Posted on November 30, 2005 by Flames
Mad Max – what a trilogy. Dustbowl landscapes, battered old sedans, Australian accents and stubble. It had them all. Plenty of RPG’s have attempted to capture the post-apocalyptic genre in all its glory and few have fully succeeded. Introducing the latest contender: octaNe. Will it roar off into the healthy radioactive glow of sunset on wheels of fire, or will it get a razor-edged boomerang in the forehead?
By the way, the capital N is all part of the product identity. I thought it was going to stand for Nitro or something similar, but according to the introduction it just looks cool. Go figure. It kinda makes me want to pronounce the word oc-tay-NEH. Given the content of the game though, the odd grammar is well in-theme.
octaNe bills itself as a ‘psychotronic’ RPG. For those who have never heard the term before there is a handy definition in the manual (purloined with all credit given from a website). In a nutshell, think ‘cheesy old B-move’ and you won’t go far wrong. This mightn’t be to everyone’s taste so the author has kindly included several alternative concepts including Grindhouse (Bad Taste-style schlock movies), Arthouse (roleplaying with character interaction at the fore) and Cinema Verite (gritty realism). This is a nice touch, since every gaming group will have its preferred style of play that will likely fit in with one of these definitions. Each style has its own short list of guidelines, mostly to do with how graphic violence and sexual references should be treated and whether the characters should be allowed to die or not. It’s good to see that the author has thought about how the game will adapt to different styles of play, although I would have liked to see more done to customise the actual game rules to each. Sadly, as will become rapidly apparent, there’s very little to customise.
What the game doesn’t include is a standard ‘What Is Roleplaying?’ section.
Layout or Laid Out?
One of the first things you’ll notice about octaNe is the page layout. The product weighs in at 116 pages long in all, but the PDF is designed to be printed two pages to each sheet on 11″ x 8.5″ paper. Each of those pages is therefore half the size of most full-blown RPG books. The amount of content is also cut down by the gaudy and ever-so-slightly intrusive borders. Don’t get me wrong, those borders do look great they’re just rather bigger than they need to be and take up space that could have been filled with more game. With borders of a more modest size I’d estimate there could be about 20% more text on each page without sacrificing any readability.
Apart from these aforementioned borders and one or two minimalist symbols in the watermark, there are no interior illustrations. A book of this size doesn’t really need them to be brutally honest, and they would take up even more space in what is already a fairly small document. On the other hand, formatting has been used well to make the text look attractive. Important points are bullet marked, examples indented and italicised so as to stand out from rules text, and good use is made of section titles, bold text and the like. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors are minimal and sometimes intentional. Though some colloquial terms are used that may be new to some readers, it’s not hard to work out what is meant from context. I personally had never heard the term ‘squicking’ before, but I gather it means ‘making people feel icky using distressingly graphic descriptions’.
The system behind octaNe, much like its namesake, is fast, dirty, flammable and found in petroleum. Die rolls are by means of good ol’ D6’s – always the safe option. The player usually rolls three of these classic beauties and picks the highest rolling result. There are a number of factors that can adjust the number of dice rolled including hazard rating (a basic measure of how dangerous the situation is) and if your character does not make use of one of his styles (or should it be skills? More on this later). Hazard rating is meant to represent how difficult a situation is, but in fact it goes down by one each time it causes a player to fail, so provided that the players aren’t wiped out entirely they are going to succeed sooner or later.
Each character also has a limited number of plot points which can be spent to roll extra dice. All players start with one plot point and can gain more from doing cool things. A nice little touch is that when plot points are spent to increase the player’s chances you must describe how they do so. This could even mean introducing new elements to the scene that weren’t there before. Fighting an armed opponent with your bare hands? Spend a plot point and you could improve your chances and claim an extra die to roll by describing how you grab a leg of ham from the table to use as a club, or how a car suddenly bursts through the wall distracting your opponent and so on. It’s a rule that has been used before in games like Buffy and Feng Shui (one of the inspirations for octaNe) but at least it’s there.
So how do you decide if you succeed or fail? Well this is where it gets weird: die rolling doesn’t dictate success and failure. Instead, if the player rolls well (a 5 or a 6) he gets to dictate what happens instead of the GM, or if he doesn’t roll quite so well (a 4), with minor alterations made by the GM. If the player rolls badly however, then the GM is the one who describes what happens, with maybe the player throwing a few complications into the mix if he didn’t totally suck. One roll can effectively end an entire scene if it goes well for the player, since if the player earns the right to describe what happens he does so not only for his own character but for the NPC’s as well. In theory he could decide not only that, for example, the captured street punk he was interrogating spills all the information he has, but also what that information is. “Okay, okay, the boss is walking around on top of Ayres Rock without any bodyguards or a parachute, and was recently blinded in a freak snooker accident!” At this point I began to think, where is the point in the GM having a plot if the players can mess with it so easily. Sure the GM can use veto to just say ‘no that can’t happen,’ but this kind of activity can lead to bad feelings amongst players. When dice roll badly and you fail, it’s the dice that are to blame. Here the dice merely dictate authority, and the person who describes the action is to blame. This concept might work quite interestingly if you have a very amiable group who all get on very well, but could also lead to immense ructions if you don’t. It also takes the game out of roleplaying territory and into the badlands known as storytelling gamesville.
Much of the rules section is in fact taken up with advice on how to cope with certain situations. This information is generally useful. Unfortunately the chapter is also very poorly laid out. For example how to roll the dice is initially described as ‘take three dice and roll’. It isn’t until quite a lot later in the chapter, after lengthy discussions about styles (I’m getting to those soon I promise) scenes and so forth that we discover no, you don’t always get those three dice. I had to flick back and forth through the length of the book to assemble my understanding of the rules as given above, and I’m still not sure if I have it exactly right.
And as far as rules go that’s about it. If player does well then player says what happens. There are no advanced rules for specific situations, no hit points or health levels, the rest of the game is up to the players to sort out. PC death feels arbitrary and spiteful when it only occurs because someone else decides that it should. Player-v-player situations boil down to the two protagonists agreeing which one of them should roll the dice and which should spend plot points to introduce a threat rating. Fast, loose, dirty and very inflammable.
But What Can My Character Do?
Characters in octaNe are simple beasts with little game data to worry about. They remind me quite strongly of Over the Edge in that you could probably write them on a post-it note. There are only two aspects of choice that have an impact on how your character will play: Styles and Skills. The rest is all background information which can be taken as read. There’s a comprehensive selection of classes to choose from if you don’t want the hassle of making your own, and these at least are wildly imaginative and finally give a feeling of what the setting is actually like. Which would you be, given the choice between an Ostrich Wrangler, a Death Rock Siren and an Alien Naturalist? Each class gives you a brief choice of skills (which by the way are never explained in detail but are fairly obvious from their names) and is introduced with a brief paragraph and a quote. They’re pretty shallow, but they do the job well enough.
So those styles I keep talking about! There are six in total, specifically Daring, Ingenuity, Craft, Charm, Might and Magic. When you perform an action, you have to describe it in a manner relevant to one of your styles or you don’t get your three dice to roll. With no dice to roll you’ll have to spend plot points to gain extra dice and hence any chance of influencing the scene at all. Say you’ve got Might for instance, you could describe how you lift an entire truck onto your back instead of parallel parking it. Like the magic system in Mage, the definitions are pretty loose. Unlike Mage, they can be easily twisted to do more or less anything using any style. Further evidence of the storytelling aspect of the game: what you do is more important than how well you do it. The level of the style is also the number of bonus plot points that you gain when you obtain a 5 or 6 on a roll involving it. Fair enough.
Now skills, and here we find an odd anomaly. The first time they are mentioned is in the character creation section where it states ‘if you don’t have a skill that covers what you are trying to do, you don’t get the automatic three dice to roll’. This is exactly what is says in the rules chapter regarding styles, and skills aren’t mentioned there at all. Have the designers gotten the two terms mixed up? Should the previous rule have been regarding skills rather than styles? Do you need both a relevant skill and style to get free dice for your actions? I have no idea. You get to choose four skills from your class and pick three from anywhere you like but since there is no exhaustive list, much like Over the Edge, you’ll have to make those up yourself.
As a side note, the character sheet contains a reasonably detailed diagram of a car’s dashboard, steering wheel, gear stick and all. Presumably this is to go with the general ‘Mad Max’ atmosphere but it serves no useful purpose and sits in the middle of the sheet taking up space.
It had to be there somewhere, and I found it lurking in the rear of the book. I was expecting something like a cross between ‘Chopper Girls go to Zombie Town’ and ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ and indeed the world of octaNe has similarities with both awful movies. Sadly, the background information is very scrappily presented with much of it coming in the form of ‘A brief note about [Subject X]’. There are some neat ideas, for instance the Knight Rider-esque talking cars, punning place names like Shangri-L.A. and Lost Vegas, plus the grim reaper and ostriches popping up left right and centre. The problem is that each of these info-bites are only a paragraph long and they don’t really hold together all that well. It’s like trying to push like poles of a magnet together, there’s some kind of connective force at work but the concepts have no apparent meeting point. Some of them contain such basic information that they are utterly superfluous. A good example is the entry about robots: “For all intents and purposes, robots are people too. Most of the ‘bots the players will encounter are of the android variety. The hulking death machines of ‘Terminator 2’ and ‘Hardware’ are rarely encountered west of the Missed.”
Yep, that’s all there is about robots, and the rest of the background information is roughly as detailed. It serves just about well enough to help you make your own idea for the setting but provides no detailed insight into the author’s vision. Added to this there are no stat blocks for anything. Given the minimalist nature of the system there’s no stats to detail. The GM has to make spot judgements about every situation as it occurs.
Manual: well-presented but scrappily ordered and confusing to read with at least one major anomaly that needs to be addressed (the skill/style confusion). Game setting: so minimalist as to be practically non-existent and mostly carried by the various character classes. Rules: OK for storytelling, lousy for rules junkies, tricky to work out from the given text. Overall a mildly amusing diversion for the more creative type of player, but certainly not for everyone.
Look for Memento Mori Theatricks eBooks at RPGNow.com.