First thoughts on two half-read games

I’m home sick with a cold, so I’ll spend some of my waking time commenting on two games I acquired recently and have only partly read: Rogue Games’ Thousand Suns and HinterWelt Entreprises’ Roma Imperious True20.

Thousand Suns

I’ve been in a science-fiction mood for a while, which is why I let myself be tempted by this attractive little book. It was indie, it was affordable, it promised a toolkit for creating spar-spanning empire settings. I had read some positive reviews, and I finally picked it up. Granted, I’m only about halfway through reading it, but I’ve been very disappointed. In my opinion, this is a beta-level game that shows a number of annoying problems before even getting to the game table, just by reading it.

Style-wise, it looks very pretty on the outside and pretty ordinary on the inside. The art is quite forgettable, the layout is legible but not particularly helpful or interesting; there are typos throughout the book, including math errors. On the other hand, the authors’ clear love for the genre shines through the text and generates excitement.

However, the rules are full of annoying little problems. For example, the classic problem of comparing attribute rolls with skill rolls: too many games end up making either skills or attributes useless. In this case, it’s attributes: all other checks are rolled as 2d12 trying to roll under a target number of skill value (1-6) + attribute (1-6) + circumstantial modifiers. But for attribute rolls the target number is merely attribute (1-6) + circumstantial modifiers though you still roll 2d12, making success far less likely. How hard would it have been to say the TN for attribute rolls is 2x Attribute rating + modifiers? Or to roll only 1d12?

A few pages later you discover that while for most tests you want to roll low because your degree of success is your TN minus your roll, for contested rolls you want to roll high. Speaking of degrees of success, this margin also serves as a multiplier for damage: if you hit by 3 points, you multiply your weapon’s damage by 3, etc. As a result, a lucky roll can mean instant-death for the opponent, and every round of combat should provide wide disparity between characters.

Then there is the experience system: the cost of improving a skill increases with the rating of the related attribute, so the more raw talent you have for a particular skill, the harder it is to improve! The book is full of these little annoyances. If it was a really compelling or well-established system, it would be easy to just ignore these and house-rule them away. But the system is just OK, not great. Why spend the effort on it? I’ll report when I’ve finished reading through the toolkit section (which is not particularly revolutionary so far).

Roma Imperious True20

I first got this book in PDF format, but then decided I would like to have the print version when it came out just a few weeks later. Author and publisher Bill Corrie was offering a sweet deal (order the print version directly from HinterWelt and get the PDF for free), and was kind enough to extend the deal by offering to comp the difference of what I’d paid for the PDF. I happily took him up on it, and he even added a few extras to the package: a couple of HinterWelt dice, character sheets, and a full-scale version of the lovely map of the empire. Again, I’m not very far along in the reading, but I already formed some impressions.

Style-wise, the layout is pleasant and functional, but not stunning. The art is decent, consisting primarily of public-domain illustrations and some custom pieces. Many of the maps are also from historical sources, usually 19th or early 20th century; the custom maps, and particularly the fold-out insert on the back endsheet, are custom-made and imitate the style of the older historical ones. I love the maps, and I would love to get some of the “old” ones in somewhat larger format for download. There is a serviceable index; the writing style is sedate and generally clear, also in the style of a textbook. Unfortunately, there are typos and I’m pretty certain some of the latin names for new (non-historical) concepts and persons are wrong.

In terms of setting, this makes me think of what Shadowrun would be if the Sixth Age had started earlier. The rise of magic, magical creatures, etc. in Roma has been taking place for a few hundred years. Although Alfar (Elves) and Dwarves are not specifically intended to be PCs and are presented in the Friends & Foes section, you could easily adapt them.

The setting is inspiring, but unevenly detailed. Roma’s main rivals are the Jade Empire (China and most of Asia), the Skandian Kingdoms (Scandinavia), and Alkasas (Northeast Eurasia, including Latvia, Lithuania, etc.) Other powers that are close and strong enough to have stopped the Roman expansion include the Empire of Ghana (western Africa), the Abyssinian Kingdom (Eastern Africa), and the Kushan Empire (India), but they receive only a few paragraphs: three for the Kushan Empire, two for Abyssinia, and nothing for Ghana except a few mentions in other sections. That’s too bad, because those are the three rivals I was most interested in! I’ve really had it with Vikings, and while the Jade Empire is a good choice, I’m not sure about about Alkasas yet. I’ll have to read more about them.

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