Review of Other Worlds

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

September 28, 2012


by: Blake Hutchins


Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

A streamlined, more accessible sibling of multi-genre games like Heroquest, offering a rules-light mechanic engineered to let in-game fiction and character depth drive events at the table.

Blake Hutchins has written 1 reviews, with average style of 4.00 and average substance of 4.00.

This review has been read 3564 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Other Worlds
Publisher: Signal 13
Line: Other Worlds
Author: Mark Humphreys
Category: RPG

Cost: $44.99
Pages: 208
Year: 2011

SKU: FAC 13 5201
ISBN: 2-370004-194936


Review of Other Worlds


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INTRO

This is a playtest review of Other Worlds, a multi-genre roleplaying game published by Signal 13 and written by Mark Humphrey (soviet on these forums).

WHAT IT IS

Other Worlds is a rules-light game with mechanics that focus on producing a story rather than accurate simulation of a game world or emphasizing tactical choices on the tabletop. It appears to have evolved organically from Heroquest, as it presents many of the same concepts in streamlined form.

At this point, I am running a campaign using Other Worlds, and we are twelve sessions in. We have shaken out every part of the system.

THE BOOK

COVER
The cover by Storn Cook (of whom I’m a fan) serves up a colorful kitbash of genre images. While skillfully rendered, it’s also a bit garish. I’m not a fan of generic multi-genre covers, as the kitchen sink approach seems to force a trite compartmentalization of the art that I find weakens its impact. While I recognize the desire to present the game as a “universal toolbox,” I found this cover uninspiring.

INTERIOR ART
The interior art is also by Storn. It’s all black and white, concept sketch rendering. Unlike the cover, I like this choice a lot. The style remains consistent throughout the book, producing a unified look evocative of a wide range of different settings. Other Worlds frequently pairs art with sample character stats or campaign write-ups, a nice touch.

LAYOUT
The clean and easily navigable page layout includes numerous sidebars. It’s easy to peruse, very legible, content-rich without feeling crowded, uncluttered without a wasteland of whitespace.

The character sheet represents a special case of layout. Unfortunately, it’s a dense, bland bucket of ability lists that crams everything on one page, but feels crowded and doesn’t leave much room for anything other than ability lists, practically a dressed up Excel sheet. Signal 13 provides downloads at its site that include a form-fillable PDF character sheet, and my players made use of this, which was handy for me as GM. The NPC sheets are a lot less helpful because they entail nothing more than ability lists with no space for notes or descriptions about the NPCs, and many NPCs laid out on the same page. I made custom sheets instead.

WRITING
Though not without a few flaws that I’ll go into later, Humphreys has put together a remarkably clear book that serves up its mechanics and design philosophy amid an entire process of building a campaign and fictional setting. The explanations are lucid, complete, and accessible while striking a pleasant, conversational tone that makes you feel as though the designer is sitting across the table from you. It’s not pedantic, but at the same time avoids being cute or pretentious.

What’s even more impressive is how the entire mechanics explanation could fit on one page. Other Worlds wraps its rules in a ton of advice on how to set up a game, populate the setting with supporting characters, run the game, maximize one’s engagement as a player, and how to build different genre sets. Alongside this advice, the book presents numerous examples of character generation, gameplay, NPCs, archetypes, and campaign frameworks. In that sense, it’s one of the best documented, well-organized game texts I’ve ever read.

In particular, I’d like to compliment Humphreys on his explanation of setting goals and stakes in conflicts. I’ve read a ton of game texts, but never read one that distilled this piece so cleanly. The book is packed with similar “aha” moments, making Other Worlds a treatise on good GM and player practice. None of it is rocket science, and you may recognize a lot of it from your own gaming table’s practice, but it’s laid out so nicely here that I still found it illuminating.

THE GAME

CHARACTERS
Unlike most RPGs, Other Worlds starts with an explicit worldbuilding phase, outlining a collaborative approach prior to character generation. There’s some good advice for striking a balance between GM interests and player contribution and buy-in. It’s not mechanically necessary; the GM can create the world on her own, but this section does offer a nice procedural description of how players can craft a setting together and come up with a group and character concepts.

Characters in Other Worlds are composed of templates, basically packages of abilities. All characters have a Cultural Template such as Venetian Aristocrat, Chinese Orbital Citizen, or Texan; an Occupational Template such as Pirate Captain, Professor, or Space Marine; and an Individual Template that serves as a catch-all for whatever the player wants to complete his or her character concept. If the particular setting includes unusual or supernatural powers, resources, or experience, a character may also have one or two Trademarks, which are special add-on templates that depend on your game’s genre choices.

Every template includes up to eight general abilities (e.g., Shoot Pistol, Play Canasta, Sneer at Peasant), four relationships (Loyal to Star Command, Love Esmerelda), and four personality traits (Greedy, Fear the Turk, Insatiably Curious). You don’t need to fill them all out at the start of play, but if you do, you’re looking at a minimum of 24 general abilities, 12 relationships, and 12 personality traits. If you’re in a high-powered game with two Trademarks, each character would have a grand total of 80 abilities. In a typical group with three to five characters, this is a lot for a GM to track. We’ll go more into that later.

However, the large number of abilities does produce a feeling of depth, with plenty of hooks and flags for the GM to exploit to engage players. Author Humphreys has stated on the RPG.net forums that the large number is by design, because he enjoys deeper characters with lots of abilities on the character sheet. Fair enough.

Virtually all but a handful of the abilities will share the same numerical rating, which is a baseline set according to the campaign’s power level. The few outliers vary up or down by a few points. This means most rolls use the same numbers, at least at the outset of a campaign.

Experience is handled via the meta-resource Spotlight Points also serving as XP, an arrangement identical to baseline Heroquest. Generally, it’s easier to buy new abilities or supporting characters than to make significant gains in raising existing abilities. If you want more conventional advancement, the sidebars give you some options.

MECHANICS
Other Worlds uses a d100 player v. GM roll. This is not a percentile roll. Each side rolls d100, adds modifiers, and compares results straight across, high number winning. The difference between the rolls determines a three-tier level of victory or defeat: marginal, standard, or critical. If you tie, it’s an unexpected result that might offer opportunities and setbacks to both sides.

It’s really important for the group to set clear goals and stakes before the dice hit the table. Your game’s power level affects the “swing” of the results provided by the d100 roll.

When entering a conflict, the player selects a primary ability that adds its full value, then selects three supporting abilities to create a sort of ability stack. The first supporting ability adds half its value, and the others--any and all others--add ten percent. Ability selection isn’t meant to be a min-max thing, but an incentive for the player to show off the character. In other words, it’s important to the fiction whether you support with “Love my family” or “Hate the Turk.”

You can get additional bonuses or penalties for circumstances (e.g., tactics, advantageous positioning or gear) or context (how well the main ability being used fits the circumstances). In play these can add quite a bit, almost doubling a player’s total ability value (or crushing it).

Applicable flaws work the same way as abilities. The first adds half its value as a penalty to the total modifier, whereas other ones add ten percent, but without a cap on the number that can stack up. Pile on enough of them, and it’ll really hurt.

Once you have your final number, both sides roll. Win or lose, you gain a Temporary Ability or Flaw to reflect that outcome, equal to the opponent’s modifier before the roll. If Dottore Gregario tries to prepare an alchemical smoke bomb with a final rating of +51 and succeeds, he gains the temporary ability of “Smoke Bombs 51.” If he fails, he may end up with “Stinging Burns to Face and Hands 51” or “Malfunctioning Smoke Bombs 51” as a flaw. Temporary abilities typically last for a scene or a session, but possibly longer, depending on fictional circumstances. Players may have to undertake a conflict to remove their setbacks.

The relatively flat distribution of ability levels at the start of a game means your numbers total about the same on every roll. With enough time in the campaign, this could change. In our twelve-session game, my players still almost always stack abilities to about +50, no matter what combinations they select. When Flaws or other modifiers apply, they carry tremendous weight.

Characters can help other characters by offering supporting abilities, and the meta-resource of Spotlight Points lets you fiddle with the dice results or raise the stakes and try again if you lose a conflict. You can run conflicts as simple conflicts to be resolved with one die roll or roll it out as a multi-roll set piece for climatic conflicts, called Set Pieces.

The Set Piece is the Other Worlds equivalent of Heroquest’s Extended Contests. Once you have the overarching conflict set, each side determines and resolves sub-conflicts, piling up temporary abilities or flaws until one side calls for a final roll-off that piles in all the modifiers accumulated via the sub-conflicts.

Finally, Spotlight Points are, as has been mentioned, the meta-resource equivalent of Heroquest’s Hero Points or Savage Worlds’ Bennies. You get them whenever you lose a meaningful conflict or when an NPC supporting character of a PC dies. Players also receive two tokens per game session to be gifted as Spotlight Points to other players for cool or entertaining roleplaying, a kind of fan mail.

THE CRITIQUE

CAMPAIGN CREATION
Due to the uneven logistic involved in setting up a group and selecting a game, we didn’t start with a blank slate and everyone at the table from the outset. Consequently, our world-building wasn’t the cohesive group process Other Worlds envisions. We met one-on-one, had some email exchanges, and and set the barebones foundation that let us start play. We are still discovering precepts of the world in play.

That said, we ended up with an alternate history Italian Renaissance complete with sorcerous summonings, clockwork marvels, and alchemy. The Point of Departure for our timestream was 1453, when Constantinople fell to Turkish djinni. The group settled on being servants or members of a wealthy aristocratic house based in Venice, a hotbed of sorcery and intrigue, and we decided to begin the campaign in the iconic year 1492.

Character generation proved tricky. I hadn’t created templates beforehand to present a range of choices, because players didn’t know what they wanted to play out of the gate. It probably would have been simpler had I said, “Here are the kinds of characters you can play.” I compromised and wrote up Italian cultural templates, then let the players come up with their own professional templates.

Template generation was fun but problematic. In practice, making up abilities from scratch means finding a balance between function and flavor, so people spent a lot of time fiddling with their choices. The templates themselves aren’t necessarily applicable to NPCs either, since supporting characters have a very streamlined template with a handful of abilities. Your templates will likely only be used for the PCs, which feels like a lot of investment for limited utility.

ACTUAL PLAY
For most conflicts, the resolution feels quick and merges smoothly with the fiction. My players say it feels like the mechanics fade away and let them experience the emergent fiction more easily. Put another way, characters don’t feel like pieces on the table. Even tactical choices feel more natural, less cut and dried.

Suspense in conflicts is consistently high. The typical character at this stage will stack up a total Ability bonus of between +40 and +60 on a roll, so the d100 adds a major potential swing to final results.

For example: in a recent session, the mercenary captain had to roll for tactics when vampires ambushed his son’s company, which was miles away from the PCs. He’d made the plans and preparations beforehand, but Other Worlds recommends not actually rolling for results until events call for it. Instead of rolling for his tactical preparation ahead of time and applying the result as a known bonus, we waited until our captain had taken his company on a forced march all night to relieve his son, and rolled only when he and his scouts crested the ridge overlooking his son’s camp. It was fun to watch this player sweat.

This conflict also offers a great example of the potential results swing the d100 makes possible. I had totaled modifiers of +91 before my GM roll, and his total languished at +41 after calculating circumstantial modifiers. With a 50-point advantage, I expected to announce his son’s capture or infection by the vampires, a ruinous defeat, loss of valued troops, and a desperate situation.

Instead--and I swear I am not making this up--I rolled a 01 for a total of 92 and he rolled a 52 to end up at 93, eking out the barest of marginal victories. For an outcome, I described the characters riding into a well-fortified camp amid piles of smoldering vampire corpses. The company had suffered casualties and the loss of one of their two field guns, but the PC’s son was alive (and uninfected) to greet the mercenary captain with a goblet of hot wine. Higher victory levels would have reduced the losses and thrown in increasing benefits, such as important prisoners to interrogate. For future vampire attacks, the enemy NPC gained the flaw “Greatly reduced forces: 52.”

The core mechanic feels like the strongest point of the game. Conflicts feel really suspenseful. There haven’t been many instances when players haven’t been on the edge of their seats for the dice results. Rolls equal risks.

However, as simple and effective as this mechanic is, properly framing a conflict in terms of stakes and consequences takes practice. My players say conflicts feel much more suspenseful when the consequences of defeat are clearly defined beforehand.

Search time, however, is an issue. The tradeoff for the character depth provided by all these abilities means a chock-full character sheet to examine when embarking on conflicts. In our game, that’s over sixty abilities to sort through, and selecting the proper mix seems to slow even our most experienced gamers. Whenever people search their sheet to make selections, there’s a consistent delay. This bit is one of my few real quibbles with the game. My players don’t mind, but to me it feels like hitting the pause button in the middle of a dramatic moment.

The “Main ability + 3 Supporting abilities” approach proved a bit confusing when trying to communicate within the group what ability lined up where. Subsequently, we house ruled the ability stack from four to three: Main at 100%, Supporting at 50%, and Flavor at 10%. This approach has made things way more intuitive.

Further, I created a custom character sheet with a section for players to preselect favored “combos” in order to speed play. But we discovered almost every roll combines unique abilities depending on circumstances and player whim, so pre-defined combos aren’t actually terribly workable.

The math is dead simple, but when you’re tired or trying to run double-digit computations quickly in your head, you hit another delay that can break the fictional suspense. One player has commented that we’d benefit from a calculator at the table. This is a minor issue, though.

Actual adjudication isn’t hard. As with Heroquest, all conflicts run the same way, whether physical, social, or mental. The three-tier outcome makes figuring out consequences very simple.

In our 1492 game, we ran a fun opening adventure through the ancient Roman cisterns of Istanbul, encountering animated dead, a vengeful djinn, a venal Turkish sorcerer and his escort of deadly archers.

A high point came when we rolled a tie on the player character sorcerer’s attempt to banish the djinn. In this case--unusual since an exact tie on a d100 roll is rare--I decided the djinn did depart, but not before bringing down a portion of the ceiling on players and their opponents.

Another moment came when the naive physician--who had suffered a serious arrow wound earlier--finally rolled for first aid and got a critical success. I ruled the arrow had simply grazed his ribs, giving him a painful scratch he’d fearfully mistaken for a deep wound. The other characters gave the poor dottore no end of grief for this.

Our final high point in that session (there were many) happened when the sorcerer solved an architectural riddle using his Cultural Template’s “Appreciate Classical Art and Architecture” ability. The player commented that any system where that kind of ability ends up playing a significant role is pretty cool.

Player response has been uniformly positive, the consensus being that the rules really do let the story take the forefront.

I do have some issues with the book’s editing. It’s not immediately clear from the text how permutations on stacking supporting abilities work, particularly when NPCs or other PCs offer help on a roll. I suspect some of this section could have benefited from another editing pass to highlight the nuances.

Spotlight Points weren’t used much in the beginning, but the players started spending them a lot more in the last few sessions during set piece conflicts. Spotlight Points don’t fall off trees, but they seem sufficiently available. In recent sessions, they’ve proven critical to character victory, and stymied a few hotly anticipated GM critical successes, damn it.

Another nice thing about Spotlight Points is that players can use them to elevate an NPC or Location to Supporting Character status. Players therefore have a lot more say in the fiction about who or what they want to be important. The German Mercenary Captain recently made his military company a supporting character, which means he can attach abilities and relationships to them and run them as a minor character of his own.

Set pieces look easy on paper, but in practice feel awkward, principally because each sub-conflict generates new Temporary Abilities or Flaws to track. Better practical advice on how to run these would have been helpful, especially suggestions for notation. In particular, the choice each round to Resolve or Escalate seems a bit clunky, and doesn’t map well to the in-game fiction. We’ve run these more loosely, as collections of sub-conflicts, rolling applicable abilities into each roll until something happens in the fiction that seems to be a deciding factor.

FOR THE GM
I love how the game emphasizes relationships and personality traits. I also appreciate the volume of material on creating Supporting Characters (or Locations, which work the same way), and the breakdown of excellent advice on how to set up, run, and play the game. There’s a lot of useful stuff to digest here.

It’s a simple game to prep once you’ve started. There’s not much to statting up NPCs or supporting locations. For example, I can create Venice with “Labyrinthine Canals,” “Jewel of the Adriatic,” “Love of Pageantry,” and “Fleets of War Galleys,” assign some numbers, and I’m done. NPCs work the same way whether they’re mooks or major characters. There’s not a lot of number crunching or mechanical detail to prep for a game, unless you choose to create an NPC at equivalent detail level to a PC.

However, I’ve found the very simplicity of supporting characters makes for some problems matching up against PCs, since the much smaller number of abilities makes the typical supporting character much less competent mechanically, except in a quite narrow arena. YMMV, but this has made supporting characters a bit one-dimensional in conflicts.

In regard to ability scope, “General Abilities” feels like a misnomer, because in practice these abilities tend to be pretty specific. Unlike Heroquest Keywords (generic collections of abilities assumed under an umbrella term like “Roman Legionary,” “Ballet Dancer,” or “Jedi Knight”) , Other Worlds presents a sort of wishy-washy “Beginner’s Luck” option that no one in my group likes. I’d probably rename General Abilities to “Skills” or “Talents” and use “Ability” as the generic umbrella term.

My main issue is the large number of abilities and relationships. They offer a lot of story hooks, which is great. I love that in theory. On the other hand, this large number, in combination with the mostly uniform number ratings, has made it difficult to track what’s really important to the players, creating a sort of conceptual static with regard to the fictional character.

I would prefer fewer personality traits and relationships at the outset, maybe even one each per template. Right now, the full panoply comes to 32 per character, and with four characters, that means 64 personality traits and 64 relationships for me to track, aside from the general abilities. Some of these relationships or characteristics have been dropped by the wayside, never to be touched in play. The Other Worlds text does say you can leave some blank and fill them in during the game, but this suggestion comes across as an afterthought.

In my GM practice, I’m likely to pick a few abilities per character, and the others will sit there as options for the player to call upon. Your mileage may vary here, but in the end, it’s my feeling the default arrangement may make characters deep in terms of detail, but much of this depth isn’t practically accessible in play. If I were starting 1492 over, I’d probably implement Templates more like Heroquest Keywords with breakout abilities, and reduce the number of relationships and personality traits to one or two per Template. As it stands, the overlarge number of abilities diffuses the dramatic focus of each character and gives the GM too much to keep track of easily. The lack of a graceful mechanism for those situations where a character should be able to attempt something appropriate to a Template makes selection of General Abilities more challenging than it should be. YMMV.

VERDICT

I enjoy Other Worlds, and so does my gaming group. It’s a streamlined, more accessible sibling of Heroquest. However, the sheer density of the character sheets is daunting, and the resolution system, while suspenseful and quick, could use clarification on the nuances of assembling ability modifiers. Other Worlds essentially brings old Heroquest augmentation hunting into every roll, which slows down conflicts. The fact that the actual mechanical resolution is so slick and quick does a lot to compensate for this delay, but I still have mixed feelings about it. At the end of the day, though, we are having fun, and the game is supporting a solid campaign. One player bought the game and also picked up a copy as a present for a friend, so take that reaction for what it’s worth. And (inescapably) there has been talk about using Other Worlds to run Exalted.

If you’re someone who enjoys rules-light games and appreciates systems where the fiction drives the mechanics, such as Heroquest, you’ll love Other Worlds.

If you love dense characters with lots of relationships and personality, this game offers precisely that.

If you love worldbuilding, this is your game.

If you’re a die-hard fan of “simulationist” games, this isn’t that kind of animal. If you’re looking for something with detailed tactical choices embedded in the mechanics, this is not the droid you’re looking for (really). A mere glance over the rules should make these points abundantly clear.

Pros: Solid writing and book layout; system produces deep characters; excellent GM and player advice; streamlined, fiction-driven mechanics that add fun suspense to conflicts while getting out of the way of the story; easy to house rule, plenty of examples.

Cons: Fiddly and obstructive character density; quirks of ability scoping; needs better editing to clarify rules nuances; supporting character templates too narrow compared to PCs; uninspiring character sheet.

Style 4
Substance 4

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