Today, just a few days late, I have a review for an indie RPG that I had never heard of until the publishers decided to shoot me an e-mail. Awaken is a dark fantasy game with a new supplement that is on Kickstarter right now and you should definitely shoot over there and help if you can. There is only a few days left and they still need a bit of money to make their goals, but if this review gives you any interest in the game, think about pledging $19 and getting the core PDF in addition to the coming supplement!
Today we will start with the story of this game, because who wants to play a game without knowing what kind of story you might be telling. In Awaken you will take on the role of one who is (surprise) awoken. You are the 1 in 500 whose destiny it is to be granted powers beyond those of most mortals. What kind of power that might be and how you use it is up to you, but the lands of Salvora are ripe for adventure and intrigue. The first thing that really impressed me about the game was the art. Art helps draw you to a work and Awaken is no exception. The direction they took was one of very real fantasy with a hint of underlying darkness. It isn’t an extreme or twisted darkness the likes of Kult or one of the Hellraiser movies, but the land is one that feels like it is teetering on the edge of disaster.
Salvora is home to a number of Great Cities and these all vie for power within the Alliance which holds all the lands together as one. There are Orders of different philosophies that help bind people together alongside and intertwined with political and religious groups. Intrigue clearly lies at the heart of this setting and it holds a lot of room for blurring the line between what your Order is, what it represents, and what it should represent. There is a well written history to the world and a way in which things work. Everything is established and this includes the trouble of secret organizations as well as cults and those who believe that the Great Cities should be independent.
As one of the Visalli your character is one of the most powerful people around, a step above everyone else. In many ways the setting sounds and feels like a bit of a supers setting. There are a limited number of Visalli and their powers put them apart from the majority. But the setting is a bit more than that, with fantasy at its heart. There are colossi formed by Vasalli who have undergone special rites, sometimes by force. Then there are the corrupted and the fiends. Corruption lurks around the corner for any Vasall who overuses their power, something that could be very tempting for many. Of course, there is always the option to explore the little known realms outside the borders of the territories. What secrets lie there and what history might be unveiled. Oh and don’t forget the vargans who threaten everything, the one threat probably guaranteeing things maintain their stability in Salvora.
In all, the story is complex but not overly so and this core rule book leaves you with more than enough information to play all kinds of games in a world with darkness at every edge and corner. You could do political intrigue, righteous knights, cult infiltration, and wilderness taming. The choice is yours, but you won’t won’t feel lacking for the lore of Awaken.
Things are pretty mechanically simple in Awaken. The game works on the concept of a dice pool made of d6. These are rolled and all 5s and 6s are treated as successes. Depending on the task you are trying to complete and how many you get determines whether you succeed and if anything else happens. It is a pretty standard RPG system. The way Awaken approaches this is through three attributes, skills, and three virtues. The attributes are broadly categorized as physical, social, and intellectual. Skills are also fairly general and come under these categories but they also include specializations so that you might be better at one specific part of that skill. All of these add to your dice pools and, of course, the more dice you have the better! As for virtues there is will, luck, and courage which work a bit differently and can be utilized in certain ways to roleplay and add to dice pools. Another way in which this game differs a bit is the use of a damage system that readily and easily accounts for both lethal and non-lethal damage. As these are marked down, physical limits are taken into account and your dice pools become limited in size. Finally, as Vasalli, you have certain gifts which come under different categories and each contain different powers that you might utilize to get through whatever you encounter. Just be wary of the corruption track!
Design & Layout
The team who worked on the rules, writing, and layout for Awaken have done a wonderful job. All the great hallmarks are there: clean and unique design, readable, well organized and displayed information, good explanations and examples, great art, and more. You could probably skim through the chapters on character making and mechanics and run a game on the fly. They are presented that well. The mechanics aren’t complex but the way in which the dice pools are formed give you a lot of possible depth and emergent complexity. I really love how the game is done. There are lots of encouragements, suggestions, and notes on intention. The makers of the game want you to understand why they made it the way they did and that it is the experience not the nitpicking of rules, or even use of them, that is important. This is fantastic to see and I am surprised this game has never made it to my radar before. Add on top of all this a good table of contents (I can’t not love useful ToC) and a small section about the vargan that reads like an in-world journal and you have an amazingly well done and presented new game and setting all between two covers.
There is a lot to love about this game and the setting is probably the highlight, which is good for an indie RPG. But don’t let that detract from the very simple, deep mechanical system they build into it that will allow you to run lots of games. I know I always find things I love about these games but this time I am planning on spending some money on the hardcover version when I can find some spare cash. This one is definitely going on the “reasons to bring back Untamed Dice one-shots” list!