Faith: the Sci-fi RPG was one of last year’s best releases. Its fresh new take on religion in gaming, intricate political universe, and melding the boardgame’s style with roleplay paved the way for a bold franchise that is sure to stake its claim on the market for years to come. A little less than a year after its first release comes A Garden in Hell; this boxed set is a combined starter set and full campaign, taking a strike team to explore a hostile and mysterious alien world. While there, Team Inferi will have to struggle for survival as it tries to navigate new allies and enemies and find the true secrets of the Ravagers.
I covered the Faith system in detail in a previous review, but suffice it to say the card driven resolution system combined with special abilities and religious bonuses is a rare feat of design.
The box comes with enough to get a new group started on their way, at least in broad strokes. It contains only only one player deck, which necessitates buying or finding a separate 54 card poker deck for each other player, assuming the GM uses the one provided. Players cannot share this deck, as it throws off the balance of the game. Poker decks are not difficult to come by, but you do lose something in having to miss out on the art that are on the player decks and retranslate the suits into their relevant scifi counterparts. You can buy more Faith decks if you so choose, but the extra expense is a fair reason not to do so. A Garden in Hell also contains a gear/NPC deck, which covers all of the items and foes your players will encounter while they explore the jungle planet Ujara.
A Garden in Hell also has a basic version of the rules, which covers basic information such as action resolution and character traits. Though it, and all of the short books, is paperback, it shows clear effort in the design. The layout is clean and has new artwork to accompany it. In everything but material it feels like a great product. For someone looking to jump into this system quickly, this book is even better than the core set at explaining actions, and I applaud the way the designers pulled out the most relevant information. However, it has no information on making your own characters, as is to be expected.
While a minor gripe, the rules and the main adventure book still have translation errors. They are rare, and you never get confused about the intended meaning of a section of text, but you will come across them at some point. More distressing is that the gods have seen no clarification from their writeups in the core set. As someone who has studied philosophy, language, literature, and law I can’t make heads or tails of the nuances there are supposed to be between the two individualist gods. I have written some explanations for my own game which fill the gap perfectly, but having to do so speaks to an inherent flaw in a selling point of the product.
These components are somewhat basic, but the rest of A Garden in Hell is a grab bag of innovations which speak to the uniqueness and exceptional quality of Burning Games’ design team. While most enemies are represented by cards the same size of those in the player decks, there are massive boss cards that I think should be a mainstay in RPGs to come. Each has its own art, clear stats for the players to read, and makes a huge impression when it hits the table. They are probably easy to produce, but create an immediate psychological impact because of their size and specialized art. Additionally, the extra space they have on the back contains all of their relevant special abilities. As long as you can hold the card or prop it on something the players will get the image of a massive, hulking beast while you can familiarize yourself with its attacks.
The premade characters are similarly simple to use and create, but have a few small improvements which contain surprising innovations. The characters have their own history and unique outlook. Their flaws and skills make for characters that would be genuinely fun to roleplay. Better yet, the team dynamic they create when put together makes for some fantastic interactions. I will do the rare thing and tell you not to make new characters to add to this game unless you have exhausted each of these four. The inquisitive but absent-minded Corvo is fun on his own, but creates unique opportunities next to his gruff but very capable superior officer. Especially given that this officer is a human in a galaxy where the Corvo have dominated humans, this adds a fascinating new dimension to their relationship.
The character sheets, and I can’t emphasize enough how simple yet important this is, also have numbers in statblocks in gray shades. What this means is that you can let them stay as they are and read them legibly or write over them for a new character or upgrade. Because of this, they are so much more modifiable. These sheets also have the starting special abilities written up in short paragraphs that are easy to understand. This is an improvement over the character boards of the core set, which leave these abilities out. They also have additional abilities available for later upgrades, which are specialized per character but give you enough room to make each one your own as time goes on.
A Garden in Hell also has a separate set of sheets that act as a tracker for the GM, which you will find incredibly useful as you run this game. They are a simple set of bullet points to let you know which portions of the campaign you have covered and how much time has passed, but a little thing like this goes a huge way to help you stay organized throughout the campaign. A small gesture, but I applaud its inclusion.
The campaign itself is more of a mega-adventure, which keeps your characters in the overgrown jungles of Ujara, where they and their ship have crash landed. The characters, part of a specialized team, will have to keep themselves alive and build up a livable, defensible camp for them and their shipmates. All the while they will be hounded by Ravagers, an unknown alien species that looms over the adventure until the characters discover their secrets or die in the attempt. Along the way there will be some surprising twists and chances to make use of combat skills, diplomacy, and even hacking, putting your characters to the true limit of their abilities.
The one real issue at stake is that A Garden in Hell bases itself around a mystery that for many of us is already solved: Ravagers are a main playable race in the core set. I might not know what they have been up to on Ujar, but I have a decent sense of their abilities and goals. In the campaign’s defense, they are something of a known quantity in the universe itself, but the themes of horror and mystery are dampened by anyone who has played with the core set. This decision makes A Garden in Hell perfect for new players, but somewhat lacking for those who picked it up almost a year ago.
This is especially problematic because it precludes a fifth player from picking a Ravager character, which would throw off much of the point. I can think of a few easy fixes, like saying there are multiple factions and that your character is not among them. (Plot spoiler ahead:) The campaign even tells you eventually that there are different Ravager factions, and the developers could have easily added this caveat as to why they won’t communicate with you, but to book itself never says so. You could get some fascinating mileage out of the ability Ravagers have to pose as other races, keeping the fact a secret from the rest of the players, but these are my ideas, not Burning Games’. Their absence from the campaign is felt, if only to a degree.
This oversight is matched, as most of A Garden in Hell is, with a few new ideas that make an enormous difference. The first moments of your adventure, if you are playing with a new group, contain an optional tutorial that runs you all through the basic mechanics. It is completely skippable, but for those that want it, will provide a few minutes of interactive story for new players.
What develops from there is not a sprawling space opera but a scroungy survival tale which evokes Alien, Halo, and Pitch Black. In some ways, you will be able to see where the story is going due to these influences, but the tropes therein will also highlight just how disadvantaged your party will be. The overarching mystery is a worthy one, which balloons from a small tale to a political puzzle that will embroil your accidental interlopers.
This adventure is written as a technical manual, which is completely appropriate. GMs are given short but effective prompts which give them relevant information on each portion of the adventure but give them enough room to maneuver to make the story their own. The story does railroad the players down a few chokepoints, but they all make sense within the context of the story, each adding to the sense of isolation and threat they are under. Using a time tracker and a mission organization which makes later portions change drastically based on your player’s choices, they will be left with a series of adventures which feel organic. Ujara has a plotline to follow, but one that adapts and changes based on what the players do.
The art of A Garden in Hell, like everything about Faith, is the absolute pinnacle of quality in RPGs. There are a scant few that might rival it, but none that can top it. As you gaze on Ujara you can feel the heat of its oppressive jungle and hear the chirping of alien insects that hunger for your unprotected hides. Even before I read the character writeups I could sense their drives and personalities. The bosses are artistically linked to NPCs of the same race but are an order of magnitude not only of size but of threat. While looking over these materials you will routinely stop reading to gaze in wonder at the blasted ruins of your spaceship or the strange alien plantlife you might have to try if your hunger grows too fierce.
The components, as beautiful as they are, will not stand up to much punishment. A Garden in Hell was made with costs in mind, and the cardboard of the game box and glossy paper of the books will not last after much use. Given that the cost is only around $30, and you should get a full 7-11 three hour sessions out of this if not more, the price is well worth the investment, especially because of how well it stands on its own. A digital edition will be available eventually, but I have not been able to find whether you will be able to purchase the gear decks or boss cards separately or have the option to download them.
FAITH: A Garden in Hell
Designed by: Carlos Gómez, Helio de Grado, Mauricio Gómez
Published by: Burning Games
Ages: 13 and up
Time: 7-11 3 hour sessions
Mechanics: Hand Management, Roleplaying