I'd been playing Sentinels of the Multiverse, the card game set in the same universe as this RPG, for a number of years before I heard about this game being kickstarted, and as a fan of the universe and superhero RPGs in particular, I decided to back it to see what innovations it would bring to my table. I'm always initially wary of new superhero RPGs, having been burned by systems that promised more than they could deliver in the past, but I had faith that the same attention to detail and tight design that went into SotM would be repeated here. I am happy to report that my faith has been rewarded, and then some. As a lifelong GM (not my choice, believe me, I'd love to play!), I've been looking for a system that walks that fine line between narrative freedom and systemic crunch, capable of satisfying the roleplayers and the gamers at the session. Sentinel Comics is that game.
Let's start with the visuals; from the moment you open the book and see the beautifully-rendered (but sadly very fake) comic covers from throught the faux-publisher's history, you know you're in a fully realised universe with its own laws and stories and characters. The keyword here is love. The designers have poured their love of the genre into the aesthetic of this book, and it shows on every bright, full-colour page.
From there we're introduced to a few key concepts that detail what to expect from reading the book. It's all written in a friendly, encouraging style that feels more conversational than instructive, which will no doubt help put younger or less experienced gamers at their ease.
After this, we're treated to a discussion of the core concepts of the system, including Environments and the very exciting Scene Tracker. For GMs who struggle to insert a sense of urgency into their action scenes, this idea is made for you...as the scene progresses, the stakes are raised both dramatically and mechanically, and characters and their abilities evolve along with the scene to create a palpable sense of tension and urgency. Another neat side-effect of this part of the rules is how well it promotes the idea of teamwork. Even characters who have been taken out of the fight can still contribute to the story. And somehow, the system achieves all this with a pool of only three dice at maximum for any given situation. The dice consciously take a back-seat to the action, a welcome change for an old-school gamer like me who's been looking for a supers game that promotes that level of narrative freedom.
Next up is character creation. There are several options for this, the default being random. I was skeptical at first, having been saddled with way too many characters with serial reincarnation and prehensile hair from the old FASERIP system, but once I started following the steps and saw just how much breadth of choice was presented within a few die-rolls, I was on board. While this is a great idea for anyone who turns up to a session without a concept for a character, what impressed me most was how ideas sprang to life with every new die-roll. I have no doubt this was the author's intent, and he nailed it on the first go.
Next came a very helpful chapter on running the game. Again, everything is explained in clear, simple language that encapsulates all the core concepts of the rules without bogging you down with excessive minutiae. From the start, the GM is encouraged to be creative, both with their ideas for settings, environments and villains, and with their interpretations of events during play.
The Bullpen chapter is a useful tool for designing all the stuff a GM will need to set up his game. It explains exactly how to create the above-mentioned environments, twists, villains and minions, with an emphasis on balance and fairness. Too often in superhero games, a GM might feel inclined to create a small army of bad guys for the players to fight, to lengthen a scene or create a false sense of drama. In Sentinel Comics, the Environment, the Scene Tracker, the villain and minions all combine seamlessly to create that tension without it turning into a dreary 'I punch bad-guy A' process. The sense of investment created in the sessions I've run has been noticeable, and even my players have commented on it. Treating the environment the scene is set in like a character in itself was a surprising and welcome addition that forces GMs to rethink how they frame action scenes, which is no bad thing in my opinion.
Next, we're given a couple of short adventures to introduce new players to the game. While I felt these didn't do as good a job of this as the excellent Sentinel Comics Starter Kit, they're a great launchpad for the players' own characters, and a nice introduction to the world of Sentinel Comics.
After this comes a huge chapter on established characters from the setting. During the Kickstarter, I asked the author if there'd be a good bit of attention paid to the established universe's characters, and he told me I'd be pleasantly surprised. He wasn't wrong. Some of the big-hitters are here, like Legacy, Bunker, Absolute Zero and my personal favourite, Wraith (I'm a massive Batman mark), along with a rogues gallery of villains and pregenerated minions that will come in very handy. There are also pre-built environments from some of the recognised settings in the card game, serving as both play-aids and inspiration for your own ideas. A useful addition both from a gaming standpoint, and for a fan of the universe.
Lastly comes an appendix that acts as both a glossary of mechanical terms and index at the same time, a thoughtful and helpful nod to GMs who don't have a lot of time to look stuff up. And lastly, we're given blank character, auxilliary and villain sheets in both black & white and full colour.
From an outsider's perspective, this whole book read like an answer to a question from the publishers, being "What kind of superhero game would we like to play ourselves?" The answer is a fast-paced, exciting and most importantly fun game where the rules take a backseat to the story and the group come together as a team to defeat whatever threats arise. I myself loved the way the system promoted the possibility of mixing street-level vigilantes like Batman or Daredevil with powerhouses like Superman or Thor, without feeling like you were throwing the little guy a bone. Here, everyone has something to contribute, and the mechanics ensure that the guy who uses gadgets and billy-clubs has as much part to play as the guy who can throw tanks around. Best of all, it doesn't even get mentioned in the text, because the authors understand how teams like the Avengers and the Justice League work, and incorporated that balance intentionally to better emulate that comic-book team feel.
In summary, Sentinel Comics sets out to provide a fast, fun love-letter to silver-age comic action, while offering GMs the opportunity to take the rules in any direction they wish. In my opinion, they succeeded above & beyond expectations. I have transported my homebrew campaign setting from its original system across to Sentinel Comics, and already love how the new versions of the characters somehow feel more like they were intended. A well-deserved 5 stars from me. Get the PDF, by all means, but don't deny yourself the pure pleasure of reading the hardcopy when it becomes available. This is a must-have for any fan of comic-book RPGs, and my go-to system going forward.