PART 1 of RPG.net review, originally posted on RPG.net here: http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/reviews/rev_6172.html
Mechanical Dream is the most unusual and innovative fantasy RPG setting I have ever seen. The design goal of Mechanical Dream appears to be to create a truly fantastical world. Unlike many fantasy settings it re-examines the fundamentals of the world such as psychics and the nature of reality as well as social interaction and needs.
Mechanical Dream achieves its goal. The world presented is incredibly imaginative. Every section of the book drip with otherworldliness. Steam Logic does a great job in presenting the world in great detail by using not only text but also pictures and layout. They have thought about every aspect before adding it. Places, flora, fauna, equipment, races and jobs in Mechanical Dream are each smoothly incorporated into the setting.
The result strangely enough is a setting that feels more like an alternate reality than something so bizarre that it can’t be understood. The issues were understandable as many plague our lives in the real world. It is not a medieval Europe or Oriental setting with magic slapped on but something altogether different yet disturbingly familiar.
SteamLogic describe it as a Dark Industrial Fantasy RPG. However a three-word description cannot give a game of this depth and breadth justice. If I were to pick one thing that seems closest in feel it would be the Playstation game Abe’s Oddworld. For more I recommend you check out the SteamLogic site at www.steamlogic.com where there are about 60 pages of the book available for download.
MD supports a number of extremely varied playing styles including Cyberpunk style shadowrunning, epic high adventure, political/industrial intrigue, horror, wilderness adventuring and exploring, and thoughtful philosophical, psychological or sociological games.
The world of Mechanical Dream is an alien fantasy world. The world is split between two “ecosystems” called Naakinis and Kainas.
Naakinis’ scale is gigantic and presented with the awe, majesty and danger of our own Jurassic era. The trees are miles high, the seas are massive underground oceans and the inhabitants are huge creatures. Spiritually, the Naakinis is thought to be a living entity very much like our own Gaia.
Over time another ecosystem called Kainas developed overlapping Naakinis. Kainas is what we would consider to be a normal sized world (it compares to the PCs as our world does to us). The game focuses on the inhabitants of Kainas.
The inhabitants of Kainas try and live in harmony with Naakinis. However, the over powering presence of Naakinis can not be denied. The inhabitants of Kainas suffer from the fear and alienation of living in a world that they are native to. The inhabitants of Kainas deal with this fear and alienation by trying to ignore Naakinis. Over many centuries this became a drive to conquer Naakinis and build a truly Kainas world.
This drive is epitomised by a political movement, called the Core. Though the Core gives recognition to Naakinis, it promotes social stability, regularity, industry and indoctrination to put Naakinis out of minds eye. The Core builds massive cities on the massive Naakinis trees, builds safe transport and enormous walls.
The other important aspects of the setting include the Dream, Orpee and Echoes.
The sun in MD travels back and forth across the sky like a pendulum. It is day for 20 hours and night for 10 hours. At night the world takes on a different character where Dream comes alive. In the cities of the Core this can mean unimaginable horrors come to life. Nothing is as it seems. Like Naakinis it terrorises the Kainas inhabitants and forces them to create more security, bigger cities and taller walls.
Orpee is a fruit that contains e-flow that is the life force or drug of every inhabitant of Kainas. It must be eaten every five days or else a painful death ensues. This fruit is the focus of everyone’s ambitions. Most people work to gain just enough Orpee to live.
Echoes are people with a special destiny. The PCs are normally Echoes and ten different types of Echoes are presented in the book. Echoes are people who are destined to be different. For what purpose no one really knows. They are capable of amazing feats. These start off being very subtle but as the Echo grows so does their power. Many see the Echoes as the champions of Naakinis born of Kainas, destined to restore balance between the two ecosystems.
MD is visually an impressive book. All aspects of the style of the book work together to convey a consistent feel of the setting.
Presentation – It’s a 368 page sturdy hardback. The book is unusually split in half. There is a Dream Side with the setting and a Mechanical Side with the rules. The two sides are back to back so both have their own beautiful cover that reflects the Side of the book they relate to. This makes it easy to work out which Side of the book you are on as the other half will be upside down. There is also 30 page colour section that covers the 10 Kainas races.
Layout – The layout of the book is impressive and helps immerse the reader into the setting. The book uses side bar art and layout to convey both the atmosphere of the game and the atmosphere of the section you are in. For example the Core News is written to look like a newspaper and many computer graphic pictures are used.
Pictures – MD is full of pictures of good to excellent quality. Only two artists were used on the project and this helps keep the vision of the game consistent. The pictures are normally appropriate to the text that they accompany.
Writing Style – On the whole the writing style was good. SteamLogic is a small outfit from Canada and needed to translate all the English from French. The translation is generally good and rarely is any meaning lost or confusion caused. Those familiar with Agone will see some of the same little idiosyncrasies like misspelled words that sound the same (“thrown” and “throne”) and other odd turn of phrases. None of them are more than minor distractions.
MD’s biggest flaw is in its writing style, especially in the rules section where precision is important. I was able to understand all the rules presented but a few times I needed to go through the examples and the sample character sheet to work out what the text meant. Also, a few rules were hard to find as they appear out of sequence or in odd places. The rules are actually reasonably elegant but the feeling of this is lost at times in the imprecision of the writing.
This is somewhat countered by the fact that is reasonably well structured to support easy referencing, reasonably complete in that all the rules you need are there and that there is an upcoming errata to deal with any outstanding issues. I would recommend reading through the rules more that once to deal with this problem.
References – Unfortunately, there is no index in the book which always makes referencing difficult. However both sides of the book do have comprehensive contents pages. The book structure is well set out and made finding references easy.
Introduction – This section provides a good introduction into the world of MD and is one of the best written sections in the book as it eases the reader into the bizarre nature of the setting. There is a lexicon in the sidebars that is written to be relevant to the text, making understanding concepts in the introduction easy.
Races – Each of the ten race receives a 3 page full colour treatment. These are written in first person much like a Tribe 8 book. This helps convey the race from a setting point of view getting across physicality, psychology and idiosyncrasies of each race. The down side with using first person is that sometimes it is difficult to get a complete picture if something falls beyond the narration. However the races all have an additional page in the Mechanical Side which together provides a very complete view of the races.
The races vary considerably to cloned warriors, sea dwelling amphibians, biomechanical workers, vegetal mystics, demon possessed predators and provide a lot of inspiration and fun as well as serious role-playing opportunities.
Echoes – Each of the ten Echoes receives a one page treatment. I would have liked to have seen more here especially as they do not get as much more explanation in the Mechanical section besides general discussion of Echoes and their individual Gifts and Powers. However, there is more than enough in the main book. The Echoes are similar to classes but are presented in a broad manner that allows a player to interpret the Echo as it relates to their PC. This does make the Echo descriptions a little confused at times but overall I think the lack of absolutes is good as it provides a wider variety of possibilities. Years of Chaos – This section covers the history of Kainas. The history is not only fascinating but also reasonably convincing. It reflects our own world more than Middle Earth or other fantasy realms.
Core News – This large section covers the Core in considerable detail including its structure, it’s political system, its goals, its geography it’s society and infrastructure. This is finished off with a list of numerous companies. This section may sound dull but it was fascinating to the last. It did well to present the wide range of possibilities whilst still providing detail. For example each of the cities received a few paragraphs and a picture. The companies ranged from a company of Echo agents (like those sports stars have) to new and improved ways to pack food (packing that actually improves the flavour of food the longer it remains packed).