Cold Hard World: Sourcebook for Dead Inside
Okay, so you've read Dead Inside (DI) (or my review) and want more? How about taking a tour in the Real World as revealed by the first DI supplement Cold Hard World: The Real World Sourcebook for the Dead Inside RPG?
Cold Hard World presents the rules, populations, notable NPCs, and adventure seeds for running a Dead Inside (read my my review of the main rulebook) game set in the real world modern times. The charts and quick reference guides helped to clear up some of the confusion I had about how the various supernatural powers of the DI character types function in the real world. On the plus side, the creativity and story telling nature of the DI is preserved in this supplement. On the downside, some of the descriptions of NPC organizations were hard to swallow.
Like the original DI sourcebook, this text is very well written. The imagery in CHW is dreamlike but avoids some of the confusing structure of the original DI sourcebook. The NPCs, location, organizations, and adventure scenarios are all integrated in a way that would allow a GM short on time (is there any other kind?) to pull out a couple of NPCs, a location, and a scenario and run with it all with a minimal amount of preparation.
Chapter 1: Real World Recap
Another strong point from DI carried over in this sourcebook is his ability to highlight GM skills that are overlooked in 95% of the other RPG literature. One example of this is his summary of basic responses of Average People to the Supernatural. This list of seven responses should be on every GM's short list of NPC reaction styles to menacing or abnormal PC behavior.
Considering my field of study, I was very interested in the blocked text "DI and Mental health issues". Many of the back stories given for sample PCs in DI included some mental health history and I was very curious about the way that Mental Health issues worked considering the fact that traditional therapies are supposed to be ineffective in relieving the empty sense experienced by most Dead Inside characters.
The DI system and cosmology could easily be grafted onto most other campaigns with invigorating effects.
One of the points that I emphasized again and again in my review of Dead Inside was the adaptability of this gaming system and world. The DI system and cosmology could easily be grafted onto most other campaigns with invigorating effects. The supplement Cold Hard World continues this benefit. Though many of the NPC groups are described in modern terms, the underlying motivations and constructions could easily be adapted to a 19th century occult thriller campaign or a grim futuristic cyberpunk setting.
The explanations of the pull of the person's original soul and the ritual of restoration helped to provide some of the backdrop and rational for why a character might want to stay in the real world instead of traveling to the spirit world where it is much easier to acquire new soul material. The GM hints on manipulating the DI cosmology or metaphysics to encourage players to play in the real world also gave some good hints, but I think the cosmology is fine and the character motivation to be in the real world is much more interesting than GM manipulation to force the character to be in the real world.
The section on "Supernatural Talents in the Real World" was very well written. The chart on page 11 was clear and could be printed (if you buy the .pdf version) or copied for quick reference. Once you get the hang of this chart and its pair in the DI sourcebook, you could easily allow characters to switch back forth from the Spirit World and the Real World. The brief descriptions of the alterations of the effects of supernatural powers in the real world were, short, sweet, and to the point. In a very short amount of time the author provides all the necessary information for running DI in the Real World. The examples provided on Soultaking were very helpful as this is probably the most difficult mechanic in the whole game.
Chapter 2: The Lay of the Land
The flexibility of everything presented in these DI books is wonderful. This game is exactly what the GM wants it to be. In the DI universe, the supernatural powers of some DI characters are easier to work in places of power. All the places of power from the original DI guidebook are presented here again in brief, but the new places of power add a great deal to the character of the game. One new place of power in particular, the Demesne, is something that I would allow in my campaign. The Demesne allows characters to create a safe haven in the real world where even the most powerful creatures would be wary of attacking the character. I think that allowing characters a sense of safety is very important because without a sense of safety, pervasive paranoia sets in. With a sense of safety, dramatic paranoia can set in when you suddenly take the safety away.
The locations of power are well written and help maintain hints of the dreamlike quality of the spirit world in the real.
The rest of this chapter covers the locations, groups, people, and things of power in the real world. The locations of power are all well written and some of them like Ibrahim's Grocery and Yung Jackson's Soul Laundry help to maintain hints of the dreamlike quality of the spirit world in the real world.
The times of power add a great deal of dimension to the universe presented in DI. In fact, I think DI GMs would do well to read this section even if they aren't running their DI campaign in the real world. A world of caution: GMs should choose only a few of the suggested times of power. Otherwise, you run the risk of making the real world nearly as powerful in soul force as the spirit world and only a little less reliable.
The section on groups of power is probably the greatest weakness of CHW. A GM running a DI campaign should allow just a couple of these groups into his campaign or run the risk of creating a world more populated by people dabbling in the supernatural than normal people. I have to admit that I developed personal favorite groups of power (e.g. the Soulmarketeers who trade back and forth from the spirit world and the real world) as I read. But some of the groups have a ridiculous premise and an even more ridiculous name (e.g., the "Worldspacklers"). Part of the mystique of a secret society is the name, but honestly, who wants the title "Worldspackler"? The premise of the Worldspacklers is that they oppose the efforts of the "Helots of the Darkling Glass" who want to end all of existence. In my opinion, it is much better to allow these two dramatic functions to be held by one or two powerful NPCs (in the case of the Helots of the Darkling Glass) and by the PCs (instead of the Worldspacklers) in a campaign driving conflict.
The people of power are each connected to a place or a group of power. However, the merit and usefulness of each NPC is independent of the inclusion of the location or group in your campaign. In other words, even though you may not include the Helots of the Darkling Glass in your campaign you can still find it useful to include Francis Atherton, their current leader. The character concepts are sound and interesting with enough detail to allow you to use them quickly and enough flexibility for you to bring them into almost any campaign. Many of the NPCs could be brought into your Spirit World campaign as well.
The things of power are a mixed bag. Some of them like the Named Bullet are interesting ways of concretizing common sayings with supernatural flair. Other items like the Phone of Bone I probably wouldn't include because both its name and its purpose seem a bit corny to me. Read through, get some ideas, take the ones you want leave the rest.
Chapter 3: Seeds & Scenarios
the seeds pull together the elements into dramatic stories
The adventure seeds are well laid out and include a core set of ideas, places, and NPCs. As mentioned in the introduction, the seeds pull together the elements of the rest of the book into dramatic stories, so once you've read the rest of the book the scenario springs to life in your mind (and therefore for your players) easily. The Random Scattering of Adventure Seeds could be used for helping you to create your own scenarios but I would caution against trying to run a session for others after merely rolling a random scenario.
Chapter 4: Cosmos Reloaded
This section, more than any other in this sourcebook, is intended for the GM only. It gives you even more ideas on how to adapt the CHW materials to any campaign setting you could want. Is your gaming group into Superheroes? Use this chapter to create a campaign where superheroes with occult powers hunt down soul stealers. Want a one shot Halloween game? Use the Mysterious Escapes section to create an adventure where the characters need to escape from a bond they don't even know exists.
The Cold Hard World sourcebook provides all the useful material that a GM needs to run a long term adventure or campaign set in the Dead Inside universe. The storytelling strengths from Dead Inside are carried over to this supplement with only a few exceptions. The material in the sourcebook is almost entirely new and contains enough ideas and material that players who enjoy Dead Inside but aren't interested in running the Real World would benefit from having this sourcebook. Players interested in Dead Inside but daunted by the dreamlike quality of the spirit world from the original guidebook will be relieved to find a little more connection to reality in Cold Hard World.