Well, my moderate mail order package came yesterday so here's the first review. I skimmed Conspiracy of Shadows but it didn't initially grab me as much as The Shadow of Yesterday, so that's the one I read first.
The Shadow of Yesterday is by Clinton R Nixon, one of the two guys who runs The Forge. The game is his attempt to write what he wanted D&D to have been. Our lives in the alternate worlds where The Shadow of Yesterday was the first roleplaying game are much richer than this one. Lucky alternate selves.
I should note that although I bought a copy from Indie Press Revolution, you can get the whole thing free online. I don't regret my USD$20, as the art is good and I don't like to read online. I guess I could have reformatted the html version, printed it and had it bound but that would have taken more of my time than the actual cost of the printed version is worth. But it can be free if you want it, which is friendly of Mr Nixon.
My first comment is that I have to love any game in which, as I make up a character on my first proper read through, he turns out as a sword-slinging adventurer - so far so normal - who is also a decadent poisoner searching the world for true love. I mean, this guy has some serious cool, and I was just picking up on the first thing I liked for each step.
That's moves nicely on to my first comment. Character generation is both simple and very evocative. He encourages making up your own abilities, secrets and keys (more on these below). I like games where you can define your own skills and suchlike, it just allows the player to give that much more personal detail to the character. In fact, my first guy I mentioned has a couple of things of my own invention.
Characters are defined by three pools (basic stats) and a bunch of abilities (skills). These are grouped into A, B and C types which govern how good you are in those areas. You also have secrets and keys. Secrets are much like feats in D&D 3rd edition and so on - they give you a special ability of some kind. The secrets provided are almost all either useful or extremely nifty (and sometimes both).
Keys are something new, I think. A few games (e.g. The Riddle of Steel) have similar ideas but this takes it to another level. Keys define how the character gains experience. You can have up to five. Each defines how much XP you get for doing different things. Here's the one I made up for my first character, which shows the basic structure:
Key of the Romantic: Your character is searching for his true love, who is waiting for them... somewhere. Gain 1XP every time you flirt with a possible lover. Gain 2XP whenever you endanger yourself or neglect your duties to court someone. Gain 5XP if a woman accepts his courtship for life. Buyoff: Decide that true love is a myth.
The main features are that you choose how your character advances, and you also choose how fast they do it (by determining how many keys you have). Note that fast advancement isn't necessarily what you will want, see below about character transcendence. Also, there is that 'Buyoff' note. Every key has one. Anytime you want (and that circumstance is met) you can just throw away that key and get 10XP (that's exactly the number to buy a new Key, by the way). This allows you to make sudden changes of personality for the character pretty much when you decide you want to change how they go. This, I think, will make for some good roleplaying. I can already imagine how much fun I might have with buying off that particular Key.
That covers the character generation chapter. Next is the resolution mechanics. Nothing too revolutionary at first, a simple roll 2d6 + ability to get a result which gives you a level of success. Nixon has a good section on the stages involved in an ability check, stripping it down to the theoretical bone of what's going on. This is probably not strictly necessary but it's a good analysis of what the roll means in this game and how to think about each stage of what is normally just someone saying "I kill him!" [dice roll] "Yeah, eight bazillion damage!"
Rolls can be modified by bonus and penalty dice. If you have bonus dice you roll this many extra dice and pick the best two for your result. If you have penalty dice you do the same but pick the worst ones. These can come from terrible context to your action, secrets, magic and similar. A nice touch, however, is the gift of dice. Each session, all players (including the GM) get a pool of dice - one for each player - which can be given to anyone else as bonus dice whenever you want. So if you want to help another player's character in a tight spot, or just think they're cool, you can help them succeed. Nice.
For focusing on really important conflicts, there is a rule called Bringing Down the Pain. This allows a player character to refuse to accept any result of a contested ability check and instead moves into a more detailed, brutal resolution system. This reads like combat in most roleplaying games but applies to absolutely any conflict in this one. It looks like it works well but I'll reserve further comment until I have played it out a few times.
Tangentially, allow me to say that Nixon's examples of play are really great. They are both fun to read and also illustrate the concepts very well.
Your three basic pools get spent to use special abilities and give yourself bonus dice. These get refreshed by certain actions, as are abilities in The Dying Earth. I liked that idea there and I still like it here.
Another aspect of the game I particularly like is the idea of character transcendence. If anyone builds up an ability to level 10 (that's the highest possible) and rolls a 12 on an ability check (that's also the highest possible) then they transcend. The player can narrate the godlike results of the action however they want, the sun or moon is eclipsed and the character's story is ended within the next day... they might retire, die, whatever. But they have achieved the most awesome thing they will ever do and that's going to be it for them. This might seem a little harsh for a character you love, but you control whether you go to level 10 in any abilities. Personally, the idea of the character who has done the ultimate and thus no longer needs to be going on adventures is really appealing.
Last is the section on the world. This is intentionally left pretty open. Nixon says that he removed everything he had written that wasn't an essential part of the background, so that the cool ideas would be there but the details could be determined by each group. That seems a fine plan and I salute him for it. The species and cultures of the world of Near are indeed interesting and open to interpretation, and I think most gamers will find something to build a character on and plenty to spark their imaginations there. I won't repeat any details as you can just go read the source yourself.
Overall, a great little fantasy game that may just tempt me to throw out HeroQuest. Maybe I could just substitute these rules and keep playing in Glorantha, but I'm tempted to go the whole hog and play this as described. My gaming group are all keen to keep playing HeroQuest, but I think that everything they like about that game is doubly (or more) present in The Shadow of Yesterday.
Expect reviews of Conspiracy of Shadows and maybe some more in-depth comments on Capes in the next short period of time.
Oh, and in case anybody is interested, here's that character I made up:
A wandering Ammeni swordsman looking for excitement, plunder and also true love.
Vigor 5, Instinct 6, Reason 3, Advances 5
Stay up 1
First aid 1
Herb lore 2
Distill herbs 1
Secrets & Keys
Secret of the Signature Weapon (his sword).
Secret of the Serpent Blade (that's the ability to make blade-poisons).
Key of the Romantic.