By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 25 September 2019
Continuing along with the OSR bandwagon I found myself to be following on Kickstarter, we arrive to the book John Silence. While I ignored a large number of the tweets about it early on due to assuming it was “just another OSR,” some commentary from fellow gamers and reviewers inspired me to support it and make it a reality.
Now that I’ve caught up on everything, we can get into what makes John Silence tick.
John Silence offers players a different approach to gaming: a non-violent game in which you play as non-white underrepresented individuals in the 1920s through the 1990s. Your character will be imbued with special powers that allow them to see things that do not belong on our world, and with your unique gifts, be able to convince them to leave.
==What You Get==
John Silence weighs in as a 199 page PDF. Within the pages, we are given everything needed to play our psychic investigators, from “natures” (what would be “race” in D&D; part-angel, changeling, human, etc) to classes (investigator, engineer, etc). We are given a simplified d20+mods mechanic, a standard level system for progression, various powers, and a small pool of skills to choose from when making rolls.
In all honesty, reading the premise is what inspired me to buy the game. Uniquely representing individuals and communities that are often ignored or negatively typecast is something that stands out to me, and the game deserves high praises for that. While RPGs are made to let you play anyone, a majority of them emphasize white, European ethnicities in both character options and artwork, so this twist was a welcome on.
Additionally, the book called for additional writings from those very same community members, which helps bring out names that a “colonized collection” may not have.
Sadly, in my opinion, all John Silence brings to the table is an idea that is marred by terrible implementation.
To begin, the game is based off of OSR ideals, heavily inspired by older generations of Dungeons and Dragons and similar games. These games had a focus on combat, and using a ruleset that focuses on combat is problematic for the cause.
This is exacerbated by how the mechanics work. Instead of physical combat (which has very little in this book), the standard “combat mechanics” are now just used in a social context. Your “attacks” are with words, you “damage” foes with an “impact” roll, and you take down their “HP” (Heart Points) as you go. It literally is a basic “I attack and deal X damage,” only the narrative is conversation. Considering the number of other games that have better social mechanics, this feels sloppy, uninspired, and against the very ideas of the game as pitched.
I sincerely do mean that. The game idea would work better with a more robust social mechanic instead of “combat, but social.”
This situation is also worsened by some of the provided narrative. Our first story in the book, written by the eponymous paranormal detective “John Silence,” shows an angry investigator that is prepared to dole out vigilante justice, yet the game is supposed to be an exploration of non-violent, communication-based methods to resolving issues? That’s not the feel I was getting here.
Sadly, the game is also lacking in a number of areas. The art is lacking (but what few pieces we get look nice, at least), there’s some odd wording and editing, and there are rules that are simply unclear (especially with multi-classing). It was almost as though the writer took the simple elements of OSR/d20, combined classes and weapons together, and never fleshed out the final details.
To be honest, much of John Silence feels rushed, and the font size (which I love for accessibility reasons and booklet printing) almost feels like it was done to pad the page count rather than to be readable. There’s simply just not much here. The title is, in my opinion, not worth the money, and I hate even thinking that, much less writing it.
At the end of it all, John Silence is leaving with a crusty 0.5 buns.
I sincerely wanted to love John Silence. Being the line between humanity and things beyond mortal comprehension is absolutely my jam (and I ran many a World of Darkness game with that very theme), and the pitch that this was to be done without violence only increased my interest in the title. The concept of talking down an invisible horror just seemed interesting and appealing, and I needed to see it become a reality.
Sadly, with an odd selection of mechanics that are just “combat reskinned,” contradictory writing, and a truly uninspired approach to a fun idea, the game proved to be a waste of my time and the $16 I spent.
John Silence was written by Josh Jordan and published by Ginger Goat Press. It was successfully funded via Kickstarter in August 2018, with backers acquiring the books in June of 2019. There have been no additional news or updates regarding further publication as of the time of this writing.