Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/08/12/tabletop-review-spooks-welcome-to-the-great-beyond/
Like many new RPGs these days, Spooks: Welcome to the Great Beyond is a product of crowdfunding. I remember watching the campaign on Kickstarter but decided not to back it. I back so many projects, you see, and something had to give. Thankfully, Spooks not only reached its goal of $3,000, but also surpassed it by 50% thanks to 82 backers who believed in the project. Now, while that might seem small compared to some massive Kickstarters like those by Frog God Games or Reaper Miniatures, crowdfunding was designed for small new companies to get a leg up, and that’s exactly what happened here. Now, when I saw Nightingale Press had sent me a review copy, I was more than happy to check out the final result. I was expecting a short RPG, something like 100-150 pages at most. What I got was a massive tome rivaling most high budget core rulebooks in size. Color me impressed. Of course, page count is not quality, so was Spooks able to deliver in that regard as well? Read on…
In Spooks, you play as a character who has recently died and is now in the afterlife. It turns out being dead is just a new state of being, and your character will make friends, have adventures and do battle with things, just like in any fantasy RPG. The game is set in the Victorian era, rather than modern times, which is nice to see, as I am a big fan of Cthulhu by Gaslight and Victoriana. You have a choice of eight character types, which act as your class, and each one is based on how you died. Bhoots are victims of murder or improper burial. Dolls are those that died young. Ghosts are those that have unfinished business in the realm of the living. Ghouls are those who lived with an overwhelming obsession. Skeletons are those who made it to old age. Vampires are those that died from a curse, blood born illness or harmed a family member (Which means every sibling ever would be a vampire). Wraiths are those that led violent lives, and Zombies are those that died from disease or famine. Now, from looking at this, it’s obvious that the majority of NPCs would be vampires or zombies, due to the vagueness of the terms, along with both being “catch-alls.” You’ll see this in sample NPCs, like H.P. Lovecraft who is a zombie (died of malnutrition and intestinal cancer). I was a little disappointed we didn’t see mummies as a playable class, but it makes sense. The game focuses on the recent dead, and as you get towards the back, mummies are extremely powerful (but rare) beings that work best as NPCs. Still, even without my favorite undead being available as a PC class, the eight options should make most gamers happy.
Mechanically, Spooks seems pretty straight forward. You roll 2d6 plus an extra d6 for each point you have in a skill. Add your total roll to the attribute being used, and you have your grand total. If it’s a challenge against an opponent or character, highest result wins. If it is a fixed challenge, like swimming a marathon… the GM just arbitrarily picks a numbered target. There are hints as to what numbers mean challenge wise (similar to Numenera), but the concept is not fully fleshed out until Chapter 10, around page 215 to be exact. Unfortunately, up to this point, Challenges have been talked about in a nebulous fashion with no real aim at going into detail, so players and potential GMs alike might be a bizy hazy, if not outright confused, on the concept. Even worse, the game starts talking about LARP modification to challenges in Chapter 9, complete with charts, none of which really make sense until you hit Chapter 10 and get a full description of challenges.
Which brings us to the really big issue plaguing Spooks as a whole – flow. The core concept is awesome, but the game is haphazardly all over the place in terms of mechanics, description and transitions from one aspect of the game to the next. Spooks feels more like it was done in stream of consciousness style rather than handed over to an editor to make things flow smoothly and logically. The game does things like talk about how a character levels up before properly defining and/or listing character aspects, like skills and spell cards. Generally games with a universal leveling up policy do it the other way. Another weird aspect is the chapter on Challenges is in the “Storyteller’s section” even though it is a core gameplay mechanic. I definitely wouldn’t have included it there, especially since this chapter is perhaps the most integral to actually understand the mechanics of Spooks. There are other flow issues, like discussing Nyarlathotep as an antithesis of Hatshepsut. This is fine, except that there are regular references to Hatshepsut’s background and Spooks specific history, but it’s not actually covered until the latter third of the book. For such a prominent NPC, and one that is on the more benevolent side of things, I’d have covered her at the same time as Nyarlathotep, her “evil opposite,” and not sixty-some pages later. A good core rulebook flows well and is easy to reference by putting associated topics close to each other. This doesn’t happen at all with Spooks, and as good as the core idea behind the game is, the layout of the book makes it an annoying chore to both read and use. I’d say use the index with extreme frequency, but the index is missing a lot of things… like Nyarlathotep for example, which we have just spent a full paragraph discussing. Wah Wah.
Another big annoyance for me, flow wise, is that Spooks sticks sidebars in where they simply don’t fit. I don’t mean size-wise, but that these sidebars often have nothing to do with the actual topic or even the chapter they are in. An example is that Chapters Nine and Ten are littered with these 1/3rd page sidebars about NPCs and their history. These have no place in chapters on “Storytelling” and “Challenges,” and would have been better placed back in tail end of the book where the actual STATS for these NPCs reside. Why would you break up the NPCs into bios and stats along with placing them more than a hundred pages apart? It’s nonsensical. Don’t even get me started on the writing quality on some of these, like DJ Wub. It’s god awful in every way imaginable and completely different from the quality in the rest of the book. The only thing I can think of is that these odd inserts were Kickstarter backer rewards that people submitted without any editing or rewriting on the part of the Spooks developers. Ouch. Also, for a game set in the Victorian era, there are a LOT of NPCs who died long after that time.
That doesn’t mean that Spooks is terrible. Far from it. There are lots of great things about the game. The mechanics are mostly simple, and although it’s not a game for beginners, experienced RPG fans will easily slide into the game without any real trouble or need to look up obscure rules or the like. The artwork is very good and I really love the little touches of the game, like the maps of the Great Beyond and the Grim Gazette, which is a list of Obituaries for famous real world people and what they would be in this game. There are some really well done things in Spooks – I just wish the game was more intuitive/user friendly. Hey, some games are successes in spite of that. Look at RIFTS!
Most of Spooks is going to be stuff you either love or hate. For example, the game uses a deck of cards in addition to dice, taking a page out of the Deadlands handbook. These cards are used only for the spellcasting aspect of the game, but I know a lot of people that won’t play Deadlands or any game that mixes cards with dice (for multiple reasons). Now, I personally love Deadlands Noir, but I can understand why some people shy away from games that mix multiple ways of determining fate. Another aspect people might have extreme reactions to is that, in Spooks you start at LEVEL 32. No, that’s not a typo. It sounds weird, and there is some decidedly… unique character creation reasons behind it, but suffice to say, it is supposed to represent that the characters lived a full life, or that those previous 31 levels were earned in the mortal realm. I get what the writers are trying to do here, and it does make the game stand out in this respect, but it’s also a bit awkward and something I can see people really disliking. I’m sure some people will say, “Why not just take Level 32 and make it Level 1?” I can’t argue with that line of thinking AT ALL, but the weirdness that is Spooks character creation helps make it memorable – for good or ill.
The world of Spooks is an odd mix of Lovecraftia, quasi-Egyptian mythology, steampunk and numerous other things. In a lot of ways, Spooks feels like the old adage of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Some people will definitely read Spooks and find the game to be very disjointed and just putting in too many difference concepts and homages, muddying the waters with an inconsistent and contradictory vision. It also doesn’t help that Spooks takes extreme liberties or is outright erroneous with some of these aspects, which will no doubt annoy purists or the more anal retentive types. Someone could easily pick apart the Brans Castle (which should be Castle Bran) or the mistakes in the Nyarlathotep or Egyptology sections. You know what though? It’s a game. I just interpreted these changes to the mythos and/or motifs and the game’s version. This is the Spooks canon, and who is to say that the mortal interpretation of these things were entirely accurate? This is neither Call of Cthulhu nor Mummy: The Curse and it doesn’t have to be. If you’re fine with games like Call of Catthulhu or even Pokethulhu, you’ll be fine with this. If a non-historical or canonical interpretation of these things bothers you, then don’t even bother reading Spooks – save yourself an aneurysm.
I really like that Spooks can be as serious or comedic as the group wants. There are lots of options for this, and I do like that the game included a LARP and/or diceless rules alternatives, even if they are shoehorned into a strange spot in the book. I definitely think that Spooks is a very unique and memorable game, but in both good and bad ways. Ultimately, I have a feeling Spooks is going to be a game that people either really like or really hate. For me personally, this is a game I am glad I had the chance to read, but I don’t think it’s one I would regularly play. The book is too disjointed and flows too poorly for my liking, even though I enjoyed the core concept behind it. With the PDF alone carrying a price tag of $19.99 (it’s a huge book remember), it makes Spooks a hard game to recommend to the curious. This really is a love it or hate it game. I think a lot of the game is intriguing, but a lot of the actual format and lack of proper editing in the book irked me. If you have the disposable income to throw at this, you might find Spooks more enjoyable than I did. Nightingale is a small publisher after all, and every dollar counts. In the end, I think my gut instinct to not back the Kickstarter for this turned out to be the correct decision. I’m glad I got to experience Spooks on some level, but it really wasn’t for me. It’s not bad, but it’s not my cup of tea, so let’s call it a thumbs in the middle and also call it a day.