Note for transparency's sake: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair review.
- Thematically on point with stories from Howard, Moorcock, Cook, or Norman.
- Simple, elegant dice mechanic.
- Effective task- to conflict-resolution system.
- Amateurish presentation.
- Thews. Really? Thews?
- Grimdark darkness of the darkity dark doom. (But this is just personal preference!)
I have to admit, at first blush I found myself a bit put off by Red Mists. Maybe it was the amateurish layout and giant-sized type. Perhaps it was the unsatisfying background detail right from the start. I suppose it could have been the use of the word Thews, which stood out as overly anachronistic in a game using words like Defiance, Instinct, and Reflexes for attribute names. (Does anyone say “Thews” any more?)
The first time I glanced through the pages of Red Mists, I dreaded the idea of writing a review. Then I read it, the whole thing, and by the time the last page was turned (or scrolled past, since my copy is in PDF form), I was sufficiently impressed.
The game uses a familiar Yes/No/And/But system that converts basic task resolution (“I hit him with my ax!”) into more complex conflict resolution, where the player has a reason, a goal to hit that enemy with their ax or sword.
In fact, there seems to be a lot of asking why a character does what he does in this game, as it sets up a character's motivations as mechanical Impulses, the things that drive the character to do what he does. This is a little bit of a sticky widget for me, as I tend not to enjoy games that pigeonhole a character into certain traits, and Red Mists' Impulses, five in all, are largely negatives. Debauchery, Obsession, Plunder, Self-Preservation, and Slaughter. Of these, it seems like only Obsession can be turned around in even the smallest way – where do characters driven by Justice, by Love, or by Law fit in? Only Obsession, it seems! – but even so, Obsession is about a character on the edge of being consumed by his focus.
In other words, all characters within the world of Red Mists are selfish at heart, with a side order of amorality in most cases, and immorality in others. That comes off as a bit grim.
It isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course. Specialized RPGs exist to cater to a specific type of story; Red Mists plays to stories like Glen Cook's Black Company books or John Norman's Gor series – darker, grittier worlds than your standard fantasy realm – and the players who like that sort of thing. While this may not be me, I recognize why some people would have the urge to play characters in a world where hope is little more than a fleeting memory.
Of course, “at heart” isn't all there is to a character. The person you play in Red Mists also begins the game with four Themes. If you want to scale back on some of the gritty darkity darkness of his murderous heart, this is where you can give him a little bit of sunlight and hope. Not that the game suggests positive themes – it uses themes like “I reject your civilized customs” and “wenches are not to be trusted” alongside “violent drunk” and “will kill anything for money” – but there isn't anything keeping you from making a character with Themes like “justice is tempered by mercy” or “will find the truth at any cost.” Just understand that the game isn't designed to play that way.
The game's DICE combat system (that's short for Dismember, Impale, Crush, Eviscerate) is quick and violent and bloody, so even if you make a defender of truth and justice, he's going to have to be a death-dealing, bloodthirsty defender of truth and justice in order for the game to play out as intended.
Despite my initial concerns that Red Mists' world was poorly detailed, its background slim at best, later information in the GM section gives enough detail to create stories in the vein of Conan or Elric, tales where swords and steel ring out against the abuses of demonology and sorcery. This isn't a game I'd use to power a long-term campaign, but for one-shots and short-term stories, it could be a lot of fun, at least for anyone who loves the old swords and sorcery tales.