What do you get when you combine Spies, Supernatural Horror, Crunchy bits, a secret organization, and the Fast, Furious, and Fun rules of Savage Worlds? You get Agents of Oblivion: part setting, part toolbox, and part rulebook, in all the best ways possible. Are you ready for your briefing now, Agent?
NOTE- This is the first of two reviews I will do post-Gen Con. The second, Shadows of Esteren, is still a bit off as I am reading the entire book and playing it before I review it.
A Few Confessions
Before we get started, let me confess a few minor things. First, I bought Agents of Oblivion for my own Espionage/Horror campaign that I have begun to run. So I had an interest in the book before I picked it up, and I will do my best to keep my bias in check. Two, I purchased AoO on my own; this is not a review copy. Three, when this book first came out I was annoyed with the idea of another Espionage book being mixed with Horror, rather than a pure espionage book. I am happy to say that I have reversed my position on that, based on the book.
The Physical Breakdown
Lets run down some facts about the book. Its a 6×9 softcover coming in at 225 pages. The book is single column with a simple layout. The artwork is a combination of black and white line art and word clouds. Compared to Realms of Cthulthu also by Reality Blurs, this book is sparse on artwork. That said, what artwork there is, is good and fitting for the book and setting. In 6×9 format I like a more simple layout, and this book reads fast.
Whats Between The Covers?
In 225 pages, Reality Blurs packs a lot of goodness into this small book. This is far more than a just setting book, and so its really best to break it up into three sections to talk about it: Rules, Setting, and Toolkit.
As with most Savage Worlds setting books there are some rules specific for this setting. This includes a few new Skills which take the Savage Worlds rules from its default Pulp setting to a more modern setting, allowing for Hacking and other espionage activities. There are also a number of new Edges and Hindrances that add detail to the setting. There are also several setting rules that change the way magic works to fit with the setting.
There are two other rules that are great additions to Agents of Oblivion, that can be easily ported into other Savage Worlds games. The first is the Extended Trait Check (ETC), which allows for setting up multi-success, timed checks. A great tool for when your player needs to disarm a bomb while the clock is ticking, or hacking a computer to disarm a launch code.
The other is the Resource Management rules, which do a great job of handling equipment in settings where gear is given to players from an organization for mission-like adventures. This system uses resource points that the player trades for standard equipment, perks, single use devices (temporary powers),and spy tech/special trainings (temporary Edges). This system gives the feel of a visit to Q.
I mentioned above there were some new Skills, Edges & Hindrances, as well as some setting rules. These all play into the default setting which centers around the good agency, Oblivion, and their nemesis, Pandora; both engaged in a supernatural war of shadows.
The book gives a history of the world as well as the history for both Oblivion and Pandora. It is not to the depth of the history of the world of Conspiracy X. There is enough depth to understand the groups and their motivations, and then enough space to fill in any details you like. There are also details for a number of other agencies around the world, covering some known conspiracy groups and some new ones, as well as number of NPC stat blocks, both generic and for the plots included.
No Savage Worlds setting book would be complete without some adventures to run. Agents of Oblivion does not use the traditional Savage Worlds plot point format, but does provide seven adventure plots that you can run for your players.
AoO also provides you the means to set up your own Espionage campaign. It starts with a set of Campaign Thematic Factors: Alien, Conspiracy, Horror, Occult, Technology and levels for each from None to High. By setting the levels for each of the factors, you can create a thematic framework for espionage settings from the Bourne Identity through the X-Files, with room for everything in-between. The AoO campaign has a default setting called The Company Line, which is moderate across all factors, and several other examples are also provided.
Each factor comes with tips about each of the levels and how they would effect your campaign world. A GM can use this tool, in conjunction with their players, to come up with the exact setting they want.
In addition to the information about the Thematic Factors, there is a section of advice for running horror-espionage games. There is also a section of GMing advice and some tips on creating the perfect mission.
Along with all that advice there is a Mission Generator, which allows you to randomly generate mission ideas for your sessions, and a creature generator to help you create those shadowy creatures your Agents are going to run into.
Use Their Setting or Roll Your Own
Agents of Oblivion is a very interesting book. It provides great ideas, some interesting rules, and useful tools. You are not locked into a complex or overly detailed setting, there is room to take the setting and adjust it to your own preferences, while at the same time being provided tools for creating material that fits perfectly within the setting.
For Savage fans who are looking for a totally fleshed out setting and plot points like Necessary Evil or Solomon Kane, this book may feel a bit light; do not discount it. There is more than enough material to get a campaign going with what is in the book, and with the tools provided, more then enough help to keep your game rolling.
There is also a natural, and I suspect intentional, synergy with Reality Blurs’ other Savage Setting Realms of CthulhuÂ (Gnome Stew review). In fact in Realms of Cthulthu there is a reference to a campaign setting called Final Defense, which reads like a Mythos version of Oblivion. There is a Peanut Butter and Chocolate effect between these two books.
My Own Use
On a personal note, here is how I used AoO in my campaign. Years ago, some friends and I came up with our own AoO like setting that was a mix of Men In Black combined with the Black Book from Conspiracy X, an organization and setting we called NOD: National Occult Directorate. We developed it for d20 Modern and later tinkered with True20, but never got it running.
I got AoO with the intent of running it from the book, but quickly realized that I could use all of our NOD setting material, and the toolkit aspects of AoO to make Savage NOD. I kept all the AoO rules, used all the tools in the toolkit, and inserted my setting for theirs. I then dragged elements of Realms of Cthulhu into the setting, and the end result was great.
Agents of Oblivion is my kind of setting book. It is not only a setting with rules to support it, but it takes apart the setting and provides you the tools to customize and tinker with it. At times it feels more like the missing Savage Espionage Companion, and yet the book is totally playable as a full setting.
If you are looking to run a Savage worlds game with any element of espionage from a realistic spy thriller to a supernatural action thriller with agents of Hastur, Agents of Oblivion can power your game.
Hm, thanks for the review, Phil. I’d like to hear the results of playing the material as presented in the book with a critique of the possible weak spots (all games have ’em). I’ve been tottering on the fence about this one in particular so I’m keen for some insight from people who’ve used the product.
More generally, for reviewers of Savage Worlds settings:
When speaking about Savage Worlds-based settings I think a number of things are important to mention. Here is my list:
First is to state up front whether one needs to have a copy of the core rulebook (one doesn’t with Solomon Kane for example, but perplexingly does with Deadlands:Reloaded). The core rules are no longer the ten buck bargain they were some years ago and total cost of ownership is a consideration for any GM.
Second is whether the setting is specific or general. Realms of Cthulhu is a specific setting whereas the Horror Companion is more generic in my estimation, though of course one might argue the point endlessly over beers.
Third is whether the setting include a Plot Point campaign. Reality Blurs do not seem to include them in the products I’ve seen from them (which is absolutely not a comment on the quality of what you get in a given RB book).
Realms of Cthulhu and Deadlands:Reloaded are examples of publications that do *not* have plot point campaigns. Space 1889:Red Sands and Solomon Kane are settings that do include them, and they are very useful frameworks for a busy GM (though he/she must always read and vet the material for inadvertent anachronisms and derailed-in-previous-sessions material).
Fourth is whether the book contains a scenario generator (Reality Blurs pioneered this idea in Realms of Cthulhu as I remember it and it can be a lifesaver). I’m for them in a big way provided they are well thought-out.
Fifth is whether the setting derails existing rules or introduces significantly new material – Realms of Cthulhu’s Madness and Sanity rules are a good example here as are Space 1889:Red Sands’ social class and invention rules. The new rulebook’s take on Guts is also an example when used as a reference for Deadlands:Reloaded, Realms of Cthulhu and Space 1889:Red Sands.
Sixth is whether or not the setting is enjoyable on its own terms – does one feel like Modesty Blaise, James Bond or Matt Helm after a game? I’ll wait while you stop sniggering.
Last is how the Savage Worlds setting stacks up against other game system versions of the same type, if there are any. How does Space 1889:Red Sands compare with Space:1889? How does the play of Realms of Cthulhu compare with trad. Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu?
Naturally, this requires a sight more time and trouble than most people have at their disposal and so is impractical for most reviewers. No reason a consensus review from many GMs/Players couldn’t go that way though.
Wow…I will do my best to answer what I can.
Let me first clear something up. The Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorers edition is available for $10. I bought one at GenCon. Yes, you will need it to run AoO
As for playing with the material. I have run a few games using the AoO setting rules, and they work fine. The Resource points are a lot of fun, and makes managing equipment easier.
As for a “weakness”, the setting does not use power points, but rather just a skill check for casting spells, and allows them to be maintained at will (with a negative for other spell checks for each power maintained, etc). That said, there are some bumpy parts when looking at some of the powers. For instance Quickness in regular SW has a fixed duration after it is cast, but in AoO a player could run it all combat, hell all day. So as a GM you are going to have to do some work with accounting for some of the changes in powers due to the setting rules for magic.
I went with RoC because I wanted the Mythos in my setting, but the game would work perfectly with the Horror Companion. AoO has a specific setting, its not as detailed as something like Solomon Kane, but there is a setting, organizations, etc. At the same time, you can ignore the setting part and use the book more like a Companion.
I did mention there was a mission generator in the book, which you can use to roll up a mission idea.
AoO’s major change is to Magic. It uses the No Power Points setting option, and it breaks up powers like Bolt and Blast into smaller powers, with different damages, so that they work better with the Setting Rules.
As for how the game stacks up against non SW games, having run Conspiracy X for three years, I will use it as a point of reference. SW is a more action and pulpy feel than the more gritty ConX (1.0) combat rules. While I have not played it ConX 2.0, the Unisystem version, AoO would have a combat system more kin to SW.
ConX is more detailed in its world history, and provides more depth to their setting in terms of aliens, etc. With ConX there was little a GM had to think up for the various aliens and such in the game, where in AoO, a GM will have to do some more work fleshing out details for Oblivion and Pandora as well as other components of the world. Depending on how much you want to be in control of the details, this is either good or bad.
Hope that answers some of your questions.
My points were general, not specific to your review, Phil. Sorry for the confusion, which was entirely my fault.
Yes, Phil, you’ve answered them beautifully – but a wise man would not throw Gencon availability in the face of someone who has been waiting for so long for so many products he has had pre-ordered for Lo! these many months to actually materialize at his door while reading about how Genconners could pick one up “on spec” while sauntering past such-and-such a booth. I swear I am blacklisting all the start-ups that begged kickstart monies from me in December only to stiff me 8 months later at Gencon by selling MY games to Johnny-Come-Latelies. Grnyah!
At time of writing the SW rulebook that can be found in my LFGS (in New York) is the $30 version. Which I have. Were someone new to Savage Worlds to order AoO from my LFGS it would set them back around 80 bux to get started.
I should also say that cost of acquisition is also something that I believe should at least be hinted at in a review.
Yours, however is a bang-up job as it stands. Thanks for going the extra mile or so in your reply. Sorry to have put you to the trouble. Wish I could have played in your session.
I know the price went up for Deluxe, but the deluxe Explorer Edition is available at Studio 2’s site for $9.99. So at least the game is available outside Gen Con.
Here’s a link: http://www.studio2publishing.com/shop/index.php?cPath=25_75_129
Well, I can’t look right now (work firewall in the way) but I’ll offer two points:
a) I’ve done a lot of e-biz with Studio2, buying PDF versions of every hardcopy SW product I own from them. Last I looked (before Gencon) the new SWDE:EE was only available in PDF.
2) It is now after Gencon.
I now await the final arrival of a number of exciting products I should by rights have had in my hands weeks ago if not for skull-thunderbolt-clenched_fist-mushroom_cloud Gencon-Lag.
I believe that the print Explorers Editions for Deluxe were ready just in time for GenCon, and so I would expect that you will see Studio 2 make them available soon on their website and eventually work their way into FLGS in the weeks to come.
They have it in print now on their site. You just need to go to the print section not the shop section. (Which really doesn’t make sense to me- I’m not shopping for the print version?)
Re: No Magic
I’m actually somewhat uninspired by Savage Worlds’ magic as written. It lacks “Oomph” that becomes painfully apparent when trying out Weird Science-heavy settings like Deadlands:Reloaded and Space 1889:Red Sands. As one player sadly opined “I could *never* make an ornithopter that would actually work” which sort of defeats the object. I’m working on a rigorous “fix” for this and a couple of other gray areas for use in my Red Sands game.
What I meant to say was that for me Savage Worlds plays *better* when magic is not used, or is the McGuffin that drives the adventure a-la Indiana Jones.
Phil, this setting looks great, and I like the review. I’m going to recommend this to the role playing games club at my old college.
Phil, does this setting have tunings for Gritty/Pulp feel like Realms of Cthulhu does?
The game does not tune the Gritty/Pulp level like RoC, that you would have to do by applying one of the Setting Rules, for Gritty Damage from the Deluxe Rules to the setting.
AoO is more modern pulp feel.
Glad you enjoyed the review. I am enjoying using the book myself, and having a lot of fun running it.
Phil- thanks a lot for breaking down the setting! Like you, I feel that it has a lot of flexibility. I look forward to hopefully seeing some updates as your campaign plays out.
I may have turned Phil onto AoO. I bought it when it came out, and picked Sean Preston’s brain over it at Con on the Cob last year. I believe the book actually is written for the Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition version, but the differences between Explorer’s and Deluxe are minor when it comes to compatibility.
For instance, the “No Power Points” sections in SWD and AoO are similar, but not identical. I found the SWD option to be a better fit for my campaign. YMMV.
AoO is both a toolbox and an example of what you can build with the toolbox. I find this book to be a good example of balancing a developed setting and a easily ‘borrowed’ set of building blocks for your own campaign.
The genius bits of AoO (IMHO) are the Resource Points section and the Campaign Thematic Factors (Aliens, etc). The book is worth it just for those bits of goodness.