Friday, July 20, 2012

Armchair Reviews: Eldritch Skies

I already posted my review for Eldritch Skies on RPGNow / DriveThruRPG, and I really wanted to give it a 5-star rating. Unfortunately, my preferences in terms of organization, structure, information architecture, and layout really came out and I had to downgrade by one star.

Here's the review as it appears:

First the negative: this book is not really laid out (or organized) to my tastes. It's done in a competent manner, but there are certain slips that, in my opinion should be addressed to make the book stronger and easier not only to read, but also to use a as a reference book. In general, I do agree with the ordering of the material, but I feel strongly about trimming the 'game fiction for flavor', a more refined layout from the two column approach, and a more detailed table of contents.

Next, the positive: this is, surprisingly, a different take on the Lovecraftian mythology. It goes purist in that it ignores a lot of the post-Lovecraft additions to the Mythos, but allows for both the pessimistic and optimistic Lovecraftian play. And it takes the characters into space, allows characters to play with sorcery, forces characters to deal with the various races on Earth and beyond, and exposes characters to Hyperspatial radiation.

The games you play here could easily echo a Twilight Zone episode or Bradbury's Mars tales, your games can inject a sense of exploring the unknown, pushing the limits, and taking mankind beyond its cradle into a dangerous universe that could easily kill him or, strangely enough, king him. Not all endings need to result in the deaths of the protagonists -- some might survive, or even thrive as Randolph Carter did in the Dreamlands.

The juxtaposition of the open secret of hyperdimensional travel with the strange dangers of the mythos-filled universe is interesting for me. The actions of world governments and individuals in the timeline feel plausible and interesting to me, and the opportunities for a different type of space adventure / horror / exploration campaign are very appealing.

I also like (though I've not playtested) the unfolding of the cinematic Unisystem ruleset to allow for fast play. The character templates give a broad spectrum of recognizable archetypes, the character creation rules and gear give enough twists to optimize and ready your character for adventure.

I would like to add several things however:

This is a densely detailed, finely crafted setting. It provides standard kits for different types of military and scientific teams. It details a wide variety of realms and worlds that humanity has gone to or can go to. It provides a ready kit of well-known (and lesser known) creatures and dangers to threaten the PCs with. And it manages to maintain a Science Fiction feel despite the presence of the Lovecraftian elements. You don't get that overwhelming 'small band of heroes against a government conspiracy' feel that you do in Delta Green (which I love); in Eldritch Skies you get a 'humanity with all its strengths and foibles against the sea of unknowable terror and wonder that is the universe' vibe.

There's potential here to celebrate exploration of the universe, to celebrate the human spirit that seeks to push farther and delve further into cosmic mysteries than it has any right to, to celebrate cooperation and conflict and courage. There's also potential to expose all the ugly sides of the human condition -- greed, pride, and a lust for personal power at the cost of other peoples' lives and loves.

It reminds me of the potential of shows like the early season(s) of X-files and Earth: Final Conflict, and of (as mentioned above) the Twilight Zone episodes about space exploration and the Bradbury Mars Chronicles -- a wonderfully dark merging of science and weirdness that somehow avoids becoming science fantasy (which it technically is) and somehow avoids being merely horror in space.

If this is your kind of thing, give Eldritch Skies a shot.

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That's my side of things. Let me know what you think, my friend.

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