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Silent Titans Review

Silent Titans is the latest adventure module written by Patrick Stuart, delightfully illustrated by Dirk Detweiler Leichty and published by Jacob Hurst.

The game was Kickstarted in December last year (2018), and is now available in print and pdf. I backed this as soon as it became available. I’d like to think I backed it based on the prestige of its creators in the OSR community, but if I’m honest I think it’s the art that sold me. Rightly so I’d say, I mean just look at it…

Digital images don’t easily convey how bold and colourful this is in person.

This stuff would not be out of place hanging in on my wall or in an art gallery, even the maps look this good! Before we get into the content though, let’s start with a quick overview of the physical product that was delivered..

The Product

The book is near identical to the mock-ups displayed on the Kickstarter page, which in itself is an impressive feat. This is even more impressive because the book is just such a beautiful object to behold. Jacob has spared no expense in making this thing top quality, and it pays off in spades with the bright and bold colours in Dirk’s work.

The book sits flat on the table, uses thick, high quality paper, and fully utilises its inside covers. Even the dust jacket has a search the body table and a gorgeous map of one of the dungeons of Wir-Heal on the inside.

If your splashing out on the book, I would recommend getting the bonus pack too if you can. It includes a map book and a booklet of cut-out minis (yes a battle maps and minis in an OSR artsy game). Also a bunch of index card character sheets for the Into the Odd rules, a bookmark with most of those rules on it, and some stickers, all as good a quality as the book itself. The minis are very thick cardstock, the battle maps are thick glossy paper and everything is as vibrantly colourful as the book itself. Absolutely A+ job from Jacob here, I cannot praise it enough.

Everyone likes a few goodies!

What little I can fault is fairly nit-picky. The front map appears to be missing some labels. I’m unsure if this is intentional as something of a player map, but as the pdf isn’t missing those labels I suspect it may be a mistake. Not a huge issue, but it is slightly inconvenient when these things are referenced in the text. The Map book is staple bound, and while will sit flat with a little bending, it’s not perfect for using with paper minis. What may have been nicer is simply each map printed as a poster, and folded together. The bonus pack comes in an envelope anyway to hold it all. But none of this can take away from the shear beauty of what has been produced here.

The Content

Now let’s take a look at what’s inside. At time of writing, I haven’t run Silent Titans as is. I have run one of its dungeons as a one shot however, so I have a feel for the game.

The Rules & Characters

The game is pitched as “…a bizarre nightmare adventure setting … built to run on the ultra-light Into The Odd rules”. What this means is the game provides stats, challenges and effects for the Into the Odd rules by Chris McDowell. These  “ultra-light” rules are based largely on D&D so converting everything  to something like 5th Edition D&D could be done on the fly without much trouble, though your mileage may vary.

What wouldn’t be such a simple job would be converting it’s pre-generated characters. These are a part of the Into the Odd rules, whereby a character’s randomly rolled stats determine what equipment and abilities they get. Silent Titans takes this one step further and this also determines your name and rough personality. This is an interesting choice, one that certainly helps fit player characters neatly into the setting. Each character is very distinct, and Patrick states; “Anything not specified you can make up yourself.”

This is the first of many design choices that run contrary to conventional OSR wisdom, but I like it. I think is speeds up an element of the game that is usually quite slow and challenging for some players. This does make Silent Titans much harder to drop in to an existing campaign however, though considering how the rest of this game is written, I think that’s probably intentional.  We will get into this later, but suffice to say for now, If you’re going to run a Silent Titans game, it’s certainly most effective to use all the included rules.

The rest of these rules are presented in the mechanics of the dungeons, environments and NPC factions. They mostly consist of telling you which stat to use for saves, something a GM could make a judgment call on themselves, should they be using another system.

Everything else comes in the form of narrative or roleplay effects. Things that affect a character’s senses, damage over time effects or things that affect character memory. None of these are really defined explicitly by Into the Odd, which makes the majority of the supplement fairly system agnostic. Whole dungeon’s, locations and factions could be pulled out and run in any system without much trouble. A lot of the mechanics are neat, and I can certainly see them producing some pretty fun situations to play out. Certainly the ones I came across in the dungeon I ran were great.

In summary, what rules exist in Silent Titans fit nicely, and tend to get out of the way, allowing the GM to focus on why we are all really here, the fiction!

The Fiction

With the fiction, I feel like i have about as much criticism as I do praise.

Firstly, Patrick’s writing reads like GM notes. Lists of things and ideas, with sub-points branching down as you read. They do a great job of sparking ideas, and imagination, but are pretty poor at conveying a scene at a glance. At the table, I like to be able to flip to a page, read a thing and get a good sense for the situation, but that is pretty impossible for the most part in this book. You really do have to read the whole thing, and only then does the world coalesce from Patrick’s flowery descriptions and Dirks abstract drawings. To be clear, the rooms are well described, often with inspiring details that can help you describe these bizarre location to your players. However, they are not very descriptive of the activity within, nor of their connection to wider whole. To really get a sense for what is going on in this bizarre place, you need to read the lot.

This seems to be a step back as well for both Patrick and Jacob, both of which have produce two of the most gameable books that exist! (Maze of the Blue Medusa & Hot Springs Island respectively) Silent Titans does use the repeated information trick used in both previous works, one short summary on a general dungeon map, and another in a more detailed description on a following page. However, unlike the previous books, these summaries are rarely anything other than description. No wider interweaving narrative is conveyed between the moving parts, everything feels independent until you have a picture of the whole in your head.

Also, it’s really quite hard to parse. On many occasions, I would read a passage, totally not understand it, read it several more times, look at the art, still not get it and move on, only later to discover a key piece of information that made the whole thing clear. Patricks advice at the start of the book of “Like all my stuff, read it front to back first” needs to be taken quite literally, and even then will take multiple re-reads and flicks through to really solidify in your mind.
On top of all this, once you do get to grips with what is going on it’s… kind of a railroad. It reminds me a lot of the “choices” in many modern open world video games. A multitude of mostly unrelated side quests are available along with the main “plot” quests (the dungeons) available to be done in any order, but you still have to hit all those same beats. The conclusion is going to be mostly the same for everyone. I would even argue that in all likelihood your going to do the dungeons in order, because they are laid out on after the other on the map!

One of the dungeons for even takes this to the next degree. It’s all about players waking up from dreams, and Patrick advises you to use unfair rules, scene shifts and “naked railroading” to keep the players on track. I think I get what Patrick is going for here, the idea behind this dungeon about going mad, and imprisoning the characters in these dream scenes until they go along with them. The problem with this  is that it ends up making any player choice pretty meaningless and I can see players getting frustrated when they have to replay through the scenes if they mess up. This does not seem fun to me. The first time they encounter each scene I think would be a fun roleplaying exercise, but once you have figured out how to “beat” the scene and navigate around it, it become more of a mundainity than something enjoyable.

This seems very odd when looking at MotBM and Hot Springs Island, both very much open world adventure settings that really can be explored any which way, and produce exciting unforeseen situations as a result. This is another element of the game that goes contrary of common wisdom in the OSR. A defined and pre-determined story just feels dirty to me. I suspect this is intended, but one quote from the dungeon described above makes me question this, when speaking about the “naked railroading” in the dungeon, Patrick writes; “This [Dungeon] is completely different to the rest of the game, where you should absolutely not do this.”

One of the battle maps provided in the booklet.

So is this intentional? The front of the book does state that this game is about loops, about time travel and the player characters almost having a “do over” of their previous mistakes. I really don’t know. However, what I do know is that this, all of it, the art, the fiction, the mechanics, they WORK. They work really well. They are effective at conveying a very particular and compelling aesthetic and this is…

Why Silent Titans Is Actually Incredible

What makes Silent Titans special is how seamlessly the art, the fiction and the rules interweave. To the point where I cannot fathom what inspired what, and I’m starting to question if there is even such a distinction to be made.

While fascinating, this is a marvel to behold in game. Mechanics, art, and rules align perfectly into what i can only describe an an Aesthetic, with a capital A. What Patrick asks you as a GM to portray and what your players to envision, match toe to toe with what Dirk has drawn.
In fact, at first glance, Dirk’s illustrations seem chaotic and meaningless, like abstract doodles. However, once you read Patricks writing they come to life, you recognise characters, monsters, even “architecture” so to speak.

The reason I would recommend the bonus pack so strongly is that this game presents a GM and their player a very distinct, and pervasive aesthetic to the game. It’s really what I think makes Silent Titans a groundbreaking supplement. Everything works so well together in creating a very unique and immediately recognisable look and feel. One that doesn’t rely on fantasy tropes and a common understanding on what a dungeon, medieval village or even person is!. As Patrick has done in his previous works, he takes the limitations of the tabletop RPG as a medium, and instead of fighting them, embraces them and builds them into his setting and game.

The clearest example of this is the nature of Wir-Heal (the name of the land in Silent Titans) itself. The idea being that this land is distorted and nonsensical. Space doesn’t totally make sense here, and it’s difficult for characters to get a clear sense of space while exploring these bizarre lands. That is exactly how it can feel to a player when exploring imaginary spaces. Everyone has their own internal model of a scene, no two of which are going to align perfectly. Thus, Patrick has worked this natural limitation into the fiction of his world. This is again complemented by Dirk’s abstract isometric art style. The art provides exactly as much spatial information as is important in the rules, no more and no less. Patrick’s room descriptions provide the GM with high level details and more descriptive information for the GM to riff on. Dirks room drawings provide the players with visual analogues to those key elements. The minis then provide visual reference for the player characters and enemies for combat and navigation, where exact distance is unimportant, only relative positioning and distance matter. This is true both fictionally, and mechanically!

I have yet to be brave enough to take scissors to the minis…

In play this is perfect. Showing the whole dungeon map to the players doesn’t spoil anything, because the art is so abstract that its nonsensical to them at first glance anyway, it serves only to tease them with possibility. Then, when they enter the room and those elements are described, they pop out. Suddenly they can see, “Oh, that mass of tubes there is the Cephalopod Prime!”, “All those red circles are Face Crab Keys!”, “That pillar is a GUN?!?!”.

This marriage of mechanics, fiction and art is something I don’t think has been done so fully in a supplement before, and I doubt will happen for a long while yet. All that Silent Titans provides, pushes a GM into using them in a certain way, a way which is emphasised by the fiction, codified in the rules, and conveyed in the art. Total unity, something modern game designers both in digital and tabletop struggle with consistently.

I truly think Silent Titans is something special. It has its flaws, yes. As mentioned earlier, it’s going to take a certain kind of GM to be able to use what Patrick writes, and a skilled one at that. It also requires players be willing to not necessarily be railroaded, but certainly guided in a certain direction, and have compatible motivations with the setting. I would argue this is true for almost every adventure anyway, but I don’t think its something OSR players will be so keen on. Push past those initial reservation though, and I think its aesthetic, outshines all of them.

I’ll certainly be bringing Silent Titans to my Table at the next available opportunity.

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