Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Land of Eem

Land of Eem is an upcoming RPG that can best be described as the answer to the question, "What if the Muppets played D&D?" This is another one of my most anticipated RPGs of 2023, and my review here is based solely on the Quickstart Guide.

I love the Muppets. (My favorite is Beaker.) So, I was attracted to this RPG based on its theme, but I also approached the game with a healthy dose of guarded optimism. What I expected from the Land of Eem was an entertaining read, but not actually a game that I'd want to bring to my table. What I got was both, but surprisingly more of the later than the former.

Don't get me wrong. The Quickstart Guide is quite entertaining to read, but what was most engaging was how creative, interesting and ultimately playable the game mechanisms appear to be. If my instincts and experience from 40+ years of roleplaying tell me anything, it's that, "The Land of Eem is a good game." It's a really good game.

There are some of the things that I expected from a game that wants to "feel" like, "Muppets the Fantasy RPG." Like silly or quirky names for characters and locations such as, "The Drippy Downs" or "Scalawag Strand." But, this is tempered with some truly smart and playable advice for creating this genre of roleplay. Here is a quote from the Quickstart Guide that really spoke to me:

"The game is designed to value creativity, roleplaying and exploration over excessive combat. While getting into fights is still part of the game, players almost always have opportunities to talk their way out of conflict. This is because almost every creature or “monster” encountered in the Land of Eem is a person. They speak a language, have thoughts, feelings, desires and motivations, and players should be willing to parley before running headlong into a slugfest. True, some creatures are ultimately selfish, ruthless, evil or simply difficult to talk to, but it would be wrong to assume every manticore wants to eat you, just as it would be foolish to think every human you meet wants to kill you."

This paragraph really spoke to me. I thought about Muppet monsters and realized that every encounter with such things would likely begin with a verbal exchange. That's roleplaying. This is really smart advice for running a game like Eem. Heck, it's really smart advice for running any game. And, that's the thing that I kept thinking with every turn of the page, "smart." Land of Eem is smart.

While the tone of Eem is described as, "fantasy muppets," Eem is not actually based on Muppets at all. It is based on a graphic novel series by Ben Costa and James Parks called, "Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo." Consequently, the RPG is written and designed by the same team. The Land of Eem is set in the world of their graphic novel series.

The Quickstart Guide begins with a brief overview of a small section of the world known as the "Mucklands," describing key locations and a bit of its history. This is actually a pretty "dark" setting. Greedy goblin tycoons are pushing forward a fantasy industrial age destroying nature and magic, and devastating the landscape, while practically enslaving their workforce of downtrodden common folk.

There's a taste of "Fern Gully" here in the "evil goblins" technological advance, and the mix of fantasy magic and industrial age style "progress" makes me think, "gaslamp fantasy." This in turn makes me think of early SNES era Final Fantasy games - specifically, Final Fantasy III (or VI in Japan.) This for me is a very good thing. Eem isn't just silly fluff. There's a rich fully realized fantasy world here, and while it actually appears quite dark and foreboding, players are encouraged to keep game play lighter and more optimistic. But, that's only one option. Eem is far more versatile than what is implied by it's tagline.

Unsurprisingly, Eem's game mechanics are of the typical, "roll a die and add a modifier to arrive at an outcome" variety. What is surprising however, is that the die used here isn't a d20, but a d12. That tightens things up and makes each modifier added to the roll more potent. Smart!

Outcomes aren't just, "hit or miss" or "yes or no." Each roll provides an outcome in degrees that requires some roleplay to adjudicate. This can be tricky to master, but I think Eem handles it well, and the game text provides many useful examples.

When performing a task, you roll a d12 plus the appropriate modifier to arrive at a result as shown on the table below.

   1-2     Complete Failure
   3-5     Failure with a Plus
   6-8     Success with a Twist
   9-11    Success
   12      Complete Success

With "complete failure" something bad happens. "Failure with a plus" is a fail forward, you don't get what you want, but you get something. "Success with a Twist" means you get what you want, but with unexpected consequences. "Success" is just that, and "Complete Success" means that you did even better than expected, earning some kind of bonus in the process. Players are encouraged to brainstorm with the GM when adjudicating these results, which keeps everyone involved and doesn't lay everything in the GM's lap. What was it that I keep saying? Oh yeah ... "smart."

Opposed actions have the active player reduce their roll by the opposing character's skill bonus. This is how combat attacks are handled, with the degrees of success affecting damage. Damage in the game is called "Dread" and it reduces a character's "Courage" stat. The rules for conflict are designed to make actual combat a last resort. The order of operations goes: 1) chance to talk, trick, sneak or use some other skill, 2) chance to run, 3) forced to fight - with each round starting back at the top giving continuing opportunities to avoid combat or to end hostilities. 

Modifiers from skills, equipment, items and abilities can never exceed +3, but players have a pool of Quest Points that they can spend to increase their results after rolling the dice. That's right, I said, "after!" Finally, true dice roll mitigation that works! But, you only have so many Quest Points to spend each session, so you must use them wisely. The game also uses, "Advantage" and "Disadvantage" allowing players to roll two dice, but keep only the highest or lowest respectively.

There are four core attributes: Vim, Vigor, Knack, and Knowhow and each of these has exactly four Skills associated with them. There's a nice symmetry here, and all 16 skills appear to be useful. It's clear that a lot of thought went into this design. There are also four "Stats." These are each modified by one of the core attributes: Courage (modified by Vim), Attack (modified by Vigor), Defense (modified by Knack) and Quest Points (modified by Knowhow.) More symmetry. This kind of symmetry isn't necessary, but I like it.

Characters aren't just a collection of stats and numbers, players create relationships with all the other players' characters. They define personal quests and a backstory and are awarded XP for roleplaying these aspects. In fact, no XP is granted for combat. Players only get XP for roleplaying and for the discoveries inherent in exploring the game world.

Characters have an ancestry called their "Folk," and a character profession called their "Class." Each Folk gives a unique special ability. Each Class provides some unique perks and two special abilities per level. You must choose one of the two special abilities each level to keep, but not immediately. This is another one of those "smart" bits. With each new level including first, you gain both special abilities, but when you advance to the next level, you are able to keep only one of the two abilities from your former level. It's lose one to gain two. What this does is allow players to "try before you buy" playing a level with both choices before taking the plunge and customizing their characters.

The Quickstart Guide clocks in at 47 pages and that's without the game's 6 pregenerated characters. The pregenerated characters are in a separate PDF that's 18 pages, 3 for each character. There is one character for each of the six Classes in the game: the Bard, the Knight-Errant, the Dungeoneer, the Loyal Chum, the Rascal, and the Gnome. And, each of the pregenerated characters is of a different Folk: Boggart, Gelatinous Goo, Bogril, Shyrm, Human, and Gnome (Gnome is the only Folk that is also a Class.)

Each character includes the descriptions of Class Abilities up to level 5. That means that if players want to keep playing the game beyond the included sample adventure, they can. A play group can quite easily play any sort of adventure or campaign desired. The tone might be anything from: Fraggle Rock, to the Dark Crystal, to Lord of the Rings, to Final Fantasy. If you want a more serious game, change some of the class and folk names to something less, "muppety." Just remember: Place an emphasis on role play. Combat is not a goal. Treat monsters as though they are people. 

I absolutely love the Land of Eem Quickstart Guide. There's so much more here that I could talk about: innovative systems for money and encumbrance, rules for overland travel, random encounters, weapons and armor ... so much good. It's one of the best Quickstarts I've read. I recommend checking it out for yourself and joining the discussion on our Facebook group to let me know if the Land of Eem becomes one of your most anticipated games of 2023!

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