Dragon Kings Aesthetic

The Dragon Kings PDF is out to backers, so I am posting an addendum to the review I did last week to look specifically at the art and layout of the book.

Layout

The Dragon Kings PDF has a 2 column layout with side bars. 

The text retains its ease of digestion in this final format.  The side bars are nicely placed and don’t disrupt the flow of information.  The font is much easier to read than the manuscript copy, and it all blends together nicely.

The text on each page is overlaid on a background image, however, it does not distract from the reading.  The layout keeps these images in the background, and the effect serves as a subtle reminder the reader of the nature of Khitus.  The images alternate each chapter between a desert landscape and a forested scene.  In my mind, we are seeing two branching futures for Khitus as we turn the pages; what will happen if the world continues on the path others have chosen for it, and the future the PC’s may yet forge. 

Artwork

The cover of the book is by Brom.  It deserves another look because it is amazing.

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I like that Tim went with Brom for the cover, as it serves to harken Dragon Kings back to the days of Dark Sun.  It is a great visual link for this spiritual successor. 

The map for Khitus was done by Alyssa Faden.  I was not familiar with her work before Dragon Kings, but she does a great job giving life to the lands of Khitus.  We are given an overview map of the region covered in the World Book as well as eight expanded views of different regions. 

The rest the book’s art is good.  While all do the book justice in bringing the cultures, landscape, threats, and creatures of Khitus to life, stylistically there is about 10% – 15% of the art that did not do it for me.  That being said, their presence was not jarring, nor did it pull me out of the flow of the book.

Conclusion:

The Dragon Kings World book really came together well.  The aesthetics of the presentation compliments the text.  The map is gorgeous and I want a poster size version of it.  The only thing I would love to see updated in the PDF is the inclusion of hyperlinks, which would not be difficult for an overly detail-orientated fan to add in.

I plan on picking up a hard copy of this book at Gen Con and cannot wait to start running games in Khitus.  I look forward to the rules release and whatever Tim has planned next for the world of Dragon Kings.

A Time of Contemplation – RuneQuest

Here we are at the end of a Time of Contemplation.  (I know I mentioned looking at Pathfinder, but after looking at all the systems over the course of this series, I realized that I don’t particularly enjoy running Pathfinder.  So a Time of Contemplation will end today with this review.)  For the final system in A Time of Contemplation, I will be looking at RuneQuest, Sixth Edition.  RQ6 is brought to us by the Design Mechanism, it is a great system that I reviewed here, and here, and here.  One of the very first reviews I did for this blog, it is definitely the longest.  As I said back then, the highest praise I could give RuneQuest was it would be the system I would use to run a Malazan Empire game.  Now, almost a year later, I am looking at it for something much more personal.  My Ta’nar game.

 

World

How closely does the system match to the high magic, epic fantasy style found in Ta’nar? 10/10 – Runequest supports a very gritty style of game play, while still allowing for high magic.  This is much what is found in ACKS or the Malazan Books of the Fallen book series.  This is just the sort of tone and feel that I am hoping for in Ta’nar.  Add to this the way magic works in RuneQuest, and the customization of said systems, means that I can spend my time tweaking the system to true fit Ta’nar.

World Score: 10/10

 

Mechanics

Ascending to Godhood 6/10 – While there is no innate mechanic for this, Runequest has an open advancement system that will, with time and game play, allow players skills to rise heights above mortal men.  Couple this with cult creation, as well as with the wealth of older edition RuneQuest books, finding a way to add this aspect to the rules would be easy.

Establishing & Management of Nations 10/10 – Thanks to Empires, a RuneQuest supplement, I have a solid system for this category. 

Customized Deities 10/10 – Creating deities, and the cults that revolve around them, is a major part of setting up a RuneQuest campaign.  The main rule book provides a lot of guidance in this area, and while it would be time consuming, RQ6 engenders a detailed and well thought out mystical and theological paradigm in a gaming world.

Mass Combat 10/10 – Mass combat, like the Nations questions, has a solid set of rules.  In fact, just yesterday Design Mechanism released Ships & Shield Walls, a 32 page supplement on naval encounters and mass combat.  I bought this supplement yesterday, and it provides a nice light resolution mechanic for mass combat, that I think my players would enjoy.

Creation of Races 8/10 – While RuneQuest feels written towards a more humanocentric game, it does provide creature creation rules, as well as guidelines and examples of non-human races.  Also, like ACKS, RuneQuest has many years of older edition supplements to cannibalize for race creation.

Creation of Classes 8/10 – There are no classes for RuneQuest, so this is almost a moot category.  It allows for highly-free form character generation and has the flexibility and necessity for me to design cults and magic systems specifically for Ta’nar with the rules found in the main book.

Simple Monster Creation Rules 7/10 – I would not look at RuneQuest and label the monster creation rules simple.  However, I can only assume that is due to my lack of familiarity with them.  I still scored this as a seven due to the breadth of creature types the rule set supports, how close they are to the types I use in Ta’nar normally, and the wealth of supplemental monster books.

Fast interesting combat 7/10 – RuneQuest has a very dynamic and brutal combat system.  The couple of times I have played it, the fights were over quick, as a player can quickly found themselves out gunned or overpowering their opponents.  Plus RuneQuest’s combat system provides a level of system mastery as it relates to the ebb and flow of a fight.

Mechanics Score: 66/80

Enjoyment

Does my play group enjoy it? 7/10 – I have only run one-shots of this game for my gaming group, and they did enjoy the game.  However, each time I have run it, we have not used magic of any kind.  We were trying to focus on the basics, so that meant limiting the game to skills and combats.  But the group did find the system simple and intuitive.  My major concern is the cognitive break from a d20 system.

Did I enjoy it? 8/10 – I was surprised by how much I enjoyed RuneQuest.  I never really liked percentile based resolution systems, but that seems to be mainly due to limited exposure through the Warhammer Fantasy RPG.  RuneQuest feels like the kind of game that I could really sink my teeth into for a long term game.

Is the system one that lends itself to mastery? 10/10 – Very much so.  The XP mechanic of advancements ensures that the players are continually forced to make choices on how their character evolves.  The mechanics for cults and magic allows a surprising amount of mechanical depth to be added into a setting, allowing the players to delve and explore the rules coupled with the mechanics.  Add in the mass combat and empires rules, and I feel I have enough of a system to sustain itself for years.

Mechanics Score: 25/30

Combined Score: 101/120 ~ 84%

Conclusion:

Wow.  I thought for sure I would have seen a wider spread in the scores.  But there is only a 3% difference between 13th Age and Runequest and a 6% spread across the top three games.  Granted Cypher has been dropped from the running.  If we look strictly at the mechanical sections ACKS and Runequest pull well ahead, but the goal was to look at the games as a whole. 

So I have to look for a tiebreaker of sorts.  Next week, I will hopefully have heard back on a number of things behind the scenes and will be able to announce a winner for the Dark War System!

 

A Time of Contemplation – Cypher System

Cypher is the system behind Monte Cook Games’ Numenera and their upcoming game The Strange.  If you follow this blog, then you already know that I am a big fan of this game.  Since reading Ryan Chaddock’s Celestial Wisdom and Angels & Ashes supplements, I felt like I could hack the Cypher system to the high fantasy world of Ta’nar.  But while it might be doable, I want to see how it stacks up to the other systems, before I hitch the Darks Wars to it.  Especially with how well a recent playtest of Ta’nar went with 13th Age.  (For a review of the system check out my Numenera review.)

World

How closely does the system match to the high magic, epic fantasy style found in Ta’nar? 10/10 – Thanks to the narrative play that Cypher encourages, this game could be a perfect system to use at the table.  The GM intrusion mechanic would enable me nudge the game towards the thrilling heroics that the world supports.  The simplicity of Cypher allows the players to attempt anything, and thanks to the effort mechanics, players can choose when to excel at something.  They can craft their characters to be whatever they want.

World Score: 10/10

Mechanics

Ascending to Godhood 8/10 – While there is no innate mechanic for this, with Celestial Wisdom in hand, it would be a simple matter to craft a set of powers and prestige that players can purchase with XP as medium and long term benefits.

Establishing & Management of Nations 4/10 – There are no real rules for this in Cypher.  This two can be solved with a clever manipulation of the XP and level system.  Also, Ninth World Assassin, which was just bought for me by one of my players (Thanks Nick!), has rules for guilds.  And Ryan Chaddock has a new political book coming out soon.  So these numbers may be revised at a later date before the end of this series.

Customized Deities 6/10 – Creating deities would just be a matter story or perhaps involve a creative use of focus and descriptors.  But like 13th Age and ACKS, this would require some work on my part to get up and running.  Unlike the other two games, Cypher has no built in framework at this point, although Celestial Wisdom points the way.

Mass Combat 4/10 – Mass combat, like the Nations questions, has no clear rules at this point.  But again, with two new books coming into the rotation here soon, this number may be revised.  Monte Cook’s blog post on companions gives me a great idea on how to run this, which I may write up and post on this blog later.

Creation of Races 10/10 – Non-human in Cypher is a function of Descriptors.  And while there are currently none that fit the races of Ta’nar, they would be remarkably easy to craft.  The main book has guidelines for creating descriptors, and there are a number of great articles that I can reference for this.

Creation of Classes 6/10 – This category was hard for me to rate.  This is because of how you build characters in Cypher.  What other games refer to as ‘class’, in Cypher is actually a combination of type and foci.  While I could create a myriad of foci to deal with the minutia of Ta’nar, this could be very time consuming or limited in, well focus.  The Types are fine as they are, but I would like a broader range of abilities for them.  With the Character Options book coming out soon, this number to may be subject to change.

Simple Monster Creation Rules 10/10 – Cypher should score 11 in this category.  The elegance of the Cypher system allows me to creature truly unique monsters completely on the fly.  Assign a difficulty, fudge some numbers for story, make an ability or two and we are good to go.  I have already done this type of creation multiple times at the table, on the spot.  I don’t believe my players are any the wiser.

Fast interesting combat 7/10 – Like ACKS, combat in Cypher is fast but requires player initiative to buy into the narrative combat.  It is very rules light, but wide open to any stunt the players wish to try.  As the game is focused on discovery, the combat doesn’t need to be as tactical as a game that is focused on XP sacks you must break open.  There are some optional rules that I would most likely put into play to give it more robustness for some of my more mechanically minded players.  The GM intrusion mechanics, like in many other situations in the game, really can make combat interesting and dynamic.

Mechanics Score: 55/80

Enjoyment

Does my play group enjoy it? 10/10 – Oh yes.  Even when I was running for 10 players, everyone enjoyed the simplicity of the system and the ease of play.  I feel that if I could run it at 4-5 players, I would be able to focus so much more on the personal stories that Cypher would be even more amazing.

Did I enjoy it? 10/10 – Yes!  The narrative nature of the game, the fact that I don’t roll dice, and the GM intrusion mechanic all added up to this being my favorite game to run from my side of the screen.  It is fast, focused, and easy to run.

Is the system one that lends itself to mastery? 7/10 – Eh.   I honestly don’t know.  With the Character Options book coming out soon, we will have rules for changing descriptors and focus.  The onus would be on me to provide my players concrete examples of what they can spend XP on for medium and long term rewards, otherwise my group hordes their XP for tiering up.  But with all of the material I would have to come up with for gods, nations, guilds, and mass combat, I could see this not being a problem.

Mechanics Score: 27/30

Combined Score: 92/120 ~ 77%

At this point Cypher is out of the running.  But within the next month, this score could radically change for the better.  It is already close to the other two games.  If these next three are as good as I expect, Cypher could pull out into a strong lead.  It would not take much to push Cypher ahead of the other two games.  Next Monday, I will see you for a look at RuneQuest!

Dragon Kings – Review

Disclaimer: This document was graciously given to me for the purposes of review by Tim Brown.  All opinions within the review are my own.

Today’s review is of the Dragon Kings’ World Book.  For those of you who don’t know what it is, Tim Brown, of Dark Sun fame, kickstartered and will soon release the spiritual successor to Dark Sun.  He was kind enough to send me a review copy of the book.  So here is a sneak peak at the world of Khitus, a land bereft of ancient protectors and in need of new heroes.

Dragon Kings

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This will be a thousand foot review, mainly because the book is 100% fluff.  The mechanical crunch will be supplied by pdfs that release after the book.  While I only received an advance copy of the manuscript, I got a remarkably clean and clear presentation of the world of Khitus.  As you may realize from this blog, I read a lot of gaming books, and I cannot emphasis enough that Tim Brown does a remarkable job of walking the line of detail versus clarity.  He presents an amazing amount of depth to his new world without bogging the reader down in dense text filled with too much prose.  Dragon Kings is a fun, fast read.

Chapter 1 – One World Among Many

Within the introduction chapter of Dragon Kings, we are introduced to Khitus.  The world is currently a dying desert balanced on a knife’s edge.  The actions of a few could pull it back from the brink of destruction or damn it to death.  Formerly, Khitus was a lush world, rich in natural resources.  Home to inhuman and distant gods, the human cultures of Khitus spread out to claim their homelands.  The Dragon Kings rose from powerful magi that came into their power during that barbarian age.  These Dragon Kings were benevolent mentors and guided the human nations that arose on Khitus.  They reigned for a thousand years, keeping the peace and shaping the world more than any other force in Khitus’ history before explicably disappearing. 

Their withdrawal signaled the decline of Khitus.  The weather and climate changed, and the nations fell into war.  Resources became rare and water scarcer still.  Civilization collapsed in on itself, huddling in the corpses of once-great cities and around wells that can barely support the population’s needs.  Strange visitors to the world hasten the stripping of Khitus’ natural wealth.

It is truly a world in need of heroes.

Chapter 2 – Struggle of Khitus

The war for Khitus is personified by the factions that struggle to control the world and its people.  Tim breaks these factions up among their agendas: those of coin, faith, magic, and mind.  The factions’ interests range from the material, like those in the Water Guild, to the esoteric, who seek to bring the ancient gods back to the world.  We also are introduced to the terrifying Boneshards, assassins who train themselves to block the pain of hiding their weapons beneath skin and bone.  There are other alien, emergent powers: the insectoid Krikis, who feel very-Choja-esque (from Feist’s novels set on Midkemia and Kelewan), the lizardmen Oritahl, and the white eyed Yenfansa (devil’s children).  The chapter finishes off with hints of other threats, which gives GMs great starting points for campaign ideas and could be fleshed out in future books.

Chapter 3 – Races & Realms

This chapter goes into more detail on the subjects touched on in the previous chapters.  Each of the cultures of man are given enough space and detail to build completely different pictures for each of them.  This allows players to make characters of diverse cultures in a humanocentric setting.  The alien Krikis, Oritahl, Penmai (tree folk), and twin cultures for the Pachyaur (elephantine centaurs) are also explored in this chapter.

We are given a brief history of each culture, along with its titles, physiology and psychology, customs, rumors, and secrets. As the world book possesses no mechanics, I can only assume that each of these will be playable races, but even without the stats, each race and culture is rich with aspects for use at the table.

Chapter 4 – The Cities

Khitus is not what it once was; that is clear within reading the first few pages of the book.  In this chapter, we are given glimpses of what it was before and what it may yet be.  But this view is tempered by the horrific view of what it currently is.  The twenty settlements are outlined in this chapter.  Each is given no more than a couple of paragraphs to give the reader a bird’s eye view of the city, its special features, and important personas.  Again, this chapter is full of tight writing that left me amazed at the amount of information conveyed.  These areas are brief in their description but full of great story hooks.

Chapter 5 – Traversing the Wastelands

Having established the peoples and places of Khitus, we are now presented with perhaps the most dangerous foe of them all: the world itself.  The various dangers of the desert world, from blowing sand dunes to the newly exposed sea floors, are explored in this chapter.  Khitus is home to many threats and dangers.  Dust wells, sandstorms, dehydration, mirages, and fire rains are just a few of the dangers that keep the majority of the world huddled around their wells in dried-out cities.  Those that head out to travel the land do so most often in caravans.  Insight is given into how and why these caravans operate and why they are necessary for Khitus’ survival.  This chapter wraps up with some unique sites of interest that reside among the wastelands. 

One interesting danger is the Iron Virus.  It is spread through contact with an infected piece of metal and consumes iron and steel.  Even fighting against someone wielding contaminated weapons can cause it to spread, and it is a major contributor to the rapine destruction of Khitus’ natural resources. It is so pervasive that settlements will test for it before admitting travelers.  There is an alloy, Ganshyer, which resists it, but that required metal exists only in the Krikus’ landsDue to its scarcity, most of the world slowly slides back into the Bronze Age.

Chapter 6 – Traces of the Daragkarik

The Dragon Kings (the Draragkarik) are no more.  Where they went and why is a mystery worthy of an entire campaign.  But their impact was too great on the world of Khitus to be completely erased.  This chapter shares tales of the Dragon Kings and others like them to provide an insight into the mythical beings.  One thing is clear, the Dragon Kings were not a uniform group, even though they were united in the goal of shepherding Khitus.  Given that one of the factions in chapter 2, the Trakeen, seek to worship the Dragon Kings and spread the word of their eventual return, this chapter gives players and GMs the information they need to portray the Daragkarik legacy.

Chapter 7 – Bestiary

The bestiary chapter is short but gives a great view of some unique fauna native to Khitus.  Close to thirty Khitian beasts are given write-ups, and again, without mechanics, the author is forced to give us a narrative view of the creatures.  A variety of creatures fill this chapter, from the daragkons, who inspired the naming of the Dragon Kings, to the Water Runners, who are a desert traveler’s saving grace if they can be caught.  We even see a very Dune-ish Stone Worm, for what desert world would be complete without giant worms roaming the desert?

Chapter 8 – Sorcery’s Mind

Here we find the magic chapter.  However, it’s a look at the way magic works and not a magic system.  This chapter makes me want to run this game more than any of the previous ones.  You see, magic on Khitus is sentient, and it hates being disturbed.  It lashes out at any who disturb its peaceful existence when they call upon its power.  But it doesn’t just seek to scar or scare the offending mage, it seeks to punish them in a way that they will never attempt to use their knowledge again.  Bodies are warped and minds are twisted.  But not always those of the mage.  Children are struck, mentors laid low, and lovers slain.  Magic seeks to make even the memory of its use an anathema to those who use it. 

The two traditions of mages who exist still on Khitus deal with this in different ways.  One tradition seeks to isolate themselves to prevent the wrath from falling on any but them.  The other have been taught to use slaves as targets for the magic’s vengeance.  Either way, the peoples of Khitus look upon magic users with distrust and fear.

Priestly magic is fickle on Khitus as the gods are not fully invested upon the world.  Priestly magic can fluctuate wildly in power from spell to spell.  It all depends on the god’s attention at the moment.  A priest can end up with underpowered or enhanced versions of his invocations.  Wrapping up this chapter is harmonious magic, which deals with the power of song and group to enhance the magic of the world.  I am really looking forward to seeing how all these systems play out mechanically when the rules of Dragon Kings are released.

Chapter 9 – Gods & Demigods

As the title suggests, this chapter tells of the various gods that are being revived on Khitus.  They are almost all uniformly animalistic in form and outlook.  These are the deities of a more primitive time, worshiped when the races of Khitus were scrambling for purchase on their world.  And they are poised to do the same thing again. 

Also presented here is the Prophet.  He is a humble man who seeks to deliver a message of peace and unlocks the powers of the mind within those he meets.  While completely different from the animalistic deities, it is very evocative of other deserts and their holy men, both in fiction and from history.

Chapter 10 – Khitus in Flux

This is the GM advice chapter.  It discusses the themes and adventure hooks of Khitus.  However, it does so by raising questions brought on the text, and by giving possible grand-scale solutions instead of giving the readers easy answers.  When I got done reading this chapter, I felt that these issues are so vast and affect the world so broadly, that there are no simple secrets or answers to them.  We are presented with a world desperate for heroes and a time where the call to action could not be greater.  How the game will play out from there is up to you.  But you are given the tools (themes) to aid you in telling the tales of Khitus’ new heroes.

Appendix – Powers of the Mind

Much like Dark Sun, psionics play a big role.  This last section is a brief description of the Mind Benders and the powers they can manifest. 

Conclusion

The tone of book is very close to its spiritual progenitor, Dark Sun:  a desert world fallen to ruin, powerful creatures seeking to exploit its remaining resources, dark and terrible magics that few understand.  But the theme is different.  Dark Sun always felt to me like a world too far gone.   Khitus takes the best of Dark Sun but threads it with hope.  Also, the fact that it is system agnostic is a major boon.  I was talking with one of my players, who GMs Savage Worlds, that with rule sets coming out for Savage, 13th Age, and Pathfinder, we could all run continuing games in this world with the GM’s favorite ruleset.  Definitely a major plus to Dragon Kings, as well as insightful for any kickstarters that may come after Dragon Kings. 

It will release to backers soon, then be available for purchase after that.  I highly recommend you check this book out.  It is a great read, and when combined with the Dragon Kings rock album, makes for a fantastic, enjoyable experience.

A Time of Contemplation – Adventurer, Conqueror, King

Adventure, Conqueror, King is the second of the five systems I am looking at for the Dark War campaign.  If you have not heard of this game, you should visit Autarch and check it out.  It is a slick old school revival game, that is not a clone of old school DnD.  Alex, Tavis, and the others at Autarch did a great job of coming to their own unique system that feels Old School rather than just recreating an older ruleset.  (Don’t get me wrong, I love the clone games too!)  The premise of the system is found in the game’s name.  Adventurers should move away from dungeon crawls, and into conquering and ruling domains.  Fighters become kings, clerics guide flocks, and thieves rule thieve guilds.  So let’s see how ACKS would fit the world of Ta’nar

World

How closely does the system match to the high magic, epic fantasy style found in Ta’nar? 9/10 – Like 13th Age, ACKS is based off of Dungeons and Dragons.  Therefore it, by that relationship, will be a good fit for the most of the themes of Ta’nar.  However, as it replicates a style of play from the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, it doesn’t have an epic feel for starting characters.  One of the best descriptions of old school gaming I have heard is that your character starts off as a normal guy and ends up as Batman.  ACKS is not a fantasy game like Pathfinder or 4th ed Dungeons and Dragons or 13th Age, where you start off significantly separated from the rest of the population.  It plays at a much more human level, and while that is ok with me, but that would require a slight change in play style at the table.  The players would not have characters that were starting off as experts in their fields, they would start off as the peasants and apprentices that would someday change the world.

World Score: 9/10

Mechanics

Ascending to Godhood 3/10 – As mentioned above, the end game of ACKS is more Batman than Superman.  So there are not built in rules for this level of play.  However, as it is compatible with older versions of D&D, I have 30 years of rules, magazines, and netbooks to reference and pull mechanics from.  I am sure that within the depths of my Rules Cyclopedia or other OSR supplements, I could find rules that supported this level of play.  So ACKS doesn’t get a 1 in this category but the work I would need to do to adjudicate this doesn’t let it score higher than a 3

Establishing & Management of Nations 10/10 – This is where ACKS shines as a system for me.  The Adventurer, Conqueror, King System is broken up into tiers of play that take the characters from landless tomb raiders to the commanders of armies and kingdoms.  That is a major component of the Dark War campaign and the rules for domain creation, management, and even experience from those events are a major part of this ruleset.  As a side note, you cannot find a better set of sandbox world creation rules and guidelines than ACKS, in my opinion.  You will do a lot of setup work, but then can sit back and let your players explore.  The game is $9.99 at drivethrurpg.com, and well worth the money.

Customized Deities 9/10 – ACKS has a very strong class creation system, which I will look at below, so creating custom priests for the varied deities of Ta’nar will be very simple.  Also, I can use the spell list rule, where I can just take the base cleric class and alter the spells their gods grant their priests and call it a day.  I feel like this is slightly better than the ICON system from 13th Age, at least mechanically.  I just have to take the time to complete design.

Mass Combat 10/10 – Hand in hand with the domain management rules are the mass combat rules.  While I don’t have my hands on the hard copy yet, the Domains at War supplement for ACKS is out in PDF to backers.  It is amazing.  As I mentioned in the last article, I will probably use it for 13th Age.  Their goal was to present a fun rule set that allowed you to convert any monster from a d20 game in unit stats.  From my read through, they have done just that. It goes beyond just mass combat and includes how to use magic and monsters during war, maintaining supply lines and other logistical necessities.

Creation of Races 9/10 – ACKS has very simple racial creation rules.  Spend some points on abilities and possible class levels and you are done.  I have created two of the races of Ta’nar already with their rules, and while I need to do some tweaking, they are close to being done.

Creation of Classes 9/10 – Like their race creation rules, ACKS provides a great set of rules for making classes.  However, ACKS replicates a time from gaming history where race and class were separate entities.  You were a Fighter or a Dwarf.  Autarch does bring some updating to this ideal.  The majority of the classes in ACKS are for humans only, but the races are not limited to one class only.  They get cultural classes.  While this is very customizable, it basically means I have to come up with custom classes for all of the non-human races that I am bringing to the table, which at current count is fifteen.  While I can plunder their classes for the elves and dwarves, this would still take at least 3-4 months of work to develop the races and come up with 2-3 cultural classes for each.

Simple Monster Creation Rules 10/10 – The monster creation rules of ACKS are pretty simple.  Picking a level gives you the attack throw, hit dice, and throws of the creature.  The XP values are simple to calculate from there.  Also, due to its design, there are many, many monster manuals that I can pull from and adapt.  Finding the right balance would be the most difficult piece of creating the monster, but that holds true for most OSR games.

Fast interesting combat 6/10 – ACKS has fast combat, but it could fall flat on the interesting side.  The reason for this lies in the players and the GM.  If the group is focused on narrative combat, the players are willing to step up the descriptions of their actions, and the GM is able to adjudicate on the fly, ACKS can be very interesting.  However, if the players want a list of cool abilities their characters can do, this is not the system for them.  ACKS has cleave, and a couple of example combat maneuvers, but the old school game can very easily be boiled down to ‘I swing my sword again’ if you let it.

Mechanics Score: 66/80

Enjoyment

Does my play group enjoy it? 7/10 – When I last ran ACKS, it did not go as well as I normally like from a ‘player enjoyment of the mechanics’ perspective.  Personally, I feel like there was a huge amount of system shock, going from Pathfinder and 4th to ACKS.  I think that I could have done a much better job of explaining the differences and putting the group in a better mindset.  I also have some optional rules that I would use to give the players a leg up at the start of the game.

Did I enjoy it? 10/10 – ACKS appeals to me on a number of levels.  Its simplicity and the easy of content generation are very attractive to me.  As a GM that is more narratively focused, its light rule set enables me to react faster at the table and run a game that fits closer to the narrative of the story I am telling.

Is the system one that lends itself to mastery? 10/10 – ACKS has a lot of mechanics to learn, but it scales well.  At the beginning you are only concerned with learning the basics of your class.  As you level, it introduces more complexity.  Proficiencies, economics, domain creation, domain management, spell research, spell creation, and mass combat all roll out as you need them.  Mechanically, I feel there is more than enough here to keep the players constantly interested and learning throughout the campaign.

Mechanics Score: 27/30

Combined Score: 104/120 ~ 87%

*Note:  The ACKS scores for World Feel, Monster Creation, Player Enjoyment, and Mastery have been adjusted after speaking with my gaming group and rereading the ACKS rules.  It turns out I just missed the monster creation rules, and the main player who really disliked ACKS was my wife.

ACKS ends up very close to 13th Age.  A score of within 2% means I will have to really dig in and look at the two systems again if they are the top choices.  However, both are still only in the 80% range.  While good choices, I don’t know if this makes them the best choice.  Next Monday, I will look at the Cypher system for Ta’nar.  And Thursday, you can expect a review of Dragon Kings by Tim Brown!

Angels & Ashes – Review

I am now back to where I started.  I purchased Angels & Ashes almost a month ago with the desire to review it, and finally, here I am.   Like Celestial Wisdom, it advertised a supplement that put a technological spin on classic fantasy tropes.  Angels & Ashes stood out to me because it spoke of a more arcane game within Numenera, as well as new takes on cyphers and 22 new foci.  Rather than wait for the conclusion, I have to start this review with: Go out and buy this book now.  It is that good.  Then follow along with this review.

Angels & Ashes

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Angels & Ashes is an 87 page pdf that is available on Drivethrurpg.com (for $5.00 at the time of this post).  We are back to a two column layout, which I find is significantly easier to read.  Each chapter begins with a short piece of fiction.  These one page vignettes follow an apprentice in the arts of the arcane found within.  They provide a nice break in the flow of the book and are well written.  The fiction serves as a narrative background for the rest of the book.

Introduction

Angels & Ashes is about nanotechnology in the Ninth World.  And, in the theme of the previous books, how that technology is indistinguishable from magic in the mind of the Ninth Worlders.  What this book is really about is bringing a number of familiar magical tropes and powers into your Numenera game.  It primarily does this through foci and a new type of ability called charms.  It introduces these new mechanics through a series of Mysteries.  These cults are magical traditions that pass down their ritual manipulations of the nanotech to new students, perpetuating their continued existence, e.g. wizarding schools and traditions.  This introduction also touches on the organizations already in the Ninth World who maintain these traditions or dabble in the arcane nanotechnology.

Nanotechnica

In this book, Ryan Chaddock Games introduces a new type of cypher that feels very Vancian in its implementation.  We have nearly 50 new ‘learn and burn’ cyphers that are very much like the magical effects found in Dungeon and Dragons and other traditional fantasy games.  Like Celestial Wisdom, these cyphers are arranged so that you can print and cut them out to use at the table.

The cyphers presented in Angels & Ashes are technological versions of classic spells: Tongues, Identify, Magic Weapon, Regeneration, Eagle’s Splendor, Polymorph, and many more.  In additions to these familiar effects, we are also given some great new cyphers, as well as five new artifacts. 

The Mysteries

This section is the meat of the Angels & Ashes.  The 22 foci are broken up among 10 Mysteries.  Each Mysteries has two foci, representing twin aspects of their teachings.  The Mystery of Ceremony, being the study of magic itself and the basis for most of the other Mysteries, contains four foci.  Besides the foci, included within the Mysteries are charms and adversaries.  Charms are small powers that practitioners of the Mystery can buy for 1 XP.  These charms allow a player to become more steeped in the trappings of their chosen mystery, and provided them with interesting expressions of the knowledge they wield.  All the Mysteries also contain adversaries, so you are getting a mini-bestiary within this product as well. Each adversary is tied to its Mystery, either through creation or the use of powers the Mystery bestows. 

Rather than give an in-depth look at the foci, which are all of the high quality I have come to expect with from Ryan Chaddock Games’ products, I want to look at the mysteries. 

Mystery of Blood – Here we have a school that deals with the dead and gone.  Those that summon spirits or engage in necromantic reanimations can be found practicing this mysteries’ techniques. 

Mystery of Ceremony – This mystery revolved around the study of magic itself.  Players and adversaries that hail from these cults are enchanters.  They bear items of power and craft arcane symbols.  These are the hermetic mages of the Ninth World.

Mystery of Chaos – This mystery relates to probability and chance.  Its foci and charms fit the tropes of Wild Mages and chaotic wizards that prevail in fantasy literature and gaming.

Mystery of Dust – Hands down my favorite mystery.  This mystery seeks to control the nanites that coat the world and make magic possible.  What they seek is to move or destroy the nanite dust that enables magic.  The authors take the trope of meta-magic, the magic that controls magic, and give some fantastic flavor and mechanics for how it plays out in the Ninth World.  The adversary of this Mystery, the Dust Eaters, seeks to consume the very essence of Ninth World’s magic.

Mystery of Fae ­– What book of magic would be complete without mention of the Fae?  The tropes of fairy geas and travel are both touched on with this mystery.

Mystery of Flesh – Shapeshifting and flesh sculpting are the purview of the flesh.  Nanites pervade the whole of the Ninth World, including the living, and those who study this mystery are able to control the substance of bodies.  Both theirs and those around them.

Mystery of Form – Automata and homunculi are staples of magic going back to the myth of Pygmalion.  Within this Mystery, the art of bringing the inanimate to life or imbuing flesh with magical power can be learned. 

Mystery of Motion – This is a bit more esoteric than the others, and seems to be drawn from more eastern inspirations.  It encompasses the art of controlling one’s body to control the magic found within.  This includes unveiling the power of ritualized dance as well as the more martial applications.  The foci ‘Unleashes Inner Power’ enables you to build a monk the feel of a Wuxia hero.

Mysteries of Nature – Here we find the home of those who would walk the druid’s path within the Ninth World.  What I found very interesting is that while one foci seeks balance, the other creates paradise through destruction.  It felt very much like a nod both to the true neutral druids of standard Dungeons and Dragons as well as touching on the corrupting Defilers of Dark Sun fame.

Mystery of Sound – The last Mystery rounds out the translation of Dungeon and Dragon tropes by introducing bardic powers.  Whether by playing music or telling tales, the masters of this Mystery wield the power of sound to their benefit. 

University of Aomi

The final chapter of this book covers a setting within Qi, the University of Aomi.  Outlined is a weird school of magic, complete with strange occurrences, places and NPC’s.  We are given enough information here to use Aomi as a base of operations, an adventure site, or even a school of magic based campaign.

Conclusion

When Numenera first released, it was easy to see the parallels to Dungeons and Dragons.  It tied itself to the fantasy experience that the role-playing community was familiar with, and then turned them on their head.  Glaives were fighter-like, Jacks were roguish and Nanos were magic users.  Through combinations of descriptors and foci you were able to replicate other classes of fantasy fame if you so desired.  Within Angels and Ashes, we see not only fantasy classics like the Necromancer and Enchanter translated into the Ninth World, but Bards, Monks, and Druids.

If, like me, you enjoy the ‘technology indistinguishable from magic’ aspect of Numenera and want a product that expands upon that ideal, you need Angels and Ashes.  First off, you get a great twist on cyphers that brings a classic magical feel to the game that can and should be used in conjunction with the base system as written.  You also get a wealth of new foci and adversaries that fit very well within the techno-magic, science-fantasy setting of the Ninth World.  Finally, the Mysteries provide a wonderful frameworks for the cults and societies of Aeon Priest, scholars, and adversaries that will enrich your campaign world and smooth the translation of other fantasy tropes and adventures into the world of Numenera.

Perhaps the best part of this product is how it opened my eyes on how the Cypher system could be hacked for other worlds beyond Numenera.  In two weeks, I will be looking at Cypher as a system for my fantasy world of Ta’nar and that is all due to this book.

A Time of Contemplation – 13th Age

Today I take a look at 13th Age (which I reviewed here) as the system to use in my upcoming Dark Wars campaign.   AT a first glance, 13th Age seems like a good fit for Ta’nar.  I have already ran a number of game sessions in Ta’nar with 13th Age.  Because of this, I have some of the mechanical bits completed.  The new bestiary and upcoming 13 True Ways will expand the options I have to work with for the Dark Wars.  But I feel, and this has held true as I outlined this series, that I could write a paragraph like this on each of the five game systems I am looking.  Each could be a good fit for Ta’nar.  I don’t want just a good fit, but a great one. 

World

How closely does the system match to the high magic, epic fantasy style found in Ta’nar? 10/10

Ta’nar is a world where six Ages have passed and terrors from those times still threaten the world.  It is a world of high fantasy.  Powerful magics have and still shape Ta’nar, the gods can and do walk among their followers, and servants of the Lords of the Dead patrol their master’s borders to maintain the veil between the living and the dead.  The previous description could be for any number of Dungeons and Dragons games over the years.  So it is a pretty safe bet that any system based off DnD would be able to support that type of game play.  13th Age is iconic Dungeons and Dragons, pun intended, high fantasy gaming at its best.  It also allows for players to have a high degree of narrative control with the use of backgrounds.  This, as well as the Icon mechanics, enables players to tie their characters to the different setting pieces, without me having to worry about mechanics.

World Score: 10/10

Mechanics

Ascending to Godhood 5/10 – Not at first blush.  The Icon mechanics provide a great framework to hang deific trappings about the players as they level.  And with the game being d20 based I am sure that I could bastardize other systems for this game.  But as of now this is all speculation.  It has nothing solid.  It score is due to its compatibility and the potential I see in the Icons.

Establishing & Management of Nations 3/10 – Same as above.  I could see using a version of ACKS domain management, various Ultimate Campaign systems, or even hacking up the old Birthright system to use within 13th Age.  But finding that sweet merger would take time and effort.

Customized Deities 8/10 – While all games technically do this, I am looking for some concrete interaction from the system as it relates to deities.  The way Icons work in 13th Age makes this interaction easy to simulate.  The only reason this does not get a 10/10 is because I will have to CASE (create and steal everything) for some of the domain powers.

Mass Combat 7/10 – Similar to point two above, I could very easily use the ACKS’ Domains at War supplement or Pathfinder’s Ultimate Campaign with 13th Age. The reason it scored so high here is that even if I don’t want to go that route, the monster creation mechanics are simple enough that I already know how I would use them for a simple mass combat system.

Creation of Races 10/10 – 13th Age makes race creation simple.  A couple of stat choices, a power, and perhaps a feat or two and you have a playable race.  Because so much of the character’s identity comes backgrounds and icon relationships, the races are simply defined and effortlessly created.

Creation of Classes 6/10 – I almost pulled this category out of my criteria, as I have never made a class for an RPG.  However, there are some organizations in Ta’nar, such as the Society of Atheists and perhaps the Invested, that I could see having custom class features.  If I am going to spend this much time setting the game up, I might as well make some custom classes. The classes in 13th Age are streamlined enough that it would be less difficult to create a class ex nilo in this rules set, than say a Pathfinder class.

Simple Monster Creation Rules 10/10 – 13th Age shines here for me.  Only in Cypher have I found a simpler, more interesting monster creation system.  The ‘pick and tweak’ method gives me a lot of room as a GM for making interesting monsters on the fly, and the Bestiary is filled with fantastic abilities for me to plunder.

Fast interesting combat 10/10 – Every time I have run 13th Age, I have been impressed with its combat speed.  It doesn’t sacrifice tactics for quick resolution either.  My players have been more than satisfied with its resolution (no matter where they fall on the scale of combat complexity) and the escalation die definitely keeps things moving.

Mechanics Score: 59/80

Enjoyment

Have I run this game before?I realized that I have run all five of these games before, and therefore am removing this question.

Does my play group enjoy it? 10/10 – This is a resounding yes.  We have been able to play it on a variety of occasions, including an official playtest, and my players unanimously loved it.  They liked how much it felt like DnD but felt that it was simpler and more narratively focused.  They chose to play this for our current Ta’nar game, but switched to Next to make my life simpler (as I am running Next at my FLGS currently).

Did I enjoy it? 10/10 – I did.  I always find myself stepping away from the table surprised by how much I enjoyed running this system.  I have a great group and rarely don’t have a good time, but the mechanics of the game lend themselves to an enjoyable experience for the GM.

Is the system one that lends itself to mastery? 8/10 – I was asked to define this question a little better, as it is very vague.  It 13th Age a game that has enough mechanics to it, to hold the interest of a group for the length of the campaign?  Honestly I don’t know.  The 10 level limit has me a bit worried, hence the score. Unfortunately, I just don’t have enough information at this time.  I will be doing more digging on the long term viability of the system if 13th Age emerges as the victor.

Mechanics Score: 28/30

Combined Score: 97/120 ~ 81%

Overall a good start for 13th Age.  I assume that as I look at ACKS and Pathfinder, that include the systems I would have to bolt onto 13th Age, these scores may change.  Next Monday I look at Adventurer, Conqueror, King.  This will include more system information as I have not done a review of this game.