The 23rd Letter
Index: What is it about?:
What sort of system does it use?:
What did I like about the game?:
Basically put The 23rd Letter is a roleplaying game developed by a group of gamers
from Northern Ireland. The company who developed it is called Crucible Design and The 23rd Letter is their
first ever home grown roleplaying product from their web page I gather that a second edition is due out soon. By way of an introduction this article will
look briefly at the background to the game, the character generation process, the game system and finally
what I thought of the game.
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The 23rd Letter is a roleplaying game set in contemporary times(well it was originally written in 1995-96)
with an eye on the millennium. The coming of the millennium of course heralds a change for
mankind (glad to see they have avoided political correctness). The change well it has
something to do with 'yer esp's. You know your extra sensory perception, psychic abilities
and general run of the mill stuff like that? The player characters tend to have psychic abilities
which are - genetically related of course oh and connected with some trauma or other (I tend to
think of it in terms of that sweet little girl Carrie's difficulties with the onset of her period -
you know the one who sort of tended to burn the toast a bit??). The people with psychic
abilities are called Espers.
The back drop to the game is earth in the not-too-distant future of course which varies
from the current one in several ways. First technology has of course 'improved' the net
is much the same but now people don't have VCR's but can in fact access the net through
their televisions???? (Ooops! Did I say it was different?) Well it is - the major
differences creep in according to the basic conspiracy elements of the game. It is
argued that due to the increased emergence of Espers at the end of the millennium that some less
than wholesome people in some sectors of different societies decided to use the newly
developing psychic abilities in mankind for military purposes.
The investigation of psychic abilities was initially undertaken by a number of
'agencies' which were and continue to be Government sanctioned. Of
course these projects having mostly military goals in mind were initially government
funded, but due to spiraling costs (someone knows a little about the difficulties
of doing research....) many projects were closed.
The Western Project US
The Nevada Project US
The Whitechapel Project - UK
Institute of Space Medico Engineering China
Geister Dreizehn Germany
Where the world of the 23rd Letter really differs from today's society
is that it is set against a backdrop where personal information is freely
available for all and the 'corporations' who run most public amenities have full access
to this information. The removal of this essential and basic human right produced
the conditions for 'The Powers' to emerge. The rule book is not clear on what it means
initially about the powers but they seem to be people who hunt down and put to work
those with psychic abilities. They are the direct descendants of the Government corporations
I think from reading the book that the best way to describe them is that they are
the 'New World order' of world in which The 23rd Letter exists.
Despite the fact that this area has been left suitably under defined and a little
under explored it provides room for some interesting plot lines for the GM who does
not like everything done for them. It follows that Espers who are not working for the
agencies seem to be grouped under a thing called the 'Network' which appears to
have a structure remarkably similar to any terrorist organisation!!?
Basically put the Network is composed of a number of 'cells' which seem to
operate virtually independently of each other and are self funded. They have no
over arching political ideology as yet but seem to be developing awareness concerning
the misbehaviour of the powers. The authors have been
a little vague here and there in the background and perhaps the new edition of
The 23rd Letter will develop this a little more?
Players could therefore be people with basic psychic abilities
who are gradually being hunted down by a number of agencies - sort of your
Mulder and Scully types only not quite as friendly! Or they could be already working for one of
the government associated cum independent 'projects' - assuming they won't mind working on
'unethical' assignments at times that is....
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In keeping with the theme of this product character generation is a
simple process which also depends on what I will call the 'minimalist' ethic so apparent
in the background sections. By calling it an ethic I am once again assuming that
the approach is very much this way through conscious design rather than any
Rather than starting with a limited number of dice and rolling up values for character traits
and then assigning them to particular traits. The role player is encouraged to begin
with a player 'concept'. The player concept is developed by sitting down and answering
a number of questions some which I personally found difficult to do. But hey that's ok the
GM and players are encouraged to develop their own lists of questions to satisfy and so
the laissez-faire attitude continues. After setting up a player concept (all of which is actually
pretty hard work!) the player sits down and crafts trait and skill values to the character.
The idea is to leave the flavour of the game and the player characters up to the GM and the players
There are four basic traits: strength, intellect, reflexes and endurance. These are based
on a range of between 1 to 8 (3-4 being average) these are the 'innate' abilities the characters have.
Skills are said to be from untrained, to novice, competent, professional, veteran and master. These abilities
are also used to measure competence in psychic abilities.
Then there is a 'qualities' table, here the player characters are invited to take 'qualities' each
of which must be balanced out. Positive qualities in the table include eidetic memory, perceptive, acute sense,
strong will etc. whereas negative qualities include youth, unattractive, psychosis. The idea is to pick up to five
points of qualities all of which must be balanced with negative qualities. In keeping
with the spirit of the game design much is left up to the players not to abuse the system.
It follows then that there is a fairly standard skills list which characters can choose from the skill
list is once again fairly basic and it seems that the players are further being encouraged
to develop their own skills. There are several secondary traits which are also used during game play. These are fatigue,
character pool and stress respectively. Fatigue is fairly self explanatory but needless to say it is maintained as
a running total during game play, players gain fatigue from wounds and activity, when fatigue exceeds
the characters total then he or she will become exhausted. The character pool represents a pool
of points which can be used to enhance character abilities during play, it seems a bit odd but this pool
can in fact dip below zero??? Then we come to the big one stress is caused through the use of
psychic ability-who-do-ya-flicks stress manifests itself in minor headaches and nose bleeds but as
the total rises to exceed the endurance score then - the character will lose the ability to
concentrate effectively. After such a point it is only by pushing powers that the character
can use psychic abilities.
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Ok yes there is a section on psychic ability generation basically you roll 2D and come
up with a result between 0-9 this is the basic raw power - the abilities have to be
purchased as part of the normal character generation with each skill costing two character
points (meaning you have to balance these positive points with negative points such as
bad breath, a shaky hand or something like that!!!). The dice are rolled for each talent
with the talents being listed in a table. There are four basic sets of psychic abilities
each with their sub-skills. These are summarised in Table 1 below
Table 1 Psychic abilities and Subskills
The skills themselves are fairly self explanatory although if you are a bit dim like me then
the rules book does explain each of these under the GM section, for example the
enhanced sense ability of the biofeedback skills allows the person who possesses this
skill to have yeah you guessed it eyesight or something like that for a while.
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OK as said previously human characters have basic traits rated on a scale of 1 to 8. After this point
skills are similarly rated on a range from -1 to 16. When a test is required the GM will
assign a difficulty value to the task in hand. This level determines the number of
D10 dice that must be rolled in order to be successful in the task. The result of
the dice (if more than one was rolled they must be added together) must be equal to or
better than the value of the trait plus the skill total if the attempt is to be successful.
If a marginal difference emerges then the numerical value of this is cross referenced to
quite a simple table to indicate the degree of success or failure.
The rule book indicates to the reader that there should be few rolls for skills and
'This is because dice-rolling, although it introduces a random equalising element
into the game, also slows the game down and reminds the players that they are playing
a game and not interacting in a highly dynamic ever-changing world.' (p. 20) This basic
system obviously follows on from the minimalistic way in which the world has been specified
allowing more freedom to the GM and the players to ad hoc and develop their own game more.
What did I like about the game?
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The thing I like about the game is the tips and guidance they give to character creation
they have provided a nice table to allow the quick generation of different aspects to
the character - whether or not they have worked for the police in the past or whether or
not they have had a romance with a non-esper. Basically for every ten years of the characters life
you roll on the two tables provided and hey presto you have something to work with.
The good bit they have added is that they have a table which has reasons why the group is together,
I found that very useful - lazy prick that I am.
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For a first product produced on a low budget this is a good game - it
has a minimalistic approach which means that it is for the experienced role player only. Having played it on a number of
occasions it seemed to run well and the game play tends to put a lot of emphasis on roleplaying.
The game is therefore for players who like to indulge in a lot of dialogue. However if you are the
sort of gamer who likes loads of pages of statistics, loads of guns etc. and a heavy system to challenge you then forget it
this product just won't cut it for you.
I was very disappointed to find that there was actually precious little background other
than the world is like our world - this just seemed like an excuse
to escape from some writing work concerning the projects and the way
in which they are entangled with governmental interests.
Overall it gets three out of five rats for the effort I hope that further products will develop
the background and perhaps consider developing those skills some more and providing more background details.
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