January 16, 2009

Game Review: Hard Boiled Cultures

One Bad Egg is a division of Evil Hat, the good people behind Spirit of the Century and Don't Rest your Head. One Bad Egg is their PDF imprint for D&D 4e products.

Even though I am not currently running or playing a D&D game, and since I remix and borrow from other games, I decided to pick up the PDF of "Hard Boiled Cultures".

What you get:

Hard Boiled Cultures is a 14 page PDF, plus a PDF of a cultural worksheet. The PDF is in color, with a little bit of artwork and style. The emphasis is on content more than pretty pictures and given the esoteric subject, text is king.

What is it? From the PDF:
In this brief guide, we aim to present a variety of
alternative options for adding cultural complexity
and diversity to the races present in your D&D game.
Since it's impossible for us to know exactly what
cultural options your home campaign might need (Are
there dragonborn in your setting? We don't know!),
we've chosen to focus on a few tools that we've found
useful in building cultures for our own campaigns.
We've included a number of examples of course,
but these are primarily intended to inspire your own
creativity, rather than to be implemented in your
home campaigns. When you finish reading this guide,
we hope you are immediately inspired to tweak a few
racial build options, perhaps to give a bit of mechanical
punch to a flavorful NPC or faction.

Hicks and Walton go on to say that they feel that setting elements are best expressed within the system itself, showing their Indiegamer/Storygamer roots. So, one might say that HBC is an attempt to bring some of these ideas to the 4e community at large.

The core of their approach is a reverse-engineering of cultures/races in D&D, figuring out the cultural assumptions from the stats and abilities given to that culture, Hicks and Walton then show how GMs can then jigger those assumptions to come up with new variations.

By now, you may have already figured out where
we're going with this. For every race, take a few of its
racial traits and extrapolate the cultural norm that
those features express. Once you have determined a
norm, reexamine it through the four different perspectives
we discussed earlier. Perhaps one perspective
is the "default," expressing the norm itself. However,
you can also apply the other perspectives to the norm
and figure out different cultural variations that might
emerge as character interact with that norm. Finally,
on a system level, you can determine how those
cultural differences might be modeled as different
racial built options.

And then Hicks and Walton get into examples. If you think this sounds dry, in the execution, the authors come up with logical variations on Elves, and their own Apelord race (seen in another OBE supplement). and then show that you,too, can use the tools and ideas they provide, and the logical step by step format to come up with variations of your own.

Since this is D&D and not a full indiegame, the authors are extremely careful to tie this all back into the mechanics to preserve play balance for all races and characters. While "on the move Elves" might suggest that a change of their stats from +2 dex +2 wis to +4 dec sounds good in the abstract as a story game element, as a game element, its a breaker. Hicks and Walton have dug into the play balances of the system and their counsel on how to make sure your own changes, using their method preserve play balanced are well heeded.

Should you buy this PDF?

If you are a 4e GM who (and this is *not* a slam) simply wants to run established modules and keep 4e to a beer and pretzels level Gamist experience, then, no, HBC is a waste of your money. The value of the PDF is as a toolkit for GM inspiration and customization of their campaigns. I suppose you could buy it to get the "alternate" elves used in the example, but that's a waste of your money.

If you have already purchased and enjoyed other products by One Bad Egg (eg the Shroud stuff) then you will definitely want this to add to your collection (and if for no other reason, to see how they deconstruct the Apelord race using the HBC formula.

If you are an Indiegamer/Storygamer who likes to play 4e on the side and are looking to put some of your ideas into your D&D game, or if you are a D&D GM who likes to DIY (and really, 4e seems to encourage this in the DMG), then this is definitely a supplement for you if you want to begin to tinker with cultures and races in your campaign.

For me, since I've only played a single module of D&D, the value in this to *me*, besides the reading value, is that some of the ideas about questioning and varying cultural norms and assumptions are ones that can be imported into other games. Sure, I can't use the mechanics as written , but the ideas about varying mechanics work well and can be exported to other games.

To give an example, I could and intend to use these ideas to vary the starting skills that outcaste Dragonblood have in a particular splinter culture in my Exalted game, following the ideas and template shown in this supplement as a guide to customizing their culture in a logical fashion.

I will look forward eagerly for more Hard Boiled ideas from the One Bad Egg cadre.

Posted by Jvstin at January 16, 2009 6:18 AM
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