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Savage World of Solomon Kane Review

Posted on September 6, 2007 by Flames


Available at Amazon.com

Introduction
I was one of the lucky few, thanks to the sharp attention of the wife and her amazing persuasive abilities, to pick up an early release volume of The Savage World of Solomon Kane by Pinnacle Entertainment. Like a great many other game designers I am afflicted with a great love of the pulps and related ‘trash’ forms of fiction such as B-movies, exploitation cinema and so forth. Alas for us game designers the appeal that these genres have for us don’t often translate into good sales or successful games, with the notable exceptions of Mongoose’s Conan and, perhaps, Spirit of the Century (which has plenty of industry kudos but I’m not so certain on their sales).

I think PEG could be on to a winner with this one however. Next to Edgar Rice Burrough’s work the works of Howard are probably the most recognised and enduring pulp fiction to survive from that period – and without the complications of ERB Inc’s paranoid grasping of the Tarzan and Barsoom IP. While Solomon Kane isn’t as immediately recognisable as Conan or King Kull he does share qualities with Howard’s other creations and the loose mythological background that runs through all of Howard’s work though Solomon Kane, to me, seems to be even a step closer to the shared ‘weird mythos’ of the pulps than even Conan’s Hyboria, Solomon Kane could easily be a more action-packed Cthulu genre as much as one of heroic fantasy.

I haven’t read all the Kane stories but I am a Howard ‘fan’ so I was coming to this book with high expectations but without a completely firm grounding in Kane’s world.

Overview
This is a hefty book and weighs in, hardback, at 350 pages for around $50 – which is £25 in real money, though I believe the UK retail price will be around £30 rather than the £25 I got it for at the convention on special deal. You could easily see Solomon Kane wielding this book as an instrument of righteous justice, crushing cannibal’s teeth with the spine and giving demons nasty papercuts with its hallowed pages.

It is full colour throughout and very well laid out visually, using muted colours and parchment backgrounds without becoming at any point too hard to read or so ornate that you feel the pages have been wasted.

The book is complete in itself, you don’t need the Savage Worlds rules in order to play and it even goes so far as to include templates for explosions and so forth in the back. Joy of joys it also has an index, something I pretty much insist on in any book over 100 pages and the table of contents and rules summaries are equally accessible and useful. The only place I feel the organisational layout of the book lets the reader down is in the world guide – perhaps fully a third of the book, or even more, which makes it a substantial flaw in an otherwise perfect presentation, but more on that in a minute.

Artwork
The art on the cover is fantastic depicting our eponymous hero in battle against some unseen foe and the art throughout is evocative and effective with a couple of exceptions where the images seem a little flat and in the maps which are very plain and a little too ‘graphicy’ which while good for making battlemats for miniatures based combat seems incongruous with the presentation of the rest of the book.

Overall however the consistency of the art direction is good and produces the appropriate pulp feel, lots of half naked women, giant monsters and flashing swords. Just the sort of things you need to get into the proper mood for pulp adventure.

Writing
I noticed only a couple of typos going through the book – and I’m hardly one to pass judgement on that sort of thing – but I didn’t notice any repeated text or other common problems. Throughout the writing style is plain and explanatory and doesn’t resort to unnecessarily flowery prose. Much like Howard’s writing things are pretty straightforward and I didn’t feel the need to read back through a second time to get what the writers were talking about. Solomon Kane’s world is pretty clearly laid out but there is the aforementioned problem with the world section while I feel I must bring up.

While not performing the cardinal sin of White Wolf (burying important information on the game world, setting and factions inside drastically awful fiction) PEG have committed a new sin. For some some people I am sure that having a ready made campaign of adventures as part of the main book is a bonus, but for me – someone who practically never uses pre-published adventures – this was a massive waste of space (and thus money) in the book. I have no use for even sample adventures, let alone whole campaigns and yet, perhaps, a third to a half of the world section is taken up with The Path of Solomon Kane.

A single sample adventure I can forgive and even advocate – it demonstrates to the reader of the game what your intentions as a designer are and allow new gamers an insight into how the hobby works – but a whole campaign? That’s a huge waste of resources when the book could have been slimmed down and made cheaper by its omission and then have been accompanied by a separate book detailing the campaign.

Even so, I could live with this if PEG hadn’t intermingled the world setting information from the Kane stories WITH the adventures that form part of the campaign! As it stands I have to pick through the adventure information to find the setting information in order to extract my own meaning and understanding of the detailed portions of Solomon Kane’s world and I think the space could have been better put to use making suggestions for places that weren’t covered by the existing stories or more general advice and ideas or more general examples from the pulps.

Admittedly this is largely a matter of personal taste – on the inclusion of the adventures – but it does detract from the otherwise faultlessly easy access to information throughout the rest of the book.

Background
The setting is that of Howard’s Solomon Kane stories, tales that straddle the 1500s and 1600s and trace the progress of Solomon Kane, a wandering Puritan pilgrim who sets out into the world to right wrongs and to fight evil. It is a continent spanning series of adventure tales with a great deal of confrontation of cannibals, ancient horrors, dark magicians and strange, savage creatures. As with Conan Howard’s dislike of civilisation comes through and Kane, while he exhibits many of the characteristics of Howard’s other heroes, is a bit more cunning and less of a brute.

Naturally, being a product of its time, Solomon Kane’s stories are quite horrendously racist and sexist but, quite frankly, that’s part of the ‘charm’ and we have to make allowances for the period in which the stories were written. I don’t intend to dwell on this subject too long because I don’t think it is terribly worthwhile to get into a tizz over when we’re talking about fantasy fiction that was a product of its time. Suffice to say if this sort of thing upsets you and you can’t either adapt to the setting, or adapt the setting to your personal morality then a) get a life and b) don’t buy this book until you do.

Kane’s wandering span the continents and take in forgotten and forbidden places. The time period is one of colonial expansion by the European powers and the ‘civilising’ of the new world, of Africa and of The East. At this point in time though there are still mysteries and the edges of the map still have ‘here be dragons’ written upon them and this exploration and fighting of ancient evil provides rich possibilities for adventure.

While the book presents a cohesive campaign the actual stories of Solomon Kane don’t particularly follow a linear narrative, though they can be placed upon a timeline. Similarly I think that the game would be better played in an episodic format with each adventure taking up a separate tale, complete in and of itself though parts could carry through to future stories. Thus I think Solomon Kane – especially given the nature of the Savage Worlds system – would be great for pick-up play, convention play or otherwise casual interludes.

Rules
The Savage World of Solomon Kane is powered by the Savage Worlds system. You should be familiar with it – it won an Origin award after all, but in case you’re not the basics are this – it uses different dice to represent different levels of ability d4 being low, d12 being high, and additions to these rolls in order to accomplish tasks against difficulty scores. This is similar to the old Deadlands system and, indeed, the newer version of Deadlands uses the Savage Worlds system. Combat is fast paced and uncomplicated though it does use cards as well as dice, which some people can find unwieldy, you could substitute a different method of initiative than the cards but it would take a fair bit of tweaking. The system is scalable and fast and so is equally good for running skirmish level combat as it is for individual heroics.

Characters are defined by statistics and skills, described in terms of these dice, and are also personalised by hindrances and edges, hindrances being ‘flaws’ and edges being akin to d20’s Feat system, albeit without so much bloat and complication.

The changes for Solomon Kane are limited to the magic system which is much less ‘flash-bang’ high fantasy magic and much more dark ritual and shamanic binding than it is hurled fireballs. This is a great addition/alternative to the standard magic rules and much more appealing for a lot of settings, not just Solomon Kane.

Personally I find the Savage Worlds system lacks a certain ‘granularity’ that I usually (but not always) prefer in my RPGs. I find the damage system a little too abstract and the divisions between levels of skill/stat to be a little counterintuitive though the flat dice roll and lack of a bell curve aids the pulp feeling of luck and fortune which suits Solomon Kane. While Savage Worlds is sold as a generic system I think its strengths lie in just the sort of genre that Solomon Kane forms a part of, especially with this game’s emphasis on allies and assistants – something the system is better able to handle than many others.

Upsides

* Great presentation/art.
* Easy read.
* Compelling world.
* Pulp ‘Done right’.
* Complete in one book

Downsides

* Generic system
* Intermingled information in the world section.
* Pricing may be an issue for many gamers.

Reviewer: James ‘Grim’ Desboro

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