The intent behind this work, and the whole Campaign Gems series, is to provide a single-book campaign with sufficient material and background to enable you to run one-off adventures or a whole campaign from just the one product. In this, The Nightmare War succeeds admirably.
It starts off with a short story designed to set the scene: a dystopic near-future where the action takes place mainly in the underclass. From here, the first section is pure flavour and background, laying out the situation in which the characters will find themselves. It is 2035, and much the same as now with perhaps a bit more of a divide between the haves and the have-nots, a greater tendency for disasters natural and man-made to sweep the world and so on. Beautifully and atmospherically presented, much of this first part could be printed as handouts to set the scene or documents that the characters discover.
The characters start out as normal... but something seems to have changed. They have begun to get truly horrible nightmares, and find that they are developing weird powers. Oh, and someone (or is that something?) is after them, apparently with the intent of terminating them with extreme prejudice. The game can focus around pure survival, or an attempt to find out what is going on.
The second section provides the rules materials you need to create characters. Instead of character classes, they are classified by which particular group of 'special powers' they have begun to develop. Here I need to raise one difference of opinion with the authors, as a D20 System book they naturally rely on a Wizards of the Coast core rulebook for certain aspects of character generation and advancement... and refer to the Player's Handbook while I feel it would work better if you use D20 Modern, hence having put this product into the D20 Modern section of the site.
The power groups are well-designed and balanced, allowing characters to develop mental or physical abilities or even an affinity with machinery. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and all suffer these dreadful nightmares (don't read about them if you are on your own at night!). There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason why someone acquires these powers, there's just a sudden momentary disorientation and you suddenly find that there are things you can do that you could not do before. Pick up other people's thoughts, perhaps, or run an awful lot faster than you did before...
The characters section also outlines skills and feats, both new ways of using existing ones and plenty of new ones (feats in particular) specific to this setting. There are also a few notes on technological developments and likely equipment, although it's kept quite low-key as befits the intention of 'ordinary' characters to whom something extraordinary has happened.
The third and final part of the product is intended for the game master. It explains what is really going on, and how to use this to create exciting one-off adventures or build a complete campaign using this particular setting. There's a lot of background information and a good array of 'monsters' and NPCs (some friendly, many not) with whom the characters can interact. It is sprinkled liberally with ideas for adventure and for longer-term plots.
Overall, this is a very good product, taking a basic concept and developing it into something that will run easily with no more than a couple of read-throughs of the material presented, and generating some characters. A full introductory scenario might have been an advantage, but there are plenty of ideas which can be developed into one with minimal effort on the game master's part. In terms of its intention of being a whole campaign in a single book, it has suceeded extremely well. If you fancy a bit of near-future horror, give it a try!
Return to The Nightmare War page.
Reviewed: 17 December 2006