Oh man. Godkillers. Finished, in my hands, at last. Godkillers is paranormal southern gothic adventure with strong overtones of horror. It is the first RPG product from Journeyman Studios. It is set in their world, the Post-Human Condition, in which the bizarre has meshed with the real in a very disquieting way. The book uses the Open D6 system while simultaneously taking some inspiration from the great White Wolf games of old. This game book is a self-contained one-shot, but part of an overarching setting with more products to come (in production now) as well as prior art such as the Emerald Alley graphic novel and in-progress Burlap Daughter graphic novel.
I watch Journeyman on Twitch, and so I get to watch him make all his art for his own projects and for contract projects like the two books he made for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. He is a great dude to hang out with and seeing such a talented, hard-working artist painstakingly produce his art is really something special. I spent months in his Twitch channel watching him make the art for this book, talking to his creative partner Juan about the contents of the book, and seeing previews of the pages on Patreon. I’ve been looking forward to this book for months and months now. And finally it is in my hands! I am excited to review this because systematically it’s sort of “off the beaten trail” of my usual book purchases, but thematically it is extremely up my alley.
Let’s take a look!
The art in this book is phenomenal. Let’s just get that out in the first sentence. You can skip the rest of this section if you want. It’s just gorgeous. Journeyman does traditional media work exclusively, meaning each page of this book was made out of real ink, real pastels, real pens, real pencils. It lends an incredible weight and honesty to the art.
The covers: there are four variant covers to this project. They are based on four of the pregen player characters, and are incredibly vibrant, colorful, creepy things. The color scheme for all of four options is a very powerful split between the real – subdued greens, blues, blacks, greys for the mundane tones we are used to; and the very unreal – vibrant, super-saturated reds and oranges and golds that practically shout about how disconnected, how psychedelic and otherworldly some element of each character and their environment is. All four variants share the same back cover, which features terrific, off-putting, intentionally-discordant text design over artwork pulled out of the creepiest storybook you can find. I think between the incredible hallucinatory art style of both front and back covers, and the introductory text on the back alone, the core audience for this book will be pulled in.
The interior works don’t have a weak piece among them. Every drawing in this book raises uncomfortable questions, makes you say “Awesome!”, or some combination of the two. All of them make you want to know more. Journeyman outdid himself on this book and I think it may be his strongest work to date, even better than The Punchline. The same color scheme is present throughout the work – the greys, the browns, the greens telling you things are normal; the brilliant reds, golds, oranges, chartreuse telling you otherwise. It keeps reinforcing itself and the themes of the text, creating a really powerful combination. Many of the setting pieces in the book have little details to look for; dogs missing legs, people with faces which are “off” from a human face, and so forth. Journeyman’s image composition is strong here. Some pictures are designed to draw you in with normalcy and the shock you with the grotesque and bizarre, such as the full-page piece on page 31.
The layout was done by Jamie Chestnut and it’s clear there was a ton of cooperation between designer and artist on this book. Art is given room to breathe. Pieces are given their due where appropriate, and space is made so they’re not reduced to tiny thumbnails. The words and art here do not compete with each other for space, they compliment each other, and that is terrific. The decorative borders found on the pages of this book remind me (like much of this work) of the best years of 1990s World of Darkness books. There is a genuine understanding of the “gothic” concept of the Southern Gothic theme to the work present in Jamie’s layout affectations.
There are some flaws to the layout; white space sometimes is not used well, the rules could be laid out a little more clearly and more easily referenced (critical to a new system being introduced), and there is some disagreement with the order of the contents as presented vs what I would have greatly preferred. I also like the way tables look, but I think the elements need to be a little tighter to really give off a cogent, “this is one object” vibe, and I think they need more space from text around them; these elements would likely go hand-in-hand. The book has, at the very front, a beautiful black spread for table of contents and the introduction to the Post-Human Condition setting. This page is outstanding. It resonates immediately and sets expectations flawlessly. Then we get rules. I’ll get into this more later in the review, but I think this was a poor choice. Lastly, we get the adventure and the characters.
To Jamie’s additional credit, though, the adventure is intelligently linked throughout the text in PDF format, meaning when it says “XYZ is in Section 4” you can click that and presto, Section 4. This is a must for PDFs of any decent size and especially adventures, and it still shocks me when it is not present in titles.
The writing in this book is extremely good at setting mood and themes out in the open from the get-go. The minute you get into the background fiction you are drawn in. In each section of the descriptive matter you are drawn deeper and deeper into the world of the Post-Human Condition (more on this in a sec) and the characters’ motivations. It is vivid and smart.
A brief diversion that I hope is illuminating: The Post-Human Condition setting is a joint work by Juan and Journeyman. In the immediate future of Earth, alien gods from beyond the stars show up and their immense power unshackles humanity from what we’ve known as normality. Good, bad, and ugly, their otherworldly powers leave mayhem in their wake. Everything changes. New religions spring up. People are mutated. People find joy and healing just as often as they find madness and horror. Power balances shift. You may drive an old Chevy to work, but you may also find that your skin is radiant and six-eyed birds flock to your side and you dream through their eyes. That sort of thing. Though not every element of the setting is present all at the same time and all at the same place (or in this book, specifically) the Post-Human Condition universe upends a lot of presumptions of modern day, “cyberpunk”, Lovecraftian horror, grotesque fiction and degenerate art (look at some of Journeyman’s other paintings for the punk rock ethos he calls home). It is the recognizable, approachable, relatable 20XX we live in slashed to ribbons with the imaginative and horrific elements of all these influences, turned sideways. Very cool stuff.
Juan’s writing is great at conveying this. Once you actually get into the adventure and adventure preamble, it really stands out that he is very good at verbally painting pictures in this setting. The pieces fit together intricately but with plenty of room to move. The NPCs are natural elements of the setting; they do not fight against it for attention nor seem out of place and artificial. They belong. Juan has a clear understanding of the southern gothic sensibility, of life in a small town, and most importantly, life in a small town through the eyes of a person of color – the minority experience. The Post-Human Condition allows him to explore this in a vastly expanded, imaginative, bizarre way; in this setting, there are more strains of the outsider than ever before. Familiar and unfamiliar alike, the nearly infinite variety of people present in the setting face different but very real struggles to be accepted and to survive and thrive in difficult scenarios. This adventure is predicated on the experiences of the ostracized and strange in a small town.
The adventure takes place in the small town of Avitville. In the wake of the arrival of cosmic gods, this small town has taken to unified evangelical fervor towards one. A cult masquerading as a religion, they brook no disagreement and their fiery preacher loathes anyone who doesn’t fall in line. The cast of characters, big and small, that the players can interact with are pillars of small town life, familiar to anyone who has ever lived in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s name, but with the strange, cruel, or disquieting turned up to 11.
The pregen characters are all individually unique in a number of ways. Each fits a thematic tenet – the Muscle, the Face, the Sneak, and so forth – and each fits into the puzzle of the small town of Avitville differently. Each faces a different experience as a marginalized member of society. John is physically disabled after a violent assault. Sisters Valerie and Marsha are women of color, and what’s more, they’re physically mutated. Zep is haunted by abuse and betrayal, and has been disfigured. Evalyn is a diminutive girl, underestimated and loathed and marked for death. Each character has their own social hurdles to clear, different with various audiences, besides just the challenges of the adventure. Additionally, all of the PCs are very flawed people. They are all tied to the town and the townsfolk inextricably, like so many small towns, and much like the foils they’re placed against, they’re often a little bit corrupted by the environment themselves.
The pregens all come with four-face/four-page character sheets which include mechanical cheat-sheets, individual abilities, motivations, relations to other characters, etc. The physical copies of Godkillers (more on this in a second) include pristine thick cardstock versions of these sheets laid out so they can be folded like a Hallmark card – incredible value, to start with, and what’s more, extremely table-friendly and perfect for use as a one-shot. These alone should be considered worth the price of admission for the physical version; simply a stellar piece of design. With the digital PDF, you get a second PDF with this format for home printing, which is another awesome bonus and huge credit to this work. The rulebook contains the same information formatted as normal pages, but the second document gives you that Hallmark card handout format. Can’t beat it.
The adventure itself is not inherently complex, but does have a great number of moving pieces. You seek to upend the hegemony of this new church in your town and possibly to establish your own. You seek safety, a return to decency, and the ouster of dangerous zealots who will stop at nothing – murder, corruption, abuse – to ensure their cult is the one who commands the countryside. Not all of the player characters agree individually with all possible courses of action, but all agree with the general need to stop this cult; there is a great degree of variance outlined for the referee regarding possible paths for the PCs to take and with all the character elements in play there will be exciting differences in outcomes between each group that plays this adventure.
The adventure is split into six sections. You may not necessarily end up touching each of them or completing everything there is to see or do in each of them, depending on your table’s interests and desires. Likely you will at least “stop by” each section for one reason or another, but some are strictly extant if the PCs make very specific decisions regarding the NPCs and challenges they face.
Also on the subject of writing, the writing of the rules section is very clinical, which is often helpful for explaining concepts, but which is starkly different from Juan’s tone throughout the rest of the book. It feels like it is in disharmony with the more important, more exciting part of the book (the adventure, the characters, the setting). There is great flavor to Juan’s writing in the intro spread and then again in the greater content of the book, but that sandwiches a very dry rules section. I feel also like the rules should have somehow been stripped or condensed even further, making it simpler to explain to new players and more easily used as a one-shot without prep. The rules aren’t hard, and Godkillers is still a fantastic self-contained adventure one-shot – one of the best I’ve seen by far – but it can go a step further.
I am not an expert on the Open D6 system, so take the following as a neophyte’s opinions. My initial thoughts on it are that it is fairly high-stakes. There are penalties to failing. Your characters face consequences for making bad decisions or failing to plan – and the adventure often puts players in situations where they must make important decisions that will directly change what happens in their world. It seems very cinematic, in that the mechanics feel like they are designed for the characters to feel totally at home in an HBO or AMC TV show. They’re following movie logic, I think is the way to describe the mechanics, except that movie will kill one of your favorite characters if they do something dumb.
These mechanics reinforce the chaos of the Post-Human Condition setting, but I would have liked more tension to reinforce the horror. The Post-Human Condition setting is telling stories of the human condition – everyday chaos, trauma, success, challenges, hardships, limitations – in a world where what it means to be human has been challenged dramatically by sheer chaos descending from the heavens, so while the big-budget wild psychedelic chaos is completely supported by Open D6, the some of the horror present in that upheaval is clear as daylight in the setting but not so much in the mechanics. The referee is going to have to pull that weight for the table.
As a dice pool game, it has a lot of similarities to World of Darkness games in some ways, which the book visually and developmentally leans into a bit. It makes it accessible to those of us familiar with those games, but it is a little misleading at the same time as it is not a direct analogue. It is very easy to pick up and learn at a passable level very quickly, though. That’s a testament to good planning by Juan, who I believe selected the system personally. Additionally, reinforcing my repeated point about this book being a great one-shot, using a D6 system means anyone can play it using dice scrounged out of a Yahtzee set. Again, Juan thought that through.
I want to take a moment to talk about the physical version specifically here, because it is noteworthy and should be recognized. This is not a print-on-demand softcover. This was printed professionally with Journeyman fronting the cost out of pocket on a wing and a prayer that it would sell – and it sold out in record time, which I warned people of on Twitter. I hope people noticed and got their first editions while they could.
The books are absolutely gorgeous. The printing is insanely vivid and crisp. It’s like a high-end magazine, except instead of dresses and cologne ads you get absolutely fire-hot bright-ass colors that leap off the page. The pastel glow Journeyman painstakingly made with chalk pastels over his ink washes actually shows up crystal clear and positively radiant on the page. The lettering is sharp and crisp. Nothing is murky or indistinct. Pen lines are razor-fine. Some examples:
As an aside, and I’ve said this to the team personally, privately, as well as shouted it from the rooftops on Twitter: they’re WILDLY underpricing the physical editions. Like, with all due respect to some dudes I consider friends (and with the goal of them succeeding to create more awesome stuff for me), this is crazy dumb:
- a 64-page 8×11″ full-color softcover book containing a rule system and an adventure/setting splashed with TONS of art,
- a full-color extra-wide cardstock bookmark,
- five high-quality premium cardstock character sheets,
- all packaged in tape-sealed plastic with a hardboard backing (like a comic book),
Are they high? Is this a Florida Man thing?
This is a $20 book easy. Every day of the week. I’d say $24.99 with the sheets and that’s still being kind to the customer. I mean, I’m also part of that cabal of assholes who thinks RPGs should cost more money, but personally I’m broke as hell and scrounged up the cash to buy all four variants – and I still think I robbed these guys.
Cop this version if you can swing it. It directly supports them and their investment in printing costs (instead of POD) and it results in an incredible value for you.
There has to be some bad stuff, too, right? It’s not all flawless. There are issues, but they definitely come under the “live and learn, first RPG product” category rather than the “dealbreaker” category. There are some typos and copyediting errors here and there throughout the book; Jacky Leung aka DeathByMage was more of a content consultant than a proofreader, here, so the fault isn’t on his shoulders personally despite the editor credit. The second printing (in progress now) corrects these typos and according to Twitch chat a few nights ago the DriveThruRPG PDF should be getting updated to reflect that soon as well.
One issue I have is the book laying out the rules first. Because it is a single volume containing a setting intro, a full adventure and a rulebook with open source rules, the Open D6 system is necessarily present in this same book as the rest of the material. They are put ahead of the adventure. I would have personally preferred to put them at the back, after the adventure. I understand why they were probably put first; the adventure references mechanics and checks, so you wouldn’t necessarily comprehend what that meant without seeing the system first. I get it, but I think it was a big mistake and easily the weakest part of the book. But I think it should have come after the setting and adventure yank you in mercilessly. As it stands, it feels a bit like homework before play, if you follow, and it strips a lot of the excitement I felt after the sexy black Post-Human Condition spread. It hooked me, and then I had to wade through learning a system before I could have more of the deeply exciting stuff I want.
Another issue is that some of the pregen PCs are more complicated mechanically than the others, sometimes by a pretty broad gulf. This isn’t a problem (balance be damned) on its own, but for my favorite, most exciting use case of this book as a self-contained one-shot, it places a greater burden one one player than the others. That player is going to need to have a better understanding of the rules than the others may necessarily need, and the cheat sheet on their character sheet may not cut it.
In all, the criticisms are fairly mild, definitely things I am certain the team is learning from as we speak and incorporating feedback on, and I feel pretty confident that the next book (in progress now) will correct the hell out of them. As it stands, none of the issues I take umbrage with prevent me from playing and enjoying the game, loving the setting, or using it as the self-contained one-shot I keep espousing.
Godkillers gets eight god-possums gestating in an embryo the color of a terra cotta sunrise out of ten. It is the first book from Journeyman Studios and still sets their own bar pretty high. It is imaginative, it is stunningly gorgeous, it is fun, it is unsettling. This book is the best one-shot in a single book I’ve seen in a long time. I bought four physical copies, one of each cover, the day it was released because I wanted to support Juan and Journeyman and make a contribution to indie RPG publishing. Instead I got the value of the century and a full set of first printings so I can one day sell them on a reality TV show about collectibles and become ultra-wealthy and then ride my ostentatious jeweled robo-kangaroo off into the sunset with bags of cash.
Seriously though, this book is great. It makes me want to call over five unsuspecting non-roleplayers, serve them food and booze, and set out the cardstock character sheets in front of them and tell them to start rolling some dice. It excites the hell out of me. I think it is one of the best “first products” I’ve seen. It’s certainly one of the most exciting “here’s everything you need in a single book” products I’ve ever seen, and I would be watching out for their follow-up release even if I didn’t know Juan and Journeyman. Great showing. The few, very small issues I have are inconsequential and knowing Juan, Jamie, and Journeyman, it’ll be something they tackle next time around. It’s gonna be worth keeping an eye on.
If you agree, disagree, bought a copy, bought four copies like my crazy ass, or just want to talk about how excited you are for a new setting that makes modern/urban paranormal actually interesting for a change, hit me up below or over on Twitter where I shout into the void as @dungeonspossums.