The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day a witch shows up at my door.
Not that swell Willow dame, mind you. Oh, no. We’re talkin’ your classic hag. Pointy black hat. Green skin. Broom. The works.
“Hello, my pretty!” she says. “I’ve come with a game for you to review!”
“Oh?” I says. “Witch one?”
“Grimm, smartass,” she says. “A game of delicious children from your Real World trapped in a land in which fairy tales have gone delightfully wrong!”
“Sure, lady, sounds good,” I says. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta get back to my blog…”
“I’ll get you, my pretty!” she says. “And your little blog, too!”
Grimm takes place in the Grimm Lands: a world separated from our own where fairy tales are true. Sort of. Oh, the characters, places, and things are there, but the whole place is just a bit… off. Sure, the Big Bad Wolf is still bad, but Little Bo Peep may turn out to be much, much worse. And yet, the setting is much more skillfully crafted than simply making fairy tales into nightmares. No, the entire place has a sense of creepy whimsy as well that makes this one of the more fascinating game worlds I’ve come across.
To be perfectly honest, an “overview” doesn’t really to the setting justice, but I’ll do my best.
Imagine a place where humans seem to exist as caricatures and where talking animals tend to be more sensible. It’s a place filled with every sort of fairytale monster and where inanimate objects — up to and including the Sun and Moon — don’t tend to stay inanimate. The World’s Edge Mountains, for example, have every intention of staying on the horizon and will scoot away from those who try to reach them.
And speaking of landmarks, the Grimm Lands have their share of them. At the heart of the “civilized” portion of the Grimm Lands lie the Checkerboard Kingdoms, which, true to the name, are arranged in neat squares with a castle in the center. It’s here that you’ll find what appear to be quaint places of safety. For the most part, these are actually places ruled and populated by dangerous lunatics.
The Great and Awful Forest, by contrast, is even nastier than it looks, and it touches part of every Checkerboard Kingdom while stretching far beyond their borders. If that seems impossible, well… welcome to the Grimm Lands. Once you’ve gotten used to the impossible, be sure to take advantage of Jack’s fallen beanstalk, which has been hollowed out by enterprising gnomes who offer it as a kind of tollway that can get you pretty much anywhere you want to go.
Ruling over the Great and Awful Forest is Humpty Dumpty, who the king’s horses and men actually did put together again… Just not very well. Rotten in body and mind, the Rotten King forever schemes to bring all of the Grimm Lands into his reeking clutches.
The specifics are what really bring the setting to life, however, and there are far too many to cover here. I can give you a prime example of the world’s flavor, though, in the form of Dead Man’s Cove, where ghost pirates congregate. Only some of these are actually the ghosts of pirates, however. Many are “ordinary” ghosts who’ve sought out a romantic afterlife as a pirate. Imagine your basic Dickensian ghost in bedclothes and chains sporting a bandana and an eyepatch, and you have the idea.
For me, a bestiary is a key part of any setting. Grimm does an excellent job in that regard with over 40 fully-detailed creatures and 27 noteworthy individuals. The section covers everything from lowly mice to the mighty Dragon, detailing both the Grimm counterparts of fantasy standards like goblins, dwarves, and trolls as well as fairy tale luminaries like Mother Goose, Cinderella, and the Ugly Duckling.
PCs in Grimm are all children of ages 9-12 from our world who have somehow found their way from the Real World into the Grimm Lands and fall into one of seven archetypes:
- The Bully
- The Dreamer
- The Jock
- The Nerd
- The Normal Kid
- The Outcast
- The Popular Kid
Each archetype governs starting Trait levels (more on those in a moment) and provide a speciality, a flaw, and a beginning special ability, with more archetype-specific abilities becoming available as characters go up in grade (a.k.a. level). For example, the Bully gets a bonus die on the first round of a fight, gets scared easily if he takes damage, and has the ability to gain an advantage over weaker opponents in a fight.
Characters are comprised of three types of traits, which function as a combination of attributes and broad skills. In order of decreasing cost, they are:
- Core Traits
- Playground Traits
- Study Traits
- Book Learning
- Boy Scouts
- Country Club
- Home Ec
- Industrial Arts
These traits are rated in grade level, from 1st to 12th. All are fixed scores except for an iconic Core trait chosen by the player, which can be expended to produce amazing effects.
As previously mentioned, levels are also rated in terms of personal grade level. Traits cannot be more than three levels higher than personal grade level. By default, players start at 3rd grade and have 8 “free credits” with which to improve their traits. Upon “graduating”, they receive 8 more credits. In addition, at even levels, they earn a new archetype talent.
At character creation and at odd grade levels, characters earn new general talents, many of which have various forms of prerequisites. General talents can be as mundane as being particularly large or cute or as exotic as being naturally adept at magic.
I’ll have some more to say about talents and traits when discussing combat and magic in just a moment. For now, I’ll just say that the character creation system is fast and straightforward and helps characters fill a class-like niche while offering plenty of room for customization.
Grimm uses a core system called Linear D6. At first glance, it seems fairly pedestrian: Roll a 1d6, with 6s exploding and 1s imploding. However, the die result is not, as you might expected, added to the grade level of the trait being utilized. Instead, a result of 2-5 means that the character performs at his trait level. For every 6 rolled, the character performs at one grade level higher; for ever 1 rolled, the character performs at one grade level lower. Some special abilities and teamwork can allow for multiple d6s to be rolled, in which case all 6s rolled open-end but 1s only implode of all of the dice come up 1. In addition, characters can spend rounds doing nothing but focussing on a task, which increases the “boost range” by 1 per round; e.g., focus for 1 round, and you’ll get a grade boost on 5-6 instead of 6.
I’m rather ambivalent on this system. I do get what the designer was going for, with the emphasis on teamwork and on what makes individual kids special. Still, I’m a big fan of individual achievement and the drama that dice can provide. But since the system appears to do precisely what it was designed to do, I’m chalking this up to personal preference.
Fighting involves Scrap vs. Scrap or Scamper rolls for melee combat and Scrap vs. Scamper rolls for ranged combat. I’m pleased to see that degree of success matters, with every three grades of success increasing damage by one level. I’m not so pleased that Might doesn’t directly affect damage unless the combatant has and uses the Wild Swing Talent, in which case the attacker reduces the chance to hit in order to add half of his Muscle score to damage.
On the other hand, size — stature in Grimm parlance — does impact combat, with larger creatures hitting harder but being easier to hit. That goes a long way to address my concern about Might, since giants, for example, can be powerful but clumsy.
Speaking of stature, it also determines both base unarmed damage and natural protection, which means that two unarmed combatants of the same size can beat on each other for an awfully long time without actually hurting each other. That seems a bit odd.
Appropriately enough, imagination is a big deal in the Grimm Lands. Characters with Imagination as their iconic Core trait can spend Imagination to change reality in ways that don’t step on the toes of other abilities or inflict harm. In short, it’s a sort of whimsical freeform magical system. I’m all about that.
On a related note, characters can spend Imagination to activate keepsakes brought with them from the Real World to produce extraordinary thematic effects. For example, a cigarette lighter might produce a gout of flame, and a flashlight might dispel illusions as well as darkness.
Counterbalancing the freeform, safe nature of imaginings is the complex and dangerous nature of magic.
Kids can learning magic in three ways:
- Apprenticeship: The most reliable method, assuming you can pay whatever price the master demands. (And assuming the master doesn’t eat you.)
- Study: This takes twice as long as apprenticeship, and spells go haywire until you successfully cast them three times in a row.
- Precociousness: Kids can learn spells by watching them cast, but spells learned this way grow more difficult to use the longer a kid takes to cast them successfully, and failed spells always go haywire.
The game ranks spells in levels of power called circles, and to cast a spell, the caster must build up to the circle of the spell by succeeding at a Gaming roll with a difficulty of twice the current circle each turn. In other words, to cast a 3rd circle spell, the caster would have to beat a 2 in the first round, a 4 in the second, and a 6 in the third to finally cast the spell.
Oh, did I say a “Gaming” roll? Yup. One of the things I love about this system is that kids from the Real World base their ability in magic on what they’ve learned about the subject from RPGs and CCGs.
As mentioned, magic is dangerous for kids. A successfully cast spell incurs a -1 penalty on all Playground tests for the rest of the scene per circle of the spell, and these penalties are cumulative. Penalties in excess of the would-be magician’s Gaming trait last for the the whole story, and penalties in excess of twice the Gaming trait are permanent and must be regained through experience.
Furthermore, every 6 rolled during a spellcasting attempt potentially can add levels of estrangement to the caster, making him less a part of the Real World and more a part of the Grimm Lands. This estrangement can manifest in any number of physical or mental changes, but two effects are inevitable: levels of estrangement counter Playground penalties from spellcasting (since natives of the Grimm Lands never suffer from such effects), and should the levels of estrangement exceed the caster’s Pluck, he may never return to the Real World.
The game includes six magical styles, each with their own methods, drawbacks, and a handful of sample spells per circle:
All of this adds up to an incredibly flavorful magic system that perfectly fits the dark fairy tale setting.
The excellent artwork — a blend of full color and black and white — works seamlessly with the skillfully-written text to weave a darkly whimsical tapestry.
The book includes useful charts in the back, along with an extensive index.
If there are any typos, I didn’t catch them.
I’ve long pined for a game of whimsical fantasy, and while this is a bit darker than what I had in mind, it’s a thing of beauty from cover to cover. If the subject matter interests you in the slightest, I can’t recommend this game highly enough.