Friday, October 19, 2018

Neoclassical Geek Revival (NGR): A Review

Today, I would like to review the game system Neoclassical Geek Revival (henceforth NGR) by Zzarchov Kowolski. Now, I don't consider myself a reviewer like Bryce at tenfootpole, and in fact I've only posted one RPG review prior to this one. But I feel compelled to review the game system here, for one primary reason. You see, NGR is the only game I'm playing in now. I'm a player in one of Zzarchov's weekly games, and we use his system.

Zzarchov is primarily known in RPG circles as the author of high-value, innovative adventures. His work for Lamentations of the Flame Princess includes Thulian Echoes, which features a twist in that the players play both a historical party of adventurers as well as a party trying to retrace their steps. Also Scenic Dunnsmouth, an investigative town adventure with a playing-card-based setup mechanism which makes it highly replayable. Dunnsmouth in particular is a perpetual fan favorite that I keep hearing mentioned in discussions of present-day innovation in the old-school gaming space.

Zzarchov also has his own independent adventures available for purchase, two of which I'm running at an upcoming local convention: A Thousand Dead Babies and The Gnomes of Levnec. His independent adventures feature not only interesting public domain artwork on the cover, but also two sets of stat blocks: one for generic OSR games assuming some version of original D&D, and one for NGR. Although I purchased these adventures intending to adapt them to LotFP, the NGR stat blocks referred to mechanics that sounded both intriguing and practical. For example, "counts as consecrated temple on holy ground." As a result of sheer curiosity, I bought the rulebook and read through it briefly before diving in to Zzarchov's weekly game. I've been playing regularly for a few months, so the review will be from this perspective - someone who's tried learning the game solo and then seen the system in practice.

We'll start with the negatives, because you're going to have to deal with them up front. This game can be difficult to wrap your head around, especially if you're the only one coming to it in your gaming group and/or you have a strong familiarity with various versions of D&D. According to Zzarchov, the whole NGR project started out of a series of house rules to TSR-era AD&D 1E/2E. However, there have been so many modifications that the basic structure of the game mechanics feels entirely different—as a matter of fact, the game was once known by the title "Piecemeal." If the game can be classified in any way as "OSR," then it is in flavor and sensibility alone, and not in terms of game mechanics. I will argue later that a lot of these modifications are actually for the better and consistent with my ideal gaming experience when it comes to fantasy-genre roleplaying. But it's a difficult adjustment, particularly if you're like me and don't learn most effectively just by reading the rulebook. If I could offer an analogy, the coming of D&D was the invention of the wheel or maybe a wheelbarrow, but NGR is a complete mountain bike. You get a much more sophisticated machine that has a lot more esoteric parts, but once you learn how to use it you can do amazing and fun things with it.

In short, a lot of the mechanics end up being simple once you know them, but require a lot of explanation to fully illustrate.

Secondly, even after you get through the novelty of the mechanics and everything begins to "click," I find that it is definitely on the "crunchy" side of the spectrum as opposed to "rules light." ("Crunchy" alluding to number-crunching.) This is not a game for those who have burned their 5th Edition D&D books in favor of forever playing games like The Black Hack and Into The Odd. As an example, often times I feels like NGR may be prone to "modifier creep." This is what I'm calling the phenomenon of having to keep track of an increasing number of different situational modifiers (e.g., I'm facing a blunt attack [+2 to my defense roll] and I'm blessed by my priest's god [+1] but my opponent has the high ground [-2] etc., etc.). I don't believe it approaches anything close to Pathfinder, however, which the worst offender in all the games I played; I needed a laptop with HeroLab installed in order to play it effectively and keep track of all the different status effects. 

Some caveats: (1) Certain rules are marked as "basic" while others are more "fiddly." If you're new to the game—or simply don't want to incorporate them—you can ignore the fiddly rules (such as armor "tags") to make the game more streamlined. (2) I should mention that by calling the system "crunchy" I simply am referring to the amount of time spent resolving mechanics rather than what those mechanics relate to. That is, you shouldn't assume that you'll be wasting a lot of time on tedious combat if that's not what you want to focus on. Indeed, many of our NGR game sessions involve little or no combat because the game actively promotes this play style—more on this below.

The presence of "crunch" and the depth of the rules leads me to the first positive of the review, which is also stated early in the book: "The Known Rule." This is two explicit statements in one: (a) if a rule isn't known, just make a ruling rather than look it up. (b) if you must look up a rule during play, you get -1 awesomeness if you're a player, or all players get +1 awesomeness if it's the GM looking up the rule. (Yes, awesomeness is a game mechanic, which I'll cover below.) In the same spirit of this, certain rules are marked as "basic" while others are more "fiddly." If you're new to the game, you can ignore the fiddly rules (such as armor "tags") to make the game more streamlined.

Furthermore, a lot of the modifier creep can be mitigated ahead of time with a well-organized character sheet. I can bundle common modifiers together and simply make note of the totals a lot easier than I ever could in Pathfinder.

Speaking of dealing damage, that works entirely differently in NGR than in D&D. In NGR, physical damage is only one type of accrued "point," along with stress, disease, poison, fear, suspicion (think of giving yourself away while sneaking), and even influence (trying to win an argument). Yes, NGR has mechanics for social conflict, and they work seamlessly with the rest of the system. Anyway, your barrier to taking all of these potential "damage" points is known as your Luck points. It's helpful to think of them as HP, although again, it covers all bases and not just physical damage. Whether you avoid a sword stab or just manage to avoid detection while having a torch lit, it's all Luck.

This leads to another great plus about NGR as a system. In general, by spreading the focus across both combat and various other non-combat aspects, NGR tends toward hi-jinx and shenanigans. For example, if you enter into a social conflict (i.e., argument) and burn your Luck points, you will not be so lucky if a fight breaks out later, or if you get thrown in jail and have to sneak your way out. Furthermore, that "awesomeness" I mentioned? You cash those points in at the end of sessions in the hopes of getting fate points. Fate points will let you re-roll bad dice or get some luck back in a pinch. Correspondingly, you gain awesomeness a number of different ways. One method is to purposefully make poor decisions—for example, getting drunk instead of taking your assigned watch at night. Another suggested method is to have "80's hair." You can really get more awesomeness and fate points by being elected the MVP of that night's session by the other players.

Furthermore, the XP system is a key (somewhat hidden) aspect to incentivizing certain play styles. There are distinct differences in the characteristics of a D&D game that gives experience points (i.e., character progression) for treasure when compared to a later edition that rewards monster-slaying. Every facet of NGR awards XP in a slightly different way, and I feel it's done in a way that de-emphasizes combat while still promoting risk-taking. A great example is the fact that you get increasing XP values for each new room in a dungeon you explore. As you deplete your resources, that next room could be worth 450 XP now, or zero XP once you come back to the dungeon a second time. That's because that room will then be your first new room, whereas it's the tenth new room this time around. That sort of press-your-luck enticement is embedded in NGR (and Zzarchov's GM style, for the record.) It puts a heavy risk-versus-reward ball in the players' court at all times, and it's when they are faced with real, meaningful choices that players get invested in the game.

Multiclassing is also easy in NGR. Imagine a pie chart broken into three pieces, and this is your character class. You can have all three "pie pieces" in warrior, or you could choose two parts warrior, one part wizard, and so forth. I'll spare you the details (which could get crunchy and count toward that first negative of esoteric confusion), but obviously the former example would be a more effective warrior than the latter, but the latter could at least cast a few spells if needed.

Lastly, the review would not be complete without a mention of Zzarchov's writing style. He's a witty guy—he enjoys more than his fair share of puns—and he's held back none of his sense of humor when writing the NGR rules. This is one of the few books that I've found legitimately enjoyable to read as it does not read like a dry technical manual. It's still easy to consult as a rulebook (even though there's no index and the PDF isn't bookmarked) but you could also easily read it from cover to cover.

I'll wrap up with my one final negative that we might encounter moving forward: name recognition. Unless you're familiar with Zzarchov or backed the recent Kickstarter, you probably don't even know about NGR. It's even less likely that your gaming group will know about it, so it may be difficult to drum up support for using it as a game system. But if you do, I know from experience that it has the potential to be a fantastically fun game.

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