Monday, September 30, 2013

[RP Review] Our Last Best Hope - The Expansion Book

Following on from my review of Mark Diaz Truman's Our Last Best Hope last week, here's a review of the Expansion Book for that same game. The expansion book offers some additional setting playsets for groups to use in Our Last Best Hope, some of which are billed as 'advanced playsets', featuring additional roles, alternative rules and tables for consequences for player groups who've gotten used to the rules and are ready to change things up a bit. Then it has some ideas on how to hack Our Last Best Hope for different kinds of scenario from what the game is normally geared towards. I'll go through each section of the book and give a first glance evaluation of the individual playsets/hacks.
[Note: This is a review of the paperback edition.]

The Basic Missions
The first new playset included in the expansion is The Core - which was hinted at in the corebook's blurb, but not included in that book - is themed around missions into inner space, rather than outer space; which is to say, journeying to the centre of the Earth. I have to admit, my experience with 'Hollow Earth' fiction is pretty limited. I remember watching Journey To The Centre of the Earth on TV back when I was a wean, and I've seen the episodes of Doctor Who where they encounter the Silurians hibernating in their subterranean outposts and cities. I haven't, however, seen the movie from which the playset takes its name, or any of the others in the suggested viewing list. Nonetheless, the setting is in itself awesome, and is definitely one I'll be looking to try out.

The second playset is simply titled Giant Monsters, and that really tells you all you need to know about the kind of disaster movie it's aiming to evoke. Godzilla, King Kong, Cloverfield, Jurassic Park, and Tremors are some of the inspirations cited for this playset. Heck, I could even see groups getting away with running sessions based off of Attack on Titan or Pacific Rim with it, maybe adding assets like 'Giant Motherfrakking Robots' or 'Vertical Manevering Equipment'. Giant monsters are usually more of a city-level threat than world-wide, but they can easily get to the point where they pose a greater threat to humanity in general.

Third is one of my absolute favorite playsets in any GMless RPG ever; it's Technopocalypse! Mankind has come to depend on technology to the point where it's an inescapable part of modern-day living. But what happens when the technology we have become so dependent upon turns against us? We've seen the story before in films like the Terminator series, the Matrix trilogy, I Robot, and now this playset invites you to act out your worst technophobic nightmare scenarios at the gaming table. I really want to give this a shot, specifically with a couple of friends online who I know would love to play in this kind of setting with me.

The last of the basic playsets is, well, it's a bit of an odd duck. It's called Apocalypse Prevention Inc. The idea behind this playset is that your group works for a shadowy corporation called Apocalypse Prevention Inc, who protect the Earth from all sorts of supernatural badness. It takes its inspiration from stuff like Buffy, Hellboy and Men In Black. Of the four basic playsets, I have to say this is the only one that I'm all that excited about trying out. At the end of the day, the theme is too generic, and it's something I've played in plenty other roleplaying systems before. It might be interesting to try once, but I'm not sure it's got a lot of replay value for me.

Advanced Missions
The Advanced Missions are playsets which present some slightly more unusual settings for Our Last Best Hope, presenting slight rules modifications to help you adapt the game to those settings.

The first one is the Fantasy Adventure, which is geared towards classic heroic quest-style stories in the vein of Lord of the Rings or The Neverending Story, where a party of adventurers go on a journey to defeat the Dark Lord or slay the dragon or whatever. Again, as with Apocalypse Prevention Inc, I'm not really jazzed about this playset, personally. That's more because I don't have as much of a fantasy RP background as other gamers, but also because there are other systems I would probably turn to if I felt an urge to play some epic fantasy. The alternate/additional roles included to fit the genre, and the lists of crises/limits/complications/etc do provide enough material to be getting on with if you want to give it a whirl, and I would try it at least once but it doesn't grab me as much as other playsets offered here.

Second is the Thule playset, which pits the player characters against Nazi Germany's ill-advised attempts at harnessing supernatural forces to aid in their conquest of the world. Beyond the usual playset ingredients, Thule also includes suggestions on handling MIMIC in settings where a sentient computer doesn't make much sense, as well as a new character role called the Occultist. The Occultist's role power seems rather powerful at first glance, essentially allowing her to be a second 'free' helper in rolls, but it does also mean she can't use her own role ability when taking a threat. I'm rather fond of this playset, as it reminds me of a BESM game I tried to run a while back, featuring a supernaturally gifted Dirty Dozen-style group on a mission to thwart strange experiments in a Wolfenstein-esque castle. Definitely one I'd like to try out sometime.

Next is the Superhero playset. At first I was a bit dubious about this, what with the Death Card mechanic and the rarity of (permanent) character death in superhero fiction. But after reading the themes, it becomes clear that this is intended to be a 'Crisis' scenario for the heroes, where they're pitted against a greater threat than they've ever faced, one which requires them to team up, and even then they might not all survive the battle. The playset includes alternate superhero-themed roles, covering basic archetypes such as the champion (Captain America/Superman), the myth incarnate (Thor), genius billionaire (Batman/Iron Man) and the super spy (Black Widow/The Question), adjusts some of the names of playset elements to fit the theme, adds an extra spotlight scene for villainous exposition, and includes an alternate crisis table for Superhero missions. The crisis table here is titled as a consequences table though, so I wonder if that's intentional or a typo. Again, there are other games out there that are designed specifically for superheroic shenanigans, but this should be fun as a change from the usual Our Last Best Hope scenarios.

Last of the Advanced Playsets is the Danger Patrol mission, based on the Danger Patrol RPG by John Harper, which I've heard of but have yet to play. The only real tweak to normal play for this playset is the addition of 'styles' to go with roles, which describe what form your character's super-abilities take, like alien, mutant, robot, etc. Beyond that, it offers the usual selection of crises/limits/complications/etc, framed to fit the retro-science fiction setting of Rocket City. It's a nice little addition to the book, and I've been growing keen on retro-style sci-fi of late, so I'd be happy enough to try it for a change.

So far we've had some interesting new playsets, with a few ideas for tweaking the system to fit different genres, but here's where the expansion book really plays around with what the system itself is capable of outside of its default 'disaster movie' mode. This section presents alternative rules and advice for using Our Last Best Hope in three very different ways, each including their own related playsets.

The first of these hacks twists the play structure to emulate the mystery and tension of space thrillers like Alien, Event Horizon and Prometheus. Here, rather than tackling a Threat, you're investigating an Agenda. Threats are now coupled with Mysteries; you are rolling to solve the mystery and the threat comes up while you're investigating, forcing you to confront both at once. The twist on the core mechanics given here is interesting, but I'm not sure how it'll work out in practice. I'd have to play using the rules hack to say for certain.

The second hack gives guidance on shifting the tone of Our Last Best Hope from drama to comedy: first, by giving advice on how to make the narrative shift from serious to humourous; second, by providing a list of alternative or additional roles for comedy games, or to add comical characters to an otherwise serious game. Finally, it includes another of my favourite playsets from this collection: the Local Heroes playset. Here, players take on the roles of average Janes and Joes who are way out their depth as they fight off alien invasions, cracks in local space-time, or some other Crisis. I'd love to try this playset out, maybe with each player playing as caricatures of themselves (there have been a few games like that at GUGS lately, and I hear the people playing in them have been having a blast).

Last but not least is the Dreamscape hack, which is basically a hack of Our Last Best Hope designed to let you play through an Inception-style dream heist. I've been looking for a decent ruleset to run an Inception-based game in for a while, and this hack is the closest I've seen to a workable approach to it. The hack includes new roles, a change to Touchstones, the addition of Tokens (basically representing the totems the characters in Inception use as a reality check), the use of Acts to reflect the different layers of the dreamscape, and other rules additions, including recommendations for more advanced play. As with the first hack, it all looks like a solid emulation of Inception-style gameplay on paper, but I'd need to put it into practice to really gauge how effectively it works. It may also prove quite complex, and it'd be easy to lose track of what's going on if you're not paying close attention. But then, that's always going to be the case in a game which is trying to replicate the feel of Inception, because the movie itself is a real head trip.

FAQs and the Expansion Book in general
At the very back of the book there's a couple of pages of FAQs, offering clarifications on rules questions which have no doubt been posed to the game designer since the corebook came out. These will come in handy as a reference if there's a rules question you're pondering and the corebook isn't providing answers for you. You will probably still have questions that aren't covered here either, but they're helpful to have all the same.

Overall, I'm happy with the content found in the Expansion. There's maybe a few playsets that didn't really grab me, but that's a matter of personal taste. For just the Core, Giant Monster, Technopocalypse, Local Heroes, and Dreamscape content, I'm satisfied with my purchase. I will say though, unless you're a completist like me who just likes having both the PDF and dead tree editions of your RP books you might prefer to just buy this in PDF format. If it were something more along the lines of the Fiasco Companion, with some expanded advice on play, guidance on hacking it yourself and so on, you could probably justify paying as much for this as for the core rulebook. But for what it is, a collection of additional playsets and alternate rules, it's probably better just to buy the PDF on its own and print off or refer to the relevant playsets/rules as needed.

A fun collection of new playsets and new ways to play Our Last Best Hope. Your mileage may vary as to which playsets you like and which you're less fussed about, but you're sure to find something in here that you like. Most players will be better off buying it in PDF format rather than getting the Print + PDF bundle, but if you play Our Last Best Hope and are looking for some more variety of playsets to choose from, then I recommend ordering a copy, whatever your preferred format.

Rating: +3

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