Grimm is the latest and second in Fantasy Flight Games' line of experimental d20 mini-games, the first being the post-apocalyptic Redline. Proving that the line will careen wildly from one concept to the next, the line moves on from the homelands of Mad Max to a twisted fairy tale land, eponymously called the Grimm Lands.
On the very first page after the credits, FFG states that with their Horizon line of games they are trying "to explore the farthest possible reaches for new settings, themes, and mechanics...", a goal which I find very laudable. It is a credit to the folks at FFG, and especially to Rob Vaughn and Greg Banage, line developer and managing developer of the Horizon line, that they have the courage to break the mold and give us these highly imaginative, risk-taking endeavors.
Here are my reviewer biases. First, I'm very fond of Fantasy Flight Games, both in their lines of original and imported board games, and in their roleplaying game materials. This is not to say I've haven't been disappointed with some of their work in the past, but in general, they are one of the few companies I trust to consistently release good material. Second, I like dark games, I like horror games, I like games where one takes on the roles of children, and I like d20. All of which Grimm is. Finally, I only review games I like, which should tell you a lot about how this review is going to go.
And now, Grimm.
Grimm is a 64-page, softcover, 8x11 game. The front cover sports an enchanting and eery full-color illustration by Brian Shomburg, depicting three children walking down a slope next to a rocky outcropping when the outcropping turns to look at them with a twisted human visage. Creepy.
The inside front cover is an add for the third Horizon game, called Virtual, which will apparently be about self-aware software avatars that battle with themselves within the network, all for the good of humanity. Sounds pretty cool. Sign me up.
The inside rear cover is an add for Redline, the aforementioned game of a road-warrior-style post-apocalyptic action. While I'm generally not interested in that genre, my appreciation of Grimm and what FFG is attempting to do with the Horizon line may well just get me to go out and buy that, too. Ok, I'm a sucker. But at fifteen dollars U.S. a pop, there's little reason not to give in to my gluttonous rpg-buying urge.
All the inside artwork is black and white, and considering the low price-point of the book, is both copious and extremely well done. The artwork goes a long way toward presenting the feel of Grimm, hand in hand with the text. The interior artwork was done by Jim Brady, Larry MacDougnall, James Ryman, and Scott Schomburg. The interior layout in standard 2-column, with one inch margins on all sides. The margin scroll work is unobtrusive yet interesting, and provides easily accessible page and chapter references.
Page 1 is the credits page. Page 63 is devoted to a full-page add for Dungeon/Dragon (the mini-games of which may be the inspiration for the entire Horizon line, to engage in a bit of telepathy). Page 64 is the OGL.
Everything else is pure Grimm goodness.
In the introduction on pages 2 and 3, we are introduced to Grimm Lands. Apparently, the Brothers Grimm were not just about collecting fairy tales and folklore for the edification and entertainment of their readers. No, they had a more insidious purpose in mind. Under the sponsorship of a mysterious entity called Melusine, the fairy tales they captured in their book were made real in, or perhaps brought across to, the Grimm Lands.
Such an introduction would seem to indicate that only the fairy tales recorded by the Grimm Bros. populate the Grimm Lands, but later on, the author encourages the enterprising GM to introduce fairy tales from other sources as well. So perhaps the population of the Grimm Lands did not end with the Grimm Brothers. Anyway, such introspection on the metaphysical nature of the Grimm Lands seems somewhat at odds with the rest of the tone of the game. It's not like the children who get zapped into the Grimm Lands will have the luxury to ponder such thoughts.
And of course, only children can go to the Grimm Lands. Some are imaginative enough to find the doors between worlds on their own, while in other cases, the Grimm Lands actively suck children into them, as if it hungers for them. As if its twisted stories would be meaningless without appropriate protagonists.
Chapter 1 goes into detail about the kids who get trapped in the Grimm Lands by way of character creation. Grimm uses the d20 system, jimmied to be more suitable to the theme of children trapped in a fantasy world.
Characters in Grimm are generated just like in every other d20 game, with the following twists. First, kids roll 4d6 for their stats only 5 times, first rolling 2d8 and plunking the result of that roll into their Strength score. I immediately see two problems with this. First, if your concept required or suggested a high-strength character (like you wanted to play The Bully or The Jock), and you got a low roll on those 2d8, you would pretty much be out of luck, and either have to choose a new concept or play a crippled one. Second, this makes using the standard point-buy method of attribute selection impossible. The first problem is inherent to all random character creation, made more pronounced here because the player is completely at the mercy of the whim of the dice. One would normally fall back on the point-buy method if one is unhappy with the first problem, but again, that's unavailable here. I favor complete player control over character generation, and Grimm won't let me do that without tinkering.
(As an aside, my solution to the above problem, were I to GM a game of Grimm, would be to allow players to swap strength rolls among themselves, so that the player who wanted The Nerd and ended up with the 16 strength can swap with the player who wanted The Jock and ended up with a 6 strength.)
Next comes the selection of classes available to Grimm children, but these are not your typical d20 classes. The game calls these seven classes archetypes, and they combine the features of both race and class. Really, the only feature of race they subsume is ability score modifiers, with each of the six archetypes getting some non-trivial ability score modifiers, such as The Nerd getting a -2 Strength and Constitution, and a +4 Intelligence.
The seven archetypes are The Bully, The Dreamer, The Jock, The Nerd, The Normal Kid, The Outcast, and The Popular Kid. The game states that the Grimm Lands only sucks in those children that most closely fit their stereotypes. It is, after all, a land of stories.
Robert Shwalb shows himself a skilled hand with the d20 system, making it sit up and do tricks for him. Although each archetype progression is only six levels long, they more than make up for it with a breadth of abilities that aid the verisimilitude of archetypal children lost in a fairy tale world. For example, The Bully gets the ability 'Smite Weakling', which he can use against any creature weaker than himself. Likewise, The Nerd gets special abilities related to his astounding logic and The Dreamer has abilities appropriate to a kid with her head in the clouds.
My favorite part of the archetype progressions, indeed my favorite part of the entire mini-game, is the "life lesson" abilities that each kid receives at sixth level. The Bully learns that he has to protect those weaker than himself, and gains the ability to sacrifice himself for another kid. The Dreamer learns to become the person she's always imagined herself to be. And the Normal Kid, well... he just Grows Up, permanently loosing all imagination points in exchange for being immune to the illusions, enchantments and despair of the Grimm Lands. (Technically, that's just one of the options available to the Normal Kid, who gets to choose from a selection of "Life Lessons" upon reaching sixth level.)
Like in other d20 games, your first level kid who just found herself lost in the Grimm Lands starts the game with some skills and feats. The skill list has been pared down and customized for the setting, so instead of Spot, Listen and Search you have a single skill, Notice. Skills such as "Boy Scout Stuff", "Home Ec" and "Puzzles" make the character sheet feel more like one suitable for a 8 to 12 year old.
Kids in the Grimm Lands have a pared down and customized feat selection. In addition to the feat every kid gets at first level, they also get one "origin" feat from a selection of six, including Orphan, Home-Schooled and City Kid. Additionally, each archetype provides for the selection of one of two feats at first level. So every newly created kid will have three feats listed on their character sheet.
Furthermore, since the archetypes only go up to level 6, kids gain a new feat at 2nd, 4th and 6th levels instead of the normal feat acquisition progression at 3rd and 6th levels. Setting specific feats for Grimm include Self-Reliant, which helps the character resist despair checks, and Spoiled, which allows the character to throw a tantrum with effects similar to but different from a barbarian's rage ability.
Looks like I've already covered chapter 2, feats and skills, which leads me naturally into Chapter 3 - Facing the Darkness, which introduces the new systems used in Grimm.
This chapter begins with a brief overview of equipment, including starting equipment packages for the kids, which include such necessities as 1d4 pencils and crib notes. The chapter continues on with a discussion of Focuses. A Focus is an object invested with power by a kid's hopes and dreams. Every kid gets one to start, and they provide a variety of minor magical effects. Some are inspired, such as the magical crayon that lets you draw an exit to somewhere else in any surface, while others are more mundane in their effects, such as the +1 Shin Guards.
Chapter 3 continues on by explaining about Cruxes, items which can be used to vanquish certain foes, and Fairy Wands, which function as imagination batteries.
Speaking of imagination, that's what the very next section is on. The children sucked into the Grimm Lands face many harsh challenges, and if they fail them, a horrible death awaits them. Against these horrors, the children have few advantages, but among these their most powerful weapon is their own imaginations.
Imagination points act in many ways like magic points, or action points from d20 modern. They bear a passing similarity to the Drama Points of Buffy and the Dramatic Editing rules of Adventure. Each character has a maximum number of imagination points per day, which can be used to fuel certain class abilities, power magical incantations, and so forth.
But every child can also simply use their imagination to alter the landscape of the Grimm Lands. These imaginings range from the mundane (gain a +1 to a single action) to the useful (find the key to the door under the mat) to the powerful (imagining what an opponent will do next). The only limits to imaginings are the number of imagination points available to the child, their level which determines how big their imaginings can be, and that imaginings can not directly harm any creature in the Grimm Lands.
If a player finds herself with an excess number of imagination points per day, she can permanently sacrifice a handful to give her character permanent bonuses to various statistics. Also, if a child ever uses all their imagination points in a day, they become fatigued.
The next two sections in chapter three detail how magic works in the Grimm Lands, which is quite different from how it works in other d20 games. The game suggests that spells be the rewards for quests. Children are prohibited from casting certain kinds of spells, such as necromancy, which belong only to the purvey of Grimm villains. Once again, imagination points are used to fuel incantations.
Remember that scene from Little Red Riding Hood where the Big Bad Wolf swallows Grannie and Miss Hood whole, and they are only rescued later by a woodcutter cutting them from the stomach of the beast? Yup, there are rules for that kind of swallowing whole, which apparently a lot of the Grimm creatures like to do.
Chapter 3 concludes with a few paragraphs on despair. Children who are separated from their friends are prey to the despair of the Grimm Lands and their own fears, and must pass fear tests until they either conquer their fear or succumb to it. Orphans and loners are partially or completely immune to the effects of despair.
Chapter 4, the final chapter of the book and the longest weighing in at 22 pages, introduces the people and places that populate the Grimm Lands. (It should be noted that the Table of Contents of the book on page 2 has some goofs, and some things are not to be found where that table suggests that they would be found.)
The Grimm Lands are divided into four gross areas - the Checkerboard Kingdoms, the Great and Awful Forest, the Loomslag Peaks, and the Sea. Furthermore, the Underworld lies underneath the Grimm Lands, a place of even greater horrors than the surface world. At least several paragraphs are given for describing each area.
A couple of additional rules are located here, and not in chapter 3. The first is that oaths, given honestly and freely, are binding. Break an oath and whatever punishment was stated in the oath is immediately enforced. Next are given the rules for Temptations, which are essentially Will saves associated with a particular place or object, and frequently targeted at a certain class of people. For examples, Rapunzel's tower is a temptation DC 10 for males.
Finally, there are over a dozen pages dedicated to places of note, famous areas such as the aforementioned Rapunzel's tower which are dangerous and fleshed out in more details, and creature write-ups.
I don't want to give too much of Chapter 4 away, as it was my favorite chapter, and I don't want to ruin any of the pleasantly twisted surprises that lay within. But I'll give a few hints for flavor.
Rapunzel's tower still exists, and foolhardy heroes can try to climb her golden tresses, which still fall from the windowsill. However, when they clamber through her window, they will find her quite dead - and the vermin who animate her corpse quite hungry.
Cinderella has joined forces with the Rotten King, and given into her love of pain, becoming a dominatrix-of-the-ball. Her wicked scourge is a very creative magic weapon that simply begs to be imported into other games.
Grimm ends with an Appendix called "Telling Tales", a two page brief covering the important aspects of running a game of Grimm. Also, in one of the lasts paragraphs, it tells the GM not to use normal experience point advancement, but simply to advance the characters one level per adventure. This was also stated in chapter 2.
Well, I don't bother to review games I don't like, so that's a big clue what my reaction to this game was. I promised the game would contain darkness, horror, children as protagonists, and d20. I think that Grimm succeeds on all of these points. It is certainly dark, the fairy tales we know and love from childhood reified as macabre and twisted creatures. The Grimm Lands contain horrors enough to terrify those hapless children who venture into its grasp, from being eaten alive to the soul-crushing despair eminating from the very land itself. It offers children as protagonists, and not weak and helpless children either, but strong and vibrant children, empowered by their imaginations. And it makes the d20 system sit up and dance.
But I do think that Grimm has a few flaws. The first is the straight 2d8 to Strength roll during character creation that can ruin a good character concept. Second, the class progression only goes up six levels. That means that the GM is well advised to plan on ending her game on the sixth session, when each character will have access to his or her powerful "life lesson" ability. Unfortunately, this means that the game can probably not be extended into a long-running campaign. It was designed as a mini-game, and a mini-game it shall remain. While one could tinker with it to create something more durable for a long-term campaign, I think that much of the magic of Grimm may well be be lost in such an endeavor.
Perhaps the best option for a long-term Grimm campaign that I've heard was a suggestion by RPGnet regular Kevin Mowery in the forums: run a group of kids through Grimm, then fast-forward until they are adults and the Grimm Lands start leaking through the other way - using d20 Modern and Urban Arcana.
I give Grimm a 4 for style - while there are a few minor typographical errors, they are nothing that ruins the enjoyment of the game. Further, the game is well-organized, and the artwork beautifully complements the text in each section.
I give Grimm a 4 for substance - it may only be 64 pages long, but each page is jammed packed with cool new rules that compliment the setting and imaginative prose that fleshes out the Grimm Lands. No word feels wasted; nothing feels like filler.