The Nerd Manifesto

In 2012 Mark Henderson published his book “The Geek Manifesto” which argued that all politics and policy making should be grounded in scientific evidence, and that in a democracy it is up to the scientifically literate to make it so. Naturally, the biggest argument this kicked off was about the definition of nerds and geeks so I’m going to add to the mess by using the other slang term for a different kind of subculture, and a different kind of manifesto, but one I think equally as important and far-reaching.

Any precise definition of geeks and/or nerds is problematic, and not to mention constantly changing. I’ve enjoyed watching the subcultures these terms describe evolve and mutate a lot over the years. Thirty years ago, when I began identifying with parts of it, things were very different. In one sense, things were much more divided, in another much more homogenous. The former came from the fact that nerds and/or geeks were quite new and quite socially isolated and as such only mixed as much as they needed to do. As soon as you found one obsession and one group to validate that your obsession was okay, you were fine. So the wargamers didn’t really talk to the roleplayers, who didn’t talk to the comic geeks who didn’t talk to the sci-fi freaks.

Yet across all of that, we were extremely homogenous: we were almost without exception white, straight cis-men, and, to quote Chasing Amy (a movie that at once threw geeks into the mainstream yet also now is massively out of date), “extremely underweight or overweight adolescents”. There were some grognards too, of course, a term whose origins in a French word for old soldiers shows just how the hobbies were viewed. Indeed for a while it seemed like the audience for gaming was generally aging with those who started in the 70s and 80s, with limited new blood flowing in: gaming, and a lot of other nerd/geek circles was a subculture stuck in adolescence, which was not un-true for some of its members.

As adolescents, we were sullen, negative and exceedingly tribal. We shunned those who might be on our periphery: drama and art nerds were too expressive, punks and goths too socialized, freaks and stoners too cool. We even at times excluded the downtrodden, the physically, mentally and socially handicapped – the goofs and the dweebs and the loners – lest they bring us down with them. Of course, a popular narrative of the time for nerds was the sense that all these little sub-cultures were all nerds in their own way and we could all unite, at least against the rich kids, the preppies and the jocks. Some went so far as to suggest that even that barrier was too far and we should all come together.

High school movies ruled 80s pop culture and informed high school culture as much as it observed it, and it borrowed a lot from media about racial and class oppression at the time. This was particularly noticeable with nerds because they existed outside the classroom, as they fixed our computers and invented our new toys. The beachside detecives Nick and Cody in Riptide didn’t have a magical Native American or Asian sidekick, they had a guy with hornrimmed glasses and leather patches on his cardigan with a wacky Jewish or Polish name. Sitcoms featured nerds the same way they did the handicapped and racial minorities: to show how nice the hero was by treating the “weird” person properly, and helping that “weird” person find their potential and/or acceptance amongst others. Revenge of the Nerds made this explicit: not only was it subtextually echoing college stories of the 70s about the rise of black fraternities, the titular nerds joined an all-black fraternity and in the emotive end-of-film speech linked America’s history of tolerance to a general sense of “stop picking on people who are weird”.

It is of course no surprise then that modern geeks in this subculture, even ones who have barely felt any censure as it becomes more and more mainstream and accepted, continue to appropriate the language and ideas of minority struggles to their own drive for acceptance, to ridiculous and offensive extremes. But if you’ll bear with me, there’s a good side to this I’m going to tease out.

Because if we look again at those Revenge-getting Nerds, only three of them were the horn-rimmed spectacle computer-using white guys. They were joined by the gay guy, the foreigner and the stoner, and although they were all men and perpetrated a litany of horrifying sexual crimes and sexist attitudes for which there can be no excuse, they also had moments of acceptance for the non-body-typical ladies of their female counterpart fraternity. Which is to say: why it was horrifying that nerds co-opted minority identity, the flip side is that in nerdity, there was a way for mainstream white straight people to “try-on”, if only for a moment, a sense of what it is like to be excluded. To cosplay, if you will, as a minority. And I actually do believe that’s important, and has grown into something powerful as geekiness has evolved.

Things have changed a great deal in the last thirty years. The Trek reboot was successful enough to mean the mainstream couldn’t ignore Star Trek any more, and the same thing happened with Star Wars reissues and prequels. Comic superheroes rewrote the rules of movies and made comics hard to ignore. The X-Files and Buffy made TV a place where fantasy and SF could flourish and attract a different kind of audience: women in particular being drawn in to the romance and sexual tension in both. And then Settlers of Catan kicked off the board game revolution which provided a less-intensive entry point into gaming, while things like the World of Darkness and LARPing tapped whole new subcultures into roleplaying. (Computer gaming meanwhile dug itself into a dark hole of marketted masculinity the results of which we are reaping now, of course – but it is catching up slowly at last.) Nowadays, things like The Walking Dead, Avengers and Game of Thrones is so widely and deeply stamped into the popular consciousness that the very idea of genre fiction being a minority thing is laughable.

The new audiences means conventions are changed. They are no longer quiet gatherings of button-down, horn-rimmed white straight adolescent males shuffling into dedicated hobby-spaces for the obessesed and obsessive. Now they are mardi-gras – a word I use very specifically – of costume and culture. Every event crosses all the smaller parts of nerdiness, linking comics, tabletop, video games, costumery, performance, with the only link being heavily merchandized genre fiction tagged to identity. Of course, even the genre fiction element is debatable, as any TV show can be “nerded” now, as long as you binge watch it and buy the figurines, and in music, goth-punk-rockabilly blend and run over into metal-alternative-hip-hop-nerdcore-dubsteb-whatever. Everyone is a nerd, because nerd now means “easily marketed to using attached identity to a subculture”.

But again, there’s a good side. Because again, marketing is harvesting off a real human need to build tribes and create culture, however cargo-constructed or delivered pre-fabricated. And as we do that, we again cosplay at other cultures, and that can give us insight and understanding into more shall we say fault-line stricken cultures. Minority culture survives by strengthening itself in festival and pageantry and culture, now that nerds are dancing too, we might at last see why the gay and lesbians needed a mardi-gras.

And cosplay was the heart of mardi-gras and gay culture not just because it was about reinforcing culture, but because it was a way to try on new ideas. Straight men could go in drag for a day as a way of touching the other. Indeed drag as a whole for straight and gay men was a way of exploring gender politics through costume. It was never intended to be a mockery of the trans experience (although some have made it so), it was designed to be a way to explore it through borrowing, like nerds learning about being not-white for one second by building nerd culture.

So what we have then, in this new emergent prefab geek culture is a way for people do play in a drag-like fashion with new ideas. And because at the heart of this is genre fiction, a world of fantasy, that realm allows us to play with reality without the need for a once-a-year mardi-gras. Long before 1970s dragqueens the Arabian Nights tales and Greek myths helped us try-on new ideas about gender with its tales of swapping things around. It was magic, but then it always was: Star Trek famously got the first cross-racial kiss on television through “mind control”, and they got the first gay kiss through “aliens”. Fantasy – in the widest sense of stories outside reality – is all about trying things on because Things Are Different Here. We have gone into the woods where the rules no longer apply, and people can fall in love with who they least expect. As Mark Twain said, travel is deadly to prejudice; I suggest that magical travel can be doubly so.

The great episode of Deep Space Nine “Far Beyond The Stars” made this point so well about how science-fiction can dream a reality that is literally unbelievable to the world around us and then once we dream it we can BUILD that world. Dr Rosemary Jackson argued in her incredibly important book that fantasy is not and never has been mere escapism or flight of fantasy but rather that fantasy is the literature of subversion. Once up can be down and day night and gods walks amongst us and magic is real, then men can marry men and black men can be president and nobody bats an eyelid. When we can dream it we can build it, and the first gateway to dreaming it is the world of the possible, the world of fantasy.

This isn’t just true in the cultural, but in the personal as well. Whoopi Goldberg’s famous quote about seeing Uhura in Star Trek inspiring her to be an actress shows us how important representation is, and we see it again now as little girls thrill to see Rey take centre stage in the new Star Wars.

And so in this new geek culture we have something that not just apes minority culture in a way that can teach us greater acceptance, but also where fantasy provides room for a heightened level of experimentation. And that makes things possible, and people dream that little bit further. We can be more playful. Which is why, faced with the absence of representation, fan art and fan fiction rushed to fill the gap, to take that last little step. It’s why the deep female friendship between Huntress and Oracle in Birds of Prey was so attractive to young gay women, because they felt able, in this world of fantasy, to draw conclusions they might not have in Cagney and Lacey, perhaps. And why the internet has rushed to turn the bromance of Finn and Poe in The Force Awakens into a romance sans the “b”.

John Barrowman is a great example of this, of someone who uses his geek celebrity and the celebration of that culture and of it being both a bit weird and hard to understand and excluded but at the same time magical and permissive to be very vocal about supporting LGBTI issues, in a playful way that only the pageantry of geekiness allows. Captain Jack can be bisexual without it being a problem, and when we dip into Doctor Who culture, when we celebrate that culture, when we were the accessories of that culture, we allow that to be true. To be a geek is therefore to be political, to permit a more accepting culture for the world and for you.

The best example I’ve seen of this in person though was at a gay marriage event. I’ve watched politics – my other “fandom” – grow more and more geeky over time as “politics” (a disgustingly insufficient word for ‘accepting others’) has bled into geekiness, and at a 2012 event there were enough cosplayers to count it as a convention. Some were “gay” cosplayers, in BDSM, drag or protest garb, but some were not. A priest performed, as a political act of definace, an illegal marriage ceremony for anyone who wished it. Two proud homosexual women got up and they were dressed as Castiel and Dean from Supernatural. Again, a bromance from which fans have furiously removed the “b” in their imaginations, and here, dressed as genders they were not, as characters that never existed, and whose sexuality was not that way anyway (in canon, you know), under the spell of all that fantasy, they performed their own ultimate fantasy of being married in a way the law prevented them from doing so. Little dreams allow bigger dreams, and understanding how others can exclude little dreams allows you to understand how bigger dreams can be realized.

The Nerd Manifesto then is to accept and engage with our inescapably now-political hobby, to understand why fantasy and freedom intersect as they do, and to take that and build better worlds with it. If you believe a man can fly and the Doctor will win, embody that hope in a world where even more important dreams can come true. To use the power of subversion that lies at the heart of fantasy to subvert the world, until it conforms to who you are when you dream.

 

 

Estalia Preview 4: The Countless Kingdoms

Estalia is not one kingdom but more than two dozen, riven with blood feuds, politics and shifting borders. Along with a massive chapter on its two great cities, Magritta and Bilbali, the unstoppable Craig Oxbrow takes us on a tour of more than twenty of the major ones. Ancient Agarre has fallen so we start with B and go to Z, and here for you is the top and tail of that alphabet.

 

BADAJOZ

Quick Data

Official Name: Most Royal Kingdom Of Badajoz

Ruler: Philippe IV de Los Cabos

Government: Prince’s court, supported by Hidalgo landowners

Capital: Los Cabos

Free Towns: Nerja

Major exports: Shipbuilding, salt and pickled fish, shellfish, pearls, angora, wool, leather

Heraldry: Three ships with white sails in a red field under a golden half sun.

The Land And Its People

The southwestern edge of the Estalian peninsula is hot, dusty and inhospitable. Most of the people of Badajoz cling to the coast, where the fishing fleets and oyster nets support the principality’s tenuous economy. In the centuries since the first Crusades many of its harbour forts have fallen into disuse, and fishing, shipbuilding and trade with neighbouring kingdoms keep the subjects of the Throne of Pearls well fed. Goatherds and drovers work in the reddish Miramar Hills and the dusty plains encircling them, coming to town to trade meat and wools for fresh and dried fish.

Seat of power for the kingdom is Los Cabos, a city renowned for its mariners since Reman times and a strategic point that every invading army and navy has fought over for just as long. Legend has it that Myrmidia herself founded the city, the first ship launched from the bay being carved by the maiden goddess herself from a single Encina Oak tree.

The great explorer Vespuce Lustros was a son of Los Cabos. The explorer’s second voyage set out from the city aboard Badajozian ships. To this day the Lustrian Treasure Fleet uses the bay as a winter berth, helping to defend the coast from Sangria pirates and Araby corsairs drawn by the wealth flowing through the city. The Pearl of the Western Seas attracts many adventurous spirits as it revels in its richest years since the first Crusade.

This success has also reinvigorated Nerja, the chartered free town to the northeast of Los Cabos known for its salt and pickled fish, and San Pedro del Sur, a market town in the foothills of the Miramars and a place of pilgrimage due to its healing spring, known as the Tears of the Little Sister.

Quotes

“The Throne of Pearls, city of wonders! You can keep Magritta, it’s got too many hills anyway.”

Cristóbal Villalobos, shipwright

“Behold the Asustar, the greatest pearl ever found, centre of the crown jewels, to be worn whence our most noble prince takes a wife.”

Condesa Violeta Della Sur Della Shallya, social climber

“The Maiden General herself was the first to sail from this bay, sirs. We defend this land with no less ferocity.”

Dolorada Della Charybdim, pirate hunter

“They build good boats, I grant them that.”

Marco Colombo, Tilean explorer

Adventure Hooks

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In

The Treasure Fleet is due to return in days, augurs and carrier pigeons confirming that it has left La Isla Atalaya. The city is in a rush to make ready for a grand festival welcoming the conquering heroes home. And, naturally, pirates and pirate hunters alike wait to make the first move. In the midst of all this, the captain of the harbour watch is found murdered. Suspicion falls on agents of the Sangria pirates, and the city swings from hysteria to paranoia. Who killed the captain and to what cause?

A Chill In The Water

All along the Costa del Sur there have been strange reports of fishermen and shipwrights disappearing by night. Then one of them manages to stumble into a dockside taverna, clutching his side and ranting of men with the heads of trout attacking with tridents and nets. Is any of this true? And if so, what do the sea folk want with men? And what does the Kraken have to do with it?

 

ZATIFA

Quick Data

Official Name: The Holy Kingdom of Zatifa

Ruler: King Ernesto Puente Eboro

Government: Senate

Capital: Gualcazar

Free Towns: none

Major exports: Bookbinding, printing, glassware, wine, sugar and honey

Heraldry: A purple field with an open white book in the upper left quadrant, a golden hand on the right half.

The Land And Its People

Zatifa is a small kingdom north of the Mendora plains, which carried on almost entirely unmolested throughout the Crusades and the years since. However, some centuries ago, heir to the throne Prince Ildefonso was orphaned in a border war and essentially raised by his tutor, becoming a uniquely learned young man. The Scholar Prince ordered that Zatifa become a seat of learning, and set about building the renowned University of Gualcazar.

Today, in the midst of a peaceful, largely rural kingdom with lush vineyards and large apiaries, Gualcazar is rivalled on the Southern Sea only by the Pavona Collegio in Tilea, drawing scholarly children from the finest and noblest families in the Kingdoms, and attracting brilliant minds to teach, research and invigilate there. Centuries of genius have contributed to the reputation, architecture and landmarks of the city and the kingdom as a whole, and clever students from all backgrounds are drawn to the idyllic riverside Puente Eboro campuses. It is possible to see the heir to the throne of Lysboa or Cabria debating Classical theatre with the daughter of a Tarroccan merchant.

Unfortunately, even guarantees of safety cannot entirely ensure that the rich and powerful, or the poor but brilliant, are entirely safe. Some say that the politics of the Peninsula for the next generation are played out in the Puente Eboro.

Worse yet, as any seat of learning will, it also attracts those who seek knowledge for darker purposes. Vampires dwell in the hidden underground libraries, and a group of students and tutors dedicate their nights to hunting down the unholy Necrarchs who seek to usurp the city of learning.

Quotes

“This is the greatest scholarly city in the Old World. Despite what those Pavona dogs think. We’ll see who wins the boat race next year!”

Jacinto de Silve, Rower

“Knowledge creates and draws in secrets, mysteries, things that we should research and consider before taking action.”

Guillermo del Arboleda, tutor of the Physical Sciences

“There are vampires. We should kill them.”

Melisende De Matorral De Niro, student of Classical Linguistics and vampire hunter

“The Known World is definitely doomed.”

Enrique Miguel Ezquerra de Molena, Invigilator in history and classical studies

Adventure Hooks

The Puente Eboro Four

A group of clever students have been recruited by agents of a rival kingdom to spy on the heir to their own land. While they have little to report, the scandal of revealing this could damage the University’s reputation, and helping to conceal it could lead to the spies going on to positions of power. The Dons of the University would like a third option…

Gualcazar By Night

A college town with vampires lurking underneath trying to take over the world is really bound to see conflict. Throw in rich and powerful people as targets for the undead, and ancient lore hidden in the massive college libraries, and trouble is sure to follow.  Thankfully, the mortals have an edge when one of their number is discovered to be an heir to the power of the Andanti, an ancient Estalian line of vampire hunters.

 

 

Chill Third Edition: A Review

RPGs are a crowded marketplace. Particularly in the traditional mode: there’s only so many ways to differentiate the idea of simulated avatars moving through an imagined environment. And the thing we do in them almost as much as kill monsters in fantasy dungeons is kill monsters in modern day horror. Which is to say, it’s not enough for the modern-day monster killing RPG Chill to be decent, or even good. It also needs to bring something new to the table. Chill tries hard to rise to this challenge, but its successes are never quite without qualifications.

 

Of course, Chill is something old, not new. Chill was first released by Pacesetter Games in 1984 – an eternity ago in gaming. I never played the original so I’m not sure how much new stuff they’ve added and how much is a relic of the past. The sense I get is they’ve tried to keep as much as possible, and sometimes I fear that might have led to some preservations which might have been better culled or at least cleaned and polished. On the other hand, not all changes are improvements…

 

To pick an emblematic example, let’s talk the core system. Chill was one of the last of the great dividers: nowadays, it’s considered taboo but in the 80s it was commonly expected for players of roleplaying games to be able to do division and multiplication on the fly. Chill is in fact an acronym for how the system works: there are three levels of success – Colossal, High and Low – ChilL (not to be confused with California Highway Patrol, which is completely different). A Low success is rolling under your (usually above 50%) stat on a d%, a High was rolling under stat halved, and a Colossal was rolling under it quartered. New minty fresh Chill keeps the High and Low, but replaces the Colossal with rolling doubles on your percentile dice and getting a success (doubles while failing is a Botch). That means a few things, such as critical successes and failure now happen 10% of the time, which is much more common. There’s now less reason to have stats above 100%, except in the case of modifiers, (although I don’t see why you need modifiers if you have success levels), and now there are five levels of outcome to deal with rather than four. But it does mean you don’t have to divide by four. Better? Maybe. To me it feels like not much really gained and still fiddly anyway.

 

And there’s some more of that around. There’s a gorgeous mechanic where the game has a number of two-sided tokens on the table and the GM turns them to the good side to power up the bad guys and players turn them to the bad side to power up themselves. This allows a visual, visceral sense of how much trouble you’re in and how the tide is turning. But there are six different things that can cause or arise from token turning and they’re not written on the character sheet. Another example is every stat is linked to exactly one skill, which is rated at half your stat. A lovely idea that really helps establish setting: this is your general skill with Perception, whereas Investigation is using it specifically in genre, ie to solve mysteries and hunt monsters. The problem is they couldn’t think of specific examples narrow enough for Strength, Agility or charisma (here called Personality) so those skills (Prowess, Movement and Communication) start at your full stat. Maybe I’m a stickler for symmetry but that just feels messy. It’s the opposite of elegant.

 

Parts of the design and layout of the book also feel messy. Now, RPGs aren’t like normal books. RPGs are toolkits, which is to say when you open them they need to unfold like a toolbox to reveal all the useful tools close at hand, but being books they have to be lined up in a linear order. You can’t understand chargen until you know the rules but the rules don’t mean anything without knowing what the characters are and none of that means anything without a setting. Over the decades different games have solved this in different ways and none are perfect, but Chill’s approach seems particularly off-kilter. To stop you from having to learn the complexities of chargen at the start, the pregens come first, but that means you have the examples before the process (and I’ve never met anyone who likes pregens). Then after chargen we have a huge chapter on setting and the chapter of cool powers before we get to the main rules, and parts of those end up in the GM’s chapter. And because the setting chapter is entirely focussed on the organisation the PCs work for, it’s difficult to get a full sense of the game’s direction until you reach the antagonist chapter at the very end – you get a who’s who before you get what they do. The game is complete (and expansive) but you have to read the whole thing to get that, and at times it almost feels like work to unravel it.

 

But once you get passed the messiness, there is an interesting, well developed and at times beautiful game in here. So let’s talk about the good stuff.

 

Chill takes its lead from many, if not most, twentieth century horror films: evil is a real, potent force, it takes the form of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, monsters, black-eyed children, creepy old ladies and evil dolls, and all they want to do is kill people and cause pain. The players are members, or “envoys”, of SAVE, a Latin acronym for the Eternal Society of the Silver Way, although Eternal is big talk for a society invented in 1844. But that big talk is part of SAVE’s nature: it feels realistic and human. It’s not a society that somehow magically lasted all of time and whose members are almost always entirely loyal and whose goal always good. SAVE is in fact riven by internal politics disputes, frustrated by its inadequacies and limitations, and possibly entirely betrayed from within. Indeed, in 1989 their world clubhouse in Dublin was attacked in an inside job and still nobody knows how (and nobody trusts anyone either). They’re not the Watchers or the Templars or even the CIA; they’re more akin to the National Geographic Society, only without funding coming in from sales of the magazine. They’re big enough to have people all over the world and keep a mailing list going, but they rely on members to bring their own guns, cars, computers and sometimes even office buildings. And given that every time they gather information and resources in one place it gets blown up, smallness appears to be on their side.

 

This approach has become explicit since 2012 when a new leader emerged in Hayat Nejem, a Syrian woman who discovered the Unknown (capital U, as SAVE calls the force of evil) when she saw demonic spirits surrounding Assad. Her response was to kickstart SAVE back from the torpor of confusion and suspicion since Dublin, but with the caveat that from now on, everyone was going to use a cell structure to stay connected but anonymous. Meanwhile old schoolers want to pretend they’re still an academic gentleman’s club and are resisting the new methods, and some parts of SAVE are still off the grid and don’t know anything about leaders, new or old. Players get to build their own SAVE base and choose which group they fall into, although only brainstorming guidelines are provided, not actual mechanics.

 

It’s a good setting not just because it feels realistically broken and organic; SAVE is designed to be just big enough to get envoys in trouble while small enough to be completely unable to get them out of it. However, the exhaustive chapter on SAVE goes into enormous detail about some things that feel irrelevant and skims over stuff I would have loved to have seen more about. For example, there’s endless information on the first three missions and surrounding life and times of the folks who set up SAVE, and a breakdown of every central office, director and local hotspots for every continent on earth. Having a historical and global view is important to get a sense of things but unless you’re planning on setting your game outside modern day USA, most of the detail is superfluous. Especially since those sections are much much longer than stuff about the modern day and the local, comparatively, and the every day functioning also has a short shrift. I’m fascinated with the idea of a society trying to exist in a post-9/11 world while requiring its members to remain in clandestine contact with military agents inside Syria. I’d love to play either side of that equation. Instead I’m reading about haunted houses in Outer Mongolia and lengthy journal entries of some long-dead Oxford don about whom I could not care less.

 

Nothing is actually absent in this book, it’s just sometimes disproportionate; others hard to find. The real meat is in the rump, in the last and second last chapters. Yes, players need to know what dice to roll but the nature of an RPG is in its structure and tone. To its enormous credit, Chill knows this and devotes much to the art of crafting these elements. And I don’t just mean a long discussion on the relevant sources and the methods of emulating them using the rules. The damage rules are in this section, because it’s in those rules that GMs have the main ability to affect the characters, and drive home the horror. Chill’s setting is one where the characters are really normal people, getting the absolute crap beaten out of them by a dark force they cannot really match, but choosing to fight on anyway, and representing that is all about damage, physical AND mental. The horror checks are more complicated than Cthulhu but not as complicated as Unknown Armies, but either way are meaty and realistic. This is a game where trauma counselling is vital, and the feat giving training in it is as sought after as Great Cleave in D&D.

 

That sets up tone. Structure comes from the investigation model: finding the horror and learning what might be its weakness before it beats the crap out of you. Chill is a high-prep game where GMs develop a series of bread-crumbs which players can find in different avenues to get the important information. The monsters aren’t generally unbeatable without their silver bullet, thankfully, and the structure takes its key from the lesson of GUMSHOE – key clues are available even on botches, although sometimes with extraneous information. Do I want to come up with five outcomes for every investigation avenue? No, but that’s what pre-written adventures are for. The one we’ve seen (in the quickstart) is excellent at this; I hope we’ll see more of them announced soon. Even if not, there’s nothing wrong with this approach to the investigation genre, and by taking you through the process inch by inch, Chill does every bit of heavy lifting it can to help you.

 

They also give some help in the last chapter, the extensive bestiary, with most listings have some guidance on tell-tale signs and weaknesses, and a taxonomy that you can see SAVE actually applying in setting. Lest your players crack the code and become bored, many monsters are adjustable and the game also comes with sixty monster powers allowing you to mix and match your monsters to keep players guessing. The powers also allow you to emulate important horror tropes like descending silence, slamming doors and phones breaking, without having to give everyone complicated telekinesis. If the player character sheets look a bit fussy, the opposite is true with the opposition – the stats are streamlined down and the use of the flipping tokens also thins down what each beasty can do and when.

 

The tone of this review has ramped up towards positivity as it’s gone along, and that’s because the RPG works the same way. When I’d finished it, I finally got the sense of all the tools and how to use them to tell a story, but actively trying to learn that from the game proved difficult. It’s certainly not a product to give to your players to teach them. There’s no handy summary tables and back references and chargen doesn’t feel like a step-by-step guide so much as a list of information. There isn’t even a character sheet – or maybe they just took it out of the PDF?

 

Yet at the same time this game goes above and beyond with what detail and support it does provide. The information on the background and antagonists is exhaustive to the point of actual exhaustion. The tools for building investigative structure and intense horror are purposeful and cleverly designed. This is a game built with care, but it is also not very user-friendly or easily grasped, because there are still plenty of rough edges. It’s a claymore of a game: certainly potent but also unwieldy. And like a claymore I respect it and I think it will really suit some people’s style, but it also requires some work to master, and if I was backed into a corner, I’d pick a slicker, more convenient weapon.

 

In the end, the first question was around the wrong way: Chill clearly some nice new things to the table, but it also has to be good. And it is quite good, but in a crowded marketplace, you have to be great to be good, and quite good is only decent.

 

7/10.

Estalia Preview 3: The Many Maidens

The book moves on apace; almost all material is in (we’re literally waiting on one career now) and proofreading and layout has begun, and meanwhile you’re hungry for more glimpses I hope! Part one looked at some fiction, part two some art, and now some setting details! We wanted Estalian religion to feel very different from Empire religion, so polytheism gives way to monotheism, but monotheism is of course a funny thing. The Maiden has a Sacred Family: her father, Morr, her mother Verena and her sister Shallya are also holy figures. And then the Maiden herself has many faces, as Chapter Eight explains:

In the Empire, where Myrmidia is known only as a warrior goddess, they know only her lore as the Captain, the Commander and the Wrathful, something the Estalians see as very limited and myopic.  Many Estalians also have trouble grasping the strongly polytheistic world of the Empire: why have a god for every little thing when Myrmidia is the god of all?  In fact, some scholars have noted spells akin to those of Morr and Verena being cast by Myrmidians, and even spells of Taal and Ranald being known by those who worship Myrmidia the Wanderer.  To Estalians, this proves the Empire folk are childish, having to dress up aspects of Myrmidia in antlers so the woodsmen can pretend to have their own god; to the Empire folk the Myrmidians are trying to stuff everything under one name whether it fits or not. Heretical thinkers wonder if all the spells are the same and the gods only dressings added by man, and that the dressings vary just as costumes do between lands. Such thinkers are typically burned very quickly on exceedingly hot pyres.

 

Estalians may study Myrmidia’s aspect of a Captain, a Commander or a deliverer of Wrath (see Tome of Salvation).  Other aspects of the Goddess include:

 

  • Myrmidia the Beautiful, representing Myrmidia’s gift for craftsmanship and the arts.  Myrmidia taught that a beautiful weapon is a more deadly one, and a beautified nation is a proud one.  Devotees of this aspect, Beatines learn spells of music, dance and crafting, and aim to spread beauty wherever they go.  Most of them learn a craft or an art, if not several, and act as travelling minstrels, trading their beatification for food and shelter.  Others advise whole towns on architecture or other civic words.

 

  • Myrmidia the Brave teaches courage and fortitude in all things.  All those who know fear and suffering pray to Myrmidia the Brave to give them strength to see things through.  Shallya may save, but it is Myrmidia the Brave who gives them courage to wait for Shallya’s answer. Devotees of the Brave Maiden are known for their unflinching courage and their tendency to always take the lead.  Some consider them rash and dangerous as a result.  Valorites get on well with the Kislevite sons of Tor.

 

  • Myrmidia of the Last Journey is the very last part of the goddess’ life, where she journeyed west on the boat that would bear her to the horizon and thence up to the heavens. Those who worship the Last Journey do not intrude on Father Morr’s domain, however; they instead seek that all should reach their destination on calm seas and safe roads, although seas tend to be their primary focus. Most Journeyers spend their lives at sea, but unlike Manannites are expected to work as hard as the rest of their crew.

 

  • Myrmidia the Lightbringer is the aspect of the goddess who illuminates and enlightens the world.  She is different from Verena, because Verena holds knowledge and records, and deals with the minutiae of laws and strictures.  The Lightbringer represents the granting of knowledge and insight, and the illumination of all the peoples in the world, towards a better nation as Myrmidia wished. Lightbringers aim to teach someone something at least once a day.

 

  • Myrmidia the Merciful is very close to Shallya, but as with the Lightbringer and Verena, the differences are important.  Shallya is the goddess of kindness; she gives life.  Myrmidia the Merciful prevents the loss of life with her sword and her shield, sparing both her enemies and her allies.  She is the temperance of Myrmidia’s wrath, the arm that holds back the blade when it is necessary, and knows that a good surrender is better than a great decimation.  Mercines favour restraint in battle and in everything they do.

 

  • Myrmidia the Pure stands for the core principles of Myrmidia’s Bellona Lexus, the rules of battle.  She values honour and respect and truth above all, and strives for all combat to be noble and fair.  With their emphasis on just battle and a just life, Purists get on well with Vereneans – but besides that, they have few friends.  Even the most noble Myrmidian priest finds the Purists a bit tiresome after a while.

 

  • Myrmidia the Seer has many facets: she has her father’s ability to see oracles, her mother’s insight and her own gift for foresight and great vision. She is the eagle that soars high and sees all coming; and looks low and sees the tiniest truth hidden amongst the lies.  Not all Seers are great oracles: there are many things that can be seen and their future glimpses are often little more than instinct and danger sense.  But when the blades come down, that’s more than enough.

 

  • Myrmidia of the Shining Stars is very close to Myrmidia the Seer: she too sees the future for is not our fate written in the stars? When Myrmidia ascended to heaven after her assassination she placed her form above the land so all would know she watched over them still. Those who venerate the Maiden of the Stars see fates ahead but also know how to find their way, on land, but especially on sea. Like those of the Last Journey, she is often found employed on ships.

 

  • Myrmidia the Wanderer is – to the Wanderers who follow her, at least – the true face of the maiden.  For whether she was fighting or illuminating or seeing, she was always travelling, often miles and miles a day, for months at a time.  Legend has it she walked every yard of Estalia in her brief time, and fanatical Wanderers try to do the same. The Wanderers are the humblest order, shunning wealth and homes, always on the road like their goddess and mixing with the common folk.  Many people, including their fellow Myrmidians, consider them annoying beggars but the Wanderers don’t seem to care.