Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Be horrified by Into the Shadows by Craig Griswold

Into the Shadows is a complete horror roleplaying game by Craig Griswold. The mechanics are based on West End Games' D6 system (like in the original Star Wars system) and setting inspired by H. P. Lovecraft (although not solely so). It's a modern take on horror with cars, guns, psionics and magic. A place where elephants go toe to toe with off road jeeps. It's got its ragged edges but between them is a real gem.

Character Creation

Characters are constructed from the typical mix of descriptive sections, attributes, and secondary attributes (although no called as such). The attributes in Physique, Reflex, Canny (Intelligence), Education, Technical and Will[power]. What I will refer to as secondary attributes include move rate; whether the character is magic or psyonic sensitive; Karma, Survival and Life points; special advantages and disadvantages and equipment and weaponry. If that sounds like rather a lot, you're right. However, not all are required during play so the character sheet is not overburdened. A player can choose to begin with the pre-built selections of stats or build from scratch, where you assign the stats yourself. The choice allows both quick character creation and stat wrangling, a very nice touch I've written down for the next version of Icar. Karma points allow temporary ability boost for those dramatic moments, rewarding flamboyance. Survival points work like XP, plough them back into your character. There are no levels although skills become more difficult to raise the higher they are.

Starting characters have 18 dice (which are D6) to share between attributes, special abilities, psionics and to learn magic. Simply, you can assign dice to a given attribute, the more dice you have on the attribute, the better you'll be at it. You're going to roll these dice, add them up to beat a target number, so the more you have, the more likely that will be. You can also split a single dice between lots of attributes by splitting a dice into 'pips'. A dice can be converted into three pips. A pips gives you +1 to an attribute. The upshot is that if you assign 3 dice and a pip, you would end up with 3D+1. You can receive more dice for taking disadvantages and burn more on special abilities. There isn't a big list of these but guidance on how to set them (which is enough). Psionics, Magic and Priest powers are bought in the same way. You then take 7 dice to spread between skills. This is well explained with some good illustrative examples. This system allows you to specialise in a big way or spread yourself thin. It gives the players more than enough rope to hang themselves.

Skill, Magical, Psionic and Priest abilities are chosen from large, well described lists. Skills are derived from various attributes. For example, the skill Gymnastics is derived from the Reflex attribute. The skills are not well balanced betwen the different attributes: Physique has 4 skills, Dexterity has 20. Balance is achieved later in combat as Physique can be used to avoid damage. Skill specialisations can be purchased to denote particular talents. The skill list is comprehensive and I think just about any modern world task can be found amongst them with a leaning towards the setting with skills such as Parapsychology and Mythos. The spells also have a good modern-horror taint, which echoes the setting nicely. Craig could have gone down the fantasy route but didn't. Nice one. Psyonic attributes are dealt with in a similar manner. Language is all important here and Craig has struck the right balance, giving you something of a feel for the setting through the description of the mechanics. A difficult thing to achieve.

The System

Task resolution is performed by rolling the dice next to the skill and adding any 'pip' plusses to the result. 3D6+2 means to roll three D6 and then add 2 to their sum. Try to beat a difficulty number with bonuses. One of the dice needs to be a different colour and is specified as a the Wild Die (which as a phrase in isolation sounds like the best way to shuffle off the mortal coil). Rolling 6 will add that value and then roll again. If you keep rolling 6, keep adding! This can turn marginal passes into landslide victories that could work interesting results into the narrative. Rolling a 1 either gives a penalty roll or a complication. A complication is a narrative hook, decided by the GM. A delightful opportunity for filthy evil GMs to get filthy and evil. Karma points are declared at the start of the round and double the values of the attributes. You can only save up to 5 Karma points, so they need to used wisely. Combat is performed by rolling against combat skills to hit, defensive skills to avoid. When damage is taken, you lose Life points and when they run out you're dead. Movement and vehicle combat is dealt with a similar system but there are more rules to digest.

The Setting

The given setting is with a invented modern day Bureau of Paranormal investigation, the characters playing new recruits. Assigned to a specific geographic area, the green field agents will travel around and investigate and solve. A considerable amount of background is available, including more equipment and vehicles specific to the Bureau. At this point, it seems like Craig shares my fetish for endless equipment lists! The bestiary is included in the campaign setting and includes everything from bridge troll to werewolf. Although there is enough description to get the creative juices flowing, I'd like to see more of an example adventure or two. There is a tonne of resource but the glue to bring them together for the new GM is missing. Go here, investigate this, find that, go mad etc.


The main book includes mounts (horses, elephants), humorously named vehicles that are recognisable, a huge array of weapons and equipment. Much of it doesn't have a description but I think that's ok. Little quotes adorn chapter starts and other areas of the book. All the examples are clearly labelled although some do demonstrate how complex the system can get when you're doing vehicle combat. A fully featured GM section is included, with some good advice and some slightly authoritarian ideals. That aside, it's by the most fully featured free GM guide I've seen yet and fits well with the slightly old-school feel the D6 system gives. What's more on the website there is also a bespoke GM guide (not reviewed here)and a series of adventures, each packaged in their own PDF.

For the next version

The current version is 8 years old. The last website update is 5 years ago. Impressive those statistics might be, I can only hope that a few tweaks might be made for the next version. The book is mostly single-column, making some line lengths too long for comfort, it is bereft of pictures which is a shame. As some of the sections are very text heavy, a few images would lighten the load. There are a few spelling and grammatical mistakes and although there are page numbers in the main contents page, the quick skill lists could use page numbers too. At some points rules are referred to without being explained. A little reference would help there. Finally, the setting is planted firmly in the GM section. I prefer any setting to have a player and a GM section. It's much easier to sell a game to a group of players if you can get them to read some publically available information. Perhaps some of the adventures on the website might be congealed into a single adventure to add into the book.

To conclude

I can only pray that Craig might read this and be inspired to revisit Into the Shadows. Not to paint the rules with a storyteller brush or add narrative control but to refine, expand and polish his creation. The D6 rules hold up well and the sheer weight of resources is impressive. It has that feel of something that really has been played. Into the Shadows is ideal for someone looking for system to throw a Lovecraftian setting idea at.


Nero Grimes said...

A tad late.

Kick ass kudos to Craig "Pandemonium" Griswold.

Nero Grimes said...

Kick ass kudos to Craig "Pandemonium" Griswold.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.