Shades of Earth (SOE) is HinterWelt Enterprises' second role-playing game. Like its sister game, Tales of Gaea, SOE uses HinterWelt's house rules called the Iridium System. While the Iridium System has some flaws, that isn't the place where Shades of Earth suffers. Rather, SOE loses credibility in its supposed genre--alternate history.
Covering a short period of time (1900-1940), SOE is really a campaign setting packaged with a universal rules system. According to Shades of Earth's timeline, magic has just been discovered by several clandestine organizations like the Gestapo, the Mafia, the British and U.S. Department 12, and India's Guard of Babur. To make matters more twisted, everything that took place during World War II was because Adolf Hitler was, in fact, the antichrist. The Nazi madman's agenda had nothing to do with European conquest, however. Instead, Hitler's sights were cast on Hell itself. The only way to topple Satan from his throne was to harvest souls to power magical artifacts. Thus, the atrocities that took place during WWII were an unfortunate means to an end.
Sadly, that's the extent of SOE's alternate history. The core book encourages game masters to adapt the Iridium System to any timeframe, but hasn't that been done before? After all, why not just pick up a favorite universal system, twist around a few historical facts, and play that game instead?
That being said, Shades of Earth has excellent potential to be that favorite universal system. The background material supplied is enough to get more than a few campaign themes started. For instance, SOE gives information on secret organizations that are vying for magical power, thus setting the stage for a faction war. If that isn't one's idea of an interesting role-playing experience, SOE also suggests a few underground locations where hidden information or artifacts might be found. It would be easy to adapt these situations to either a "dungeon crawl," or an Indiana Jones-type of adventure set in the rainforests of the Amazon. In any case, the Iridium System is versatile enough for each circumstance.
The Shades of Earth core book is a perfect bound softcover. SOE boasts a table of contents, a glossary, an orderly set of tables, an historical timeline, and an index to assist players and game masters in cross-referencing information efficiently. Visually, the 240-page book is instantly striking, as the cover is reminiscent of WWII propaganda posters. A US soldier stands ready for combat while a desiccated SS zombie-trooper leers at us from the background. The rear cover follows the propaganda motif and features a drowning man surrounded by dark water. The text on the poster reads: "SOMEONE THOUGHT! Remember… Careless Thoughts can be read by the Enemy! Wear Your Telepathy Guards at all times!" Delightfully, these twisted propaganda advertisements can be found throughout SOE. They add a distinct tone and nicely complement the period-piece photographs and fine artwork within the book.
The RPG's interior is just as impressive as the exterior. Shades of Earth is cohesively formatted with the character creation and game mechanics in the first half of the book and the campaign background, spell lists, artifact descriptions, and introductory adventure in the second half of the book. At times, game mechanics creep into the campaign setting, but they don't infringe on the background material's presentation.
One should also note that the Shades of Earth text can be found online in its entirety! The HTML version includes hyperlinks to each chapter, table of contens, and index, and it's free of charge. Those with Internet access may also want to investigate HinterWelt's homepage (www.hinterwelt.com). There one can find the online character generator, CHARgen. By registering with the website, players can create characters online, manipulate their skills, equipment, and experience points, and save them on HinterWelt's character database. These characters can then be accessed from any online connection.
The Iridium System
As a skill and level based system, Iridium works just as well as any other RPG of the same ilk. There are eleven character attributes (e.g. strength, agility, dexterity, will, piety, etc.). Each attribute is represented by a numerical value from one to twenty-five; those values then affect bonuses and penalties to an assortment of abilities like combat modifiers, encumbrance, and craft skills. Most of these attributes are reminiscent of early game systems, and they seem to have practical use.
The available character classes fall under the broad categories "fighter types," "performer types," " intellectual types," and "thief types." These classes are then broken down into twenty-three specific types like the soldier, athlete, engineer, and conman.
Skills are chosen during character creation, and players have the option of increasing their character's skills or purchasing more skills through the expenditure of experience points. Each character class also has a set of default specialty skills that they do not have to purchase. What really makes this system unique, however, is that there are no class restrictions in purchasing skills; thus a priest can have the "two-weapon fighting" skill just as a police officer may choose "pick pockets." With these possibilities in character creation and advancement, characters can range from obvious archetypes, like the hard-boiled detective, to non-traditional characters like the kung-fu nun.
The majority of the skills a player character may choose are measured in percentages (beginning at forty percent) in conjunction with skill level, not character level. For instance, a fifth level teamster may have a first level "swimming" skill at fifty percent if the player hasn't bothered to purchase "swimming" again. That isn't to say that skills do not advance per character level, however. Depending on the character class, a skill advances from two to three percent each level. And like most percentile-based game systems, a player must roll under his/her character's skill percentage to succeed any given task. True, the advancement in skill percentages may seem nominal, but a significant gain is made when skill levels are purchased and developed through the course of a campaign.
Magic within the Iridium System works something like skills in that ALL characters have the option of wielding magic. That isn't to say that every character has the potential to be a master sorcerer. On the contrary, each character is limited to one of four schools of magic--Natural forces, Wolvesbane, Vampiric, and Underworlder. The Natural Forces spells deal with controlling the elements, animals, and nature; Wolvesbane wielders are shapeshifters and healers; Vampiric spell casters are stealthy illusionist who can control shadows and fire; and Underworlders take command of the undead, demons, and other nightmarish creatures. The magic system uses "spirit points" to activate spells, and because characters typically have a low pool of permanent spell points, most spells are low in activation cost.
Combat in the Iridium System is standard fare. Players roll for initiative, take actions accordingly (which include an attack, casting a spell, or performing an action), then use any devices (magical or otherwise) that he/she might have. Unfortunately, the rules are less explicit as to whether an action can be taken in conjunction with the use of a device, or if using the device is one of the actions, or if the use of a device automatically places a character last in actions. Nevertheless, the important aspect of combat is straightforward enough, if not a bit reminiscent of other RPGs.
To attack, players must roll a twenty-sided die versus an opponent's defense statistic. A higher roll scores a success with the opportunity to target one's hit to a specific body location. Damage to the specific area (i.e. arms, shoulders, legs, head, chest, stomach, and groin) is dealt to armor points first and then to a character's fortitude points. Targeted individuals can choose to deflect successful hits by either parrying a blow or disarming their opponent. In order to target, parry, or disarm, however, characters must have the appropriate skill with the appropriate weapon. In effect, character balance is created since anyone can purchase these skills, but most of the "fighter types" are given them during character creation.
Another interesting facet to combat is that any weapon has the capacity to subdue an enemy by opting for "concussion damage." Because armor is scarce within the Modernist campaign setting, combat can be deadly. With concussion damage, however, game masters have the option of leaving characters unconscious rather than dead. Of course, even with concussion damage, a sharp enough blow to the head is enough to kill even the hardiest character.
Shades of Earth is, for the most part, free of major errors in game mechanics and document design. Surely, a few grammatical, syntactical, or spelling errors can be found throughout the text, but they aren't abundant enough to be distracting. Rather SOE's greatest mistake it its claim to be an alternate history game broad enough to span every possible timeline.
As an alternate history game, SOE is expected to be rife with tidbits of historical information for the game master's exploitation. Unfortunately, SOE supplies background on only a short period of Earth's history, namely the Modernist period (1900-1940). Granted, there are lots of events for game masters to work with here--especially if one knows this historical period. For instance, both of the World Wars, the Holocaust, and the United States' Japanese interment camps stand out in dark contrast against movements like the Enlightenment, the Negro Renaissance, and the Jazz Age. Throw in the variables of magic, the secret organizations' pursuit of the arcane, and the existence of supernatural creatures and an almost infinite number of adventures await an equally diverse gallery of stalwart heroes. If any time in history can be exploited with "What if—" scenarios, it is the Modernist period. But what about the rest of time?
The most cynical of us might say that Shades of Earth is HinterWelt's shrewd attempt to create a market for their future supplements. Granted, we don't need to purchase anything other than the core book to get things started, but it'd be nice to have the "official" material to expand SOE into other timelines. Those of us who are less pessimistic, however, are sure to note that the Iridium system is simple enough to adapt to any timeline anyway. Indeed, that's precisely what HinterWelt suggests within SOE.
Unfortunately, the Iridium System isn't without its flaws. Combat, for instance, can bog the game down considerably. The hit location system, in conjunction with the various combat oriented skills (i.e. targeting, parrying, disarming, ranged weapon dodge), is a clear throwback to first and second generation role-playing games. One might even argue that this kind of combat system is more conducive to wargaming than role-playing, and with current theories on RPG development, many veteran gamers may find the hit location system to be obsolete.
Another issue that some gamers may have with the Iridium System is that its experience system seems either too simplistic or too complex, depending on how one interprets the text. To be more specific, SOE's level-based experience table suggests that characters advance with an increase of points. Those points, however, are also used to purchase new skills, spike old skills to higher levels, purchase new magic spells, build up a larger pool of spirit points, increase a weapon proficiency, or increase a character's main attributes.
Here's the problem. If a character keeps a pool of experience points to purchase new abilities, are the experience points used to up the character's overall level affected or not? That is to say, does the player have the option of using seven experience points to increase a skill from second to fourth level, or using those points to increase the character to level two? Or can the player do both with only seven experience points? If the player can do both, then the level advancement system is much too simple, and characters are liable to become superhuman in just a few gaming sessions. However, if the experience pool is used up on one or the other, then character development becomes more challenging but tedious--the results of which might keep characters at low levels for an entire campaign!
Despite the unclear rules for experience point disbursement, Shades of Earth's greatest attribute is its diversity in character building. Players have the option to customize their characters so thoroughly with skills that a lengthy campaign will surely produce dynamic characters of even the same character class. In conjunction with the magic system, the potential combinations of character class, skills, magical spells, and levels of expertise are astounding. True, at first level most character classes from the same type will vary just slightly. But with time and the expenditure of experience points, the possibilities for character customization are unlimited.
One final critique I have of the Iridium System is that darn Luck attribute. The rules for using every other character attribute are clearly delineated in the character creation chapter, and they should be familiar to veteran gamers. For instance, Strength affects damage, Agility affects chances "to hit," and Intelligence affects skill usage. However, the Luck attribute rules are vague at best. Luck is apparently a catchall attribute that quantifies the "absurd" situations in life. How often a character can use Luck or where a game master should call for such a roll, however, is completely arbitrary. If Luck is so arbitrary, why bother?
When it comes down to playability, Shades of Earth succeeds. For gamers with a limited exposure to different RPGs, Shades of Earth may initially seem too complex. For players who have been introduced to a variety of other game systems, however, SOE will seem to be a piecemeal of RPG mechanics. Ironically enough, this hodge-podge of rules is almost comforting for those who recognize their origins. And in comparison to HinterWelt's first release, Tales of Gaea, Shades of Earth shines through as a more polished product.
Shades of Earth can be found at: http://www.hinterwelt.com/vforces/