Helix: The Post Apocalypse, High-Tech, Fantasy, Western Role Playing Game
Authors: Adam J. Weber, Gloria Weber, William Parker
Reviewed by: Mark Bruckard
Helix is a self contained RPG setting and system conceived by Adam J. Weber.
It is 88 pages long with a single page errata available from the website.
The PDF is currently $5 and the printed book is $10. I have reviewed the PDF, which is black and white with minimal art and straight forward formatting.
The writing style is informal and has a light humorous feel, which is refreshing as the subject matter could otherwise be quite dark. Unfortunately, there are quite a few grammatical errors, some layout problems, and a few spelling errors.
The brief sample scenario is a straightforward goblin attack.
The game is set in 2081 after a devastating nuclear world war and the release of a mystical computer code. Most of humanity has retreated into huge, oppressive, walled city-states. Those outside the cities - the Gun Jacks(or Jills), Code Slingers, Mutants, Cyber-Mystics and Average Joes - struggle to survive and prevent the spread of the oppressive city-states.
As the long name suggests, the setting includes elements from Post-Apocalypse, High Tech, Fantasy and Western genres. There are mutants and giant scorpions, cybernetics and hoverbikes, satyrs and centaurs, as well as six-guns and frontier towns. There are also dinosaurs. I don't know which of the titular genres they are from.
The setting is one of the strengths of Helix. It is often difficult to mix this many genres without everything getting muddled, but Helix manages to keep things fairly clear with few incongruities. The setting leaves many things a bit vague, giving the GM freedom to fill in the details as they wish. New elements from any of these genres can be added with little effort.
The Helix system is fairly minimalist, with a few general rules and modifiers that handle most situations. It uses a flat probability of 1d6 or 1d12 to determine success/fail and a roll of 1 automatically succeeds and 6 (or 12) automatically fails regardless of stats.
Most of the rules are well laid out, but some are a bit scattered. For example, the description of dodge does not include the fact it can't be used against guns, or that you get a free counter attack when you roll 1 on your dodge. Additionally, some of the rules are a bit vague, and I am still unclear if parrying counts as an action or a free action, whether you can use dodge against melee attacks, how to handle multiple attackers and a few other minor points.
Character creation is fairly fast and reasonably simple, with random stats distributed between 4 attributes. One of these 4 attributes is Flaws, which gives characters an automatic dump stat, which is a nice touch. The random aspects of character creation and the different strengths of the five archetypes mean starting characters can be wildly different in overall power and effectiveness. Character advancement also has a random factor, advancing qualities is more likely the better you are, but advancing attributes is less likely and takes longer.
The one-page double-sided character sheets are very good, and actually lay out some of the information better than the main text does.
Some of the qualities listed in Helix are quite clever and most are comfortably familiar. Typical characters are described with about a dozen of these qualities, rated from 1 to 6. Some qualities have default values, but the book is a bit vague as to whether you buy up from these defaults or if you have to buy up from zero. The system focuses almost exclusively on mechanics and puts little emphasis on characterisation or personality. For example, your character's concept is chosen during character creation but is never mentioned again.
Average Joes are normal people and get extra free points at the start.
Gun Jacks (or Jills) are cyber enhanced warriors who typically have a limb replaced with a gun. Gun Jacks can dish out a lot of damage but their low starting money means they can't afford to start with the big guns and will have to be frugal with bullets until they make some extra cash.
Code Slingers are a sort of mage/hacker. The rules for creating their own spells are quite interesting. The rules are flexible while still being quick and simple. While any system with this degree of flexibility has the potential for abuse the Code Slinger spells seem fairly robust.
Cyber-Mystics are at one with the code, and get cool powers as a result. Cyber-Mystics are easily the most powerful group, getting three powers, each more powerful than most spells or mutations.
Mutants are people who have been mutated by radiation or the code or both. They get to choose a beneficial mutation. Some of the mutations are very useful, others are almost a hindrance.
There are no rules for further developing characters to cross these definitions. There is nothing to say a mutant can't get a Gun Jack's cyber gun link fitted, but there are no rules for it either.
Equipping characters can take a while and some of the stated costs are a bit unusual. For example, a one foot length of rope costs as much as one week's rations.
Making NPCs is quick and easy, as they need not follow the same rules as PCs. But it is quite difficult to judge the required strength of an NPC to challenge the PCs. (It is possible this would get easier with experience.) There are stats for a few different creatures and characters, but the main enforcers of the city-states do not have stats.
Lethality is low. The maximum possible damage anyone can ever do with a shotgun is not enough to bring down an average person, let alone a combat ready PC. Characters also heal quickly, with an average person being capable of recovering fully from a gunshot wound after a good night's sleep.
This makes the classic western quick draw shoot out at high noon hard to do, as even an expert marksman has about a 50% chance of their opponent still being alive after putting all 6 bullets into them. In the playtest our Gun Jack had to shoot his "evil twin" 15 times.
Filling out characters for the first time took a group of experienced gamers about 3 hours without doing much back story or personality. Most of the time was actually spent equipping the group, as the low starting money forces the group to tighten their belts (if they can afford belts) right from the start. The high cost of essentials make detailed bookkeeping something of a necessity. Groups that enjoy shopping trips should enjoy this part.
My group had some difficulty making the required number of flaws, as a typical starting character is required to have enough flaws to leave them mute, blind and deaf.
We started with a simple barroom brawl, which took several rounds and resulted in multiple deaths. The system has a fairly steep learning curve and the group was keen to change how they had spent their points after the first combat.
We were all rather surprised that an unarmoured person with average hit points needed to be punched, stabbed, shot, lightning bolted and then kicked in the head by a horse before finally falling down.
Combat is fairly fast, but is full of misses, which can be frustrating and repetitive if you don't have powerful weapons. One PC after several rounds of combat pointed out they had only hit once, for one point of damage, despite being a reasonably skilled combatant fighting an unarmed foe.
The players agreed that the setting was cool, but were a bit less complimentary on the system. They commented that if they played again, they would make a party consisting mostly of heavily armed Cyber-Mystics.
The Helix game has real potential as a setting and some little gems hidden in the system. Personally, I felt it had a kind of retro feel, and it is a game I would have loved when I was 16. I found that the various minor errors and omissions are off-putting, but if the game makes it to a second edition, I'd be very interested in looking at it.