I went on a mini RPG binge this weekend, and wound up with quite a bit of good stuff, but the gem of the lot was Charnel Gods, by Scott Knipe. It’s a PDF supplement for Sorcerer, and it’s so good it prompted me to buy that game, but it stands perfectly well on its own; at five bucks, there’s no excuse not to buy it if you’ve got any interest in — but I’m getting ahead of myself and reaching for the conclusion already. Tsk.
So what is it? It’s an innovative and original take on the pulp fantasy genre. By pulp fantasy, I mean stories like Conan and Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books, and Scorpion King on the lighter end of the genre. Charnel Gods is not light; it’s a grim world in which the heros bear the blasphemous Fell Weapons and battle the Nameless Ones, because the Old Gods are dead and can no longer fight. Magic is almost non-existent, with the exception of the Fell Weapons. The battleground — the world itself — is formed from the corpses of the gods, which are the only barrier between humanity and oblivion.
Not light at all.
The game is designed to be episodic. The heros are more fated than any White Wolf character, but the rules include a mechanism for inheritance; after each epoch ends, and each epoch will end, another will form atop the corpses of the gods and new heros will take up the Fell Weapons. This structure permits wide variation of genre inside the basic theme, and ameliorates feelings of futility, which is very elegant. Now that I’ve read it, it’s only natural that opening up the possibilities for the campaign also relieves the potential depression inherent in the setting, but I wouldn’t have thought of it on my own. Pay special attention to the maps of the sample epochs, by the by.
The balance of lost humanity (unavoidable for a bearer of a Fell Weapon) and impending doom of the epoch is masterful. The two downward trends are wholly separate and unrelated, except insofar as the Fell Weapons were created to battle that doom, which provides for excellent contrast. There are certain ambiguities about the setting which I won’t spoil, but which heighten that contrast. There’s a bit of the cliche in the ultimate weapons created to battle evil which corrupt the wielders, but I think that’s muted by the fact that the weapons weren’t created for humans. It doesn’t fly as a parable for nuclear weapons, for example.
That sort of elegance permeates the book. Another example: we all know players are gonna read the rulebook. So in Charnel Gods, knowledge of the Fell Weapons and the Old Gods and the rests is one of the things that separates heros (I should, perhaps, be saying “protagonists”) from the rank and file. Another: in Sorcerer, sorcerers can sense the Humanity level of other sorcerers. So in Charnel Gods, there’s a really good reason why the heros would want to do this. The economical synergy between rules and setting is very impressive.
As I mentioned, the game’s intended for use with Sorcerer. I think you could use it as a standalone, with whatever ruleset your heart desires. This may be blaspemy, but you could even pound D20 into working — perhaps by using something like the rules in Mutants and Masterminds. I don’t think stock D20 would work; since Charnel Gods is a low magic world, most of the D20 balancing methods would be absent. Something like Over the Edge would be great. You’d just need to include some sort of Humanity mechanism, since that’s essential to the setting.
It’s five bucks. The layout and art are really nice. I’d have paid $15 bucks for it and not felt ripped off. Go buy it.