into consideration.
Thanks for the review!
I just want to clarify something regarding the religions presented in the game: the cult of Judas in the setting of City of Judas is notJudaism. The cult of Judas is completely immaginary. Actually, also the Christian church depicted in the game is not completely realist.
Moreover, both religions are more political entities than religious ones. One could argue that indeed real religions played an important political role also in real history, but this is not the point.
Christians in the game represent the status quo and a stability factor (somehow reactionary), while the cult of Judas is a revolutionary faction. If you look at this through the lens of Star Wars, Christian are the Empire, and the cult of Judas are the Rebels.
Finally, the Book of Q is just quoted and not presented in the book in details to avoid transforming a fantasy game into some sort of a parody of the current messy situation in the Middle East. One might argue that this is not as brave as it could be, but it was a choice I made in purpose.
I hope this can help readers to put the content of the game in the right prospective.
[sic]By the way; here is a short piece I wrote this summer about the design of these religions in the game: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+DavidePignedoli/posts/SP4Du4tub3j
Again, many thanks for the careful review!