Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tommy's Take on Rogue Mage Player's Handbook

One of the perks of this gig is that, occasionally, I get my hands on something even before it's made it out to the general public. This, not surprisingly, is one of those times. The Rogue Mage Player's Handbook is an interesting beast, based off of Faith Hunter's series of apocalyptic supernatural novels set on a future earth, and it is based on the Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition iteration of the d20 rules.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Right now, the game is up on Kickstarter, with just over two weeks
left to go and just over $500 until it is funded. You can head here for the full details, but the highlights of the benchmarks are $10 for the Player's Handbook PDF, $20 for PDFs of the Player's Handbook and GM's Guide and $55 for both books in PDF and softcover. I'm working off of a raw PDF, with layout mostly in place (no art).

The rules, as mentioned, are Mutants & Masterminds, with Luck Points in place of Hero Points. I'm not going to swear that they function identically to the M&M rules, as I've gotten quite rusty with them, but all of the basics are there, with Toughness Saves handling damage.

The setting, as noted, is post-apocalyptic: In 2011, the Death Seraph - led by Azrael - came to Earth and began unleashing plagues, wiping out humanity. Then the first Neomages came along, and now we're 105 years later, the Apocalypse in full swing, still awaiting Judgment Day to occur. We get a solid, but brisk, overview of the world in the Apocalypse, like how Canada is under a sheet of ice, the United Kingdom has returned to a powerful monarchy and a being known as Enear has taken control of Afghanistan. Technologu and travel have been knocked back quite a ways, although there is a (slow) mail service, as well as working trains.

In addition to humans, the world has now seen Neomages, The Second Unforeseen (when humans and mages mate), Kylen (the mating of humans and seraphs), Stanhopes (a seraph touched bloodline) and Daywalkers (matings of dark powers and light powers). The Neomages are segregated from humans, living in Enclaves, while Seraphs and their ilk live in Realms of Light and the forces of darkness live in Hellholes.

Character creation is point buy, with the M&M/d20 Ability Scores and modifiers, and a 120 point bank. Races are Templates, with humans not only costing nothing to play as, but gaining and additional 14 character points to spend. Each race is detailed, both mechanically and story-wise, including sections on their relations with other races (Daywalkers get hunted, even as good guys, for instance).

Skills only scale up to 12 ranks, but have jettisoned Attack Bonuses and the like in favor of Combat and Defense skills (like Ranged Weapon and Unarmed Combat or Dodge and Parry). While the skill list is pretty big, limiting ranks to 12 does help simplify it a bit.

Rather than Powers, many races can use Magic. Magic is powered by channeling Creation Energy, and the more mystical the race, the more Creation Energy they can channel. Neomages, for instance, can go a step further and hold that energy in for a while before unleashing it. Magic can be addicting, and can be channeled from multiple sources. For instance, you can channel from within, from Enclaves or Hellholes, and even from The High and The Red Dragon (God and The Devil without explicitly calling them the Judeo-Christian God and The Devil). You can also lose control of the power you are channeling, with results ranging from the power fizzling out to exploding, consuming you. There are a LOT of depth in the magic chapter, and this shouldn't be a surprise given the name of the game. I mean, toss "Mage" in the title and you need a meaty magic system. This is that in spades.

Spells are called Conjures and there are well over a hundred conjures, divided up into a general category and elemental categories (of which there are nine), although I did notice some crossover in categories, so I gave up on an accurate count. A table breaks the list down by category before detailing the conjures themselves in alphabetical order. General Conjures include Magic Lock, Invisibility and Quench Fire. Air Conjures include Choke, Weather Control and Thunder Clap. Earth gives you things like Poison, Cure and Cause Disease. Fire encompasses conjures like Rage, Steam and Heat Exhaustion. Metal touches on things like Magnetize, Sharpen and Shatter. Moon gives you Charm, Madness and Sleep. River covers things like Purify Water, Mist and Freeze. Sea gives you conjures such as Ocean's Fury, Control Current and Torrent. Stone includes Strength of Stone, Entrap and Seismic Shock. Finally, Sun covers conjures like Blinding Flash, Haze and Sunray.

Talents are broken up into three types of talents: Standard, Special and Supernatural, costing 1, 2 and 4 points respectively and broken up into categories like Combat, Faith, Fortune, General, Power, Racial, Skill and Supernatural. These are a lot like Feats, and d20 players will see a lot of familiar Talents here. Combat Talents include things like Chokehold, Improved Disarm and Elusive Target. Faith Talents include some goodies like Grace (opponents who fail a save cannot harm you), Conjure Blasphemy (letting you twist conjures in a dark way) and Battle Scripture (using scripture to stun bad guys). Fortune Talents include Leadership, Ultimate Effort and Inspire. General Talents are talents like Ambidexterity, Bully (allowing you to use Strength instead of Charisma for intimidation) and Partner (granting you a second character for back-up). Power Talents are things like Low-Light Vision, Savage Blade Focus (letting you spend Creation Energy to boost blade damage) and Vessels of Light or Darkness, which boost your Creation Energy depending on your ascent or descent into light or darkness. Racial Talents include Darkvision, Mage Speed (spending Creation Energy to move faster) and vampirism. Skill talents cover things like Attractive, Jack-Of-All-Trades and Taunt. Supernatural Talents include Caustic Blood (yes, you can spit your blood and inflict damage), False Aura (shielding you from magical detection) and Regeneration. Unfortunately, a lot of the Supernatural Talents are NPC-only.

I mentioned that ascension or descension a bit ago, and that comes into play with Virtue and Taint, a kind of morality system that can affect multiple things in play. One thing I particularly like is that you gain Virtue by succeeding in saving throws, while you gain Taint by failing Saving Throws. Very effective way of using the mechanics to convey the point. High Virtue can allow you to fend off evil effects and high Taint can ultimately force you into NPC status.

This is also backed by the Allegiance System, with three choices (Light, Dark and Neutral), although reaching the extremes of Virtue or Taint can force an Allegiance change.

Wealth is abstracted into a Wealth score, and Luck Points function a lot like Hero Points from Mutants & Masterminds, allowing you to do things like remove debilitating effects, pick up a talent in a pinch for one use, defend against hostile magic, re-roll dice and more.

The chapter on finishing out your character provides more background information on the different races and where they come from in the world, as well as optional scaling rules for playing characters of different ages (if someone really wants to play a 12 year old and your group doesn't want them having the same number of points to spend as their grown-ups).

The equipment chapter covers everything from tanks to swords to binoculars, but it also covers magical items, including character point costs and purchase target numbers for making Wealth rolls. There is also Mage Metal, which is a magical metal that can be used for a number of weapons, giving mortal types some kind of even footing against Seraphs and demons.

I'm not going to cover combat much. It's d20 combat and it doesn't look like there's a lot of surprises. If you're reading this, you PROBABLY know whether or not you like d20 combat or not, but the gist of it is you roll d20s for everything, with Toughness Saves rather than hit points.

Fiction is interspersed throughout the book, with a full short story in the back called Trading Debts. Since this is the Player's Guide and there is no in-depth discussion of the setting (though there is a lot of information, in various parts), it does a nice job setting the stage, as well as probably giving you some idea as to whether or not Rogue Mage novels would interest you.

WHAT WORKS: Here's the thing - I am not a big d20 fan. However, there have been some games that tweak it really, really well. I thought Know Your Role/Wild World Wrestling did and I thought Star Wars Saga Edition did. Rogue Mage does a very fine job of focusing the Mutants & Masterminds version on a specific power level, capping the skills to keep them from exploding into wild ranges and so on. The magic system has a lot of bells and whistles, but I mean that in a good way, given the setting. I like abstracted Wealth as I hate bean counting, so that's a plus, and the Virtue and Taint system is handled very well.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: My biggest gripes are organization and capitalization. Now, it may be a stylistic thing, but it sure would help me if the racial names were capitalized in the text. Also, I would have preferred the Talents section coming before the Magic section...seems like an odd organizational choice to me. Personally, I would probably have also combined the Secondary Touches chapter with Chapter One, but most of that is just nit-picky.

CONCLUSION: If anything, I just wanted More...which makes sense, as I am primarily a GM and this is the Player's Handbook. It also speaks well of the information in the book that I am genuinely interested as to what's in the GM's book. I can't say I wouldn't be more excited if this used a different system than a modified version of the Mutants & Masterminds iteration of d20, but they have done a really good job of modifying the system to fit what they are trying to emulate rather than just bolting it onto the existing framework. That's something I can certainly appreciate and I would be willing to give this version of d20 a shot as written. In my opinion, Rogue Mage is shaping up to be a very fine project with a lot of time and care going into it (and with the first credited playtest noted in the book as being in 2008, I should hope there has been). There's lots to like here, and Mutants & Masterminds has a track record of being particularly smooth among the d20 family, so the base is strong and tested even before the Rogue Mage team got to it.