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Free RPG Day Review: Hearts of Chaos
Posted By Phil Vecchione On June 25, 2009 @ 4:00 am In Reviews | 5 Comments
June 20th was Free RPG day, a day when the gaming industry in conjunction with various local gaming stores, gets together to celebrate RPGs by hosting various RPG sessions and giving away free stuff. Among the offerings this year, Dias Ex Machina (DEM), publishing through Goodman Games, offered up Hearts of Chaos an adventure set in DEM’s Amethyst campaign setting, which comes out this September. What makes Amethyst special? It’s the first GSL product to step outside of traditional fantasy.
Disclaimer—DEM provided this humble Gnome with a review copy of Hearts of Chaos for this review. Thanks Chris!
The Hearts of Chaos book is one half of a 32 page Goodman Game’s book, sharing the other 16 pages with Hero’s Handbook: Immortal Heroes (not reviewed). The front cover is a full-color glossy image of a Death Dragon the dragon Amethyst, done by Nick Greenwood. The interior artwork, also by Greenwood, is black and white with a border on the outer edge and bottom of each page. On the left side, the border is the Techan (technology-based) image, and the right border is the Echan (fantasy-based) image.
The text is in two column with a clean font that is easy to read. The encounters have a similar format as WoTC published products, starting with the scene title, including the XP value, the setup, and monster stat blocks. Any GM who has run any 4e published material will have no problem following along.
In addition to the book there is a web download that contains additional encounters for those who are not done with the adventure and wish to continue on. In addition to the extra encounters are the five pre-gen characters, who are also formatted like other 4e products. The characters have great detail, with all their attacks laid out, and all their powers in the same format you see in the Players Handbook. This being an introductory adventure, there are no backgrounds for the characters. A brief background is provided in the opening scene that the GM reads out loud.
Amethyst is a hybrid fantasy-modern setting. DEM describes the setting as follows:
A true-to-book fantasy world overruns our real world, breaking down our technology and throwing remaining nations and religions into disarray. Magic cannot exist. There is no scientific basis for it to. How could these creatures of whimsy exist matching so closely to our mythology and religious canon? How would Christianity and Islam respond given such massive doubts to their dogma? Their very presence and the spells they flaunted shorted out our cars and computers. Would you embrace a world of wizardry and wonders at a cost of refrigerators, internet, and cable TV? Would you fear or hate those that could harness such power? Would you hide in cities of pipe and steel, lights and heat, or venture in a landscape of goblins, dragons, swords, and sorcery?
The world of Amethyst revolves around a central theme of Order vs. Chaos. Our modern world is one of Order where the chaos of life is tamed with technology. Where there is disease, there is medicine. We are sheltered from the elements by modern housing, and our needs are catered to by all manner of gadgets. From order comes technology. These are the Techan, what remains of our world.
The fantasy world is one of chaos and uncertainty. Life is dangerous. One can get sick from unsanitary food, killed in natural disaster, or eaten by a monster. This is the world of the Elves and Fey. From that chaos comes magic. These are the Echan, or as they call themselves Free.
The forces of Order and Chaos are in opposition. Technology breaks down in the presence of Chaos, forcing the Techan world wall itself off in order to preserve its technology. Outside the walls, the Echan world rules. The forests have grown thick and have become populated with the creatures of fantasy.
To add an additional layer, their world is influenced by both good (Attricana) and evil (Ixindar). This concept is only lightly covered in the introductory material. For this introductory adventure the GM and players need only be concerned about the struggle between the Techan and the Echan.
Into this world, is set the story of Hearts of Chaos.
No..this is not a horror adventure. The title is an homage to the plot of this adventure, which strikes a resemblance to the film classic, “Apocalypse Now.” In a nut-shell: A group of 5 Techan soldiers are sent into the wilderness to find a high ranking colonel who has gone missing. They are ordered to find out what happened to the colonel. If he is dead, bring proof. If he is alive…kill him.
I don’t want to spoil the layout of the adventure, so I will avoid any specific discussion of the plot. There are 4-5 scenes in the adventure (depending on the players’ action in the final scene). One of the encounters is a skill challenge (done well) and has small effect on the session, if passed or failed (you will get to the next scene regardless if you pass or fail). The remaining scenes are combat scenes that showcase some different aspects of the Techan soldiers.
What really stood out for me was that this story does not have a clean ending. In the end, the players are faced with a decision that does not have a simple solution. Any choice they make has serious repercussions, including their own lives. You can guarantee that the players will reach a moment where they are not sure how to bring this game to an end. One way or another, the players will make some decision and will have to live with the consequences. I was impressed that an introductory adventure left a difficult moral decision with no easy way out.
As said before, Amethyst is built using the D&D 4e Gaming System License (GSL). It does require the use of the D&D 4e core books. Hearts of Chaos gives a glimpse of how Amethyst expands upon the GSL and shows how adaptable the GSL mechanics are in different genres. I will touch upon three areas highlighted in the adventure.
While the full character creation system is not revealed, we can see that the Amethyst classes have dual roles. DEM says that these characters classes are built more around an idea, rather than a specific role, like their D&D counterparts, so they do not fit neatly into the 4e roles. For those familiar with 4e, having the roles listed out for each character is helpful to get a general feel for what each character does.
The characters provided are 6th level, so you do get to see a good number of feats and powers without it being too overwhelming. Though characters are two pages in size, they contain good detail, including descriptions of their feats and some of their equipment. The characters are all a player will need to get familiar with his own character.
There are new feats and class abilities that are fitting to the setting, and incorporate the use of modern weaponry. With new feats like: Crossfire, Gone Medieval, Over The Radio, Akimbo, etc.
But for the real crunch you need to look at…
The game is 4e based, so the real crunch comes in the powers, and DEM does not disappoint. At 6th level, the Pre-Gens have enough powers to make them interesting. Many of the new powers require the new auto keyword, denoting an automatic weapon. The rules for automatic weapons are streamlined and functional. For instance, the use of any power that has the auto keyword, uses 10 rounds of ammo. The weapons have large magazine capacities, but you will have to reload in a long fight.
In a manner similar to the unique names given to the 4e powers, the Amethyst powers are also uniquely named: ‘For The Common Honor’, ‘Force It Back’, ‘I Think I Got It Angry’, etc. The powers have a nice mix of area attacks, move/attack combinations, healing, and utilities. A large number of the powers are ranged attack powers, forcing the Techans to keep combat ranged.
This is a challenge when fighting more traditional fantasy-based creatures, who have strong melee attacks. To aid the Techans, their powers support keeping the combat ranged. The number of attack/move powers allow the Techans to shoot and move during a turn. There are also a few powers that attack and either shift their target or immobilize their targets.
In play, the powers are a lot of fun, and do a good job of creating some cinematic uses of modern weapons. If you are comfortable with the way the 4e powers create a cinematic fantasy combat, then you will be fine with the modern powers. The combat scenes in our playing of the adventure had people moving around and falling back from advancing enemies. The Techans really function well in larger environments where they have the advantage of range and movement to maneuver.
As stated in the description of the setting, the fantasy world interferes with machines, causing them to break down. This is described through something called the Echan Disruption Field (EDF). Outside of combat, the EDF is more of a plot tool in the adventure, breaking down different machines when needed. In combat, the EDF becomes a variable effect that can occur at the end of each round.
At the bottom of the initiative order, a d20 roll is made. On a low roll, a minor disruption occurs, which effects the most advanced item of the person with the lowest initiative (subsequent disruptions move up the initiative order). The disruption knocks out the most advanced piece of functional equipment they are carrying (in most cases this is the PC’s weapons). On a roll of a 20 a critical collapse occurs, affecting everyone.
A disrupted item no longer functions. Weapons are jammed and cannot be fired. Affected equipment gets 3 saves before being rendered broken. A successful save brings the item back. If broken, the item cannot be used for the rest of the encounter and will require a repair after the encounter.
The random effect of the EDF in combat adds tension to the combat scene. At the end of any turn, someone’s weapon might stop working. If that does not sound scary enough, some creatures can trigger an offensive disruption roll due to their strong Echan nature. Players will get a taste of this in the final encounter.
Besides being an interesting combat effect, the EDF helps to support the setting of the game. It creates a tangible effect for how the fantasy world encroaches on our technological world. Outside of combat, GMs can use it to create various plot complications and to create a sense of uncertainty and fear for Techans who head out into the world of the Echan. It really helps convey that out past the walls of their Techan cities they are not the dominant force and how much they rely on their technology to survive.
Hearts of Chaos runs like a 4e style game. The core rules are still present and are nicely supplemented by the modern combat rules, which feel like an extension of the rules, and not a patch. A GM who is familiar with D&D 4e will be able to pick up and run this adventure in under 15 minutes. Once you have familiarized yourself with the Echan Disruption Field rules (and I suggest adding a line for it in your initiative tracker, so that you remember roll for it each turn), you will be ready to run.
The adventure is best run for people who have played 4e. The characters are 6th level, and they come with a handful of powers. Experienced 4e players will learn the new powers quickly, where novice 4e players may feel overwhelmed by the amount and mechanics of the powers. If you do run this for novice 4e players, take a few minutes to walk the players through their powers, go slowly through the first combat encounter, and don’t be shy to give the players some hints during the combat scenes, as provided by the authors in the text.
Overall, story is well constructed. Its simple structure creates a good story that runs well as an introductory adventure. The opening scenes do a very good job of immersing the players into the setting, while providing a venue for the characters to try out those cool powers listed on their character sheets. After getting a chance to blow up hordes of minions, engaging in a skill challenge, and getting into a more serious combat, the characters will be faced with the difficult task of determining how this adventure will end. There is enough material in the last section, that most of the solutions the players come up with have been covered, and a GM will have notes on what to do next.
Hearts of Chaos does exactly what it was designed to do…that is to showcase the most interesting aspects of the Amethyst world. The plot, while easy to grasp, creates a challenge to complete. In 16 pages, the authors at DEM do a great job of creating a captivating world that looks like it possesses elements of classic fantasy, but hints at much more complex themes.
From what is shown to us through this adventure, Amethyst looks to be a worthy vanguard for the GSL, taking us past the classic high fantasy, and creating a world in conflict, where the chaos of the Echan and the order of the Techan are at odds with one another; expanding on the 4e mechanics, showing the scalability of the GSL to expand past swords & spells and move into the realm of the modern.
There is no word yet, if Hearts of Chaos will be coming out in PDF. If it does, it’s worth the download. If your FLGS participated in Free RPG day, go and see if there are any copies left. If all else fails…try Ebay.
Personally, I am looking forward to seeing the full Amethyst setting. That though will have to wait for September, when the book will be published, through Goodman Games.
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