Friday, January 11, 2008

The Savage World of Solomon Kane

"Far back in Kane's gloomy eyes a scintillant light had begun to glimmer, like a witch's torch glinting under fathoms of cold gray ice. His blood quickened. Adventure! The lure of life-risk and battle! The thrill of breathtaking, touch-and-go drama!"
-Skulls in the Stars, by Robert E. Howard

The name Robert E. Howard, unfortunately these days the name will all too often conjure up images of a barely dressed Arh-nuld as Conan in a campy B movie. Which is a shame because it turns people off from one of the great Pulp authors, and one which in my opinion deserves more attention. Thankfully, Pinnacle Entertainment Group has faithfully adapted one of his lesser known characters into their latest rules setting.

As a fan of Robert E. Howard, and especially Solomon Kane, the grim, driven, Puritan adventurer(not to mention better clothed than most of his other characters), and was more than a little excited to get my hands on this rulebook. For anyone not familiar with the character, or of Howard outside a campy movie, go read a few of the short stories, many of them available online on Project Gutenberg Australia I personally recommend starting with either the Solomon Kane or the Bran Mak Morn stories to whet your appetite. Although the book does provide summaries of the stories, they simply don't do justice to the Howard's writing.

But let us get into the book itself. First off, it's solid. No flimsy paperback here, this one could stand up to use. Second of all, it's simply very visually appealing book, some people would like to get down to the nitty gritty first off, but with full color pictures, and plenty of them, it's a pleasure to read. The pictures also help to paint in the world of Solomon Kane, adventures in strange venues against macabre forces and uncaring enemies. This world was still wild and empty around the edges, with priests to old gods and races of beast yet undiscovered.

The meat of the game is of course the Savage Worlds system. To my shame this is the first product that I have purchased for that system, having heard rather disparaging comments from the D20 advocates that I game with. However if you're used to only D&D or other D20 systems, fear not! It'd take a whole other entry to go over the rules in depth, but let me say that they Savage Worlds rules are easy to understand and intuitive. The biggest difference most veterans of a D20 system will face is the classless character building, which will make leveling up and creating characters much less painful. And the included character sheet is especially well made for easy understanding. Just in case anyone is wondering, this is not just a setting book, but an entire self contained game, with the Savage Worlds rules included, even if one was to play the setting with a different system, the book is something that has enough flavor and ideas to get it just for that.

While I'm not going to review the rules as a whole, there are a few places where Solomon Kane diverges from the standard Savage Worlds. The chief of these being the magic system. Instead of power points, the Kane book uses a more ritualistic variant, one more in line with Howard's writings of juju men and dark priest pacts with unknown forces. Each spell has a difficulty modifier, and time spent concentrating can decrease the difficulty. If one is unlucky enough to fail at an attempt to cast, there's a backlash table with all sorts of nasty side effects. Something I think is much more cinematic than "You lose the spell." The other thing is that magic essentially has 2 schools, Shamanism and Sorcery, with each having a different ability being their key, Spirit and Smarts respectively. The intention seeming to be that each would have their advantages and disadvantages, however it seems that most of the Powers/Spells themselves are modified by Smarts for range, with only a few exceptions. One quibble would be that the range be modified by the chief spellcasting ability, except in particular cases(It makes sense that one like Transfer Soul would have a range of Spirit, but it seems arbitrary that one like Slumber would have a range based on Smarts). But either way, if you're looking for a high magic world where fireballs have frequent flier cards, then you're looking in the wrong place, the magic here is gritty, difficult, and often macabre(an example being the spell to animate your hand post amputation, and no, it doesn't grow back afterwards).

Now we get to the meat of the book, info on the game setting and the campaign. As I mentioned, I'm new to the Savage Worlds products, but their adventures and plot point style really resonates with me. It's a little more structured than a freeform adventure, but it'll really help out an overloaded GM. And the fact that instead of simple information, many of the NPC interactions are in the form of question/answers seem to really put the GM at ease. However this comes at the price of a bit of railroading, though if done well enough with a GM that can improvise a bit, I think it's something that should be more or less undetectable. To save space in the section, several of the mooks and villains faced have their stats in the bestiary at the back of the book, with a few modifications mentioned, however one thing I found annoying was that those that do have their stats mentioned in the adventure most often don't appear in the monster bestiary. Now this isn't a necessary thing, but I would have liked some reference in the bestiary to where I could find their stats in the campaign.

But that I'm quibbling over something as minor as that just goes to show that all in all it's a very well put together product. Something gamers can hop into and enjoy, and Howard fans can be proud of, and people who are both can use to introduce to those that are neither. Even if you never get another Savage Worlds book there's enough here that it doesn't matter, it's self contained and provides plenty of material, though if you're like me you'll likely be checking out the rest of what is offered, I'm definitely impressed, not only with the system, but with the quality of the product. The Savage World of Solomon Kane definitely has my recommendation as being worth the investment.

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