Helix: The Post Apocalypse, High-Tech, Fantasy, Western Role Playing Game
Authors: Adam J. Weber, Gloria Weber, William Parker
Reviewed by: Lord Skudley
The name alone should spark your interest; a Post Apocalypse, High-Tech, Fantasy, Western Role Playing Game. I must say I was quite excited to be offered the opportunity to review and play a game with such a suggestive title!
First the basics: This is an 88 page black and white manuscript selling for $5.00 in PDF or $12.00 as a book at the time of writing. The original cover (or at least the one on my PDF) is a simple image indicative of Cyber-Punk games, nothing too catchy. However, I see that the new cover, as seen online, is in colour and more aptly portrays the game as its name suggests. The interior art is nothing remarkable, but I don't necessarily buy RPGs for their art content. I want the Flavor and Crunchy Bits, and this game offers both.
The layout, however, makes reading and understanding the system rather clunky and difficult. There is an Introduction, ten chapters and one appendix. It is the order of these chapters that caused my confusion. I had to jump around to understand why I was doing what I was doing and to make sense of the system. Nonetheless, the publication contains everything you need to run the game (with the exception of the dice).
This contains a brief synopsis of the setting and a timeline covering 71 years, starting with a global war and ending with the game's present day. It covers the large events, leaving the minor details up to the GM, thus giving the GM plenty of game flexibility while presenting a rich setting in which to play. Right off I loved the setting; it has proven to be the strongest point in this game.
CHAPTER ONE: CHARACTER CREATION
Character Creation is somewhat convoluted. It's hard to learn, but once you've got it it's surprisingly simple. First you choose an Archetype - the base concept from which to build your character. Unlike the traditional class system, the Archetypes define the requirements needed to proceed down this path and give the perks and stigmas. There are five Archetypes.
Average Joe/Plain Jane is just what the name infers. These are the everyday folk, no magic, no cyberware, no mutations, just the ordinary citizen. The rest of the Archetypes are Code Slinger, Cyber Mystic, Gun Jack/Jill and Mutant. I'll cover these a little more thoroughly later.
Next you build the attributes, there are four: Physical, Mental, Social and Flaws (yes you have to take flaws, an addition which I find to be an asset to character development). Then you choose your qualities - these are your abilities and skills. There are 134 qualities to choose from: 29 Physical, 40 Mental 32 Social and 33 flaws! I'm all for flavor but this is too much, several of these Qualities could be combined, reducing the list by half. For example, Dancing and Erotic Dancing or Gins (Hand), Guns (Rifle) and Guns (Shotgun). True, this adds to the flavor, but all the crunchy bits get in the way.
The next four chapters detail each Archetype (with the exception of the Average Joe, he's only average so he doesn't get anything special).
CHAPTER TWO: CODE SLINGERS ONLY
Code Slingers have learned to affect the Code that makes up the world. With their handy-dandy CompDeck they can write programs that can momentarily alter the world around them.
After reading this chapter I almost gave up. I had to read it three times and once out loud so I could understand it (I don't know if that's a reflection on my intellect or not). Here is where I feel the order of the chapters should be different. If Chapter Eight: General Mechanics had come before the Archetypes this would have been easier to understand. But, as with the previous chapter, once I got it I got it!
Code Slingers are the most powerful Archetype and at same time the most gymped. The process to write spells is involved (the writers were kind enough to supply us with 18 spell examples). It can take hours to write a spell and once used it is gone. However, in the errata found on their website, the Helix team has made rules for simple duplication of each spell.
CHAPTER THREE: CYBER MYSTICS ONLY
At first the Cyber Mystic appears to be another, more useless, spell caster class. That perception soon proves to be wrong. Where Code Slingers uses a CompDeck to rewrite the Code to momentarily alter reality, the Mystic can see into the Code and alter it.
Each Cyber Mystic is endowed with different gifts. There are 27 gifts to choose from. The Mystic may only choose three, one of which is required, effectively reducing their choice to only two, and I do not see an option to increase the number of gifts as the character progresses.
CHAPTER FOUR: GUN JACKS/JILLS ONLY
This Archetype has great promise. A Gunslinger with cybernetic enhancements! Who wouldn't want to play a Robo-Cowboy? It is one of the simpler character builds in this system. You purchase your cyberware (there are 17 to choose from) and a gun, and then strap on your gear and "Head to the Wastes young man."
CHAPTER FIVE: MUTANTS ONLY
The Mutant may choose one "advantageous mutation" from a list of 25 mutations. Then you make the Attribute and Quality adjustments and you're ready to go. However, the game does not allow you to gain extra mutations. But I guess you wouldn't continue to mutate....
CHAPTER SIX: EQUIPMENT
Everything from Ammo to Vehicles, Clothes to Prostitutes, even options to raise and lower the prices via quality adjustments to meet financial needs.
CHAPTER SEVEN: SETTING
As I said before the Setting is the strongest point in the game. Here the Helix team fleshes out the details of this world, while still leaving the GM the flexibility to build upon his own imagination.
The players take the part of the rough and ready Wastelanders. The true survivors of the Great War, they can wander the lands or fight the Umbrea City-States, a totalarian society where only the pure may live. In the city states the Mystics are tortured for information and Code Slingers are mindwiped to be used as eldritch batteries. Gun Jacks are either expelled or shot and Mutants are summarily murdered on sight.
This chapter supplies the information on the Denizens and Creatures of the waste and the Gangs found there. Religions are also discussed, giving the already flavored setting more body. I've said it twice already and I'll say it again, the Setting is the strongest point in the game!
The remaining chapters: 8: General Mechanics, 9: Combat, 10: Advancements and the Appendix complete the instructions on the game. In the beginning I mentioned the order of the chapters being my major stumbling block. If I were to make a suggestion here it would be to order them thusly: Introduction, Setting, Game Mechanics, Character Creation, Archetype Descriptions, Advancement, Combat, Equipment and Appendix.
In playtesting the game we discovered it wasn't necessarily designed with miniatures in mind, but that is an easy adjustment. The players had some difficulty with the basic character creation, but once it was explained to them they all found it rather easy. The game play and combat was somewhat clunky, with damage - even for a gun - being too low for effective "enemy eradication." The Code Slinger proved to be the best combat monkey for sheer damage output.
On a scale of one to five my players rated Character Creation a 3.5 and Playability a 2.5. I, on the other hand, taking the setting into account, would have to rate the system overall a 3.5.
A special thanks to my playtesters:
- Frank "the Spaz" Oldread, GunJack
- Levi "Mantart" Dickey, Average Joe
- Theodore "Altranz" French, Mutant
- Nathan "King Nothing" Head, Cyber Mystic
- And Moonblessed, Code Slinger
I'm Lord Skudley, and that's my opinion.