by Lester Smith
136-page, 8 1/2" x 11" perfect-bound book
Death's Edge Games
3906 Grace Ellen Dr.
Columbia MO 65202-1739
Author: Gabe Ivan
Editor: Casey C. Clark
Illustrations: Thom Thurman and Sean Parrack, with The Clark Clan and Gabe Ivan
Some games go out of their way to be shocking. With a "bad boy" image, they can seize more attention in a crowded market. And by taking a defiant posture, they entice the rebel in each of us, making them particularly appealing to young people striving for independence from parents, teachers, and bosses. In some cases, when defiance is all they have going for them, such games almost parody them- selves. Their rebellion is empty, a mere childish posturing. On the other hand, when designers are talented and put some thought into their creation, games such as these can be both fun and instructive. Their radical settings lead to cathartic, "wahoo" action, while also coaxing us to confront and examine our personal values. That claim may seem audacious, but the INFERNO game serves as an illustration.
On the face of things, the INFERNO game seems designed to offend. Its cover is done in a fiendish black on red, and the front bears an illustration of a definitely devilish figure on a throne decorated with fanged skulls. Worse, the back cover begins with a line supremely insensitive to religious qualms: "Christ died for our sins. Now it is your turn." On the other hand, the back copy continues with an appeal to "Challenge Evil in its truest form . . . " and two of the four character types described are decidedly heroic. Players can be priests searching the netherworld to rescue abducted innocents, or damned spirits struggling to achieve redemption. Unfortunately, the other two character types are necromancers and demons seeking to conquer Hell, which rather flies in the face of heroic play. But as a whole, the back copy certainly conveys the dichotomy of playing styles possible with the game. More about this later.
The text inside the book is satisfactorily written and edited. There are no confusing glitches, and the tone overall is engaging. The interior artwork ranges from "sorta cheesy" to respectable, with an occasional piece rising to the level of applaudable. Most importantly, it is unified, evoking a common vision of hellish creatures and their brutality. (It should come as no surprise that female demons wear little in these illustrations.) Also evident in the artwork is the Dantean nature of the game's setting.
The game system itself is quite good. Character creation is a combination of "tem- plate" and skill choice-as is common in games nowadays-allowing characters to be created quickly, but also distinctly. Players choose a race (mortal, shade, hellspawn, or imp) and randomly roll attributes, with modifications for race. Next, they choose a class (priest, layman, or necromancer for mortals and shades; demon for hellspawn and imps) and determine skills (some as- signed by class, others purchased with creation points). Class also determines faith status (Faithful, Doubtful, or Infernal) and equipment availability. Finally, players invent a name, background, and motivation for their characters.
Skills and attributes are ranked on a scale of roughly 1 to 20, and a d2o is used for event resolution. Attacks have a base damage rating, depending upon the weapon type, and for every two points by which an attack roll succeeds, an addition- al point of damage is done. By combining the roll to hit and to do damage in this way, combat is kept quick and exciting.
The game contains two different listings of magic: divine (for priests) and sorcery (for necromancers). Following that material is an extensive listing of infernal creatures and realms. Interestingly, the creatures' statistics are not given with their descriptive text, but rather in a separate chapter. Not only does this allow players to read the creature descriptions without seeing important game stats, it also makes the stats a bit easier for the GM to use. The game's problems are few, but readily evident. Most troublesome, of course, is that many people will be so offended by the premise, artwork, and cover copy that many distributors and retailers will be leery of carrying the game. Least trouble- some, though a bit jarring, is the fact that the game assumes a medieval Earth, but nowhere states that. It is primarily through the weapons list that the reader learns the fact for certain. Prior to en- countering that list, I kept expecting to be able to design modern characters.
But there is one other significant problem for the game to survive, and that is that it seeks to straddle the fence in terms of heroism and senseless brutality. On the one hand, it clearly supports themes of mercy, faithfulness, and redemption in play. And given the darkness of the set- ting, heroic acts shine forth tremendously, making players feel great about them- selves. If this were the one goal of the game, I could heartily recommend it.
Unfortunately, however, the game just as clearly panders to hack-and-slash play. And again, the darkness of the setting intensifies the impact of the cruelty and selfishness inherent in that style. Ultimately, I fear, players who opt for this style of play will eventually grow bored with having their characters torment less powerful creatures, and will become frustrated when their own characters suffer at the hands of creatures more powerful than they. But because the game doesn't actually promote heroism over brutality, these players aren't encouraged to give heroic play a try, so they won't learn just how deeply satisfying it is in this setting. More likely, they will just toss the book and go back to their combat video games.
This article is excerpted from "Role-Playing Reviews" by Lester Smith from Dragon ® Magazine, Issue #208, Vol. XIX, No. 3, August 1994. This material is copyrighted ©1994 by Lester Smith.