Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tommy's Take on R.A. Salvatore's DemonWars: Reformation

RA Salvatore, arguably most famous for the Drizzt Do'Urden novels, also has a series called DemonWars. He and his sons, Geno and Bryan, recently released the DemonWars: Reformation roleplaying game, and have a Kickstarter in progress for DemonWars: Allheart, the first supplement for Reformation. The thing is, I've dug around on the internet for information on this RPG and can't find much, and I've seen other people have the same problem...so I'm reviewing Reformation for your benefit and mine.

ETHICS IN GAME JOURNALISM DISCLAIMER: I was comped a PDF copy for review, after I requested one from Mr. Salvatore with the sole promise of getting the review posted before the Kickstarter ended. No affiliate links here. Also, RA Salvatore ruined AD&D2e for me, because once I started reading his books, I wanted my games to emulate heroic fantasy, and AD&D2e felt like it had too many handcuffs.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: DemonWars: Reformation is hard to find online. There is an Amazon.com listing, and you can find it on the RASalvastore, but I couldn't find that with a web search tonight, instead having to use a link off of the Allheart Kickstarter. The PDF is an eye popping $35 (way beyond a comfortable price point for a lot of folks on PDF), but you can get the print for a mere $40. I'm assuming this is similar to the pricing model for Dungeon Crawl Classics, in which the print book is a labor of love, and the PDF is there to accommodate the digital folk. You can also get the basic rules for the game on the Kindle at Amazon.com.

The book is a hefty 336 pages, and the PDF is full color and includes a clickable table of contents...except my table of contents clicks back to the first page, it seems.

The game is set in the DemonWars setting, after the last book in the series (Immortalis), so stuff could get spoiled, yes. It's the aftermath of the DemonWars, and the Abellican Church has issued the call of Reformation to pick up the pieces after the demon dactyl's defeat, and stamp out the remaining evil influence it had in the world. In fact, there's only a few pages devoted to setting, surprisingly enough, pretty much giving the overview of the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, one of the four major human kingdoms, and the Abellican Church, because this book is structured almost entirely around that one concept: Playing monks of the Abellican Church.

So, yeah, they pretty much give you one character "class" to play as, but they also give enough advancement options to fill up a splatbook. When you are making your Monk, you pick an Abbey to belong to, which gives you a bonus to one of two Attributes, as well as free training in two skills. For instance, the Order of St. Belfour hail from the North, where they tend to people in harsh climates and survive the brutal elements...so they get bonuses to Will or Endurance, and free training in Survivalism and Athletics. The Order of St. Bondabruce is named after a great Warrior-Monk, so these Monks get bonuses to Strength or Intellect, as well as Diplomacy and Alertness. There are nine options in all. The other point of customization are the Disciplines. There are four Disciplines organized in five tiers each, and each Monk can study the first tier of any Discipline, but they have to know at least two Techniques of a tier before they can study anything from the higher tier. The four Disciplines are:

The Discipline of St. Bruce - This is crazy martial arts stuff. Flurry of Blows (making two attacks in rapid succession), Crushing Blows (making attacks harder to block), Iron Fist (boosted attack rating and boosting your damage die type) or Disciple of the Tiger (which lets you turn your arm into a tiger's claw to rip people apart with...and it counts as an unarmed attack for all your cool bonuses from other powers).

The Discipline of St. Belfour is more defensive, like Protect (which allows you to shield allies), Stability of the Mountain (which makes you unmovable unless you will it), Diamond Body (which boosts Defense and makes you immune to poison) and Flowing Defense (which gives you a big boost to your own Defense).

The Discipline of St. Gwendolyn is interesting in that it allows you flow through the battlefield and manipulate it with Techniques like Shared Calm (which lets your allies regain Balance as you do), Stillness (which prevents Reaction Attacks), Open the Floodgates (which grants attack to allies) and Piroutte (which lets you swap places with another combatant).

The Discipline of St. Avelyne focuses on the magic of gemstones, and utilize powers like Support Spells (which boosts healing magic), as well as numerous powers that aren't sexy in and of themselves, but let you cast more spells, or other powers that let you boost your Magic Rating. So, nothing flashy in and of themselves, but they help boost your cool stuff.

Characters have six stats (Strength, Agility, Endurance, Intellect, Will and Affinity), ranked on a scale of 1 to 12 (though if you randomly roll your stats, you won't go below a 2 - the provided method is 3d6, drop the lowest...but there is a point buy option as well). The stats all seem pretty balanced, with the classic sixth "dump stat" being taken up by Affinity, which measures you magical aptitude. Where it gets interesting is that you also have Balance and Focus, which can be spent while performing actions to ensure success. One huge gripe about "bennies" or "hero points" is that they are "metagame" mechanics...Focus and Balance are physical and mental resources that you can choose to expend. The system is a unique percentile system in which you can expend Balance to succeed at actions, except Attacks (unless you have an ability that says otherwise...and Monks sometimes do). Defense is where Balance comes into play, with defenders spending Balance to avoid being hit. However, an attack can still be defended, but be "On Target" by exceeding the original Defense score, which can trigger other abilities. It's a very unique and elegant take on resource management in RPGs that are usually abstracted more than this.

The damage system is interesting. At 0 Hit Points, you are Disabled. You fall Prone, lose all Balance, gain one Wound and have to make Wound check. A Wound Check is rolled with Endurance, -5% for each Wound you have. It is possible to outright die from these checks, or suffer more Wounds, and Wounds also decrease your maximum Hit Points, Focus and Balance. However, it is also possible to Recover half your maximum Hit Points and get back in the fight.

Magic, at least for Monks, is handled by gemstones called Ring Stones...to use a spell, you have to know it and have the appropriate Ring Stone, and spend Focus as required. For instance, Lodestone Bullets is a spell requiring (yep) Lodestones, and you fire it unerringly at a target wearing something metal. If you succeed on the attack, they get hurt bad. If you miss, they still take minor damage from the impact against the metal. Diamonds can manipulate light. Dolomite can make you tougher. A Cat's Eye can let you see in the dark, and so on. There's a TON of options here...and what's more, you can take excess gemstones and turn them into magic items, enhancing your gear. Have a Sunstone? Maybe you need an Antimagic Ring before you throw down with an Abellican Wight (an undead Monk with crazy magic powers but no martial prowess) advancing on the Abbey. And don't worry...it's not all "add this to get this". There are full blown magic items in the book, like the Darkfern Bow, Bracers of the Titan, Wand of the Hellish Wind...and even artifacts such as The Boots of the Four Winds (which makes you faster and more agile), The Robe of St. Belfour (which makes you a lot harder to hurt, and immune to fire), and The Thurible of Resurrection, which can bring back the dead.

There's a decent bestiary in the book, with creatures such as the above mentioned Abellican Wight, Bog Hydras, Elves, Ogres, Powries, some more humanoid types, such as Allheart Knights, several common animals and, oh yeah, a (the?) Dragon. And the Dragon? Top of the food chain. The interesting thing I love about the Dragon? It can't target specific targets as a Dragon, just wreak wholesale havoc...so it has a humanoid form it takes when it needs to get its hands dirty. A good cross section for the book, plus guidelines for making your own monsters.

A short adventure module is included, three chapters, that I'm running for my group this weekend. Look for an actual play next Tuesday.

Rogues were a Stretch Goal in the first campaign, and are included as an appendix here. Though they do have multiple options, they don't have quite the same advancement flexibility as a Monk. A Rogue takes a Subclass in Bandit, Thief, Assassin or Bard, and can learn other Packages. For instance, your Bard may have spent some time training with Abellican Monks, so his mix of Techniques is a hybrid of the two. Or your Assassin began as a Hunter before moving on to The Most Dangerous Game: Man. Each of the four Subclasses feel very different, with Thieves being your classic burglars, Assassins being knives in the dark, Bards being inspirational and entertaining, and Bandits being brutal thugs who work in packs (and the pack doesn't have to be all bandits).

There's an original novella included as well, for more setting background, and Blacksmithing rules which are a minigame all their own, ala Gemcrafting. This isn't "I wanna make a sword". This is "I wanna make a suit of Flexible Lord's Plate Armor out of Silverel". Make a mistake, and maybe the breast plate is fragile and will shatter with the first vicious blow. Herbalism also gets an insane amount of detail out of just a few pages, with a whole list of herbs, how they are used, and where they are found at.

Multiple reference tables round out the book, along with a blank character sheet.

SIX POINT SUMMARY:
  • The PDF suffers from not taking advantage of full PDF functionality, especially with the book lacking a proper index. Especially for the PDF price.
  • Rogues suffer a bit from the book being a Monk book and Rogues being an appendix. Not mechanically...Rogues have a ton of options, just like Monks, but they do feel a bit shorted on the role of Rogues in the world.
  • Similarly, Blacksmithing just feels like it would have been more a home in the Knights book, as neither Rogues nor Monks are going to need a lot of Plate Mail (for instance). That said, the level of detail they managed to cram into both this and the Herbalism subsystem is nothing short of impressive.
  • The Bob's House Rule sidebars are great stuff. According to one anecdote online, Bob handed this game to his son Bryan, who said it was "bad but fixable". So presumably the finished product is Bryan's consumer-ready version, and the sidebars are how Bob runs it in his home game. For instance, he always pushes random character generation and uses poker chips for Balance, Focus and Hit Points, since they seem to be so fluid.
  • The sheer number of customizations for Monks almost feels like Monk, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and THEN you get into what else is possible by looking at the Rogue appendix (which covers four archetypes AND gets you dipping in other areas even more with the Packages).
  • The production values are great, with some gorgeous art that reminds me a lot of the better AD&D2e material...but there never seems to be any wasted space, as the writing is very concise, and the book does a great game of tackling metagame resource management in a way that feels much more "in character" and immersive as you're not spending "luck", but your own physical effort. Over-leverage yourself and that battle axe might just take your head off.
I've liked what I've read enough to back the Kickstarter for Allheart at the Knight of the Evergreen level (this book and Allheart), and if that book doesn't fund, I'll order a print copy from the RASalvastore. For the price of the PDF, I can't recommend it given the functionality of it, but the print copy is a steal at $40 for the content and production values, and if you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read the basic rules for free to decide for yourself if it's something you would like.

This weekend, I'll know for sure how I feel about gameplay, and I'll be reporting back with feedback (from me AND my group, if they are willing).