When handled correctly, a meta-story adds depth and complexity to a roleplaying game. Instead of merely describing a setting as it physically exists at some given point in time, a line of products becomes capable of describing dynamic relationships within the setting as they evolve over time.
When handled incorrectly, a meta-story becomes a marketing gimmick – stringing the customers along from one product to the next, always keeping some essential piece of information just out of reach in the “next release”. Buy Product A, which will only work if you buy Product B, which will only work if you buy Product C… Instead of serving as a spice, the poorly managed meta-story becomes a flaw: Existing customers get frustrated with having to purchase books they don’t want in order to keep up, while new customers get lost in a flurry of books whose interrelationships are murky and unclear.
And then there’s Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear: The standard by which all other meta-stories are to be judged. The meta-story of this game is clearly presented, compellingly conceived, and brilliantly executed. No other game has come close.
There are three keys to this success. First, there is the Timewatch system. On the back of every single Heavy Gear product there is a date printed: The date in the game setting which the material in the book describes. This idea is so simple and elegant that it would, literally, cost absolutely nothing for every single producer of roleplaying products to mimic it – and yet the effect it has on the Heavy Gear game line is profound: The Timewatch system strips away an entire level of complexity and potential confusion and resolves it in the easy reference of four digits.
The second key is the strength, clarity, and flexibility of the methodology underlying the Heavy Gear product line. “Clarity” because the purpose and scope of every supplement is clearly communicated to its audience. “Strength” because of the interlocking levels of detail and coverage, combined with strong, continuing support across the board. “Flexibility” because each supplement is truly modular – requiring nothing more than itself and the core rules to be fully useable. The importance of all this cannot be understated: The ability for a newcomer to be able to look at a shelf of products and know exactly what each book covers and which books they should buy, and the ability to buy only those books which contain precisely the information they need, makes Heavy Gear the most accessible and durable line of RPG products on the market.
This second key leads directly to the concept of the Storyline Book: Instead of spreading the development of the meta-story across a myriad array of unrelated products, Dream Pod 9 has instead concentrated the story into this single set of books. The information to be found here, of course, is supported in other products – but it’s supported in the same way that other game lines support their standard world information. In other words, if you want more information about, for example, the Black Talon program you’d pick up the Black Talon Field Guide. But if you weren’t interested in having detailed coverage of the Talons, then the information found in Return to Cat’s Eye would be more than sufficient to let you know what the major developments with the Talons are. This gives you the ability to follow the meta-story of Heavy Gear without having to buy every Heavy Gear product that the Pod produces (regardless of whether or not you actually want the information found in that product). The Pod will make you want to own the books, but will never require you to own anything more than a tightly controlled set of core resources.
And the third key? Mind-blowing quality. The story being told by Dream Pod 9, the first part of which appears in these three books, is one of the best you’re going to find, in or out of the gaming industry. Intrigue, power, politics, war, love, murder, mayhem. You name it – Heavy Gear’s got it.
This story is so good, it’s worth reading even if you don’t play the game – and it’s accompanied by a visual tour de force that fans of the Pod have come to recognize as par for the course. There is no other company in the industry that can feast your eyes the way the Pod can (supported, as they are, by the astounding talent of Ghislain Barbe) – and all the while doing it with exactly the right balance: The art is always there as a supplement and companion to the writing, never overpowering it or distracting from it.
These books actually are designed to stand on their own. The Heavy Gear universe, and this story, were conceived as a whole. They were not produced, specifically, as a “roleplaying setting” or a “tactical scenario”, but rather as a product which could stand on its own. Its creation was a collaboration, combining not only the written word but also the visual elements of the world as an organic whole. The result is a universe broad in scope and rich in detail, driven by a story which is epic in proportion and gripping in the telling.
Crisis of Faith begins the story in TN 1932, as the world of Terra Nova begins to spin towards global war. Told through the collected notes and intelligence data of Nicosa Renault – a “retired” master spy who still keeps tabs on the powerbrokers of her world – the story of Heavy Gear begins to unfold before you through the thoughts, conversations, video logs, and journals of actual Terranovans. As the book nears its conclusion things begin to spiral hopelessly out of control, ending with a shocking surprise ending.
If the last six pages of Crisis of Faith hit you with the power of a sledgehammer, then the first two pages of Blood on the Wind will send you reeling across the room… and the thrills are just beginning: The world goes to hell and Dream Pod 9 is taking you along for the ride. If you thought the beginning was surprising, just wait until you see the end: A grand mystery is left unsolved and a new crisis looms on the horizon.
Return to Cat’s Eye brings the first part of the Heavy Gear storyline to a conclusion. The pieces left hanging from the first two books are slowly brought to their resolution, but just as you think you’ve figured out the rules of the game, new players begin to appear… and old players do the totally unexpected.
These books are masterpieces. They make me proud to be a gamer. They are something which I can point to and say: “Why do I roleplay? Because things like this are possible.” You’ll use them. You’ll read them. And then you’ll read them again. They are treasures to own, and joys to appreciate. They are something you simply must not miss.
Author: Philippe Boulle, Marc-Alexandre Vezina, and Hilary Doda
Company/Publisher: Dream Pod 9
Cost: $19.95 / $17.95 / $17.95
Page Count: 112 / 80 / 80
ISBN: 1-896776-21-3 / 1-896776-27-2 / 1-896776-59-0
Originally Posted: 2000/10/14
When I wrote this review, I had previously written reviews of both Crisis of Faith and Blood on the Wind. I am honestly uncertain at this point whether I had simply forgotten that I had written those review or if (more likely) I decided that a review of Return to Cat’s Eye would have been rather slim by itself and that it would make more sense to look at the collective effect of Heavy Gear‘s “first act” (so to speak) in a single package.
I had originally intended to follow this up with a review of the next trilogy of Storyline Books, but four days after submitting this review to RPGNet (and several days before it was actually published) I received an offer from Dream Pod 9 to revise material from an unpublished supplement I had written for them so that it could be incorporated into the fourth Heavy Gear storyline book. That prompted me to post a rather weird “I’m biased now, but I wasn’t biased when I wrote this” notice shortly after the review went live.
For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.