On two previous occasions, Bedrock Games has produced a concept that would be a hard-sell to me, but did really, really well (talking about Crime Network and Terror Network...I was good with Horror Show from the start). Well, they have another "hard sell" for me: Servants of Gaius, an alternate history RPG set during Caligula's rule in Rome. (If it's not set in the old west, I tend to have trouble with alternate history games).
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Currently available in PDF from Bedrock Games through Avalon Games, Servants of Gaius is a lean 117 page book. The basic pitch is that the PCs are agents of Caligula, waging a covert war against the armies of the Roman God Neptune. That actually sounds pretty cool, I'm just more of an "Ancient Greek" kinda guy and not an "Ancient Rome" kinda guy. Powered by the Network System, the core engine behind Crime Network, Terror Network and Horror Show, Servants of Gaius places its own unique tweaks on the system.
Character creation involves selecting a Social Class, which has three classifications for free Romans (from Senator to Plebian), as well as Peregrinus (non-Romans) and Slaves. Each have their own unique effects on character creation, including penalties (Senators tend to make a lot of enemies, for instance). Ancestry also matters, as do Titles. PCs also have a stat called Auctoritas, which measures their power and influence.
Characters are defined by their skills (divided into six categories, one made Primary by your Occupation, and thus gaining more points). Skills are ranked from 0 to 3 and determine your d10 die pool. For a more extensive discussion as to how the system works, see the previous Network System game reviews.
Allies are present here as in other Network games, though tweaked: Every relationship is Client-Patron, and your benefits from your Ally are determined by your specific role in the relationship. Vices, from Crime Network, make a very fitting appearance here as well. Servants of Gaius also has Combat Techniques, like Wrestling (Outside), giving you a bonus for moving (but not charging) while attacking, Medium Melee (Momentum) which gives you a bonus if you wounded your opponent on the last attack and Heavy Melee (Set Up) which gives you an attack bonus if you lost initiative. Very simple but well executed.
The Gear chapter introduces the Roman currencies (with the common metal names if you choose), as well as an income list for the occupations. In addition to weapons and armor, this chapter also includes Hazards and Poisons, as well as things such as ships. A good chapter covering all its bases.
The combat chapter makes it a point to also include abstracted mass combat rules (which is fine, since the focus is meant to be on intrigue, but it is still a very smart addition), as well as simplified rules for chariot racing and gladiator combat for when PCs are just watching on (or gambling) and not actually participating. A similar subsystem (complete with bribery rules) is provided for senatorial debates.
The GM chapter offers advice on history and choosing varying levels of faithfulness to it, from hewing exactly to events to letting the players change everything. A big list of stock Roman archetypes is included (The Arrogant Patrician, The Cunning Matron, The Lusty Daughter, The Unworthy Heir and so on), as well as a big reference list of books, TV shows and movies you should watch to get the feel.
The Servants organization gets a chapter to itself, breaking down its basic structure as well as its common missions (from assassination to exploration). An NPC chapter follows, starting with Caligula and working through other important figures of the time.
The Minions of Neptune are the primary adversaries, and the most interesting aspect is that it is never explicitly spelled out as to whether Neptune is even real. The GM is handed the cult, with a variety of explanations for their activity (Neptune IS behind it, a really powerful mortal is behind it, Something Else Entirely is behind it, Caligula is insane and it has infected the PCs or, even, the PCs are the Minions!). I love the ambiguity in the presentation, and the fact that it is all left in the GM's hands no matter what.
A bestiary follows which includes not only stock NPC stats, but a number of appropriate Greco-Roman mythological beasts like cyclopes, centaurs, and the chimera. The rest of the pantheon follows, with not only a paragraph describing them, but an ability that they are likely to use if they intervene in human affairs (like Jupiter's lightning bolt or Mars instilling fear) with a note that the Gods can and should have more abilities at their disposal.
A timeline/overview/history lesson for Caligula's Rome is provided...and the author has said that there was even more stuff that was cut out. Bedrock Games tends to do their research on this sort of thing and it shows.
A character sheet rounds out the book.
WHAT WORKS: The way the Minions of Neptune are presented sells the book. You are given the Minions, their tactics and relevant stat blocks...and then a list of options for who and what they actually are and what they are doing, even including options like "They are time travelers come back to interfere in events". They could have been presented as a straight adversary serving Neptune, but the author blew the whole thing wide open instead.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The biggest gripe I have is some of the interior art, especially the NPC portraits, just did not feel up to par for a commercial RPG release. I'm also a bigger fan of Greeks over Romans, but what are you gonna do?
CONCLUSION: The Network System is about the only heavily skill based system that I like, so that's a plus, and like Terror Network and Crime Network before it (as opposed to Horror Show), it hits on a game type that ISN'T being heavily served right now. Combined with all the crazy options built into the game by dialing the supernatural up and down, as well as whatever route you choose to go with for The Minions of Neptune and you are left with an impressive piece of work. If only Caligula had been Greek instead, I would have been thrilled.