Heaven & Earth Reviews
Welcome to Potters Lake, a quiet Midwest town. Home to the Catholic college of St. Anslem, the USAF training facility at Powell AFB, and Southey's Paper Mill, which made its millions from paper sanitary products, nothing ever really happens here. All right, so some of the customs are quaint, like the exuberant Fourth of July celebrations that also mark the town's official founding, the Great Tomato Festival that takes place before Halloween every year, the celebrations of which last week, the rivalry to out-do the other of the Sheriff's Department and Fire Department balls, the utter seriousness with which Little League is held...
Scratch beneath the surface of life in the Kansas town and more than its fair share of oddities remain unanswered. Were they to admit it, every household has suffered from a haunting... Memorial Hospital's morgue is rumored to be haunted by a unicycling clown... Why does the current owner of the boarding house keep it open when nobody stays? Could it be because the previous owner killed seven people and buried them in the basement? Is the old Hollyvale Cemetery really one of the seven portals to Hell, or is that just student rumor? Another rumor suggests that the infamous Men in Black have been known to visit households and take the inhabitants away, just as Powell AFB is rumored to be the headquarters for Project: Bluebook. The surrounding woods have a bad reputation backed up with regular disappearances and talk of strange monoliths, claw-like trees, and lost sand dunes.
Some, all, and more of these and other rumors are true, or at least have a basis in fact. For Potter's Lake really is a place with secrets, conspiracies, and cabals, which are ripe for uncovering whether the player characters are merely passing through, just moved there, or have lived there all of their lives. Of course, with so many secrets, conspiracies, and cabals, it seems an awful lot for one small town. But there is a reason for this. A damned good reason. Which could have come across as crass and poorly handled, but thankfully this is not the case. Pleasingly, where other RPGs might keep a GM in the dark as its revelations, Heaven & Earth does not shy away from revealing all of the setting's secrets.
The simple truth is that the Apocalypse is almost upon us. In the war between God and Lucifer, humanity is merely a method of tallying the final score. After that, we have no future. Fortunately, we have a champion in Christ, who has rebelled and now walks the Earth in an attempt to save us. Potter's Lake is important because it happens to be a tainted slice of Eden and contains the means for humanity to stand up to both God and Lucifer. Eden's proximity has drawn angels, demons, and other supernatural entities to Potter's Lake, unhinging reality and attracting magicians, psychics, and ghosts to the town.
[SPOILER ALERT ENDS]
Character generation for Heaven & Earth is an easy process with an emphasis upon the ordinary person. 14 points are divided between six attributes each rated between one and five with two being average. Nine points are spent on an occupation and its rating. The occupations cost from one to five points and represent a package of skills that a character either has or has not. Thus the one-point Librarian occupation just offers the Research skill, whereas five-point Lawyer gives the research, etiquette, fast-talk, law, and oration skills. The ratings -- Rookie, Professional, or Veteran cost between one and three points, and apply to all of the skills within an occupation. Any leftover points can be spent on another occupation or on extracurricular skills, increasing attributes, and buying more Destiny Points, which are used to allow a skill check to be re-rolled or to even turn a failure into an automatic success. Each character normally begins the game with a single Destiny Point. A player is encouraged to select a few hobby skills that on occasion might provide a bonus.
Mechanically the game is equally as simple. Add the value of the attribute and skill rating to a die roll to beat a target of nine. The difficulty of a task is measured by the die type rolled. The smaller the die, the more difficult the task. Combat uses the same mechanics with a few minor tweaks, and is intentionally lethal. All characters can take same amount of lethal (10 points) and non-lethal or blunt damage (20 points). With even the smallest of pistols and rifles doing a ten-sided die's worth of damage, it is possible to kill a character with a single shot. This lethality is compounded with the slow healing rates -- weeks for blunt damage and months for lethal. Combat is not as clear as it should be, and a GM will have to read closely to work out how a character's Defence Value works.
Designed for quick play and character generation, Heaven & Earth's mechanics are over in 20 pages. They do have a player ask the typical questions about his character, but the focus is very much the character's occupation. This is because it indicates a lifestyle and connections, offers roleplaying opportunities, plus it speeds the character generation process. Given the revelatory nature of the game, one curious omission from the mechanics is a means of handling both mental shock and a character's mental status. Easy enough to import from another game though, but I suspect that players are meant to roleplay this.
Angels, demons, and other supernatural entities are handled in the same fashion, powerful, but kept off-screen working from behind the scenes. Magic and psychic abilities are also treated similarly, being difficult to work and learn. It is suggested that no player character begin the game as a psychic or magician.
The GM's advice is decent, pointing particularly towards a televisual format and structure, but better when discussing what could happen at game's end when all is revealed. A challenge in itself, how a GM handles this could make or break a game, possibly ruining what could be a long game. Certainly more advice on this would be welcome, and a whole supplement could be devoted to this denouement. The game is supported with a tightly plotted scenario designed with four players in mind.
Physically, Heaven & Earth opts for simplicity and clarity with a uniform feel to the art that hints at Potter's Lake's quiet weirdness. Although the book lacks an index, it neatly organises everything into chapters, so for example, the NPCs are found in one, secret societies in another, and so on, that it is rarely a problem. The lack of stats for NPCs is another omission, but these can easily be created by the GM. The lack of stats for the supernatural creatures is more intentional, indicating at their inhuman, powerful, almost unfathomable nature which a GM should hint at, rather than expose.
Heaven & Earth is a game of discovery and revelation that provides the GM with everything that he needs -- though Abstract Nova will publish further information. It rewards long term play, with the many NPCs, locations, and mysteries all forming a ready source of scenario ideas. The game's mechanics are good, but since they are not integral and it is the setting that is important, a GM could substitute any game from GURPS and In Nomine to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game and the World of Darkness Roleplaying Game. Likewise, Potter's Lake could easily be slotted into any horror game, but to relegate the town to mere sideshow would be to miss the point.
Small town weirdness is a well-trodden genre, especially in Heaven & Earth's suggested television format, and the game is perfectly set-up for that. Even given the gargantuan nature of Potter's Lake's secrets, everything is nicely kept low key, letting the players focus on what are very ordinary characters and the GM on the oddness and the mood of the town. Handled with care and Heaven & Earth deserves renewal giving time for its secrets to be revealed, explored, and understood.