The Neon Box – A Critical: Foundation – Season 1 Review

My interest in Critical: Foundation is rooted in nostalgia and curiosity. This is an RPG beginner box with its reticule zeroed in on board gamers. That’s not to say it wouldn’t appeal to someone with no interest in Catan or Arkham Horror or whatever, because it could suit that sort of newcomer as well, but it contains a physicality and awareness of the broader tabletop hobby that is unique to this product.

My first roleplaying experience was discovering a free Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition adventure in Barnes & Noble. It was a little pamphlet that spoke of adventurers exploring a ruin inhabited by a wight. The words were thrilling. I had no idea what any of it meant, but my imagination ran wild. It didn’t feel terribly different than the Lone Wolf books I was devouring at that age. I was wrong.

I ended up buying the 2nd edition starter box. I taught myself THAC0 and tried to teach others. We stumbled along and eventually found our way. My life changed forever.

A kid – really, an adult – picking Critical: Foundation up off the shelf is not going to have the same experience I did. It’s 2022, not 1996. It shouldn’t be the same.

The first thing to notice when cracking the lid is the little “What is a roleplaying game?” flyer. It’s what you’d expect, offering an approachable definition, further practical explanation, and even an example of gamemaster and player character interaction. I find that final touch the most noteworthy – as the actual structure of how to play an RPG is typically a mystical vagary left for the players to discover on their own. Often, it’s as if you’ve been given the components of a ritual without the actual direction. It’s easy to imagine the number of groups that have had poor first impressions and awkward initiations into the hobby.

The rulebook is 12 pages, featuring a clear layout that presents the simple Critical system logically. It’s a D12 task resolution mechanism where you add bonuses based on relevant skills. There are details for group checks, setting difficulty, and modifying rolls with equipment. Most importantly, everything is explained as if you’ve never seen this sort of sorcery before. Don’t know what a non-player character is? No worries. Not sure what D12 means? It has you covered.

Another smart touch is the final page of the rules which is aimed at those who have completed the campaign in Critical: Foundation – Season 1. “What’s Next?” is the headline. It discusses re-using the components to craft your own adventures. The designers – Yohan Lemonnier and Kristoff Valla – present their methodology for creating scenarios, briefly discussing inspiration, timing, and difficulty. It’s only a small amount of advice and tutelage, but it’s useful and logical.

But you won’t need that information for a while. The set includes nine scenarios that present a full adventure arc. This format is genius and the turn Critical takes that pushes it beyond other similar boxes.

Each scenario is called an episode. They last roughly 30 minutes, consisting of 2-3 scenes that are all meaningful. The overall structure is presented as that of a television show. The entirety of nine episodes forming a season.

There’s a couple of really smart things here. First, everyone understands the format of a television series. It’s intuitive and immediately relatable. There’s a strong cultural connection there. Second, the tight scene framing keeps story lulls minimal and offers a sense of momentum that builds towards the series’ conclusion. It teaches the group – particularly the GM – the proper way to pace an adventure and exactly how to frame scenes. It’s not just random rooms with descriptions and some plot point callouts, the game itself presents a script for the GM to follow. Absolutely no story preparation is needed beyond reading the scenario ahead of time. This is wonderful.

It then supports this tight play with a number of appropriate physical tools. There are several pre-constructed character cards, allowing for a quick session 0. Equipment and status effects are included on smaller cards that are familiar to hobbyist board gamers. Each participant is also given a cardboard nameplate and a dry erase to scribble their character name upon and reinforce the idea of staying in-fiction. There’s also a map of a key location and a very sturdy and useful GM screen. Dice, tokens, and a couple of other smaller props are included as well. Nothing outside is needed besides the human element.

Perhaps it’s subtle, but this isn’t a typical starter box. There’s no paper character sheets with dozens of stats and sections to fill out. There’s no pencils at all. Character cards feel more like your typical board game character sheets, like something out of Descent or Android. The box itself is sold at board game retailers and looks every bit a board game. It’s clearly geared towards an underserviced market segment.

Really, this is a solid starter set. It hits each possible checklist item as it takes the participants hands and leads them through an enjoyable and well-constructed experience. The neo-noir cyberpunk setting is faint, but inspired enough to fuel creativity, and there’s certainly something here for the curious to latch on to.

I do wonder if the overall success of this work is a black hole. One of the strong points of picking up a Dungeons & Dragons introductory box is that you have a legitimate next step. Despite some advice on continuing your campaign, Critical is really more comfortable as an elongated one-shot. In this sense, it’s more of an onboarding to the hobby of roleplaying games as opposed to a specific system. It does this admirably, but I can envision a board game group diving in and enjoying the experience, but unsure whether they will explore this new hobby farther.

I also am slightly disappointed the Critical system is so traditional. Expecting for something more open or collaborative is truly unrealistic, but it’s often newcomers who pick up story-games more quickly than those firmly entrenched in the history of tabletop roleplaying. I would have liked to see something, even just a small touch, that allowed players to modify narrative details of the scene or reframe a conflict.

Additionally, it’s a very light game. If a group is desiring a more sophisticated combat system, they won’t find it here. This was the right call from a design standpoint, but some will desire a more robust resolution framework with more flourishes and detail.

I’m not sure if Critical: Foundation Season 1 will find the success it deserves. There is absolutely an audience for this product, but the monolithic stature of D&D is an impervious juggernaut. This is a grand time for the hobby with a flush of entrants, and it may be the perfect time for Gigamic and Hachette to release such a box. We will have to wait and see whether this show is renewed for subsequent seasons or if it receives the network axe.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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