Jiituomas (jiituomas) wrote,

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Stalker: Tieteisroolipeli - A Review

The last few days, outside of work and my son's ninth birthday's festivities, have been spent concentrating on the Finnish Stalker tabletop rpg (by Ville "Burger" Vuorela), and associated activities (reading the original novella again, watching Tarkovsky's version and listening to Russian industrial). Here, finally, is my review of the game:

As my more frequent readers (and of Ville's blog, too) may know, I have been very critical of both the man and his works in the last four years. I am still of the opinion that his earlier material has not contained sufficient amounts of new creative content to merit the claims he has made. Those are IMO stuff that has mostly succeeded regardless of his efforts.

Stalker, based on the novella Roadside Picnic by the brothers Strugatsky and the movie by Andrei Tarkovsky, both of which I love, is a different sort of bird entirely. It's got loads of creative content by Vuorela - both new and adapted from those two original sources - and it's fucking brilliant. The game is basically about Stalkers making trips to the six Zones created by the intrusion of another reality into ours, as well as the life(style) revolving around that work. So - as the author cleverly notes - not essentially very different from a basic D&D campaign concept, except for the fact that the phenomena dealt with are science-based and/or concern current-day social issues. The world of the game is a dark reflection of the modern day, with prejudice etc. heightened due to the intrusion and its effects. All illustrations in the book are good, in the stereotypical old-school rpg book style, and they emphasize the feel of the game well.

Vuorela has a very evocative writing style, meaning that for someone who hasn't read the original book, the Zones and their effects come alive, and a reader familiar with the Strugatskys' work will pleasedly note how the line between the original and the new blurs. (Stalker is also enjoyable reading in itself, not just as an adaptation.) As far as the adaptation goes, I've never seen a licensed tabletop rpg being so true to the original concept as this one is. All the key parts are there, as is the same sense of the world-being-askew, spiced up with useful bits added from the movie. This is a game where the world of the original work really comes alive, not just something you buy for the stats of the main characters. (There aren't any here, by the way. So no Red in numbers for you.) And as I said, the new parts fit in nearly seamlessly - the French Zone could just as well come from the original's authors' notes as from the game's designer's imagination. Well done.

The systems sections, however, are a curious thing. Vuorela is well known as a vocal proponent of "Old Skool" GM authority and an active opponent for role-playing theory. Nevertheless, the game mastering and rules sections of this rpg are very fine examples of role-playing theory in action. Due to knowing his opponent and being forced to react to it, be that shared game mastering or novel rules design, he has not only created very elegant systems of his own but also explicated them well, probably in order to convey his vision to the readers. And it works. I can say without any irony about Burger "finally accepting rpg theory" that he's succeeded very well in what Forge design seeks to do - created a game that's easy to pick up and successfully run by simply following its instructions, and which one immediately wants to play when one reads it - to a greater extent than many of those games' designers. For example, the section on "A Typical Picnic" is solid gold for GMs and players alike, showing by example how a typical Zone trip goes from beginning to end. And the game is also actually just as continuable and repeatable as many old-style rpgs are - one could expand it in exactly the same way as, say, traditional D&D or Shadowrun., with object-oriented stories and widening social context side by side.

As far as the game as a game goes, the rules system is its strong and weak part. It's in essence a diceless system with object difficulties which the players attempt to reach. This is done by multiplying the idea to solve the problem by quality of role-playing, with a few factors (having a suitable skill, good gear, superior numbers in combat, etc.) added to the equation. With a good GM and nice group dynamics, it will most likely (I haven't had a chance to test it yet - but I'm planning to start running the game bi-weekly next fall) work extremely well and fluidly, but I can envision several problem points.

First, it's really all up to the GM judging the idea and the role-playing. That can be a good or a bad thing. There are some good guidelines on this included, but it's still a very arbitrary system at the core. Furthermore, I disagree with Vuorela's recommendation that the players' talent in this should be taken strongly into account - where he sees supporting players with less solid acting talents, I see a recommendation not to properly reward the really good players. Furthermore, there's a system of checks and balances in that each character has certain skill-based points they can use to pass tests or get extra info. While this is good in balancing the decisive power of the GM on quality issues, it also enables a lazy player to simply push his advantage by using rechargeable points instead of playing his character well - especially in a game where the GM doesn't want to use constant challenges. And I've seen enough such players in the two decades I've been playing to know that the risk is real - throwing someone out from a group is never easy, especially when he's still playing "within the rules". (As a thought experiment: if the movie were a game session, given its number of conflict/danger points, a lazy player might push it through with just using well-placed points and no role-playing.)

As for the skill system, it's mostly a very solid one. Eight categories, with ten in each, and a "skill" may just as well be "born rich" as "weaponry". There is no numeric value to them, you either have a skill or you don't. Almost all are story-important, but a few strike me as weird: the "nerd" ability may or may not be a joke, in I can envision where it would have its uses, but it's still somewhat out of place. When I'll be running this, I'll follow the pattern of the "religious" skill, and replace it with "subculture: x", where the player will select one subculture the character is intimately familiar with. I would also have liked at least two more skills to each category, those being all flavor-style things like "cooking" and not necessarily directly relevant to stalkers, which would also make it easier to create normal civilians with the skill system. It's not a big issue, though. And while the intra-group social roles (from athlete to driver, merchant and medic) smack a bit too much of both D&D or ICE character classes and the social group roles of WoW, they seem natural enough and may actually help players adjust their character concepts.

The one thing that I think really should have been included more thoroughly is the Institute. Its methodology is, after all, mentioned quite well in the original novella, and would thus have deserved a place here as well. The GM could just copy if from there, of course, but an rpg book should IMO contain much data about the major organization that does not exist in our world. Especially since its researchers are the most logical choice of PC concept alternative to playing stalkers. Furthermore, some examples of their (and corporate) xenotech would have been nice - a few pieces showing what has been done with the artifacts and some research, especially since the price of the stalkers' swag depends on whether it has applications, some showpiece applications would have been nice. As would have a few good examples on metaphysical mutations on the exiles and the changed. One gets the picture from the general remarks, but a bit more would come in handy. The most troublesome omission is, though, that the book has no index. It's not crucially damaging, as the mechanics aren't that heavy and the examples of anomalies, equipment, etc. are easy to find, but I think not having one is still bad.

All in all, I really like this game. A lot. It's not just stylish and well adapted, it's stylish and well adapted to the level of even game mechanics - the skills being purchased with semi-related downsides that create stories and character depth is a brilliant way of incorporating the feel and fragility of the original characters, from the likes of Red and Buzzard to the nameless stalker, the Professor and the Author. This is a game true to its source material, in spirit and not just pandering to the fans wanting to play in the world of "movie or TV series X".

If I were to officially review it, out of five stars I would easily give it four and a half. Had it a stronger Institute section, I would give it the full five despite my doubts about the mechanics' frailty.
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