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I’m going to go ahead and start by saying this is my first review of a game of any kind so if I’m not up to standards - be kind.


The second thing I want to say is how sorry I feel for anyone who tried to describe what Lacuna pt. 1 is before the release of the movie Inception. I picked up Lacuna a few years ago and I saw some immediate potential to it, but was let down by the structure and some of the cartoon-like aspects. Sitting down to read it again, I could hear the long, deep throng of the Inception tone filling my ears - and with that the game opened up a bit more. I will do my best to keep references to the movie down, but at some points, the comparison is unavoidable. Enough about my initial thoughts, on to the review:


STRUCTURE:


The structure of the book is something akin to trying to fish with a cargo net; obviously the big fish get caught and if you’re really lucky some mid-size ones get stuck but the bulk of the catch evades you. The book is poorly organized, sparse on content and fairly confusing at first glance. As is so popular with modern RPG books, Lacuna starts with a bit of fiction and a quick introduction but that’s where the similarity ends.


I suppose it can be argued that the starting point for many RPGs is to explain what statistics drive their game, but with Lacuna it feels abrupt and confusing. At this point in the book the reader knows nothing about the game or the setting; everything has been a mystery (intentionally) from the start and it’s not like the reader is walking into a game with a big dragon on the cover and a name like 'Gnome Crusader.'


The first thing the player knows is that Mystery agents are defined by insubstantial traits and that heart rate is important. Wait, what’s a Mystery agent? Heart rate? Yeah, you have an idea, I have an idea... Inception; but if you’re a first time reader to this book it all makes no sense. The Mechanics section is followed up by a character creation chapter, a setting chapter, a chapter about the company that the agents work for and a few small hints at what sort of characters can be found in the world of Lacuna. To make matters worse, all of this is jammed into about 22 pages.


I believe the reasons for the failings of the structure are two fold. First, the game originally appeared in a PDF magazine so the content by nature had to be limited. Second, the game was put out as a free PDF shortly after so there wasn’t a ton of incentive to really polish the presentation. Throughout numerous parts of the book and almost all online material, there seems to be this huge campaign to say that Lacuna isn’t unfinished or disorganized, it’s ambiguous, open-ended and mysterious. I disagree. Sweet Agatha is mysterious, Dread is open-ended and ambiguous, Lacuna is just messy. But don’t worry, it gets better-much better.


What I hated: The organization of the book; it should have introduced the ideas and concepts first then the mechanics. No matter how often people will tell me that the book was intentionally unfinished, I just don't buy it. With a game as good as Lacuna in concept, I don't mind being handed an unfinished game but don't try to hipster me into thinking that you're handing me a mysterious, open-concept design that's 'supposed' to be missing the left front tire.


What I loved: The messages to the reader that the mystery belongs to them are really well done. Had the game been polished more I would have praised the author for this approach until the end of time!


Bottom line: Layout should be the first thing that gets re-tooled in any future Lacuna projects; which I hope get released before some hack writes a half-cocked Inception game and ruins the genre.



MECHANICS


The mechanics of the game are going to put some people off. It’s part of what I would like to call the 5th generation of gaming. If the 1st generation was the 70’s and the original versions of all the games, Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, etc. then I would say that the early eighties quickly grabbed hold of a second generation of refined games that looked at things like balance and game mechanics in more detail.


The third generation was the late 80’s phase where there was an explosion of games from a variety of makers each looking to sell tons of supplements and boxed sets; I would typify this as the days of the 101 GURPS books and the last rotund expansions of TSR. The fourth generation was a kind of renaissance of gaming in my opinion, new companies on the scene brought new ideas and a new standard of book design while at the same time a simplification of rules; these are the genesis days for White Wolf, Magic the Gathering (CCG yet still RPG influential), and Wizards of the Coast.


The age we live in now I believe is a 5th evolution, in an environment with such impressive competition from the electronic gaming industry there is a new pressure to offer experiences and situations that cannot be replicated with a thumbstick or a keyboard. Here we see the evolution of wildly new and often simplistic systems that put more emphasis on the creativity of the participants than on the rules. Despite being a brand new incarnation, 4th edition D&D is still a 4th gen game at best; it’s games like Burning Wheel, Dread, Savage Worlds, Don’t Rest Your Head, and Lacuna that are really changing how RPGs are designed and played.


{Yes, I know these are primarily Indie games, but that’s because Indie games will often take a risk on new systems that big producers shy from. I think that White Wolf is really on the verge of producing some serious 5th generation stuff but they have a fan bases that they have to cater toward (checkout Murder City for a look at the different stuff they can produce). As gamers demand more 5th gen games, more publishers will create them}


Ok... so I cut my review in half to diatribe on my personal take on RPG history - if you disagree with my take, please email me directly or better yet, start your own forum about it; leave this for Lacuna.


The only reason I include this is so that you will understand me when I say that Lacuna may be the ultimate expression of 5th generation game design. There are stats in Lacuna for the same reason that time is measured in seconds; no matter how free form and whimsical one wants to be, at some point you just need to know how long something takes, how fast something is or how much time you have left. Does it have to be Force, Talent, Instinct and Access? Nope, could be Concentration, Clearance, Charisma and Catharsis; the matter is completely arbitrary. This isn’t to say that great time wasn’t spent deciding on those final 4 attributes, only that they are subordinate elements to the story.


The way they are rated is equally abstract, rather than have a number beside them; they are rated as impaired, deficient, nominal, proficient or exceptional. Each one has an effect on a standard dice-pool roll. The dice pool is rolled against set target numbers looking to get a mediocre, nominal or exceptional result. These results are then applied abstractly; if you make the target number set for you, you accomplish what you set out to do. In combat there are no hit-points or wounds; injury is a ‘special effect,’ a flavouring added to the story, it can have as little or as much influence as the individual GM desires. If a player attacks an NPC and rolls a mediocre success then the NPC is grazed, a nominal that NPC is injured, an Exceptional, they’re dead. It’s that simple.


{As per my structure comments, keep in mind that at this point, the reader doesn’t know it all takes place in a dream ... weird huh?}


Every time a player rolls an attribute they gain challenge points, these challenge points are collected separately for each attribute and can be used to temporarily boost that stat.


Players can also choose to modify the risk of any roll by agreeing to roll for an action more than once; any failure in the series fails the roll, while multiple success allows for bigger and better actions to take place. (Plus more challenge points)


The only stat that really matters is heart rate. Any time a ‘Mystery Agent’ does anything; the action increases their heart rate. Agents have a resting, target and maximum heart rate. As the Agent does more, their heart rate increases; when they hit maximum heart rate they can either eject from the dream state or they can risk suffering a heart attack. Mystery agents are trained to focus themselves into a relaxed state to bring their heart rate down but are limited to how many times they can do this by their Talent trait.


Thing I hated: Challenge points, they were a bit useless and didn’t make sense to me; I understand the concept of doing something repetitively and getting better at it but it seemed to me that a player who was constantly using his Force skill would get exhausted from the concentration! {I had a player who partially broke the system by jumping up the sides of buildings repetitively with multiple risks then relaxing his heart rate in order to have lots of force challenge points saved up for a fight.}


Thing I loved: The heart rate system. Keep in mind that this game was written six years before Inception came out... it's brilliant. Your character is pretty much invulnerable in the game world unless you give yourself a heart attack (or slip into the deep blue, but we'll get to that). You can do pretty much anything you want as long as you don't stress your mind to the point of causing your autonomic functions physical damage.


Bottom line: Is the system perfect? Nope, not even close; but it's different and different is good - in this case very good. The system is also simple enough that a few houserule tweaks will make it something very playable for individual styles. For example, in my game I allow a kind of damage: anytime the character would have been killed by something, they must add double the number rolled to damage them onto their heart rate. You can imagine the tension players feel when there's a little skirmish and one takes a bullet to the chest, their heart rate is clocking near max... do they eject themselves immediately or stay in just one more round? Obviously in September I ran a deep immersion game where there was no ejecting... imagine a character gasping for air in a rapidly flooding basement, trying to relax their heart rate enough to attempt an escape.



CONCEPT/SETTING


The concept is actually a bit complex and fairly cheese flavoured. Some time ago scientists experimenting with sleep patterns broke through a deep wall and found the Jungian collective unconsciousness that we all access while we sleep. There are several levels to this world but the one where all the action takes place is called Blue City. This is a city where we all dream mediocre dreams and everything works in a misty, fantasy version of how it works here. This territory is primarily explored by an organization known as the Company, which is a shadowy 1950's version of the CIA mixed with a McCarthy wet-dream version of the FBI (No pun intended). The Company sends teams of Mystery agents into Blue City for a variety of reasons: sometimes to explore, sometimes to investigate people's dreams, sometimes to cure criminals of their hostility. Yeah... you heard me, cure criminals of their hostility...


Ok so in the midst of Blue City there is a giant rift, like a chasm on the floor of an ocean. This Lacuna is the basis for the game's name (nifty huh?). The chasm is a bottomless hole that noone comes back from unscathed, for most people it makes them drooling fools, for violent criminals it makes them timid and mild mannered. So your job in many cases is to identify hostile personalities in Blue City and expose them to the Lacuna...I think...this is based on about two paragraphs of information.


Blue City also has a variety of inhabitants that are native and are not tied into any human sleeper; the best theory on who they are is simply that Blue City is part of a parallel reality that we tap into while we sleep. There are a few notable inhabitants that are provided to whet the appetite; all suitably underdescribed. First, there is 'the girl' or 'the girl from Blue City'... there are some fiction pieces that mention her, but that's it. Secondly there are the spidermen...nope, these are not an army of Toby McGuire's swinging around... ::Shudder:: These are some sort of secret police that show up from time to time - the game does not explain why they grow suspicious of agents, why they exist, or what motivates them, it only mentions that they carry little guns that kill sleepers inside the dreams and their bodies on the outside.


I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the Company but there is actually quite a bit of information contained about the structure of the company, mentors who your characters could have had, what happened to them and what special operation divisions exist. The idea of being a Company man was, and still is the least appealing aspect for me. When I first ran this game I played it as though the players were assigned to scrap an old lab from the 60's and discovered the immersion tables.


What I hated: Not much...I pretty much liked the setting to its core. I expressed my disinterest with the company but that's nothing next to the potential the setting exhibits.


What I loved: Just about everything. The concept of the second reality, a secret police force that monitors your presence in that reality, a mysterious girl who seems to show up at critical moments to do mysterious things. There is also a kind of film noir feel that gets sifted into everything and made me run my first game as a kind of Dark City version of Lacuna.


Bottom Line: I'm not including some stuff about the Company, Deep Blue, Black level, Mnemonic processing... not because I'm too tired to finish but because...um...I want to leave it as a mystery?....



THE SCOOP


I like Lacuna, I like it a lot. It has an open-concept in the way it handles character actions that is not only adaptable to different play styles but also feels very dreamlike. Is it Inception the game? No, but using this as a base for that will satisfy you far more than trying to use any other system. For an experienced GM it takes nothing to doctor the rules a bit to get what you want from it; if a character wants to be able to influence the scenery with their talent, I let them, if they want to matrix jump to another building... they can attempt it for 3 risk levels... didn't make it and want the pavement to bounce you... another risk level roll. I didn't particularly like the spidermen so I replaced them with bald men in black robes; I ditched the criminal rehabilitation theme for a story about searching for someone lost in the Deep blue. I allowed players to do really dream like things, one character had a pumped-up access stat so I let him reach behind himself, under his trench coat and produce any item that could have conceivably fit back there...I stopped short of him pulling out Al Pacino to go scarface on some hostiles. My point is, there is a lot of potential here and yes, despite what I said about not buying the whole unfinished business, I like the openness of the game. I really hope they re-tool this game into a 2nd version!


RATING


Presentation (Style, Readability, Artwork): 4.5 - A little more polish would have done wonders

Rules (Complexity, Logic, Playability): 7 - Highly dynamic concept that makes up for any cracks and breaks

Story (Setting, Concept, Intrigue): 10 - I don't like tens, I don't like admitting a concept may be perfect; but I bet Chris Nolan stole h*BWAAAAAAAAAAANG*


Last word: Please for the love of pete, resist the temptation to do dreams within dreams... that makes for good movie pacing, but your game doesn't need it.
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Hmmm, your review is great, but it made me drop Lacuna from 1 to 3 in my wishlist rating. It seems to require a lot of work to make it enjoyable. What about the players? Do they have some freedom in creating the world and narrating or it falls on the GM? Is it made for single-sessions or a campaign?
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Hi, thanks for the reply!

Quote:
But it seems to require a lot of work to make it enjoyable


I actually wouldn't say it's that much work, the system is very simple so changes are rather intuitive.

Quote:
Do they have some freedom in creating the world and narrating or it falls on the GM?


They have about the same amount of control as they would in any other game. If you're talking about the sort of control that a game like Burning Empires provides them with... the book doesn't say. Again, I think it comes down to what you let the players do; if a player wants to dictate where the next alley leads, I'd let them if they made a few risk rolls against their Talent.

Quote:
Is it made for single-sessions or campaigns?


I got the impression that Challenge points were intended to act like experience points to allow players to get better over the course of a campaign... as I said before, I didn't like them for that - I don't think the system has an aqequate advancement system. I did play a small campaign but the characters didn't improve steadily game over game, they only changed.
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I very much think that the confused (and confusing) style of the book is completely intentional, much like Normality.
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Hi, thanks for the comment.

Jlerpy wrote:
I very much think that the confused (and confusing) style of the book is completely intentional, much like Normality.


That's certainly the popular notion. I disagree, but I guess that's obvious . Cheers!
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Hi agduncan, thanks for writing this review! Regarding the messiness of the book, I think there are three distinct issues:

1) The game purposely leaves out a lot of details. Some of those things are apparently coming in a Part II, but some were definitely left out to allow player groups to fill in the blanks on their own through exploration of those undefined spaces. As a GM, it's way more interesting to me to have a variety of directions the mystery story can take, than have one secret backstory that only I know, and that once there's a Big Reveal the game is over for me.

2) The book is admittedly poorly organized. Charts required for character creation details are spread out across the book. Elements are introduced before they are explained. There's no rule summary (but thankfully the rules are very light, and it's easy to find or self-produce a quick reference). There's not really much of an excuse for this, except maybe that the content and mechanics are quite closely intertwined and it's a bit difficult to clearly segment some things away from others. The book also follows a "clearance level" kind of structure where player info is in the front and GM info (and perhaps "experienced player info") is in the back, which further complicates organization.

The PDF version (available through RPGNow since quite recently) should really have had bookmarks or somesuch, which would've assisted with this (minor) issue.

3) The aesthetics of the book are designed to mirror the mechanics and setting of the game. The same pacing arc and symptoms thereof which you find in a game session are found in a "session" of reading the book front to back. If you've played the game and read the book, you'll know what I'm talking about; otherwise, I'm probably not making any sense. Suffice to say that the text is broken up, sometimes harshly, by all manner of graphical and textual artifacts which serve nicely to set the mood of the game and provide GM inspiration, but make it a bit hard to read at times. I really enjoy it; others maybe won't.

That personal take aside, there is one BIG issue with your review - the mechanics you're talking about are not the ones in Lacuna Part I Second Attempt. I'm guessing you're referring to the original PDF version, which was the First Attempt. The rules have changed considerably since then, through simplifying some things in favour of adding others. There are no target values for dice rolls anymore (everything succeeds on an 11+ and fails otherwise) and there are no degrees of success. There are no Challenge Points, instead there are Commendation Points which are earned when rolling 6s while in Target Heart Rate. There are Techniques for manipulating Blue City in interesting ways. Attributes are also "hit points" in the sense that if rolled when you've exceeded your Heart Rate, or in particularly dangerous situations, if you fail you lose a point, and if you lose all points in an attribute you die. Also noteworthy is that the GM never rolls dice; the players are the only ones who can interface with the conflict mechanics.

The big aspect that's been added is the concept of Static, and for the benefit of virgin players, I won't elaborate on what that means beyond saying it's a terrific GM tool and a parallel pacing mechanic to Heart Rate.

I've never played the First Attempt version but my gut tells me all these changes are phenomenal improvements and make for a world of difference in play. I've run it about 10 sessions now and enjoy it tremendously as a GM; those I've played the game with have been maybe 80% "love it" and 20% "don't care for it one bit", which is what I'd expect for a game of this type and the methods by which I run it.
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