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Schauermarchen by John Wick Pay What You Want
Publisher: John Wick Presents
by Rick R. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 04/06/2020 21:32:50

First thing to disclose: Since this is now a "pay what you want" title, I downloaded it for free, figuring I'd do the old "pay the suggested price if it was good" thing. I'm glad I didn't pay actual money first.

Schauermarchen is not well developed. You're a child trapped in a creepy abandoned village. There is a Bad Man (who is not consistently named—he’s also the Grinning Man, the Man of the House, The Man from the House, etc.) who comes out at night and is going to do bad things to you if he catches you. In terms of childhood terror that’s pretty evocative, but it’s also something I would think just about any GM could come up with. The writing is good enough, but it doesn't live up to the German fairytale horror the title would imply. There aren’t any described child NPCs, though we’re told kids who’ve been in town longer come up to the orphanage every day to explain things. There are three other adult NPCs: An Old Man who buries the children for the Bad Man; a madwoman in the woods (who I admit gets a good and creepy description); and the Lady in Blue, who is… just kind of there, working with the Bad Man. She doesn’t even speak.

Look, I’m a sucker for horrific German fairytales—Struwwelpeter and the less sanitized Grimm stuff, for example—but I didn’t find that here. Herein lies my problem: If I wanted to make a game about children in an abandoned, spooky village trying to avoid the clutches of the Bad Man, I would look to traditional bogeyman stories and season with the billion different “children in peril with nary a friendly adult” scenarios in fiction. If I wanted to give it a German scarytale flair, I’d look again to the Grimms and Heinrich Hoffmann—heck, I’d look to E.T.A. Hoffman while I was at it. Forget his adult works, The Nutcracker has some pretty darn creepy stuff in it. But I’m getting off topic. This book is just kind of unnecessary, save for introducing certain mechanics.

The basic idea is that when your PC makes an action aligned with Hope (being brave and selfless, etc.) you gain a Hope Point. When you get Hope Points equal to your current rank in Hope, you go up a rank. Fear (being cowardly or selfish, etc.) works the same way. It’s in your best interest to try to act consistently, because you get bonus dice for Risk rolls equal to your rank in Hope or Fear when performing actions based on Hope or Fear. Also, a rank up in one stat means you drop a rank in the other.

I will admit, this is actually a much better system than I first thought. You are faced with a dilemma: Trying to have a high Fear rank will make cooperating with your fellow PCs difficult. Trying to have a high Hope Rank will interfere with your ability to run and hide, which seems like the best course of action for most of the game. This is good design as far as I’m concerned, and that alone is worth a star.

Leaving aside fluff and crunch for a moment, I need to take a moment to talk about the author’s tone. From the bit explaining the Hope and Fear mechanics:

"'Not all actions have good or bad intentions.'

Wrong. All intentions have intent. Even if it’s just idle curiosity. Every action has motive; people who do dangerous or risky things for no reason at all… well, that’s the definition of'“insane.'

Every action has intent. Nobody does anything for no reason at all. So, how do you judge whether or not a mundane action is out of Hope or Fear? Easy.

Any action that isn’t either out of Hope or Fear isn’t important enough to justify a die roll."

Let’s break this down a minute. First our author introduces an idea just to shoot it down. He then sets up a strawman despite having clearly written the original proposition in the first place. Saying “Not all actions have good or bad intentions” does not contradict the proposition that “all intentions have intent”—and incidentally I’m pretty sure he meant “all actions have intent". If he did not, that's worse, because he's setting up an extra strawman that still has nothing to do with the original premise. All the statement “Not all actions have good or bad intentions” implies is that some intentions are neutral.

He then goes on to contradict himself again by admitting that some actions are not made out of Hope or Fear, and that you just shouldn’t roll for them. In other words, don’t roll for neutral intentions. This is an acknowledgement that there are such things as neutral intentions. If he had just started from “Every action has intent” and left out the prior bits, we would have lost nothing except an incoherent attempt at condescension. If it hadn’t been for this mess, I’d be giving the game three stars. You might call that petty, but remember Schauermarchen is, excluding the title page and backmatter, seven pages long. Little things stick out.

Schauermarchen isn’t terrible. What little there is of it is written well enough, and the setting of the village could be useful. If I were a GM, though, I’d be adding detail like mad. Is there a society among the children? How does it work? How long has the most senior child lived here? Has anyone died of hunger, thirst, or exposure, or does the Bad Man always get them before that happens? It’s mentioned some kids tried to make a boat to cross the ocean to the south; did anyone ever go to the mountains in the north? Are there any notes or books in town that might explain anything at all, or give cryptic hints? Any lore among the children themselves? Are the Bad Man and the Blue Lady the only monsters in town?

You could argue all this detail ought to be handled by GMs individually. Fair enough. But I am not going to shell out five USD to be told to use my imagination when I can do that for free. And I’m not going to call this good because of what my players might make of it-- the scenario is too basic. Any creative things they do is credited to them, not the author of this game.

If you feel like paying money for a rules-light horror experience, I suggest something like Don’t Walk in Winter Wood. That has a similarly dead-simple mechanical system, but it's got illustrations, brief descriptions of how society in the setting actually works, a few sample scenarios, and perhaps most importantly several short stories to set the mood and direction of the game. If you want, you can even play children in that. I already see ways you could combine the mechanics in that game with Schauermarchen’s setting.

Since you can download Schauermarchen for free there’s really no reason not to give it a look, but I have to reiterate I don’t think this is worth the suggested price of five dollars.

[2 of 5 Stars!]
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Schauermarchen by John Wick
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