Monday, August 2, 2010

Tommy's Take on The New Epoch Character Codex

The New Epoch Character Codex is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: It is the character creation guide for the New Epoch roleplaying game.

That, then, begs the question: What is The New EpochThe New Epoch is a fantasy RPG set in a steampunkish Industrial Age.  This 146 page PDF has all of the character generation rules for the game, and is apparently the first of six volumes that will make up the sum totality of the New Epoch.  The cover features a cleavagey, steampunk girl seemingly crawling through a duct or tunnel of some sort, and the book itself is a full color, well laid out tome with a distinct visual design.  The art reminds me a bit of the better parts of D&D 3rd Edition's “DungeonPunk” style taken on to a steampunk extreme.

The PDF is not bookmarked, though it is searchable and does have a table of contents, as well as an index, so points there for sure.  It boasts 13 races, though that's a slight misnomer as there are seven main races, divided into subraces.  It also features 10 classes and advertises itself as using the “d20 System”, but this is not the d20 system we know and love (or loath, depends on who you are).  While it looks very much like a product that might have been released in the heyday of the d20 era, it is not, so don't go into it expecting full compatibility with your D&D or Pathfinder books, because that's not what you're going to get, even though it is very deliberately trying to sell itself that way (the RPGnow Product listing files it under d20/OGL).

That said, the system DOES use the same basic mechanic: roll a d20, add or subtract modifiers, compare to a target number.  It diverges dramatically with the “Vitals” which are what you normally consider Ability Scores, Skills (which include weapon skills), and an Abilities system that we'll get into a bit later on.

The introductory chapter implies that the eventual release of the game will be in a boxed set, with all six books in softcover.  I have to say, that sounds very appealing, though I wonder at the price point, since – if this pricing holds – the six PDFs alone will run about $72...a core buy-in more expensive than what you can get the D&D 4th Edition and Warhammer 3rd Edition core for in print.

The first chapter gives a step by step walkthrough of character creation.  Not as robust as some examples, but pretty clear.

The game assumes that you begin at level 0, especially if you're new to it, though you can always start at higher levels.  You select race and class and build from there.  You will apparently have three classes over the life of the character: A basic class, an advanced class and a faction class.  Once you change classes, you can't go back, kind of like dual-classing from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e.  In fact, much like AD&D2e, you retain all of your previous abilities, you just don't continue advancing in that class.

Level advancement also requires a night of rest, so no mid-dungeon level-ups without a safe haven.  The main downside I see to that mechanic is a bit of metagaming where the players turtle up somewhere as soon as they have enough experience points, but you're going to get that in a lot of games anyway, so it's a minor quibble.

Chapter two delves into races, which has four varieties of humans, each tied to a certain region and lifestyle.  Dwarves are actually mechanical men in this setting, which is a cool twist, with two different varieties.  Elves also have two varieties, a dark-skinned version that live underground called Draugh, and an effete, above ground version called Riven.  Greenskins encompass orcs, goblins and hobgoblins, while halflings are present as kind of a mishmash of the D&D “little people”, one subset being Sky Gypsies and another as Holm Tinkers.

What can I say?  If you've played fantasy RPGs, there's not a lot that's terribly new here, except for the dwarves being mechanical men.  While the greenskins have “troublemaker” like traits, they aren't inherently evil, and have all found their niches in society.  Each race has their abilities and Vital modifiers listed, as well as a paragraph or so detailing what each was up to at any given era in the game setting's history.  The art, again, looks very nice...but there is also a definite feel of “been there, done that” in some places.

The ten basic classes are covered in chapter three, and are: Arcanist – the big, bad wizard, Bard – meant to take on more of a leader role in this game than normal, Berserker – a raging, combat tank, Channeler – who channels divine might, Explorer – a scholar and tactician, Gunner – he shoots stuff, Mechanist – which is apparently an unarmed fighter, Necrolyte – a spell-caster focusing on creepy magics, Rogue – the slippery, sneaky type, and Warder – whose primary role on the field is to defend their fellows.

Each class has a history of the class in the world, the likely races who will flock to it, the common characteristics of those in the class, their main weapons and armor, vitals adjustments, skills, the main features of the class, the starting equipment, and the Disciplines you have access to, as well as the potential you have in a discipline.  Each Discipline has ten abilities, and minor potential lets you learn up to five of them, while major potential lets you learn potentially all of them.

There are some nice twists through the classes: Arcanists are damage beasts at long range, Berserkers can actually influence their allies with their fury, Mechanists are essentially steampunk cyborgs – beings who keep grafting on augmentations to be better warriors.  The classes all feel distinct from one another, and while some hit on classic fantasy archetypes (rogues) and others borrow inspiration from fantasy standards (explorers gain a “favored enemy” bonus similar to D&D Rangers), it feels a little more forgivable here than it does in the races.  That said, this section needs a lot of editing, as the same paragraph was apparently cut and pasted multiple times under the weapons section of various classes, but the “gunner” reference wasn't changed.  Similarly, the Explorer class indicates in bold text that it gets three ranks of Arcanist Discipline for free, but the chart underneath it clearly disagrees.  Definitely want to clean that up before you go to print with it in any format.

Chapter four discusses the Vitals in detail, those being Agility, Power, Mass, Stamina, Ethos, Logic and Vigor.  Vigor is the only one I find to be an odd choice here as I tend to relate it to physical health, but they use it to focus more on willpower.  Just feels a tad counter intuitive.  Each stat is tied into the world's cosmology, which four elemental planes (Air, Earth, Fire, Water) and three ethereal planes (Divinos, Arcanos, Occultos)...with each stat representing one of those planes.

These make up, along with the Prime Material and Prime Immaterial Planes, the Inner Planes.  Apparently there were once Outer Planes, which have since disappeared from The World Mechanism.  On one hand, this seems like a very odd place to suddenly dive into the cosmology, but on the other hand, I very much like how it is all tied directly into the Vitals.  At level 0, you combine the Vitals from your Race and Class, and every time you go up a level, you can add 1 rank to any Vital...however, you can't have a Vital that is more than 1/3 of your total levels.  Each Vital has a section talking about how a high Vital affects your character from a roleplaying standpoint, as well as what weapons and skills are going to benefit the most from said Vital.  A very helpful layout of the Vitals and their effects in game...however, again, that cosmology seems awfully derivative...

The next part of the chapter provides 100 character traits, as well as 100 opposing character traits, all handily numbered so you can make a d100 roll for random generation.  I believe this'll benefit people far more for NPCs than PCs, but you never know.  The cool part is that each trait is, in fact, directly opposed by the one on the same position at the opposite chart.

Chapter five helps you calculate your passives, which are derived stats like encumbrance, speed, defenses (think d20's three Saves, renamed), Health and Steam (which is used to power your abilities).  One nice bit here as that firearms don't attack your “Dex” defense, but your “Wits” instead.  One who is sharp of mind will be out of position of those before one who is a bit slower on the uptake.

If you run out of Health or Steam, you become Beaten – which doesn't mean you're OUT of it, but you wind up with basically -10s to everything, and one more direct hit can kill you.  However, once you hit Beaten, you don't fully recover until you FULLY recover – both Health and Steam have to hit their maximums again.

One big complaint I have here is that the formulas partially use numbers, and partially use symbols that I don't immediately recognize.  I must have missed them somewhere, but I just don't know what the little helmet means, or the scales, or so on.  Oh, wait, there is a key.  Still, I think the sudden addition of the symbols was unnecessarily jarring.

Chapter six, Skills, largely eschews non-adventuring skills, arguing that an adventurer doesn't have time to make armor, build houses and the like.  Weapon skills are divided into Families: Arcane, Divine, Martial, Occult, Projectile and Scientific, then further broken down by weapon.  Utility skills are everything else, and include everything from Ride and Swim to Stealth, Charisma and Break (which is what you use to smash down doors).

Every skill has a listing that details the uses of it further, including Target Numbers for common functions.  I have a big pet peeve about giant skill lists, but I'm okay with this one...larger than I like, but it doesn't feel excessive.  You get the skill bonuses that your class gives you, and improve it by improving the related Vitals and such.

Next up is equipment.  Prices are all listed in shillings, though there are four types of currency of differing values.  A large listing of weapons follows with all the vital stats, followed by a good number of pictures of weapons.

Armor can be gain Dents, which diminish its effectiveness in reducing damage to you.  And yes, Armor reduces damage, and doesn't make you harder to hit, another d20 departure.

This is followed by adventuring standards, such as flint, bedroll, etc.

The final chapter is Abilities, and this takes up the better part of 50 pages.  Every Discipline has ten abilities, which must be bought in order, and every Ability can be improved twice beyond its starting level.  As mentioned before, every class that has access to a Discipline either has major or minor potential, meaning they can either learn all the abilities, potentially, or can learn half the abilities.  This is all listed in both the Class chapter, as well as immediately under each Discipline's heading in this chapter.

There are some nice abilities in here:  Alchemy has Laughing Gas, which can shut spellcasters down, Smog Wall which creates a cloud virtually impossible to see through and Rock Foam, which quickly hardens and incapacitates foes.

Arcanist has Elemental Spray, which is a basic attack that can be changed up as need be, Teleport, which does what it says on the tin, and A Stitch in Time, which gives your allies time “hiccups” that grant them extra actions.

Bards can use Counter Songs that block enemy's magic, Heroic Ode's that inspire his allies, and Circle of Heroes, which grants every ally in range an additional attack, complete with damage bonus.

The Berserker has the kind of rage filled powers you would expect, but his ultimate power allows him to manifest a shadowy twin of the very darkness driving him to such a rage.

There are 42 Disciplines in all, with a total then of 420 Abilities in this book, an impressive amount of options.  That said, there is a heavy combat focus, even in areas you wouldn't normally think of (such as Clarity, which can grant you True Strike, which is an automatic critical hit).  Still, this isn't entirely true, such as Cryptology which lets you animate a quill to map for you, or allows you to draw an item that then becomes real.

After the extensive Abilities Listing, the Codex concludes with an index and character sheet.

So...my final thoughts.  This is hard.  I always look for the positive in RPG reviews...I don't like to crap on anyone's work, period...but I also strive to be fair and honest.  I wasn't asked to review this, as is sometimes the case...it was something that caught my eye on RPGnow, and so I picked it out for a review.  The fantasy steampunk looked cool, and so I went with it.  It's heavily inspired by Dungeons & Dragons.  Combine that with the misleading “d20” logo (not the classic one, but what are you going to think of when you see “d20 System” on the cover of a book?), and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  I don't know the history of the project...it may have been in the works for D&D 3.5, then they changed their minds after WotC went 4th Edition, I don't know.  Combine that with a release plan that's apparently aiming for six core books with the price point they're looking at right now...eek.  I mean, the character creation alone is $12 in PDF format.  High Valor is a whole game for $12 in PDF format...and there is not really enough here to play the game, just create your characters.

That being said: it looks great.  It needs some editing, and I would add bookmarks, but other than that?  Nice work.  Even with the heavy D&D inspiration, there are some cool things in here.  I don't own any steampunk fantasy RPGs (other than the first Iron Kingdoms monster book).  I like enough of what I see here that I would seriously consider making it my first.  I think the boxed set with six softcover books, if they can hit the right price point, would be great.  I really would like to see the other five books, and I would love to see it expand on the promise of this one, while minimizing the reliance on its inspiration.  The system, from what's presented in this volume, feels cleaner and like less work than the d20 system does, and that's a huge plus...but I can still only give this a very mild recommendation until the rest of the line develops and we see that a) the other five books will surface (companies with proven track records have had vapor ware, you know) and b) if the game is going to walk its own path, or continue treading the road already beaten.  I will be keeping an eye out on this one, though.