I hate character compendiums.
There’s no getting around it. You give me a book full of non-player characters – who usually have little in common except that they happen to share the same game setting (or worse yet, nothing but a game system) – and you’re looking at a product which just isn’t going to be worth the amount of money I spent on it. NPCs just aren’t interesting enough when they’re all that’s being offered. Nor are they all that valuable a resource – NPCs created by other people are difficult to use effectively in your own game (first because they weren’t designed for your game; secondly because it’s harder to get into the head of a character someone else created). The time and money spent on developing these products could always, I feel, have been put to better use on just about anything except a character compendium.
So in picking up Character Compendium 1 for Heavy Gear I was confident that I had finally found a product released by the Pod which I was going to dislike. There was going to be something oddly satisfying in knowing that these guys were actually capable of making a mistake.
Unfortunately I’ve found that not only can I not dislike the Character Compendium, I also have to admit that it’s a top-notch product that you should definitely buy. I don’t know how they pulled it off, but the Pod has produced a Character Compendium which is actually compelling, fascinating reading. Is there nothing that these guys can’t do?
Actually I have to admit that I do know how they pulled it off, and it’s something that any game line developer who feels himself being consumed by the unquenchable desire to release a character compendium should study in depth to understand the secret. It all stems back to the first principle I always return to when discussing Heavy Gear: The system is one of the best, but the reason to keep coming back for more is the setting.
Anyone who has read my reviews of other Heavy Gear products knows that I consider the world of Terra Nova, where it is set, to be one of the best speculative worlds ever created (and possibly the best, period, for roleplaying games). The success of the Character Compendium can be directly traced back to the fact that Terra Nova is a rich, believable world in which characters truly seem to live and breathe because they are given a backdrop which is as vibrant and diverse as the world we live in today. Because the setting seems to truly live and develop in a believable way it means that Dream Pod 9, when sitting down to develop the Character Compendium was able to not just paint a bunch of thumbnails about particular characters, but to deepen our understanding of their fictional world. The characters in the Compendium are not isolated stereotypes or collections of stats (in several cases they don’t have stats provided at all), they are (first and foremost) characters. That makes all the difference in the world.
Take, for example, the first character in the book: Chief Justice Winston Stark of the CNCS. As part of the multi-page description of Stark we are given his biography, introduced to his politics and his active goals (as well as how he goes about accomplishing them), told about his allies and enemies, and then given a specific, indepth look at how this particular character can be used in various roles in a wide array of different campaign types. We are not just given a character, we are told how the character fits into the world and how the world adapts to the character. As a result the Character Compendium does not exist as a series of disjointed snapshots of little collective interest (like looking at pictures assembled from the family albums of complete strangers), but rather paints a deeper, richer understanding of the Heavy Gear universe. Indeed I would honestly say that without the Character Compendium as part of your collection your understanding of Terra Nova will be shallower. That’s high praise for any product, and one which I’ve never felt a character compendium has even come close to achieving.
The Character Compendium is also unique because it was the first Dream Pod 9 product to include fan-generated material (other products have followed a similar process since then). In designing the book the Pod sent out a call for submissions to the pertinent on-line newsgroups and mailing lists, and the response came pouring in. The thing all of these fan-generated characters have in common is that they are members of small, dynamic groups – such as Douglas Winter’s investigating team or the anthropological group headed by Dr. Langmuir. Once again this design philosophy means that the Heavy Gear Character Compendium is superior to its competition – two plus two equals five, and the sum total of these characters is greater than their singular worth.
Unfortunately the Character Compendium was also the first Dream Pod 9 product to suffer from a lack of proofreading (other products have regrettably made the same mistake since then). Spelling typos seem to be rare, but words are obviously omitted entirely at several points in the text – and in at least one place an editor’s note has made it through to the final product. This is fairly minor stuff and only crops up occasionally (leading me to believe that two or three characters were running late and hence lacked editorial attention), and it’s the only problem in an otherwise entertaining and useful product.
So I’ve given up on thinking that Dream Pod 9 will stumble and fall in their production of character compendiums. Maybe if I take a look at GM screens, the single largest excuse to waste cardboard the world has ever produced. Maybe…
Author: Philippe R. Boulle and Others
Company/Publisher: Dream Pod 9
Page Count: 162
Originally Posted: 1999/04/26
My opinion of character compendiums has not improved in the last thirteen years. My theoretical opinion of GM screens, on the other hand, has improved considerably. (In actual practice, most GM screens are still horrid in their execution.)
For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.