DriveThruRPG.com
Close
New Account
 
  
 
 
You will lose your chance to get the free product of the week.
One-click unsubscribe later if you don't enjoy the newsletter.
Close
Log In
 
 Forgot password?
 

     or     Log In with your Facebook Account
Browse









Back
Other comments left for this publisher:
Exquisite Replicas
by Flames R. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 02/09/2014 18:02:00
You didn’t notice at first. That can of pop seemed a little ‘wrong’ somehow, but you put it down to a new packaging design and a different recipe or something. Then you noticed that someone appeared to have swapped their chair for yours at the office, but that coffee stain on the seat where you nearly did yourself a nasty injury was still there. It looked – and felt – like the same chair, but you knew, deep down inside, that it wasn’t. After that, you started to notice more and more of these things, and even people. The mailman, whose name you’d never learned, but who you’d often swapped pleasantries with about last night’s game. He wasn’t replaced by a new mailman; he looked the same; he still swapped friendly insults about your team, and even told the same story about how he’d tried out for his team but that knee injury from his early school years had put paid to his chances. He had the same memories as the mailman, put it just wasn’t really him. They (whoever they were) had replaced him with an exact replica. Things in your house were replaced, but your wife couldn’t see what you were trying to say when you tried to explain that they were the same, but changed, and you stayed quiet after a while, so that she wouldn’t think you were going insane. You did wonder yourself, a little.

Then you came home and found that your wife had been changed too.

Exquisite Replicas is the latest game from Abstract Nova, who specialise in surreal off-the-beaten-track games such as Heaven and Earth 3rd edition, Aletheia, and Noumenon. ER shares this surreal quality, but couples it with horror. This is not the gore-laden horror of zombie films (though there are creatures in the game which you wouldn’t want to come across on a dark night), but the horror of losing your mind, or a distinctly unsettling feeling that you know something’s wrong, but can’t explain (even to yourself) why, and you feel powerless to do something about it.

A few days later you meet the Anonymous. All wearing masks, seemingly using the opportunity of the anonymity that the masks give them to indulge themselves in vandalism, smashing up a car, breaking the windows of a bookstore, burning some (but not all, you notice) of the books from inside. Then you realise that the things they’re destroying are all replaced things, not real things. They understand. When they see that you, too, understand, they approach, and one offers you a mask, telling you that it’s the only way to keep them from replacing you. You join them in destroying the replicas, and tell them that your house is full of them, and start to lead them back there.

And then you remember that your wife has been replaced too.

In ER, you play one of the Anonymous, mask-wearing freedom fighters bent on destroying the replicas and attempting to return the real versions to this world. Trying to tell people what’s happening would get you locked up; being caught destroying things – or people – would get you locked up too, but doing nothing means that the world will slowly get replaced, until there’s nothing left that’s real. Eventually they’ll come for you, and replace you.

The core book is split into seven chapters and an index, with an appended character sheet (another of which can also be found in the section on character creation). The first chapter, a brief Introduction, gives the basic description of the game’s setting and quick description of role-playing that most games give, a very general description of the system used, and a warning that the subject matter of the game “is intended for mature readers.” This is not a game with which you want to introduce your 10-year old kid to role-playing, unless you like being woken at night by them screaming. It deals with disturbing issues – are you sure that you’re not going mad? You’d better be certain before you start to destroy those replicas of people, especially when you’re talking about your own family. Are you really sure that you aren’t just having some sort of flashbacks from that acid you did back in college?

The second chapter, Initiation, is an in-character explanation of what’s going on, told from the viewpoint of one of the Anonymous, an induction speech by someone with an obviously tenuous grasp on what remains of their sanity: “I think I remember putting a piece of tinfoil underneath my gardening hat; you never know if someone’s trying to microwave your head. You see, I know they were trying to scan me, like a big barcode.” I would suggest having your players read this (it totals 24 pages) after they’ve created their characters, and maybe after a brief introductory scenario wherein they meet the Anonymous. This chapter does an extremely good job of summing up the awful choices that the PCs will have to make, and the mental anguish the characters will have to go through at times, as the scene where the narrator relates how she had to kill her replica grandchildren chillingly illustrates.

Chapter three, Character Generation, is similar to other Abstract Nova games too. You play ordinary people who have joined the Anonymous because you understand that something is amiss. The Anonymous are not some government special forces group; they’re shop workers, businessmen, hairdressers, office workers. They don’t have much in the way of special equipment either – just a collection of tatty plain black suits, some masks (hockey masks, wooden fetish masks, carnival masks, any will do), and “a black conversion van…in time, we hope to acquire a second van.” This is not to say that an elite group of the Anonymous hit-men couldn’t easily be set up by the GM if that’s what your group prefers, but that would reduce the feeling of immense isolation and powerlessness in the face of true horror that the game exudes. Similarly to the old Shadowrun allocation, four things have to be categorized: Physical attributes; Mental attributes; Occupation; Advantages. Priority 1 gets you 9 points to spend, category 2 gets 7, category 3 gets 5 and category 4 gets 3 points. Physical and Mental attributes have a rating between 1 and 5 (1 is free) while these points are used to increase attributes on a 1-to-1 basis. Physical attributes include Co-ordination, Agility, Strength and Endurance, while Mental attributes are Intelligence, Knowledge, Awareness and Will.

Occupations, used similarly to that of other AN games, give a wide-ranging group of skills. For example, a taxi driver (one of the 15 example occupations given, though the players and GM can come up with whatever else they want) has skills in street smarts, casual conversation (useful for interviewing), and navigating the city, in addition to things like driving. Probable contacts are also given for each occupation, and general equipment is also based on occupation. This, to my mind, is one of the great things about the occupation system that ER uses – if it’s a skill that an occupation is likely to have, then they’re skilled at it. There’s no giant list of skills given anywhere – if your character is a mechanic, then his occupation covers repair work, contacts with auto suppliers etc. Occupations are rated from 1 to 5 stars (with each star costing one point), depending on their usefulness – for example, a cop has training in a lot of handy skills, has good contacts that can be very useful, and costs the full 5 points to take, whereas a cleaner wouldn’t have many useful contacts or skills , and would cost 1 point. Occupations have ranks, similarly to attributes, with the same maximum of rank 5, and these also cost points – a player who wants to be a very good cop, for example, could assign Occupation as category 1, getting 9 points to spend. Since cop is an example of a 5 star occupation, 5 of his 9 points would be spent getting that occupation, and the remaining 4 points spent on increasing the occupation rank from 1 to 5. This, to my mind, is a distinct improvement over occupations in Heaven and Earth and Aletheia, where you were given a set amount of points to spend on occupations and ranks that meant you could never be a veteran professor – choosing to put your occupation as your first priority means you can have a veteran at a 5-star occupation. It is also possible to spend points on two (or even more) occupations – an ex-cop who now works as a journalist, for example. Something that isn’t covered here (it’s covered later, in the game mechanics section) is what to do when a character has two occupations that share some skills – the above ex-cop, now reporter, for example, would be able to interview people through both of his occupations – he’d use the highest rank of occupation when doing so, but wouldn’t he get any bonus through having had experience in interviewing for a longer period of time compared to his other reporting skills? This could easily be house-ruled, though, with that cap of rank 5 acting as a limiter.

Advantages are skills that fall outside of a character’s occupation (my postal worker is also interested in hunting, and knows how to use a rifle), increasing particular occupation skills to reflect greater expertise in that area (my taxi driver is rank 3, but when it comes to driving, he’s rank 5), and buying weaponry. For some, as yet undisclosed, reason, replicas are hurt more by replicated objects than by real objects. Spending 1 point will get you a replicated baseball bat; spending 5 will get you a replicated gun and 50 replicated bullets. One thing that I dislike about this part is that objects are being replaced all the time; it’s surely better to spend your advantage points on skills, and simply pick up a replicated chair leg to use as a weapon when play starts.

The rest of the chargen chapter discusses psychological states, and this is another area where ER really shines. Each character chooses a rating of 1 to 5 for three psychological areas – Paranoia, Violence, and Immorality. Players are free to choose whatever level they wish for each of these, but they’re a double-edged sword. Paranoia, for example, makes it easier to spot replicated objects and people; Violence means the character is more able and willing to destroy objects – or people, replicated or not – and Immorality is the scale for how well the character can lie when under interrogation, how willing he or she is to steal or act against their conscience. As such, a character will want to have fairly high levels of these traits to effectively operate. The catch is that as each of these traits increases, the character becomes more unstable, perhaps being unable to act in social situations, becoming more and more selfish, or becoming more sadistic. If a character’s three psychological ratings all reach rank 5, the character becomes a fully-fledged psychopath, and is removed from play. As these mental instabilities are role-played, however, the character receives Tragedy Points (the tragedy being the descent into madness), which can be spent on skill rolls to ensure success. Each character also has 5 points to spend on trivial skills (playing guitar, knowing the names of each player in the Rotherham United squad that played in the League Cup final in 1961 and who scored the first goal (Barry Webster)). The chapter ends with a discussion of the character’s mask – does it have any particular meaning to the character, or was it the first one he picked up? What is the character’s background? Family? Masks are important – with a mask, the Othersiders cannot properly read the person, the first stage in replacing them.

Chapter four is concerned with Game Mechanics. The rules, like all Abstract Nova games, are simple and unobtrusive, while remaining very evocative of the feel that ER tries to convey. Game mechanics only come into play in stressful situations, and everyday skills a character uses for his or her occupation (changing oil for a mechanic, for example) are automatic successes. When testing is required, the GM sets a difficulty of 1 to 5, and decides what types of skills and attributes should be used. The rank of the aptitude (eg Awareness) and occupation rank for a particular skill (eg searching someone) are added together, and that number of 10-sided dice rolled. Any dice that roll 1 give 1 success; any that roll a 2 give 2 successes. Rolls of 3-10 give no successes. Tragedy points can be spent to increase the number of successes rolled. Opposed rolls are as above, but with the highest number of successes winning. GM decision says whether lacking a skill can default to just using the attribute, or whether the roll automatically fails (a housewife isn’t going to be able to perform brain surgery). Rules for hurried actions, extended actions, and teamwork also follow, as well as several examples of common actions (spotting replicas, chasing someone, etc).

The chapter is rounded out with a section on combat, which start with initiative and a Violence roll to see whether the character is capable of inflicting damage on someone – a neat touch, and something that most other games lack – Call of Cthulhu investigators, for example, are similarly normal people, and yet they often seem to have no compunction against beating up or shooting anyone that moves). Does your lovable grandmotherly professional babysitter character have what it takes to stab an adorable (though replicated) flopsy bunny rabbit with her kitchen knife? What about one of the kids she’s babysitting? If she has a Violence rank of 1, but rolls well and joins in on an attack against a replicated person, she stands a strong chance of her Violence rank increasing as she comes to term with the need for violence. Combat is simple, mostly opposed rolls for hand-to-hand combat and fixed difficulties for ranged combat with various modifiers (cover, lighting, range, movement etc). Damage is based on the weapon used and the number of successes in the attack roll, the strength of the attacker and the endurance of the defender. Each character has 20 health, and some weapons have very high damage ratings, easily able to kill with one shot or blow. Wounds can affect skill rolls (one success is lost for every 5 health lost). Alongside rules for falling and fire and the other usual things, there are also rules for starvation – handy when the characters take a trip to Otherside, when they prefer not to eat replicated food, or when their paranoia gets the best of them and they find themselves unable to leave the house. To deal with the ever-increasing psychological ranks, rules are also given for therapy and medication to bring these ranks lower, but this is a longer-term action, likely to be overtaken by the pace of increase of these traits.

Surprisingly, the game omits any form of XP system, meaning that characters will find it difficult to improve on their original skill levels, though it is suggested that the GM can use Tragedy Points as XP if he or she wishes. The GM is warned, however, not make this too cheap, as super heroic characters able to easily defeat Othersiders removes something from the game. Even so, the complete lack of any XP system at all seems a little odd – surely the Anonymous group the PCs belong to could provide some rudimentary training in certain skills over time, or the PCs themselves could train each other? Again, though, house rules could easily be put in place, and the rationale behind omitting such a system is a fairly good one.
Chapter five, Threats, covers the Othersiders, those strange creatures who are busy replicating people and things. Five types of Othersider are presented, from watchers to those which replace people, to those given the task of eradicating the Anonymous. When they are killed, their bodies disappear, so no trace of them can be used to learn more about them. Each of the Othersider descriptions include some suggested storylines that can be used with them. Also in this section are notes on journalists and law enforcement groups.

Chapter six, Otherside, describes the hell where the people and things that have been replaced are taken to, a weird mish-mash of concentration camp, dangerous waste repository, junkyard and factory, mired in red smog and darkness. It is not a place you want to spend any length of time in. Patrolled by weird creatures that stop escape back to reality, Otherside quickly brings on insanity and a rapid disintegration of civilisation and morality. With little available food, cannibalism is the norm, and many of those replaced have undergone such mental torture that their sanity has irrevocably gone. The Anonymous who go there (there is a way for them to go there (and return), though very dangerous) to bring back replicated people have to be very wary, and cannot stay long before they too have their minds twisted. One of the horrible ironies of ER is that as the characters become more competent at dealing with Othersiders, they become more and more liable to insanity, until they can no longer function and are taken over by the GM. Several other denizens of Otherside are described here. Your PCs will not want to meet any of them. Various locations are also described, which most characters will usually want to avoid.

Chapter seven deals with Gamemastering, and gives lots of good advice for running an ER campaign, starting with advice for running through chargen with the players, to scene-setting, types of conflict (social, environmental, psychological as well as physical), to the usual scenario and campaign creating sections. The section abounds in plot ideas (you hear about a similar group in the next city over – are they for real, like you, or are they a new and sinister development by the Othersiders to draw you out?), as well as doing a good job asking questions as to what effect on normal people the characters’ actions will have – are they just LARPers? Battling an evil and invisible menace, as a tabloid might suggest? What will happen when someone sees a white cop with a mask on and his similarly masked friends beating the crap out of a Black guy in an alleyway? Does Michael Jackson cover the faces of his children to hide their faces from paparazzi or because he knows what’s going on?

Conclusion: So, why are the Othersiders replicating and kidnapping people and objects? ER doesn’t say, but it does give several possible reasons that you can use to come up with your own campaign ideas. As such, there is quite a bit of replayability in ER. The simple game mechanics ensure that the game doesn’t get stuck in tactical combat for goes on for hours, leaving more time for role-playing and the story. The mechanics related to psychological attributes, while of course they don’t pretend to match the reality of mental illness, are innovative and help create the atmosphere that the game thrives on, of a slow descent into madness and terror, and the probably ultimately failed attempt to fight back.

Art: Eric Lofgren does some very evocative work in ER. A lot of the half-page scenes depicted are natural poses – the narrator of the Initiation chapter, for instance, is seen sitting, an old woman in a cheap black suit with a carnival-style mask. A run-down abandoned building which serves as the Anonymous HQ and the like. In addition, each chapter begins with a full-page greyed illustration, usually of Anonymous members destroying replicated things (or people), attacking Othersider creatures etc. Some of these are repeated in other chapters as half-page illustrations. The outside margins of other pages are decorated with depictions of various masks. These margins are the same throughout the book, and it would have been a great aid to flipping through the book looking for particular chapters if these had been different marginal mask illustrations for each chapter, but otherwise they look good; several of the masks seem have a malign or malevolent look to them, which fits well.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Exquisite Replicas
Click to show product description

Add to DriveThruRPG.com Order

Click here to issue a publisher reply
Aletheia
by Flames R. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 04/15/2013 11:08:28
Introduction
Aletheia is an extremely difficult book to write a review for because, while it is an RPG, it is one with an extremely defined, extremely tight, extremely focussed setting which amounts to a campaign idea with its own rules, rather than as an RPG as such. Given that so much of the book is devoted to the reality behind the secrets of the setting it is nigh impossible to give a full review and assessment of the game since that would give away too much and spoil it for those that do buy it.

This is something of a conundrum.

As to the game itself, I can’t decide whether I like it or not, while the execution of the game is largely flawless and the ideas within it are interesting, in their way it is very restrictive and very set. Fine if your gaming group likes the setting and the idea, then it gives you a great springboard from which to launch straight into play, if your gaming group are difficult bastards as mine often are, then this may pose a problem.

Overview
The players are some (or all) of the members of The Seven Dogs society, an elite group of specially selected people taken from an exhaustive list of genealogical investigations undertaken by the society’s missing founders. You don’t get a choice in that matter, though you do get to generate your character as you wish within those boundaries. These characters can be just about anything but since the game is centred around investigation, lacking investigative skills will tend to cause you problems. The other commonality is that every character has a supernatural power of some kind.

The role of the characters, the setting in which they find themselves and the home location from which they operate are all absolutely defined so it is vital that the designated GM not allow the players to read the book, at all, ever. Which rather restricts the ability to hand around the ‘cool new game’ to get people interested. A basic synopsis however would be something like this:

“You are all members of The Seven Dogs Society, a special group of psychically gifted investigators who are trying to reconcile weird events with a rational view of the world in order to arrive at an overarching understanding of the truth, a unified theory of everything. In the process you will encounter strange phenomena, investigate them and try to come to some manner of conclusion.”

There are many similarities and many influences that seem to be readable in the game, it seems to occupy a similar space to the new version of Mage, but one can also see a similar design philosophy to The Gumshoe engine and I would think Over The Edge would have to have influenced the writers. In fact, you could view this as a linear Over The Edge with a slightly more defined mechanic and player role, the defined setting of both games resonate with each other and Al Amarja wouldn’t be out of place – at all – in Aletheia’s world, even if it is a bit more mondo-bizarre.

Artwork
The use of artwork is minimal, but striking, mostly depicting relatively ordinary looking people doing relatively ordinary looking things but with a few pieces that demonstrate the weirdness of the game. That sort of combination, along with the clear and unfussy layout gives the game an appropriately dry and ‘scholarly’ air for most of the book and creates a ‘shock’ when you do encounter the weirder bits later on, increasing their effect.

Writing
The writing is good, clear, crisp. Explains itself well, the system is simple and so is simply explained, leaving the lion’s share of the book for the background material, sample cases and a sample adventure. I only found a few simple mistakes in the text so there’s really nothing to complain about here that wouldn’t be nitpicking.

Background
This is what I can’t really talk about without giving the game away too much, at least I can’t talk about specifics. Suffice to say that the game has a specific background, this is the way things ARE in the setting and there isn’t much room for deviation, interpretation or shifted focus. The whole game is a single, large mystery, made up of smaller mysteries and the campaign plays out in the solution of that mystery and then comes to a natural conclusion, so this is a limited-life product, much like the old White Wolf offering Orpheus.

While I like the idea of the overarching mystery this just reinforces my impression that this isn’t really an RPG so much as a campaign with some rules tacked on to it. As such this could be a good thing to buy for any modern mystery game or to incorporate into an existing setting, even as an investigation of, rather than by The Seven Dogs.

So, what can I actually say about the background? Not much that I haven’t already but I can say that the defined ‘truth’ is a mash-up of many different new-age and eclectic religious beliefs, topped off with a little popular quantum theory. I say popular because it has little to do with real quantum theory, people hear terms like entanglement, observer effect and quantum consciousness and then go off on one to Neverland without pausing to actually consider these things. I don’t normally find this sort of thing a problem but within this game it did make me uneasy.

Why?

Well, reading through the book I read a lot of things that I run into in discussions, things that people genuinely believe. Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem but normally in such games there’s a nice little disclaimer in the introduction, something like…

‘Magic isn’t real, pointing a stick at someone and shouting in Latin will only annoy them, aliens aren’t mating with your left nostril while you sleep and any resemblance in this book between gods depicted and gods that may or may not exist is purely coincidental. But gee, doesn’t this stuff make for whiz-bang stories?’

Aletheia doesn’t have that and it reads almost like you’re being preached at, right from the get go. I have no issue with drugs, religion or magic in game settings, or even being preached at (you can ignore a book easier than a frothing street preacher after all) but the matter-of-fact way the material is presented runs from the out-of-character introduction right the way through to the end. In a world where people buy into Deepak Chopra and blatantly exploitative nonsense like The Secret that can’t help but make me a little uneasy.

Rules
The rules use a simple dicepool system of between one and five dice, with a bonus dice if you have a ‘descriptor’ (such as strong, tough etc) that is applicable to the situation. You roll these dice needing to score a 5-6 with each dice scoring that counting towards a target number of successes. Professions or skills add automatic victories toward that goal target number and to succeed you have to meet the number.

Characters start out very average – two points in each statistic if they were spread out evenly, but also get a profession, some pick-up skills and a psychic or otherwise supernatural power. Different powers and different professions are rated with stars, the more stars the more expensive but also the more useful the profession or power, so you have to trade expertise in for usefulness, which is fairly balanced.

The investigative side of the game is somewhat similar to The Gumshoe system, but not as detailed or quite as responsive. Vital clues are identified and these are always discovered first, but you don’t automatically get them, you still have to roll. Thus an investigation can stall if nobody is able to succeed in finding that all important clue. Additional success brings additional supplementary clues, which may reveal more of the whole.

Its a simple but responsive system that seems to work very well indeed for its intended purpose.

Upsides

* Brilliant investigative campaign world.
* Well crafted ‘light’ system mechanics.
* Mature approach and presentation.

Downsides

* Preachy.
* Very locked down.
* Finite usefulness.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Aletheia
Click to show product description

Add to DriveThruRPG.com Order

Click here to issue a publisher reply
Tales of the Seven Dogs Society
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 10/11/2009 10:23:09
Three stories. One Seven Dogs Society... or is it? Imaginations have run riot, taking the Society as described in the Aletheia rulebook and putting flesh on the bones. Ideas that you may wish to be inspired by in writing your adventures, or perhaps something to pass around to serve as an introduction to the people you want to play in your game.

First is Matt McElroy's headlong tale 'Time to Burn.' Told in the first person, from the viewpoint of a Society member who is a former private investigtor with an interesting ability, the story centres around an enquiry into what might be a spate of spontaneous human combustion in Wisconsin. Good hints on how an investigation into such matters might proceed, perhaps a little thin on what is actually going on but an exciting ending which also reveals something of the PI's special talent.

Next is 'Lifting the Gingham Veil' by Jim Johnson, which opens as a new member of the Society visits their base in Alaska for the first time. The action soon hots up, in a tale loosly based around investigation of a UFO sighting but really more concerned with the Society members getting to know each other and their abilities. Again, good ideas for your own adventures, including what is intended as a recurring and mysterious adversary. The one confusing point is that while the Society has reformed several times, both this group and the one in the previous story is the third iteration! If both tales are to become part of YOUR Society, you might want to make a few changes.

The final tale is 'Twin Designs' by Monica Valentinelli. Somewhat more mystical in nature, it presents yet another version of the third incarnation of the Seven Dogs Society, focussing on young twin men, whose troubled lives seem intertwined with Things That Are Meant to Be... again interesting concepts that you may wish to take as inspiration.

Overall, an intriguing set of stories that may serve to contribute, enlighten or confuse your understanding of the Seven Dogs Society and the underlying mysteries around which the game of Aletheia is set.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Tales of the Seven Dogs Society
Click to show product description

Add to DriveThruRPG.com Order

Click here to issue a publisher reply
Tales of the Seven Dogs Society
by Jason T. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 04/27/2009 22:04:32
Tales of the Seven Dogs Society is a collection of three novellas by authors, Matt McElroy, Jim Johnson, and Monica Valentinelli, based on the Aletheia role playing game from Abstract Nova Entertainment.

The basic premise of this book as well as the game is that the Seven Dogs Society is a group of investigators comprised of seven people who possess psychic or paranormal abilities. Based in Seven Dogs, Alaska at a refurbished Victorian mansion with powers of its own, the Society investigates cases involving things such as alien abduction, crop circles, spontaneous combustion, and all other manner of other worldly and supernatural phenomena.

The three stories all share the same universe: the same past events, the same locations, and the same basic rules. What separates them is that each author populates his or her investigative team with characters exclusive to their own respective stories. These stories represent each authors’ visions of the Seven Dogs Society after the events that transpire in the Aletheia RPG, in which players create and then play as investigators.

The first story is Matt McElroy’s Time to Burn. Jim, a grizzled ex-private investigator, narrates from the first person perspective as Caitlin, a 19 year old Society newbie begs him to help persuade the group to investigate possible instances of spontaneous human combustion in rural Wisconsin. Jim begrudgingly agrees when a gut feeling tells him there could be something to Caitlin’s case. He recruits Neil, an ex-cop with whom Jim has a good investigative track record and soon they leave for the land of beer and cheese.

McElroy nails Jim’s gritty PI voice right away, immediately lending his story an old school pulp/noire sensibility. The interplay and contrast between Jim and Caitlin is engaging and successfully compelling. The two characters are polar opposites in nearly every way and subsequently provide perfect foils for one another.

With regard to plot, Time to Burn nearly dies a narrative death about a third of the way through, bleeding out exposition in copious amounts; it’s very slow out of the gates.

Fortunately, McElroy’s strong characterization sustains enough interest to get us through to the point at which the investigation begins. It’s at that point the story gets its footing, and McElroy pilots his plot through some impressive and exciting maneuvers, giving readers the sense that there is and end game and we’re going to be entertained getting there.

The climax of Time to Burn is a revealing and satisfying twist and when it’s all said and done, the abundance of exposition early on becomes much less a blight on the story while it provides the following two stories the ability to sustain the narrative momentum that McElroy establishes.

The second story is Jim Johnson’s Lifting the Gingham Veil. Narrated from the third person perspective, The story starts with Keith Hardey as he makes his way up the stairs to Hepta Sophistai, the headquarters of the Seven Dogs Society. Terrence Chastain, the man currently responsible for the Society‘s existence, recruited Keith directly out of prison to join the mysterious group. Subsequently, Keith’s reluctance to knock on the door is no match for his utter lack of an alternative.

Later, when Keith and Gisele, an attractive French woman with powers akin to a GPS unit, partner up to meet the rest of the group in Kentucky to investigate a possible alien abduction, they come face-to-face with a killer who’s figured out the Society’s secretive and otherworldly mode of transportation, putting every member of the Seven Dogs Society in grave danger.

Johnson’s writing is tight and fun. He uses the concept of Aletheia to its fullest potential, fleshing out every member of the Society as well as their abilities. His style is compelling in an almost addictive way, similar to the way comic books like X-men and TV series like Heroes rope you in and won’t let go. And while those two examples are serialized narratives, Lifting the Gingham Veil potentially lays the groundwork for something similar. The people with whom Johnson populates his version of the Seven Dogs Society would work very well as recurring characters in future books or perhaps another format.

Johnson’s only misstep is that Lifting the Gingham Veil ends on a confusing note. The climax is well-crafted, paying off an objective correlative that’s planted earlier in the story, and it would have been a profound payoff had what’s happening not been obscured by the odd level of abstraction in an otherwise straightforward story.

However, my overall impression of his story is positive. Johnson’s writing is polished and entertaining and it left me wanting more.

The final story is Monica Valentinelli’s Twin Designs. On the run from members of a cult on the streets of Los Angeles, twin brothers Edgar and Ralph are found by Terrence Chastain and recruited into the Seven Dogs Society. Edgar becomes a recluse at the Hepta Sophistai, obsessed with his dead wife and online gaming, while straight arrow Ralph attempts to play den mother, but instead enables Edgar’s self-imposed seclusion. Written from the first person perspectives of both Edgar and Ralph, Twin Designs takes us back to the past, revealing what makes the brothers tick, how they ended up in Seven Dogs, Alaska, and how their shared power, known as Presque Vu, has tied their fates to that of the Seven Dogs Society in ways they had never imagined.

Unlike the previous two authors, Valentinelli spends very little time playing with the concept of Aletheia and instead chooses to use it as a backdrop against which she paints vivid characterizations of her protagonists. We spend at least as much time in the past as we do in the present, being told about the life events that led the brothers to this point.

Twin Designs breaks through the surface and plumbs literary depths a bit more ambitiously as Valentinelli emphasizes character over setting and plot. It’s a risky choice given the source material, but it works very well, particularly as the final act of the book. By the time we get to her story, there’s no need to further diagram the house or the realities of an investigative team comprised of people with special abilities. These ideas are a whole lot of fun, but the book would not have been as good a read had these ideas been the main feature of all three stories.

Twin Designs’ weakest area is where Valentinelli gets away from her characters’ distinct voices and emphasizes plot near the story’s climax. The narration loses its personality and it’s a bit of an off-putting shift in tone, but she finds her stride again as the story’s resolution gets back to the dynamic relationship between the twins.

As a compilation, Tales of the Seven Dogs Society is largely a success. There are times when the book stumbles a bit, but never falls flat, and tonally the book is multifaceted. The three authors have divergent styles, no doubt the results of equally divergent backgrounds and areas of expertise. Matt McElroy’s raw style and gritty tone is an effective attention grabber and he clearly establishes the rules of Aletheia against a tapestry woven from elements of horror and mystery. Jim Johnson’s straight forward narrative and polished writing is the stuff page-turners are made of; it’s entertainment in its purest form and it occupies the bulk of the book. Monica Valentinelli’s work is challenging and intelligent, and it concludes the trio of tales on a high note as it respects the source material’s potential for ambitious prose.

Tales of the Seven Dogs Society is a must read for fans of The X-files, X-men, Heroes, and Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series.

Review originally published on 12/29/2008 at www.flamesrising.com

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Click here to issue a publisher reply
Aletheia
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 04/24/2009 04:32:08
The concept of a group of people investigating contemporary strangeness and paranormal events is not a new one, but this book provides a coherent and well-considered approach to what is going on that makes it worth investigating.

It begins with a short Introduction that provides the obligatory "what is role-playing?" explanation and describes the core premise of the game: that the characters are members of a society dedicated to hunting out the truth. It also states that the following four chapters can be read by players and gamemasters alike, while the rest is best left to the gamemaster alone. As with any game in which there are secrets to unearth, it's best not to know those secrets in advance if you are one of the people trying to unearth them... but it does presuppose that only one member of your group wishes to game master at least for this system.

The second chapter gives the background history of the remarkable man, Jerico Usher, who laid the groundwork on which the character's society - the Seven Dogs Society - is based. As this would be known to a member of the Society, it's regarded as 'open access' and tells how a seemingly blessed Renaissance Man appeared to lose it totally and sink into madness, albeit well-funded madness, before disappearing leaving a loyal follower to actually organise the Society. Note the 'well-funded' bit - unlike many such groups of seekers after truth, your characters want for nothing in terms of resources, freeing them to concentrate on their search without having to worry about mundane matters like the rent or where the next meal is coming from... or even what your boss wants.

Chapter 3 provides a comprehensive description of the Society's base, a mansion in Alaska. Luxuriously-appointed with just about everything you could wish for - including an excellent library and a high-speed Internet connection - you'll find everything you need to know about the place that will become your team's home. Again, the assumption is that the players will know all about it - the basic premise is that the game will open about a month after they have accepted an invitiation to join the Society, so they will have had time to explore. This includes a fascinating section called the Annexe, where doors lead into remote and unlikely places... such as the Amazon river basin, a used car lot in Mexico and the French Bibliotheque Nationale.

Next, Chapter 4 looks at Characters - the underlying rule mechanics for creating them (the rest of the game mechanics are in the following chapter, Mechanics). It's a very basic and simplistic system, while allowing for considerable flexibility and customisation of your character to be precisely what you want him to be. Those who like very precise game mechanics might prefer to use another contemporary system (I'd recommend either Spycraft or the New World of Darkness core rules), but for those for whom the unravelling of the plotline is of key importance and die-rolling just a means for combat and other task resolution this should suffice, particularly if the game master is adept at assessing a situation and determining the results of character actions without need for rules to refer to!

Whether you use the ruleset here or import another, however, you will need to pay attention to one component: the special powers which each character has to have. To be eligible for membership of the Society, a character needs to have at least one extraordinary and unexplained (at least for now...) power, ranging from quite minor ones like being able to sense that something's not quite right, through rather fun ones like the ability to know your way around a place you have never visited before to really strange abilities like time travel. While the characters will have no idea how they came to have these abilities, it does fit in with the underlying story which they will, in time, discover... perhaps.

Mechanics out of the way, Chapter 6 takes a look at Anomalous Phenomena. This chapter includes a good overview of how to go about investigating an incident (useful even if you are an avid watcher of such TV shows as the X-Files or Poltergeist: The Legacy - both, incidentally, recommended if you want some ideas for events to be investigated) which should also prime the game master as to what evidence he needs to have ready for the characters to find! It also presents some thumbnail sketches of events you may wish to use, in very general terms - you will still need to work out the specifics of each one before play. Things covered include spontaneous human combustion, crop circles, UFOs, alien abduction and other standard fare.

Then things get a bit more interesting, although this is moving into Game Master territory. Chapter 7, Revelations, provides a unifying theory which ties together Jeremiah Usher, the characters' own abilities and the sort of paranormal events suggested in the previous chapter. With some highly speculative use of modern cosmological theory mixed in with ancient myth, it actually holds together quite well and means that the game master will be empowered to create his own mysteries which fit in with this underlying concept.

Chapter 8 is entitled Gamemastering, and looks at the nuts and bolts of putting together individual game sessions and complete campaigns that are both original and faithful to the core concept of this game, and how to run them in a way that is both effective and fun. This is done in part by creating a sample investigation, which you could even use more or less as is with a little extra work to flesh it out, or which provides a useful template for creating your own events for the characters to investigate. Anyone who runs games in which investigation features could benefit from reading this. There are also plenty of ideas for extending some of the specific concepts of the underlying theory that is the core of this game, so as to enable the characters to come closer and closer to the 'Truth.' One artifact to be investigated are the few remaining pages of Usher's own writings, the 'Usher Codex,' and these are presented in facsimile (along with a game master-only explanation of what the symbols and cryptic comments mean). If you own the PDF, print out a copy for your players, but if you have the book version it will be better to make use of a photocopier rather than rip them out (for a start, some of the explanation is on the back of one of the pages!). There's more: other people investigating the same phenomena as your characters may be friendly or hostile, and plenty of ideas for extended campaigns which might, just might, see your players unravelling the lot and becoming fully enlightened beings...

Finally, Chapter 9 presents an introductory adventure called From the Heavens to get the ball rolling. It's a well constructed investigative adventure involving a sudden influx of extraterristrials in a Mid-West university town, and demonstrates the sort of evidence that you'll need to have ready for the characters to find. It is admittedly short on action, but there are a couple of suggestions as to how to provide something a bit more physical for those players who want to include combat in their games.

Overall, this is a game based on a coherent underlying concept which holds together well. Mechanically it is a bit weak, but given the nature of the game this should not be a problem and as the mechanics are not vital you can easily substitute another contemporary ruleset if you prefer. The whole plot, from what the characters know initially to the full revelation - if they get that far - has been thought through and is consistent, enough for you to be able to believe that it might be true. If you like paranormal investigations, this game is well worth a look.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Aletheia
Click to show product description

Add to DriveThruRPG.com Order

Click here to issue a publisher reply
Displaying 1 to 5 (of 5 reviews) Result Pages:  1 
0 items
 Hottest Titles
 Gift Certificates