Heaven and Earth Third Edition
is a great game, marred by an almost incomprehensible issue. Reviewed three times already on RPG.net, I offer the first playtest review, based upon a good many weeks of regular sessions.
So what is Heaven & Earth?
Heaven & Earth is an rpg set in the modern day in a small sleepy Kansas town where deeply weird stuff is going on. In feel perhaps it is closest to the TV series Twin Peaks, the first series of Buffy or if I remember correctly Eerie, Indiana.
The town, the fictional Potters Lake is described in detail in the main game, and in the old Guardian's of Order supplement Welcome to Potter's Lake, and in the 3rd ed supplement Paradise Lost. You could certainly run the game happily without either of the supplements however, and Welcome... is available as a free download from the yahoogroup dedicated to the game.
The "deeply weird stuff" is not random "monster of the week" material. Potter's Lake has a secret, and an interesting one, which explains why things are as they are. I am not going to say in this review what it is. The second edition of the game from what I can see from the Player's Book spelt it out from the beginning, but in the 3rd edition the players should find out in play.
So in essence, for you money you get an innovative rules system, a detailed setting and a campaign background which I would imagine would support a year or more of weekly play, and considering just how much is going on, probably more. The rules also include a sample adventure "The Waiting Room" which I found useful.
I mentioned in my opening paragraph that the game has a serious flaw, and this is simple. Potter's Lake is a beautifully described town, filled with interesting locations, colourful NPCs, secret societies, occult secrets and other player hooks. I could hold a conversation with another H&E gm or player, and we'd both know instantly what the other person was talking about I think. It's a one setting rpg, but probably stronger for that. What however diminishes the game greatly to my mind is that in neither the rules nor the two supplements is there anywhere a map.
No imagine the old Arkham Unveiled book for Call of Cthulhu, without the map. Loads of great descriptions, street addresses, etc, and geographical references - the lake and woods are pretty important - but no map. Maybe for some referees that would be fine, depending on play style, but for me it was nearly a deal breaker. My players would ask for a map I knew, and with so many locations etc I realised I needed one to run the game, and allow them to see what I was describing. It's not as if town maps are uncommon in real life? I searched and searched my books, assuming i had somehow missed it, and then I realised - it's not there. I went on to the yahoogroup and asked, and was told Abstract Nova intend to remedy this problem, at a small cost you will be able to buy a map. I don't mind at all - it will be a few dollars - but the fact it still not available resulted in me reducing the substance score for the game. I would have given it 5 - but without the map, 4 seems generous I think. I settled for 4. I do like the game a great deal, and in fact in about four hours of careful reading I was able to construct my own map of the town - I'd scan it and link it but as Abstract Nova plan to do an official one I won't - but seriously, if you are going to run this game you will need to do this. It is the unforgivable failure of the game. And to make it worse, neither 1st nor 2nd edition appears to have come with a map either? Also there appear to be slight inconsistencies in the background material from the 2nd ed Welcome to... and the revised 3rd ed version which make mapping a bit harder.
History of the Game
This is the third edition of Heaven & Earth, and the third different core mechanic, as well as the third publisher. I looked for a wikipedia entry for the rpg and there is not currently (April 2008) one, but I am reviewing the 3rd edition. The second edition was published by Guardians of Order.
There are differences in the Potter's Lake setting between the Second and Third Editions. I have not played second ed but I have read it, and the main ones are that the secret societies active in the town have been completely rewritten (and I must say in my opinion for the better), and Pumpkin Pete and the October celebration has become a tomato summer one! The towns mayor has changed ( I preferred the second ed version but hey) and a handful of other minor cosmetic changes have occurred. Even so, if you are familiar with the second edition version not enough has changed to warrant playing it through again - it's still the same overall plot.
The game uses a wide selection of dice -- D4, D6, D8, D10, D12 and D20 (D stands for dice here, and the number is the number of side the polyhedral dice have. If you are not familiar with this look them up here - polyhedral dice - you can buy them from gaming stores or the internet.
Who do I play?
Normal day to day folks. My playtest group realized quickly this is a game about normal, day to day folks experiencing the deeply weird. It probably works best with out of towners moving to the city, and uncovering the weirdness for themselves. My playtesters decided to play a construction worker, a comic shop owner, an ex-military chap looking for peace and now working as a labourer, a lawyer from a ranching family and a motorcycle cop who had started out as a paramedic. Everyone was new to town except the construction worker who had left in his teens after falling afoul of the law. I will attempt to show how this drove the plot in various ways...
My first plot revolved around the construction worker and labourer taking on a repair contract at Kaufmann's 24 hour supermarket. This led them directly in to the plot. The other characters first met them there while on a late night pizza buying mission - and soon after discovered the house next door to theirs had a sinister past. The player characters have made friends, enemies, fallen for and romanced and fallen out with the NPC's, and have played out a few weeks of their day to day lives in Potter's Lake. They have found jobs, started businesses and learned many secrets, been involved politically and religiously, and chosen factions to ally with. It's a rich setting and if you like low powered gaming where the horror and mystery seems all the more vivid against the absolutely normalcy of the backcloth, this is the game for you.
Character generation is ingenious. You choose a profession - can be anything - and if you want a second profession reflecting earlier life experience. You assign a level to it of Rookie (+1), Professional (+2), or Veteran (+3). Depending on the number of skills a job gives, and it's relative perceived status (and metagame utility) you pay more points from your pool to buy the profession. An soldier costs more than a janitor, or book shopowner, a police detective probably more still.
You also spend points on characteristics, and other non-vocational skills which come in bundles - outdoorsman, investigative, research, life sciences, etc. You don't bother to write out all the vocational skills - a cop can make any skill roll which covers things a cop could reasonably do at their cop level, so a rookie cop would roll a die + appropriate stat + 1, a veteran die + appropriate stat + 3. This actually works wonderfully - anyone who has tried to create a doctor in early editions of Call of Cthulhu knows that having to buy loads of professional skills is a pain. Providing the players are sensible about what they claim as professional skills, it works really well. The non-vocational interest skill packages work similarly, reflecting a set of related abilities.
Before we leave character generation, we need to consider two other mechanics, goals and destiny points. Every character chooses goals, which reflect in a direct way what they are trying to achieve and their motivations. Our construction worker was trying to show the town he had grown up a good guy, put his past behind him and make amends to his (unforgiving) childhood sweetheart. Destiny points which are used both for experience (improving characters) and with succeeding in tight corners (one spent allows a re-roll of a failed test, two an automatic success)are awarded for playing towards your characters goals. A great mechanic that encourages good roleplay and immersion in the characters mundane life and relationships. I have never however seen any character improve a skill rating, despite being generous in giving out destiny points and interpreting goals, as the cost to increase a profession or skill or stat is quite high, and players tend to use them to improve skill rolls a lot. Destiny points are also awarded for things like turning up, and succeeding in uncovering the towns mysteries. It's simple and elegant.
How does it play?
Very well. :) I have already discussed the core resolution mechanic. You may recall I said die, and noted the number of dice used? The base number to beat on die +stat +profession is 9. An easy task uses a D20, an average one a d10, through to the nearly impossible on D4. Penalties reduce the size of the dice you are using - a d12 might be reduced to a D8 if the circumstances were bad enough. In play this works fine, with destiny points giving the players a hand in the luck of the dice, some skill involvement if they think the test warrants it. :)
Whereas from my limited reading the second edition clearly laid out the nature of the conflict, the third edition is an investigative game. There has recently been much discussion of investigative rpg on rpg.net, and the "spot hidden trap" where games end because the vital clue is missed. Games like Inspectres and the Gumshoe based systems have attempted to address this issue mechanically, but here the problem is addressed by the "onion skin" approach advocated in the Call of Cthulhu rulebook. Rather than a linear clue trail to take you from A to B, with the possibility of a derail if a vital clue is missed, Potter's Lake crawls with things crying out for investigation, and has so many mysteries that players are unlikely to ever run out of options to explore, but most of the mysteries seem to lead back to the secret of Potter's Lake itself.
To give an example, the first scenario I ran with the Construction Worker and his Labourer assistant began with them looking for work, and discovering Kaufmann's supermarket needed a repair contract addressing. They swiftly met severla of the well detailed NPCs, quite naturally, and as the job proved far harder than expected were drawen in to the mysteries of the town. The lawyer arrived in town and was assigned a case of an action agaisnt an elderly resident who kept driving in ot the side of a womans house, when he was not walking or running in to it, and that soon led to a further understanding of the mysteries. The comic book shop owner was plagued by curiously intelligent cats who he befriended, but who seemed eerily aware, and after a while he too was drawn in to the mystery, and finally the motorcycle cop was leading the search for a missing child in Potter's Woods - and soon learned the disquieting rumours. They all came together at the Hospital for the sample adventure, the Waiting Room, which ran nicely enough as a springboard for further stories. The well realised descriptions of the NPCs led us further in to the world - the combat vet Labourer befriended a vet turned priest, and a peculiar clay jar unearthed led the players to St. Anselms college and the sstory of a haunted dorm room.I've had to draw the explanations an dlinks between the mysteries ot some extent - the book tells you what is happening, and the overall why, but much is left to the referee to decide. There will be as many versions of Potter's Lake as there are GM's I guess.
The combat system is simplistic, but workable. Initiative on a D20 tends to result in rather unpredictable jumps in order, and how hard you are to hit does depend on your abilities in such area, making a skilled combat veteran a tough target. Lethal damage is what it sounds like - lethal. This is definitely not a game for combat orientated groups - it lacks the crunch and the big bads will eat you immediately (some have no stats, they just do as you are so totally outclassed), and if not, the police will arrest you and throw you in gaol. It's a low key, normal human level game, and while there are some kewl powerz of sorts they are hard, expensive, unreliable and unavailable unless learned in play the hard way - only one of my players has managed to even find they exist, and he dare not try and use them.
What is the Secret of Potter's Lake?-- [semi-spoilers]
Well, there are many, all interwoven, but the big story is very BIG. Forget Sunnydale, this is far bigger. The secret given uses real world religious themes, and you are going to have to think about if your players are going to take offence. I am the only Christian in my group of pagans and atheists, so it was no big problem for me, but I think in some parts of the world it might be a very real issue. The treatment of religion is slightly more sensitive than say that in the Lancea Sanctum of Vampuire the Requiem, but at least some readings of it are blasphemous. However it would be extremely easy to change these, and some notes are given.
In fact, I would be tempted to not use the secret given at all. It would be surprisingly easy to think of many other cool explanations which would still result in exactly the same background and mysteries, and I am sure any referee could do so. Coming from the background i do I think aliens or time travel or something would have been more shocking and interesting to me, but this is nicely done. I'm afraid I'm not going to say what the secret is, as I think that would spoil half the fun! Unfortunately that prevents me from giving even a detailed chapter break down for the book, but Dan Davenport's excellent capsule review goes in to more details for interested parties.
If they had included a map, I would have given this game 5 fpr substance, and the 4 for style is only because it can not compare with say Nobilis in the GWB edition or the sheer poetry of Polaris. As it is I would list this in my favourite top ten rpg's of all time, along with Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies in a similar vein. A campaign/setting book with a built in system, it richly deserves to be more popular and wider known. I encourage you to check it out - it's available in print and pdf from Abstract Nova (via Key 20 I believe) and from Leisure Games and other stockists in the UK. Highly recommended based upon on some seriously enjoyable gaming experiences.