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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Silent Legions, Part One:

Late last year, I backed the Kickstarter for Silent Legions, the new horror roleplaying game from Sine Nomine's Kevin Crawford. I'm on record as being a big fan of previous Sine Nomine games like Stars Without Number and Other Dust, so I was in for this without a lot of reflection. Last week I picked up my hardback copy (I've had the PDF for ages, but haven't really got around to digging into it), so here is my review.

By Miguel Santos.
(Incidentally, as one of the stretch goals of the Kickstarter, Crawford put the game's art out for free use, so I'm going to illustrate with a lot of images from that.)

In my next post, I'm going to put some of the tools in the game to use and generate a sample setting, but I've got a busy week ahead so heaven knows when that will actually happen. Anyway, let's get down to our look at the game itself.

System Overview

Silent Legions is a relatively rules-light game, although it's still a "fat" game. I suppose what I mean is that it's rules-light, resource-heavy. The core of the system is a familiar model based on older versions of D&D. You have the traditional six stats, classes and levels, descending armour class, all that kind of thing. The saving throws are different, and there's a skill system, but if you've played any form of D&D -- and I expect that's most people -- it should be pretty easy to pick up.

The four classes are the Investigator, the Scholar, the Socialite and the Tough. These pretty much do what they say on the tin -- they get skills in relevant areas, they have different attack progressions, hit dice and saving throws, etc. The really distinctive feature of the classes is Expertise. Each character has a pool of Expertise points which represent the particular training or specialty of their class. Players can spend these expertise points to do things like reroll class skills or to activate class special abilities. For instance, at first level the Scholar can spend a point of Expertise to automatically succeed on a Knowledge skill roll, while the Tough can spend an Expertise point to automatically self-stabilise when knocked to 0 HP. That kind of thing.

In addition to classes, players also have Backgrounds, which give them some more skills and act as sort of specialisations. A Tough with the Soldier background and a Tough with the Police Officer background will be quite different, for instance -- and Police Officer might also be a good one for an Investigator.

Skills in Silent Legions, as in its sister games, are pretty forgiving. You start with a skill at 0, which allows you to roll 2d6 and add the relevant attribute with no penalty. The typical difficulty is somewhere around 8, so a character with just a +1 between attribute and skill will still succeed most of the time -- and even then, the rules suggest that many uses of skills should just be auto-successes if the character has the relevant skill at all.

Combat, by contrast, is super fucking deadly. In addition to its regular damage, each type of weapon has what's called a Slaughtering die. So, for instance, a shotgun does 3d4 damage and has a Slaughtering die of d10. When you roll the weapon's attack, you also roll the Slaughtering die. If it comes up 6 or better, the weapon does triple damage. So 50% of the time, a successful shotgun blast will kill a typical human stone goddamn dead with damage to spare. Which, you know, fair enough. Don't get shot with a shotgun if you want to stay alive. But it's not like there's a huge number of armour options available out there in the modern world. Primitive armour doesn't work against guns, ballistic armour doesn't work against not-guns, and everything is stupidly conspicuous.

By Luigi Castellani
So combat uses a d20 and has wildly dangerous damage results, while skill use runs on 2d6 and is pretty generous. The result is that using skills is relatively predictable, whereas every single time you go into a fight you're taking your life in your hands. That's true in the other Sine Nomine games, but it's even more true here and it's clearly intentional. I like it. It means that -- fighting monsters aside -- combat is going to be either fisticuffs or murder; the last thing you want is a fair fight with someone who's trying to kill you.

Heck, even if you succeed at murdering people, there's Madness to worry about. Madness in Silent Legions is a type of cumulative damage; it builds up, rather than wearing you down like it does in Call of Cthulhu, and you can buy down your total by buying Deliria, which are sort of behavioural coping mechanisms. You can accumulate Madness from different types of source: there's Bloodshed, Horror and the Occult. It's not a bad system, and it would be easy to bolt onto other games where you wanted a relatively light sanity system. It also -- and I think this is a good thing -- makes it very clear that the Madness you get from the things your characters are exposed to in the game and actual mental illness are totally different; you can have a character who is mentally ill but has a Madness of 0.

Magic

In Silent Legions, there are two types of magic: Spells, which are time-consuming rituals you do beforehand, which then produce a suspended effect, and Disciplines, which are more sort of psychic-powery and have an immediate effect. The distinction reminds me of the difference between Thaumaturgy and Evocation in the Dresden Files game (and, for all I know, books), although the parallel isn't exact. There are rules for learning both types of magic, and anyone can do them (although you need some Occult to do Spells effectively). You buy Disciplines like Skills, and then advance through ranks in them, much like Psychics do in Stars Without Number. In either case, you can either spend Expertise to cast the Spell or use the Discipline or rack up some Madness by doing so -- since Expertise is a pretty limited currency at lower levels, this seems like it would happen quickly.

Now, the Spells for which there are rules in Silent Legions are merely the spells of the "Gray Path," i.e. the kind-of-evil path that any old person can study. Most spells are not so gray -- they're flat-out evil and if you were to learn them, you'd no longer be a PC. These spells don't have a list; instead, they have a big old random-generation process. And it's in this section of the book that we really start to get into what I love about Sine Nomine games: the GM tools.

A ... World of Darkness? 

I feel like I never do a very good job of expressing what I love about the way Crawford presents game master tools. I always just say something like "it's all done with random tables" and then I think people put this down to a quirk of mine -- and in a way, it is. I definitely love random tables for reasons I can't fully explain.

But the setting generation tools in Stars Without Number, Other Dust and now Silent Legions aren't just "random tables." They're thematic hook-generating tools. They're like ... Traveller world creation if it only focused on the things that make for good adventures.

Key to the system is creating locations with tags. When you start assigning locations on your map, you generate tags for them. A tag is a short descriptor, like "Alien Bloodline" or "Senseless Violence." There are both occult tags and mundane tags, so you can create locations that don't necessarily have anything Mythos-y about them or you can mix the two to set a horror against a realistic background. Each tag comes with suggested hostile NPCs, allies, objectives, dark secrets and so on. A tag is a little scenario-generating engine, and each location has two of them.

By David Lewis Johns
But it's not just setting generation. The GM tools in this book give you resources for creating a pantheon, alien races, occult artefacts, spells, monsters, locations, cults, crime scenes, scenarios ... the list goes on. And although you generate these randomly, there isn't the goofy effect you get from most random tables (at least not in most cases). Each result could possibly kick off a compelling scenario. It must have the highest good-content-to-page-count ratio of any Lovecraftian anything since ... since I don't know when. There's even a system for running the conflicts between cults behind the scenes -- I like the idea, which is almost like its own little minigame, although personally I tend to just run these things by GM fiat. Still, it's got a lot of interesting ideas.

I don't think I'm doing a very good job explaining what I love about this and why, so I'm going to give you a more practical demonstration using two methods. First, if you haven't done so already you should go and download the free Stars Without Number rules. Once you've done that, check out the system tags. If you think those are a good idea, imagine the same thing adapted to a Lovecraftian horror setting by someone who gets it and then expanded to every other aspect of what you might want from a horror game. If that sounds good, you should buy this game.

Second, as I said, I'm going to put this into practice myself -- although at the rate I'm currently writing, it might not be until next week when I have wrapped up current work and returned from Salute 2015. But I think I can do a better job of showing why I like this game than telling, so stay tuned.

An Elegant Statement of OSR Philosophy

One thing I wasn't expecting to find in the rulebook was a really plain statement of one of my favourite things about the OSR's approach to systems. It's something I've encountered when running my D&D game, and it's something that I, as a dude who spent a long time immersed in a certain way of thinking about game design, find really interesting. Let me find it:

One of the most useful traits of old-school inspired games is that the great majority of them are crudely compatible with each other. They may not use the exact same scaling, and they may differ in details or particular mechanics, but you can usually look at one and see roughly how it might fit into another. 
As the GM of a sandbox campaign, you should take shameless advantage of this. ... The most important tool you have for salvaging this material is a certain insouciant attitude toward mechanical specifics. Do the pieces not fit together exactly? Are the save categories different? ... Don't worry about it. 
After years of teeth-gritting rules-fights in a national gaming society (and that's necessary, I get it -- a group with hundreds of members is a different animal) and the painstaking approach of indie games designers back in the early 2000s when I was paying a lot of attention to that stuff, I found the ability to sit down at the table and say "fuck it" unbelievably liberating. It sounds silly -- GM fudges game and improvises a lot; no kidding -- but somehow it was a big step for me and it's nice to see it written down.

Wrap-up

I like Silent Legions. I liked the previous Sine Nomine games and I like Lovecraftian horror, so I was pretty much in the bag for this right from the beginning. But you are not me, so let's see whether this is right for you.

You want to run a Lovecraftian horror sandbox: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

You want to incorporate Lovecraftian horror elements into an existing OSR game: I would say so. You might not be able to use some of the setting-creation stuff if you're coming into an existing campaign, but I think the rest of it will still be very useful for you.

You want to incorporate some material into an existing Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu campaign: Again, yes, I think so. A lot of the artefact and creature and cult stuff will come in handy -- and the scenario generation as well. In many ways, I think this approach to monster creation is a lot more useful than the Cthulhu Pokedex, but I may just be a cranky old bastard who wants these kids to get off his lawn because they remind of when he too was young and a little too keen on this stuff.

So yeah, I think it's pretty good and you should get it. But if you don't believe me, stay tuned for an upcoming post in which I put some of this stuff into practice.

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