Game: The Shadow of Yesterday
Series: The Shadow of Yesterday
Review Dated: 31st, October 2005
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
I’ve had The Shadow of Yesterday on the to-review list for too long. This RPG is one of those indie hits (as tend to dwell in the Indie Press Revolution) which deserves both its success and the tag “indie”. We’ve designer notes and a list of influences; kudos calls, pings, pats on the back and in-print networking for other indie RPG designers and essay writers. Every second time I read through The Shadow of Yesterday I found the inspiration / homage too strong, too much of a reference to the “roleplaying is an art form, darling” brigade of clique appointed elite authors. I found it entirely appropriate on every odd reading.
I could have begun this review in a completely different way. I could have begun by introducing The Shadow of Yesterday as the RPG with the Bringing Down the Pain game mechanic. Wrestling fans will be having their giant foam hands in the air. No. The Shadow of Yesterday is not a wrestling RPG.
The Shadow of Yesterday is post apocalyptic fantasy roleplaying game. The apocalypse began during a golden age when an Empire decided to find a language to use throughout his empire and further cement the unity of the people. In his search the Empire found Zu. Zu is a language of ideas rather than words. It’s a magical language which can speak things into being.
A red dot appeared in the sky as the Emperor began his Zu. A rice-farmer and native Zu speaker called Hanish tried to stop the Emperor, failed but later became his ally as the red dot continued to grow and grow until it darkened the sky. The reader might think comet or meteor but The Shadow of Yesterday never says. In the end the Emperor and Hanish may have managed to use the Zu to stop the red dot. Or not. I’m not sure it matters. The world does not end but it is thrown into a year long winter. A winter in which empires dissolve and everything changes.
The Shadow of Yesterday is set three hundred years later. There’s a new feature to the world – there’s a moon. Before the event the sky there was no such thing. These days there are also elves, goblins and ratkin.
There are also humans. That’s our four basic character races and the chargen copes with them by adjusting the min and max values of the basic pools. Humans are known as the Masters of War, elves as Monsters of Heaven, goblins as Beasts of Hunger and ratkin as Tooth and Teat.
Pools are effectively attributes or other core stats. The Shadow of Yesterday keeps it quick and clean. We have Vigor for physical power and mental toughness – which combines elements other RPGs would normally split. There is Reason for Intelligence and Instinct for reflexes, grace and sexual attraction. Sexual attraction, yeah, not appearance or charisma as The Shadow of Yesterday places itself as an adult RPG. If your character gets it on with another or with a sexy NPC then this is exactly the sort of dramatic storyline that author Clinton Nixon wants.
From the system I really like Secrets and Keys. Secrets are magical/advanced/feat-esq abilities which make the heroes heroic. These are the cinematic moments of coolness. Our example is the Secret of the Hidden Pocket. With this Secret the character can always hide an item on their person. Even if they’re thoroughly searched they’ll keep an item hidden. In fact, they need not even have had the item previously written down on their character sheet. This takes an experienced GM – one imagines that having secretly hidden the key to Castle Greyskull is out of the question but having a hidden skeleton key is fine.
Keys are even better; they’re a different sort of key. Keys are goals or emotional vows which make the characters tick. Playing on Keys and making them part of the story earns the character XP. Players therefore have a meta-game incentive for playing to their Keys. Ah-ah! It gets even better. You can buyoff you key. Here the character turns his back on Key (perhaps story resolution) and earns a truck load of XP but they’ll be able to pick that Key again. Since Keys generate XP there is a limit to how many Keys a character can have at once.
I like the way the stats and system boils down to Intention, Initiation, Execution and Effort. The short The Shadow of Yesterday encourages storytelling-esq roleplaying where players describe in detail their characters actions but avoid the trap of writing in their own success. The system is designed to be quick, light and not to get in the way of the game. If we need minute statistical analysis then the we have the option of Bringing Down the Pain.
It’s almost insane but I think the example of how Bringing Down the Pain is flawed. It’s actually my biggest sulk in the whole RPG. The example deals with a controversial player kill scene. An assassin is able to kill a noble because her sneak roll is better than his flee out of the alleyway roll. I think an assassin can be very sneaky but if she’s on the wrong side of the noble to the alleyway’s egress then no matter of sneaking is going to stop the noble legging it out of there. I rarely give two hoots about game mechanics and it seems almost twisted in that in an indie game like The Shadow of Yesterday I should find myself caring about crunchy bits. I just feel cheated by the example. A game should demonstrate to me how well it works and not show itself up as flawed, leaving me feeling sorry for an imaginary player who’s been cheated out of his imaginary character.
As we might imagine from such a proudly Indie game the rules do not make up the bulk of the book. We have plenty of information about the world of Near. We have the likely enemies of the Ammeni. We have the plot driving secrets of the Zu – which is slightly broken now insofar as only one person can have one idea at a time and so by speaking the Zu there is a risk someone will steal it from you. We have Uz which is the negative reflection of Zu. Zu creates. Uz does not.
We have in depth visits to the various races. We trail through the rules for magic. We have notes on religion, maps and areas of interest. We have monsters and Maldor, we have notes on designing NPCs and more Keys and Secrets.
We also have the end of the game. The Shadow of Yesterday is not necessarily about completing an adventure goal. The game “ends” when one character reaches the pinnacle of one of their abilities. There are always adventures after adventures while the character has room to the grow. Whereas I have some trepidation to a mechanical end to the game I do like the way this puts the story focus on the character. Stories in The Shadow of Yesterday are about the characters and this endgame keeps it so.
I do like The Shadow of Yesterday. The little paperback as been with me through several flights from Edinburgh to London where the cover art has attracted many comments in airport waiting lounges. It’s an RPG you can sit down and read (and it travels well) and this does help the book stand out. The mechanics work (saving the poor Bringing Down the Pain example) in the hands of a good GM. Die hard Indie Gamers have The Shadow of Yesterday already. It’s one to consider if you’re looking at expanding your intellectual gaming.