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Author: Apophis Consortium
Cost: $28.00
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2000-10-01

The real review starts a couple paragraphs down - I have to start by talking about some economics. Obsidian is a high-production-value, internationally distributed, Christopher-Shy-cover, hard-bound, expensive book. You can buy it on-line, but its main venue is the retail store. Yet it is a creator-owned role-playing game. How can this be? It's especially startling when you realize that the authors were not a crew of insiders from various companies who got together, or a member of the old guard striking out on his own they are a few actual role-players who decided to do it themselves. They are not the first to try, but they are the first I know of to go it independently, from scratch, with something this far at the top end of production.

The key to their current success is a lesson to us all: the classy art, the substantial size and heft, the hard cover, and again, the art. If you're going the traditional route, you need a major distributor to get all excited, pre-order your game, and harangue the retailers about "this one is it." To do that, above all, you need a well-rendered, PG-13 suggestive, full-color cover right up front. The strategy has worked well for Apophis, and I know that several web-based independent games with great art are being approached by publishers even as we speak.

I don't mean to say that Obsidian is otherwise not worth attention (far from it). I do mean to point out the crucial discrepancy between retailer-distributor priorities and anything to do with role-playing. The lesson is, if you want to go this route of publishing, the distributor is your customer, and since future profit margin is the distributor's only interest, this customer has expensive tastes. Without some sort of deal or break, you'll end up paying around $10,000 for art, advertising, and printing (that's my off-the-cuff estimate, not based on inside information regarding Apophis Consortium).

All right, the review proper starts here. I've been enjoying playing this game quite a bit, due to its rather strong mystic/moral foundation, although at first glance it would seem overly-familiar in setting and general standards.

The setting and premise of Obsidian are quickly-recognized role-playing territory for those who've seen Kult, Dark Conspiracy, Mutant Chronicles, and Armageddon. Basically, hell has cracked open, anything resembling current life is in the proverbial handbasket, and the very small and beleaguered remainder of humanity struggles to survive amid the near-daily clashes of spiritual absolutes, as well as with its own internal conflicts. In Obsidian, the year is 2299 and Earth is a blasted, blackened wasteland; the only vestige of social normality is huddled in an enormous multi-level cube called the Zone. The metaphysical aspects of the setting are expressed in the Mystic outlook, who are basically idealists who want to stomp Hell back into submission and save others; and the Kultist outlook, who are quite the opposite and mostly very bad people indeed, using murder and damnation to power their abilities.

Overall, the role-playing game shows solid 1992 design, including point-allocation character creation, characteristic-skill integration, and the one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B method for defining player-characters. This look & feel for book, system, and setting was pioneered by Vampire and reinforced by Fading Suns, Deadlands, L5R, and Tribe 8; Obsidian fits squarely in this category as well. Some of its corollaries with this general design include:
  • The late-80s atmosphere in all particulars, e.g. 24-hour nightclubs, ruthless corporations, chromed cybertech. Blade Runner meets Road Warrior with a Concrete Blonde or industrial soundtrack
  • A heavy fiction component, with color text starting every chapter.
  • An absolutely huge amount of back-story and game-world history, starting not from the present day but from the dawn of human history, tying the Mystic-Kultist thing into just about every civilization known.
  • An equally huge assortment of source-material, from corporations to religions to equipment to diseases to vehicles to daemons.
  • A deliberately arcane vocabulary, both for mechanics terms (damage is called "Penance") and setting terms (e.g. in the "magic" stuff, one finds Spirimundus, Dieorvium, Cyberrhea, and a whole lot more).
I've pleasantly discovered that the metaphysical or ideological aspects of the setting are tightly linked to the whole point of play, as indicated by character creation and the GM source material. It's much like Fading Suns, Tribe 8, and L5R in that, with a great deal of player judgment and proactivity, plus GM attention, a group can generate excellent, absorbing morality-play and redemption stories. In this sense, Obsidian has a strong Narrativist component.

A GM or play group pretty much has to choose whether they are taking a Mystic or Kultist approach; freely mixing and matching possible PCs yields way too much conflict. The game deliberately offers no judgment on how you "should" play: unlike Armageddon, in which one might play a "gray" demonic character but not the out-and-out baddies, or Kult, in which evil deeds spiral one down into unplayability relatively quickly, in Obsidian, the Kultist route is quite possible. In fact, that material is very detailed, and I suspect that a Kultist-oriented game would not be mere carnage (a la Violence), but might yield a worthwhile dramatic exercise.

Given even just one of the two approaches, the Mystic-Kultist dichotomy turns out to be not so simplistic after all, once you get into character creation and the possible stories. Fortunately this allows for more interesting conflicts about what right and wrong might really be. Each viewpoint contains ambiguities and inner conflicts, including "fallen" versions of each and enough unknowns to keep everyone guessing. It's like a reversal of the old-style AD&D alignment system: in this setting, most of the characters think they are aligned, but reality never permits their assumption to be borne out in full.

The current (first) printing of the rulebook, indicated by gold leaf printing of the title, has unfortunately muddled character creation directions, and I had to resort to the game authors for help (this is often the case with point-allocation systems). It's undergoing fixes and clarifications for the later printings, so most likely won't be a problem for long.

Once you get it, character creation yields a solid, interesting, rather competent starting PC. The method follows the sketchy character, rich setting approach, which in my opinion is a BIG plus - if making a character had been as thick as the setting material, it would be hard going. For comparative purposes, a beginning PC in Obsidian is much sketchier than one for L5R, Vampire, or Tribe 8, and the setting-weight is comparable. A player gets a certain amount of flexibility from the juxtaposition of one "Ethos" (a flavor of Mystic or Kultist, usually) with two "Socials," as well as from spending a pool of points across existing skills, contacts, and corporate status, if any. There is a fixed skill list which everyone shares (like Castle Falkenstein, not like GURPS). If you have a Mystic or Kultist orientation, you get a whole ton of magic-psychic abilities to pick from. The player then rolls dice for the resource-based aspects of the character (what used to be called "derived characteristics" like Endurance and Spirit, which are rarely rolled in other games). Finally, the player picks Motivations, which include both fixed elements from the Ethos and anything the player makes up.

GMs should beware the opportunities for the power-gamer in the cyborg rules, which permit astonishing bonuses at the price of Humanity (empathy, social responsibility) - unless you're happy with a psycho-death-machine PC in the group, restricting these PC creation options might be a good idea.

It's possible, although I gather less common, to play a "regular guy" in Obsidian, taking Socials like Suit or Scener, although perhaps a bit staid for the setting. It strikes me as an interesting exercise to play strongly-motivated characters of this sort who have to duck and cover when the Mystic-Kultist action hits on every side.

I think the experience system's worth a look by anyone who's interested in how reward systems set standards for role-playing Those Motivations do show up in the mechanics as the fundamental basis for experience points; in other words, developing the personality and drives of the PC through play is exactly how one "progresses" in game effectiveness. I like this idea immensely and consider it to be Obsidian's strongest Narrativist element.

Actual play shows that the game has a very easy resolution system, rolling two to six dice and considering the totals against 3-increment difficulty levels (3-6-9-etc). Attributes and skills are measured in dice rather than fixed amounts, and the dice are rolled for totals, so the overall effect is basically light Over the Edge, or even more so, D6/Star Wars. It follows the traditional announce-and-roll in a combat-round sequence model; unfortunately for this review, I've been utterly corrupted by the "retroactive" design found in Story Engine and Hero Wars, and it's hard to go back to dice-last design.

Keeping that in mind, I'll compare Obsidian with games of similar methodology and simulationist-violence levels. It's a hell of a lot quicker and easier than Deadlands, and noticeably more so than Cyberpunk or Vampire; it's not quite so customizable to the moment as L5R (raises) or Fading Suns (trade off accuracy vs. impact). The combat is rather deadly in the classic RuneQuest fashion: hit location plays a big roll, and the up-scale weapons do major splatter. A small amount of GM fudging and a heavy emphasis on healing magic is absolutely necessary in order to play. In our game, one PC lost a leg last night and got it stuck back on right away - again, this is familiar territory for RQ veterans.

The character construction does lend itself well to Karma, i.e., "You've got an Occultism of 4, so you know that's a Terror Shifter." There is no Drama mechanic. The system has very little metagame mechanic at all (i.e. the "take-it-back" or "do-over" options found in many Narrativist games). The only bit is sacrificing experience points for a bonus die. For the most part, you roll a total and like it.

A major aspect of play is the Terror system, which is yet another grandchild of the Sanity system from Call of Cthulhu. The plus side is that the GM advice for generating scary situations is excellent, with multiple examples and how to link such things to a scenario plot. The potential minus side is the downward-spiral typical of Terror-Sanity-Fear-etc systems, in that once you fail a Terror roll, you fail everything due to penalties, including further Terror rolls. I'm sure I'll see whether this is a problem in play soon.

To return to what I think is the overt point of play (from a Narrativist perspective), the morality-play and redemption issue, one might have to work against some of the above system features a little bit. The resolution system, as well as the cyborg rules most specifically, at least potentially promote more traditional (Simulationist Gamist) priorities, most particularly a shoot-em-up carnage. I've mentioned before that Vampire is an ostensibly Narrativist game, but that its system is functionally Simulationist, and Obsidian has (lesser) tendencies in that direction. The experience system is of course excepted. The Apophis crew is continuing, as they must, with a heavy supplement line. Wasteland is out, Zone is on its way, and more are planned, such that eventually owning "the line" will exceed the $100 mark easily. This mode of publishing absolutely depends on continuing supplements, and they seem embarked.

In conclusion, the following are my bottom line. Harnish, Skaritka, and Nolan are playing in the traditional arena for role-playing games, using distributors to get to game-stores, and therefore any negative implication of mine regarding the size and look of the game applies to any game in that situation, rather than uniquely to Obsidian. I praise them highly for kickin' butt and doing it on their own. Most particularly, they learned the ropes (obviously having received some good advice) and did not break their teeth on the crucial discrepancy mentioned at the start of the review, thus avoiding the fate of at least twenty other similar attempts over the last dozen years. For enthusiasm, organization, and vision, they magnificently illustrate one of my pet notions, that a game author is a role-player who wrote a game. They did it and came up with a pretty damn good job, easily as good or better than any corporate effort over the last ten years.

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