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Saturday, 27 September 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Heaven’s Shadow

This is a review of the game “Heaven’s Shadow”, written by John S. Berry III, published by Bedroom Wall Press.  Its a review of the print version, a small-sized softcover about 85 pages long. The book has a fairly simple covering that looks like something of a medieval seal or illustration; it has no interior art whatsoever.

Heaven’s Shadow is a “mini-six compatible game” that draws a lot of inspiration from biblical esoterica; the PCs in the game are “shadows”, assassins trained to hunt down the Nephilim, demonic beings that hide among mankind sewing discord, sin and destruction. Shadows come from a variety of backgrounds but all work for the Agency, a shadowy (pardon the pun) faith-based organization who’s original incarnation was founded by Shem (the guy on the cover), son of Noah, after the flood.
The Nephilim, about whom another RPG was once made, are a biblical reference: beings born of the unlawful procreation of angelic-or-demonic beings with the “daughters of men”. In the biblical story it is implied, and in the game it is explicit, that these creatures are abominations, and part of the reason for the flood was to get rid of them; but some were spared and now live in plain sight hidden amidst humanity.

In the setting, there is now more than one Agency, and the Shadows can come from any of the abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) or their various sub-denominations. These Agencies disguise themselves in various forms, anything from government agencies to criminal organizations, and do not necessarily have any connection to the mainstream churches of their religion.  Even so, the game is explicitly about playing characters who have true Faith, and faith in some variant of the Abrahamic religions.  I don’t have any big issue with that, but its something that’s worth pointing out, as of course some gamers (maybe a disproportionate amount, compared to society at large) seem to have some issues with Judeo-christian religions, sometimes to the point that they wouldn’t want to play a PC who was dedicated to one of those faiths.

As mentioned above, the game’s rules run on a version of Mini-six, which is itself derived from the D6 roleplaying system (most famous, perhaps, for its iteration in the original Star Wars RPG).  All mechanics are resolved through D6 die rolls, and the system is a dice pool system in the sense that dice are added together (no “counting successes”).  Basic rolls are made against difficulty rating target numbers. If one succeeds with double or more of the Difficulty, they have a “double success”; the default of which would mean the Player gets to “narrate” some additional detail of their success; though the rules also explicitly state that a GM may choose to be the one who narrates this instead.

If a player describes some kind of special plan, improvisation or maneuver to try to resolve an action, the GM may also give him a stunt die; this die is rolled apart from the main roll, and will usually add its value to the check (“exploding” on a 6 for extra value) but on a roll of 1 it and the highest single die rolled are removed from the total value of the check, representing something going “wrong” with the stunt.
The system also includes rules for both simple and complex opposed rolls; the latter requiring multiple checks and jockeying for sufficient “advantage” to win the conflict.

Character creation is technically a kind of point-buy, where you begin with a pool of D6s that you divide into 4 attributes (might, agility, wit and charm), and then a second smaller pool that you divide among a number of skills. Skills are all tied to a specific attribute and you would add the base attribute value plus the skill value to determine what you roll in a skill check (so if you have 2D in Agility, and 1D+1 in Drive (agility-derived) you’d roll a total of 3D+1 for drive checks).

The game also has a special attribute, Faith. This is an important mechanic for this particular game; your faith determines your access to special “prayers” which are essentially spell-like abilities. Connected to this are a mechanic called Conviction points; you can spend a point of conviction to add your Faith score to a single skill or attribute roll.  Aside from this, Conviction can also be used to remove damage or to have a moment of “divine inspiration” where you get some kind of a clue in a tricky situation. Spending Conviction points for irreligious purposes will gain you Sin Points, which act as penalties to all faith rolls and further conviction points gained must go to wiping out these Sin points.

The game mechanics also feature disadvantages (called “Complications”). These are chosen by the player from a list (my absolute least favorite way of handling disadvantages), and overcoming these complications in some way during play earns you more conviction points. Complications include things like “anti-social”, “bounty”, “criminal past”, “unsolved case”, etc. Every PC gets to pick 2 different complications, meaning that in a standard group there’s going to be a lot of interrupting the game with issues personal to specific PCs in a regular basis.

Its up to the GM whether players belong to the same agency or different ones; there is an “Agency” attribute that represents a person’s influence within their Agency; this is mainly used for access to resources.

There’s a short but acceptable list of weapons, armor and other equipment, and the system for dealing with this is abstract; rather than keeping track of money there’s a “resources” skill that one would roll to obtain an item.

Combat in the game is relatively straightforward; with characters rolling their combat-related skills against their opponent’s fixed defensive values (block, dodge, or parry), which are calculated by a formula. There are some simple rules for special modifiers (things like ranges), or for special actions (like doing multiple attacks, full defense, grappling, etc). Rolling a “double success” in combat allows a character to choose from a specific list of special critical effects; its also possible that if one fails to hit by half or less of an opponent’s defensive value, this gives the opponent an “opportunity” maneuver, which can be a counterattack or special maneuver.

Damages in combat are by weapon, with ranged weapons having their own damage values and melee weapons adding a bonus to a character’s Might attribute for damage determination.  The damage roll must exceed an opponents Soak value (another derived defensive stat) in order to have effect. Damage is calculated as “wound levels” with each level giving increasing penalties to all actions, causing a death-spiral effect.

Very interestingly, for a game about assassins, and unlike many other games about assassins, this book actually dedicates a whole chapter of rules on assassination! Its funny that this seems to me like a radical concept, but really I have to praise the author for this, given that its so rarely seen. The chapter deals with a number of mechanics to govern stealth, surprise, silence and a mechanic for teamwork in planning and executing assassinations; as well as assassination techniques for drowning, falling, fire, vehicular manslaughter, electrocution, poison, and booby traps.

The chapter on “Faith” mostly provides a list of “prayers” which a person can gain and use with their Faith attribute.  Characters gain new prayers by spending advancement points on them, and prayers all have a difficulty number that must be checked on Faith in order to succeed.  Prayers can do things like see the true form of Nephilim (that’s the one prayer all PCs start with), generate light, turn wine into water, passing unseen, speak with animals, walk on water, exorcise Nephilim from their physical form, healing, protection, resist fire, create (or quell storms), or even raise the dead, among other prayers.
The section on Agencies is quite complete as well, providing 8 detailed agencies the PCs could belong to, all of them very interesting.  These include one that is a modern CIA-type organization, a Christian religious monastic order, an order composed entirely of resurrected former killers who have repented and converted to faith, a British secret agency connected to MI6, a very old Jewish agency, a Muslim agency directly descended from the “Hashashins”, an agency of (persecuted) Chinese Christians, and a German group born out of a Christian anti-Nazi resistance movement in WWII.  There are guidelines for inter-agency co-operation and for what a GM should consider in making their own agency.

The chapter on the Nephilim details the main enemies of the game, covering about 12 pages.  It details their nature and structure, and explains that the Nephilim are the embodiment of sin (they venerate sin itself). Rules are provided for how to generate Nephilim NPCs, their special powers (based on the Favor (of satan) rather than Faith in a supreme being), and their special abilities.  Nephilim follow a Path (each based on a particular sin; so there’s the path of Blasphemy, Deceipt, Defilement, Greed, Ignorance, Lust, Oppression, Self-destruction, Treachery, and Violence), and each path will provide a Nephilim with different special abilities. For each path, a sample Nephilim statblock is provided.
The section on “missions” provides some general GM-guidelines for how a mission should be structured, as well as lists and stats for sample NPCs, and some “mission hooks” (short descriptions of potential adventures).

On the whole, I was very impressed with this game.  The system is quite sound; I don’t generally care for the D6 system much, but this version of it fits the game very well; and obviously anyone who does like the D6 system will be very pleased with this game’s use of it.  The setting, while very narrow in scope, is quite interesting and well-written, it has a lot of creative elements without getting tacky or gimmicky, and as an “occult” game it has a perspective that doesn’t quite match anything else out there yet.

Downsides? Well, as I mentioned above, its possible that some gamers might not care for playing very religious (Judeo-Christian) PCs, and in this game you’re obliged to do so. Also, while the game does offer a lot of variety, there’s only so much you can put into a single concept and 80 pages of game-text, so I could imagine that ultimately it would become repetitive in very long-term play; the author certainly goes out of his way to give the Nephilim diversity and provide a lot of very interesting and varied concepts for adventures, but at the end of the day it is still a single-focus game, where you’re playing one type of PC and fighting one specific type of opponent, and the game isn’t really made for anything else.

Within that, however, if you find the concept itself interesting, you will likely be able to get a very good run of enjoyment from Heaven’s Shadow.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Poker + Gawith’s Navy Flake

(originally posted June 22, 2013, on the old blog)

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