Disclaimer

  1. I did playtest this game for the Creator in two different sessions.
  2. I know the Creator of this game and consider them a friend in the hobby. I initially offered to review it since there seemed to be a lack of coverage for the game and I was familiar with the amount of work that went into the game. He not only agreed and insisted I do as critical review of his game as possible and he knows about how anal-retentive I am when analyzing games. He wanted me to “tear it apart.”
  3. I do NOT enjoy most (not all) D20 variants and 5e D&D, on which this system is based. This review can potentially be colored by not just a pre-existing friendship, but also my general dislike for how dungeon fantasy (D&D style fantasy) games tend to play out.
  • All that aside, I did purchase the PDF copy (for which this review is regarding) with my own money and offered to do the review of my own accord. These thoughts are my own and are an attempt to be as objective and honest about the product I can be given the circumstances of the review.

Core Mechanic

Anyone who is familiar with Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition will be familiar with the SMTT RPG. It is a game where a player rolls a D20 adding a number from a relevant skill and tries to exceed a number set by the Game Master.  It caries with it all the advantages (fast resolution, familiarity with a lot of people, less dice clutter) and disadvantages (skilled characters not feeling skilled due to a lack of average die results, lots of adding and subtracting numbers in your head) inherit in any D20 game. Combat is rolling above a static number and then rolling different kinds of polyhedral dice for damage. There are plenty of arguments to be made as to why a game would be based off the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons system; the answer for this game is probably familiarity. Its more than familiar enough that anyone who has played D&D can pick this game up. That will be enough to turn some people to turn them away. It does make an effort create a “feel” with its mechanics and try to differentiate itself. A person unfamiliar with Dungeons and Dragon should just ignore the list of comparisons below; for those familiar with the Arbiter of Fantasy Roleplaying and its various editions, the below list is a series of differences between a few editions.

How it Compares to Normal Dungeons and Dragons

  • Health scales more like previous editions of D&D (3.5 and 4th)
  • Skills are calculated just like in 5th edition but with list from 3.5
  • Classes maintain a more simplistic design for their advancement like 5e, but the list of feats is more akin to Pathfinder and 3.5
  • There is a much heavier emphasis on customization that even exceeds Pathfinder/3.5 (in terms of just their respective core-books).
  • The tone embraces the comic book nature D&D has and takes it a step further. The playstyles the classes create are very cartoon-like.
  • Characters are a LOT more powerful than a standard D&D character at any level.
  • How HP and Grappling work are the two main differences in the core rules of the respective systems
  • There are a lot of systems for building weapons, crafting items, and building monsters/companion creatures from scratch

 

Characters

The single best thing going for the game are character options and what those options do to the gameplay. Customization is king in SMTT and its even more so in a single book than I have ever seen any roleplaying game. Its well more than the Pathfinder Corebook, Shadow of the DemonLord, 13th Age, Atlantis the 2nd Age, and any other variant of D&D. It is a powergamer or tinkerer’s wet dream; this a positive or negative thing depending on the group in question.

There are 26 races/subraces that range from 4 different types of constructs called Caretakers, moon elves, yeti, snow goblins, changelings, and snow goblins. There are 4 age categories you can choose for you character that do affect them mechanically.  There are 7 main classes each with 3 or more archetypes underneath them: Barbarian, Knight, Lawman (think gunslinger/rogue), Performer (bard without need of magic), Priest, Sorcerer (think Summoner from Pathfinder; class revolves around summoning ghosts), Thief, Warrior (including an archetype for being that one character in anime with the impossibly big sword), and Wizard feats that are available to pretty much any build/class. There are 7 spell schools which are primarily elemental or druidic. Over 30 backgrounds from being stolen away as a child by fey to being from a family of evildoers. There over 40 feats range from beast companions, to allowing any kind of character increase their Awesome Power or shape-shifting. There are 16 bonds as well; bond are basically feats that are based on specific narrative  requirements, create a relationship with a fellow PC, and give you mechanical benefits as you go up in level. They are essentially story feats and grant an option/ideas for characters to mechanically explore their relationships with each other. There is a point-buy-system for creating creatures which can be used by players to create animal companions, GMs to create creatures, and to create beast transformations for those with lycanthropy. On top of all of that, there is an exhaustive list gear and a follower creation system.

The amount of options is quite overwhelming. The layout and organization of these options are all standard two column affair with charts, tabs, and the usual quality of life things that make an rpg book/pdf usable. Players will be expected to power game not out of necessity but are encourage to come up as many crazy combinations as they can with the rules presented. The game relies less on finding combinations and synergies to give a sense of power but rather just giving players ways to build up awesome power or just an ever increasing array of fun toys to play with.  There are no immediate uninteresting options and none that seem impotent compared to the others (which in hindsight is probably why the amount of classes is low); which means this game’s power level has been more carefully thought about than other D&D like games I have seen.

The one glaring flaw with the character options themselves is the split in design philosophy. The book presents itself as a setting-less (or almost setting-less) system. There are more than a few hints of setting tied to the characters. The spell schools are tied to specific places and gods. The races and bonds are tied to specific figures in the world. The whole class of Sorcerer makes certain assumptions about how x fantasy world’s afterlife would work. This would be a strength with a full setting released for the book; but because of how things are, it will leave GMs to sort through which options (which there are lot of) are easy to transport to a custom setting for others. It will likely be recommended to run the game in its original setting as a lot of these things fit easier together.  The setting of Gemini is mostly expanded in adventures and additional supplements. The price of all of them are relatively low, but the worth of these purchases will greatly depend on the budget of the group who wishes to delve into it.

Options are far more powerful than other D20 games so this book is obviously to be ran as a standalone game. People who are looking for things to steal for their D&D game may not want to purchase this product because of this.

 

Heroic Health & Guaranteed Damage

Perhaps the two biggest factors that give Saturday Morning Tabletop a completely different feels is how health and damage relate to each other. While there are optional rules for death, the default in the game is that player characters do not die. SMTT is not the only game that does this to make a child friendly or heroic feel; but it is a proven mechanic. When a person drops, they are merely unconscious until revived. What makes SMTT different is the “Get Back in the Fight Roll.” When character is downed they roll a straight d20 with no modifiers. As per standard 5th edition dungeons and dragons, three fails means the character is out of this combat (just unconscious instead of dead). A single success of one roll above 10 allows the character to come back into their fight with half of their hit points (called a character’s Beat Up threshold) and depending on how well they rolled, they can act that very turn. This is not limitless as characters gain a condition when reviving called Haggard which merely limits the number of times they can come back before being “Down and Out” for the fight. This creates a lot of cinematic returning up after being knocked down moments in combat; it feels very much like the Saturday Morning cartoons or anime this game tries to emulate.

Like a lot of D20 games, damage scales up and health scales up in big numbers as levels get higher. Due to the swingy-ness of the D20, it is quite possible to go several rounds of everyone missing and then only doing small amounts of damage. “Whiff chaining” is probably one of the worst aspects of D20 systems and one would naturally go against the heroic, empowering feel the game is trying to produce. The way SMTT RPG gets around whiff chaining is by making sure every character has access to some form of guaranteed damage or save producing effect. There are abilities that skip the attack roll altogether and roll damage; these feel heroic and also allow for a sense of the players are always making progress. Every class being able to guarantee grappling, forcing the enemies to roll saves, or getting automatic damage reduces the inherent unpredictability the D20 brings to a heroic game. While deadlier games and settings may not respond well to this, the cartoonish feel unleashing an ability that lets someone automatically deal several d6 of damage in an area with a whirl of blades is the exact feeling the game is going for.

 

Advancement

Advancement is simplified into XP banks. Basically Experience (XP) is a resource players “carry” around with them. One of the ways GMs have of creating tension and failure in a game where characters can’t die, are effects that steal XP. These effects are dependent on the GM use, but it is a simple and old school way of making something threatening (or even creating rivals by letting players steal that XP back from the one that took it). Experience is handled in small numbers (such as requiring 5 or 6 xp to level up at lower levels).

Experience is handed out for a few reasons. Combat encounters of course award XP; however as a thematic touch, characters also get xp for losing encounters as well. At early levels, you get as much xp by failing as you do win and that gap lessens until at higher levels you don’t get xp for losing fights anymore. Its a neat touch to let characters who are supposed to be in experience learns from their fights at early levels and slowly get to where they are expected to not lose anymore.

Experience (XP) is also rewarded 1 xp at a time for making a meaningful discovery, taking damage directed at an important NPC, and doing any story milestones. This means characters are motivated to protect NPCs and explore outside of combat and because numbers are low this means the single xp means a lot more than you would initially think. It is strange to note that XP is the one place in the game where numbers are intentionally small rather than the other way around. While nothing new, the experience system uses tried and true methods of encouraging players to try even if they fail and to be heroic where possible. Its rare to see all of these things in one place and they do fit with each other pretty nicely.

 

Conclusion

Saturday Morning Tabletop RPG is a game that relies on the D20 success to make its own game while not having the reasons a lot of fans of D20 would buy it; especially compatibility with other systems. The game does address some of the inherent swing of the D20 and uses a lot of tried and true ways of other games to encourage the game to feel like a classic children action cartoons. Its filled with character options. It attempts to give players a treasure trove of tools and the promise of not dying; to encourage Game Masters to go all out with the creatures and challenges thrown against the players without worry of making them feel disempowered. It is a solid remix of a lot of Dungeons and Dragons-like games, but nothing wholly innovative. It does what it says it does: gives a lot of options to make D&D feel as cartoony and as empowering as possible.

Summary

Current Price: $20 (PDF)

Reviewer’s Appraisal: $20-30 (PDF) & $60 (Physical Book)

Pros:

  • Based on 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons for those who like the system
  • What setting that is there is interesting with plothooks built into some mechanics (especially backgrounds and bonds)
  • A truly comprehensive set of character options
  • A game that will make players feel empowered and powerful
  • Combat is powerful, anime-like, and keeps people in the action
  • The game provides a way of creating stakes in a game where players don’t die by default (through stealing xp)
  • There is more customization than almost anyone could ever want
  • It is exactly as on the tin: A Cartoony/Anime D&D game

Cons:

  • It delves into large numbers of damage, miscellaneous bonuses, and hit points; which is a negative for those who want more simple games.
  • It is its own system with very little compatible with other D20 products
  • It has optional rules for deadly and grittier encounters but other parts of the system would works against that
  • It doesn’t fully commit to being a system integrated into a setting or fully into being a generic system. Using it as a generic system for another setting will be a bit of work.
  • The childish language used in book may be aesthetically off-putting for some.
  • It embraces power gaming and encourages the arms race between DMs and players (which may put off certain groups).

Recommended for: 

  • Groups who want 5th edition D&D but a truly different game built of it
  • GMs looking for systems that provide empowerment and action
  • Lovers of customization and D20 mechanics
  • Lovers of High Fantasy, Super Heroes, and traditional rpgs

Warning for: 

  • People who have issues with combat-based D20 games
  • Groups looking for deadlier games
  • People who hate bigger numbers and miscellaneous bonuses

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