Adventure! Capsule Review by Robert Donoghue on 14/08/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Adventure! is to pulp what Aberrant was to superheros, for what one considers that worth (4/4)
Author: Andrew Bates, Many Others
Company/Publisher: White Wolf Game Studio
Line: Aeon Continuum
Page count: 272
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Robert Donoghue on 14/08/01
Genre tags: Historical Superhero Other
Adventure! is the third in White Wolf's "Aeon Continuum" of games, which included Trinity, a psionic/sci-fi setting and Aberrant a current day super-hero setting. Adventure! is a pulp action game set in the roaring 20's, and serves as the practical beginning of the history which continues through the other two games. While neither Aberrant nor Trinity is required to play this game, there is a certain richness in the shared history which is lost in their absence. Some familiarity with those games, particularly Aberrant, will help in approaching this review, due to the similarities of the systems, but is not necessary.
The first and most important thing to realize about Adventure! is that it is not a generic pulp action game. While it can certain serve as such (And seems to make a better generic pulp game than Aberrant made a generic supers game), it is created with a very specific world in mind and makes assumptions based upon that. Fortunately, it's a decent world, and reasonably flexible, so that is far from a burden.
LayoutThe book itself is a 272 page softcover, roughly 7x10, which makes it smaller than the average RPG, but is a size familiar to readers of other Aeon Continuum products. The cover is faintly textured, not glossy (rather like the new Forgotten Realms products) and feels good in the hand. The cover is clearly designed to be reminiscent of a pulp magazine cover, bearing an image of Max Mercer (probably the most prominent/iconic NPC of the game) facing down a wormy foe in an ancient tomb with a look of either grim determination or very advanced constipation on his face. It's not a bad cover, but it is lacking in color or real movement, and is not the sort of thing which would catch my eye.
The first 103 pages ares a collection of world information, all provided either through pulp stories (by Warren Ellis or Greg Stolze), first hand accounts of prominent NPCs or news clippings. Content aside, the biggest problem with this section is that a wide variety of fonts and backgrounds are used to illustrate the differences in the source material. The presentation is very effective at doing so, but there is a cost in readability. The worst offender is the comments from Doctor Primoris, which are written in a cursive hand on a gray background. A close second is the summary of the state of the world, fully half the background section. It is presented in a courier typeface (to resemble a typewriter) on a faintly textured background. It's not so bad as the cursive, but after 20 pages or so, it may grate on the eyes.
The rest of the book is cleanly laid out in two column format with a slightly small font, but not so small as to present any real problems. The art throughout is black and white, and good enough that none of it made me wince, yet none so good that I can recall any pieces without really thinking about it. NPC illustrations are provided by touched up photographs, and are my single biggest beef with the game - these are embarrassing. They look like some bastard child of faux-old-west photography booths and a LARP family album.
The good news is, we have just gotten past all of my major complaints.
BackgroundIt seems in 1922 there was an accident with a telluric energy converter which killed a number of people, but at least some of those it did not kill were imbued with a variety of abilities beyond those of common man. What's more, it seems this energy has washed all over the world, resulting in all manner of strange an impossible things (dinosaur swamps, madmen with super powers and the like). Beyond these strange events, however, history is much like it should be.
In 1923 Max Mercer, one of the accident's survivors, founded the Aeon Society for Gentlemen. The Society is a collection of heroes (for lack of a better term) with the goal of discovering the secrets of the world and generally doing good. It is now 1924, and the Society is firmly established, but there is still much of the world to be explored.
Naturally, the world is awash in other organizations, all with their own agendas from the heroic Air Circus to the sinister Ubiquitous Dragon crime ring to the mysterious Rational Experimentation Group. Many of these are given in-character histories that are solidly awash in play hooks. In an odd omission, the frequently mention Ubiquitous Dragon is not detailed in this section.
Through the combination of in character reports and pulp stories, the world of Adventure! is painted in broad strokes, providing more than enough meat for a GM to take advantage of, and using enough analogs that if a GM would rather substitute, say, Fu Manchu for the Ubiquitous Dragon, it would not be hard.
One very nice touch of the background is the solid implication that while things may have definitely gotten weirder recently, there is some evidence that there have been weird things (and people) since long before the 1922 event, which opens up the world to character backgrounds not explicitly tied to the canonical reason for exceptional characters.
Additionally, since the core history tries not to deviate from real world history, there's no shortage of resources to draw from in drawing up the game world. Certainly, the state of the world section addresses much of the world well enough to provide a solid stepping off point for any interested GM.
SystemThe game uses a streamlined version of the storyteller system, which has been seen before in Aberrant and Trinity. The basic mechanic revolves around 9 stats (rated 1-5) each with a list of skills associated with it (also rated 1-5). Roll a number of d10's equal to stat skill and count the number of 7s or higher. Simple enough. This varies from traditional storytelling primarily by tying skills to specific stats and by reducing the chances of botching. The primary addition of interest to the core rules is the inclusion of rules for "extras" also known as mooks, brutes or unnamed characters. These are faceless NPCs which can be defeated more easily than named villains. The extra rules are more complicated than I expected, as they simplify the wound track for extras, rather than do away with it altogether as some games do.
The two sections of the rules that move beyond the core system cover the heroes of the setting (the Inspired) and super science.
As a group, the Inspired are a cut above the rest of humanity, thanks to the additional power or insight or what-have-you provided by their inspiration. The exact nature of a character's inspiration is up to the player, and can range from being raised on superfoods by your mad-scientist parents to the trauma of having your parents killed in front of you, driving you to seek revenge on the criminal element. The default assumption is that Telluric energy is responsible for inspiration, but it does not appear to be cast in stone, which is a nice touch. In choosing the source of a character's inspiration, players also determine her nature; Intuitive, Reflective, Destructive or some combination thereof. This has a direct impact in game terms. For example: a destructively inspired character is better at (duh) destroying things.
Mechanically, this Inspiration is expressed as a pool of additional points available at character creation, called Transformation points, which can be used for a number of purposes. What this effectively means is that character creation comes in two steps: After normal character creation comes the Transformation phase, where transfomation points are spent. This does a very nice job of modeling characters who were "Just Plain Folks" before some dramatic event pushed them into the heroic life. This mechanic served well for Novas in Aberrant, and while it is less critical in this sort of setting, it does no harm and sometimes helps, so it is a welcome addition..
These transformation points can be used for a number of things. Most mundanely, they can be used to buy up attributes, abilities and other mundane elements, like willpower and backgrounds, to potentially obscene amounts. It is theoretically possible to make a character with nothing exceptional beyond a lot of very high skills and stats, but I believe such a character would prove to be at a severe disadvantage compared to other inspired.
The next category of things that Inspiration can be spent on is that which is over and above the pale. These are effectively a 6th dot (most elements in the system are measured in 1-5 dots) in skills and backgrounds. For skills, this translates as Ability Mastery, which is required for some super science, but is otherwise just a 6th dot in a skill. For backgrounds, you get interesting extreme versions of the existing backgrounds. For example, the enhanced version of the Resources background is "Wealth Beyond Avarice". As a group, these are fairly flavorful and fun.
There is also an Inspiration score, which can be invested in. This serves as a general yardstick of the power level of the character, determines how potent the character's inspired nature is, and provides the pool of points that can be drawn upon for heroic effort as well as the triggering of some abilities.
Finally, there are knacks, which are where a lot of the meat lies. Knacks are divided into 3 types: Heroic, Psychic or Dynamic, corresponding to the three types of heroes: Daredevils, Mesmerists and Stalwarts. A character may only be one of these types, but each allows for a great deal of flexibility.
Heroic Knacks are not power, per se, but are more like defining character elements, or specific types of luck. The closest comparison I can think of are the Schticks from Feng Shui (or in some cases, the Effects from Tales from the Floating Vagabond). Some of these are simply areas where a character is exceptional, like Trick Shot or Lightning Reflexes. Others are more reflective of certain kinds of luck, usually to some dramatic effect, like Untouchable (for brawlers and martial artists - If you don't have a gun, people shooting at you take a penalty) or Navigation Hazard (Vehicles don't just crash around you, they crash violently and explosively).
Psychic Knacks (Precursors to the powers in Trinity) include most of the things one might expect: Telepathy and telekinesis, the power to cloud men's minds, hypnotism and the like. These powers are much more reflective of their pulp roots than the sci-fi psionics of Trinity and many of the effects (Evil Eye, Cloak of Dread, Touch of Life) are more than a little mystical in their presentation, and do a good job of allowing for a wide variety of character types.
Dynamic Knacks are the most overt of the knacks, equating to full-fledged super powers (again, precursors to the Novas of Aberrant). While some are less overt, like Sensory Filtering or Indisputable analysis, this category also includes things like Body of Bronze (innate Armor) and Piledriver (punching through concrete). Despite the overt nature of these abilities, they do not seem unbalanced compared to the other type of knacks.
There is an emphasis put on the rules measuring the effect of powers, not the means. As such, two characters may both have Flame Conjurations (A Psychic knack), but one may focus "Heat rays" through their eyes, while the other may summon ancient fire spirits to cast at foes. Such differences are considered to be cosmetic, and when done right, this is a very positive element of the system.
Over and above the knacks themselves, there is the additional weirdness provided through super science. The rules available are fairly extensive, covering things like research time, lab requirements and the like. All 3 types of heroes have knacks which allow them to pursue super science (though Daredevils are strongly limited) so it's an option for most character types. In short, super science can be one of 3 things: it can be and advancement, and innovation or a gadget. An advancement is a logical extension of an existing device - practically speaking anything that has since been invented by real science - though it may take an odd form. An innovation is something truly new and probably wacky like death rays or teleportation booths. These are usually subject to limitations which keep them from being widely used or reproduced. A gadget usually works like an innovation, but it is intrinsic to the character in some way. It's entirely possible that it could be useless junk outside of the characters hands. An excellent example is given to illustrate the difference between a gadget and an innovation: Tom Strong's Gyro-copter backpack is an innovation, whereas the Rocketeer's jet pack is a gadget. If you were to take away both, Tom Strong would still be an effective character, but the Rocketeer would be stripped of his gimmick.
Some effort is made to make sure that gadgeteers and mad scientists are still valid character types. The concern is that gadgeteers end up with the same problem that fixers and netrunners have in cyberpunk games - they have nothing to do when the fewmets hit the windmill. While that is definitely a legitimate concern, there are enough guidelines that that particular trap can be avoided with a little work.
Beyond the RulesThere is a very well done chapter on roleplaying which follows after the rules. It provides a little more information on the setting, and also provides an excellent overview of what exactly they mean by pulp, and how it contrasts with noir, camp or 4 color comics. There is also decent information on the kind of themes and plots appropriate to the setting as well as some decent, arguably critical GM advice addressing whatthey refer to as "The Doc Savage Problem". One of the issues around making a Pulp game is that most pulp heroes either operate alone or, if they are members of a group, a far and ahead the hero of that group (think Doc Savage). I wish they'd spent a little more time addressing this, since the advice boils down to "Tie as many PCs into each plot as possible" but between that and some material on building a team, I am glad to see the issue was at least addressed.
There are also writeups for the major NPCs of the Setting, including the godawful pictures. There are 21 listed, of which about a third are good guys and the rest are villains of varying degrees. They are not given stats, but instead have a brief paragraph listing what type of character they are (Daredevil, Mesmerist or Stalwart) and what sort of knacks they have. While I personally very much like this approach, because it allows me to consider starting PCs as in the same general league as the notables of the setting while allowing other GMs to interpret as they see fit, I can see it being frustrating to completists. It is interesting to note, that of the 21 NPCs listed, 6 of them have powers or abilities that violate the rules as presented.
The Appendices are useful, and there are a few tidbits there that you will not find elsewhere (Such as the fact that Doctor Primoris will become Divas Mal someday) and a timeline which goes from 1900-1945, with snippets beyond that. They also contain numerous references, including charts for weapons and vehicles, as well as a decent list of inspirations and resources. There is an index as well, and while it is laid out a little oddly (huge indents), it has proven serviceable, though not exceptional.
ImpressionsOf all the games coming out for GenCon, this was probably the one I was looking forward to the most. I'm a fool for the genre, and I had heard very good (though maddeningly unspecific) things from friends who were playtesting it.
While Adventure! did not quite live up to my expectations, that is more a result of my setting the bar far too high than any real shortcoming of the book. Aside from my horror in the face of the photographs, I have few real complaints beyond a desire for more.
One of those few complaints has to do with the Aeon Society itself. There is a serious shortage of information regarding what role the Society is to play in a game vis a vis the characters. In many ways, the Society seems to be as extensively detailed as it is because it may be assumed that PCs will be members. Unfortuneately, other than a half page entry under Allegiance, there is little information on how to integrate the PCs with the existing society. In general, there is a lack of detail regarding what sort of role characters are expected to play in this world.
Oddly, this is a more serious problem with the established setting than it would be for a generic pulp game. Certainly, any GM can do whatever they want (and I'm sure most will) but if one is interested enough in the metaplot of the Aeon Continuum, it seems to me a few more resources would be useful.
Beyond that I have some minor quibbles - NPCs with illegal powers or abilities strike a major blow to the validity of the system to my mind, and seemed quite unnecessary. I also feel faintly annoyed at some of the metaplot references: I own both Aberrant and Trinity as well as a few of their supplements, but there were numerous references to the metaplot which simply left me baffled. I would have deeply, deeply enjoyed a spoiler writeup, like the one in the back of Trinity but that's really just wishful thinking.
My last complaint is the one I fully expect to get flayed and burned alive for, and that is because I am about to speak ill of Warren Ellis. I love his work with comics, and his name on a colored cover is generally enough to make me drop the money right there. I am a fanboy, plain and simple. And with all that, I must say I found his story, the first piece in the book, to be a disappointment. My very specific issue is that while there were some great ideas in it, the dialogue was stronger than the actual descriptive prose. In many ways, as I read it, I could see how it could make a great comic book story, with a solid artist turning these ideas into appropriately stunning visuals, but as described, they fell kind of flat.
I'm going to hell for that last bit. I know that.
In any case, the positive points of the game strongly outweigh the negative. I enjoy the setting, the rules are solid and manageable. There's a lot of Aberrant in it, but that mostly just made it easier to learn.
I also absolutely love the Daredevils. While the Mesmerists and Stalwarts have phenomenal powers which set them apart form humanity, depending upon GM interpretation, Daredevils may be just plain normal folks. This addresses the Batman issue (someone who has made themselves exceptional through dedication and effort rather than an external blessing) more effectively than I've seen done in any White Wolf game to date.
I'm curious what form the splatbooks will take for this series. Certainly it would be possible to do one for each type of hero, but since there are no organizations corresponding to the hero types, that does not seem a likely model.
Adventure is a solid game that provides the mechanics and setting necessary for some serious two-fisted pulpy goodness. While the system certain helps promote appropriately pulpish characters, it does depend very heavily on having a GM who is enthusiastic about the genre and willing to let things be as over the top as appropriate. While there are some flaws in presentation, and there is little that will blow a reader's head off, the entire game is solidly presented and seems comfortably usable.