Aletheia is an extremely difficult book to write a review for because, while it is an RPG, it is one with an extremely defined, extremely tight, extremely focussed setting which amounts to a campaign idea with its own rules, rather than as an RPG as such. Given that so much of the book is devoted to the reality behind the secrets of the setting it is nigh impossible to give a full review and assessment of the game since that would give away too much and spoil it for those that do buy it.
This is something of a conundrum.
As to the game itself, I can’t decide whether I like it or not, while the execution of the game is largely flawless and the ideas within it are interesting, in their way it is very restrictive and very set. Fine if your gaming group likes the setting and the idea, then it gives you a great springboard from which to launch straight into play, if your gaming group are difficult bastards as mine often are, then this may pose a problem.
The players are some (or all) of the members of The Seven Dogs society, an elite group of specially selected people taken from an exhaustive list of genealogical investigations undertaken by the society’s missing founders. You don’t get a choice in that matter, though you do get to generate your character as you wish within those boundaries. These characters can be just about anything but since the game is centred around investigation, lacking investigative skills will tend to cause you problems. The other commonality is that every character has a supernatural power of some kind.
The role of the characters, the setting in which they find themselves and the home location from which they operate are all absolutely defined so it is vital that the designated GM not allow the players to read the book, at all, ever. Which rather restricts the ability to hand around the ‘cool new game’ to get people interested. A basic synopsis however would be something like this:
“You are all members of The Seven Dogs Society, a special group of psychically gifted investigators who are trying to reconcile weird events with a rational view of the world in order to arrive at an overarching understanding of the truth, a unified theory of everything. In the process you will encounter strange phenomena, investigate them and try to come to some manner of conclusion.”
There are many similarities and many influences that seem to be readable in the game, it seems to occupy a similar space to the new version of Mage, but one can also see a similar design philosophy to The Gumshoe engine and I would think Over The Edge would have to have influenced the writers. In fact, you could view this as a linear Over The Edge with a slightly more defined mechanic and player role, the defined setting of both games resonate with each other and Al Amarja wouldn’t be out of place – at all – in Aletheia’s world, even if it is a bit more mondo-bizarre.
The use of artwork is minimal, but striking, mostly depicting relatively ordinary looking people doing relatively ordinary looking things but with a few pieces that demonstrate the weirdness of the game. That sort of combination, along with the clear and unfussy layout gives the game an appropriately dry and ‘scholarly’ air for most of the book and creates a ‘shock’ when you do encounter the weirder bits later on, increasing their effect.
The writing is good, clear, crisp. Explains itself well, the system is simple and so is simply explained, leaving the lion’s share of the book for the background material, sample cases and a sample adventure. I only found a few simple mistakes in the text so there’s really nothing to complain about here that wouldn’t be nitpicking.
This is what I can’t really talk about without giving the game away too much, at least I can’t talk about specifics. Suffice to say that the game has a specific background, this is the way things ARE in the setting and there isn’t much room for deviation, interpretation or shifted focus. The whole game is a single, large mystery, made up of smaller mysteries and the campaign plays out in the solution of that mystery and then comes to a natural conclusion, so this is a limited-life product, much like the old White Wolf offering Orpheus.
While I like the idea of the overarching mystery this just reinforces my impression that this isn’t really an RPG so much as a campaign with some rules tacked on to it. As such this could be a good thing to buy for any modern mystery game or to incorporate into an existing setting, even as an investigation of, rather than by The Seven Dogs.
So, what can I actually say about the background? Not much that I haven’t already but I can say that the defined ‘truth’ is a mash-up of many different new-age and eclectic religious beliefs, topped off with a little popular quantum theory. I say popular because it has little to do with real quantum theory, people hear terms like entanglement, observer effect and quantum consciousness and then go off on one to Neverland without pausing to actually consider these things. I don’t normally find this sort of thing a problem but within this game it did make me uneasy.
Well, reading through the book I read a lot of things that I run into in discussions, things that people genuinely believe. Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem but normally in such games there’s a nice little disclaimer in the introduction, something like…
‘Magic isn’t real, pointing a stick at someone and shouting in Latin will only annoy them, aliens aren’t mating with your left nostril while you sleep and any resemblance in this book between gods depicted and gods that may or may not exist is purely coincidental. But gee, doesn’t this stuff make for whiz-bang stories?’
Aletheia doesn’t have that and it reads almost like you’re being preached at, right from the get go. I have no issue with drugs, religion or magic in game settings, or even being preached at (you can ignore a book easier than a frothing street preacher after all) but the matter-of-fact way the material is presented runs from the out-of-character introduction right the way through to the end. In a world where people buy into Deepak Chopra and blatantly exploitative nonsense like The Secret that can’t help but make me a little uneasy.
The rules use a simple dicepool system of between one and five dice, with a bonus dice if you have a ‘descriptor’ (such as strong, tough etc) that is applicable to the situation. You roll these dice needing to score a 5-6 with each dice scoring that counting towards a target number of successes. Professions or skills add automatic victories toward that goal target number and to succeed you have to meet the number.
Characters start out very average – two points in each statistic if they were spread out evenly, but also get a profession, some pick-up skills and a psychic or otherwise supernatural power. Different powers and different professions are rated with stars, the more stars the more expensive but also the more useful the profession or power, so you have to trade expertise in for usefulness, which is fairly balanced.
The investigative side of the game is somewhat similar to The Gumshoe system, but not as detailed or quite as responsive. Vital clues are identified and these are always discovered first, but you don’t automatically get them, you still have to roll. Thus an investigation can stall if nobody is able to succeed in finding that all important clue. Additional success brings additional supplementary clues, which may reveal more of the whole.
Its a simple but responsive system that seems to work very well indeed for its intended purpose.
- Brilliant investigative campaign world.
- Well crafted ‘light’ system mechanics.
- Mature approach and presentation.
- Very locked down.
- Finite usefulness.