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.

Uresia: Grave of Heaven, by S. John Ross

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