Let’s face facts: most adventurers are homicidal, if not genocidal maniacs. Even in the best of circumstances, they beat up the bad guys in less than legal circumstances and more often than not, they simply slaughter sentient beings and loot their dead bodies. In darker games, the characters are not even expected to have a moral excuse for performing such slaughter; they are simply giving in to their accursed nature. Pie Shop takes this often overlooked fact of role playing to all new levels. In fact, the game takes it to a level where it is the very core of the game. In Pie Shop the characters (it is impossible to think of them as heroes in even the loosest terms, even “anti-hero” is too nice a title for them) are serial killers.
The author goes to great lengths to convey the skewed, dark and downright creepy nature of his subject matter. Each chapter begins with a scene from Alice in Wonderland but the excerpts are altered so that Alice is a killer who leaves a bloody path in her wake as she travels through Wonderland. The game text itself is written in a twisted, slightly insane style and from the perspective of one killer talking to another, a sort of psychotic mentor. This writing includes the obligatory piece of flavor text but even this is knocked sideways from expectations by taking a sudden, violent, dark turn in the middle that is all too appropriate for the game. Reading Pie Shop gives a feeling not unlike reading the novel American Psycho. You’re travelling through a strange land that is the mind of someone almost completely alien, yet disgustingly human and it is hard to look away.
The most important part of a Pie Shop game is obviously the characters. More than most other games, this one is an exploration of the characters’ thoughts and motivations as much as any external story and the game revolves around that fact. Still, character creation is a relatively simple process. It is a points buy system, but unlike most such systems it is remarkably loose. Loose enough, in fact that many stats are optional. Characters are not required to have ranks in all stats, and in fact, players do not even need to bother listing stats that they do not raise or lower during character creation. Skills are approached similarly, with a discrete list of skills presented and costs for buying them at different ranks but no requirement to buy any. A few are given for free but players are free to choose or ignore others as they like.
But these simple mechanical rules only begin to communicate the essence of a Pie Shop character. What is at least as important is the character’s peculiar…hobby. The writer clearly understands or at least has researched his subject matter and does an excellent job of helping players define their characters’ pattern. The first part of the pattern is the Target. Serial Killers do not murder willy nilly, you’re thinking of mass murderers. Serial Killers have very specific types that they go for and they seldom stray outside their particular tastes. The author provides a wide variety of Targets as examples, from women to homosexuals to children but also encourages players to come up with their own specific Targets.
Of course, the victim of a killing is only one portion of the act and the reason behind it is just as important to a true serial killer. In addition to a Target type, characters must have an Emotion that the killing evokes. This could be called the motivation behind the killer’s murders though “motivation” implies more logical reasoning than is generally evident in these kinds of characters. Again, a wide list of potential Emotions is presented from love to hate to guilt to sexual pleasure.
Finally, each killer has one or more Methodology Quirks. These are the ways that the character goes about doing what he or she does. Beyond that, they are the things that the character must do to do what he or she does. Just as the characters are driven by certain emotions to kill certain targets, they are driven to do so in a certain way. This could be something like dismembering their victim, draining them of their blood, photographing them or a myriad other innocuous and not so innocuous things that go into the ritual that the character must perform to satisfy the demons inside. Each character must have at least one of these Methodology Quirks but if a player takes more they get a character point for each additional one.
To drive home the point that who, how and why a character kills is as important as any other part of a character in this game, the Advantages and Disadvantages portion of character creation comes after the section that defines his or her kills. These more mechanical portions of the character come after the character’s motivations and have a much more direct effect on the mechanics of the character than his Target, for example. But a Pie Shop character would not be a Pie Shop character without his need to kill and the way he has to do it.
As with any other points buy game with Advantages and Disadvantages, they can be bought to modify a character or taken to provide more points for other portions of the character. Of course, in this game, all these Advantages and Disadvantages have an effect on how the character kills.
The basic die mechanic is even simpler than character creation. It is simply a matter of rolling a d12, adding in any modifiers for applicable stats and skills and trying to equal or exceed 10. GM’s are encouraged to add or subtract modifiers as applicable though no they should modify it by no more than a plus or minus five. There is even a pair of charts to indicate levels of success and failure but these are optional and purely descriptive. And, in keeping with the narrative nature of the game, players can use any stats or skills that they can logically apply to a roll and can get the GM to agree to in any given situation, though only one stat and one skill.
Despite how simple the character creation section is and how loose the game over all is, Combat proves rather complex. Damage is measured in tally marks (the standard make four marks then slash across them for the fifth tally marks) and wounds (each chunk of five tally marks.) Taking wounds provides penalties to actions and eventually leads to unconsciousness and death. This is a perfectly acceptable damage system and one that is quite comprehensive enough for a narrative game but for some reason, an additional one is included. Depending on what sort of weapon is being used a person being injured might also take bleeding damage. In addition to being an entirely separate track of wounds to keep up with, bleeding continues from round to round and players have to keep track of the most bleeding damage they’ve taken in an encounter as this is how much damage they take in later rounds in addition to any other damage. To keep things from getting even more complex, weapons are provided in broad categories and do a set amount of damage.
As far as actually determining who damages who, only the character who wins initiative does damage, unless someone is fighting at range, in which case they also do damage. Fortunately, a combat round summary is included to help players keep track of the action as it goes on. Unfortunately, this summary is 8 steps long.
In keeping with the gritty nature of the game, healing is very slow. Your pet killer is not going to go out and get in a fist fight in a bar or shot up by the cops and pop up the next day to go killing again. Now you’re thinking of slasher movies. It takes months to recover wounds, meaning that your character will be impaired for those months while he or she heals up.
Vague suggestions are given for running a campaign for the game, though they are very vague. Again, the game is intended as more of a trip down the rabbit hole of psychosis rather than an ongoing campaign. However, one conceit of the game has the potential to pull the punch behind the concept a bit. The characters are all working for a shadowy organization after having been caught by the police for their nefarious deeds. With the right GM, this shadowy organization could be as casually malicious as the characters are actively malicious, but it is just as possible that the GM will make the organization a force for good using the character’s murderous tendencies in beneficial ways. While this is at least morally grey, it provides a glimmer of redemption for characters that should be wholly, unredeemably evil.
The last full section of the game is extras. The first of these is a d20 prestige class based on the concept of the game. This may be the only section of the game that is humorous, no doubt because the idea of translating the concepts of this game into a d20 game amuses the author. And it is hard to blame him. The loose, narrative nature of this game is at distinct odds to the granular, tactical rules of a d20 game.
Additionally, there is an index of suggested viewing/reading of movies, tv shows, books and comics that deal with the subject matter of the game to help players get into the right mindset. This list is by no means exhaustive and does not suggest any nonfiction, but should give players enough dark inspiration to get started.
Finally, the game ends with not a warning but a reminder. The game is very dark, purposefully so and is meant to take players to the brink of what they can handle emotionally. It is intended as a way to remind players just how dark and horrible some of the actions their characters in all games truly are. In a way, it is a catharsis, a way for players to plumb the dark depths of their souls and stare at the abyss in a relatively safe way.
Reading Pie Shop can be mildly unsettling. I’m certain that the intention is that playing it will leave you creeped right out. Whether this happens or not is up to each group, but Mr. Toad has certainly given any group interested all the right tools.