Superheroes have been used to tell a lot of stories using symbolism and allegory. They can speak to our need to be the best version of ourselves, and they can speak to the worst traits evident in human beings who are handed unlimited power. They can even be stories about people that are isolated from other people all around them because they are different.
And sometimes they can touch on a few of these themes at once. Today’s review will be focusing on Pandora–Total Destruction. This is an RPG about extremely powerful people isolated from the rest of the world until they can learn to use their powers with care and precision. It’s also about a system that abuses and misunderstands what it is like to be forcibly removed from society.
I was a backer of the Kickstarter for this game, and I have known the designer, Todd Crapper, for years online from various RPG social media interactions. This game system was developed expressly for this game, and I have not had the opportunity to play the game at the time of this writing.
Pandora: Total Destruction
Publisher: Broken Ruler Games
Creator/Designer/Writer/Layout: Todd Crapper
Development/Safety Editor: Kate Bullock
Editor: Vincent Harper
Illustrator: Tithi Luadthong
This review is based on the PDF version of the game. This PDF is 179 pages long, which includes the following, in addition to the game content:
- Title page (2-page layout)
- Credits page (1 page)
- Kickstarter backers (1 page)
- Table of Contents (2 pages)
- Glossary (7 pages)
- Index (1 page)
- Storyline Ideas Appendix (6 pages)
- GM Character Creation Guidelines (2 pages)
- Character Sheet (2 pages)
- Moderator Sheet (4 pages)
- Session 0 Sheet (2 pages)
- Training Sheets (13 pages)
The opening page also has a memorial to the victims of the residential schools in Canada.
Except for the character sheets and various tables, most of the book is a single-column layout, with wide margins. Key terms are highlighted in yellow, and there are call-out boxes formatted as memos from the United Empowerment Organization. There are also bold, black sidebars that feature quotes from various characters.
The book is filled with full-color licensed art, often thematically depicting singular figures that appear to be wielding powerful abilities in urban landscapes.
There are lots of books that have attractive, colorful, or ornate formatting, but that doesn’t always make the book feel “comfortable” to read. This book uses its color artwork mainly for chapter transitions, but the use of borders and white space make it very easy to read and pleasant to look at.
This book is made up of the following sections:
- The Program (explanation of the setting and the overall theme of the game)
- Safety Protocols (running a session zero, establishing boundaries, and introducing safety tools)
- Enrollment (character and academy creation)
- Curriculum (session and campaign structure)
- Fundamentals (utilizing the mechanics)
- Graduation (deeper explanation of game elements)
- Academy Operations (deeper look at tying campaign elements to the academy)
- Management (game facilitator advice and targeted advice on specific scenes)
As noted above, after the standard game setting and rules are presented, there are supplementary materials for random story element generation. The various sheets for players and the game facilitator also summarize some of the procedures for quick reference.
What is This About?
The default setting is a world where some human beings are born with supernatural powers, and these superpowered individuals have been around since World War II. The superheroes that developed in the aftermath of the war were largely wiped out when aliens invaded. Many people with superpowers that weren’t superheroes helped in the fight against the aliens.
While superpowered individuals were appreciated for a long time, an incident where a powerful enhanced person killed over 60,000 people with an accidentally generated black hole caused the world to turn on people with powers. In the modern era, anyone with superpowers has to be trained in a Pandora Academy, and they cannot be allowed to leave until they are deemed to be in control of their powers.
Players are portraying Level 13 characters, characters whose powers have been classified as having the potential for mass destruction. Level 13 characters have the hardest time “graduating” from Pandora Academies.
The problem with the Pandora Academies is that they have deep, systemic issues. Many of the people that work there are poorly equipped to meet the needs of the people being trained. Some of them view their students as laboratory animals, and others are blatantly bigoted against people with powers. In many ways, the academies exist to make the population feel safe about the “dangerous” empowered, and are less concerned about the individuals that may end up spending their life inside an academy, taken away from their families and loved ones.
While international law requires super-powered individuals to be trained in these facilities, not all of these facilities are run by the government. There are private institutions, religious schools, and even military academies. But all of them run into the same problems and allow for the abuse and endangerment of their students.
I was pretty hooked on this setting from the start. While there is a lot of this setting that can be seen as allegorical to the residential schools that were set up by colonizing people of North America to reeducate indigenous people and strip them of their culture, it also calls to mind some of the “tough love” schools that exist in the United States. Places that are run like military encampments serving as a “last chance” for kids that have been in trouble in the past.
Unfortunately, nearly every situation where children are taken away from their families and forced to adhere to a strict regimen meant to “reorder” their thinking has led to places where children are abused mentally and physically, or even killed. Such places have often hidden the details of these horrendous situations in manners both ghastly and bureaucratic.
Unfortunately, part of why this hits home is that we’ve got a school like this in the town where I live, on the grounds of our former military base that was decommissioned.
Lifting Heavy Concepts
Knowing the inspiration for the setting, it’s probably no surprise that I would advocate being very careful about introducing these themes, setting boundaries, and using active safety tools. Thankfully, the book acknowledges this as well, and right after the setting is detailed, we get a whole chapter on what a session zero should look like, establishing lines for content that will be included in the game, and using active safety tools like the X-Card and OK Check-In.
There is also a session zero sheet included in the book. This not only serves as a place to store campaign information that has been brainstormed in the session but also several reminders about lines and veils and safety protocols. Happy to see all of this included, because while I love being able to explore a topic like this, there needs to be calibration tools to make sure that the game neither becomes harmful, nor disrespectful.
The characters are fairly simple. The main mechanical statistics they start with are dice ratings for Conflict, Interaction, and Protection. In addition to these dice, they also have an Overpower die to start. This reflects their still dangerous natural abilities. Whenever the character attempts to do something super heroic, they roll the die that matches the action they are taking, and then the Overpower die.
Characters can accumulate values, bonds, and lessons. Lessons and bonds can move difficulties up or down by one, whole values can move difficulties down based on their rating. Being able to move the target number is important, because not only is a character ineffective if they roll under the target number, but if they roll too high above the target number, the character generates havoc. Generating more than two havoc means their action was ineffective as well. In addition, that havoc has to be spent.
Havoc can be spent on the following effects:
- Collateral damage
- Harm (self)
- Threatening bystanders
- Group complications
- Harm (allies)
- Loss of powers
- Destroy something important
- Place someone in danger
- Destroy a landmark
- Take serious harm
- Create a manifestation
Characters can only take three harm before they are out of a scene. Other complications make the difficulty of actions one step more difficult for each one that applies, although those complications can be directly addressed and removed. Characters can willingly take harm to accomplish some tasks, and characters that take harm while helping others, or because of the actions of others, general value points.
Value points can eventually be spent to change an Overpower die into a Power die, which you can choose to use or not, and making it a little easier to manage how much havoc you generate when you attempt to use your powers.
Cycle of Play
A full story arc of Pandora involves three acts. Each of these three acts has several scenes that eventually culminate in a battle scene, with the third battle scene being the final confrontation with the campaign’s main villain. The twist is the main villain is somehow tied to the academy where the characters are training. The general themes of each act of the campaign are:
- Prologue (Optional)
- Act I (Exploration)
- Act II (Revelations)
- Act III (Conclusions)
- Epilogue (Optional)
Each of these acts is made up of scenes, which include the following:
- Spotlight Scene (characters can gain bonds and background)
- Training Scene (characters can gain lessons)
- Battle Scene (characters can earn value points)
The flow of the game is meant to encourage players to direct what they want to see in the game. To facilitate this, every player, including the GM, rolls a die at the beginning of an act. That’s how many scene points they have to spend to propose specific scenes. Once everyone has spent all of their scene points, the act moves towards its end, and the game facilitator frames the battle scene.
Players can frame scenes to explore the academy, deal with the aftermath of failure in a training session or battle, investigate a mystery, or have a flashback about their life. These allow them to create a bond with other players that participate in that scene or to create backstory points modifiers, which can be added to a character’s action rolls.
Game facilitators also have specific types of scenes they can spend their scene points to generate. The game facilitator can show interludes, which reveal parts of the villain’s plan to the players (but not necessarily their characters). They can also spend points to frame a scene where they drop a clue about the ongoing plans of the villain (which then allows the players to spend points on investigating that clue).
While some scenes are just interactions between characters, scenes that yield information, like investigation scenes, as well as training scenes and battle scenes, have a set number of successful rolls that have to be achieved to complete the scene. This is often derived from rolling dice and then adding a number based on the number of characters participating in the scene.
Much of this book is focused on determining details about the academy itself. Who runs it, and who acts as the teachers? Where is the academy located? Does it have a reputation or is it secretive and unknown to the public at large?
The point of the story isn’t for the characters to train at the academy and then triumphantly stop a villain to prove their worth. The villain is tied to the academy and represents some aspect of the systemic issues with the existence of the academies. They may be someone trying to profit from the free labor provided by the students. They might be someone trying to further weaponize the students. They may be victimized students that have been pushed past their breaking point by what they endured at the academy.
There are a few key points outlined as benchmarks of the setting. Players can’t permanently make the academy better, because the point is that the academy is a problem in and of itself. There may be friendly staff, but even if someone is on their side and trying to make their lives better, the school is a terrible place for the students.
Characters can’t graduate from the academy until they convert their Overpower die into a Power die, but ultimately, it’s not an achievement to prove their worth to the authorities. The point is to expose corruption and oppose it.
Into the Light This is a wonderful synthesis of political statements and gameable material.
I appreciate how this book works a real-world concept into a superhero setting. I also appreciate that it can take on grim, horrible real-world topics, but yet not default to the deconstructed superhero trope. If anything, it deconstructs the need for the superhero to be validated by authority. This book is also a joy to read through. Is it possible for your eyes to feel comfortable? If so, my eyes were comfortable when looking at this book. It was like putting on a pair of comfy, fuzzy pants in the winter, except over my eyes.
Out of the Shadows
I like the way campaigns progress and that specific scenes have specific purposes, and I appreciate the reminders for what to spend havoc on and how to resolve rolls. However, I did have to spend a little bit of time rereading the exact flow of the play and diagraming it for myself. There are a lot of interactions between scene types, currencies, and character aspects, and while they make sense on a reread, they got a bit jumbled in my head when I was taking it all in the first time.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This game feels very playable, and very open for collaboration, while still touching on important topics. The resolution is intuitive, even if the floodgate of concepts may be a little overwhelming when first engaging with the mechanics. Thankfully the book is easy to reference without feeling the fatigue of searching for nuggets in a wall of text. This is a wonderful synthesis of political statements and gameable material.
While I would normally use this section of the review as a call to action, taking the temperature of the audience on topics raised in the review, in this instance, my call to action is a little different. Learn about the tragedy of children who have suffered in places like residential schools or “tough love” schools. See what you can do to make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and what we can do to reform those systemically compromised institutions that still exist.