Solipsist, by David Donachie

Solipsist cover

There’s a joking reference I learned from reading British stories. The original version is a 19th century cartoon from Punch magazine, showing an obviously intimidated curate as the guest of his much wealthier boss, the local bishop. The bishop says, “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones.” The curate replies, “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!” It caught on, as so many Punch lines have, and a “curate’s egg” can be any sort of thing with mixed good and bad qualities. Solipsist is a curate’s egg of an RPG.

The worst of the egg

I nearly didn’t review this game, and my hesitation is entirely due to one throwaway line:

Throughout the text we refer to Solipsists, players and the GM using “he”, “him”, “his”. etc. This is just a convention we’ve used in this book.

I will not here do a full-bore spiel about the concept of privilege as manifest in gaming writing. Nonetheless, that’s an archetypal bit of privilege in action. Donachie can be flippant about it, because nobody with any clout is going to suggest that as someone with a male-sounding name and who’s referred to by the publisher and others with male pronouns, he is presumptively not a gamer and should be regarded with suspicion. It’s very unlikely that anyone will insist that if he games with miniature figures, they should all have enormous penises and wear bondage gear, or that his characters should expect to be subservient to all those of any other group of players. He will probably never get groped in a game store; if he does, it’s very unlikely that the store owner will start by assuming that he did something to bring it on. The odds are excellent that he will never show up at a gaming session pitched to him as male-friendly only to have his character raped and enslaved. And on, and on, and on, and on.

(As always, someone will doubt that the inverse of these things actually happen to anyone. Another time I’ll do a post about educational resources. For now…yes, in fact, they do, and careful, reliable accounts are readily available via common search engines.)

The point here is that for a lot of gamers, it’s not at all a given that they should be allowed to identify as gamers or associate with other gamers. Women, people of color whatever their sex and gender, LGBT people…quite a few kinds of people who like to game and wish to participate in gaming scenes have to struggle to get more advantaged gamers to accept them as equals. They don’t get to casually toss off their choice of associations and usages. I know that some of the people who read my reviews will look at that line and think “I can sit on this batch of bucks and save it for someone who’s willing to write about players, GMs, and characters in ways that include me in”. And I’ll think they’re being pretty sensible.

The rest of the egg

Example page

Solipsist is a 98-page digest-sized RPG, available in PDF from DriveThruRPG for $10 US. It’s not bookmarked, though the organization is good, the index is accurate and thorough, and the actual rules are so compact that I never felt more than simply annoyed by the absence. As with a lot of digest-sized books, it’s got a single-column layout and the art is all either full-page or nearly so. The layout and typography are very crisp and clean. The footer space on some pages has authorial comments or mood-inspiring quotations, and is blank on others.

This is a game about people who have the right kind of force of will to change reality. What they want hard enough may come true. But there are complications.

Solipsists who wish for everything they want, all at one, disappear into their own pocket universes, and leave behind a tear in the fabric of consensus reality. Through those tears come the shadows, mysterious and possibly unknowable forces or entities out to devour all of reality and solipsists in particular. So solipsists who’d like their works to last and who don’t want to annihilate reality at large have to pace themselves, balancing the changes they wish for with affirmations of their connections to consensus reality. As Queen nearly put it, “Too much wishing will kill you just as sure as not enough.”

A brief observation on terminology

Solipsist capitalizes game terms. Lots and lots of game terms. So it has sentences like this: “Overshoot: Succeeding at Changing Reality so completely that your Obsessions run away with you and the Change goes out of your control.”

I’m not going to say that this is wrong, because it’s a stylistic issue. I do say that I don’t believe it helps, and that the risks of ambiguity between game-mechanical terms and more general usages is often overrated by gaming authors (including me in the past). I think that where there’s any risk of confusion, it’s almost always possible to clarify by simple adjustments to the passage; I strongly recommend that authors try out passages on a variety of readers and see whether confusion actually occurs, and where it doesn’t, don’t add complications.

More of the rest of the egg

Mechanically, Solipsist is a strikingly minimalist game.

It’s diceless, and that’s a big part of why I went ahead with the review despite reservations. I really love diceless games and want to see more of them, and am doing my part to get the word out about what’s available in this part of the gaming ecosystem.

There are no skills, and only certain very specific kinds of attribute. Broadly speaking, if you want your character to do something that doesn’t contradict local reality as established so far in play, they can go ahead and do it. You could, of course, plug in any of many fine rules sets to provide a simple addendum to cover the mundane side of this game’s solipsists, but there’s something to be said for the “sure, go ahead” approach.

These are the features each solipsist has:

#1. A vision. Example characters’ visions include:

  • My vision is of a just world. A place where I preside over a fair society. My rules are followed and I am respected. There is no injustice here, only order and my law.
  • My vision is of a world covered by ocean, where no humans exist. I am the mermaid princess of this underwater kingdom.
  • My vision is of a world where family is so important that each family shares its life essence. I am the sole survivor of my whole family and they live on through me.
  • My vision is of an endless and glorious summer, where the flowers are ever in bloom and in the balmy evenings my new-found friends drink with me and smile.

Whatever the vision, it needs to center on the solipsist: what do they want to do and be, and what must the world be to accommodate that?

#2. Obsessions. These are particular drives that feed into the vision. They may be specific aspects of the vision itself, or desires that would move the character closer to the vision without being part of it themselves. These are the obsessions for the would-be mermaid, for instance:

  • I want to have a house by the sea (3 points)
  • I want to become a mermaid (3 points)
  • I want to breathe water (1 point)
  • I want to free the killer whales (1 point)
  • I want to see the sea cover the Earth (1 point)

I’ll come back to the point values in a moment; for now, just know that each character has exactly 5 obsessions, and divides 9 points between them. Higher-ranked ones will be more significant in attempts to change reality in the character’s here-and-now.

#3. Limitations. These are the things that make the character hesitate, feel unable or unworthy to pursue their vision, and connect them to consensus reality. As with obsessions, there are always 5, with 9 points divided between them. Here are the ones for the would-be mermaid:

  • My son would die (4 points)
  • My family love me (2 points)
  • I cannot swim (1 point)
  • I hate what being alone does to me (1 point)
  • My pet snake cannot breathe water (1 point)

#4. Tears. Over time, uncontrolled and overpowered shifts in reality tear it. Characters start off with no legacy of tears, but they build them up over time, and must make efforts to fix the tears before everything just breaks down.

#5. Infestation. In Solipsist‘s cosmology, the fundamental units of the universe are almost infinitely small living beings, named animacules in an homage to Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s term for the bacteria and other microorganisms he was the first to see through primitive microscopes. The animacules shape reality in response to the conscious and unconscious desires of all living beings, and most efficiently when reflecting solipsists’ desires. The infestation score is a pool of points you can spend on useful tasks, and can regain with suitable effort.

Something I like about this game is that infestation scores could work just as well for other things, from generic fate/action points to Mage-style Arete ratings, with no dislocation at all to anything else in the game. A sidebar specifically discusses ways of modifying play to reflect various ambiences, and one option is Mage-inspired, with non-solipsist bystanders affecting the difficulty of reality changes. This is a very tinker-friendly game that way, and that always makes me happy.

Once made, of course, characters go about trying to change reality. This is mechanically simple but quite elegant. The proposed change must include and affect the solipsist then and there, and it must be in accord with their vision. Changes that have no consequence for the solipsist just don’t happen, and neither do ones that work against the world the solipsist dreams of.

The GM sets the difficulty, and there are simple rules for this: 3, +1 if a change contradicts facts established in the current story or +2 if it contradicts facts established in the current scene, +2 or more if shadows are active in the area (more about them later), plus the ratings of all the solipsist’s relevant limitations. This is where the strategic element of assigning points feeds into the tactics of any particular change.

Now the player sets about reducing the difficulty, subtracting the rating of each relevant obsession. The goal is to get the difficulty to 0. If juggling obsessions doesn’t do it, you’ve got two options. One is to spend infestation points, shifting it closer to 0 on a 1-for-1 basis. If that’s still not enough, you can have your character push it, gaining a tear and reducing the difficulty by 5.

The outcome falls into one of three categories. If the final difficulty is greater than 0, the attempted change fails. Involved limitations get experience ticks, and the GM narrates the results. If the difficulty is exactly 0, the change goes as you want, and you narrate the results. If the difficulty is below 0, the change happens in an uncontrolled way. Obsessions get experience ticks, your character gains a tear, new infestation points come in, and whatever happens is to going to highlight the impact of runaway obsessions and limitations.

And that’s the heart of the game, right there.

A clever subheading evoking eggs and development

I’m not going to cover character development in nearly so much detail.

It’s possible for a character to fulfill enough obsessions and have enough tears accumulated that they fall into their own pocket universe. That’s the last they’ll be seen in play for good or bad; their last connection to the campaign will be the player narrating how the disappearance seems – whether it’s got a mundane cover or is overtly strange, and so on – to those who remain in consensus reality.

It’s also possible to take steps to avoid that. The game describes ways to reduce limitations and obsessions, and also to develop new ones,and to close up tears.

Mechanics cover multiple solipsists working together or just being near each other and not helping out. I admit that I think this game may be strongest for one-on-one play just because clashing visions looks likely to bring in more nuisance than reward. I’ve only had the chance to play it one-on-one, though, so I can’t be a voice of experience in the matter.

Earlier, I referred to the shadows. These are the unnatural forces that challenge solipsists’ ability to pursue their vision. The game offers a whole spread of possibilities: they’re a force of nature (predators feeding on animacules, perhaps), or other solipsists who don’t otherwise interact with the characters, or ascended solipsists returning to consensus reality to steal more animacules as needed, or the dark side of the solipsists’ own nature, or the doctors in the asylum trying to cure the characters’ delusions. They may also not appear at all, if you want to dispense with them as a source of threat and difficulty.

The game offers quite nifty mechanics for handling the shadows. As GM, you set an overall shadow strength, and give yourself that many shadow tokens or shadow points; the game has guidelines for how many points per character you’ll want to consider, with an eye on characters being able to prevail after good and perhaps costly effort. I will pause here to say that this is another reason I’m reviewing the game. I love that expectation for the outcome of play, and love to say “Here’s another game doing it just the way I like it!”

Some shadow points go to establishing one or several threads, each with its own rating. The thread strength raises the difficulty of reality-changing attempts when the person, place, thing, quality, or whatever that it represents is present as a solipsist tries to do their stuff. There’s always some way to resolve it: burn the tape (or copy it and inflict its vision on another person before seven days expire), find the missing person, complete the unfinished novel, etc. Other shadow points measure the overall strength of the underlying shadow, which can undertake reality-destroying changes of its own and can be engaged directly once the solipsists have identified and isolated it.

So, depending on the priorities mutually agreeable to players and GM, Solipsist games can cover a wide spread of combos of “I shall pursue my vision” and “I shall save the world from being negated and annihilated”. The advice on evolving development is compact but good.

There are some ways the game shows its origins as an individual project within a small development community. There are some “oh you hadda been there” moments, like a joke that is explained by artwork that’s supposed to explain it only if you’ve heard or read the rest of the story somewhere outside the rulebook. The example of play is long but oddly incomplete in some ways, offering no clear sense at all of how two characters with such divergent visions ever came together or got to the point they’re at when the example begins. It reads like a lot of drafts I’ve read and some I’ve written, where the author finds their early readers not getting something and fills it in personally. This works right up until you distribute it to people who don’t have you within easy access reach all the time.

One final criticism that’s not a problem with the book, but with the consensus reality of us the gamers. :) It’s got multiple references to online discussions that simply don’t exist anymore. Forums do crash, get hacked, and otherwise wear out, and I’m not driven to fits of rage over it or anything. But I’d have liked to see some of those discussions. Perhaps in future there could be an archive site under the author’s or publisher’s own control with backups?

At meal’s end: a verdict

There’s enough about Solipsist I dislike that I can’t give it any kind of straight-on, no-major-reservations recommendation, of the sort I’ve given other books I’ve reviewed lately. If the doubts and problems I’ve pointed out seem like they’d be problems for you too, I can only recommend that you see about gathering some more info before making a purchase.

On the other hand, though, in many ways this is one of those games I think I’ve always wanted without quite knowing it. Yearning for a different reality, but held back by elements of oneself just as strong as important as the escape-fueling obsessions? Yeah, I know a thing or two about that myself, and I also find it a really great source of fantasy drama and adventure. The lightness and personal focus of this game let it open new windows on scenes often viewed through more weighty edifices’ galleries, like Mage and Nobilis; because the cosmological framework is so sparce, there’s room to welcome in very idiosyncratic and deeply personal visions without them clashing with or requiring adjustments to lots of existing setting material. Its dicelessness makes it fine for playing at a distance without needing any dice rollers and such.

I like it, but I’d love to see a new edition that would bring the not-so-excellent parts up to the standard of the rest.

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Bookmarks

As I keep mentioning, I'm a buyer of games in electronic form these days. Not entirely exclusively, but close. One of the things that can now make or break a sale for me, and also make or break a recommendation that others purchase a book/file, is how well it's bookmarked. But what consitutes good bookmarking? I'm glad you asked that! What I'm going to do here is show some examples of what I regard as okay bookmarking and really good bookmarking, with a few comments.

First of all, though, let me illustrate the worst kind of bookmarking, which is to say, none at all. This is HeroQuest 2nd edition, a game I love very, very much. But this is why I'm not doing very much with it for my personal use these days: finding things is a drag. I could, over time, assemble my own bookmarks and annotations, but the fact is I don't want to. At 132 pages, HQ2 isn't as long as, oh, say, the vast majority of White Wolf books I own, but these days they pretty much all have at least rudimentary chapter-level outlining and bookmarking, and everything new has much more detailed ones. It's a shame, but honestly, groping for text is about my least favorite part of gaming.

It's not like this a problem unique to HQ, of course. I keep seeing a fair number of promising releases which don't have any bookmarking at all. It's not my place to sit and guess at market shares and what fraction of the readership cares about what. Thank goodness. I like being just a citizen of the gaming polis. But I know that the concern I'm expressing here certainly is a very common one among people who're reading on tablets, and also on laptop and desktop machines. It's easier/quicker to search for text with a full keyboard and mouse interface, and scrolling through thumbnails can be surprisingly handy, but there are no circumstances involving online reading where a good set of bookmarks is a liability.

Next up, an example of okay bookmarking. This is Monsterhearts, one of the rapidly growing family of games tweaking Apocalypse World for their own purposes. As you can see, it includes the chapter numbers and titles, and Joe Mcdaldno gave each chapter a clear, useful title. So you can get in the vicinity of where you're going pretty rapidly, and then you can rummage around a few pages to find what you're looking for. It works, particularly given the playbook structure of the AW family of games, where so many crucial mechanics are in class-specific spreads available separately. But it'd be okay for games without that advantage as well, as long as the chapter names remain useful. (That's not a given. I, um, have committed some pretty obscure chapter titles in my time, and I'm not alone in that. I was relying on table of contents and the then-WW-standard “here's what's in each chapter” part of the introduction. I never had this kind of usage in mind. My bad, along with others'.)

Naturally, the more detailed and expansive each chapter gets, the less help this kind of thing would be. Monsterhearts is 160-odd pages long, with a generous, uncrowded layout. Trying to make your way through something like D&D spell lists with just chapter-level entries would get slow and tedious in short order.

Now for an example of bookmarking done well. This is from Blue Rose, John Snead's foray into romantic fantasy roleplaying developed by Steve Kenson. It bears noting here that this is from 2005, well before there was any tablet market to speak of: it's just that the Green Ronin crew laid things out in a way that made sense for the desktop/laptop PDF market of the time and that continues to make sense as platforms evolve.

It's not the most detailed breakdown imaginable—there could be sub-entries for each of the six abilities, for instance. But what we have here is going to suffice for very quick look-up almost all the time. Everything is clear, and you're never going to be more than a page or very few away from what you're after by clicking on the relevant entry.

Since I am not a very technical person, I don't know what it is that some layout people do to make tables of contents like these indent by level of sub-heading on the iPad. I know that it's something they do, that not everyone does, because I've seen my share of flat, everything-at-the-left-margin outlines. As long as the details are there, that's okay, but the indentation helps a very great deal in quick, coherent navigation. Some people's minds parse undistinguished lists without trouble, but my mind isn't one of thsoe; I welcome all hte clues I can get.

This, then, is what I want to find when I check the bookmarks of a newly acquired game in electronic form. Nor is this just a matter exclusively of PDF usage!

Here, for instance, is Diaspora, Brad Murray et al's Fate-based game of post-Traveller hard-ish sf, as seen in Apple's iBooks app. You may have problems reading the details because I shrunk it down a bunch, but you can see the hierarchical layout. The headings are very brief—Diaspora has no poesy of the directory—but it's all clear, and the progression from “Clusters” to “systems” to “linking systems” to “construction sequence” will help you get where you're going. Each line is a hyperlink, though that's not obvious from their coloring or anything; it's something any iBooks user will find out in short order.

Kindle files can have similar formatting. Likewise with HTML or whatever else it is one may be using to publish in. These days, everything this side of multi-megabyte bundles of animated ASCII can have good navigational aids.

And everything should.

 

 

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Starting the new year with apologies and hopes

I’d have liked to write more for this blog the last couple weeks, but I had the Martian Death Fu to keep me otherwise occupied. I have done some reading, screenshot taking, and note making in preparation for upcoming entries, and we’ll just see what gets written up when. There’s so much neat stuff here waiting for me to comment on! Should be a good year for blogging.

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Re-seeing

Moscow subway map

Every so often life comes along and gives me a reminder that, oh, yeah, this is why I put so much effort into presenting my judgments as contingent and open to adjustment in light of new experience, and new thoughts about old experiences. I'm having one of those in gaming at the moment.

A while back, Vincent Baker very generously gave me a free copy of his game Apocalypse World, at a point when something about the discussion of it roused my interest. I thought that the game had some interesting features (most particularly, gorgeously stark production), but was strongly repelled by the tone of the text.

Time passed.

Late in 2012, I got interested in Sage LaTorra & Adam Koebel's game Dungeon World, which uses the same fundamental mechanics as Apocalypse World but a very different set of stats and abilities, and a very different tone. As I'll ramble on about when I do an updated review of DW, the kindness and melllowness of the text has a great deal to do with my enjoying it so much right now.

But here's the thing that motivated this post. Or at least it's coming up now. When people who've made work I like praise work I didn't, I fairly often go back to the latter to see if I can see some of what I may have missed. Sometimes I end up deciding that I haven't missed anything crucial to my enjoyment, and it's just one of those things where work I don't care for sets off great ideas in the minds of people doing work I do care for. Sometimes, though, having a fresh route into the older thing really does make it work better for me.

I don't think that right now I could reconstruct my steps from DW through the rest of the AW ecology – Monsterhearts, tremulus, Monster of the Week, and all that. Nor would I really wish to. :) What matters for my posting purposes right now is that it was one of those classic iterative processes, a bit of insight here leading one over there, spiraling up and up.

Now I can read AW, and though still alternately irritated and bored by Baker's style for the text, the game opens up to suggest fresh, richly promising angles on…well, among other things, on my Gamma World edition. I wasn't great at d20 developing then and would be worse at it now, and that's true for most of my writers, too. (Not all of them: some of the crew had excellent detail-management skills and wrote in ways that made good specific use of d20 features, and continue to do neat things in that game ecology and other detailed ones now. This is about my weaknesses rather than those of people like Gareth Hanrahan and Patrick O'Duffy.) Our ideas were sound, though, and just need the right sort of systemic support to be good in play all over again.

Y'know, it's not going to surprise me if 2013 sees me getting to run and/or play in that milieu of too-ubiquitous intelligence and other high weirdness. And if it does, it'll be because I read a great dungeon-delving fantasy adventure game.

I love it when that happens.

 

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Prior reviews plan(s)

Originally, all those centihours ago, I was going to use this blog to host reviews I've written in the last year or so alongside new ones. The plan has been altered, as Darth Vader said.

When I saw how the Uresia review turned out, I got to thinking that it'd be interesting to see how much the production process affects my expressions of happiness about other things, too. So I've got a new plan to write fresh reviews of things like Deluge and Dungeon World, where I know the general sort of thing I want to say, alongside ones of things like Weird Adventures and some Dungeon World playbooks, where I don't yet know just what points I may want to make.

And now you know.

 

 

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Production notes

This blog is partly an experiment in changing my writing methods, to see what effect that has on my thinking about stuff and getting it set down and shared with the world. This post is a short ramble about my tools, for those who care.

Hardware

  • iPad 1
  • Zaggmate Bluetooth keyboard

The Zaggmate keyboard isn't as big as the one on my laptop, but it's not a whole lot smaller, and while my typo rate is higher than on laptop or desktop, it's not a whole lot higher. And of course I can take this combo with me just about anywhere.

I haven't done a lot with the on-screen typing, but I feel like I'd like to be better at it. Practice will no doubt follow.

Software

  • PDF reading: PDF Expert. Yeah, yeah, GoodReader has features, but I use Apple products because good interfaces matter to me, and GoodReader is ugly. Just ghastly. PDF Expert is clean, attractive when I need it and hidden away when I don't.
  • Blog writing: Blogsy. I checked this out on a recommendation from a friend and like it very much. What's especially handy is that it builds in support for stuff like inserting images and uploading them to a designated hosting site, all behind the scenes. It even has a lil' built-in web browser I can use for things like product purchase links. Otherwise I'd be switching between multiple apps all the time while writing, and that is not iOS's best thing. But one good single app? Yes please.
  • Image cropping and other adjustments: For the moment, Aviary. I have a couple others to poke at as well. When I'm able to get a newer iPad, one that can run iOS 6, I'll be able to do the stuff I want to right in the saved images roll, but this works fine for the present. No complaints.
  • Music: Yes, I write to music almost all the time. The Music app and Pandora serve me well.
Montano supervising my computer usage

The more I write this way, the more I like it. I'm one of those people who tells themselves and others that they're good at multitasking at the computer, but who really has some significant problems cutting out distraction and maintaining focus. The iPad makes it just hard enough to go wandering off for more web and other distractions that I tend not to do it without an actual good reason. So I write more, and fiddle less.

There are things that would really go better at the desktop or laptop; I just happen not to be writing them right now. Comparing multiple products comes to mind. If I were to write a comparison review of, oh, several game books sharing a theme of some sort, I'd probably want several of them on-screen at the same time in separate PDF reading windows. Likewise for needing comparison info from multiple places on the web. But for what I'm writing here, this approach is making me happy.

 

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Uresia: Grave of Heaven, by S. John Ross

Uresia: Grave of Heaven cover

Uresia: Grave of Heaven is a 114-page PDF, 6″ x 9″, sold by the author at his website for $19.95 US. (You can also get it via Lulu; see the link in the preceding sentence for info.) There’s a 48-page free preview, too, available via that same link.

This is the second edition of Uresia. The first used the Big Eyes, Small Mouth system, and came out from the late, lamented Guardians of Order. This time around it’s system-less, with no more mechanics than price lists in prevailing currency, and a couple 1-100 or 1-1,000 charts to roll on for random possibilities of different sorts. S. John doesn’t have much to say about applying particular mechanics, apart from some very smart words on the theme of not messing a lot with prices if the game you’re using has stock price lists of its own. What we get is a lot of good clear description, almost but not exclusively in terms of how people in the game world would measure, categorize, and otherwise deal with things.

So what’s Uresia?

I’m going to answer that by quoting the first page of the book.

In an age before history, the gods ruled the heavens and man ruled the world. Everyone had their place, everyone stayed busy, and it was good. Or, as good as things tend to be.

But the gods grew numerous, fractious, and vain. Bored with their celestial realms, they came to the mortal lands to walk among men, dictate their lives, indulge in the affections of their worshippers, and squabble. The squabbles of gods became a war of gods, and men were as ants, to be trampled underfoot.

In time, the wars reached such a pitch that there’d be no peace until the gods destroyed everything. Even the heavens. Even themselves.

Hymns and legends tell that the final battle began with a great and sudden silence, as the gods abandoned their meddling to ascend, one last time, to take sides. For a few hours, there was gentle rain and distant thunder. Men held their breath, eyes skyward.

Night fell. The rains stopped, and the clouds parted.

The stars twinkled, quietly. No gods appeared to gloat. No gods appeared to fight. No gods appeared at all.

And in that final, elated moment, men cheered, believing they were free…believing peace had come. They were right. But not in any way they’d enjoy.

The stars rippled, space ruptured, and there was a hideous, swollen light. Balls of fire tumbled forth—vast globes of destructive brilliance.

Heaven had died, and the sky fell.

The balls of fire were the remains…the broken, incandescent realms of gods and devils and more. Mighty halls fell; howling pits fell; impossible cities fell; the dark realm of death fell; the holy forest fell. They struck the lands of men, plunging the world into boiling ocean foam.

On a broken ring of islands—remnants scorched by lava and washed clean by storms—a few living things held on. In the center of that ring, at the heart of destruction, the fiery wreckage of heaven boiled, churned, and cooled into green and inviting lands: new islands in a new sea. Men called these isles Uresia: grave of the gods.

That was a long time ago.

Where do you go with that opening? Well, if you’re S. John, you go to an archipelago nearly as wide as the continental United States, with hundreds of thousands or millions of people of multiple species, going about life in a whole bunch of ways.

Chapter title page and alphabet

For me, the essence of Uresia is that it’s a realm not on the brink of anything. The heavens and gods fell many centuries ago, and though delving into their remains keeps a lot of would-be adventurers busy, it’s not a driving concern in most people’s lives. There was a big time of war in the recent past, of which more later, but it wasn’t a world war or apocalyptic sort of struggle, and there is no overwhelming doom lurking in the near future, even though there are baddies of assorted ambition and power to act on them. Uresia is a place, or bunch of places, in the middle of its history, with ups and downs and a lot of getting by.

Uresia the book wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and no effort at concealment. (Years back, when a prominent sf writer was making an ignorant fool of himself in a debate about copyright law of the time, several writers on the GEnie forums wondered if anyone could maybe take him aside and explain things to him so he’d get a clue. Another prominent writer said, “Being explained to isn’t his best thing.” Likewise, acts of modesty and misdirection aren’t S. John’s best thing.) If you look at that page over on the right of these paragraphs, and you think, “Hey, that looks familiar”, then you’ve been splashing around in the same pools of influence: Zork and other computer games, relatively early D&D modules and boxed sets like first edition Forgotten Realms, and like that. But it works as its own entity, with more than self-contained vitality to keep it rolling to all sorts of interesting destinations.

It’s also a really gorgeous book. The typography is wonderful, a pleasure to read on every page. The cartography is just amazing. The design, as you see here, is clear but never deal. Of late I’ve been buying my games exclusively in electronic formats, but I can feel my resolve crumbling each time I go through Uresia, and I sense a Lulu order in my future. In the meantime, the PDF displays just fine on my first-generation iPad, with few major lags, and it’s got detailed enough bookmarking to make it very easy to get to whatever part I might want to look at this particular moment.

One thing Uresia isn’t is a nostalgia fest in any limiting sense. S. John likes the things he likes, and tells you about them in a great few pages at the end, but there’s no “oh, you hadda/shoulda been there” vibe here. He keeps finding new things to like, too, and has new thoughts about old ones. This is fresh work, something that works just fine for at least some gamers who weren’t even born when a lot of the inspirations were flourishing.

Who do you play, and who do they deal with?

Very dignified gentleman satyr

One of the great pleasures of going system-free in gaming writing is the simple freedom to include stuff that fits here regardless of whether it fit the schemas laid down in some other rulebook yonder. The gentleman satyr at right is a good example of this. There are a lot of different species in Uresia, and it works to describe them in simple strokes (some broad, some narrow). Thus there are beast-peoples, both intelligent animals and animal-human hybrids, in however many sorts feel like they would make sense for the locales you’re using and the style of game you want this time around. “Troll” is in Uresia a catch-all term: “There are ogrish Trolls, reptilian Trolls, and others. They’re mostly big, mostly strong, and mostly smarter than most men assume.” Ditto for others.

My personal favorite, I think, are the satyrs. S. John’s done something really interesting with them, and I’ll just quote a bit more.

Satyrs are frequently stereotyped as lecherous hedonists, but they’re too busy gorging, drinking, and fornicating to object. Satyrs judge others by sexual performance the way some Humans judge by handshake. They understand that not everyone wants to have sex with them…but as far as a Satyr is concerned, that’s a challenge, not a restriction. Many extend their affections beyond reasonable species boundaries (including livestock, household pets, and large plants) and lots of them are obsessed with underwear. There are Elu pirate ships crewed entirely by Satyrs who stage panty raids on passenger caravels. Their passions for wine, food, and art (especially music) are comparably intense. Satyrs are creatures of appetite, and they are in every sense adventurous, curious, and romantic.

Beneath their libertine pursuit of pleasure, Satyrs are an intelligent and emotional people. Hailing mostly from Lochria (p. 18), Satyrs keep modern societies, produce beautiful handicrafts (many made one-handed), and are capable of great heroism—particularly if some derring-do is called for. [...]

Satyrs feel passion (of every kind) with a singular intensity, and this gives them an edge in those pursuits where the fires of imagination and desire are paramount. They are also profoundly loyal, once they decide to grant their loyalty. [...]

Satyric passions come at a price. Satyrs feel disappointment, loss, and resentmen with that same notable intensity, leading to social difficulties with cooler-headed races.

Following that is a half-page boxed text that is the specific passage that made me say “I must write up a review.” Here you go:

Tréan Aradam, Acolyte of the Sisters of Fair Judgment {who believe in the sanctity of any and every fair competition – yr. ob’d’nt reviewer}, is a priest of the Arbiters, and the youngest cleric ever accepted in the Drunken Louts of Bascerly Lane, one of the oldest, loudest, and least-respected privatedelving clubs in Dreed. He’s been delving into dungeons since he was 10 years old…and that’s just two years, so far.

His companions, a Water Slime named Sluice and a mildly-infamous duelist (Francesca Arturi, a Satyr twice his age) round the troupe into a trio, and whenever they walk into a bar, it’s like the beginning of fifteen different off-color jokes (that the priest is the underage boy only complicates the comic possibilities). Tréan’s trio chuckle politely at the jests; it’s all just part of the territory. They’re bound by a fairly serious quest, and if that means the company of drunks who don’t understand them, so be it.

All three of “Tréan’s Trio” were raised as church-orphans at the Sisterhood’s temple in western Dreed, immersed in the lore of the Arbiters, and in the fast pace world of Indulgence’s competitive cooking scene, where those of their faith serve as respected referees. Of the three, only Tréan took the vows of Fair Judgment, but his companions share his affection for the clerics who fed and protect them.

Just over two years ago, assassins slipped into the temple and murdered every single priest. Tréan alone survived, rescued by Sluice and “Fresca”, the latter of whom was visiting to return a book she’d borrowed as a child. Horrified by the event but determined to set it right, they banded together to investigate. Rather than a lack of leads, they found an abundance of them: leads to grudges by a hundred embittered chefs, several blade-duelists of Fresca’s sort, and and assorted thieves, delvers, bounty hunters, and even rival priests. Valued as impartial observers, Arbiter priesthoods earn their fair share of bile from competitors of every stripe, when the call doesn’t go their way.

And so, the trio joined adventuring society, downplaying their shared tragedy and purpose. To the delver community, they’re a successful novelty act: they’ve plundered new levels beneath the Ever-Crumbling Mansion of Vanity, rescued emerald miners from sentient floods, and discovered three new Raansa ruins west of Sword Mountain. And of course, given their upbringing, they fight fair. For now.

And they are—like many delving troupes—a family as much as a band of shieldmates. Francesca is the boy’s guidance, but in just as many ways, she needs him to be hers. Her worldliness, and his naïvete, balance neatly with the mad and caring spirit of the slime who tends both their wounds. Bit by bit and clue by clue, their path (back and forth between the low dives of Dreed and the noble houses of west Temphis) become focused on one salient fact: a hundred or a thousand men may resent their referee, but only very rich and powerful ones can afford groups of professional assassins. They feel closer and closer to the truth, and one day, they might walk into a bar, and for whoever is sitting there, it’ll be no joke at all.

Uresia is the kind of world where that happens.

Slimes? What’s that about slimes?

Yup, Uresia’s inhabitants include “intelligent drops of thick goo”, usually about the size of beach balls, though some are much larger or smaller than that. At rest, they take on a shape reminiscent of onions and teardrops, and their various species are mostly distinguished by color. They’re telepathic with each other, and communicate with the rest of the world via squeaks.

Some Slime varieties have small wings and can fly, but most are wingless and scoot merrily along the ground. (Celari scholars classify Slimes as pygiapods, or “ass-footed”, while Slimes classify Celari scholars as pygiacephalic.) Slimes have large, expressive eyes and no apparent appendages or mouth (though they can definitely bite, and form suggestive facial expressions when they care to).

The description goes on, but you get the idea, I hope. They’re fun, but not just purely silly: they have the same potential for hopes, fears, ambitions, challenges, success, and failure as anyone else. There’s whimsy here, but it’s the kind of whimsy that reality itself often offers, coexisting with the rest rather than displacing it.

Something about a war?

Cat-woman in mid-dungeonThat’s right, there is, and it’s also great. (It has nothing in particular to do with the cat-woman here, I just really like the illustration.) One of the larger kingdoms of Uresia had, until just a few decades ago, an empire spanning a lot of the archipelago. It grew and grew, and was vile in all sort of ways…but its leaders reached too far, let their ambitions run ahead of assets, and run into more opposition than they could handle. Allied enemies pushed them back all the way to their home island. The people of Koval deposed the mad Empress who’d led them, set up a more conventional monarchy, and showed enough sense of “that’s not us anymore” and capitulation that they managed to survive.

Thirty years on, they’re still trying to show the rest of Uresia—and, really, themselves—that they’ve changed from the people who made the Empire run, while trying to hang onto the qualities that are still important in their self-definition. It’s tricky, and not always successful.

So there’s all this great legacy stuff to play with! The soldiers who held garrisons throughout the now-gone empire didn’t (couldn’t) all go home, and they have descendants, who have tangled relations with the people around them. So do the civilians who did all the things that military bases need done by civilians, and their families, and the settlers who came sometimes to escape the heart of the mad empire and sometimes to take part in the glorious triumphs now gone by. Likewise, there are settlements of the allied nations who broke the Empire, and they have tangled situations too.

It’s genuinely nifty fodder for roleplaying, with dozens of hooks sprinkled all through the writeups of various peoples and places. The tone is overall optimistic, but not stupidly so, and that suits me very well indeed.

It’s been 2500 words so far. You done yet?

Elements and associationsFortunately or un-, no, I’m not. There’s a boatload of things I haven’t even begun to enthuse about. But my fingers are suggesting that maybe this is most of enough, so I’ll try hitting some points in brief.

Magic. This is one of the areas where it’d be easiest for system-less writing to go soft and squishy, but S. John doesn’t. He provides descriptions of how various kinds of magic work in Uresia that I’d feel comfortable modeling each in any of several generic/multi-purpose rules systems. In addition to those, he’s got a great section on “The Frontiers of Magic”, explaining what Uresian magic can and can’t do with regard to love and loyalty, time travel, scrying, and several other of the classic trouble spots for magic systems. When I was working with a player on the specifics for his character, we found it easy to reach agreement on what the wizard’s spells would do easily, with difficulty, or not at all. We both felt more than adequately supported as we did the necessary rules work.

Anachronism and relaxed cultural boundaries. On the whole, Uresia partakes of the vaguely late medieval/early Renaissance European style that’s the D&D family tree’s main trunk. But not exclusively so. There are various places where we find people playing with computer gaming consoles that may or may not be anything like those from our part of reality. There are mighty elemental magic-powered ships, and there are zippy but explosive locomotives. There are exotic creatures to keep the slimes company. One of the kingdoms is run by a 60-year-old guy who was pushed through a portal to Uresia as a teenager and managed to make good.

Uresia isn’t nearly as high-octane as Arduin, but they could happily hang out together. S. John’s work and Hargrove’s share an openness to incorporating things that come along, sometimes changing them a lot and sometimes letting them keep on being themselves in a weird new context. It would therefore be easy to adapt in a lot of ways. You might run it with the Ironclaw system, for instance, and do away with the usual species while keeping around the slimes and all. You could give the islands steampunk or magitech or fedorapunk features and not really have to alter much of anything beyond travel times, because the setting is not about all the ways people suffer and are screwed by the limits of their societies.

Sex, gender, race, etc. On the whole, Uresia is very accommodating and sometimes overtly inclusive. It’s not perfect in this regard: there are some art pieces that struck me as all-too-classic sexist pandering. And it’s not so much that the book has anything to say about non-cis, non-hetero ways of life as that it has nothing to say against them. I don’t want that to come off as dismissive, mind you. It’s really darned easy to lapse into prevailing prejudices while filling up the nooks and crannies of a description, and very strongly to S. John’s credit that he doesn’t do that. I have no problem recommending it as a queer-accommodating work that won’t be spending a lot of time trying to push people into designated role boxes.

Ethnicity is likewise basically not being seen. There are cultural prejudices to be found, because Uresia’s people are, you know, people, but they tend to be based on things like language, social and political organization, religion, and all that stuff about how people live from day to day (or wish they lived, or think they should live). Nothing in the book would stop you from making a monochromatic parade of whiteness from one side of the archipelago to the other…but not a scrap of the book leads you in that direction, either. It’ll be a thing you bring to the game, one way or another.

Champioon cookNot killing all the time. It’s possible that this is just one of my trademark hangups—I really don’t know how much others notice or care—but these days it is for me a very big deal when a game provides lots of cool things to do besides slaughter. Uresia delivers very, very abundantly in this regard.

As the picture and text at right should suggest, Iron Chef: Uresia would make a fine campaign hook, in any of several, er, flavors. Likewise, as suggested in the Tréan’s Trio quote up above, being a traveling—or resident—referee could be a way of life for characters who want to engage with the social world in all its manifold weirdness. One of my players spent some time pondering an almost entirely non-combatant architect and surveyor working with a delver troupe, though she ended up doing something else. A satyr paladin could keep very busy defending many worthy people from threats besides lethal ones, and have hot and cold running emotional torrents all the while.

Uresia also provides openings a-plenty for another of my very most favorite things, exploration. There are those ruins of heaven around. By no means every island is known in detail, or even at all, to others: there are separate entries in the equipment chapter for “map or chart, block- or plate-printed (certain to be inaccurate/incomplete/censored)”, “map or chart, professionally prepared (quality and accuracy varies)”, and “map or chart, detailed, quality proven (typically illegal, a trade secret, or both)”. There are lands beyond the archipelago, too, and room for some really epic adventures of travel and documentation, for those who like that sort of thing, and I do.

Names. You could pay a big chunk of the price of this book just for the Notes on Naming and be spending your money wisely. S. John doesn’t just talk about the styles of name for various lands. (In his inimitable way: “If you were a god mighty enough to pick up Sweden and shake it like a salt-shaker over Switzerland, you’d created a mix of sounds that would be eerily reminiscent of Celar, including the helpless screams of unfortunate Swedes plummeting to their doom (plummeting to one’s doom is a respectably common Celari demise.”) He offers useful, clear instructions on how to make more names of those sorts: what elements to start with and how to mash and tweak them.

He also flags something that I’ve almost never seen addressed in game books. People move around. Not everybody living in a place have ancestors there back into time immemorial. There are immigrants, intentional and otherwise. People pass through and leave legacies. He discusses a bunch of ways to use names from nearby and faraway places for characters in a particular region, and the place descriptions demonstrate all of them. It’s a crucial part of making Uresia feel like a world rather a collection of isolated points.

So you’re saying you liked Uresia: Grave of Heaven?

I sure did. I very highly recommend it, both to use as a rich, fun setting of its own and to borrow or adapt from for other settings. I’ve had fun reading it, and fun running it, and look forward to lots more use.

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