The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day a man in black shows up in my office. Black suit, black tie, black sunglasses, the works. He looks around like he’s afraid somebody’s watchin’, then reaches into his jacket and pulls out a rulebook, dropping it on my desk. Don’t Look Back, the cover says, Terror is Never Far Behind.
“What’s this?” I says.
“It isn’t a horror/conspiracy RPG with a rules-light system,” he says. “It doesn’t reveal the secrets of the shadowy organizations that really run the world. You won’t find details on all manner of extraterrestrial and extradimensional threats in it.”
“That’s right. You won’t.” he says. “And whatever you do, you shouldn’t review it.
“Oh, and I was never here,” he adds before he turns and walks out the door.
So, anyway, here’s the review I didn’t write for the book I never got.
This chapter begins with a brief overview of the setting. It’s nothing new, really: The world isn’t as it seems, the paranormal exists and is covered up by layers upon layers of conspiracies, and so on. Actually, I think that if this chapter is meant for players as well as GMs, it reveals a bit too much — if nothing else, it states unequivocally that aliens exist in this world.
The text goes on to cover the standard description of roleplaying games and to give an example of play.
Don’t Look Back (hereafter DLB) uses the D6 x D6 system. As the name implies, all rolls are on 2d6 with the results of the two dice multiplied, for a range of 1-36.
Oddly, the dice roll is used against only one stat in the game: the Focus Number. Characters have an occupation — a highly-generalized skill — along with a number of more specific skills, some Focused, some Unfocused. The Focus Number equals the characters’ number of focused skills plus one for their occupation.
Rolls against the occupation or Focused skills attempt to roll higher than the Focus Number, with extra success levels scored at 10, 20, and 30 points higher than the Focus Number. Rolls against Unfocused skills attempt to roll lower than the Focus Number, with an extra success level scored at 5 points below the Focus Number. For skills with which the characters are Unfamiliar, they roll below the Focus Number without the possibility of extra success levels.
This took me a bit to wrap my mind around, but in the end, it made some sense to me. It’s obviously easier to roll against a focused skill; however, you can only devote so much time to being good at so many things, so the fewer things you do well, the better you will be at doing all of them.
In addition to occupation and skills, characters have four attributes: Brawn, Grace, Will, and Wits. One of these will be Focused, two Unfocused and one Unfamiliar. These are primarily reactive rather than proactive abilities and do not relate to skills. The latter generally irritates me in a game system, but I find that I can let it slide given the game’s ultralight nature.
I should mention that it’s possible to earn pluses to skills and attributes. These are not numbers, but rather literal plus signs marked after the ability in question. Each plus represents an additional success level scored. Universal ability caps are another irritant in game design for me, so this is a good thing in my book.
Difficulty levels from 1-3 can be applied to the higher of the two dice rolled — subtracted for Focused attempts, added for Unfocused and Unfamiliar attempts. Characters can also possess Advantages and Disadvantages, positively or negatively impacting the high die roll by 1 point, respectively, when they apply.
Characters receive six Drama Points at the beginning of each session. These may be applied to either of the two dice to adjust the outcome, or to reduce damage levels (see below) on a one-for-one basis. I enjoy minor metagaming mechanics, so this is a plus for me.
The game eschews initiative rolls. Instead, all parties roll their dice, with actions taking place in order from high roll down to low roll. I find that the results of such a mechanic can be a bit much to “unpack” from round to round, especially with many combatants involved, but I wouldn’t consider this a deal-breaker by any means.
Weapons are designed for brawling, throwing, or shooting ranges and do damage in the levels of graze, stun, hit, wound, knockout, or kill. These levels also correspond to the levels of damage that a normal human can take. Levels graze through wound have associated penalties of 1 through 4 to all actions, which, given the relatively small die scale, adds up in a hurry. As combat is supposed to be fast in this game, that’s a good thing. Additional damage of less than or equal to current damage causes the damage level to tick up one; damage levels higher than the current damage level supersede the current damage level. Extra success levels increase the damage level, and these extra levels may be divided among more than one opponent.
(I should mention that damage to psyche has an identical damage track.)
Each range uses either an appropriate skill for an attack, with one or two attributes allowed as substitutes with a one-success-level penalty. For example, Grace or Wits can be used for Shooting range.
Each range also includes a selection of reactive defensive attributes or (in the case of Brawling range) appropriate skills. If the appropriate ability is Focused, the incoming damage drops one level. Passive defense drops damage by 1-3 levels, depending upon the heaviness of the armor worn, but inflicts an equal penalty to all relevant rolls due to the armor’s bulkiness. Passive defense also replaces reactive defense, which seems a bit odd, but given the compressed scale we’re working with here, I’m willing to accept that.
The chapter includes a simple and robust vehicle combat system that follows the same basic rules but takes into account vehicle speed, cover, concealment, and weapon scale.
Once the system is understood, character creation is lightning-fast:
- Describe the character.
- Select your Focused and Unfamiliar attributes.
- Select an occupation.
- Select nine skills, 4-6 of which will be Focused.
- Calculate the Focus Number.
- Optionally, take one advantage and one disadvantage.
- Round out the character, including background and noteworthy equipment.
That last part is especially easy, as characters are assumed to have the equipment to do their jobs and have money appropriate to their circumstances.
The chapter includes examples of occupations, skills, advantages, and disadvantages. The skills are moderately specific, with each general weapon category, for example — knives, swords, pistols, rifles, etc. — being its own skill. Given the presence of the uber-broad occupation, I’m fine with that.
Here we have the semi-obligatory GM advice chapter: How to run the game, select an adventure, use the rules, etc. It’s good stuff, if not particularly noteworthy. One exception is the nod to online play and the actual advantages such a venue offers — something near and dear to my heart.
More importantly to my mind, this chapter also features a bestiary of sample NPCs:
- Poisonous Snake
- Poisonous Spider
- Right-Hand Man
- Team Leader
- Evil Priestess
- Serial Killer
- Alien Predator
- Dread God
- Mutant Crocodile
- Radioactive Blob
It’s worth noting that for obvious reasons, Beasts don’t have a whole lot of Focused skills. This, in turn, gives them a very low Focus Number, which makes them very dangerous combatants.
The chapter next offers a fairly extensive list of special equipment, including weapon modifications like flash suppressors and laser sights, and concludes with an intriguing list of adventure seeds.
DLB posits a world in which millions of years of genetic and metaphysical tampering have produced humans and other beings with unnatural abilities. These abilities are not truly supernatural, but rather the results of science not yet understood. To be honest, I think the game could do a better job of manifesting these pseudoscientific creatures and abilities, as many seem no different at all from their pop culture counterparts.
The chapter covers various manifestations of the paranormal — paranormal creatures, gifted PCs, extraterrestrials, extradimensional, and the occult — as well as a series of plot hooks involving them. It does a good job of describing the scope of the unnatural in the setting.
The chapter goes on to detail various paranormal traits that humans and creatures may possess, which are broken down into abilities (which normally do not require rolls to use), skills (which function like ordinary skills in terms of mechanics), and limitations (which can be linked to either paranormal abilities or skills). Numerous examples of all three are included, which can be used to create any number of interesting creatures. The only drawback is the lack of guidelines for giving characters paranormal abilities. It appears to be a matter of GM fiat, but I can’t really tell.
Here the book delves into both the prehistory and history of the setting as well as the status of the modern day. Without giving too much away, the chapter details the alien influences on Earth’s development and the origin of the conspiracy doing its best to run the world, tying in the history of the paranormal along the way. Again, the text seems to indicate that most, if not all, of the paranormal is of pseudo-scientific origin, even though the selection of decidedly supernatural creatures elsewhere in the book doesn’t seem to bear that out.
The chapter also goes into detail about how modern day organizations function in this setting: government, law enforcement from local to federal levels, religion (including extremist groups), the media, and the scientific community.
As you might imagine, there’s even less that I can say about this chapter than I could about the previous one without giving away major spoilers. What I can say is that the chapter goes into great detail about the various movers and shakers in the DLB setting, including how they recruit and how to incorporate them into a game. Along the way, the text introduces the DLB incarnations of the Knights Templar, the Men in Black, and monstrosity-summoning cults. It also features two organizations that are ideal employers for PCs: (1) an X-Files-like federal law enforcement branch called the Atypical Crimes Taskforce (ACT) and (2) a media organization uncorrupted by the Powers That Be and certain that the Truth is Out There called The Unredacted Truth.
DLB sports a reasonably generous bestiary, especially considering the list of sample NPCs in the Game Host chapter. Each entry includes full stats and a sizable description.
- Aliens, Mutants and Engineered Creatures
- Brain-Sucking Aliens
- Cybernetic Assassin
- Flesh Eating Bacteria Colony
- Vines, Carnivorous
- Paranormal Creatures
- Dead Nature
- Demon, Lesser
- Mummy Lich
- Possession, Mass
- Vampires, Average
- Zombies, Classic
- Zombies, Flesh Eating
The only flaw I see in the list is the lack of information on the technology of the Greys. But then, I’ve always been a sucker for flying saucers.
Introductory adventures show how the author views a typical game and helps players jump right in, so I’m particularly grateful that DLB offers two.
House on Dolley Hill
This is a simple but effective ghost story with pregen characters from The Unredacted Truth. It includes an interesting backstory for the PCs to discover through clever investigation and a great creepy Southern Gothic atmosphere.
This one’s designed with player-created PCs working for the Atypical Crimes Taskforce in mind. The good news is that it’s a great way to introduce the PCs to both the reality of the paranormal and the influence of some of the setting’s major conspiracies. The bad news is that the nature of the primary antagonist will be apparent to the PCs with first crime scene. They may suspect that it’s too obvious and that there must be a fake-out involved, but there is not.
The art, both black and white as well as full-color, is pretty good and quite consistent. The layout has a nice dossier look to it, although the grey background is a tad dark for the black text.
The writing expresses a nice sense of humor without detracting from the overall mood of hidden menace. The text explains the rules fairly clearly, although I had to take a second or third look to find a few details. I noticed no typos.
The book lacks an index, which might have addressed that second-and-third-look issue.
This probably isn’t the best game for me. The system, while pretty slick, is a bit too abstract for my tastes. That said, it is a great choice if you want a simple system and a broad horror/conspiracy setting. The nature of the paranormal could use a little tightening up, but that shouldn’t matter if you’re mainly after a “kitchen sink” horror setting. And if the paranormal aspect isn’t that cohesively described, the book makes up for it with the extensive details on the conspiratorial side of things.
In short, if you’re after a horror game with everything from aliens to vampires and a vast conspiracy trying to cover it all up, and if you’d like to experience such a setting through the lens of a simple system, this may be the game for you.