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METAL WORLD – Role-playing Game Review

* First Disclaimer *

I received a digital copy of the most recent version of this role-playing game (RPG) book in return for an honest review.

* Second Disclaimer *

While this RPG book is more or less finished it’s still awaiting most of its art and could still be subject to changes or revisions before final publication. An early access version is available to buy at the time of writing but is not covered by this review.

Do you ever look at the worlds depicted on heavy metal album covers and wish that you could visit them? You know, take a motorbike ride through Hell, fight alongside a skeletal musketeer, bite a werewolf’s throat out before he does it to you?

Then Nick Zachariasen has the role-playing game (RPG) for you!

Metal World (banner)

METAL WORLD is a love-letter to heavy metal and to the wilder more action-oriented parts of fantasy, sci-fi and horror. It’s a world of robots and kaiju, wizards that drive vans, knights with laser-swords, factories that make cars of legendary quality, and axe-wielding barbarians who ride fire-breathing steeds. The Gods™ of this world love metal and they have remade the world in its image.

Also, there is a volcano made of dragons.

Sounds brilliant. But does it deliver?

Well. METAL WORLD is like a big chrome motorbike with a flamethrower taped to the front and giant batwings growing from the sides. It looks awesome and if you climb on board and hang on tight then it could give you the ride of your life. But there’s some little fiddly bits under the hood, and you might need to do some tinkering before you can get it running smoothly.

Right. Now that we’ve tortured that metaphor like the MegaDevil punishing an accountant, let’s get into the details.

METAL WORLD comprises a number of different nations, including Hell, which is a place you can travel to by conventional means, whether to rescue a damned companion or to check out the MegaDevil’s microbrewery. These include:

  • Prismatica – a sort of heavy metal themed, He-Man style kingdom where brightly coloured knights gather to fight evil.
  • Glamm – a land of endless parties, which has supernaturally effective hair-gel instead of seawater and a hatred of authority so strong they only have a government so that they have something to rebel against.
  • Cold Steel Harbour – an island city of robots.
  • Kaijujin – a technologically advanced country menaced by giant monsters.
  • Raptoria – A generically evil state, which, at first, I thought was mainly inspired by Nazi Germany. It seems to reference some of the darker elements of the USA and Russia as well though.
  • Motorhead – the place where all the sweetest rides are made.
  • Sepultura – a giant graveyard.

Then there’s the multiple Atlantises, the Howling Waste, the horribly polluted Blight and the monster-haunted Forest of Dom-Tarr.

Beyond the world proper lies the vastness of space and a number of different after-lives catering to Vikings, speed-freaks, sad people, and sadomasochists respectively. The geography of METAL WORLD reshapes itself for the sake of narrative convenience, which is amusing and means Raptoria can invade anywhere it likes, anytime it likes.

This world comes with its own original RPG ruleset, which means this book is all you need to start playing.

The basic system of METAL WORLD relies on rolling a twelve-sided die (D12), and adding a stat, then a bonus if applicable. If your total score meets or matches the number set by the GM (or Metal Lord because every game has to rename the GM), then you’ve succeeded. Extra levels of success are described as Shreds. An attack is usually an opposed roll, but otherwise functions exactly the same. Damage is determined by the weapon being used and the degree by which the attacker hit.

Yep, no damage dice. You pretty much only need one D12 per player and maybe a few more if you anticipate anyone’s going to be slinging explodey things around. It’s a pretty simple system at its heart and not difficult to grasp in concept.

Combat does get a bit maths-heavy as you compare scores, count Shreds and try to work out if anyone has rolled a critical hit or a pathetic failure before extrapolating the total damage. But if you can cope with any edition of D&D then you can cope with this. (If you can cope with Pathfinder then you could run this game while drunk with one hand tied behind your back.)

Character creation is pretty easy and a decisive player with a good handle on the setting could throw together a character in half an hour or less. You pick a name, a couple of lines of back-story, three skills, a Good Thing and a Bad Thing, then assign your pool of 30 stat points amongst the five Stats. Bang, job done.

Good Things can be whatever the player can imagine, and the GM agrees to. They can include being able to cast a particular kind of magic, which is the only way for a Player Character (Metalhead) to become a magic user. Other suggested Good Things are you are hard to sneak up on, that animals like you, that you have wings or that you possess the ability to safely eat anything that is even borderline edible. I don’t honestly see many players going for the ability to reliably win a chilli-eating contest over having the power of flight, but this is a pretty jokey game so I’m sure someone could make it work.

There’s a lot of room for players to abuse this system, to create over-powered characters, so Zachariasen flat out tells the GM to feel free to refuse any suggested ability that seems too powerful. And if you think it’s okay, but when you see it in action you realise you were wrong, then go ahead and nerf it. METAL WORLD is absolutely a place where reality is altered on an almost daily basis so don’t lose sleep over messing with the continuity.

Bad Things can also be anything, so long as they actually impede the character. (E.g. having chainsaws instead of hands, being really creepy, or falling into a blind rage when in combat.) Skills grant a flat +4 to any rolls that the GM agrees are applicable to them. You can only use one skill at a time. There’s a list of example skills but you are free to invent your own. This is nice and simple and cuts down on any D&D style hunting through your character sheet to work out which bonuses apply.

The five stats are all named after heavy metal genres, which is very fun and flavourful. Toughness or Stamina is replaced by Death, i.e. your ability to resist or escape death. Combat ability is covered by Thrash. Strength is Power. Intelligence is Prog (a rock musician friend of mine told me that that made perfect sense, I still don’t understand why). Dexterity is, of course, Speed.

Charisma and generally any way of solving problems without using violence aren’t really encouraged in METAL WORLD. There’s no Charisma stat, so you have to substitute the appropriate stat, e.g. Power could be used for an intimidation roll. Any social bonuses are based on the character’s actions or possibly an appropriate skill. As Zachariasen puts it, “You know what your Charisma is? It’s the size of the pile of bodies at your feet. It’s how on fire you are without caring. It’s the fact that lighting doesn’t strike you—you strike it.” (I love this game.)

Let’s do a quick example of character creation. I’ve invented a character called The Stein Ram and want to make a Metalhead out of him. To do that I first need to explain his back-story—he’s a 7-foot-tall ram-man created by a sorcerer as a bodyguard who broke free of his master and left to pursue his one true love—beer. He now runs a brewery with attached bar and grill but has begun to dream of adventure.

The Stein Ram’s skills are Brewing, Convincing, and Knowledge (Occult). He can make great beer, he’s a bit of a salesman and he picked up some esoteric knowledge during his ‘first career’. The Stein Ram’s Good Thing is he’s good at ramming into people! He gets a modest damage bonus if he hits an opponent with a charge, so long as he gets a decent run-up. His Bad Thing is he has hooves instead of hands and feet. He finds fine tasks such as typing almost impossible. (But he can still play the guitar because the Gods™ are merciful.) He has high Death and Power stats and a decent Thrash stat, to reflect his considerable size and his training as a former bodyguard. He’s not too bright and moves a bit ponderously however so his Prog and Speed stats are less than impressive. And that’s it. I’ll add that The Stein Ram fights with a giant steel beer-stein and he’s good to go.

METAL WORLD is written in a very casual, conversational style, which suits the setting nicely. Reading this book feels like meeting Zachariasen in a bar, exchanging banter and listening to him wax lyrical about his favourite topics. He likes to throw in references to films, videogames and other RPGs to illustrate his points. He is absolutely happy to mock himself, his setting and you the reader, e.g. for acting as though you don’t know what a dragon should be like. This style is certainly entertaining and means even the dryer, rules-based bits of the book are still fun to read. Which isn’t something many RPGs pull off.

There was one point, where I personally felt the jokey writing style had gone too far. Zachariasen describes one female character, albeit one who is a member of an unrepentantly evil family unit, as ‘a total slut by reputation’. Now I know it’s a cliché to have female villains be totally hot and up for anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy cliché or one that should be encouraged.

(I will note that this book otherwise portrays women, including GMs, players and characters, as being every bit as badass, metal and capable of exercising free will as the male characters.)

I had a blast reading this book. But getting to grips with the system of METAL WORLD was a little challenging. Partly that’s because it’s a new system and it’s honestly been a while since I’ve had to digest a completely new ruleset that wasn’t obviously based on another system. Even so, METAL WORLD is a curious mix of slightly technical rules that ask you to count percentages or track whether one roll is double another roll, and GMing advice that encourages you to do what you want and not sweat the small stuff.

One particular rule that is meant to make the game run more smoothly looks to me as though it could slow things down. Standard minion-class enemies are referred to as One Hit Wonders or OHWs. Great name and it’s probably got you thinking, as I did, that you just have to land one blow on a One Hit Wonder and they’ll die.

Not so. A One Hit Wonder functions normally until they get to 70% or less of their health. Once that happens the Metal Lord rolls a D12 every time someone lands a blow against the OHW. She adds +1 to the roll for every 10% below maximum HP the OHW is. If the total of the roll is higher than the OHW’s Death stat then it dies. (Just running out of HP will also kill it as usual.) So now you have to pause in the middle of combat and start working out the percentages of a minor enemy’s health. This gets easier when you remember a character’s starting HP is directly related to their Death stat.

If running METAL WORLD while using this rule then I’d want to knock together a chart listing OHWs with Death Stats of 1-10, marking out the level of HP where an OHW becomes vulnerable to instant death, the bonuses to the insta-kill roll at each level of HP remaining, and the point when there’s no need to make a roll anymore because the roll can’t fail and any hit will automatically kill the OHW. With that in place this rule could speed up combat and not cause too much of a headache. Like I said, you might need to do a bit of tinkering under the hood to get the game to run the way you want it to.

(Again, this is not actually a very complex or ‘crunchy’ game when compared to things like Call of Cthulhu, D&D or, heaven help us, GURPS. Honestly, I might have been less down on the occasional bit of crunch if the rest of the game wasn’t so enticingly straightforward and easy-going.)

Other rules do lend themselves to a fun and cinematic game. For example, there’s a really nice twist to the equipment system. All weapons have a Damage Rating which shows how much bonus damage they do on a successful hit. This Damage Rating is generally the same for all weapons. If the weapon is improvised it does less damage. If a weapon doesn’t fit a character’s concept, then it also does less damage. For example, a stealthy commando character might have a combat knife that deals the same amount of damage as a berserk barbarian does with his axe. But if the barbarian strangles the commando and steals his knife, then he’d do less damage with it because it doesn’t fit his concept as well as a big axe would. I think this will encourage players to get into character, rather than obsess over finding the most optimum weapon combination.

Ranged weapons are almost as straight-forward. They just do a bit less damage to balance out the advantages of attacking from a distance. Ammo? Don’t worry about it. Keeping track of ammo isn’t metal. The Metal Lord is encouraged to make a PC run out of bullets/laser charges/arrows at dramatically appropriate moments but otherwise ignore it. This is a world where both physics and common sense must bow to the rule of awesome.

The Equipment section also explains some simple rules for armour and vehicles and describes a handful of magical/unique items. The vehicle section makes sense but would have benefitted from a few sample vehicles. The items include morality-detecting crystal skulls, Un-Do (safely removes the otherwise permanent hair-spray that Glamm is famous for), Helldust (sends you on a reeeeallly bad acid trip), and Megastimms (pretty much do what you’d expect them to).

METAL WORLD features a system a bit like Fate Points. Your characters can earn Metal by behaving in particularly epic or metal ways or by rolling critical hits. Bad guys have Metal too. Metal can be spent to power magic (and magic-users have a couple of slightly fiddly ways to earn or conserve Metal), but can also be used by any character to alter reality around them. This can grant bonuses and rerolls but can also change things about the world such as allowing you to basically go Super-Saiyan or to just win a non-plot-critical contest or regenerate a lost limb or gain a superpower for a brief amount of time. The more Metal you spend in one go, the more powerful the effect.

Last note about the rules. It’s possible to buy special moves called Combat Manoeuvres instead of buying skills. One Combat Manoeuvre is called HAMWAM – Hit A Motherf***** With Another Motherf*****. That is all.

Onto adventures.

Honestly, I found the adventure section of this book a little underwhelming. One fairly solid adventure gets some of the core ideas and themes of the setting across well enough. It has multiple locations, car thieves, dark knights, an evil ball-crushing torture device and a noble resistance against oppression. It’s enough to establish the idea of a world where people on horseback might steal cars and evil empires menace plucky rebels, but no one expects the players to take the whole thing too seriously.

Another adventure is basically a bunch of Scooby-Doo sets jammed together on a single island, with a ghostly villain to track down. It’s a nice idea with lots of potential for amusing hijinks but isn’t massively fleshed out. You could definitely use it as a starting adventure to get the players running around having fairly easy encounters and getting used to the system.

There’s a survival horror adventure involving an apocalypse cult and a passing meteor, which I won’t spoil by explaining any further. Then there’s also an adventure where the PCs are expected to spend months working as field-hands in order to infiltrate a salad-dressing company. Hmm.

I’d have liked to have seen a few adventures that showed off more of the crazed creative muscle which Zachariasen used to make METAL WORLD in the first place. A gladiatorial arena where you fight duels while riding mecha-dinosaurs, a quest to acquire the tail-hairs of a steel unicorn in order to make strings for your guitar, a heist in Hell, or a cosmic journey to free your pain-loving boyfriend’s soul from the Nether-Leather world.

Zachariasen doesn’t really believe in describing adventures in too much detail because, as he sees it, GMs will only want to adapt them, and the players will go off the rails at the earliest opportunity anyway. I almost never run pre-written adventures myself so didn’t mind this approach too much. But considering how many detailed adventure books and campaign modules are out there I suspect there’s a significant market that he isn’t catering to here. Perhaps future books will address this market.

Still, the very fact that reading this book gave me tons of ideas for interesting adventures might justify his attitude somewhat. As Zachariasen is keen to point out: metal means different things to different people and there’s a lot of fun to be had just from being given creative permission to turn even the most outlandish of ideas into a game scenario.

Anyway. Let’s talk of monsters.

The brilliantly titled Chapter 666: The Number of the Bestiary starts with a good list of creature abilities such as trample and invisibility that should let you build many of the common beasts of fantasy and horror. Zachariasen also gives general descriptions of certain classic monsters like elementals, demons and dragons and leaves you to choose or tweak their stats and abilities as you see fit. (Though the standard four elementals are statted out, plus Steel Elementals and a rather brilliant Plant Elemental.) This gives GMs carte blanche to make a Neon Elemental (or a Neon Demon for that matter), or a factory-dwelling dragon with toxic smoke breath or whatever their wicked mind can conceive. But they’re going to have to put in a little bit of work to get a full write-up of the beast in question.

Other standard fantasy creatures pop up—vampires, hydras, minotaurs, dwarves and elves. They’ve had a bit of a heavy metal makeover though. Elves are described as having the temperament of Samuel L. Jackson if he was an eco-warrior. Phoenixes explode when killed. Kaiju are rather more unusual. I’m not sure how you’d actually fight one but finding out would be a great adventure in and of itself!

Powered-up dinosaurs seem to be in vogue at the moment. Monarchies of Mau gave us laser dinosaurs and now METAL WORLD gives us Thunder Lizards—dinosaurs who can shoot lightning from their mouths, because metal!

But my favourite creatures in this bestiary are the pun-based ones. The line-up includes: Turbo Teens, which I understand to have originated from some old American TV show. Turbo Teens are teens who can turn into cars. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. Where it gets really fun is when a werewolf bites a Turbo Teen, then you get an Air Wolf: a teen who is cursed to transform into a rabid attack-helicopter beneath the light of a full moon.

(Did I mention that I love this game?)

There’s also references to metal bands. E.g. Hawkwinds: literally a tornado made of hawks or other angry birds. Other gems include the biology-obsessed Ge-Nomes, Iron Eagles, Rockroaches and the murderous cyborgs known as Hatchet-Men.

Then there’s Mandracos, creatures that are half dragon and half giant. They’re based on a Boris Vallejo painting which sparked the whole idea for METAL WORLD in Zachariasen’s febrile brain. The painting features a dragon-legged giant with huge antlers wielding a spiked, scythe-hook-thing and posing in front of a chainmail-bikini-clad woman who appears utterly bored with the whole situation. Zachariasen saw the picture and tried to imagine the world the woman lived in, a world so awesome it made a giant half-dragon seem quite ordinary. That’s one of my favourite ever origin stories for a game, to be honest.

Beast and Woman by Boris Vallejo

One thing I didn’t get on with while reading the Bestiary was the way stat blocks are laid out. A creature’s five stats are listed in alphabetical order. They’re not marked out from each other in any other way, however. So, you can work out that a creature with stats listed as 6/3/4/7/5 has a Power rating of 3 and a Thrash rating of 5, etc. But spending even a couple of seconds checking abstract numbers against a mental chart to find out what they mean doesn’t feel very “metal” to me. I mentioned this to Zachariasen and he was confident this little mental check will soon become second nature. I myself would take the time to write the stats out with their attendant numbers before a session, just to save time in-game.

I ran a one-shot of METAL WORLD at my local gaming club to see how it played out. I had a great time creating the adventure, which featured a race combined with a brawl and a guitar duel (known as a Super-Mega-Death-Bowl), with the Metalheads competing against the previously mentioned Stein Ram and his mates War-Pig and Steppenwolf. We finished up with a battle against some Air-Wolves, who turned out to be a lot less dangerous than I’d intended. The setting is great fun to describe and three out of four of my players said they loved it. All of them found the high HP of both their own characters and their enemies frustrating, however. And I agree that combat was a bit grindy. (In fairness I didn’t manage to roll well enough to inflict a grievous wound on any of them.) I also struggled a bit to adjudicate exactly how much Metal was needed for certain actions, despite the handy table of examples the book provides. That’d probably come with practice and some of my players got the hang of it quicker than I did.

One player in particular commented during the after-game chat that METAL WORLD seemed devoid of consequences. Extreme behaviour was rewarded with Metal. Injuries could be shrugged off. Property damage was accepted as part and parcel of life. He felt he had to keep on upping the stakes and doing even more ridiculous things to get the system and the setting to work for him. If running a one-shot again I’d probably halve the HP of all characters involved, to keep the stakes high and combat moving along quickly. And if your players love serious or horror-themed games like Call of Cthulhu, then METAL WORLD might be a hard sell. But, as the game advertises, teenagers will probably love it.

In conclusion, METAL WORLD is a silly place, but I still think you should go there. It’s a passion project and that love for the source material shines through on every page. You could just buy the pdf when it comes out and read through it for fun and not feel that your money was ill-spent.

I wouldn’t recommend this game to first-time GMs or players looking to get into the hobby, unless they’re dedicated metalheads themselves. But for more established roleplayers, and even writers, it’s a great source of ideas for over the top and crazed adventures that absolutely sparked my imagination. (Consider how much of this review I’ve dedicated to telling you all about the ‘original-characters-do-not-steal’ this game inspired me to make.)

With the odd tweak here and there, it’d make a great game to use for one-shots and palate-cleansing mini-adventures. I could see players getting tired of a setting that’s always turned up to beyond 11 in time. But that depends on your own group. If they take to the setting, then it has huge scope for adventures and campaigns of all kinds. You could be fighting your way through the equivalent of the Underdark one week and jetting through space the next. Travel to the land of robots to forge an alliance with them against the growing armies of the undead and stop off along the way to indulge in some extreme motorsports. If your group can’t agree on what SFF genre they want to play next, then you can use METAL WORLD to smash a few of them together. (The genres, not the players.)

Overall, I’d recommend buying or backing this game once it’s on the market. Go on, support a cool indie creator and advance the cause of one of the best genres of music ever created. The MegaDevil demands it!

A quick shout-out before I go. I heard about this RPG by listening to an interview about METAL WORLD on the Bonus Experience Podcast“A deeper look at the play experience and the finer details of running and writing tabletop games”. Go check them out if you’re looking for some interesting news and RPG ideas.

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