This summer, I had the privilege of going to Gencon for the first time. I've been over the specifics of my trip on this blog in the past, so I won't go back into those old stories; but something has happened since the trip that has had a pretty big impact on me. I discovered that D&D isn't the only RPG out there.
My whole life, I've been led to believe that the only type of RPG that exists (or that anyone actually plays) is the d20 game. The d20 is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to RPG systems. For one thing, it gives you a very nice 5% increment random number generator; but for the other, you wind up with game engines that are incredible reliant on luck to accomplish even basic tasks, while also having so much variance that at times it feels you aren't even playing the game.
Apparently, others have been feeling the same way about the d20 for years, and they've been putting out RPGs that have completely different gameplay mechanics. I got to learn about one of those games at Gencon this year, and I'd like to share with you some of the things I really like about it now. The game is called Of Dreams and Magic (ODAM for short), and it might have changed my entire perspective on RPGs.
"Magic is Real, and Dreams are Important"
I think the best place to start is the premise of the game. That's what really caught my interest in the first place, and oh boy is it a tasty morsel! In ODAM, the players (and this is a game that can be played with anywhere from two to five players, realistically, but is probably best in small groups) are living in a world very similar to ours. Justin Trudeau might be Prime Minister, and Star Wars might be on it's way into theatres - but there is one very important difference between the world of ODAM and our own. In the world of ODAM, magic is real and dreaming is how a person can touch it.
Each player plays a character in this 'real world', called the Waking World in game, and this person will just be an ordinary human - perhaps a school teacher, a hacker, or a police officer - who had a very strange dream one night. In that dream, the character finds themself in the middle of a conflict and they manifest an avatar that gives them the strength needed to fight off the nightmare. This dream - called the Crux - is what awakens the character to the truth of magic, as they learn to harness the power of their dream and manifest their avatar in the real world.
Think of it as a cross between Nightmare on Elm Street and The Matrix. You are living in the world of the ordinary, among those still sleepwalking through the truth of reality, still in the clutches of The Doubt. The Doubt is the fog that blinds humanity from the fact that magic exists - it is the force that operates in shadows and the darkest recesses of your mind, preventing you from seeing the truth. In terms of the game, the Doubt operates through agents known and Reavers who are able to manifest in the Waking World while also going into people's dreams and messing them around.
Physically, how does it stack up?
I'm about to get into the game proper, but first I think it is important to talk about the book itself. In a lot of cases, the quality of the book can tell you an awful lot about the company who produces it, and I think this is no exception. The book is a hardbound (and very rugged) 287 pages, including a blank character sheet and a single page of errata. The book is full to brimming with amazing and evocative artwork that really draws you into the page you are reading. All of this begins with the amazing cover art by Phillip Simpson, who really captures the essence of the conflict between the Awoken and the Doubt.
The book is a little heavy, as a person who walks and bikes most places he goes, I can tell you that taking it with you everywhere you go could become a burden (more than just the D&D Players Handbook, but much less than any two D&D books), so keep that in mind if you are a wandering gamer. Outside of the heft of the single-volume rules system, everything about it feels as though a lot of love and passion went into the production; from the artistic outline around each page, to the choice and size of the font, it feels like every aspect of the production was meant to feel as luxurious as possible. Very impressive considering this is a debut from the company!
The first half of the book is rules and stats for all of the different equipment, spells and Animus abilities that excist in the game, while the second half is dominated by NPC characters and a complete introduction adventure. While the Intro adventure might have been better placed in a second volume (a 'getting started' book, if you will), the added cost might not have been justified as a new publisher putting together their first book. Trust me, the added weight is well worth it as you begin your own Dreaming!
Now that I've sold you on the premise of the game and the book (that is well worth your fifty dollars!), I'd like to try and sell you on the engine, which is probably the most innovative part of the game!
Born and Raised in a 20-Sided World
As I mentioned earlier, I was raised by the D20. I've played Dungeons and Dragons almost exclusively for the past twenty-some years, and the idea of playing an RPG that doesn't use the D20 as it's core RNG is very strange to me. Let me tell you something, this is very different, but very rewarding!
In ODAM, you build your waking world character using a stat-buying method. There are four elements that you distribute among being "excellent" "good" and "average" which will determine how many points you get in each of those elements in order to buy base attributes (think SDCIWC), magic abilities, skills and traits as well as personal wealth. This change from D&D sold me immediately on the engine, as I have long felt that character creation is the worst part of any D20 system game, and this feels far more interactive.
Once you have your Waking World character, you must then develop your Animus which is the form you take in the Dream World that you learn to manifest in the Waking World as you gain control over your powers. You start with a core archetype (fantasy, reality, scifi) and you use a modular trait/powers system in order to create an Animus that reflects the superhero inside of you. You'll notice that I haven't used the word "Class" once in this part of the review. That's because ODAM is a classless system, in the best possible way!
Everything about ODAM is modular, you take abilities from one section, toss them in a blender with traits and skills from another and when it comes out you have a fully realized Animus smoothie! This is the part that is most confusing to me, and it has taken me a long time to wrap my head around it. I feel that this will wind up being the part that is most difficult for the majority of "Filthy Casual" role players like me to grok. Once you have, however, you realize that the possibilities are virtually endless!
Now that you have a Waking World character and the Animus you will manifest; you need something to fight again, you need a Nemesis! The Nemesis in this game represents a special, more powerful Reaver; specificially the one who came to you in your Crux dream and accidentally awakened you to the truth of magic. This can be a treacherous sorcerer seeking world domination, or a horrific Alien brood mother who just wants to see the world burn. Your Nemsis can be anything, so long as it is tied in some way to your Animus.
Getting into the Action!
When I built my first character (Edric Heartsmith - a nurse from Boston whose Crux made him into a mighty Paladin who must drive off the dark dragon Galador in order to save his city), I chose the Divine Knight passive aspect, which gives him a golden aura along with a glowing halo when he manifests his Animus. The aspect starts out by giving him a +7 to his armour and a +5 to his resistance stat, but as he gains more "Control Ranks" in the Animus, it will also give him a +10 modifier on all healing effects, immunity to fear (Paladins fear no monster!) as well as a +10 modifier to all magic based attacks.
Maybe this is simply my traditional fantasy RPG knowledge coming out, and I'm hoping to build a few more outlandish characters really soon.
With our characters in hand, we can get started playing!
The primary engine of the game is a 2d10 system, in which one is a positive integer and the other is a negative one, added together with your skill, they form your score. This is compared to the difficulty level of the action you are attempting and if you are over the target, then you get what is known as Competitive Advantage Points in order to modify your results. You can spend CAP on a skill check to make you quieter, faster, or just more effective overall! *This compares very favourably with the D&D system, in which your die roll represents the bulk of your ability check score while in ODAM your skills represent the bulk of your score, meaning that luck and variance tend to have less impact on your successes and failures.*
Example time: Edric Heartsmith is a nurse who has a lot of skill in the healing arts; he finds an injured person in the ruins of a collapsed building. He uses his Medicine skill in order to triage his wounds, and the dreamweaver has considered that the difficulty of this check is a 15. He gets lucky and rolls a +6 on his skill test. When he compares that added to his 20 skill ranks between Academics and Medicine, he has passed his skill test with 11 CAP to spare! Using these CAP, he's able to understand not only the nature of the injuries, but also use his field kit to remove some shrapnel from the person's wound and stitch him up with minimal scarring!
Edric to the rescue!
Being able to use CAP to modify the results of an otherwise simple pass/fail scenario adds a pretty great dramatic element to the skill test system. You aren't simply rolling a 20-sided die and praying for "anything but a one!", you are invested in the effects that the two dice have on your rolls, and you can have confidence that even if the Doubt creeps in, and gives you a big negative modifier, your skill ranks can often get you through the mundane challenges you'll face in early adventures. As you might note in the above scenario, the odds of Edric failing to triage the patient was very low, only suffering a failure on a -6 or worse - the die roll often ends up being a "degree of success" variable, which adds an awful lot of personal choice to eventhe most basic task.
I've found that this system, for as much as it still involves all of the Dice-Rolling randomness of Dungeons and Dragons, is far more compelling than the D20 model. The dice feel like they are less important than your imagination, which is probably the best thing I can say about this game.
To Arms! To Battle! To Hell and Back I say!
Let's take a look at some combat in ODAM before I wrap this baby up; Edric is in a small group of fighters who are facing off against a Reaver and a few brainwashed minions of The Doubt. James Relevant is a Cybernetic warrior with a blaster pistol, while Ilya Caramel is a pyromancer who uses her flame magic to deal devastation unto her foes.
James takes aim with his blaster against one of the minions, attempting a disabling strike, This is a ranged attack which will be an Ability Test against a difficulty (determined by the weapon and the range), and James' Blaster is a pretty accurate weapon, having a difficulty of only 15, though because he is aiming for a non-lethal part of the target's body, the dreamweaver rules that this smaller target gives the shot a +2 modification to damage. Assuming James hits, the minion will take 15 damage, as well as any modifications James is allowed due to any CAP he might accrue rolling the test.
Ilya is next, and her powers are primarily magical. By taking an action test against her Shaping Score (which is determined by the character's Animus rank, level one is 5, level 2 is 10 and so on), she compared her test against the rank of the spell she wishes to cast (level one spells have a difficulty of 5 and so on) and if her total score equals or exceeds the difficulty of the ability, then she succeeds. CAP also applies to magic in the same way it applies to any other action.
In this example, Ilya manifests her Animus and casts the Burn ability she has learned at Rank 1. She takes an ability test by rolling two ten sided dice, and adds (or subtracts) the result to her Shaping score and compares it to the difficulty of the spell. Ilya is a Rank 2 Animus, so her Shaping score is 10 plus her roll of +1, giving her 6 CAP to expend on adding damage or range to the spell. This use of her CAP allows Ilya to ensure that even as she increases in power, she is able to continue to use low-level spells to great effect!
But is it worth my hard-earned dollars?
From Character development to the in-game engine itself, this is a game that truly feels like it rewards players who are creative and invested in the world, rather than merely rewarding those players who are able to combine all of the best feats together to create a superhero. All of this, added on to the truly deluxe feeling of the book makes this a game that I cannot recommend enough! If you are looking for a new RPG to try out this holiday season, you can't do much better than Of Dreams and Magic, from ODAM Publishing.
Plus, from what I just read over on their website, they are already hard at work on a supplement that will add even more variety to the game with a whole array of new fully-formed Dreamscapes for you to include in your games! I'm definitely going to keep my eye out for that one, and I think you should too.
Until next time, may the dice ever be in your favour... and always be gaming!
Proviso: This piece has not been paid for in any way, but the publishers of ODAM have provided me with a copy of their book to try out. I have limited the number of pictures in this review in order to minimize the risk of breaking copyright. All images are the property of ODAM Publishing