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Reviews - Santa's Soldiers: Second Edition
by Demian Katz

Santa's Soldiers coverSanta's Soldiers: Second Edition
Written by Bill Kte'pi, Todd Downing and Gavin Downing
Illustrated by Steve Hartley and Todd Downing
Published by Deep 7
60 page PDF

When the first edition of Santa's Soldiers was announced a couple of years ago, I was mildly amused, but I wasn't quite intrigued enough to pick up a copy. When Deep7 started distributing the game, I took a little more notice but still failed to take action. When the second edition was released, expanded to sixty pages and revamped to use the XPG system, though, I decided that I had waited long enough, and greedily requested a review copy (hey, it's the season of giving, right?). I was not disappointed.

One of the problems with many humorous games is that they rely entirely on their concept for their humor. Sometimes this works, but usually such products are revealed for what they truly are: one-joke wastes of time. There's certainly a risk that a writer working with the delightful concept of paramilitary Christmas elves would get lazy, but that is most certainly not the case here. The world of Santa's Soldiers is carefully thought-out, full of interesting characters and organizations, and, in a really twisted way, strangely logical.

All Santa wants to do is deliver toys, of course, but such a noble task cannot be completed without opposition; thus, the Order of St. Nicholas (or OSN) was formed to fend off the jealous minions of such fearsome foes as the Boogieman and the Anti-Claus by force of festive arms, magic and vehicles. The OSN itself consists of several brigades, each named after a different famous reindeer, and the interactions and specializations of these brigades are just as interesting as the relationships between the various holiday-related and anti-Christmas forces of the world. I would say more on the setting and its inhabitants, but I really don't want to spoil too much. This book is a surprisingly fun read and, even more surprisingly, has a lot of campaign potential.

The delightful setting of Santa's Soldiers is well-suited for the solid XPG system. The XPG rules support a good level of detail (and this is a more detailed game than you'd expect), but they're also fast and easy, allowing quick-paced, humorous anarchy to take place comfortably. My only complaint about the XPG rules is that I can foresee gamers growing tired of reading them again and again in every Deep7 release. It might be nice to see a generic (and perhaps freely downloadable) XPG core book which could be used to reduce redundancy and save ink and toner around the world. Of course, this complaint really doesn't apply here; although the XPG rules presented by Santa's Soldiers are very close to those I previously encountered in Mean Streets, they're peppered with humorous examples and silly asides that make them entirely worth reading for a second time. Still, were this not a humorous game, I would be complaining about the redundancy.

In addition to the chuckle-inducing humor sprinkled throughout the text, the game is also enhanced by lots and lots of original artwork. There's scarcely a character or item that isn't accompanied by an illustration, and most of the pictures have just the right ridiculous mix of cute and tough. I have only two minor complaints. First of all, since this is a digital product, the game could have been presented in full-color beyond the cover; the spirit of the game is really suited to full-color, and I don't think it would have taken a whole lot of time to flood-fill the various line-drawings to a state of tacky brightness. Secondly, the elves in the drawings, though amusing, don't quite look right to me - the text mentions pudgy bodies and skinny limbs, but the illustrations portray fairly normal proportions; a bit more exaggeration would have been nice.

Although this game was really a whole series of pleasant surprises for me, one of the most pleasantly startling developments was found in the quality of support material included. There's all the usual stuff, of course: background material for character creation, spell lists, equipment, NPCs, etc. In addition to this, though, there are lots of unexpected touches: a glossary of OSN slang ("Tree Trimmed and Stockings Stuffed, boys; let's not Scrooge this up!"), a well-above-average "what is role-playing?" segment (imagine that!), a genuinely useful discussion of how to run a humorous game, and, as icing on the cake, a working index. Add to all this an assortment of inspired and strange adventure hooks that allow plenty of room for fun improvization, and you're ready for an evening of ultraviolence that will provide happy holiday memories for many years to come.

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