Full disclosure: Back around the beginning of March, I was researching medieval mysticism, woodcuts, and tomes for my Ghartha series when I came across a blog post by David J. Rodger, discussing the Polanski film The Ninth Gate. It was a well written post (and made me go look up the movie and watch it on Netflix) and I liked what David was talking about, so I left a comment and followed the blog.
Soon after, he got a hold of me and asked if I’d write up a piece about his game Yellow Dawn (34.53USD), and I agreed, so he sent me a copy. This was in mid-March, and when I received the book I was surprised by two things: One, how highly detailed and complete the game system and setting were; two: this is the work of one dude. The credits mention playtesters, but the entirety of the system and writing is the work of David Rodger himself.
And that is insane. This book is highly detailed, featuring everything you need system wise, setting wise, with a healthy number of appendices and tables. The editing seems great. I just can’t wrap my head around the amount of work this game must have had put into it. Most definitely it’s a labor of love.
I was a little nervous when the game was on it’s way that it wouldn’t be good, to be honest. I’m a supporter of Indie game development (as it is something I want to get into), but I understand that for every gem there are five pieces of coal, so to speak. Luckily, I soon realized this was one of the gems. Not simply because it’s a good system, but because of the amount of value that you can get out of it even for other games.
As a quick note, I abhor numerical or graded reviews. Opinions are far too subjective for those to be worth a damn, so I’ll present to you what I think and hopefully that helps you make an informed decision about purchasing this game.
Shall we get into it?
Yellow Dawn: The Age of Hastur
I’m a visual oriented person. This is a fancy way of saying things that are awesome or shiny get my attention immediately. I’ve bought not so good games because they look beautiful (Anima comes to mind), so you can see what I’m getting at here. The first thing I notice about any product is how it looks aesthetically.
The cover art (shown above) for the Age of Hastur is really neat. It shows a cityscape scape against a sickly yellow sky in the background, while in the foreground it shows a derelict church yard on a misty moor. Once reading through the book, you’ll realize how much this captures the atmosphere of the game, and it’s very effective. The yellow is striking and catches the eye, and there’s enough eye candy to make you want to open it and see what it’s about.
The book itself is soft cover, and is quite thick, running at around 350 pages, including appendices. I usually prefer hard cover for larger books such as this, because they tend to break down faster, but obviously as an indie game I’m sure this has a lot to do with economics and is really a small quibble.
The interior art and text are all in black and white, and art is a little sparse throughout. The formatting of the book itself is really great, however, and looks very professional and makes the text easy to read. Speaking of text; there’s a lot of it. This is, as I mentioned before, a very detailed book. I really like this aspect, but it might seem daunting for more casual role players.
If you spend any time on Rodger’s wordpress site or official website, you’ll quickly realise he’s also a rather prolific author. His novels, according to his website, are all set in a shared universe, in which Yellow Dawn itself is also set. So as far as story and theme goes, this game has tons.
The ‘story so far’ at it’s most basic is that you as a PC are a survivor of the ‘The Yellow Dawn’, a catastrophic pathogen event that wiped out most of the human population on Earth while people who lived in space colonies looked on, unable or unwilling to risk going back to earth to help. The world of the Yellow Dawn role playing game is thus post apocalyptic, after the survivors have started to settle in and expand back out into the wilderness. It’s an interesting hybrid of low-tech and high-tech, as you traverse the wilds searching for long lost loot while listening to broadcasted news stories about unknown threats on the horizon. And in all of it, at the edges of society and sanity, are the hints of something other.
I speak, of course, of a healthy dose of Lovecraftian (and Chambers, or Pierce) horror thrown into the mix. So it’s not just a sci-fi game, and it’s not just a post apocalyptic game, it’s also a cosmic horror game. All mixed up into a delicious ragout of existential terror. The dead walk, dark magicks happen out in the wild places of the world. This game has demonology AND cybernetic enhancements. Also robots.
As the name of the game hints at, Hastur or the King in Yellow is a major part of the hidden plot, though at the beginning of the game almost no one really knows about the entity, or can conceptualize whether the Yellow Dawn event was metaphysical in nature, or simply the result of an accident.
Story wise, this game is insane in the best way possible. It’s got politics, it’s got mysticism, it’s got survival. It really is a complete ‘world’, and even if this book was simply setting it would be great in and of that alone.
Now we’re getting into the most important part of any game: the rules. As mentioned above, this book taken as a whole might seem daunting. It’s large, the text is densely packed, and there are tables everywhere.
I love tables. Seriously. Every game system can benefit from the unashamed use of random tables. I suppose it’s a soft spot for an old school rpg experience, but when I see tables my eyes light up and I get excited. I want to roll on them. And this game has plenty.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first impression I got when looking at the character sheet is a similarity to the venerable Call of the Cthulhu role playing game from Chaosium, which itself is derived from the BRP system. The ability array is similar and it uses a percentile skill system, with certain skills having a base competency derived from your ability scores. It is quite a bit more detailed, however, and I would certainly call it inspired by more than derivative. That’s just me though.
A good portion of the crunch of the book lies in the sub-systems. It has systems to create things from random charts, like settlements and cities, and even roads and rivers as you travel them. It has a lot of these random tables, which I love. You can probably create some characters and then just jump into a quick and dirty session using the charts it has rather than having a prepared adventure handy. The best thing about theses rules is how richly detailed they are. I think this author is probably almost obsessive when it comes to details, and the game is the better for it. There’s around thirty pages dedicated to travel rules!
It has systems for creating items, it has chapters for equipment and robots and machines. And this, I think, is where greatest value of the game lies. A lot of this stuff seems like it could be easily transferred to other games with little effort. So not only is it a complete setting book, a complete game system book, but it can also act as a book of optional systems that can be dropped into your other games.
You’ll definitely have to get the book if you want to see just how many different things is detailed and given rules to work with. It’s Gygaxian in scope, I would say.
The review so far has been pretty glowing, so I think I should switch over and speak about some things that I think can be improved or included within the game. Not necessarily hard criticisms, but more suggestions coming from someone with no real right to give them.
Firstly, the body of text needs an appendix of terms badly. Six to seven pages in the back with the most common game terms for quick look up will make the tome far easier to traverse. The table of contents is pretty thorough, but a heavy appendix of terms would go a long way in making the book itself more useful during game play time.
Secondly, I feel like this game would be very well served with a starter PDF of some sort. Something with perhaps some pregen characters and a small adventure to walk through the core rules of the games with would A) help casual players get excited about the game and make approaching the book a less daunting task, and B) help people decide if it’s a game they want to play. In my opinion the PDF has been the greatest digital asset to role playing games, and I think it would go a long way in selling the work, so to speak.
Thirdly, and this one is the most selfish of all, I would love to see more art in future publications. Obviously art is expensive as hell, especially for an indie developer, so it’s totally understood as to why this might not be possible.
V. The Verdict
Obviously from reading this review my advice would be to give this book a purchase. It’s got a lot of value, a very interesting story and theme (which can be supplemented by purchasing some of David J. Rodger’s novels), and just so much crunch that can be used. It’s definitely on the more advanced side of the spectrum, so those looking for a rules light product won’t find that here.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my review, and I certainly hope I’ve informed your purchasing decision. Until next time, be safe, and may your journey never lead to Carcosa.