Shadowstar Games, 2006, Mark O'Bannon, $34.95
Physically this is a very impressive book; over four hundred pages, hardback, with good binding and a striking piece of cover art by Greg Horn. The interior art by Ed Roeder is mostly quite good as well, and the full colour maps of the two suggested settings (Europe in 1121 AD and 1348 AD) are likewise attractive. The text is very readible, with the right fonts and use of whitespace with a decent index and a fair table of contents. The organisation of the rules could be improved and the language is often a little less than clear and there are also a few minor spelling mistakes; however overall it is better than the average game on the market in this regard.
Unfortunately, this is where the good news mostly ends. This game is a classic "fantasy heartbreaker" as per the classic essays by Ron Edwards , which means it's basically a set of AD&D houserules (with plenty of shades of Rolemaster in this one) with AD&D Fantasy. It may have described itself, quite accurately, as an inventive and original roleplaying game in 1982, but certainly not now. Indeed, every single page of the rules had me horrified by game design ideas that are simply thirty years behind the times.
There are ten characteristics rolled, in order, on d100 (Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, Intuition, Self Discipline, Reasoning, Ego, Awareness, Presence and Attractiveness). Nothing that an old Rolemaster fan like myself is scared of. Female characters get to roll their Attractiveness a second time, which was good because my test character had 33 for her initial roll. It should be pointed out that everyone gets three rerolls in character generation. How about that?
Next is a whole bunch of derived statistics; hits, stun, morale, and various breakpoints for fatigue (winded, exhausted, burnout). This is followed by Power (10 if you're a mage, 5 if you're a diletante and 0 otherwise), Fate (1d6, major personal events, tied with magic use), and Luck (3d6, spend 1 for a reroll, spend 5 to stop a deadly event). Then some more calculations, this time magic resistances (Ceremonial, Natural, Extrasensory and Black Arts) which is based on two characteristics divided by ten.
Finally the optional rule for modifying characteristics for female characters. Their strength is reduced to 0.75%, but their dexterity and intuition are increased by 10% and their attractiveness (remember the reroll?) by a further 25%. So starting with a paltry 33% my character is now a babe at 90% Attractiveness; I guess the designer is *deeply* heterosexual. Interestingly, female characters don't gain any Endurance benefits, which is what one would expect from what seems to be a misguided attempt at simulationism.
Next is determining the character's piety, which is basically a "how Christian are you?" chart. I chose not to believe in God (only worth 10%) but was baptised (+5%) and confirmed (+10%) - after all they killed apostates in those days, and I would know. Apart from various modifiers due to Faith, Virtues, Service & Vows, and negatives due to Sins (I took 'Angry', can you guess why?), one can also receive Devotations, temporary bonuses, or extra piety for using blessed rosaries or other artifacts. Don't forget to calculate your character's Spirit, which is also on a d100.
Returning to random rolling, there's modern functionalist sociology which correlates social class with income levels. I rolled "Upper Class", good to know. This gave me a Rank of 4 which meant that I could basically choose (goodness, why not rolled?) any professions ranked four or lower. I could choose higher (5 is Knights and Nobles), but that would require extra initial skill points as a cost to entry, which incidentally are rolled randomly on 100+1d100. There are 89 professions whose description is a name, an income, annual savings, and a selection of skills which are related to the profession. Certainly nothing about the complex of feudal obligations.
From the starting experience pool, 75% must be spent on professional skills. I picked a mage, which gave me (among others of course), the ability to distinguish between circle and ritual dancing and the ability to make candles, albeit poorly. Skills, it can be quickly mentioned are given a base skill value (characteristic divided by five as a percentage) and a final skill value (base value plus skill pool expenditure). Most skills are described in a sentence. There are also thirteen "forbidden" skills which deal with magick. This is where the only mention of experience is provided as well; 1-10 experience points per game session. I presume this is not determined randomly, but guidelines are not provided.
Next step in the character generation process is determining money (savings time 1d6) and purchasing equipment, which, following a good couple of pages on medieval coinage, is a comprehensive list of apparel, foodstuffs, a charming medieval menu, various products and services (nota bene: prostitutes are very cheap), slaves (four types of "pleasure slave" - are we noticing a theme yet?) and then, oh my god, the weapons and armour section. Seriously, including the *three* appendicies of illustrations and suits of armour there are over *120 pages* of this material. Sweet baby Jesus, there's thirty-one different *knives*, an entire page, in reduced font and the table abbreviations are without a key. This is followed by fourteen different hand-axes, twenty different axes ... and so on to seige towers, oxybeles and cannons.
Right, as a mage I decided to take a couple of sets of clothes and a staff. That was easy. But I forget, that mages get, well, magic. There are four categories of magic (see resistances) and thirteen skills (alchymy, conjuration, ritualism, spiritualism, deceiver, elementalism, enchantment, sorcery, mysticism, psychic, seer, tailsmanic and, of course, black magic). Learning spells takes time, money or experience. Casting spells costs spell points, a combination fatigue and trauma (more on that later). Increases in spell points are achieved by successfully casting a spell above your current power, an evocative touch. Starting characters have a number of spells which can be increased by specialisation in magic and by taking mage solely. What follows is roughly a hundred pages of spells, each with variable spell point cost, range, casting time, duration, area of effect and component cost. So if you think that over 50% of the book is spells and weapons, you're right.
Finishing character generation, the storyteller determines the character's history including their nationality "if any" (seriously, that's what it says!) and the player determines the character's appearance. I'm surprised that's not rolled as well. Finally, there's a brief description of character background issues with one little gem; a player should choose a 'main flaw' for their character and any number of minor flaws to be resolved in play. There, character generation only took an hour and half.
But wait, that's only character generation. Well, apart from stats, professions and skills, equipment lists that include everything from castles to individual nails, what else would you expect? You guessed it! Combat and monsters! The latter can be dealt with first because, well, there isn't any really. The chapter entitled mythical races gives descriptions for centaurs, dwarves, elves, half-elves and ... halflings. Yes, in the historical fantasy they had hobbits but apparently not dragons. That's all; *five* mythic 'races'. For a game that's set in the rich and diverse cultures of medieval Europe, north Africa and the middle-east this is an insult of biblical proportions to everyone on the eastern side of the Atlantic and to all scholars of the period.
As for combat a brief description is as follows (take a deep breath). Combat is fought in two second rounds, with turns based on a initiative die roll (1d10) plus a modifier based on weapon use or surprise. A character attacks, rolls under their skill and if they hit their opponent reacts with either a parry or a dodge, the latter negating attacks in response. If a hit is scored, roll for general location (e.g., head) and then roll for specific location (e.g., nose) then roll for damage, subtract armour and roll extra damage if the blow gets through by cross-referencing the location with the attack type. After this determine the severity level of the wound, which does not scale whether you have twenty hit points or two hundred. Multiply damage by the trauma level, which determines the total number of hit points lost. The person hit must roll under their stun value and check for critical and disabling wounds and bloodless. Check for weapon breakage; wood weapons will break 50% of the time and iron weapons 25% (also, wooden weapons cost the same as iron ones).
In addition to this standard procedure (which requires a minimum of eight rolls of the die per action on a successful hit), there are also additional rules for various special combat actions (feint, disarm, sever, break shield, strike & dodge, special rapier maneuvers (they get two pages), use of firearms, unarmed combat procedures, boxing and wrestling actions, and various close combat techniques. Also there is spiritual combat which causes psychic rather than physical damage. Spiritual armour is increased by various prayers, blessings and sacraments and, believe it or not, Christians who are baptised and confirmed are immune to demonic possesion.
Finally, tucked away in Appendix E and F are the two game settings, being Europe in 1121 AD and Europe in 1348 AD which are, respectively, the time of the first crusade and the black plague, both of which are very well chosen periods of turmoil, real "turning points in history". However, a mere nine pages are dedicated to the first setting and eight to the second, which compares very poorly to the amount of space on weapons and spells. Each kingdom is described in a few sentences, usually on the behaviour of the current regent, rather than any description of language or cultural mores, let alone geography. For some utterly incomprehensible reason the Kingdom of Navarre (aka Pamplona) is unmarked on both the maps and is not described as part of the setting, dispute the rather influential role in both periods.
"Fantasy Imperium" is a heartbreaker. The production qualities are of a very high standard and a real labour of love is evident in the sheer size of the book. The choice of setting is excellent. But it is hard to even describe this as a roleplaying game in contemporary language. Character generation is too time consuming and too long. The combat system combines the worst features of AD&D and RuneQuest and Aftermath!, producing a single-unit wargame. The magic system is quite unimaginative and does not evoke a sense of wonder. The setting is frustratingly sparse. Simply put, I cannot imagine anyone who is not quite mad playing this game with any sense of regularity.
1] See: Fantasy Heartbreakers (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/9/) and More Fantasy Heartbreakers (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/10/)