The Shadow Wars RPG
game review by Randy McIntire
The very mention of the word may conjure up mixed emotions. While personally
I detest real-world thieves, I've always had a fond spot in my heart
for the classic "Robin Hood" tales. And as such, I fancy playing them
in Dungeons & Dragons, Rolemaster, and any other FRPG I play. Their
mystique and cleverness has always intrigued me. The elusiveness and
adroitness seems so much funner than brawny, sword totting ego-mania
(as opposed to conniving, shadow slinking ego-mania).
It all started
in November of this year (1999), when the GM of our gaming group introduced
a new game system to us. At the time we were playing an AD&D thief campaign
that I was just getting used to. My character's backstab multiplier
had recently been increased to x3. I was excited to see it in use. I
didn't want to switch to another system in my shining hour. But I begrudgingly
took a look at the cover of this new RPG -- "Cutthroat: The Shadow
I asked the GM
where he dug this game up and he said he came across it on the Internet
one day while looking for supplements for thief RPGs. After looking
through the rulebook, I was impressed. For a "nobody" game company this
game sure had it's act together. The cover was slick and the interior
illustrations were very good. Closer investigation of the core rules
revealed some interesting mechanics that played off of traditional style
mechanics. I began to think that maybe this game *could* offer us a
more interesting thief campaign to play in other than AD&D. A short
time after, sure enough, our gaming group was fully immersed in this
new game from Storm World Games.
I've broken down
the key elements of the game for those mechanic freaks out there. Each
element of the game is rated on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being perfect.
The reason I did this is because there are things that bug me about
the game, but I would not and could not call it "average"
(as indicated in the Substance Rating), just as I could not in good
faith say it was "meaty" or "excellent":
Engine (7/10): Skill
driven, d20 (High) based. That is everything in the game is based on
"the check". You roll 1d20 ("the bone") and add
any modifiers. Then compare it to a difficulty number. Simple and easy
to learn, with flexibility. Since I prefer d20 based games, this was
right up my alley. Albeit not too creative, the system works fluidly
and without too many problems. It features a clever "why didn't
I think of that" attribute system that fully integrates into the
Engine (8/10): Deadly
and very deadly. My advise; don't fight unless you have too. If a fight
does occur, resolving it is very simple and fast (I'm not just saying
that either). I've played other so called "simple and fast"
games before and this one is definitely what it says. The first trial
combat our group did before we actually started playing the game went
by very quickly. I was like, "What the hell just happend?"
The game does not
use an ablative approach to damage (i.e. hit points). Each hit has a
chance of killing it's target, regardless of weapon used or the target's
toughness. Naturally, the bigger the weapon the more likely death will
occur. Just as the bigger the target, the less likely death will occur.
This is what makes up the Sudden Death(TM) combat system, the system
used for CTSW. I found that the use of Luck points is the only thing
that ends up keeping characters that fight alive through missions and
adventures. So in a sense, that is sort of an "ablative" approach.
Kinda. At any rate, it's still far more realistic than AD&D and
still accomodates for that "heroic" element that keeps AD&D
players from playing other realistic (read: complex) games.
Engine (4/10): Underdeveloped,
but promising. I like the system for it's freedom, but there's something
that annoys me about it. Can't place my finger on it yet. I think I
simply have the traditional AD&D spell system permanently etched
into my noggin. The game does not use pre-made skills or spell lists.
The players are given "Spellcrafting" rules on how to design
custom spells based on a list of various spell effects. I think this
was simply an attempt to skimp on the magic system. Our GM loves the
system, because he can throw any type of spell at us and we can't say
things like "Hey that's not in the book!" or "Fireballs
can't do that!". So far, this aspect of the game is the only thing
that dampened my impression of it (along with a few other minor things).
and intriguing. Provides a very good atmosphere in which to game in.
While it is not as rich and diverse as some other commercial campaign
settings, it gives allusions that there is "something else out
there". It is very clear that this world has things going on being
the scenes that are not being discussed in the rulebook. Perhaps additional
supplements will fill in the gaps in the future. I hope so.
As for other aspects
of the setting, it is rich with all your favorite beasties and fantasy
races (well, almost all). Players can chose to be one of several races;
giants from the northern wastes. They stand about 7 feet tall. Good
Elves no fantasy campaign is complete without 'em. Chose from
Humans run o'the mill homo sapiens.
Rohyrians albino-like humans from the deep forests.
your traditional sort (they're actually small humans). Think carnival
or Snow White.
Lupins small elf-like creatures. Pranksters.
Skravoch my personal favorite. Perhaps the most unique aspect
to CTSW is the ratmen of Skaev.
It reminds me all sorts of fun things. I know it sounds weird, but it
reminds me of classic D&D. The rulebook is actually very slick and
professional looking compared to older D&D products So I'm
not quite sure where this comes from. There's also a "neo-fantasy"
element to the game. It doesn't have a very strong medieval flavor,
nor does it have a "high fantasy" feeling either. It's a gritty
90's version of a fantasy medieval world.
(Average Score 6.8) Above Average.
the game is very fun and I will continue to play through the campaign
we are currently running with it. If the game proves to be well supported
by the company that produces it (Storm World Games, Inc.) I will continue
to play it indefinitely. I am a discriminating gamer and can be very
critical on newer games and this one definitely has caught my attention.
It grows on you like a bad wart. Well maybe that's a little too weird.
Let's just say I like the game very much and am eager to see what's
in store for it.
for the reader's reference, our AD&D campaign dissolved to play
this game, since it provided a better gaming environment and is better
suited for roguish campaigns. This
game comes highly recommended if you like thief campaigns with a neo-traditional
the Storm World Games website (
or the official CTSW website ( http://www.stormworldgames.com/cutthroat
for more information on the game.