Robert J Schwalb (Fantasy Flight Games)
Your Prince has recovered from reviewing Red and Pleasant Land, an rpg supplement based on a twisted version of popular children’s tales, so that he may now review Grimm, an rpg supplement based on a twisted version of popular children’s tales. Variety is the fucking spice of life is it not?
Grimm is the second product in the Horizon line by Fantasy Flight Games, a series of stand alone campaign settings for the d20 system, the first one of which is reviewed nyah. Grimm is by far the most well-received of the entire line (having won multiple Ennies) and later on received its own full 219-page behemoth of a setting+rulessystem. We will be taking a look at its slimmer, sexier 62-page cousin however. Is Grimm still sexy? The short answer is yes. It might be the greatest d20 mod ever made.
Grimm is a game about kids ending up in and trying to get the fuck out of a magical fairy-land based on a fucked-up version of the well known Grimm Fairy Tales. Wait! I know I said kids but hear me out! This could have easily been some sort of pretentious story-game about losing one’s innocence or whatever (see also WoD Innocents bleeeeeegh) but instead it’s the perfect combination of whimsy and horror. It is streamlined, innovative, motivates roleplaying over ability-spamming and it achieves all of its design goals flawlessly and with great gusto. It is the great ambassador from d20-land to the wider rpg-community, willing to relinquish its more obtuse principles to accommodate all playstyles in sexy sexy unification.
Character creation is kind of awesome. You play fucking kids so you roll 2d8 for Str and the rest as normal. Grimm is designed for short campaigns, so every class maxes out at level 6. Every class gets AC bonuses if it doesn’t wear armor, a feat every 2 levels, and everyone can use every weapon. The idea is that you level up after each adventure so no xp beancounting.
As for the classes themselves, they are based on kid archetypes, so you get your Bully, your Dreamer, your Jock, your Nerd, your Normal Kid, your Outcast(the loner kid) and your Popular Kid(no multiclassing). Every class gets its own modifiers to abilities, a special hindrance (Nerds take penalties to Athletics and Socialize and may never take ranks in them, Normal kids can’t have more then 2 points of difference between skills and are always fucked since they are essentially redshirts etc.) and its own unique class abilities. What sells them are the class abilities; Bullies can taunt their enemies by preying on their doubts and insecurities, Normal kids that reach level 6 turn out to be “special” after all (choose something like descended from a king, become a fairy, knight, grow up or go insane), Popular Kids can go steady with other kids to give them bonuses etc. Most of the abilities are imaginative and fun and go a little bit beyond +1d6 sneak attack damage and that is as it should be. Naturally, every level you get something special, so every level you reach feels significant.
Grimm continues the trend of being really good by streamlining the skill system, something that was sorely needed for the d20 system. Physical tasks of any kind, whether involving strength or dexterity, are represented by the Athletics skill. Survival and Heal goes on the Boy Scout Stuff skill. Spot, Listen and Search go on the Notice skill. And so on and so forth. Perfect. It’s a mini-game so people do not need to be burdened with 30 different skills. A home-ec skill is added for resolving how long it takes you to perform certain chores under pain of death.
Feats! Somehow Grimm manages to strike a balance between bullshit powergaming and making everything a glorified fluff feat by adding fun and interesting abilities. Everyone starts with an origin feat, which is like race for kids (e.g orphan, exchange student, rich kid, home-schooled etc.). The rest is the usual bonuses to something feats mixed in with fun kid stuff; an allowance feat that gives you a single use +1 to a single roll each week, and yes it can be saved up, a rage-like temper tantrum feat, an ‘I’m Telling’ feat, a groin-kicking feat, a feat that makes you inedible so monsters don’t want to eat you etc. A bunch of feats from the PhB are available but why the hell would you take those?
Equipment section! Starting equipment is suitably silly. You can pick between various starting kits containing such items as lunchboxes, 5 dollars, pencils, 1d20 collectible trading cards and occasionally more useful items like pocket knives (though you can stab people with a pencil) or a duffel bag with extra clothes or something. Every kid also begins play with a unique focus, which is like your favorite kid object that gets magical abilities in the Grimm Lands (a flashlight of true seeing, an invisible friend, magic marker that can draw real exits, a digital watch that gives you an extra standard action 1/day etc.). No fucking about with armor or weapon proficiencies in Grimm, any kid can use any weapon they pick up. Stats for hockey sticks, thrown sticks and stones, pencils and hockey pads may be found alongside stats for handaxes or plate armor. Grimm also introduces the concept of helmets giving bonuses to AC, something which I’ve always felt made a lot of sense. Tips are given on handling magic items in Grimm. In short: magic items have unique effects instead of stat bonuses and are treated more like artifacts. This game is less about loot and more about getting the shit out of the Grimm Lands, so this approach has merit.
No greatest d20 hack ever created would be complete without shedding its Vancian magic system (I fucking love the Vancian magic system but in some settings it makes no sense like here) and unfurling its dazzling new Imagination-point based magic-system for all to gaze upon and admire. Every annoying child (that is, PC) in Grimm has a number of imagination points per day. These may be spent on flat bonuses to rolls (boring) which may be increased by rationalizing them (good!), cause various items to appear in one’s inventory, temporarily enchant items or even control the actions of a nearby NPC provided these actions are reasonable. They may be permanently lowered to increase ability scores, stats or saving throws but again why would you want this, imagination points are fucking useful. More traditionally minded GM’s might balk at this breach of their absolute authority but this mechanism motivates creativity, interaction and cleverness over dice-rolling and therefore gets a massive thumbs up in my book. The amount of imagination points and the relatively high cost (to all but the Dreamer, which is like an imagination point powerhouse) of drastic effects hopefully prevents the mechanism from becoming too obnoxious.
But I mentioned a magic system. Every stinking ungrateful child can learn Incantations (e.g spells from the PHB), provided they have enough magical knowledge and they make their skill roll. These can be cast using Imagination points and they take a standard action per spell level to complete. It goes without saying that the Evocation and Necromancy schools are barred from players so your annoying kids cannot throw fireballs (magic is meant to, once again, facilitate the use of cleverness and roleplay instead of evoking visions of ‘Nam or Stalingrad).
Further minor modifications include some tweaks to the grappling rules, allowing your children to team up so as to increase their shitty grappling bonuses and a page on getting swallowed whole and rules for sneaking out of the mouth unnoticed.
The Grimm Lands themselves are constantly in flux, though there are a few stable features. Most of the map consists of the Checkerboard kingdoms, ruled by petty kings and queens. The Great and Awful Forest can border all these petty kingdoms at any time, euclid-be-damned, and is filled with horrors and lorded over/tyrannized by Humpty-Dumpty, the Rotten King. The Grimm Lands may be crossed via severed giant beanstalks, the omnipresent London Bridge or even sillier means. Beyond the lands lie pirate-infested oceans and beyond that the edge of the world, where betentacled lovecraftian horrors await to dine on your flesh.
Below the land lies the Underworld, where the mythical Dragon who holds the Key to Babylon may be found, which is going to be the endgame goal. You find the Key to Babylon and you gtfo before everything in the Grimm Lands murders you. This will involve solving an impossible quest from the Dragon since fighting the Dragon is not really an option (it doesn’t have stats, but it is enormous and a Dragon and your players are literally children so I will applaud Fantasy Flight for pulling a Caine*). It also goes without saying that everyone in the Grimm Lands is mad and nearly everything in the Grimm Lands really fucking hates children.
Two rather unusual features of the strange and awful Grimm Lands are the power of oaths and temptation. Swearing an oath in Grimm is serious business and breaking it can cause unpleasant side-effects like death, blindness, leprosy, transformation into an animal or eternal damnation in hell. Enemies like The Rotten King and the Devil will try to extract oaths via trickery (since an oath sworn under threat of death is not binding). Temptation is also a recurring element, and you can threaten your annoying children with temptations such as delicious cake, beautiful dresses, hip sunglasses or poisoned apples. They function not unlike of like traps and require will saves to resist.
Encounters in the Grimm Lands are almost all unique and helpfully divided in 4 categories. You’ve got your magic locations that are cursed and basically function as adversaries (Rapunzels tower inhabited by corpse-rapunzel animated by a swarm of poisonous spiders no I did not make that up read that again that is terrifying). You’ve got your villains (sample adversaries are provided, brilliantly). Each villain has a unique vulnerability that is almost always story based and thus generates roleplaying. Example: Sadistic scourge-bearing Cinderella will break down if you manage to give her a hug. Talking animals (Frog prince, ugly duckling, big bad wolf etc.). And finally fantastic creatures like The Devil, The Dragon and the Rotten King (Humpty Dumpty fell, was sort of half glued together again and now functions as a sort of rotting defacto Caligula of the Great and Awful forest. I predict he will likely be the main antagonist of any game of Grimm). There are a few enemies that are not unique, but even those vary from good to fucking great (Red Caps are like goblins that kick their enemies to death with iron-boots but are instantly killed by throwing a winning marble at them). All the unique adversaries are given motivations and personalities so they never feel like sterile stat blocs.
Grimm ends with two pages of sensible advice on how to run Grimm, with notes on tone, possible morals, use of antagonists and goals, descents and so on and so forth. Overall, Grimm is pretty fucking good. I think it would be an almost perfect introductory roleplaying game. It’s whimsical, packed with good ideas and provides just enough detail for a prospective GM to make up his own version of the Grimm Lands without spelling everything out in exhausting detail.
Its elegant design and imagination point mechanic motivate clever play and roleplaying, rather then stabbing things to death with magic missiles, so it should appeal even to avowed enemies of the d20 system. I would have no problem running this. In my review of Red and Pleasant Land I complained it felt hollow. This does not, this is brimming, nay, overflowing with potential for greatness. It is 62 fucking pages of condensed great. Its also hard to get since Fantasy Flight has brought out a new expanded edition under its own system but fuck that noise. I’m no fan of cutesy fairy tale faggotry. I like my fantasy gritty with a hint of the lovecraftian or exotic and insane, but Grimm hits all the right notes and plows on regardless. I award it an [Edit:Almost] perfect score, not because it is my favourite rpg ever, but because I cannot find fault with it.
Edit: I found a tiny error. Grimm says you roll 2d8 for Str for pcs but does not provide adequate rules to support point buy character creation in this fashion. A glaring error certainly.
Pro’s: Emphasis on creative problem solving and interaction above mechanistic hacking and slashing/ability spamming. Uniquely twisted setting. Brimming with vibrant creativity.
Con’s: Fairy tales and fucking kids might not be to everyones taste.
Final Verdict: Awesome(9.9 out of 10 lucky baseball bats).
* = A reference to Vampire the Masquerade, an rpg about vampires. VtM mentioned Caine, the first Vampire, but provided no stats, simply stating you lost in any confrontation.