Well, I didn’t quite break my own deadline with this. I finished reading Stalker, all 242 black-and-white pages of it. No, it’s not a game about spying and harassing young girls.
To repeat what I’ve mentioned here at least a couple of times in the past, it’s a science fiction roleplaying game from Burger Games, and it’s based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker has also been a significant inspiration. I have neither read the book nor seen the film, though the novel is about five books deep in my to-read pile and the DVD is in the mail.
The RPG is only available in Finnish. I considered also doing the review in Finnish, but I figured a bilingual blog would be just annoying and confusing to my other reader, who doesn’t understand Finnish.
For those of you who need brushing up on your Soviet sci-fi, the core of the story is that thirteen years ago, six places in the world were hit by an unexplained phenomenon (often theorised to be a visit by extraterrestrial lifeforms) that twisted the laws of nature and rendered them uninhabitable and very dangerous. In the Zone one might run into, for example, an area where gravity is increased thousandfold, or a region of vacuum with no discernible physical barriers to keep it that way.
However, there are also artifacts, items not of this world that also defy the laws of nature. Some of them are nearly useless toys, such as a needle that creates light patterns in the air, but others have terrible powers, like a lamp that kills anything its green light touches. There’s also an item that’s weightless when touched by a living creature, but weighs many tons when it’s not.
The Institute is an organisation nominally under the UN that controls the six Zones and access to them. It is corrupt, authoritarian, and has guards that shoot first and ask questions later. However, the Zones are large, the budget is limited and there are areas where a group of determined and stealthy people can get through the net of guard towers and patrol routes.
Some of those people are stalkers – criminals who enter the Zone and brave its perils to bring back artifacts for their customers, who themselves are sometimes scientists working for the Institute.
That’s the PCs.
The game’s tone is grim and realistic. It doesn’t happen in a far-off future, it happens in the now. Violence is ugly and painful, poverty is rampant, prejudices and misery are commonplace. Authorities are corrupt. Most people are too preoccupied with survival to worry about morals. Death is inevitable and ever-present.
Of course, the game is mostly set around the Zone, where the proximity of the dangerous region has prompted most people to move away, and where only mutants, refugees, stalkers and other criminals dwell. And the Institute, of course.
The RPG’s default setting is around the French Zone, in Toulouse, but it gives short overviews of the five others – Klamath Falls, USA; Marmont, Canada (the setting of the novel); Derbent, Russia (homage to the movie Stalker); Saysu, China; and Sapporo, Japan.
One of the things that people have been making noise about in Stalker is the Flow system. It’s a diceless system with a resolution mechanic that relies on the GM grading the player’s roleplaying and his idea, adding possible skill bonuses and then multiplying and comparing to the target number. It’s an interesting system, since it’s diceless while still retaining some crunchiness. It also actively supports roleplaying and gives the player more power to affect the outcome.
Character creation is mechanically simple. You pick ten very broad skills, come up with explanations for how the character has them and then give each of them an associated negative side, something bad from the character’s history. A former policeman may have been fired for taking bribes, or a doctor killed his patient. Something like that. It’s a nifty way to bring depth to the character.
It’s ironic that the book starts by saying it’s probably not a good first roleplaying game for a newbie, and then in the GM section goes on to give some of the most comprehensive and best all-purpose GM advice I’ve seen in a game book, including some very basic things. The seeming contradiction may be a vestige of the extraordinarily long time the game has been in the works, but I don’t really mind. It’s good advice.
In general, the book is packed tightly with setting, adventure hooks and advice. It’s an advantage of having a light ruleset – more space for the meat of the game. This is the good stuff.
The font used throughout the book is Comic Sans. It’s clean and readable. I showed it to some graphic designers who nearly had an apoplexy. I do not know why, but it may be useful knowledge when dealing with graphic designers.
There’s the occasional typo and grammatical error, but nothing major. The art is black and white, and very dark.
It’s a good game. Very nifty, with a good, evocative setting and an interesting rules system.
Personally, though, I don’t see myself running this game. Playing, yes, but not running. It’s partly a deep-seated psychological need to have my dice bag with me, and partly because the setting just doesn’t do it for me, that way. It’s interesting to read about and well written, but I don’t get that “wow, I gotta run this right now” feeling I get off games like Godlike and Delta Green (which do set a very high bar, admittedly).
Also, Stalker doesn’t feel like a game you play many campaigns with. You’ve got the Zone and the artifacts and the Institute and the mutants, but you’ll end up retreading the same ground a lot, which demands a great deal from the GM in terms of creativity and work. Especially trips to the Zone could get hard to keep fresh for very long.
It’s a good game, though. I recommend it. Thumbs up.