Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: Heaven and Earth

How did I forget this game?

I obtained the third edition of Heaven and Earth a few years ago on absolutely no recommendation.  I simply knew it was modern-day, and that it was surreal.  At the time, I was contemplating a small-town Mage: the Ascension game along the lines of Twin Peaks and Eerie, Indiana, or the roleplaying games Over the Edge and Unknown Armies.  It was just another small town in middle America filled with weird secrets.

So, obviously, when I came across the game called Heaven and Earth, I was intrigued.  It sounded like a source of inspiration with a ready-to-run weird town.

I was not disappointed.

The system is fine, but nothing to write home about.  You're trying to roll a die plus a modifier against a target number.  In an odd inversion, the target number is static; the difficulty determines what type of die you use.  The easiest difficulty requires you to roll d20s, while the hardest requires you to roll d4s.  As such, every player should have one of each of the common dice denominations: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20.

As for stats, these are determined by descriptive qualities, similar to Unknown Armies or Risus.  Your "traits" are ranked as professions (so, for example, maybe you have Doctor at "Rookie").  This influences the modifiers you use when rolling that die to do, as per the example, doctor stuff.  Again, simple.

As for the game itself, the plot is the meat of it.  The game takes place in the town of Potter's Lake.  PCs are expected to be newcomers to the town, or people returning after a prolonged absence (say, at least a decade or two).  This is important.

Ultimately, the town itself is a sandbox, but there are certain constraints on the PCs that make things a bit more linear.  It's pretty obvious that uncovering the secrets of the town will probably be the focus, but doing so has a tendency to bring all the weirdness in the town to a head.  Obviously, this may interest some people and turn others off.  It all depends on your feelings on the subject, and how much trust you have in your GM.

As for the secrets of the town, they're big.  I'm not inclined to mention it, because players shouldn't know quite why the town is so weird, but the game's metaplot draws upon some of the big budget stuff from real-world mythology — fully understanding the town and why you're in it throws you into the fight for humanity's destiny.  If you're interested enough to run, or just don't care, you can read some spoilery reviews here, here, and here (now that I've remembered the game, I'd love to run it, so you may want to search cautiously if you'd like me to run it for you someday).

A note, though: running the metaplot as-is requires dedication.  As with, say, Promethean: the Created, losing a player can be devastating.  Character development is important, and while a one-shot in Potter's Lake can be interesting, this game really shines with campaign play.  If you tweak the backstory (or even if you don't), you might also be able to use it in an episodic road campaign ("As you're driving down the road, you pass a sign that reads, 'Potter's Lake: 3 miles.'") as a ready-made setting.

Ultimately, I'd recommend it — the system is fine, but the true gem is the backstory.  If you want a modern-day game with a weird, surreal, horrific setting, you should look at this one.  Even if you're not a fan of the mythos, I suspect you'll still appreciate the backstory.  Even if you don't, you can likely use the setting as a resource for your own campaigns.

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