Friday, January 2, 2015

Tommy's Take on Sertorius

Fantasy is not an underserved genre in the RPG the key for any fantasy RPG is simple: Are you going to try to siphon off a part of the Dungeons & Dragon fanbase (lapsed or otherwise)...or are you going to bring something new to the table?

ETHICS IN GAME JOURNALISM DISCLAIMER: I do consider Brendan Davis of Bedrock Games a friend, and I was provided a comp copy of the Sertorius PDF in exchange for a review. This review contains affiliate links to RPGNow, and using those links to make purchases could provide me with financial benefit.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Sertorius, by Bedrock Games, is a hefty, nearly 500 page tome in which players (typically) play individuals with a fragment of a God's soul in their body, which gives them special powers. They can also play Ogres or Mundanes, with the warning label that Mundanes are a fair bit weaker than the other options. The Race options include Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Ogres, Gru (berserker beastmen), Hasri (sneaky reptiles), Kobolds and Orcs. Interestingly, the Orcs are a lot smarter and craftier here than usually portrayed. You also pick Backgrounds, which are generalized and include Scholar, Farmer/Laborer, Warrior, Tradesmen, Leader, Jack of All Trades, Slave and Performer.

Sertorius is the first fantasy RPG to use the Network System found in Crime Network, Terror Network, Horror Show and Agents of Gaius, taking one of the best skill-based systems I have seen and applying it to the fantasy genre. The Network System is a d10 dice pool system, take the highest result and compare it to a target number for success or failure, with a 10 being a Total Success. There are various rules and modifiers, and you never roll lower than two dice, though you may be forced to take the lowest. Your Background determines where the bulk of your skill points go, based on the focus of the background (a Warrior will have more points in combat skills than a Scholar will, of course), but you also have to determine how much the "four primal Emotions" affect you: Love, Fear, Hatred and Suffering, which are also the schools of magic (there's ten spells to a level and three levels of each Emotion, so lots of magic to be learned, though a handful of spells are shared among the schools).

Sertori also have a Divinity score, which measures their hold over their followers and their ability to impose their will on a situation, from creating new followers to unleashing miracles. Mundane characters do not gain Divinity, instead having a Devotion score measuring their connection to their divine benefactor.

Spellcasting is kind of a big deal, and all spells can be cast normally or with Catharsis Casting, which pumps the spell full of emotion for a stronger effect, but which can eventually transform you into something unrecognizable. For instance, the Love spell Captivation can turn someone into an ally. With Catharsis, however, it turns the target into a devoted zealot. Dread Passenger inflicts nightmares...the Catharsis version allows the Sertori to enter the target's nightmares and take details from their minds! You just have to decide when the payoff is worth the price.

Random encounter tables and mass combat rules are present (and the latter should be, as these guys are practically Gods, so they would presumably inspire their followers into waging war). Welcome additions, to be sure. There's even mechanical support for political actions, as adventures for beings of these kinds of characters should be a bit larger, and more far reaching.

There's a whole section on handling Grims (that which the  PCs can transform into if they overdo Catharsis). Oftentimes you manifest into something else entirely, be it a Lich, a Gorgon, a Minotaur or even a Zombie, depending on the spell that put you over the top. A number of existing Grims are provided, both as adversaries and to help you in creating your own Grims as your PCs repeatedly abuse their powers).

All of the major religions and organizations are detailed here, with the geographic locations given enough words to give you the idea of things, without overdetailing. A set of full color hex maps are included in the geography section, giving it a very old school feel.

The bestiary is always one of my favorite parts, and this book makes sure to cover a wide range of people and animals before tackling "monsters", and the book explicitly points out that monsters are never created without a purpose, always being deliberate creations of their gods. That being said, there is a huge variety, with some old standards (imps, demons, dragons and so forth), as well as some very unique new creatures (flying squid that swing through the trees, living sand dunes that will destroy you for venturing near water, and sentient storms caused when a certain spell is cast but the caster is killed before it is completed, which seems like an oddly specific method of creation). Guardian animals of the Gods are included, as are stat blocks for each form of Grim a Sertori can transform into. It's a fairly exhaustive bestiary.

Despite the magical feel of the setting, this isn't a world swimming in +1's more the type in which you pick up the Dagger of Anaree, which can be wielded in your off-hand like a shield due to its defensive enchantment, or a bow that allows you to determine the enchantment on the arrows (such as one that prevents Sertori from casting spells altogether). Disturbingly, even the skulls of the Sertori can be used as magical items, assuming you follow the ritualistic steps needed to unleash the lingering power.

One of the key points from the GM section is that the Sertori, Ogres and Mundanes are in no way balanced, and that Mundanes and Ogres are only there for people who just REALLY don't want to play Sertori.

A few appendices are included, with my favorite (of course) being tables upon tables of random encounter charts for every region.

WHAT WORKS: Bedrock Games had a very distinct feel they were aiming for with this game and made sure to achieve it. It would be easy to dismiss it as "another fantasy heartbreaker", but Sertorius definitely has its own distinctive vibe, with some great touches like the Grims and how magic items are handled. Of course, I love any game that gives me oodles of random tables as well. There's even a subgame for managing your followers, which could lead to developments like a deranged cult acting in your name, How many fantasy RPGs lead to you having to sort out two warring factions operating in your name?

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: It perhaps borders on too many subsystems and minigames, from corruption to politics to managing your followers...and if game balance is an issue for your group, then someone is definitely going to be annoyed when they find out their Mundane Warrior is probably getting smoked by any kind of Sertori. While I understand the decision, I always prefer more art for a bestiary, though this one did still cover a lot of ground,

CONCLUSION: As dice pool systems go, The Network System generally keeps it manageable and simple, which is always appreciated. A lot of thought went into the design of this book to allow Sertorius to stand apart from other fantasy games, and Bedrock Games is continuing to push the game pretty hard on their blog. You may not be in the market for another fantasy game, but you could certainly do worse than pick up one that has its own distinctive voice of divinely touched demigods shaping the world, rather than just another dungeon raiding D&D clone. You can also check out the free adventure, Beneath the Banshee Tree, to get a better feel for the setting.