Archaia Comics is probably best known for their publishing of the indie hit Mouse Guard (and it's corresponding RPG to boot), but they offer a lot of pretty neat, unique material. At c2e2 they had this insane buy two, get three free deal on their trade paperbacks, and so when we saw that we immediately had to pick up five hardcover books.
Berona's War Field Guide by Anthony Coffey and Jesse Labbe is something I've been looking at for a little while now. Although published by a comic company, it's definitely something different and lives up to its "Field Guide" name. The whole thing is presented as if written by some neutral observer taking notes in a note book and drawing sketches to what he sees. Of course the sketches are full color and posses a huge chunk of personality.
The titular was is between two races of little cartooney peoples, the Cropones and the Ele-Alta. They remind you of two different types of little furry animals, but it's hard to put your finger on exactly what types of animals they're supposed to be, which I consider to be a strength of the design work.
Beyond those who wage war, we get an insight into the lives and communities that are affected by the war. On one level we get the Field Guide presentation, and it'd be very easy to pop the book open to any page for a quick, entertaining read. However, reading the book from cover to cover will provide you with a deep, engaging experience where you learn how the war developed and more importantly why it kept going. You get to know the peoples of Beron's Island. I love that we get cool little entries on snipers, sappers, barbarians, death rays, and more while at the same time are presented with entries on the helpless, the drifters, and the mournful. These little guys are packed with a humanity that give them a depth you wouldn't expect from what I would describe as a children's book.
I was intrigued by the premise of the Field Guide as an original story, and I wasn't disappointed. More so, I was interested in seeing what the book had to offer as far as an original RPG setting that could be aimed at getting kids interested in tabletop role-playing. I'm pleased to report that the book is definitely appropriate and recommended (by me) to give to anyone you know who once or currently likes cartoons.
I'd love to see an actual RPG book presented in this kind of format, although I suspect it would have to be authored by someone who was capable of doing the art on their own to make the illustration costs reasonable. Of course there's always the option of applying your own system to the fleshed-out setting of Berona's War. There's enough meat presented here to use a heavier system like G.U.R.P.S. or Savage Worlds, but I'm going to continue on the theme of presenting the game to newcomers and recommend the free game PACE from Evil Hat Games' Fred Hicks. If you're not familiar with PACE, check out the review I wrote for it. It's a very simple game that pretty much anyone can pick up and feel like they're contributing to the collective story. I would recommend passing around a copy of the Field Guide before playing the game, but once done, everyone should have a good feel for the type of character they want to create and story they want to play.
Overall, although the presentation is in a different format, the book reminds me of Mouse Guard. Both worlds feel like they're full of breathing room and allow the reader to explore both the exciting and the mundane and make them both interesting. If you dig the art presented here or just want to explore an alien world dripping with familiarity, you should probably do yourself a favor and pick up your copy of Berona's War Field Guide if for no other reason than I'd love to see more people create unorthodox, original work like Correy and Labbe have done here.