This work opens with an evocative tale of a confused young man swept up into a world that he does not understand. A world similar to his own yet archaic, bewildering in its assumptions and attitudes... and the world which the players of this game will inhabit.
Moving on, the first chapter continues with a brief outline of how role-playing is similar to yet different from a book or a film: all with characters whose actions advance the plot, yet here it is collaborative with the Director (or games master) setting the scene and looking after the background characters while each player has his own individual character to play. From this, the conclusion that an effective and well-rounded character is essential to a good game is drawn, followed by the rules for creating one.
You begin by deciding what species or 'genus' you are, each of these has its own particular strengths, weaknesses and mental instabilities. Or you can be one of the Lost (like the protagonist of the opening story), someone who is basically human but has just found himself in this setting. Next, comes the psyche - what is the character like as a person, not just as a collection of skills and abilities. Working out a background, what makes that character tick, is all-important rather than bald labels of professions and talents. It's all about getting into that character's head and being able to react to situations in an appropriate manner for that character (which, of course, may not be the way that you personally would!). Some common stereotypes are listed to get the ideas rolling.
Once the nature of the character has been decided, it's time to add some numbers so that actions can be adjudicated once play begins. The core statistics are Physique, Agility, Dexterity, Knowledge and Insight. Their values range from 0 to 6, and an average human would have 1 in each. It's recommended that points are allocated, although a random method is presented for those who prefer luck to play its part. Each Genus has its 'Racial Base' values for each statistic, which you start with and cannot in normal circumstances exceed by more than 3 points, and if you are allocating points you get 5 more to distribute as you please. Next comes further allocation of points to Talents, to reflect the various skills which your character has. Note that one Talent is Wealth and if you don't have any you are a pauper! Not to mention that an abstract system of rolling Wealth against the value of what you require is used rather than actual money. You can either select the Talents you want, or purchase a Career Template that reflects what you character does (or did) for a living and provides the necessary Talents. The cost of a template always leaves a few spare points to enhance Talents you already have or add one or two more to fully customise your character. The templates are aimed more at denizens of Vanishing Point itself rather than Mundane Earth (which is where we are sitting at the moment), but similar ones could be concocted if you don't want to just buy the Talents you want. In reading through the Talents and templates, you start to get a feel for life in Vanishing Point, although this of course is described in more detail later on.
The final stages of character development involve the calculation of Derived Attributes - such as Vitality and Breaking Point - and Enhancements. These are various quirks that your character may have that provide some kind of advantage in certain situations, and may be purchased from the 5 points allocated for the purpose or balanced against Defects if those points are not enough. The Esotericist Enhancement allows the character to use one of the supernatural abilities possible in the world of Vanishing Point - and may even be taken by a character from Mundane Earth for whom arrival in Vanishing Point will allow the Enhancement to manifest. That's pretty much it: a fairly complex and customisable system to create a character that suits what you have in mind. There are several pages of tables summarising the process, and allowing for randomisation of just about all of it for those who prefer to roll dice. To aid in the process there's an extensive example of character generation as well. Overall it seems well-balanced and likely to produce interesting characters ready to cope with the adventures into which they will be plunged.
The second chapter provides full detail on the different Genera (species) available. There are 14 available, each with its own distinctive appearance as well as strengths and weaknesses. Naturally, many would be bizarre or even impossible here in Mundane Earth although they fit in well to the strangenesses of Vanishing Point. They are presented in three groups based on the ease of play and it is open to the Director to limit which groups players may choose from if specific Genera might prove disruptive to the plot or even if he does not feel confident in adjudicating their special capabilities without disrupting the flow of the game. One Genus is single out, the Lost. These are normal denizens of Mundane Earth who have somehow found their way to Vanishing Point and so should prove easy for even a novice role-player... after all, a normal human is something we are all familiar with! Each of the other Genera is introduced with a snippet of prose describing a member of the Genus in typical activity. The Genera are distinctive, wonderfully weird and the descriptions of each suggest ways in which that Genus might be played to good effect.
Chapter 3 deals with Rule Systems, and begins obliquely with another excerpt from the introductory story of what we now know is a Lost new arrival learning how to conduct himself in Vanishing Point. It soon turns to more practical matters and a discussion of the underlying rules by which the game is played. This begins with the sensible reminder that the game is about having fun, and that the rules should never be allowed to get in the way of that, or even intrude on role-playing, which is of greater import than rolling dice!
The system is based on the use of the d8, and generally only the Director will need to worry about other dice. Whenever a character attempts an action the outcome of which is best decided by chance, the Director needs to assign a Difficulty Number (DN) to it. He also decides which Attribute is most appropriate to the attempt. If the character has a higher Attribute than the DN, he succeeds automatically. Otherwise, he then needs to check if any of the character's Talents are likely to be of use in the attempt, and if one is suitable the character then rolls a number of d8s equivalent to the level of the Talent - the highest roll is the one which counts, with 8s being especially lucky as any 8 may be re-rolled for cumulative effect, adding the appropriate Attribute to the result. Once the DN has been equalled or exceeded, success results. If the character has no appropriate Talent, a roll of dice equivalent to half the appropriate Attribute is used if the Director rules that the task being attempted could be done by an unskilled individual. Opposed rolls are handled more simply, by whoever rolls a higher number being the victor.
That's the basic system, and the chapter then continues to explain how it is applied to specific situations such as combat. This involves a somewhat complex initiative system based on the speed of each character's reactions but modified by die rolls to allow for 'actions' and 'reactions' up to a set level in each combat round. Worse, the number of dice available to roll to actually accomplish that action or reaction are taken from the number of dice available - encouraging strategic thought, perhaps, but liable to bog combat down as players work out what they want to do and how many dice they have to do it with. Melee and unarmed brawls are normally opposed rolls, while the DN for a ranged attack is based on how far away the target is, with the usual concept of modifiers based on light levels, cover and so on. This part of the Rules chapter rounds off with the causing and healing of combat damage and other forms of injury.
It then moves on to discuss how the Director can abstract for large numbers of NPCs in combat, vehicular combat and running chase scenes. There's also a section on Mental Disturbance - insanity has a key role to play in the overall feel of Vanishing Point, and characters are as likely to fall heir to it as anyone else. Abuse, a blow to the head or sheer fright all have their role to play in risking a character's sanity; and here are the rules to handle it without sending the players insane as well.
Possibly an insanity of its own, the next part of the Rules chapter explores travelling between worlds. Visiting Mundane Earth can be a chancy business, as without careful navigation both the time and date of your arrival can be random - and thus inconvenient if not downright dangerous. Again there is a set of fairly complex rules for determining where you are going to end up in relation to what you intended, but Directors may of course choose to substitute a prepared destination. Due to the inherent insanity of travel to Mundane Earth, a native of Vanishing Point can only remain for a short while before the resulting mental stress is too much and they find themselves pulled back from whence they came. It is not explained how much this mental imbalance affects one of the Lost, or if they can actually stay in what is, after all, their home world.
Next, the Rules chapter looks at character advancement. Characters are awarded Advancement Points based on 3 categories: Social Interaction (a measure of the player's role-playing efforts), Mental Acutiy (how many good ideas they came up with) and Combat Efficiency. This last is odd, as you can end up with no points if you refuse to participate in ongoing combats... even if that is according to your character's nature. It's also linked to both the level of participation, which is under your control, and how effective you are at killing enemies, which is not. Still, it provides a good set of guidelines particularly for the novice Director to work with when dealing out experience. This is followed by the rules for spending them to improve the character. Finally, the author explains some of the rationale behind the rules system as presented, and there is an example of play in progress to give an idea of how it all works in practice.
OK, I said 'finally' but was wrong. This chapter just goes on - all useful stuff but it might have benefited from being broken up a bit - perhaps a Rules section with sub-chapters on each aspect would be better. Still, I digress... Next comes some excellent advice on planning adventures, aimed at the Director of course. In particular the discussion on how much pre-planning of plotline works best is applicable to any RPG, not just this one.
Next, Chapter 4: Altered Perceptions, is a discussion of the Esoterica which many, but not all, of the inhabitants of Vanishing Point can exhibit. The key to understanding them is to view the Vanishing Point itself as a kind of consensual hallucination, then these powers work as your perception of what is 'real' changes. Each of the various Esoterica has several levels, but die rolls are rarely involved - you have access to a given level and to all those of lesser level within the ability you've chosen. The second part of this chapter deals with mental illness, a constant scourge of the population of Vanishing Point, along with a disturbing catalogue of so-called remedies used by Vanishing Point psychiatrists.
Chapter 5: Equipment follows. It's not the usual list of gear by any means: for a start, the normal laws of physics don't work in Vanishing Point so a lot of kit you'd take for granted doesn't work and so is not available there... while other weird stuff is readily obtainable. Transferring an item between Vanishing Point and Mundane Earth is a recipe for disaster, or at least, possession of a piece of useless junk. While an abstract Wealth Point system is proposed for this game, the currency of Vanishing Point is also provided in sufficient detail for those who prefer to set prices for things. It's the archaic pre-decimalisation currency of the UK, easy if you were around before 1971, and with the pound known as the Sterling (by this point in the book it's spelled correctly, unfortunately 'Stirling' got past the proof-reader on several occasions earlier on, while it appears that nobody involved knew that it is 'strait' jacket not 'straight' jacket for the thing you wrap lunatics in!). Many fantastical weapons are described, along with other items... and all will serve, as well as the intended purpose, to highlight the strangeness of the setting. Steam-powered projectile weapons and clockwork memory devices and more.
Next comes Chapter 6: Things Present. This attempts to explain the pseudoscience and philosophy which underlies Vanishing Point and its relationship with Mundane Earth. Put simply, consider one of those pictures that can be interpreted in 2 ways - e.g. a young girl or an aged crone. You can generally only see one of these interpretations at a time, although you may well be able to 'flip' your perceptions to see the other. If you can see both at once, this is the beginning of the confusion of perception that allows transit between Vanishing Point and Mundane Earth. It is a fascinating and ultimately quite scary philosophy presented in a compelling fashion, leaving the reader with the impression that it just might work, given the right circumstances. While this chapter gives an insight into what is going on, it is unlikely that many of the denizens of Vanishing Point understand it this thoroughly, and perhaps should be reserved for Director use only... or as an out of character resource for players who like a fuller understanding of the world their characters inhabit. The chapter goes on to talk about temporal and dimensional instability and builts up a weird yet coherent picture of the nature of Vanishing Point... until you reach the map showing the layout of the place. Based on a crude diagram of the human brain, it completely destroys the illusion of this wonderful strange place that you and your players are about to explore together. Oddly, if you ignore the layout and the names given to different areas, it does work as intended - so you may want to come up with your own map in place of the one supplied.
The chapter continues with a wonderful selection of strange plant and animal life native to Vanishing Point, complete with notes on which are edible (and which might try to eat you!). You could easily imagine a scientifically-inclined character devoting his life to their study, and having a range of adventures during such a career.
Then comes Chapter 7: Creed and Company. This looks at what makes the inhabitants of Vanishing Point tick: their beliefs and opinions, groups to join or oppose, how the government works... the whole social aspect that makes life both interesting and dangerous. In short it examines each of the main factions struggling for control. The organisations and individuals presented provide potent source of the kind of intrigue-based adventure that this setting is made for.
Finally comes Chapter 8: Times Past. This summarises the history of Vanishing Point, and of Mundane Earth, giving a timeline of events that's essential in a game where you can travel in time as well as space. An institution called the Grand Historical Record has been keeping track in Vanishing Point, with records going back to 15,000BC. Again, the level of background presented here is probably best discovered by characters actually studying it, rather than their players merely reading the chapter. As ideas for adventures and whole campaigns at various points in the timeline litter this chapter, it is best left for the Director's eyes alone. The whole history hangs together very well, and explains many things about Vanishing Point such as how the different Genera came to be, for example.
Overall, this is a fascinating and innovative game, completely wrapped in a coherent setting that just cries out to be explored.
Return to Vanishing Point RPG Revised page.
Reviewed: 2 December 2007