The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘heavy gear’

Heavy Gear - Storyline Book 1: Crisis of FaithTo paraphrase somebody famous, there are two ways to handle a meta-story: The right way and the wrong way.

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.

Heavy Gear - Storyline Book 2: Blood on the WindThis 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.

Heavy Gear - Storyline Book 3: Return to Cat's EyeIf 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.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

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.

Tagline: Life on Caprice is an incredibly strong book and absolutely essential to anyone interested in exploring a new world or keeping up on the cutting edge developments of the Heavy Gear universe. But behind its success there is a flaw — a flaw which must be corrected.

Heavy Gear: Life on Caprice - Dream Pod 9In 1995 Dream Pod 9 released the first edition of Heavy Gear. The game was set on the world of Terra Nova, a colony orbiting a distant star, in the cycle TN 1932 (6132 A.D.). The game consisted of two core books: The rulebook (containing both a roleplaying and a tactical system) and Life on Terra Nova (which described a setting of epic scope in copious and useful detail).

Over the next five years both of these books would see a much-improved second edition, and three additional volumes were also added to the core of the game: Crisis of Faith, Blood on the Wind, and Return to Cat’s Eye. Also known as “storyline books” these secondary core books would advance our knowledge of Terra Nova by nine cycles – taking us to TN 1941. Over the course of that time Terra Nova was wracked by an Interpolar War, and then suddenly faced with the knowledge that the fascist powers of Mother Earth were returning once more to conquer their world.

Confronted by this new threat, Terra Nova decided to respond in kind. At the end of Return to Cat’s Eye we learn that Terra Nova has launched a covert campaign against Caprice. Also known as the “Gate World”, Caprice has been subjugated by Terran forces, and represents the link between Earth and her “lost” colonies.

All of which opens the door to Life on Caprice: The most recent secondary core book for Heavy Gear and acting as the basic supplement describing the world of Caprice.

Life on Caprice, essentially, is the exact same type of book as Life on Terra Nova. This makes for a rather unique product – one which can be used as a supplement for existing Heavy Gear campaigns, or one which can be used as the basis for a whole campaign in its own right. Indeed, Life on Caprice comes so tantalizingly close to functioning as a completely separate entity from Life on Terra Nova that it becomes disappointing that the possibility was never realized.

First, let us understand that Life on Caprice is an incredibly strong product: Describing an alien world with startling precision and breadth. For those unfamiliar with the Heavy Gear universe, Caprice is a largely barren world – except for a deep trench gouged in the surface long ago where atmospheric pressure is high enough to support human life unaided. As a result, almost the entire population of the planet lives in Gomorrah – the city which chokes the trench from one end to the other with a population of 311 million. Colonized and controlled by corporations, the Capricians wage a silent battle against their Terran conquerors, who are using Caprice as a staging area for their invasions against the other colony worlds (including Terra Nova). While crafting an entire planet, the authors have not failed to provide all sorts of “gritty” detail that is immediately practical for the GM.

As I read through the book I literally began to seethe with the possibilities of adventure which are not only promised, but delivered. The aptest metaphor which occurred to me was that of a monument: Large and symbolic; yet also something real and tangible.

So let there be no doubt: Life on Caprice is a strong success that is an admirable addition to a wonderful game line.

Where it fails, however, is in the details. It is here, between the realm of the successes it achieves and the successes it should have achieved that Life on Caprice finds its strengths being chipped and whittled away.

For simplicity, let us compare Life on Caprice to Life on Terra Nova. Life on Terra Nova gives coverage to every single city-state and important settlement on the face of Terra Nova – a grand total of 80 different communities. The closest analogy to these on Caprice are the “Hubs” of Gomorrah – each of which is large enough to be a city in its own right. There are 72 of these on Caprice, but Life on Caprice only describes 11 of them. Thus, where Terra Nova was given a dynamic breadth which made the world seem to come to life even as you read through the book, all the facets of Caprician life become oddly focused through the one seventh of the planet’s Hubs which are actually described. When a character’s haunts are mentioned, they are always in these hubs. When a location is described, it is always within these hubs. When an important historical event took place, it is always within these hubs.

In the historical section in Life on Terra Nova we are told of Amanda Miyagama – important because she was the key player in establishing the Caprician Corporate Executive (CCE), a body which continues to function as Caprice’s government to this day. Why, then, is she not even mentioned in Life on Caprice?

In Life on Terra Nova dozens of influential people are described to us. In Life on Caprice we are given only 7 NPCs. Only four corporations. Only three Liberati clans. Again and again and again Life on Caprice finds itself damned not because it fails to give, but because it fails to give as much as we’ve come to expect from Dream Pod 9. Terra Nova seemed to have a legitimate life of its own, but that sense of life is lost in the all-too-narrow focus of Life on Caprice. Lang Regina is described in Life on Terra Nova because she is an important part of Terra Novan life; the fact that she ends up playing a major part in the peace effort following the Interpolar War seems to be simply a result of part in Terra Novan life that she plays. Qaid Henault, Captain of the Princess, on the other hand, is described in Life on Caprice because he plays a major role in the Black Talon program (which is, in turn, a major part of the Heavy Gear metaplot). Instead of feeling like a world which just happens to be involved in an interesting period in history, Caprice is described as a place whose primary function is be involved in the evolving metaplot.

I recently wrote (and feel compelled to repeat) that being truly excellent is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, of course, you’re excellent – and that comes with a lot of perks. On the other hand, though, you have set yourself a very high standard indeed – and a failure in the details suddenly becomes a notable offense.

And it is in the details that Life on Caprice fails; and it is in the details that Life on Caprice disappoints. On the larger scale I rejoice, because Life on Caprice is a success there. On this smaller, but no less important scale, though, I am depressed – because Life on Caprice could’ve, and should’ve, been so much more.

Consider this a message to Dream Pod 9: The 96 page books have failed. In producing books of this length you have been forced to sacrifice the fine hair’s breadth difference between being merely good and truly excellent. The true problem, though, lies in the next level: Left unchecked these problems will begin to cascade across the product line – information that was left uncovered in Life on Caprice will now have to be picked up in supplements further down the line. In turn, those supplements will be forced to sacrifice information in turn. Slowly, but surely, the shorter formats will increasingly weaken all of Dream Pod 9’s books.

By all means: Buy Life on Caprice. It is an incredibly strong book, and absolutely essential to anyone interested in exploring a new world or keeping up on the cutting edge developments of the Heavy Gear universe. But behind its success there is a flaw – a flaw which must be corrected.

Thanks are extended to M. Ramirez, Jeremy T. Fox, and Derek Guder for feedback during the process of writing this review.

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: Lucien Soulban (with Stuart Elle, Chris Hartford, Auden Reiter, and Marc-Alexandre Vezina)
Company/Publisher: Dream Pod 9
Cost: $18.95
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 1-896776-66-3

Originally Posted: 2000/07/07

The weak Canadian dollar in the late ’90s did really serious damage to both the Heavy Gear and Jovian Chronicles product lines. They had originally featured 148 and 160 page sourcebooks. When these were reduced to 96 pages and, later, 80 pages (literally chopping the books in half) the quality of the material necessarily suffered in what quickly became a cascading catastrophe (with the weaknesses of one sourcebook spilling over onto the next).

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Heavy Gear: Character Compendium 1 - Dream Pod 9Tagline: Dream Pod 9 has given us a character compendium which is actually worth buying. Is there anything these guys can’t do?

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…

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Philippe R. Boulle and Others
Company/Publisher: Dream Pod 9
Cost: $22.95
Page Count: 162
ISBN: 1-896776-08-6

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.

Heavy Gear: The New Breed - Dream Pod 9Tagline: A truly unique product. This is the crest of a new wave. How many sourcebooks can you say that about?

The New Breed: Battle Before the Storm, Campaign Setting One for the Heavy Gear game, is something which you very rarely see in this industry or anywhere else: Something completely original.

(The pedants among you – you know who you are – are already saying to themselves: “But nothing’s completely original!” Yes, you are right. This book is still made of paper. Ink was still used in the printing. The rest of us safely conclude that things can still be completely original, even if you are still breathing air while partaking of them.)

I say this for several reasons. First, The New Breed was the first of Dream Pod’s campaign supplements. Any serious line of roleplaying product always, at some point, begins publishing adventure supplements of one variety or another (this dates all the way back to the original D&D modules as everyone well knows). Like so many other things the Pod has done, however, their campaign supplements take the industry to a whole new level and challenge everyone else to follow suit or get out of the game.

Second, this product demonstrates how to combine a tactical and a roleplaying campaign into one; plus it is designed in a modular fashion such that either one can be removed and played without the other.

Third, this isn’t actually a single campaign, but two. One of them puts the players on the northern landship Vigilance; the other puts them on the southern landship Draco. Although this may have been done before outside of my knowledge, I’ve never seen a roleplaying product be daring enough to assume that the players could take part on both sides of a conflict. Of course this is merely endemic of the overriding brilliancy of Heavy Gear’s world design: The setting is real, not manufactured. The players can play both sides of a conflict because both sides of the conflict truly exist – one side is not merely there to provide an imaginary foil for the other.

Fourth, this product is not just a supplement for roleplaying or tactical players, but also a companion volume to the Heavy Gear computer game designed by Activision. Throughout the design process of the computer game Dream Pod 9’s creative staff and the creative staff at Activision collaborated extensively to incorporate the setting into the game and the game into the setting. The New Breed serves in places not only as a behind-the-scenes peek at the computer game, but also provides a depth to the characters and the situations found in the game which would otherwise be impossible. Don’t mistake me with this at all – this is not a cheat guide or a self-congratulatory tract: It is a valuable product in its own right. Think of it like this: Typically a really excellent campaign supplement provides a plethora of background material and the outlines of an adventure, built upon this background material, which you then use to create your own particular version of the story with your players. In the case of The New Breed you are shown the plethora of background material which was then used to create the computer game, and then given the outlines of two series of adventures which serve as preludes to the computer game. The New Breed can exist entirely separately from the computer game and the computer game can exist entirely separately from The New Breed; but the two complement each other in an amazing fashion (with events in one suggesting and leading to events in the other, for example). Only a handful of other companies in this industry (TSR/WOTC, FASA, SJG, and White Wolf) have ever had the opportunity to create a product such as this – none of them have.

The Heavy Gear campaign settings hold a particularly dear place in my heart. The second campaign setting, The Paxton Gambit, was one of the first supplements to the game I ever read. It was to me, at the time, such an amazing and original product that I immediately felt compelled to write a review of it and share its wonders with the rest of the world. It was the first review I ever wrote for an RPG (I did a stint of reviewing computer games when I was much younger), and it can be found elsewhere on RPGNet the Alexandrian.

I like to think, however, that I’ve improved as a reviewer since then. The New Breed is a much different product from The Paxton Gambit (the latter wasn’t complementing a computer game and was designed strictly for roleplaying use, for example) and also cruder in some ways, but I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the general way in which the roleplaying campaigns in both are set up. The tools which Dream Pod 9 used in creating these products are unique and are, arguably, the greatest strength of these two books.

First, the campaign is broken up into scenarios. These function like the episodes of a television drama – thematically united series of events with a beginning, middle, and end which, nonetheless, make up a part of a greater whole. In The Paxton Gambit each scenario was clearly designed to comprise a single session of gameplay. Things are a little less clear-cut in The New Breed, but the amount of space given to each scenario is also smaller in The New Breed and things are slightly more broken up due to the tactical components (which I will discuss in a moment) – this is one of the reasons why I call the effort in The New Breed “cruder” than that found The Paxton Gambit.

Where this format really shines, however, is in the second step – where each scenario is broken down into important milestones. This is an important change over the way published adventures have previously been presented in this industry. Ever since the first modules for D&D were produced, adventure supplements have generally attempted to be as complete as possible. The early D&D attempts did this through their location-by-number designs (so that the GM knew what would happen everywhere the PCs went); White Wolf does it by detailing the actions of every scene. The problem with these approaches (and others) is that it is extremely easy for the adventure to become railroaded – players have a difficult time feeling that their characters have any impact on the outcome since not only the outcome, but the course they would take to get there, has been charted out in advance. To counteract that was almost impossible. Either you had to generalize the adventure down to a basic premise (making it less useful for the GM) or you had to accurately predict possible actions PCs would take even though you knew next to nothing about the PCs themselves (as everyone knows, players have an uncanny knack for finding unexpected courses of actions even when you’ve known them for years) or you had to chart out as many possible courses of action as possible (which meant that your adventure was either short and simple or that your product was of mammoth proportions).

Dream Pod 9 has apparently found a third way, so to speak. Instead of detailing the exact course an adventure must take, they have specified only the important “milestones” which must be passed along the way. These milestones provide a general map which can then be easily particularized to the needs of the individual GM almost on the fly. Because only the broad outlines have been provided the characters are not railroaded. Because it is the essential elements which are discussed the GM is not left on his own. The perfect balance between two unsavory and difficult extremes.

The other strength of the milestone system is that it extremely flexible. The set of milestones presented give a complete adventure, but in many cases these milestones can be switched around with ease. Plus additional scenes and situations can be inserted between the existing milestones with ease. Dream Pod 9, again, takes advantage of this by giving several possible “complications” and “continuing hooks” which can be used to modify the basic package which is presented.

Finally each scenario is rounded out with the statistics for the NPCs found in it. These stats take advantage of the archetypes found in the Heavy Gear Rulebook and the campaign book itself, noting only the modifications necessary to personalize them to the particular character. This method means that the NPC stat section only takes up about an inch of space on the page (the personalities of the NPCs are discussed in the text of the milestones).

The end result? A modularized set of adventures which are easily customizable without requiring massive commitment from the GM – you get most of the advantages of designing your own adventures, while still gaining the primary strengths of a published scenario (less time and work spent on preparation). Plus, since the format for these adventures takes up less space than those designed in the “completist” tradition, you end up with a dozen or so scenarios – more than enough to make the book truly a campaign resource.

And that’s only half of the book. The other half is a sourcebook for the location the adventures are set. As it has been noted before by myself and others: Dream Pod 9 may have a reputation for slim, expensive books… that’s only because they cram about ten times as much material into the same amount of space.

All of that being said, I did mention earlier that I consider The New Breed to be a cruder effort than The Paxton Gambit. This is to be expected considering that The Paxton Gambit is the later of the two products, but allow me to take a moment to clarify those comments further so that there is no misunderstanding. The New Breed is an exceptional, powerful product which – in my opinion – revolutionizes the way in which adventures will be presented in the future of the roleplaying industry. It introduces a plethora of tools which are extremely powerful. It also fumbles the ball a bit in a couple of places, which is fairly typical for any product which breaks new ground. The Paxton Gambit takes these tools, polishes them up, and uses them to their full effectiveness. The New Breed, for example, has some milestones and scenarios which blend into each other, its continuing hooks are listed at the beginning of each campaign, and NPC stats are listed with every scenario they appear in. The Paxton Gambit has a much firmer grasp of how to define each scenario and how to break each scenario down into milestones; it also moves the continuing hooks so that they supplement each scenario, rather than supplementing the campaign as a whole; and, finally, NPC stats appear only once so that there is less sense of repetition. It’s a subtle set of differences, but an impressive improvement from one product to the next.

Of course the important thing in any set of adventures is the quality of the stories being told. Whatever the mechanical difficulties, the story told in The New Breed is nothing to be ashamed of. As usual Dream Pod 9 has excelled. The fact that I am getting hung up on analyzing minor technical improvements and differences between their product only demonstrates the general excellence of those products.

The other difference between The New Breed and The Paxton Gambit campaigns, however, is the inclusion of tactical scenarios in the former. These tactical scenarios are designed to be playable in tangent with the roleplaying scenarios, or they can be spun off by themselves (just as the roleplaying elements of the campaign can be). These scenarios appear to be generally sound and look like a lot of fun, although I have not had a chance to playtest them.

All of this now leads me to discuss the problems with the campaigns, which is the primary reason why this book garnered a lower substance score than is typical for a Dream Pod 9 product. First, both roleplaying campaigns suffer severely because they fall prey to that classic flaw of adventure design: All the interesting stuff is happening to the NPCs and the only thing the players get to do is watch it happen. It is easy to understand how this happened. The scenarios are designed to be preludes to the computer game. The Pod didn’t want to force players into playing pre-generated characters, but all of the interesting stuff in such a prelude is going to happen to the characters who show up in the later story – i.e., the NPCs. The fix to this is simple: Either have your players play the NPCs, or adapt the primary story so that the player-designed characters become the focus of the described events. Either is fairly easy, but should have been unnecessary.

More serious, however, are what I see as fundamental flaws in the southern campaign set onboard the Draco. It is difficult to quantify them specifically in a short review such as this, but I’ll take a general stab at it. First, the storyline is fairly disjoint – acting as a series of episodic problems which are only loosely connected. Plus actions which are initiated are never followed up. In the northern campaign PCs are distanced from the action, but this problem is aggravated to new heights in the southern campaign – in one case an entire landship is nearly destroyed while the PCs are in town spending an entire scenario buying supplies. Finally, the tactical scenarios are almost completely disconnected form

It is difficult to quantify them specifically in a short review such as this, but suffice it to say that the storyline is fairly disjoint. Whereas the PCs are minorly distanced from the action in the northern campaign this problem is further aggravated in the southern campaign – in one case an entire landship is nearly destroyed while the PCs are in town spending an entire scenario buying supplies. Some of the tactical scenarios are almost completely disconnected from the actions described in the roleplaying campaign. Finally, major plot points which are raised and discussed early in the campaign are never followed through on in the later part of the campaign.

The campaigns are not the only strength of The New Breed however. Both the Draco and the Vigilance (the two landships) are given an indepth treatment, as are their important crewmembers. They provide a vivid resource for any GM thinking about running a Heavy Gear campaign set onboard a landship and display the typical technical accuracy and adeptness which Dream Pod 9 has demonstrated in the past. The technology in Heavy Gear is not composed merely of pretty pictures, but of hard military and scientific knowledge.

Finally the book is fleshed with the stuff which directly complements the computer game – a few brief words from some of its designers; a full color section providing a look at design sketches; an overview of the major Gear designs intended to serve as an introduction for those coming to the roleplaying game from the computer game (but also useful for anybody); and some other miscellaneous stuff.

So let’s wrap it up. For your twenty-five bucks you get a fairly thick Heavy Gear supplement with a full color section; two complete campaigns presented in a revolutionary style; more background material than you would typically get in any other company’s dedicated sourcebooks; a prelude look at the characters and settings which make up the Heavy Gear computer game; a look behind the scenes of that same computer game; and a host of other miscellaneous resources. It’s like an all-the-stuff-you-can-eat special for a roleplaying game! Whatever flaws might exist in this product are quickly overwhelmed by the pure amount of high-quality material which is present.

Style: 5
Substance: 4

Author: Jean Carrieres, Tyler Millson-Tyler, Marc Alexandre-Vezina
Company/Publisher: Dream Pod 9
Cost: $24.95
Page Count: 136
ISBN: 1-896776-20-5

Originally Posted: 1999/04/13

I actually ended up writing one of these campaign supplements for Heavy Gear. In fact, it was my first professional assignment in the RPG industry. Unfortunately, it was never published because these supplements drastically underperformed in the marketplace. (Some of the material was rewritten to become part of Storm on the Horizon.)

My assessment of these books would probably be quite different today. The structures are heavily based around linear plots and the milestone approach — while allowing you to pack a lot of territory into a very small page count — nevertheless eschews the type of gritty prep work (like stat blocks) that I think are most valuable in terms of saving time for the busy GM. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of good stuff to be found in them. And I consider them really important antecedents to the modern era of Adventure Paths and the like.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Heavy Gear - The Duelist's HandbookTagline: Dream Pod 9’s chance to celebrate their mascot, with spectacular results.

If you’ve read any of the reviews of the Heavy Gear game you’ve probably heard a familiar theme: Sure, there are mecha… but the game isn’t about the gears. The reason you’ve heard this is because, well, it’s true. The gears are definitely cool, and they’re definitely the most realistic mecha you’ll probably ever encounter, and they are definitely eye candy without par. All that being said, however, the game is really about characters. The Gears aren’t even the “Gods of the Battlefield” the way mecha are usually portrayed. As a result, the sourcebooks tend to deal with the gears in a fairly secondary matter, focusing instead on generalized world-building. Even the vehicle compendiums offer a generalized mix.

Welcome, then, to The Duelist’s Handbook, Dream Pod 9’s chance to celebrate their mascot. And what a celebration it is.

The other heritage which The Duelist’s Handbook inherits is that of the defunct Heavy Gear Fighter card game. HGF was the first Heavy Gear product released by Dream Pod 9 and introduced the dueling concept. As Phil Boulle details in his Behind the Scenes for the book, Into the Badlands allowed the concept of dueling to be expanded from affairs of inter-regimental into the underground, competitive dueling of Khayr ad-Din. The Duelist’s Handbook, as a result of this heritage, details the ritualized rules of Gear dueling; provides a look at the stars of the dueling world; examines the lives and duties of military duelists; provides a host of new weapons and options for Gears; and, finally, serves as a sourcebook for the city of Khayr ad-Din.

Normally I wouldn’t like a book like this. Typically when a roleplaying sourcebook is primarily a technical one (i.e. the title of the book includes the technical term “duelist” rather than a location name like “Khayr ad-Din”) and then includes a setting of some sort, that setting is usually merely tacked on. It is almost never given the justice it deserved, if it deserved any justice at all (more often than not such settings are a poorly conceived set of stereotypes which apparently exists only to highlight elements found in the technical section of the book).

Would it really surprise you if I told you that Dream Pod 9 avoided falling into that trap? First off, the technical aspects of the book are handled with grace and style. Military dueling, competitive dueling, and the worlds which surround both are described in great detail. Additional weapons, gears, and detailed rules for small scale tactical combat are given. Second, the setting of Khayr ad-Din (a shadowy city built in an around a massive dumping ground) is detailed with typical craft and style of Dream Pod 9, with an eye always pointed towards providing not only a living, breathing, believable setting of incredible depth, but also a setting which provides countless adventuring possibilities. Plus there is nothing “throwaway” about Khayr ad-Din or its duelers (as anyone who has perused the latest offerings of the storyline books knows).

Beyond the quality of the material itself, Dream Pod 9 continue to demonstrate their enormous talent at putting a book together to make it not only practical, but beautiful. The Duelist’s Handbook was one of the transition products where the Pod slowly developed their lay-out skills from the earlier works which were possessed of a slight “page crowding” sensation (although still exceptional by the standards of the industry) into a cleaner feel. Again, one of those differences between being “one of the best” and “true excellence” which the Pod has demonstrated mastery of time and again. The information is always grouped in an intuitive manner and the index is detailed in all the right places. Typically, the Pod demonstrates that they are capable of “throwing away” artwork which other companies would gladly use on their front covers.

Although the Pod is apparently letting this one slip out of print for at least the moment, you should still be able to find it in stock somewhere. Grab it up, you’d be missing out on a good thing if you let this one pass you by.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Philippe R. Boulle
Company/Publisher: Dream Pod 9
Cost: $19.95
Page Count: 128
ISBN: 1-896776-07-8

Originally Posted: 1999/04/26

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

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