[Steve Bean Games] EZG reviews Rock God Death-Fugue (DCC)


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An Endzeitgeist.com review

This two-shot for DCC clocks in at 40 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page title, 1 page photo/art attributions, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 34 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue…because it’s the only Steve Bean Games book I haven’t yet covered, and I’m kind of OCD.

This review is based on the v3-version of the file, and it should be noted that its basic premise is that it takes place during the last leg of a Rock/Metal band’s tour through my native Germany. In the flavor text that litters the pdf. There is no need to play these folks, and a char-sheet is provided for your convenience. Being about the experience of rock/metal stars, the themes herein depict drug-abuse and sexual encounters, though the latter are not explicit. For me personally, I considered this to be pretty much PG 13, but if you’re particular about the like, that’s something to bear in mind. I definitely suggest tackling this with a mature group, as there is a Player versus Player (PvP) mechanic hardcoded into the experience. The pdf thus comes with a “contending for the limelight” tracker sheet, and a worksheet for players. As for the number of players – 4 is ideal, and it works with up to 6 players, but that does require some scaling up on part of the judge. Due to the one-on-one PvP-mechanics, I recommend only running this with even numbers of players.

It should be noted that Rock God Death-Fugue is very much indebted to the aesthetics of Black Sun Deathcrawl and Null Singularity, in that it could be likened more to an experience than to playing a regular adventure, though the PvP-mechanic radically changes the way in which this is played. Their fate is sealed – the rock gods will end some way, but how the world will remember them – well, that’s what this is about, and this “goal” ties directly in with PvP. As for rules, the rock gods use the basis of the wizard class, and determine two different ability scores that modify their spell check result – these are the only attributes they can spellburn. Vocalists can burn Strength and Personality, guitarists Agility and Personality, bass guitar players Strength and Intelligence, drummers Agility and Stamina, and other artists get to use Personality and Intelligence. It should be noted that rules don’t explicitly explain that – you’ll have to reference the character sheet for that.

The group should collectively decide the genre their band plays in. Each rock god is assumed to be looking for art in its purest form, which correlates with a sense of walking the tightrope between genius and insanity –and which comes with a driving force, a thanatotic urge – one of the dark 27, which represent central and crucial flaws that range from badly chosen sexual partners to addictions and the like.

These also, to a degree, also act as a justification for the means in which “spells” are used – the pure truth of artistic expression can highlight a caster’s fundamental falseness and destroy the moral compass, violate dignity and integrity, and at the same time, fuel the creative fires. I could list a ton of my favorite albums and artists for whom this certainly held true to a degree or another. In rules-terms, this is called “Crisis of Self” and it represents basically the corruption mechanic of the game. The pdf contains the two spells this knows, the first of which would be Aura of the Dark Muse, which is basically a means to control beings that is enhanced in its casting by the size of the audience. The Dark Muse Provides basically conjures forth an item ex nihilo – the bag of drugs, the shotgun, and so on – both spells are codified as level 2 spells and come with their own notes on unintended consequences (misfires) and crisis of self (corruption) effects. Unintended consequences and misfires are resolved after the PvP duel, and only is applied once per duel, no matter how many such instances were triggered.

At the end of each concert-encounter/scene, there is a limelight-encounter – one or more pairs of PCs find themselves in a rare artistic moment, invoking the Dark Muse as a metaphysical concept. The limelight battle is basically a simplified spellduel: the judge sets up the frame, and the players narrate their performances. The PC with the higher Inspiration ability (this one is btw. rolled differently – 4d4+2, not 3d6 like the others; bingo – this would be the Luck stand-in!) – and yep, you have to reference the character sheet at the end of the pdf to realize that. But back to the limelight: The players of PCs NOT involved in a limelight battle each award a crowd bonus that ranges from +0 to +4 to one player contending for the limelight, based on which roleplaying they considered to be better. These are written anonymously on a sheet of paper and handed to the judge; the bonus is awarded to the player with the higher average or with more awards. The bonus thus awarded should approximately be equal to the net difference between the two average values between players, and it decreases by a cumulative -1 for each spell check comparison the contestant has lost to the other player.

The duelists then secretly assign spellburn to positions 1 – 5.
What are these positions? Well, to understand the rules here, you have to get back to the limelight tracker. After this, they roll 5d20, and record low to high in the respective row; after that, duelists compare modified rolls, and burn Inspiration, as desired – this is noted down on the worksheet, to prevent cheating., but both PCs can competitively burn Inspiration over a single roll The higher check wins and advances the PC’s tracker by +1; for every increment of 6 (rounded down), that the winner exceeds the loser’s roll, the winner advances another step. A spell lost means switching to the other; loss of the second requires spellburn to continue, with the burn retroactively added to results already rolled.

The positions on the tracker are then adjusted as desired, and the duel ends when the two contestants are 5 or more spaces apart. This is repeated if required. Burning through too much Inspiration early may make you easy pickings for your fellow rock gods, so be careful! No Spell duel comparison or counterspell power checks are made, and there is no phlogiston disturbance. At the end of a contesting for the limelight, the PCs dueling dice off in a contested Personality check. If the PC who won the duel has the higher roll on this check, they steal 2 points of Inspiration from the loser of this check – an added insult to injury, if you will. The win/loss-record of these limelight battles ultimately determines the fate of the rock god in question. The wizard base chassis is an interesting mechanic that requires, ultimately, that players are smart regarding the use of their spells in roleplaying and in (limelight) battle. The pdf does note that a dark fate is in store for the rock gods – it’s a foregone conclusion, and as such, it allows the players to dive into the oftentimes darkly hilarious themes of musical excess.

And that is it as far as the mechanics are concerned – in order to discuss the remainder of the experience/one/two-shot, I will have to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.


..
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All right, only judges around? So, the “mini-campaign” this is contained herein consists of 13 encounters, which are sketched in a pretty minimalistic manner – and consist pretty much of a series of vignettes that lends a somewhat dream-like quality to the proceedings. Considering the themes of sex, drugs and rock and roll, this dream-like state makes sense and reminded me of movies like “Control”, wherein stage life is contrasted with the components beyond that. One could even speak of a fugue state of sorts. This means that the majority of the experience will be ultimately contingent on how the judge and players manage to fill in the encounters, but considering the down-to-earth locale, this isn’t as bad. The prelude has a weirdo fan show up – he wants the band to sign the cursed album of the band “Atramentous” – who recently died in a plane-crash. The strange guy is dragged away promptly. Thereafter, the encounters boil down to one-note set-ups that are wholly contingent on how the players and judge fill up these with meaning. We have fans out of control at a gig, who may need calming (stats provided)…and here’s to hoping that there’s an addict PC, because the second encounter wholly hinges on this addiction resulting in a score gone wrong.

This encounter also brings me to a component that kinda broke immersion for me – the thugs that crash the drug deal are all armed. With guns. In Germany. While this may not be utterly implausible, considering the obvious organized crime connection here, guns are strictly regulated in Germany. You won’t be bearing firearms in public, and if you get caught with even an airsoft gun (you know, an air gun that shoots plastic pellets), you may be in trouble. Statistically, quite a few of our criminals are more likely to bear such imitation guns rather than the real deal. I come from a family with a long hunting tradition, but beyond hunting rifles and VERY selective means to gain access to guns, things become very hard very fast for firearms proponents around here. How rare are guns? In all my 30+ years of life, I’ve never heard a gunshot outside a shooting range (and these are heavily and strictly regulated) or outside of hunting (ditto). An exceedingly small amount of people has access to firearms, and there are pretty strict background checks that check for histories of violence, mental illness, etc.

But I digress. A more problematic aspect would be that the other instances of the dark 27 have no such dedicated encounter set-up included. Indeed, drugs are a major focus – a fan that OD’d on heroin makes for an optional encounter; the next such vignette consists of an impromptu gig, wherein the PCs thereafter get to participate in a “swinger” scenario, i.e. the switching of sexual partners/casual sex with strangers, which includes a rather twisted rivalry/obsession between two NPCs that could turn to violence. Problem here – no stats are included.

After this, the PCs visit the concentration camp Buchenwald.

…yeah, this is the encounter where things become dark. I’ve been to Buchenwald, and Auschwitz, and a couple of other concentration camps for that manner. It’s a stark experience that is deeply unsettling, particularly if you’re a German with a functional moral compass and more than two brain cells. In the encounter herein, a semi-senile old lady mistakes the tattoo of a PC for a SS-insignia, and the wheelchair bound lady assaults the PC in question. She’ll have to be calmed…or she’ll die. This could be funny in another context – I have a dark sense of humor. Here, though? Utterly horrifying. Problematic here – how to stop here is never elaborated upon, neither are there suggestions on how to save here. In the absence of proper stats, we’re left with judge-fiat to determine success or failure, which is, frankly, frustrating.

En route to Frankfurt, we have easily the most complex vignette, because it actually is a multi-round encounter, wherein the tourbus of the PCs careens out of control – including a smashed windshield, a driver in flames, etc. After one final limelight conflict – the fan from the prelude, the weirdo with the Atramentous album, returns…and shoots the most successful PC dead. Roll credits, narrate epilogues. As a final nitpick: Kauptman, the last name of the perpetrator, is an anglicized version of the German name Kaufmann – using the proper version here would have added at least a bit to my sense of immersion.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are per se very good on a formal level; on a rules language level, the pdf could do a better job differentiating between steps and the like. Grating for me – sometimes, the text uses “2” when no specific number in the game context is referred to, and “two” when referring to actual game mechanics. This may be a small thing, but it exacerbates one of my main gripes with this supplement. I can’t comment on the print version, since I do not own it, but in an utterly puzzling move, the pdf has NO BOOKMARKS. The pdf uses shaded stock art and photography for a great effect, and combined with the layout, it makes for an aesthetically pleasing pdf – at a cost.

Layout – oh boy, layout. The book is aesthetically pleasing – its format is uncommon and more quadratic than you’d assume – this generates the illusion of a CD/DVD-booklet, an illusion that is further enhanced by the lyrics of bleak rock/metal songs that are printed in black letters throughout. I really enjoyed these…but guess what?
The actual rules-text?
That’s presented in a blue ink-like font that looks a bit like it is hand-written. The rules text and game-relevant material looks like notes in a notebook that have been added in on post-its etc. – like a sketchbook, paper clipped inside, partially covering the lyrics in the background.
Here’s the issue – I’d honestly like to read the entirety of the lyrics…and the font of the rules is really, really ANNOYING.
It makes reading the rules text take longer. It makes it hard to distinguish rules-relevant material, as there’s no bolding, no italicizing here. It means you’ll be reading the margins more than the rest of the book. And it labors under the misconception that adding in “#” for “number of” in a running sentence and using “b/c” will add to the illusion conveyed by the book.
It does not, it is frickin’ grating.
Add to that the inconsistency regarding the numbers. And then, there’s the main issue that’s exacerbated by this presentation: I have rarely seen a book this refined, that does such a bad job explaining its rules.
There is no sensible sequence here.
You need to flip back and forth to understand anything.
You need to reference the character sheet to understand some rules references. (!!)
Without looking at the character sheet, you’ll be hard-pressed to get how the rules work.
Let that sink in. The pdf is, from a didactic point of view, needlessly obtuse. Far beyond the levels of obtuseness that e.g. Black Sun Deathcrawl or Null Singularity sported, to the point where I really considered it to be exceedingly grating. This pdf opted for style over substance, opted for not breaking the aesthetic vision – which is valid…up to the point, where the presentation sequence is such a pain that I would have just put this down and never attempted to use or understand it again, were it not for the fact that I’m a reviewer. Now, remember that this has NO BOOKMARKS, and you’ll be flipping back and forth from start to back until you get how this is supposed to work.

In short: This is one of the most inconvenient books I’ve analyzed in quite a while. And Steve Bean’s Rock God Death-Fugue didn’t need to be that – the contesting the limelight PvP mechanics are actually an interesting mechanic, though one that could have used expansion. Which brings me to my second major gripe with this supplement: Its scope. There is not much meat to this supplement beyond the PvP-component. The encounters are sketch-like, and when you read two paragraphs on an aesthetically-pleasing page and realize that this is the entirety of information you’ll get for the encounter, you’ll start being pissed off by the lack of actual content on the per se lavish pages. In a way, this is as minimalistic in its presentation as Black Sun Deathcrawl and Null Singularity, but without the singularity (haha) of purpose that these offered. By grounding this in reality, by creating an illusion of depth via the dark 27, we really could have used more meat here, we needed more complexity to contextualize this in its realistic backdrop. The presence of the spells also feels like they are, in a way, a needless addition, and particularly on repeat playthroughs, can become somewhat stale. As the system already simplifies spellduels, further tweaking for depth, perhaps with a direct correlation of the dark 27 and the abilities of the respective rock god, would have been amazing.

And no, I am not talking out of my behind: When you list the actual game-text on a word-doc, you’ll be left with MUCH less content than the page-count would suggest, and here, this lack of content actually hurts the game. And this is a genuine pity, because I damn well love the idea here. I love the scenario. As a lifelong Metalhead and aficionado of all kinds of rock music (minus soft rock), this is pretty much right up my alley. And the macabre “you are doomed”-angle? Genius!

At the same time, this supplement promises depth that it doesn’t have on a symbolic level. Whereas Black Sun Deathcrawl and Null Singularity have the necessity to find your own meaning and in-game identity hardcoded into their DNA, this one professes a level of depth in the title that it never lives up to. I am not making that up, mind you: The pdf does imply that depth, for a very brief time, tries its hand at symbolic depth: In case you did not know: “Death-Fugue” is a reference to perhaps the most well-known poem of the genre of Trümmerliteratur, post WWII-literature, in which Germany tried to reestablish a culture that wasn’t tainted in aesthetics and language with the verbiages and themes claimed by the Nazis; the poem, of course, would be the masterpiece “Todesfuge” by Romanian-born Paul Celan, and it has entered popular culture via famous oxymora like “Schwarze Milch der Frühe” (Black Milk of Dawn) and the often (mis-)quoted “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland” (Death is a master from Germany); its melody, repetition and content is famous, stark and brutal. It is part of the German school curriculum, and it shows a glimpse of the horror of being in a concentration camp in a devastatingly effective manner. The only encounter in this pdf with any close ties to this theme would be the one in Buchenwald, and as noted, it lacks game-relevant information and ultimately is just another brief step in a sequence of token vignettes without gravitas on its own. It fails the theme of the Todesfuge as hard as it possibly can. It also is bereft of any ramifications; which also extends to the other more combat-y encounters. There isn’t enough going on beyond the PvP; there is no reason to be a team-player, to try to help to survive, etc.

Ultimately, all the depth of the exploration of the abysses of creative excess must come from the interaction of players and judge; the pdf provides the absolute bare minimum of set-ups, and all depth must be generated; but unless you and all players are musicians with experiences that resound herein, then you probably, ultimately, won’t be able to 100% understand the emotional aspect of the conditio humana experienced herein; much like folks that have not experienced true despair probably won’t get anything out of Black Sun Deathcrawl.
Thing is: Being an artist is a more peculiar and personal experience than the ones evoked by Black Sun Deathcrawl or Null Singularity. The pdf brands itself as a tragicomedy, and I can see that; I can see this change of pace in the make-belief in our silly elfgames making for a fun offering. It’s fun to play the massive egos of caricatures of egoistical rock stars! But the game doesn’t embrace the ridiculousness wholly; instead, it has these tie-ins to a deeper, darker meaning, sports this pretension of depth, which ultimately only compromises the “fun” aspect of this supplement, at least for me.

In Buchenwald, at the very latest, all fun evaporates for me, and the change of tone can’t ever recover from that – which would be a GREAT thing – had this been the half-way point before the inevitable begin of the collapse. But Rock God Death-Fugue lacks the length and detail to properly develop this change in tone and pace. The brevity, scarcity or rules-and flavor-relevant material, coupled with the emphasis on style over substance, is frustrating –because Rock God Death-Fugue has all the makings of a true masterpiece.

It comes tantalizingly close to being a monumental experience that could have dwarfed, easily, Black Sun Deathcrawl. As written, though, I am left with a supplement, which, while beautiful, sacrifices functionality on the altar of aesthetics, and that requires serious player- and judge-mojo to reveal its true potential. With the right group, this can be a true masterpiece and a memorable experience; with the wrong group, it can be a frustrating failure…and I can’t rate the skill of hypothetical groups and player constellations out there. I can rate how this helps enhance player/judge interactions, how good a job it does at enhancing the roleplaying experience. And ultimately, my response, alas, is that this doesn’t do a particularly good job there. If you are intrigued by the novelty of the setting and premise, if you enjoy the cool premise and are intrigued by the PvP-mechanics, then this is worth checking out – you should round up from my final verdict.
But how to rate this? Ultimately, this had all the makings of a masterpiece, but fell short by a long shot, at least for me; as such, I wrangled long and hard with my own convictions here. I do consider this to have some really flashed of brilliance, but it’s at the same time, a very deeply flawed offering. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 2.5 stars, rounded up.

Endzeitgeist out.

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