I picked up Engel, the new D20 game from White Wolf, over the weekend. Wait, that’s not true. It’s actually from Feder und Schwert, a German gaming company, and White Wolf’s Sword and Sorcery Studios is publishing it over here. Also, it’s not a D20 game per se: it doesn’t have the D20 logo, so strictly speaking it’s just an OGL game that happens to use the D20 mechanics. But they’re not allowed to say so. In Germany, it was apparently published with the D20 logo and also had a set of Tarot-based mechanics, which we don’t get here. Have I mentioned lately that WotC’s licensing scheme is somewhat complex?
Anyhow, it’s a pretty cool setting. It’s 2654, plagues and disasters have traumatized the Earth’s biosphere, and the Lord of the Flies dreams horrible insects into life. Only the Angelic Church — led by an undying Pope — stands between the wreckage of Europe and the demonic hordes. But five orders of angels have been sent to assist humanity in this hour of need.
Technology is outlawed, but still pursued by the secular leaders of Europe. Feudalism has returned. The Church is the most powerful institution in Europe, but by no means the only center of power. Feder und Schwert have avoided the trap of one-dimensional settings; it’s not just the Church against the baddies, and there are those who are not aligned with the Church but are also not evil.
I like the images of a drowned world in a dying age. In some ways, it’s very Dying Earth. The world is clearly near an end, battered and bruised by centuries of pain, and everyone finds their own way to avoid thinking about it. Some resort to decadence, some resort to the Church, and some find peace in surrender.
The translation is top notch; some Euro game translations (Agone comes to mind) have great ideas weighed down by turgid English, but Engel flows very well. The prose strongly conveys the feeling of the world. The excellent maps probably helped a lot there; the endpapers are a map of flooded Europe, and they really drive home the sense of a world less than once it was.
There is a strong metaplot, some of which is not revealed in the main book. I think it would be pretty easy to ignore it completely, though, so I didn’t find it objectionable. Feder und Schwert is one of those companies that wants to tell a story with their RPGs, though: they’ve published Engel graphic novels and CDs. It might well get in the way of the game at a later date; be warned.
I think using the D20 mechanics was a good choice. Most of the book is background, which doesn’t hurt because the D20 rules are simple to explain and mechanically solid. I would have liked to have seen the Tarot-based system, but I’m sure I’ll find a recap of ‘em on the Web eventually. There’s very little divergence from the basic D20 model here. Engel uses the same classes as does D&D, plus five more classes for the angels themselves. Angelic powers are treated as skills (a really nice touch), but you fuel them with your own hit points (another nice touch which makes good sense in the setting).
On the down side, there are very few sample monsters. This is a pretty serious lack; sure, you could adapt any D&D monster pretty easily, but I kind of want a good set of adversaries in a stand alone game. Since campaigns will likely center around angels, we need to know what they’re combatting. In general, in fact, there’s a lack of information about the Lord of the Flies. He’s around, he’s doing bad things, but what exactly? Well, that’s murky.
There is, by the by, a big secret at the heart of the setting. I’m going to cut that off into the extended entry, for the sake of anyone who might want to play the game. I do think that if you’re intending to be a player (rather than a GM), you don’t want to know this, and I am generally pretty casual about such things.
Overall, it’s a buy with the caveat that the backstory of the world is not complete. I think the promised book on the Lord of the Flies will complete the backstory sufficiently, and I’m willing to wait for it on that basis, but I could be wrong.
NOTE: if you have come straight to this page, be aware that spoilers follow this line!
So: the angels aren’t really angels. They’re nanotech enhanced children, who are stolen from their parents by bands of Church warriors. The undying Pope found a cache of nanotech a long long time ago, and has been using it for this purpose ever since. It’s an incredibly grim backstory, since the Church wants no pubescent angels. At puberty, the angels must die.
Recently, though, the order responsible for maintaining the nanotech was obliterated. This created a serious crisis within the Church. A by the book campaign will inevitably revolve around this storyline, one way or another. It’s not clear that it’s safe to sacrifice angels, now, since there won’t be any more of them. I like that dynamic.
However, again, there’s not one word on the Lord of the Flies. I was really heartened when the book provided the big reveal early on, since I don’t like the model where secrets are deferred to later books. Unfortunately, the other big secret — the nature of the adversaries — is deferred in precisely that manner.