Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tommy's Take on Uresia: Grave of Heaven

Uresia: Grave of Heaven is one of those books I’d heard about, but never read. During its initial release, I was frequently a player of games released by Guardians of Order, but not really a customer. Now, S. John Ross and Cumberland Games has released an all new, All-Systems version of Uresia (meaning you get the background, you add the mechanics yourself).

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: First off, there are no game mechanics in here. Second of all, the PDF is 114 pages and $19.95, or you can get print versions through Lulu, including Omnibus Editions featuring Uresia and its supplements.

The premise is very cool. In a fantasy world, the Gods went to war with one another…and destroyed Heaven. The people were happy at first, pleased to be out from under the thumb of the Gods, until the remnants of Heaven crashed to the earth and wiped out large chunks of people, destroying land, and generally being pretty catastrophic. All the remained was a ring of islands known as Uresia – The  Grave of Heaven.

In the aftermath, the peoples of Uresia are divided into Men (the “civilized” races like humans, elves, dwarves, etc.), the Trolls (the “uncivilized” races like ogrish trolls, and the like), the Gods (a very few survived, and most people don’t realize it) and the Others (pretty much a catch-all for whatever else you want to put in the world. It’s great because it covers things that escaped the Skyfall, things that were created by the Skyfall and whatever else you want to do here).

The first part of the book covers the major islands, and I say “major” because the book explicitly says that there are more islands than the ones on the map…these are just the biggest and, currently, most important…and for you to add in whatever else you need.

Each entry covers Climate, Society, Language, Currency and Cities (in population order) before getting into the background and current events of each island, often peppered with plot seeds. The land of Birah is an Elven land that has freed itself from the rule of Koval by making a demonic pact, the Elu Islands host the “Sailor Olympics” every year (which always ends in disaster), and the cold, dour land of Yem was built on the remnants of the Realm of the Dead.

Sidebars are used well throughout here, showing off religious customs, describing lethal spirits that can harm you and discussing languages that are commonly used, but not adopted by any given country. Another sidebar details the limitations of magic (you can’t make someone love you, you can’t raise the dead if they don’t have a strong connection to life, there’s no time travel, no seeing the future, that sorta thing)…and no one can decide on just how powerful magic was before the Skyfall, with some good arguments that it was stronger and weaker.

The book zooms in on the hamlet of Rogan’s Heath in Rinden, to give you a closer look at small town life in Uresia. Again, plot seeds are all over the place, like the guy living on the burial spot of a murdered priest, the White-Bearded Man who mysteriously asks people to donate a portion of their souls to his cause, the buried suit of Emerald Armor that sometimes moves when its owner’s not around, and more.

Shadow River is port city in Temphis, and a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Notable landmarks include the eyeless statue in the Necropolis which sometimes DOES have eyes, which always means someone’s going to die. We also have a sidebar here talking about the flying islands that drift over Uresia, as well as a sidebar on gunpowder and explosive weapons. There’s even an artifact map with several paragraphs throwing its reliability into question in very game-able ways.

Another chapter is devoted to the “rest” of Uresia: The Deep under the islands, the Divide – a stretch of ocean separating the old empires (now the Troll Lands) from Uresia…and also the border where magic fades away. There’s even a section on the “other realms” beyond that, including “The Heavens” where folks have occasionally fallen from in metal ships. Yeah, Uresia allows for pretty much everything.

A timeline is provided, covering all the events from Skyfall to the current year, 1380.

There IS a character creation chapter, it just doesn’t have much to do with mechanics. The PC races include Beastmen (pretty much any animal-man, fromcatpeople to minotaurs), Wise Beasts (these are intelligent animals), Centaurs, Dwarves, Elves, Humans, Mushroom Trolls, Snowmen (spirits who can only inhabit bodies of snow…yes, you can play  Frosty), Slimes (of which there is a MASSIVE variety), Satyrs and Troll-Landers, and sidebars basically saying “and whatever else you might want to play”.

Magic, of which there are different kinds (like Druidic or Necromancy), is covered here, again with relevant sidebars. The point that is repeatedly stressed, however, is that magic is EVERYWHERE and occasionally activates even when you don’t mean to.

Uresia also pushes the idea of characters having unique talents and motifs, angling for the idea that everyone is completely unique in some way.

The main book wraps up with an equipment chapter before heading into appendices. These include naming conventions, a massive table you can roll on for random life events for your background (d1000!), rules for a Chess-like game called Mastery, a section on measurements, an essay from S. John Ross about the origins of Uresia (including a 21 track soundtrack and a Mountain Dew reference!), and a massive (clickable) index.

WHAT WORKS: Any book that gives me a d1000 chart to roll on is fantastic. There are plot seeds ALL OVER the book. The setting has a lot of details *and* is blown wide open for you to put in pretty much anything you want…or play it however you want. It basically says “Look, this is how the world is, unless it’s not.” The author's enthusiasm for the material is obvious in the reading, no surprise that he released it early because he just didn't want to wait.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The art is not created equally in the book, with some huge shifts in the art style. With there being no game mechanics, if you’re not inclined to do the mechanics work, this is probably not going to be useful to you.

CONCLUSION: Uresia does a great job of giving a ton of information without dragging or over defining, gives you a ton of toys to play with while giving you enough room to go “oh, and a shooting star crashed to the earth, cracked open and large, tentacled fiends emerged”. The approach to the book is largely “This is probably what’s going on, but a lot of this is going to be hearsay anyway, so it’s probably not true if you don’t want it to be”. Just a fun base to build a kitchen sink setting off of, using whatever system you feel comfortable doing the work in (I’m leaning towards Savage Worlds or High Valor at the moment, myself). Whatever system you use, you’re either going to want something that’s not rigidly defined, I think, or something you are intimately familiar with, or both. Entertaining system, tons of plot material, just add game mechanics.