An Endzeitgeist.com review
This RPG clocks in at 54 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 49 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
We begin this pdf with a fluffy intro-text and a brief explanation of the basic terms like GM etc. and the dice used in playing this game. So...what do we have here? Well, the premise is that mankind has managed to wipe itself out via some sort of cataclysm. From the ashes, the rodents rose, walking on two legs, becoming the dominant species. What would have happened if Chip 'n' Dale, Rescue rangers, would have been set against a more complex futuristic backdrop, if you will.
As a result, the world looks pretty much like "a cross between a Midwestern pet store, a post-apocalyptic demilitarized zone, a Renaissance faire and Sean Connery's bathroom." Scattered towns have risen from the ashes and we enter the game not in an age where the cruel aftermath of the fallout is still felt, but where the emergent civilizations have similarly not yet spread to all corners of the globe, leaving plenty of wilderness and danger, but also enough civilization to not devolve into a struggle for survival. In short: Tone-wise, this is very much appropriate for kids and the rules, while not necessarily "lite" in the traditional sense, are pretty simple.
Character creation is relatively simple. We begin with choosing a rodent's race and adding six slices to the attributes. Slices? Well, two slices make up a block and attributes may range from 0 to 8 blocks (16 slices). RPCheese knows a total of 4 attributes: Fitness, Strength, Wisdom and Hardiness. Pretty glaring and a BIG no go: Fitness is explained as "finesse", something rather different. Also: Finesse seems to be the better explanation for what the attribute allows you to do, with hardiness being the attribute for hit points, endurance, etc.
Each of the starting races have sliced assigned to their attributes as racial traits. Hamsters would be the jack-of-all-trades, beginning with one slice per attribute. Gerbils start with 3 slices (or 1 block and a slice) of Wisdom and 1 slice in fitness/finesse. Guinea Pigs begin play with 2 blocks of Hardiness and one block of Strength; Mice have 3 slices of fitness/finesse and 1 slice of Wisdom. Rats get 1 full block in both Hardiness and fitness/finesse, 2 full blocks of Strength. Chipmunks start play with a block of Fitness, Strength and Hardiness. Squirrels receive 3 slices of Hardiness, 1 block of Strength and a slice of fitness/finesse. Finally, rabbits get a slice of fitness/finesse, 3 slices of Strength and 3 slices of Hardiness.
You'll notice some inequalities there. Each race gets additional benefits to even that out. While every character receives 6 slices to allocate, hamsters get 2 slices to "any attribute you choose" - which could mean that this extends to ONE or ALL attributes to which you apply slices; the wording here needs to be more precise. Hamsters also gain +1 to 3 skills of the player's choice, 1 feat per level and a bonus feat at every odd-numbered level after first. They have 4 starting feats and begin play with 20 hit points, unless you increase hardiness.
Gerbils would be the casters and begin with only 15 hit points, 5 feats, +1 to academic skills and 2 feats at every new level. Guinea Pigs begin play with 30 hit points, 3 feats +1 to smithing, swimming and use human devices. They gain 1 feat per level. Mice start with 15 hit points, 6 feats +1 to acrobatics, charisma, outdoorsmanship, etc. and 2 feats per level. Rats start with 26 hit points, 3 feats +1 to climbing, espionage and searching and 1 feat on every new level. Chipmunks get 20 hit points, 3 feats +3 to acrobatics, climbing and outdoorsmanship and 1 feat per level. Squirrels also get 26 hit points, 3 feats, +2 to acrobatics, climbing and outdoorsmanship and 1 feat per level. Rabbits start with a whopping 35 hit points, 1 feat, +1 to acrobatics, climbing and outdoorsmanship, but only get a feat every odd level after 1st.
Each slice you allocate to an attribute nets the character +1 with skills associated with the attribute. Each block nets +1 to saves corresponding to the attribute. Skill checks work as in most d20-based games: You roll a d20, add the skill's bonus and compare it to a DC. Much like 5e, these DCs are pretty low: Easy tasks would be DC 5, extremely difficult ones 20. That means that even a completely clueless character has RAW a chance to succeed at these.Natural 20s are critical successes, natural 1s critical fumbles. PCs can block or dodge critical hits by exceeding the NPC's roll by 6 or more. It should be noted that skills once again call the attribute "Finesse", not Fitness, which means I'll assume that to be the correct one for the purpose of this review.
During character creation, you may perform up to 5 skill adjustments, which allow you to take away one point of skill bonus and take it to another skill, allowing for some pretty pronounced specialization, should you choose to go that route. The game knows a total of 23 different skills, 6 of which are allocated to Finesse, 6 to Strength, 4 to Hardiness and a total of 11 to Wisdom. Wisdom contains all those academic skills and the magical lore/human device using tricks, while the Hardiness skills include Husbandry, crafting non-weapons, etc.
Each of the four attributes has an associated feat pool: Finesse is associated with the Stealth pool, Strength is associated with the Might pool, Wisdom is associated with the Spirit pool and Hardiness is associated with the Stamina pool. Each pool has a number of points equal to the number of slices in the chosen attribute, and using feats subtracts a number of points from the pool. Sleeping recharges these pools. (You btw. also regenerate all hit points upon getting a good night of sleep.)
Beyond the aforementioned bonuses, every slice of hardiness yields +3 hit points. Every block of Strength yields +1 to melee accuracy and damage. Every block of Finesse yields +1 to dodge and ranged accuracy. For every 2 blocks of Finesse, you also get +1 to movement. For every block of Wisdom, you gain +1 to initiative, +2 to saves magic and perception. For every 2 blocks of Wisdom, your spells impose a -1 penalty to saves vs. your spells. For every block of hardiness, you get +2 to saves versus sturdiness and horror and for every block and slice (or 3 slices), you gain +1 to block. This is all displayed in a pretty easy to grasp table.
Spellcasting is done via feats and when a feat applies to a die roll, it must be activated before the roll is made. The cost of feat points ranges generally from 1 to 4 and a handy table provides type, duration, cost, target and the action - which may be either combat, non-combat or free.
Which brings me to combat: When a character has 0 hit points, he is killed. Characters have a default movement rate of 4, modified as mentioned before, with each unit corresponding to about 1 inch. Characters can move through squares occupied by allies, but not by enemies. Initiative is a d20 + 1 per block of Wisdom. Characters may perform one mundane and one combat action per turn and any amount of free actions. So far, so familiar. When attacking a foe, you roll 1d20 and add accuracy modifiers associated with the attack. If you exceed 6, you hit - unless the opponent blocks or dodges the attack. To block, you roll 1d20 plus your block modifiers; on a success (i.e. exceeding or rolling equal to your foe's roll), you negate the attack. Dodge works the same way and in both cases, characters take a -9 penalty when trying to avoid projectiles. Flanking an enemy yields +1 to accuracy and damage in melee. This engine means that combats can drag quite a bit, as the swingy mechanics can mean that there's a lot of rolling sans successful damage. Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of such swingy mechanics, even though it can yield pretty cool scenes. I also think it's a bit of a pity that block and dodge, mechanically, are identical, at least regarding their base effects. It also means that Finesse characters are better tanks than those focusing on Hardiness, if you go by damage negation capabilities alone.
Saving throws follow the old formula: d20 + bonus, with DCs ranging from DC 5 to DC 20. The system knows 4 saves: Horror, Magic, Perception and Sturdiness. Natural 1s and 20s are, as always critical fumbles and successes, respectively. Horror does not pertain to "horror" alone, but also to frightening situations - it seems like a bit of a loaded, weighty world for such a carefree, fun little RPG. But that may just be me.
The system knows 10 levels, with each level yielding 2 slices for the attributes and feats based on their race chosen. They also gain +1 to a skill of the character's choice.
Now, it should be pretty obvious at this point, but the majority of the tactical options of the game stems from the use of the feats, which basically act as the limited resources of the respective characters. These include a pretty wide variety of options: Shadow jumping while hidden, +1d6 damage on the next ranged attack, longer jumps, etc. As a whole, these are pretty nice, though there are a couple of instances where the pdf could be more precise: Let's take Fingertip Lightning, which allows you to create a sustained bolt of lightning from two fingertips, hitting targets and increasing the damage output every round. Do you fire both bolts as that combat action or only one of them? The feat could be read either way. The pdf also fails to specify what happens when feats like these lightning bolts, which have a fixed range, have their targets move out of the range - does the spell collapse or not? The feats or the range-explanation do not explain this particular aspect. Other than that, the section does provide, as a whole, a respectable, cool array of options.
Now, as for weapons, armor and shields - these generally modify block dodge and move: When you're wielding a knitting needle, for example, you may have the absolute apex of base damage, namely 2d12, but you do suffer a -4 penalty to dodge rolls. While we're speaking of items - yep, cheese would be the currency here. Enchanting items is pretty easy - the formulae are based on spirit point cost, daily uses. The pdf also provides rules for two types of VERY lethal fireworks and RC vehicles.
The pdf also has a basic introduction to GMing, sample NPCs, lizards, birds and spiders and some brief guidelines for awarding XP.
Editing and formatting, on a formal level, are very good, I noticed no serious hiccups there. On the rules-language side, the system has some ambiguities in the details that still need to be ironed out. Layout adheres to an absolutely gorgeous two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The full-color artworks are cute in an awesome way - the one-eyed rabbit with plaid pants and a bow-tie had me seriously laugh out loud.
Joseph Caldera and Jon Adams have created a solid, pretty easy to grasp ruleset here. The rules are familiar enough for PFRPG and 5e players to get the gist of it sans any significant hassle - which will also be my frames of reference. Much like 5e, it is a very much streamlined experience that does something pretty smart with blocks and slices, visualizing basic milestones and "1/2 character level etc." types of formula in a nice manner. The system also allows for a surprising amount of tinkering for a game that got rid of character classes: The fact that slices and blocks etc. affect your stats in the respective tasks means that the system does allow for a bit of optimization.
At the same time, I am not 100% sure whether this is as player-friendly as it could easily be. Beyond the REALLY BAD fitness/finesse-glitch, the pdf sports quite a few instances where the rules simply should have been more concise. It would have been nice to see e.g. spelled out how a critical success in attacks interacts with a critical block/dodge. It can be gleaned from context, sure, but still. Similarly, from range interactions to some of the finer details, there are a bunch of instances where, once you get down to the nit and grit, a bit more precision would have been warranted, particularly if you want to appeal to new players and GMs as well and not just the veterans who're looking for a change of pace.
There are definite plusses as well, though: The structure of the rules and their presentation, as a whole, is very concise and didactically sensible - the sequence and way in which the rules are presented make sense and introduce the finer details at a steady pace without overburdening the player. So that's a big plus.
Now, how does it play? This is where taste comes in. The playing experience of RPCheese is closer to OSR games than modern ones in that the options for the characters are more limited. At the same time, the characters do have a lot of customization tricks that allow for specialized tasks, but only in short bursts. The skill system is closer to PFRPG than 5e, though attacks are tied closer to the attributes...like, well everything. The cool, unique options the feats allow you to perform behave pretty much like 5e features, with the streamline that they universally require a long rest to recharge and draw upon the respective feat pool. That means you have to really plan when and how you'll use them. This rewards planning by the players, but also means that they'll hoard feat points where possible, which can, depending on the type of game you want to play, feel frustrating. Here, the game feels more like GUMSHOE than a d20-based game. Personally, I don't feel this stark limitation works too well, but you may have a different opinion.
On the plus-side, different feat pools reward diverse characters rather than singular specialists. This mechanic also, unfortunately, can result in 5-minute-adventuring days. A more diversified feat pool-recharge mechanic would make the game more rewarding in my book. Why? Because combat itself is a pretty lengthy affair. Since each attack can be met with a competing roll, it'll take time to fight and more feat uses in combat would make that more rewarding. Suffice to say, if you're not the biggest fan of swingy RPGs or one of the players that wants a lot of options in combat, the system may not be for you.
I have a bit of a hard time rating this system, to be honest. To me, it felt a bit divided in its focus. On the one hand, we have the child-friendly visuals. On the other, we have the Telekinesis feat actually mention that it's not possible to throw GERBIL BABIES at foes with it. I so wished that was just my mind, but it's right there in the pdf. I was utterly mortified when reading such a sentence in a book like this. The visuals in my head were not pleasant, to say the least. I get that that was supposed to be humorous. It's not. Yes, it's the exception, but such statements imho have no place in such a book. This strange dichotomy extends to the rules.
On one hand, we have streamlined mechanics and a beginner-friendly presentation and theme; on the other, we have an actually pretty complex engine of interactions and serious rewards for stingy resource management. I am pretty positive that new players or relatively inexperienced roleplayers would certainly prefer using their cool tricks more often than the system allows.
At the same time, you have to buy into races and classes being blended. While every race can potentially do every task, rabbits, with their feat-dearth, will always suck as skill monkeys or mages. Similarly, gerbils will never be good tanks or front-line fighters. Whether or not you like that is ultimately a matter of taste.
Is the system viable? For the most part, apart for some hiccups in the details, it most certainly is. And I really like many aspects of it. But at the same time, I feel like it has an identity crisis. It's not really go-play simple and it's not as complex as e.g. 5e or PFRPG. It's cool to see all those abilities that usually are class options streamlined. I love the presentation and structure of how the file presents its rules. But for high complexity/options games, you burn through feat points too quickly. For rules-lite games, character creation takes too long and is a too complex affair. In short, this does feel a bit like it couldn't decide what to focus on.
If all of that sounds terribly negative, then rest assured that it shouldn't - this can provide a fun change of pace and the artworks are cute indeed. I like a lot here. But at the same time, I feel that, at least for now, this falls short of its own potential. I fervently hope we'll get to see a revised version in the future, but for now, I can't rate this higher than 3.5 stars, rounded down - it is a mixed bag with some pros and cons going for the system in pretty much every aspect, situated slightly on the positive side.