Grim War is a sourcebook by Greg Stolze and Kenneth Hite for the supers RPG Wild Talents. It is a 156 page soft cover book, also available in PDF. Todd Shearer’s art helps make the book visually attractive, though I would have liked to have seen a bit more of it in this supplement. Except for the cover, all the art is rendered in black and white. The striking cover depicts a glowing magician directing before him a luminous, green daemon wreathed in crackling lightning, threatening two armed humans, one of whom may be a super, as she seems to be handling a ball of golden energy. The table of contents is comprehensive and easy to use, which is especially important as there is no index. A character sheet is included.
Like Godlike, This Favored Land, and Kerberos Club, Grim War is an alternate history supers setting driven by O.R.E. – the One Roll Engine. In Grim War’s setting, the presence of mutants and magicians is what makes this game world’s history different than ours. Mutants are, as you might guess, humans with a genetic predisposition to develop superpowers. In this setting, their numbers are small. Before the Twentieth Century, their powers seldom manifested, as such abilities only develop in this setting in individuals who are well-fed and well-nourished. And in Grim War’s setting many mutants remain unrevealed because most people – mutant or not - never actually try to use heat vision, attempt to breathe under water, or seriously try to make themselves turn into living steel. In more superstitious times, known mutants might have well been burnt at the stake, which made revealing mutant powers an even less attractive option. By the Second World War however, because of greater tolerance and improved agriculture, the number of mutants who developed powers and survived to adulthood increased significantly. Some became admired public figures as early as the U.S. Civil War. By the present day, while some prejudice against them persists, mutants, while still rare, are more common than at any time in the past. Because of their powers, many find well-paid employment in various capacities, and more than a few are celebrities. So, being a mutant is generally a good thing; being a magic user is a completely different story though.
Like mutants, mages have existed since prehistory. Once hidden, they became known to the general public after World War I, when spiritualism became popular because of the grievous losses so many suffered in the conflict. While many people have studied magic, only a few had the talent to actually command supernatural forces. Soon however, mages developed a bad reputation when it was revealed that cabals of sorcerers had influenced international politics before World War I and had had a hand in causing this horrific conflict. The Nazi leadership’s dependence on sorcery and their use of human sacrifice further damaged the reputation of mages, leading to legal bans on magic in the U.S., the USSR, and most other countries. Despite this prohibition, the West and the Soviet Union waged a long, shadowy struggle for control of magical resources. This conflict also involved the use of sorcerers – because of its occult nature, this conflict was dubbed The Grim War. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, such covert supernatural struggles continue with different players.
Grim War’s magic involves summoning spirits and convincing them to serve the sorceror. These spirits include daemons, archons, and ghosts. Daemonic spirits are summoned by the Conjuring skill, and are by their very nature are spirits of negativity and opposition. For example, The Knight of Sorrows exists to reduce happiness, The Black Cat destroys luck, and The Physician Without Body opposes physical suffering, and is a daemonic healer. Archons, summoned by the Invocation skill, are spirits of support and increase. Eros’ domain is trust, love, and sympathy. Nemesis champions revenge. The Emperor of Souls seeks to enforce tyranny. As you can see, daemons are not inevitably a force for evil, and archons are not simply creatures of sweetness and light. Ghosts, which can be either Conjured or Invoked, are far weaker, but can be useful sources of information. The rules for calling and gaining the cooperation of spirits are easy to understand, and the many example daemons and archons are quite interesting. Spirits can be convinced to render one-time services or can become familiars bound to extended servitude. They can even be merged with a human host or with an object. The rules clearly explain how this works.
Spells exist in Grim War, and are bought with experience points, just like regular skills, and are cast with the Spellcraft skill. Spells allow mages to call and deal with spirits. As such, Grim War’s sorcery is ceremonial magic, not a collection of combat and general utility spells. Besides including a list of spells, rules are given for creating new ones, along with Extras and Flaws which further allow magical effects to be customized. Besides Conjuring a specific daemon or Invoking a particular archon, different spells can be used to do such things as attack spirits, defend against them, or heal or exorcise them. Magic can also cause spirits to materialize, which makes them more useful servitors. Mages can even bind spirits to human beings, though this can be very dangerous if the wrong entity takes up residence in one’s body. Bound spirits can be blended with their host, to create a tough hybrid with supernatural powers and an appearance that can range from somewhat otherworldly to utterly inhuman. The relationship can instead be more of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort, in which the host can shift between his non-powered human form and his enhanced, otherworldly one. Magic items also exist in this world, and they inevitably involve the temporary or long-term binding of a spirit to an object.
Like other O.R.E. sourcebooks, this is not just a rule book, but an alternate history. As one reads through the chapters on spirits, magic, and supers, details about this timeline regularly emerge. Additionally, over a dozen major and several minor organizations are discussed. For example, Citizens Against Reductionist Genetic Obsessions is a peaceful group intent on decreasing mutant-related fear. People for Religious Freedom is dedicated to relaxing laws against magic. The School of the American Future is a school for mutants. Two rival organized crime organizations are also detailed. One is a traditional, Italian-American, Godfather-style family, and the other is the Xolotl Cartel a sorcerous Mexican-American religious cult and trans-national syndicate. The descriptions are quite interesting and there are many useful suggestions for how these groups can be used in play.
All these groups are written up in a way consistent with the company rules found in Reign, Greg Stolze’s fantasy setting. For those readers unfamiliar with Reign, that fantasy sourcebook has company rules for defining the characteristics of organizations, whether they are guilds, or pirate brotherhoods, or baronies, and for allowing gamers to run various sorts of groups as if they were PCs. These stats include Might, which reflects the capacity to wield force directly, Influence, which deals with the ability to sway society, including other groups, Sovereignty, which reflects the company’s structural integrity, Territory, which involves how much human and physical capital the group controls, and Treasure, which equals level of wealth. All of the organizations in Grim War are written up in such a fashion, so it is easy to analyze their relative strengths and weaknesses. In addition to the write-ups of companies and spirits, many magicians, mutants, and other NPCs are written up here. This is useful for potential game masters. Grim War does not actually include the Company Rules, so if you want to know how to apply them fully, you need to own Reign.
While I really like Grim War, especially the magic rules, I’m a bit disappointed that there is relatively little alternate history here. While the One Roll Engine is a very good rules set, it is the alt history in the O.R.E. products that really made me a fan. It was a pleasure to read Godlike’s treatment of a Second World War with supers, for example. That fascinating setting inspired me to run my Battling Bastards of Bataan campaign. This Favored Land provides a fairly substantial alternate history of the American Civil War era, and is a good read. The excellent Kerberos Club richly includes over a century’s background for a very detailed alternate steampunk fantasy Victorian Britain. Grim War is not really comparable to these other sourcebooks. There is no timeline, and while there is enough information to add context to the nature and role of magicians and mutants, and to define the character of the various organizations discussed in the book, this is not really a detailed alternate history. I love alt history, and naturally expected to see a substantial amount it when I started reading Grim War. Perhaps I should have known better, because Grim War only costs $24.99, which is $15.00 less than the encyclopedic Kerberos Club, for example. Still, I would have rather paid more for a sourcebook that explained Grim War’s reality in substantially more depth. I do like $24.99 Grim War, but suspect that I would love a $34.99 version written in some parallel universe. I realize that Greg Stolze has many campaign settings and rules variants that he wants to explore, but he really does his best work when he dedicates a longer period of time to a given project.
Also, know that while there are many write-ups of NPC mutants and mages, they are presented in less detail than is typical in other Wild Talents sourcebooks. While quite playable, their specific point values are not listed and the value of their powers’ exact Extras and Flaws is not always clear. As a fan, I like seeing exactly how characters (and powers) are designed so that I can get a better understanding of the RPG in question. This kind of detail is normally included in other O.R.E. sourcebooks. I would like to have seen it here too.
On the whole, Grim War features a very good setting with an interesting, well constructed and clearly explained magic system. The sourcebook gives the GM numerous useful NPCs and organizations to use. It provides many good ideas for how a GM might run scenarios in this alternate world. Grim War features a fair amount of setting details, but not as many as One Roll Engine fans are used to. Only buy this if you’re game engine preferences include the One Roll Engine – it is not a good choice if you’re looking for the sort of rich, detailed alternate history featured in Godlike or Kerberos Club. If you are an O.R.E. fan, be aware that the NPC write-ups are not done in as much detail as you might expect and desire. Overall, this is quite a good supplement, though not quite as good as it might have been. I’m glad that I bought it though, and am very likely to use the setting in an upcoming game.
Grim War is available in hard copy through Indie Press Revolution for $24.99. If you buy a paper copy from IPR, you get a PDF too. RPG Now, DriveThruRPG, and e23 all sell the PDF version.