Engine Heart starts off with a pretty simple premise: the humans are gone, but their robots remain, toddling and ticking around in a sad shadow of their former lives. What you make of the setting beyond that is up to you, since there is no default campaign setting beyond a post-apocalyptic Earth (and even that’s not set in stone).
The tone of the game can range from light-hearted and comedic to bleak and heart-breaking, often during the same session! Your robots range in size from something that can fit in a shoebox to something the size of a refrigerator, and come equipped with whatever tools you think they might have needed to do their jobs back in the day. Larger robots might appear in the game, but only as GM characters.
There are no classes and few restrictions on what kinds of equipment your robot can have. If you want to dump most of your starting points into a top-of-the-line trash compactor and play a barely-sentient box on wheels, you can. Not your thing? How about a human-looking robot with a taste for poetry and the fine arts? Both are equally viable, and both are exactly the kinds of machines that might be found wandering the decaying ruins of your home town.
The game is fairly rules-light, being a d10 pool system like White Wolf’s World of Darkness, where you roll a certain number of d10s for any check and try to get as many of them equal or above the target number required.
The system uses the exploding-10s concept (where rolling a 10 on any die allows you to count that as a success and reroll it), without the old World of Darkness rule that rolling a 1 cancels out a success. This allows for long-shot victories without the constant success-turned-failure that oWoD’s rules seemed to promote.
In most cases the required target number is 8, but it can be lower (a minimum of 2) or higher (to a max of 10). Slow robots have a hard time getting out of the way, and so they are easier to touch; some might only require a 2 or higher to hit. Speedy robots are the opposite: you better roll at least one 10 or you’ll miss them.
Character attributes are very specific compared to most games: four different kinds of intelligence (is your robot good at fixing things or talking to people?), five physical stats (Dexterity, Mobility, Perception, Reflexes and Strength), and four more attributes: Durability, Buffer, Power and Size.
The wide array of attributes means there are no “skills” to speak of; if you have a problem you just roll the dice for the most related attribute. Your stats also influence a lot of other things, from hit points (Durability + Size) to your speed (Mobility + Reflexes) to how many dice you get to roll to punch another robot (Dexterity + Reflexes).
Every attribute must be at least 1, which serves to ensure that no robot can be automatically struck or destroyed. The normal attribute cap is 5, with a few ways to bump an attribute up to 6.
These attributes also influence how easy (or hard) your robot is to repair. Robots with a lot of hit points have lower target numbers needed to be repaired, while more delicate robots require higher rolls. For dedicated repair-bots this usually isn’t a problem, but if your robot is broken and your fellow machines don’t know what to do you might find yourself in trouble.
Most robots don’t have more than 8-10 hit points, so with attacks that deal five or six points at every strike, combat can turn murderous at the drop of a hat.
Leaky Batteries and Exploding Robots
Most robots have one primary concern: finding enough power to keep themselves operating. There’s an impetus for this built right into the rules: all robots have a Power rating (from 1 to 5), and their players must roll that many d10s every 24 hours. If none of your dice roll 8 or higher, your battery is almost dead and you have a very short window to find a charger before you run out of juice.
This can be circumvented with a couple of expensive components (expensive from a character-creation point of view) like a nuclear battery, but most robots will have to deal with the threat of dead batteries sooner or later. The Power rating also allows your robot to crank its dials into the red for a brief burst of superhuman (super-android?) ability, at the cost of possible battery drain (and for those with nuclear batteries, a messy explosion).
The Bad Parts
One downside to the rules-light system is that a lot is left up to the GM (which the book calls the Programmer). Building a robot character is easy; determining how the environment affects it is a little trickier. There are no rules for things like electrocution, water (aside from starting the game with a permanently rusty robot) or falling. Any physical damage is simply assigned a number, and the robot takes that much damage from its hit points (minus any damage soaked up by its Durability or special armour). Robots can be repaired given time and skill, but there’s no mention of permanent character death.
The rules for reprogramming robots are also lacking; it’s easy to see how it works, but what exactly reprogramming can accomplish is left unsaid (though it’s strongly implied that a reprogrammed robot is effectively brainwashed according to the reprogrammer’s wishes).
This is a godsend for GMs who are sick of cross-referencing tables all evening while the players wait, but the lack of codified rules can be a little frustrating for those who aren’t as good at making things up on the fly.
If you have a basic idea of what kind of robot you want to make, character creation goes pretty quickly, but spending those last few creation points can sometimes be a challenge. There’s also no rules for experience points or advancement; the book simply states “In the course of the game, the players may wish to alter or improve their robots. The requirements and end results are entirely up to the Programmer.” My house rule is that any points not spent at character creation can be set aside and combined with experience points gained during play to pay for upgrades. This seems to work pretty well, though without an advancement matrix or experience cap robots could easily become overpowered.
In summary, this is a fun book for gamers who want to try something a little out of the ordinary, fans of Wall-E, and people who like robots. There are enough unique components and flaws available at character creation to design almost any kind of robot imaginable, and the filled-in character sheets give a good idea of what’s possible.
Perhaps the biggest selling point (pun intended) is that the game can be downloaded for free (as a pdf) from the game’s wiki and the publisher’s site. This makes it easy to pass around a group of friends without juggling paper copies.
There are two versions of the game: the Deluxe Model Edition, which is in colour, and the Economy Model Edition, which is in black and white. Aside from the price difference (the Deluxe Model is ten dollars more than the Economy Model), the books are identical. The black and white version is definitely a better deal, but the Deluxe Model (which I own a copy of) is just pretty to look at.