By Paula R. Stiles
Chambers, Jamie. Supernatural Role Playing Game [Corebook]. Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd., August 19, 2009. Cam Banks, Jimmy McMichael and Aaron Rosenberg, writing and development. Alex Jurkat, ed. Liz Wilhelm, proofreader. Digger Hayes, art design. 186 pp. Hardcover, PDF. $29.99 (full price $39.99).
Chambers, Jamie. Supernatural: The Hunt Begins. Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd., 2008 (released Sept. 14, 2009). Cam Banks and M. Alexander Jurkat, eds. Jessica Banks, proofreader. Lindsay Archer, illus. Digger Hayes, art design. PDF. 36 pp. FREE.
I’d heard that an RPG (D&D-style role playing game) for Supernatural was coming out and had made a casual note to pick up a copy sometime to review, more for completeness’ sake than anything else. It had been years since I tried even online RPGs. Unfortunately, gamers and gaming publications don’t generally make it easy for you to get into gaming unless you are a geeky, white teenage boy. I didn’t think much about the Supernatural Role Playing Game, in fact, until the publisher noticed that we were reviewing Supernatural tie-ins and very nicely sent me a copy out of the blue.
I want to preface all of this so that you know exactly where I’m coming from (older, non-gamer Supernatural fan) when I say – damn, this is a really cool product. And Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. has gone to great lengths to make the Supernatural Role Playing Game accessible both to hard-core gamers and total newbies. You don’t even have to be all that interested in gaming. There’s enough folklore in here (and info about the protags and recurring characters) to attract someone interested in myths and legends, and any Supernatural fan who liked Alex Irvine’s John Winchester’s Journal and The Supernatural Book of Monsters, Spirits, Demons, and Ghouls. The publisher also appears to have consulted with the showrunners at some point, as The Hunt Begins has an acknowledgement to Nicholas Knight (author of the Supernatural season companions) and the Corebook includes a forward by one of the show’s main writers, Sera Gamble.
So, what is the Supernatural Role Playing Game? Well, first and foremost, it’s a reference book (two, since there’s also The Hunt Begins). It contains background material for the game (which, in the case of an RPG based on a show or film, also means background material for the show or film) and the rules for playing the game. The game itself puts you in the shoes of a hunter of the supernatural, off after some nasty or other – basically, you’re playing your own version of a Supernatural episode. This type of RPG is not a game of competition, however. It’s more like telling a group story. You have one person who has to have read the whole book (the Gamemaster). This person plays referee to the other players (who play the protagonists in the game). The Gamemaster also supplies background information and plays any incidental characters, and even monsters, that the players encounter along the way.
Realistically, this means you need at least two players and a Gamemaster, so, three people. The Corebook says you can use any number of players and The Hunt Begins recommends four for its walk-through adventure. The books talk about how these people need to be physically present, but they really don’t. You could easily play the game with someone online or by cell phone if you had some kind of group IM or texting ability, as long as you each had a book and a set of dice.
Speaking of the latter, you need several multi-sided dice, which the game rules explain. Some non-gamers like to make fun of the dice, but all they really do is keep the plot rolling along and nicely unpredictable by introducing the element of chance. The Hunt Begins makes some suggestions on how to make your own if you can’t or won’t go down to the local comic book store (a penny serves as a two-sided die, for example).
Now, why do I keep saying “Corebook”? This is what the publisher calls rulebooks for individual games in the Cortex System. Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. created the Cortex System for its Serenity Role Playing Game in 2005. The intention was to improve the flexibility of gameplay, character creation and worldbuilding. I’ll explain why this is good for both a hardcore gamer and a Supernatural fan new to gaming in a minute. Let me introduce the books, first.
Let’s start with the Corebook. This is the main course and it will cost you money, especially since it’s in hardcover (we’ll get to The Hunt Begins being free in a moment). It has Gamble’s forward, nine chapters, a glossary of monsters, a “Music to Hunt By” page, an index, and scorecards at the end that you can write in to help you keep your characters and monsters straight. You might want to photocopy those and write on the copies. The nine chapters are: 1. Be Afraid of the Dark, 2. The Basics, 3. The Hunters, 4. Traits and Skills, 5. The Gear, 6. The Rules, 7. The Story, 8. The Supernatural, 9. The Mundane. This being a gaming rule book and not a novel, you don’t need to read the chapters in order to understand what’s going on. Chapter One (which you should read first) even has suggestions on where to go next depending on what you want to do or are curious about.
There is enough information in here to keep an experienced gamer geeking out for quite a while, especially if that gamer likes the supernatural, big or small ‘s’. A fan of the show could also have a good time reading through the different legends and checking out the various photos (some of them gruesome, some of them very nice eye candy), drawings, maps and other multimedia.
So, where’s the catch? Well, the catch is that, unless you have some experience in gaming, you’re liable to start feeling very lost and very intimidated about ten pages in. Maybe sooner.
This brings us to Supernatural: The Hunt Begins. The publisher calls this a “Quickstart”. It includes a chapter (“Hitting the Road”), “Of Wolf and Man: A Supernatural Adventure”, and four full character descriptions (Sam, Dean and two other hunters, a man and a woman). The chapter brings you up to speed on Supernatural and on RPG games, ending with a funny RPG deconstruction of the exorcism scene from season one’s “Phantom Traveler”. The adventure section takes you on a walk-through of an original Supernatural story, “The Beast of Bray Road” (an MOTW shown at the beginning of the Supernatural comic, Rising Son). This section takes you right through the whole kit and kaboodle of playing a game (except for creating protagonist characters), step by action step, including creating victims, bystanders and monsters as you go along. The characters section gives you four ready-made characters, with their characteristics, descriptions and background. Except for dice and fellow gamers, you don’t need anything else to play that scenario.
The Hunt Begins also has aesthetic (or is that “totally shallow”?) considerations. The art is very nice, as are Lindsay Archer’s illustrations. I especially liked the action pose for Dean on page 27. Note to the folks doing those nasty action figures for the show – hire this person. Please.
Okay, so why not just stick with The Hunt Begins since it’s free and teaches you how to play? Here’s where the Cortex flexibility comes in. Once you get familiar with the “Beast of Bray Road” adventure in The Hunt Begins, that’s it. You don’t get much info on how to create new adventures and no more than the basics for background on the show and the folklore. The Corebook gives you all that. Want to make Gordon Walker your protagonist? Create a new, kick-ass woman hunter? Play a demon or pagan god? The Corebook can teach you how.
Even if you want to stick to Sam or Dean, you may want to progress beyond their models in The Hunt Begins (in addition to Sam and Dean, the Corebook includes stats for John Winchester and Bobby Singer on pages 57-60 and stats for MOTWs and random “ordinary folk” stereotypes in later chapters). Their statistics appear to have been constructed sometime in season three and you may not agree with their approach to each of the brothers. No problem. Once you’ve got up to speed with The Hunt Begins, the Corebook can help you bring the boys into season five. The Hunt Begins is a great teaser that introduces fans of the show and of folklore to gaming, indicating that Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd., unlike some gaming publishers I’ve seen, really wants to cater to the fans of the show, gaming veterans and virgins alike.
There were a few things I didn’t overly love. The folksy dialect, especially for the Corebook, is distracting and a little annoying. It’s neither Sam nor Dean’s voice. It doesn’t even sound like Bobby (which I think was whom the writer was trying to imitate). There are also some typos – not that many, but they do jump out in odd places. In the personal statistics sections, everybody’s weight is off and I seriously question whether Dean and Bobby’s intelligence and willpower are only a 6, not to mention that John’s “superhunter” stats need serious reevaluation following season four, as do some of Sam’s – and the angels have changed a lot of things, too.
Also, The Hunt Begins gets Dean’s eye colour wrong, though the Corebook gets it right. Why do tie-in writers keep doing that? And I’ve already mentioned that starting with the Corebook instead of The Hunt Begins can feel like jumping into the deep end for a non-gamer. But overall, this game is a lot of fun and worth a look.