I don't know what attracted me to Frankenstein Atomic Frontier (FAF). It's a rough bit of amateur game design with ropey spelling and scratch pad illustration, but it has a certain charm and I like the idea - and I couldn't resist taking a risk. I'm not disappointed.
The Main Review
It might have been the cover images, which I find quite clever. Torn playing cards sewn together, communicating both the subject matter of the game and the mechanic used to determine success. That's clever.
It might have been the name. I recently watched Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius, which includes a bit of a Frankenstein homage. I also enjoyed DC Comics Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. and the original book. Why not check this out?
I'm also a sucker for the little guy trying to make his way in the world of RPGs. Heck, I'm that little guy. That someone took the time to create this game (and numerous supplements), as well as illustrate it - that deserves some attention.
So, here's a review...
What is it?
Frankenstein Atomic Frontier is a 39-page PDF by Nicholas William Moll, including core rules and basic setting information for the game. Published by Owlman in 2012.
The game includes a colour cover, by Stacey Moll, and contains numerous black-and-white images. The PDF adopts a single column format with clear text. It includes a Table of Contents.
I feel I need to cover the artwork first. The book includes 19 pieces of art, with just one repetition amongst them. The author draws all the art himself and has a rough, simplistic style. In a game about a world populated by sewn-together monsters, this edgy, basic style of art isn't such a bad thing. It isn't going to inspire anyone, mind - and if you like to have a sumptuous rulebook filled to the brim with fine art, this isn't going to be the one for you.
Anyway, on with the game.
In the future, war has torn the world asunder. Think recent wars in the Middle East and multiply by quite a bit. For a whole century, the world boiled with the heat and bile of warfare. It isn't clear what happened exactly or what set it off, but in the midst of that war science took a fairly unconventional turn. War often does that, both perverting and pushing technological progress - and in this instance, one advance came in the form of Promethean science.
Mankind found new ways to mix, match and revivify spare parts, sparking life with electricity in bodies pumped with four strange fluids, self-replicating and self-propelling in purpose. This mix of pseudo-science restores semblance of life from the combined parts, often with literal 'muscle memory' denoting the overriding personality that forms in resurrection. These are Adam, named after Frankenstein's literary creation.
In the wake of war, the Adam now stand alone. Very little of true humanity remains, except in very rare conclaves and outposts. The Adams share a world with others of their kind, but also artificial lifeforms, a few animals, and Moreau. Moreau were Adams too once, but they have sunk to desperation in their choice of replacement parts and have become more animal than human, their existence overridden by bestial drives and motivations.
Can you see why I might be drawn to this setting? I mean, this is not a bad idea. Characters are Adams, survivors of the apocalypse. They seek to survive in a world they know as the Sublime, a mere shadow of the old Earth, a nod towards the old with prospects for the new. Skeletal and shattered ruins remains of even the greatest cities and the lifestyle of the now feels more like the Old West than anything else.
Characters and the Core Mechanic
Characters have five basic Traits, covered by the suits and Jokers of a card deck. Clubs represents sharpness, thinking, and senses. Spades represents physique, gross motor skills, and stealth. Diamonds represent contacts and reputation, while Hearts rate personality, charisma and broad communication skills. The fifth Trait, fortune and general luck, falls to the Jokers in the pack.
Characters also have several derived abilities based on these traits, but the core of the system lies in these four suits and the pair of Jokers. If you haven't got the hint at this point, you will need a deck of cards - ideally for each person taking part in the game.
To determine success, you perform a Draw, pulling cards from your deck equal to your active Trait. So, in combat you'd Draw against your Spades with extra cards if you have a weapon or fewer cards if you're wounded. If you Draw any face cards, you score a success for each. It's an open draw (like an open dice throw), in that if you draw an Ace, you draw an extra card and add any additional successes. Jokers allow you to draw two extra. FAF terms these Charged and Supercharged Successes*.
When you draw, you do so based on your Traits, but you don't draw to suit - so, any face card will suffice. I think that makes the odds about the same as rolling a 5 or 6 on a 6-sided dice - at least for the first card - but I'm not statistician. It seems like a reasonable enough way to determine success, with a slightly lower chance of success beyond the first. You normally need two face cards to get a basic level of success.
Character creation involves drawing five cards at random and you get a point in an ability if you get a card of that suit. Beyond these basic traits, characters can improve themselves by finding better spare parts. You calculate Barter, Reflexes and Vitality** as derived values, then get the option to choose some extras and gear.
Building a Better Monster
The business of self improvement boils down to grafting new parts on to your character's body. You can replace or add new parts - and keeping a full complement is important because they tie into that concoction of chemicals keeping your character alive. Known as the four Humours - based on the medical theories of the Greek physician Hippocrates - losing the balance between them can have a deleterious effect on the ability of your character to function.
During the course of the game, while you can seek out treasure - which tends to come in the form of knick-knacks of various use and value, vital in the Barter economy of the setting - you will likely focus more on the acquisition of quality spare parts. A good spare, like an Academic's Brain or a Boxer's Biceps, provides you with a bonus when performing specific activities, like an extra Draw, improved secondary abilities, or a special advantage, like the ability to Draw to avoid passing out due to excess damage.
As well as finding spare parts, you will also seek out Rare Cuts - parts from famous, notorious and truly gifted. Such special parts offer major advantages to those who graft them, but will also likely make them targets of envy. Beware a Carving*** at the hands of those who covet your choicest spare parts.
Rounding Out the Offering
The rest of the book provides a brief list of Gear, which boil down to some basic standards. No endless and exhaustive lists of weapons here - just basic types, like Improvised, Blunt or Deadly melee weapons. Each piece of gear has a Barter cost, a note on use and special qualities, and a numeric bonus against a specific, listed Suit.
The last few pages outlines a bunch of Bad Guys, who have a brief background and motivation section, followed by statistics similar to a player's character. They also have notes and bonuses, that highlight any special qualities, abilities, and suitability for Carving post-battle! The pages include various bandits, animals, killer robots, animutants, corrupted Adam (who have resorted to using semi-viable animal parts and suffered from Humour imbalance) and Mexican Hitlers****.
My Final Thoughts
I have written rather a lot about a 39-page PDF, but somewhere along the way I found Frankenstein Atomic Frontier transitioned from a odd oddity to something quite engaging. The rulebook has more rough edges than pages, could do with some reorganisation, and both spelling and illustration fall firmly on the ropey side. However, the game has a heart - even though it probably got stolen from an unattended mortuary somewhere.
* I have never played a game with a card drawing mechanism before, so I have no clue on how this compares with others. It seems like a 1 in 3 chance to me, but the statisticians with their probability curves can set me straight...
** Barter is starting 'money', but in small, valuable objects; Reflex represents defence and initiative; and, Vitality functions as a measure of health, before something falls off...
*** Carving - A common, but extreme, punishment amongst Adam, which involves reducing a criminal down to their spare part
**** Apparently, after the Second World War, an organisation smuggled the Führer's body to South America. Nazi activists created clones from the viable DNA of the body and held them in cold storage. In the aftermath of the most recent war, many of these secret clone factories have fallen into disrepair and bandits have raided their vaults, unaware of what they might release...
For the truly curious, you can pick up the whole game and a bunch of supplements and adventures at RPGNow/DriveThru for a $2 Xmas Bundle deal
- Last edited Sat Nov 30, 2013 8:54 am (Total Number of Edits: 2)
- Posted Sat Nov 30, 2013 8:53 am