The Pieces of Gestalt

March 27th, 2009

gestalt_middleImagine a world in which personifications of concepts — Archetypes such as Winter, Death, and Determination — existed, having sprung to life in 1989.  Now imagine that, in this world, a fairly large number of these personifications, these living symbols, chose to put on colorful costumes and become superheroes and supervillains.  That’s the high concept of Scott Bennie’s campaign setting Gestalt: the Hero Within, which I was able to review thanks to Ed Healy of Atomic Array.

In some ways, this is not such a stretch for a superhero game.  As Bennie writes in his introduction to the first chapter, “[a]ll fiction deals in archetypes, [and] comic books apply these symbols more consciously than other fictional forms.”  The statement might be open for debate, but clearly comic books deal with archetypes.  Bennie intends for Gestalt to go one step further, though:  the characters are not making use of those archetypes; instead, the characters are the archetypes.  The Gestalt (Bennie’s name for such a living symbol) of Winter might have cold and ice powers, but he’s not just a guy with cold and ice powers — he’s a living representation of Winter.  The Gestalt of Murder isn’t just a common serial killer, or even an uncommon one — he’s Murder personified.

A subtle difference, indeed, but one that Scott hopes will lead to some interesting play options:

For most players and GMs, Gestalt-Earth is a place to spend a day or two every few weeks and have fun pretending to be superheroes and basing some bad guys.  That’s great.  However, Gestalt-Earth games can be more than just fight scenes and a reason to get together with friends.

Gestalt-Earth is a place to explore certain themes.  Its premise is that greatness stems from the abnormal, from passion and intense behaviors that arguably border on obsession.  Gestalts are highly monomaniacal by nature.  Playing someone who is more archetype than human being can be a challenge, not just to players, but also to GMs.  When playing someone who has a strong, inflexible agenda, conflict between teammates is almost inevitable….

Gestalt is an exploration of how strongly held beliefs and associations shape our lives….  If a subject inspires fanatical devotion or hatred, Gestalt is there.

You certainly can’t accuse Bennie of a lack of ambition in developing his setting.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the product pulls off all of the things Bennie wanted.  I think it might have fallen prey to some of the pitfalls of translating a personal game into a published campaign setting — despite Bennie’s goals, as a reader previously unfamiliar with Gestalt-Earth, I find little that supports the themes he expresses here.  To me, the main body of the book reads like a standard campaign setting, with only a couple of diversions here and there to remind me that this is meant to be something else.  Are there differences from a “typical” superhero campaign world?  Sure.  There’s no magic or mythological gods, for instance.  There are very few “generational” supers (supers who are the children of earlier supers), because supers only appeared in 1989.  There are only a couple of known alien races, and there’s no exploration of far-flung regions of space.  There’s only one alternate dimension.

…Unless, of course, there isn’t.  Bennie makes clear that any elements of the campaign setting are free to be changed by the GM, which is laudable and proper.  Then he goes out of the way to provide solutions to these restrictions for players who really want to play a certain thing:  There could be a Gestalt of Magic, for instance, because Magic is a concept.  His powers wouldn’t actually be magical — Gestalt powers are all psionic in nature — but they would act like magic and be mostly indistinguishable from magic.  And there are no actual mythological gods, but there are Gestalts who embody those gods, and act like those gods and believe they are those gods, and are more or less indistinguishable from them.  There are no actual alternate dimensions aside from the Gestalt Dimension, but that one includes “fantasyscapes” which might look like places such as Hell or Camelot or Santa Claus’s North Pole.  (The latter is actually detailed within the Gestalt book.)

The book essentially undermines all of its own restrictions in this way.  Most of the underlying assumptions Bennie details in chapter 1 are quickly laden with exceptions, and the result is something that feels an awful lot like a normal campaign world.  It’s not really, the book protests, but if it acts exactly like one, then why not play in one?  You’d have to really like the flavor.

And it is good flavor, I give it that.  Part of my problem here is that I’ve seen this concept done before, and done better.  Nobilis was the game that immediately sprang to mind when I read about the concept.  In that game, you play a godlike being who represents an aspect of reality — what Gestalt calls an Archetype, Nobilis calls a Domain.  You are the lord and the servant of that domain, and your purpose is to protect it, so that it remains a part of reality.  (Extending it and increasing its power is often desired as well, of course.)  Your opponents are godlike creatures from beyond reality who aim to destroy it — and your fellow “allied” powers, many of whom would cheerfully sacrifice you without a thought if they could get away with it.  It, too, is a game that emphasizes interpersonal relationships — romance and politics — and the conflict between the human and the archetype.  It, too, offers a setting in which to play.

The settings differ in the details, of course, but they differ also in this:  Nobilis, like Gestalt, grants the GM permission to change the setting if he likes.  But it then goes on to describe the default setting, without offering alternatives to every decision made during the creation of that setting.  It trusts that to the GM, and presents a relatively unified vision.  Gestalt offers these alternatives by the double-handful.  I believe Bennie’s intent was to be helpful to the novice GM; however, in the end, it feels like the Gestalt setting book doesn’t trust the GM to be able to make those changes to the setting of his own accord, and so it waters itself down in its effort to cover more bases.

Ultimately, much of the power of the high-concept lies in the GM’s hands.  If the themes Gestalt wishes to portray are to be embraced, it will be because the GM encourages, even emphasizes, them.  Otherwise, you’ll end up with a fairly normal superheroes game (insofar as there is such a thing), but with a few quirks.

High-concept aside, however, Gestalt still has a lot to offer the superhero GM.  This is a case where the individual pieces of the work might be of more value than the whole, thanks to Scott Bennie’s imagination.  The book, you see, contains what you’d expect of a setting book:  a timeline and alternate history, a rundown of the status of current events across various parts of the globe (and some of these are very detailed), and hundreds of characters — names, traits, why they’re famous.  Need a super for your game?  There must be hundreds in here, some just barely sketched-out, others with complete character-sheet writeups.  But it also contains much, much more, in terms of plot hooks and adventure seeds.

Myriad plot hooks scattered throughout the book.  Because Gestalt comes across as a fairly standard setting in spite of itself, these hooks are easily used in many superhero games.  Many could be used as-is; almost all require only minor modifications.  The character-sheet writeups include “Campaign Use” sections that can serve similar purposes.  There’s an entire “Campaign Secrets” chapter filled with material ready to be sifted through, modified, and plugged into a campaign.  Just one example:  “What happens when a massively powerful telepath (like ‘The Mandate of Heaven’) telepathically manipulates a nation — say Taiwan — into voting to join China, and the international community knows it but can’t prove it?  The world’s about to find out.”

There are plenty of comparable examples.  If you’re a GM who’s been blocked lately, this book is sure to fire your imagination.  And if you’re not in mid-campaign, but trying to start one?  Well, there’s a chapter in there on “Scenario Seeds” too.

The Campaigning chapter is also very interesting — in particular, the part of it that details Bennie’s process of planning and running one of his own campaigns from start to finish.  I’ve rarely seen such an in-depth discussion of the decisions that go into a roleplaying campaign and the lessons learned as a result.  Its value has nothing to do with the setting, necessarily — it’s the process that’s fascinating.  I’ve run probably dozens of campaigns of my own, but I rarely get this kind of insight into another’s game, and it’s always a pleasure.  It also gives some glimpses of the power of the setting of Gestalt.

The Verdict

I think the idea behind Gestalt is neither as advanced nor as unique as Bennie thinks it is, but it is an interesting one, and one that’s a little different from the baseline assumptions common to games in the genre.  I also think that this book is very hit-or-miss in conveying those differences effectively — partly because it bends over backwards to help GMs change it.  This is not necessarily a bad thing — it does give a GM prompts, if he chooses to make changes, and I can see how people would find that helpful.  It’s not to my tastes, though.  In a setting book, I like the setting to not only be well-defined, but to come through prominently.  In short, I see the potential here, but I don’t think the execution is quite what it could have been.

Even so, it’s a pretty impressive work.  The book does convey a lot of information about the setting.  Parts of it, like the backgrounds of the members of various prominent supergroups in the setting, are incredibly thorough.  The entire world is sketched out — it’s not simply a city, or even a country.  This is an ambitious undertaking, and Gestalt pulls it off with flair.  It’s also hard sometimes to make a personal campaign setting seem like an interesting place for strangers to set their games, because the GM takes so many of the small secrets of the setting for granted and doesn’t set them on paper; Gestalt doesn’t suffer from that problem.  Though I’ve never played on Gestalt-Earth before, I have no doubt I could run a campaign there.  Bennie says on the back cover that Gestalt “is recommended only for experienced players and GMs,” but I don’t think a novice would have much trouble.  The book is very user-friendly and, as I mentioned previously, perhaps even too friendly to GMs who frown at some of its restrictions.

It’s quite a tome, too, weighing in at nearly 400 pages — not including the index, from which Wizards of the Coast could learn a thing or two about useful reference tools.  There’s a reason I complain about indexes so much… it’s because I like to use them for looking stuff up.  Gestalt has a very good index.  If I were sitting at a table with this 400-page book and needed to look something up, I could find it quite quickly.

In final analysis, I doubt that I’d run a game set on Gestalt-Earth.  However, because of the broad array of characters, plot seeds, setting notes, and other GM toys scattered liberally throughout the book, I would still get a lot of use out of it.  I’d recommend it to any HERO player looking to plunder a few good ideas for their game; the price might seem a bit high, but I think it compares pretty reasonably to other Big Books Of Inspiration.  With Gestalt, Scott Bennie provides plenty for you to chew on.

Gestalt: The Hero Within was published in 2007.  The HERO system version is available in either print or PDF form, at list prices of $49.95 or $24.95, respectively.  BlackWyrm Games offers the book for $37.46 in print or $18.70 in PDF form.  The Mutants & Masterminds version is a little less expensive; it’s 344 pages, and lists for $39.95 print or $19.95 PDF ($29.95 or $14.95 at BlackWyrm’s prices).  If you play HERO or M&M, your choice is clear; if not, weigh the M&M version’s lower price against the special effects HERO includes, which make it a little easier to translate the writeups to other systems when you’re not familiar with either HERO or M&M.  A Player’s Guide covering the basics of the setting is available as a free download.

(I’ll note for reference that I reviewed the HERO version of the book.  A quick scan of the table of contents suggests both versions cover identical topics, and only the mechanics are different, which would fit with my assumptions regarding a campaign-setting book.)

One caveat:  Bennie edited himself, and it shows at times.  Minor grammatical errors abound, the most annoying of which, for me, is a tendency for the text to shift between past and present tenses when it’s not warranted.  This didn’t seriously impact my reading — there’s nothing terribly egregious — but I also couldn’t help but notice every time it occurred.

Want to learn more about Gestalt? Read on…

Drop by Black Wyrm Games today!


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  1. Theron, Mar. 27, 2009, 4:07 pm:

    One small correction, Scott’s last name is Bennie, not Barrie.

  2. Scott, Mar. 27, 2009, 6:01 pm:

    Ugh, that’s a mistake I’d made and corrected… I must have inadvertently reverted to an earlier version at some point and not noticed. Thanks for the heads-up; it’s corrected now.

    My apologies to Scott Bennie. I edit myself, too, and sometimes it shows. ^_-

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