Reviewing Red Giant

The purpose of a tabletop roleplaying game book is to make you want to play it. That’s rule number one. All else can go out the window for all I care. Forget layout, forget gimmicks, forget ad-copy, forget poetry. I don’t care how you accomplish it. The book should ache to be played. If its claws aren’t pulling me from the pdf to a discord group chat and forcing me at gunpoint to type “hey, is anyone free for a game soon?” then I’m afraid it’s not doing its job.

I had to sell all the pretty things on my shelves several years ago to avoid losing my home, and at the moment I sold a beautifully destroyed copy of Berserk Issue 1, I stopped giving a damn about having something cute to put on my shelf. I desire that which demands play.

It’s rare in the realm of one hundred plus page books to find something that does that. Too often you’re inundated with blocks of text describing to you the thing you’re reading. Entire pages detailing the promise of the book instead of, you know, the actual contents of the book. Waxing and waning about hypotheticals. “This book does blank. This game creates blank.” But rarely does the book do either of those things, it just promises you that it will.

Whip pan to Rookie Jet Studio’s “Red Giant.” 

Expletive, expletive, expletive. This book makes me feel alive. 

It’s fitting as I’m rereading Berserk right now (slowly buying the beautiful, black-leather omnibus editions because I deserve nice things sometimes). Reading Red Giant made me think back to that beat up copy of Berserk, and to the used bookstore I sold it to, and the power of that made me want to buy a physical copy of Red Giant on the spot. If only it wasn’t print-on-demand. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I believe the book deserves better.

The layout done by Emanuele Galletto features many deep blacks and cursed reds. It’s clean and elegant, framed perfectly by Juwan Yi’s brutal illustrations. There’s not a chance that Drive Thru could do the colors justice. This is a book that demands. And for printing it demands a professional printer. It demands its own black leather. It demands an embossed red moon on the cover. It demands Corey Burns name in foil on the spine for the excellent world building and mechanic’s-driven writing. Even if he decided to put snobbish philosophy quotes throughout.

Even in that regard, the ones Burns chose to feature within the one hundred and twenty pages add to the bleak sobriety of the world. You’re diving head first into Castlevania territory. You get quotes from Baldwin, Nietzsche, and Sartre. It gave me hints of Kingdom Death and the blood-filled streets of Yarnham. This is a world where deep-voiced narrators talk about hopelessness and nihilism. It’s an edgy, gothic nightmare. The kind of anime you’d love if you were fourteen again.

The system is where the game hooked me though. It’s where this worldbuilding shines through. Not in lengthy blocks of lore text, but in the character creation itself. It’s a simple, four-stat system. The kind you’d be familiar with if you’ve played any other game (video, board, or ttrpg). Along with Health, Spirit (mana), and Sanity (which functions more like Insight from Bloodborne than it does in Call of Cthulhu). 

The archetypes are where this takes shape. Stats are assigned to you based on your archetype, and each one comes with its own special skills, much like any dungeon crawler. But it’s the packaging of these things together and the limiting of skills that makes these feel truly special. Harkening to the role-infused Troika! backgrounds, Red Giant prescribes you a piece of the world with each archetype. Simple yet evocative names that range from the Slayer to the Aegis. You might get the ability to sing a song that controls the weather, or early access to the keyword-based magic system. 

Regardless of which you choose, it feels like you’re reaching into a grab bag of Red Giant’s influences and pulling out the silhouette of a legendary character. It ditches the vagueness present in a lot of modern, anime-inspired games and trades it in for specificity. And in that specificity, the world blooms and takes shape.

Afterward comes my favorite section of the text: the Exchanges. These are bite-sized special traits, like feats or class abilities, that you can choose from. Each one framed as something you can just do without rolling. However, each one has its titular exchange. Trading abilities for health, sanity, or spirit. Some limit your exposure to daylight. One turns you into Guts Berserk himself in the fatal heat of combat.

I’m jealous of the Exchanges. I wish I wrote them. It’s a Good Idea. It is the answer to the premise the game promises you. Crafting a strange, devilish world through mechanics. Even if the first few pages tell me what an RPG is and how to roleplay and what Red Giant is, the character creation alone backs it up. It walks the walk where the intro only talks the talk. 

I can’t continue to only praise the game though. There are several Exchanges where their mechanical ties are weaker or missing entirely. These are easy fixes but still fixes that hold a good idea back from being perfectly executed. The character advancement feels tacked on and the text even suggests tossing it out the window, which, if that’s the case, then it should have been tossed out the window and not left in the book.

There are several moments where the text struggles with strong language and opts for weak sentences that mosey around ideas instead of making definitive statements. The advantage and disadvantage mechanics feel like a vestigial limb, added simply because the same thing worked in other games. And over all, the rest of the mechanics outside of the character creation feel like cobbled together bits from other games the writer liked. Which, if that’s the worst thing I can say? Then you’re doing a helluva better than the majority.

I need to take a moment to give a nod to the game’s use of Sanity too. It suggests you “roleplay the effects” of your depleting Sanity, but it doesn’t specify negative consequences. And in that there’s a cartoonish respect. In other games that try to use Sanity as a measure for horror, you’re often confronted with ableist language and outright disgusting mockery. But Red Giant uses it as another health pool that depletes dramatically as you face Horrors and replenishes slowly afterward. Despite any negative connotations that labeling it “Sanity” brings, I’m willing to forgive it for the sake of atmosphere when it doesn’t turn its nose down at me.

If you’re picking this game up you’d be able to run it tonight. It comes with two adventures (called Scenarios) that are at least serviceable, though I would love to see a more fleshed out version of a Red Giant adventure. A Castlevania-esque dungeon crawl, perhaps. And the book boasts plenty of wonderfully horrific monsters for you to pluck out and throw at your weird, little adventurers. 

Overall, Red Giant is a good example of what one writer and a very small team can do. Rookie Jet Studio funded this as their second project on kickstarter, raising thirty-thousand dollars. To its benefit, it seems like the book deserved it, and maybe even more.

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