Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gestalt: The Hero Within

Gestalt: The Hero Within

Author: Scott Bennie, Publisher: Black Wyrm Games (www.blackwyrm.com)

400 pages, retail price, HERO system: $49.95 – print, $24.95 – PDF.

400 pages, retail price, Mutants & Masterminds system: $39.95 – print, $19.95 – PDF.

Currently on sale for 25% off at Black Wyrm Games


Full Disclaimer: Members of the All Games Considered podcast know, and have gamed with, some of the staff of Black Wyrm Games.

Note: Blogger is blocked at my Day-Job, so I'm posting this via email. Any formatting issues I will fix as soon as I get a chance - Carol.
Archetypes are such because they have a collective resonance with us. As the gamer-geek era has evolved, more of those archetypes are getting expressed through the Superhero genre. Our books are graphic novels; our movies are CGI spectaculars of the four-color tales brought to life and our games: video-, online, and tabletops, have gamemasters and players saving the world: tights and capes are optional.


"Gestalt" overall is a superbly designed book. The fiction at the front of the book is hauntingly beautiful, drawing you right in. It then goes into world theme, mechanics for character creation, world history, example characters, common archetypes, the alien angle, the rest of the world, campaign meta-events, running a campaign, a starting adventure, and finally – every GM's friend – the plot seeds. Though, I have to say there are enough seeds in each of the preceding chapters that this last chapter is pure icing.


This setting shows that we're not just playing a four-color, two-dimensional expression of an emotion or an aspect. We're playing a character with human responsibilities and desires, fighting against the drive of an archetype that needs and demands expression.


Chapter 1 outlines the chapters and then goes into what separates this world from ours, and ultimately, from other superhero settings. The Gestalt Dimension is where the elements of the collective unconscious reside, making nothing irrelevant. Every concept has a meaning and possibly a champion out in the world. There are three basic types of Gestalts (with rarer ones explained in the next chapter): Pure, Bonded and Chain. More than one person can represent a concept (there are several "Strongmen" and "Weather" gestalts for example).


All Gestalts get an emotional rush when using their powers to champion their archetype, are drawn to situations where they can accomplish that, and should the GM include it – have dire results to the collective unconscious should something happen to the character.


Chapter 2 goes into character creation and suggests that while your PCs aren't uber – they can be mythic – with room for growth. There is an entire section about power levels and what is appropriate for the game and the players, and includes the "Beyond" characters that are only meant to be NPCs. Mechanically, there are limits on key statistics, defenses, and the amount of damage one can deal. There are also limits on what powers and disadvantages fit with the archetype, including psychological, social, vulnerabilities and dependencies. Goals are stressed as very important. They should be varied, personal, and should help guide the plot. Brainstorming sessions between the GM and players are encouraged.


In this chapter you also get more of an idea of just how many layers this setting has, just considering the characters. A Gestalt who embodies an Archetype because as a human their intensity and probable obsession drew it to them, probably wasn't the most stable block in the Jenga game to start with. The theme bounces between the PCs working together for a common goal, but whose egos and individual goals often clash. Then there are the Gestalts who are their enemies, and the human organizations that fear and want to control them. Later on we're introduced to Aliens, Metagestalts, Leviathans, and other beings who can all be potential allies and/or enemies, with the PCs and with each other. It advises GMs not to forget there's a world outside of your players' general vicinity, and that the NPCs aren't always sitting by the phone waiting for the PCs to call.


The layers continue in Chapter 3's world history, which covers all five Gestalt Events and the major battles and events that shaped the better-known teams and Heroes/Villains. The history plays out as the evolution of our comics have in the real world – only on hyper fast-forward. Since comics were an understood and familiar medium, the first Gestalts adopted many of its trappings. There are historical divergences as well, which are explained here, and based on the years of gameplay in the development of this world.


There is no lack of plots in this setting, or of plot/character enhancing points. Examples include you're a former follower of the Big Bad (also known as the Blood Red King). Why do Gestalt-powered inventors and scientists keep dying? Are their deaths being faked? Are untrusting governments racing to develop ways to contain/control/condemn them holding them?


In Chapter 4 we're introduced to literally dozens of heroes and villains of varying levels. Chapter 3's meta-plot megamart continues here as you're given backstories, conflicts, and lots of possibilities. It's also made clear that there is no living in the world and not being of it. The cleverer characters are using everyday world resources and events to obtain their goals. That could mean using the Media to smear an enemy's reputation, suing them, and trying to influence the law, and so on.


One of the aspects I really like about this book is that there is an expansive coverage of not only American Supers, but also those worldwide. There are reflections of cultural archetypes in all the listings. Also, despite the stark lines of good and evil that define some of the characters and their actions, the individual supers don't always act in a clearly moral/immoral manner.


In Chapter 5 if you can't find an archetype in the list of almost 50 main archetypes and the dozens of related/similar archetypes, then there's just no pleasing you. Each archetype is well formatted, with a quote, description, related Gestalts, Subtypes, and Character examples. Also listed are system specifics – abilities, costs, disadvantages, and so on. Each main Archetype also has a sidebar hook that goes with it.


Chapter 6 introduces the Extraterrestrials – here we learn about the Probability Lords, the Ar' races and the Eiko. The Probability Lords went around seeding and tweaking planets in their giant lab experiment. Even going so far as to take a section of Caucasians from the earliest days and transplanting them to somewhere with fewer challenges to survival and a more cohesive culture. This didn't last as their wars with the Eiko – religious beings who worship the Probability Lords and don't believe any other sentience is deserving of their technology – brought factions to the Ar, and more possibilities for us.


Chapter 7 outlines the Gestalt Dimension, the outer void where the thoughts and images of humans can be seen – a place where protogestalts seek bondable hosts and prime them until a Gestalt Wave completes the process. Battle rules differ here as well, and are explained. Changelings and Metagestalts are explained here. Changelings are humans who were just swept away in Gestalt Waves, and changed irrevocably. Metagestalts are True Archetype, who do not bond with humans, nor do they appear on Gestalt-Earth, but they control the pressure valves of the Gestalt Dimension and plan the Gestalt Waves, either because they like humanity, or hate it. Powerful as they are, even they could be the products of the Probability Lords.


Chapter 8 describes what the rest of the world thinks of Gestalts and how it functions. The humans and their organizations haven't caught up to creating technology that can match what the Gestalts can do. This makes them nervous. Humans, as a whole, hate feeling underclassed. This chapter details what the public, media, governments think. Also, stats are given for various weapons and places. Gestalt-slang is introduced here, as are the effects of Gestalts to entertainment, media (including comic books), government and law.


Chapter 9 gives us detailed character write-ups of groups and individuals we met in Chapter 4. Layout starts with Name, type of Gestalt, demographics, stats and powers, background, powers and tactics, personality, suggestions on how to use them in the campaign, and appearance. This goes for over 100 pages. No GM can say they don't have enough material to work with here.


Chapter 10 – Campaign Secrets – GM's eyes-only – sneaky players should stay out. These are possibilities for your campaign that haven't occurred in the existing metaplot, as well as explanations to lingering questions that appear throughout the rest of the book. Where the players get theory, the GM gets what is "really" going on. Of course, your milage may vary. As in the other chapters, it covers what other Gestalts are doing, as well as the governments, the aliens, and so on.


Chapter 11 – Campaigning. More GM-specific advice available here, this time on structuring the campaign, no matter what the specifics are. This section includes the usual Care and Feeding of NPCs, establishing scenes, spotlighting characters (useful in a game of strong characters and probably strong-willed PCs). Pacing and managing scenarios, introducing sub-plots, and player-driven plots are also covered.


Chapter 12 – Adventure! "A Muse Box Melody" is a complete scenario in six parts, with multiple locations, including stats and layout maps. Props located in the various places and their stats are also included. It's always good to know what kind of damage the Beer Mug will do…


Chapter 13 – as I said earlier – this is the icing on a very thick and rich cake. The Scenario Seeds chapter brings more of the same with 10 setups for Gestalt Campaigns, 20 for odd Gestalts, 10 reasons for Gestalts to fight (they need help with this??), 5 to help reconcile inter-Gestalt conflicts between PCs (handy, especially if it may be bleeding over into real life), and 4 to help introduce a new PC.


There's a good, thorough index as well, which makes this particularly hearty offering easier to navigate.


The book isn't perfect however; there are the usual typos. Not many that will really get you, but one on p. 19 threw me. It says Bonded Gestalts have to answer some questions – but doesn't lay them out.


The intended audience is for the book, per the author, is more experienced players who "understand every nuance of their rules system" (p. 18 HERO). Personally, I do not believe that they are the only ones who will get value out of this book. Even though the setting is declared for a specific set of players, it succeeds in giving the right tools to the GMs to tinker it into something else. Nowhere in the book does it say what you must do, just how the book was intended, and full acknowledgement that there will be those who take it and make it more their own.


The reason for it being aimed at more experienced players? I'm unsure, however, "Gestalt" evolved from years and years of actual gameplay, in a very detailed system, as it started as a game of Champions in 1989. This is made obvious by the uniqueness of the characters presented, and the interconnectedness and depth they have with their Archetypes, each other, and the world/galaxy at large. However some may chafe at the implied restrictions. My suggestion is to get beyond it, because you'd be turning your back on some very rich material if you let that get in the way.


This is a campaign setting, and as such probably isn't the easiest to build a one-shot or a pick-up-game from, unless you're playing with your regular group, and even then you will just be skimming the surface. However, sometimes that's what you and your group need, and this setting can provide it with some tweaking and use of the Player's Guide (system neutral, available at http://www.blackwyrm.com/Extras.htm).


Overall I recommend this book. This robust setting was created in one system, and was successfully adapted for another. I am thoroughly convinced that this setting can stand on its own merits, no matter what system it is in.



Want to learn more about Gestalt? Read on...




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