Several months ago, I was contacted by Ilya Bossov of Lagging Dice, asking if I'd like to playtest their first and newest game, Gatekeepers. I was intrigued, of course -- I'd never been a playtester before. However, I kept putting it off, being a terrible procrastinator by my own guilty admission. It was only today that I finally finished reading the rules and gave it a test drive, solo, without a group.
If you want the condensed version of my thoughts, the game is unique, in a good way, being that it uses card-based mechanics (not poker cards, but rather special cards designed by Lagging Dice themselves). Want the longer version? Read on!
The preview below is based off my understanding of the pre-release rules after reading them a few times, so there will definitely be misinterpretations here and there. I apologise in advance if there are any.
The rules were very briefly tested in a solo, GM-less setting, using the provided adventure from the rulebook and Mythic Game Master Emulator.
Gatekeepers takes place in a setting called Feyhaven. The premise is that there is a conspiracy in which monsters have, for the longest time, been trying to escape through these magical Gates. Player Characters (PCs) are assumed to be part of this secret war, although it is possible to play characters that aren't.
Feyhaven is inhabited by all manner of weird creatures, from Feral Elves to Giant Mantises to those that are in-between -- yes, you can be half-horse, half-human, but this does more harm than good as society ostracises such beings.
Gatekeepers is unique, in that it uses a card-based system with dice rolls. The cards aren't traditional poker ones, but are instead specifically designed as part of the game's mechanics.
Character Creation & Setup
Gatekeepers has no character sheet. Instead, your character is made up of a Creature card (think Race from D&D) and 3 other cards (chosen from the Skills (D&D's Class), Strikes (Powers), Items and Spells decks). Yes, the cards represent a character in its entirety, which provide a nice, visual interpretation of one's character, as well as giving players plenty of flexibility in deciding how they want their character to turn out. This should please both roll- and role-players.
Another RPG convention that's been streamlined is the inventory. You can get Item cards as part of your hand -- these usually provide some mechanical benefits. Anything else comes under Loot, which are represented by Loot tokens. I'm not especially fond of this abstraction, as I enjoy penning down the individual items that I pick up. I suppose Loot here can just represent gold, and you can still jot down specific items that you find though. We'll have to see what the rules say in the final iteration of the text.
Besides Loot tokens, you can also acquire Fey Dust and XP tokens. Fey Dust allows you to enchant items and learn new spells. XP tokens allow you to learn new skills.
Non-Combat Task Resolution
The first thing that happens is that your character takes on a Stance. A Stance represents your character's behaviour and role right there and then. The number of cards you choose for your Stance is half of the number which you have in your hand. You can pick from any at will, and you can swap them anytime (though it's a bit more restricted in combat due to the pressure of time).
Whenever you want to do a task, you choose two relevant icons from the cards in your Stance, roll 2d6, then allocate each d6 to each icon. Then, you add up the points on your dice along with the icons -- each icon is worth 1 point -- and compare the total points to the difficulty number set by the Game Master (GM).
For example, let's say I want to find a book in a library in the shortest time possible. The GM might rule that I would need a Boot icon (representing speed) and a Book icon (representing knowledge); difficulty is 7+. Hey, conveniently, being a City Elf gives me these two icons, so I don't even need to look at the other cards in my Stance. I now roll 2d6, and come up with a 4 and 5 respectively. I allocate the 5 to the boot icon, and 4 to the book icon. 5+4+1+1 = 11, so I easily pass the check. If I'd gotten a total score of 7, I would have passed too, but only barely and with a complication.
I quite enjoy this method of task resolution. It's fast and simple, and the way the Stance mechanic works really helps one to visualise the character. I was worried that the card-based system would come off as being gimmicky, but thankfully that's not the case here.
Combat is similar, in that you roll 2d6 and allocate dice to relevant icons. Everyone does this process at the beginning, then the player with the best rolls starts first, declaring their action. Turns alternate between players and GM, so player 1 goes first, then it's the GM, then player 2 (typically sitting to the left of player 1), then the GM again, and so on and so forth.
When attacking, you will match your Offense score (Swords icon for physical attacks, Books icon for magical attacks) against the opponent's Defense score (Shields icon for physical defense, Smiles icon for magical defense) to see how well/badly you hit; otherwise, you will just resolve tasks against a static difficulty number, as you would outside of combat.
Every card you get has some combat feature for your character too, as seen in the City Elf card. This offers for some nice tactical opportunities, although it would be nice to get more abilities to choose from each card. There are some neat permutations, but I can imagine characters being somewhat samey at higher levels when you have access to more cards.
Combat in Gatekeepers should be played on a map (with grid or otherwise), so purely using theatre of the mind is out of the question. This isn't an issue though, as you can use plain paper to abstractly illustrate the battlefield.
Fights can get resolved really quickly due to the way enemy NPCs work. When dealing with large numbers, the GM can just kill off every enemy that has sustained a hit, in order to speed things up. Another thing I like is that the GM doesn't need to roll, but instead just adds +3 to all the NPCs' icons (it literally is called a 'cheating bonus'). Aside from the fact there is less number crunching to do, this also means everyone at the table can get a clear picture of the target number that they need to beat.
NPCs can also take on the forms of Really Big Monsters, which are more or less the equivalent of final bosses in video games. They function like normal NPCs (except bigger), BUT they have a physical quality that renders them invulnerable until it's removed or destroyed. It could be anything, ranging from Tentacles Everywhere to Massive Armoured Shell. I haven't had the chance to try out this feature, but it sounds really neat on paper.
In the course of combat, PCs get Mark tokens when they sustain damage. Marks are essentially adrenaline boosts which grant PCs more icons to use on their Stance cards, but sustain one too many points of damage and Marks can become Scratches. When the Stance cards are filled with Scratches, the PC is out and must draw an Injury card.
An Injury stays with you until you can get it treated at a proper location; if the Injury card indicates 'Death', you die. Here's where things start to get... unusual. Before PCs die, they can choose to take a Geas card, which basically restores them to full vitality. The Geas, however, compels them to act in certain ways. Furthermore, PCs might need to draw additional Creature cards, which forces them to mutate into in-between creatures.
My short, solo, GM-less playthrough was enough to give me a snapshot of how hard-hitting combat can get; I like it a lot due to its speed and simplicity. One reservation I have is that, as mentioned in an earlier paragraph, the permutations of character builds may start to converge down the line as characters advance. I'm used to games with a lot of choices and crunchiness (except Rolemaster!) so it remains to be seen how Gatekeepers will play at higher levels.
Also, it bears mentioning that the setting and rules are baked into each other at the moment (i.e. rules aren't really modular), so one's mileage will vary. On my end, I'm lukewarm to the setting, but found the combat fun, in a gamist way. I was told from a brief conversation with Ilya that one of the Kickstarter reward tiers will feature source files for creating your own cards. That's something I'm very keen on digging into, but it might be difficult to introduce new mechanics or ignore existing ones..
Gatekeepers was a pleasant surprise. I have to admit my initial skepticism about it, especially when I first learned that it: a) does away with a character sheet; b) uses cards and dice; and c) uses special cards. People whom I've gamed with know I don't really like game-specific components (e.g. FFG's Star Wars dice).
Having read through the basic rules, I find the cards actually work quite well in representing the type of character that you want to play. The way they're designed allows for good role-playing opportunities while keeping combat fast and tactical. There are things that I don't feel strongly towards, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that most of my quibbles get fixed in the final draft, as so far Ilya has been very open with communication.
Do note, though, that there are some things I chose to omit in this preview: some setting-specific details (inhabitants, localities), technical aspects of the book itself (formatting, presentation of text, art), and vehicular rules.
I hope this preview has been informative, giving you a better idea of the game and my thoughts on it. If you'd like to stay up to date on future posts, follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for reading, and have a good gaming week ahead!
Gatekeepers is now on Kickstarter. You can find the project page here: http://kck.st/2kQnoU5
The next scheduled post is this Sunday/Monday, resuming the fortnightly post schedule.