Posted on January 8, 2010 by Megan
Available at Amazon.com
If you are already a fan of the Supernatural TV show and want to play out the kind of adventures that happen to its protagonists, this book will come as a real treat. If you don’t know the show, or are just looking for a game in which present-day heroes deal with supernatural menaces, this probably is not the game for you.
Written throughout in a casual style (almost as if written by Dean Winchester) and laid out in full colour with lots of (uncaptioned, alas, and rather dark) shots from the show as well as evocative collections of items that might rest on a hunter’s desk, the work begins with an Introduction by Sara Gamble, one of the show’s writers. Clearly, she’d quite like to join in, and it ought to get you into the right mood for this game from the outset.
Then the book jumps right in with Chapter 1: Be Afraid of the Dark. This is a wide-ranging chapter that covers the underlying concept of the game, the mood of the show which you’ll be trying to recreate, and setting the scene of an elite group of ‘hunters’ who deal with menaces that most ordinary folk do not even believe exist outside of legends and stories. There’s an overview of the sorts of nasty things these hunters will face – as well as other hassles such as local law enforcement, lack of a reliable income (if full time hunters) and the effect of their lifestyle on family and friends. Assuming you want to run your game in Continental America, there’s an overview of some of the likely places supernatural menaces are to be found… this covers virtually every bit of the United States so whatever locale you fancy there ought to be something for you.
Next, Chapter 2: The Basics covers just that – the basics of the Cortex rule system – certainly in enough detail to play the game. Aspiring referees (and players wanting to use the rules to their full effect) will find a lot more detail in Chapter 6: The Rules. And that’s another good thing about this book, you are constantly directed to what it will be useful to read next, depending on your needs at the time. Starting with a brief explanation of what role-playing is and the role of player and game master, it moves on to introduce the dice used in the Cortex System and the way in which the capabilities of a character (or monster) are described and used from a game mechanics point of view – and all with reference to where you put it on the character sheet. There is even sufficient detail for you to understand what is going on during a combat or other mechanics-heavy moment in the game.
The basics explained, on to Chapter 3: The Hunters, which gets down to the detail of actually creating your character ready to play. Everything is based around your concept for a character, with a point-build system to allow you to set him up just as you please. And if you prefer to play one of the Winchester boys or one or two other major characters from the show, they are presented in full detail. An interesting feature is Traits – which come as Assets or Complications. They confer modifiers in appropriate situations, but Complications can (if well role-played) also gain the player Plot Points – freely usable bonuses to die rolls at a time of your choosing. The chapter rounds out with the advancement system.
Chapter 4 looks at Traits and Skills – basically explaining what is available and how to use them in game mechanic terms, then character creation is completed with a trip to the store, or at least Chapter 5: The Gear. This is quite abstracted, both in terms of detail (if you want to describe your weapons in loving terms, fine, but here you get generic statistics for each type!) and cost as a ‘lifestyle’ system is used to abstract the sort of thing that you can afford based on background and status – while you can get prices from a store and work out wages, cash in hand, etc.; accountancy is not what this game is about so you don’t need to track every last cent unless you really want to do so!
Characters done, Chapter 6: Rules provides all the detail that the game master – or most avid rules-lawyer – could need to enable the game to run smoothly, logically and fairly. Suitably given the subject matter, there is a cinematic feel and GMs are advised that excessive die-rolling can spoil the flow of the game, and to require rolls only when there is a definite need to allow for an element of chance. However, when the need arises for rules mechanics, these are explained clearly with plenty of options to enable you to tailor them to the precise circumstances in your game. The theme of Plot Points is expanded with suggestions as to how players can use them not just to enhance a roll but to create favourable circumstances, like finding precisely the right weapon to deal with a given monster just lurking forgotten at the bottom of your bag. Plenty of detail is given to the mechanics of combat and chases as well, also all-important information on getting injured and recovering from the damage. Considering the nature of adversaries, attention is also paid to the characters’ mental state with rules for getting scared or even losing your grip in the face of Things That Should Not Exist…
Chapter 7 is entitled – and aimed at – The Game Master. There’s nothing game-destroying should a mere player read here, more just things that are more appropriate for a GMs use. Things like actually running games, pacing, levels of control to exert, even how to deal with rules lawyers (a gem: “This is one of the few times after pre-school when ‘because I said so’ is still a valid response!”) Creating the right atmosphere and tone is also covered, as well as preparing adventures, realizing that different GMs work best with differing balances between pre-planning and scripting everything and running the entire adventure freeform off the top of your head. The overall setting – horror in contemporary America – is already chosen for you, but there are lot of options within the broad theme as to how you wish to address it in your game. For example, are the characters footloose wanderers seeking out monsters to hunt, or have the monsters chosen to come visit them in their home town and they have to step up to defend all that they hold dear? However much you prepare, there are some useful thoughts about how an individual adventure should be organised to best effect (quite useful general advice, and certainly apposite to the sort of adventures you’d run for this game).
Chapter 9: The Supernatural is an overview of some of the commoner types of adversaries that the characters might encounter in their hunt. As the authors admit, you’d need a whole library to cover the myths around even a few of the most well-known monsters; and so the emphasis here is on how to use monsters within your game rather than bare facts (except of course example game statistics) about them – both Game Master and players will do well to undertake their own research into what the legends say. Information sources, especially those available in-game to the characters, are well explored. There’s a good section on how the characters can apply various skills to their search for information. The details given about the monsters themselves are vague enough that players can safely read most them, although perhaps unless they can justify their characters having a pre-existing interest before the game begins, even this may be more than ‘ordinary’ people, the ones who don’t credit the existence of such beasts, would know. There are some examples given that are best left to the GM.
Finally, Chapter 9: The Mundane looks at everything else the characters will encounter, in main a series of locations and the sort of people likely to be found there. There are also some of the more likely wild animals – such as bears and cougars – that might cause confusion to a hunter who sees the supernatural behind every attack. The overriding feel is ‘small-town America’ and even to one who has never been there it’s beginning to come to life in my mind as backdrop to the adventures. An Appendix gives some ‘Hunter Jargon’ – and the recipe for a drink called a Purple Nurple! There’s also some suggest background music, then the Index and a character sheet rounds the whole thing off.
If you enjoy the TV show and want a game specifically tailored to its nuances, this is for you. It is presented beautifully and atmospherically, and should empower you to recreate the show in your game. It could even spread to wider, but similar, themes – say you wanted an X-Files or Warehouse 13 themed-game.
Review by Megan Robertson