Game: Grim Tales
Publisher: Bad Axe Games
Series: d20 Modern
Review Dated: 14th, August 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
There is a difference between high fantasy and cheese fantasy. It can be a fine line and it takes a surprising amount of skill, sometimes, for a DM to keep the campaign on the side of the diving line that they want the campaign to be on.
High fantasy campaigns typically feature a plethora of intelligent races, many more different types of monsters, spells galore, magic items and characters either start high powered or quickly become high powered. Dungeons and Dragons is a high fantasy game.
Cheese fantasy should not be seen as an insulting phrase any more than “cheese metal” is an insult to my moshing friends who freely list “cheese” alongside “doom”, “thrash”, “heavy” and “grind” as some of the types of metal they like. Cheese fantasy begins as high fantasy with even more fantasy and magic thrown in. There are more types of monsters than you can count, magic is common and incredibly powerful, the party carries a number of ancient holy relics, demon lords need to be slapped down every now and then and it would not be a surprise if another 23rd level sorcerer/monk joined the party. Cheese fantasy can be something of a spoof. Cheese fantasy is also (more so than high fantasy) concentrated on the success of a group of heroes, they’re the campaign world in their own right and anything else is just scenery. Cheese fantasy is actually a good and common way to run a fantasy roleplaying game, it’s easy, fun and satisfying.
I just happen to prefer my cheese fantasy is tiny does now and then. I much prefer grim fantasy – or low fantasy. This is the opposite of cheese.
In low fantasy magic is much less common. Adventures are usually at a much lower level, there’s rarely such a thing as an “easy fight” and a weapon with even the smallest bonus (more likely due to good craftsmanship than the arcane) are an incredible asset. In a low fantasy setting there won’t be a different monster to fight for each encounter. Characters are more likely to be struggling to survive than defending a city they’d never heard of before from a legion of undead horrors that they had never heard of before. Low fantasy can be incredibly hard to run.
Low fantasy is especially hard to run in a d20 environment. This isn’t d20’s fault; it was designed to be a high fantasy system. Actually, I’m talking about D&D d20 here, the two aren’t synonymous as Mutants & Masterminds shows. Dungeons and Dragons d20 utilities a Challenge Rating system where the designers include an assumed amount of magical gear into the CR equation. A monster is challenge rating 10 because, the designers decided, at 10th level a party of four adventures would have X amount of magical items. Those magical items would make it a fair fight against the monster. It’s tricky if you start taking the magic items out of the game world when you can’t take those assumptions out of the system. It’s tricky if you start taking out magic classes too. The humble “scout-warrior” isn’t so humble in D&D as the Ranger develops spells of his own, as does the Bard. There isn’t an easy class turn into “low fantasy” in the book; even the Fighter and Barbarian have magic-like feats and abilities at times.
Bring on Bad Axe Games’ Grim Tales. Grim Tales describes itself as high adventure, low magic. It’s absolutely right. Grim Tales is d20 – it is d20 Modern based. Grim Tales can be used as a rule set for fantasy games.
Let’s not stick with “low fantasy” as a genre for Grim Tales. Grim Tales isn’t fantasy as such, it isn’t a setting in its own right, it’s a sourcebook of rules that will help you take the “high adventure, low magic” feel to which ever setting you want. As we tour through Grim Tales’ version of the d20 modern core classes; the Strong Hero, the Dedicated Hero, the Charismatic Hero, etc, the book points out suitable examples of such in a fantasy setting, a modern setting and post-apocalyptic one. The Strong Hero works as a fighter, a steel worker or heavy weapons specialist.
You either need D20 Modern or the core Dungeons and Dragons books to use Grim Tales. Grim Tales is a similar quality of book. It’s a hefty hardback of about 216 pages. It’s not colour but the illustrations are good (the cover, in colour, is great) and the text site, text density and amount of white space is just spot on.
The book begins by going through the classes – attribute focused classes ala d20 Modern – and skills. I’m not normally a fan of re-hashing through old skills; I’d forgive Grim Tales since it might be being used by people with the core Dungeons and Dragons rules and without access to D20 Modern (or visa versa). A rules round up would be required. In actual fact there’s more than just a re-hash of the old here. There’s a lot of help with each skill, lots of tricky rule “what if?” situations and synergy examples covered. The climb skill, for example, has notes to cover accelerated climbing (going faster but with more risk), making your own handholds and footholds, catching yourself if you fall or catching someone else as you’re climbing. The latter is one that not even d20 modern’s chunky rulebook covers. In addition Grim Tales has examples of critical successes (20) and critical failures (1). If the GM activates a critical failure against a character (pretty nasty if you’re climbing up high) this gives the PC back an Action Point.
I like how Grim Tales handle Action Points. They can be spent in a number of ways – nothing hugely significant, just helpful small bonuses here and there (confirming a critical hit, for example) which fit the grim/low setting and yet boost the high adventure promise. I especially like how Action Points can be regained. The GM can pick what’s most suited to the game. Regaining Action Points could be virtually impossible in a gritty game. This would be measured three skulls on the Grim Tales’ scale. It could just be a matter of having a replenishing stock of X Action Points at the start of every session – measured one skull on the Grim Tales’ scale. The scale of one to three skulls pops up throughout the book and is a measure of how tough the GM is being on the players. The three skull options are tough.
There are talents and feats in the book. There are magical orientated feats – and, in fact, if you want to dabble in magic this is the only way to go. Just as importantly, perhaps more so, there are firearm and vehicle feats too. Car chases can be an important but tricky feature in any “low magic, high adventure” scenario. It need not be cars either – could be chariots or Mad Max style post-apocalyptic bike gang wars.
Economy and Equipment is important in Grim Tales. Generally it’s the equipment section which people need to look at first but here the economy rules are vital. Dungeons and Dragons counts treasure down to the last copper piece. In fact the only motivation for taking on dragons and exploring dungeons is often to get more treasure. In d20 Modern there’s an abstracted wealth system. This saves headaches when a player decides to invest £10,000 in an ISA, £50,000 in a FTSE tracker stock and have both set up to pay into account from which their variable rate mortgage is drawn from. How much money does he have at the start of the next scenario? Grim Tales gives us the choice of which two systems to use. Grim Tales introduces the currency unit as a helpfully universal cash system. It’s worth about a silver piece or one dollar. As a rule of thumb a simple weapon (sword, pistol, etc) is worth about 200 of them and at starting level a character should have about 2,000. If you’re going with a wealth system then you don’t even need to count.
Even the combat system can be adapted to suit. You can play around with how serious massive damage is going to be in the game – making it less likely to occur to the players (a one skull option) or quite likely (the dread three skull). I like the “mook” option – lets have the cannon fodder minions automatically fail their massive damage roll. If you hit them hard enough, they go down and don’t get back up again and that’s just what you want if you’re going for the pulp adventure feel.
There’s a whole chapter on hazards. Starvation and Thirst aren’t likely to be much of an issue in a game where the PCs are cops from Scotland Yard but are likely to be hugely important if they are the only watchmen left in the mutant infested, ruined and still slightly radioactive remains of York. If we’re playing an Edwardian England spy game then Grim Tales’ rules on insanity and horror might not get used very often but if we’re playing an Elizabethan England occult game then they might get used all the time! The great strength of Grim Tales is that the single book has all these rules. There are rules for cyborgs and cybernetics for those who want them too.
There is magic in Grim Tales. The blurb does stress “low magic” rather than “no magic” but it can be very costly. There’s no magic class so any successful spellcaster will have dedicated a lot of feats to the pursuit. Complexities like spell burn will either ensure that magic can’t be cast too often (one skull) or have the mage risk painful death after casting just one spell (three skulls). This is a crucial success. I love having the mysterious, supernatural and arcane in gritty fantasy games – but always at the very back of the game, as a sinister, powerful and deadly force. It would be perfectly fair to have a grim setting where the undead were a terrible plague. This is exactly what I get from Grim Tales.
Grim Tales is all about empowering the GM with options. If you want to run a game a little differently – with low magic and tough fights, then Grim Tales steps up to help you. You can custom design everything from your own selection of weapons to your own monsters (with Challenge Ratings balanced according to your settings, not the well-meaning but frustrating assumptions of the game designers). In the Gamemastering chapter there’s help on handing out experience (typically characters shouldn’t race up the ranks) through to balancing Encounter Levels in scenarios. Should you need any help in getting going with grim and gritty adventures the appendix as a useful collection of suggestions for inspiration and use.