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Friday, 9 October 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Sertorius

This is a review of the RPG Sertorius, written by Brendan Davis, William Butler, and Dan Orcutt.  It was published by Bedrock Games, which I should note for the sake of disclosure is the publisher of one of my own RPGs, Arrows of Indra. I don't think it will affect my review objectivity, but it is important for readers to know this to avoid the appearance of any impropriety.

The book is a whopping 475 page softcover; the size of book that would make one hell of a hardcover, but as a softcover it's still very nice.  The cover shows a kind of busy illustration of a bunch of unusual looking fantasy types having a huge battle using magic. There's like some kind or Roman Orc, some Arab-looking goblins on a mammoth, some Indian-looking people (or maybe Thai), and a burning trireme in the background. The whole thing reads "crazy mish-mash" to me, but it also reads as high-power high-fantasy action, so I'd say there's a certain worthiness to it.

 The interior illustrations are all in black and white (the cover is color), with a moderate frequency, and a mix of art style (mainly two: old public domain art, and clearly new slightly comic-book style fantasy art).  There's also some maps by Robert S. Conley, who did the maps on Arrows of Indra, and as one might expect from Conley these are hexmaps and they look pretty great.

So what's the gist of Sertorius? Well, it's an odd kind of fantasy world to start, not a "gonzo" world or a really "weird" world. It is high fantasy, and an internally consistent world, but an odd mix of influences. The world/setting of Gamandria has the standard fantasy races (humans, dwarves, orcs, elves, kobolds, ogres, lizardmen, and some neanderthal-type sort-of-humans). The core area of the setting has a pseudo-classical culture, with strong elements of Roman/Greek culture but then there's some areas that have a kind of middle-eastern or silk-road culture and others that have a culture that seems to be based on southeast Asia (possibly Thailand).

The Player Characters are people who have been infused with the power of a dead god, which makes them demigods. They have immense power compared to regular people, and their power can grow even greater if they get followers and cults in their honor.
Among the listed influences on the setting are the old epic Roman-times movies like Ben Hur, "I, Claudius", wuxia films, the Thai Ramayana, and Tolkien.  The only RPG they list as their influence is D&D, but this is frankly bullshit.  There's very little that resembles D&D in the system (which involves point-buy and dice pools), and there's no setting that really resembles Gamandria in the D&D history (The closest I guess might be some of these mishmash obscure settings like Taladas or the Hollow World).  But it seems very clear to me that two games stand out in relation to Sertorius:  Runequest (and the setting of Glorantha) and Exalted (and its setting).

Both of these latter two are extremely similar to Sertorius. You have great magical powers, potentially very powerful PCs with an emphasis on their kind of religious status, bits of divinity that make the characters special, and so on.  Sertorious strikes me as a slightly less crazy-obsessive setting than Glorantha, and a slightly less pretentious setting than Exalted.  So it compares favorably to both.  But I guess I could understand a reluctance to openly call attention to just how close Sertorius is to either; both these settings are obsessively loved by their fans and generally disliked by those who are not fans (in part because of the type of fans those settings tend to get).  So it might be a lose-lose situation for Sertorius: people who already love Exalted would have no reason to get into Sertorius, while people who don't like Exalted might get a bad taste in their mouth at the similarities.  They're better off trying to ignore that altogether.

Character creation starts by choosing a race. Each has certain advantages, gifts, and languages. Elves are mostly a nomadic warrior race. Dwarves have a settled but primitive tribal society.  Halflings are seafaring navigators, and more advanced than the Dwarves who look up to them. Orcs are the most civilized of races, who have a roman-esque Republic. So, get it?  They've turned convention on its head!  That sort of thing was once really bold. Nowadays, though?  It's been done so often it doesn't feel new anymore.

The Gru are like humans but wider and thicker but more primitive, they can be berserkers.  The Ogres are a special case in the setting: they had the first really advanced civilization (the one that feels vaguely Thai). But that dead god that gave the PCs all their power was the Ogre God.  Because of this, Ogres cannot be "sertori" (the demi-god dudes) and cannot use magic at all; but they also have a resistance to magic. They are still a viable PC race but only for non-sertori characters.

Hasri are highly social, very formal Lizardmen. Finally, Kobolds live in Orcish society and are the great thinkers and scribes of the orcish republic (so, Greeks to the Orcs' Romans?).

After race you pick a background, which gives you specific skill groups which are 'primary' for you (and you get to point-buy more of). They also determine starting wealth and bonuses.  Backgrounds are: scholar, laborer/farmer, warrior, tradesman, leader, performer, and "jack of all trades".  After this you choose your name from long lists of names by language and culture group; though organizationally, it might have been better to at least give a general breakdown of just what the heck each culture is about before diving into the names lists.  By when I first read this, I already had a feeling that nowhere would we get what would have been the most obvious and helpful "crib notes", saying "this orc culture is like Real World Culture A, the Lizardmen are a bit like Real World Culture B", so instead the reader is left trying to guess, making the cultures seems more alien and inaccessible than they need to be.  A big part of making cultures make sense is if a reader can have real-world parallels to cling to.  You could spend 20 pages trying to explain how the "fantasians" do all kinds of things, or you could start by saying "the fantasians are a bit like the renaissance era Italian city-states" (and then just use 3 or 4 pages of contextualizing that statement and listing exceptions and qualifiers) instead of playing a freaking guessing game with the reader.

Next we get to "emotion ranks"; there are four emotions (love, fear, hatred, and suffering) which are linked to the powerful Sertori magic. The effect or damage of spells are determined by the value the PC has in a given emotion that the spell draws on. You have four points to put into emotions initially, and you can have an emotion at "0", and to a maximum of "3". There's an optional rule referencing mechanics not yet explained in this section, which suggests that it could be disadvantageous to have a high imbalance of emotions, and that there's a certain benefit (at least, if the optional rule is used) to keeping the values close.  Furthermore, a non-optional rule states that while a caster with 2 or 3 points in an emotion will obviously be more powerful with spells ruled by that emotion, if a character is 'balanced' in emotions (all his emotions being the same value; so at character creation this would have to be done by putting just one point in each emotion) the character would get two extra starting spells.
Characters get 4 starting sertori spells (or 6, if their emotions are perfectly balanced).  All spells are connected to both an emotion and a certain skill.  The GM can choose to let players choose their starting spells, or roll randomly for them (with the note that the setting assumption of the PCs having this magic because they are randomly-determined "chosen ones" makes it more credible that the spells be random rather than strategically selected). Note that the random-roll option does work through a table that favors whatever emotions you have more points in, avoiding the potential flaw of choosing to have a really strong value in a single emotion and then not getting any spells in that emotion.

Next come skills. This is pure point-buy, and you have 12 points to spend on your primary skill group skills and 6 on your secondary skill group skills.  Skill groups include Defenses (Hardiness, Stealth, etc.), Combat (medium melee, small ranged, etc.), Specialist (trade, medicine, etc.), Knowledge (religion, creature knowledge, etc.), Mental (deception, empathy, etc.), and Physical(muscle, endurance, etc).  Costs are not straight one for one here; instead skills must be bought one rank at a time and the cost escalates with each rank; so to get a rank 3 skill will cost you a total of six points.

Most of you are probably familiar with my opinion of point-buy systems in character creation. If you aren't: I'm against it, on principle.

Skills are checked by rolling 1d10 for each point you have in a skill (if you have no points in a skill, you roll two dice and use only the lowest result between the two).  When you roll your check, you take the best possible result (assuming you had any points in the skill).  So if you have 3 points in a skill, and you roll 8, 2, and 5; you got an 8.  If you roll a 10, that's  total success, which can mean some kind of special effect.  Your roll is tested against a difficulty number, or are sometimes contested (where two characters roll a check and the one who got the highest result wins).

Most of you are probably familiar with my opinion of dice pools.  If you aren't: I'm against it, on principle.

So neither the point-buy nor the dice-pools here are particularly terribly egregious examples of the worst flaws with those mechanics.  But they still don't win any points with me.  I'll concede that if you don't mind point-buy or dice pools, you'll probably think these are well-designed. There's about 22 pages of descriptions and guidelines for what each skill does and how to use it.

You can also get an 'expertise' in particular skills; these let you get an extra d10 to roll, in specific circumstances. For example, if you have the 'light melee' skill, you could get an expertise in a particular kind of light melee weapon to get an extra die only when using that weapon. There's a list of expertises for each skill.  Additionally, you can spend points to get combat techniques (warriors and Ogres get some free combat techniques).  These are special combat feats that let fighter-types do some further min-maxing.

Take a wild guess what my opinion of feats and min-maxing are?

There are also certain special stats that different types of characters have: sertori have a "divinity" rating (which starts at 0, and can get up to 6) which reflects how much they're being worshiped by mundanes.  Sertori characters with higher divinity can get access to more spells and special miraculous powers called "thauma".  To increase Divinity, Sertori have to reach a certain level of XP, and gain a certain number of devoted followers; likewise, divinity checks can be rolled in certain circumstances in order to gain new followers.
Non-sertori (except Ogres) have a "devotion" rating. This represents their religiosity (either to a god, or a Sertori).  Characters can make devotion checks to try to gain spiritual insights from their deity or Sertori.
Ogres have a "resist" rating. This is a magic-resistance value.  Anytime they're affected by magic, Ogres get to make a Resist check, where success would mean they're immune to the spell effect.

Next, to add a bit more to the point-buy drudgery, the game has Flaws.
Now, I already told you about my distaste for point-buy, but I have a special place in my own personal hate-place for "flaw" mechanics, where you get a list of 'flaws' that will give you bonus points to spend elsewhere.  Mostly because this is typically used, in my experience, as a way to engage in the worst kind of min-maxing: players trying to choose what they imagine to be the least bothersome flaws possible.  That is to say, either flaws that they don't think will be serious or that might be serious but are in an area they just don't care about, like a musclebound warrior choosing 'unintelligent' flaw that will give him a penalty to knowledge skill rolls he has no intention of ever being good at anyways.  This is an example using one of the flaws from the book.  Flaws are always the worst part of any point-buy mechanic, the most prone to abuse and encouraging of attempted min-maxing, and I will say nothing good about this section.  Except maybe that it looks like a GM could just abolish this section via house-rule and I suspect it wouldn't otherwise affect the game.

The spell system is based on the same basic skill roll concept (with each spell being related to a skill), where the effect of the spell is related to the emotion connected to the spell. Spells also have a special extreme version (a "cathartic casting"), where the power level of the spell is amped up. You can cast a normal spell all that you like, with no problem. But when you cast a cathartic version of the spell your PC gains "Grim points".  Accumulation of Grim Points gives the PC "afflictions", which are mental or physical. If you get too many Grim points, you become a "Grim", which is a kind of evil spirit. There's more than 40 pages of spell descriptions.
Then there's also the Thauma (miracles). These are superpowerful spells (blights, earthquakes, loaves & fishes, creating life, meteor strikes, etc., the sort of stuff Gods do) that can only be acquired when a Sertori obtains sufficient followers.  These superpowerful spells have a chance of doing damage to the Sertori when cast, and can be exhausting, but are also an obvious game-changer in terms of radically increasing the power level.

The equipment section details a variety of currencies: amber, bronze coins, brass coins, silver coins, gold coins, and pearls (regular and black).  There are some guidelines to typical wages for careers. There's a decent list of weapons (including some fancy spears, tridents, and other classical-era type stuff); and armor is 'classical' too, there's no plate mail (lamellar and breastplates are the toughest armors, along with a Dwarven pearl armor). You get some riding animals, including camels and horses, but also mammoths, rhinos, and whales.  There's a variety of sailing ships, chemicals (including gunpowder, used by the halflings), clothing, and basic trade groups.

The rules section adds some details and modifiers to the basic rolling mechanic. There's also details there on how to track damage and wounds. Damage rolls are done after an attack successfully hits, and are rolled against the target's hardness. If you beat the roll, you do 1 wound; each total success (a 10 on the roll) adds another wound to the damage. Weapons provide extra dice to roll instead of or in addition to the basic damage roll (which is usually done with the Muscle skill). In some cases, you do "open damage" (usually on a surprise attack or when casting a cathartic spell), in which case you do one wound for every die that surpasses the hardness roll of your opponent. Wounds are taken on a track, with successive penalties inflicted as a character becomes more injured, until they get incapacitated. An incapacitated character will die in a number of rounds equal to their hardness score. There are optional rules for critical wounds.

Combat rules are pretty standard, with a variety of optional rules, conditions and modifiers, environmental details, etc. There's also rules on travel times, encounters (with a short random encounter table), and some rules on things like drowning, disease and traps.  There are also mass-combat rules, since it would not be unexpected for super-powerful PCs to end up in command of armies. Likewise, some simple rules for handling political influence-dealing and factions.  Additionally, in following with the style of the setting, there's rules for gladiatorial games and chariot races.

More interesting are the rules on managing followers. At first, PCs will very slowly build up followers (or rather, will if they make at least a bit of effort at it, which they should given how important it is to their potential power growth). But over time the numbers start increasing, and a small body of followers can break into a number of different sects and movements, which may not be in the PC's control.  Some of the sects may even end up in conflict with each other, over details of their worship of the PC. PCs can also get disciples, which are more competent and significant followers who will often become leaders of sects. A variety of actions could lead to growth or loss of followers, or the forming, splitting and changing of sects.  These are handled through rules and random results.  PCs can also extract income from their followers (through tithes, etc.).

The next chapter elaborates on Afflictions and "Grims". Again, Sertori can cast their (fairly powerful) spells without any risk of corruption, but if they choose to go for "Cathartic" casting, ramping up the power level, they have a risk associated with that of gaining "Grim points".  These points are marked on a track, in which there are certain thresholds that can be passed.  Keeping at the lower levels of the track, simple rest will reduce the Grim points, but at higher levels removing Grim points becomes harder. I think this is fairly clever because it means a player can risk getting some grim points occasionally, but this in turn may tempt them to push it too far and then get into a more complicated level.  From a certain stage onward, Sertori obtain mental or physical afflictions.  Mental afflictions are based on the emotion of the spell cast that puts them over the top on the track; they are mostly psychological disabilities of various types (rage, euphoria, amnesia, cowardice, etc.).  Physical afflictions are changes to actual physical appearance. At lower stages they mean deformities of certain body parts. At higher levels these changes create certain bonuses and penalties based on the transformation of the previous stage as the mutation deepens.

If the PC gets enough Grim points, they become a Grim.  The lowest of these are Grim Beasts, a type of monster (there is a random roll to determine the type of monster they become); among the examples of creatures such as Gorgons, Harpies, Ghoules, Minotaurs, Banshees, Liches, or Dybbuks. If a PC had a higher divinity rating at the time of their transformation, they become a Haunt, a Grim Beast connected to a particular area who create a warping influence in their surrounding terrain.  A PC with a very high Divinity rating at the time of transformation becomes a full-blown Grim; this is a type of dark spirit that literally BECOMES a cursed place, radically transforming the entire area and turning it into a malevolent environment. Several pages are dedicated to existing examples in the setting: cursed cities of madness, icy citadels, savage hills that fill those who enter it with animal rage, a library ruled by an insane spirit that imprisons geniuses, a forest filled with monsters, etc.  Full-blown Grims are incredibly powerful, and cannot be killed by normal means. It doesn't seem to explicitly state that turning into a Grim means you lose the character (unless I missed that part somewhere) but it would seem clear that in essence any character who reaches that level will become untenable.

There's a chapter on the Gods of the setting, which reveals that they're a fairly machiavellian bunch.  They're also somewhat retreated from the world, ever since the death of the ogre god (which was in part due to the machinations of other gods).  They can still issue gifts to their followers from a distance, however.
There's also a chapter on religions in the setting, including cults, mystery sects, and also a section on organizations of different kinds.  There's also a section on sacred texts.

About halfway through the book, we get to the setting material. This starts out with the "people and places" chapter, which is mostly arranged in alphabetical order. For me, I don't care for alphabetical order at all. It is counterintuitive to me. I want to be able to find a region and see everything that's in it, not have to go looking up through page by page to figure out the various things that are next to each other.

Anyways, we learn that the world of "Gamandria" is one where the sun really does go around the Earth. You get a non-alphabetical list of the climate of various regions, and it is noted that the locations of the various important "Grims" are presented in the former chapter.  The setting has a variety of climates and terrain, and there's plenty of ancient ruins from two major civilizations that collapsed (one of which was the ancient Ogre civilization).  There's also details on important trade routes; and mention is made that coffee, tea, and ivory are particularly important trade goods.  There's some important general cultural customs and folk beliefs; things like "having a halfling on board a ship is good luck", or how Dwarves wear faceplate/masks in battle (so their god won't see them killing).  There's a few pages of general description of cultures in different regions, a lot of which (as I said before) could have been simplified for the reader if it was less of a "guess which real-world cultures inspired this" and more of telling the reader what you were thinking.   We're also told that there's several ongoing conflicts/wars happening in the setting (and given details on where they are and what they're about).  Also, slavery is very common in most areas of Gamandria, most commonly in the form of war captives or their descendents, but also sometimes debt-slaves.

Then we get some really lovely hex maps made by Rob Conley.

The actual gazetteer section is spectacularly thorough at 75 pages length!  Even so, I'll note the setting is big enough that there's a lot of room to add things. Again, though, the choice of alphabetical order is an annoyance. It particularly makes it harder for the first reading, to get a coherent sense of what each area of the map has and is about (which to me seems to be a recurring theme of this book).
So to highlight the difficulty of this method of organization, I'm going to choose a little area of the big map at random.  Let's pick a city called "Sardon", and everything of note for three hexes around it.  That gives us: Sardon, Sardona (the country), the varian sea, islands called Thrakos and Druna, an area listed as "the taksir pirates", the khubar forest, a town called tarsa, thrana, the dosa river, and the Angordee forest. This all means I have to look up something in the A, D, K, S, T, V.  Other areas could be worse, I bet. But even so, I have to flip through p.252, 275, 282, p.305-306, 315, 317, and 321.  But that's if I bothered to sort these places into alphabetical order beforehand. If I had tried reading them in the order I listed them, I'd need to start with p.305-306, then go to 321, then 317, then 275, 315, 282, back to 317, then 252. Good grief!
Also, there was no entry in the gazetteer for the Dosa River.

Don't get me wrong, I think the detail is good; but the organization is not so good.

After this you get an 11 page timeline; which smartly includes not just ancient history, but also some details of the future of the setting, as well as focused histories of some of the important nations of the setting, and a section on lore and legends.

There's a chapter on monsters, which is fairly well organized and includes statblocs for standard NPC threats (soldiers, tribesmen, bandits, assassins, slave traders).  There's also some less aggresive-type NPC stats, like tea merchants or pilgrims.  Monsters include animals, including some unusual ones like mammoths and wooly rhinoceri. Then there are the actual monsters, some of which are quite interesting: large humanoids with faces in their chests, demons (and angels and ifrit and marids), savage forest elves, elk-centaurs, flying squids, and of course Grim Beasts. And many more; the monster section covers 80 pages of the book. So I'd say it's pretty thorough.

Next up is the section on "objects of power", in other words magic items.  We do not get lengthy lists of standardized items, because magic items in the setting are meant to be rare and powerful.  What we get instead is 26 sample items, of various kinds, all fleshed out with backstories.

A brief section on how to gamemaster, typically a section that is mostly useless in many games, is somewhat redeemed on account of the power level in Sertorius being so much higher than the standard D&D-type power level. So there's a lot of advice here on how to incorporate that, and the type of adventures PCs can have.  Exploration type dungeon-crawls are still possible, but so is trying to take over a local city government. Likewise, more details about how to use followers is provided. This chapter also contains the experience rules, which are pretty basic: you get a few points per adventure, and you can use those points as you like to spend on getting more skills and expertise, learning new combat techniques, or obtaining new disciples.

What follows this is a selection of a number of fully-statted NPC characters of various kinds. I kind of think this would have fit better right after the Monster section, in terms of organization.

The appendices close the book: you get a much fuller list of random encounter tables, a list of notable kings and rulers through history (this is pretty much just a long list of names and dates for three different locales in the setting), a list of different official titles in the different places of the setting, a glossary of key terms and words, and finally a pronunciation guide.

So what can we say about Sertorius?  On the whole, it's a fairly solid game book, certainly a thorough one. But it does have a few better and worse points.
On the better side, it does the same kind of thing that Exalted does in a much more palatable format, free of white-wolf pretentiousness.  The setting is remarkably detailed and thought-out. And in particular, the mechanics surrounding followers, disciples and sects of these various groups: how to get them, how to keep them, how they can be used, how they can get out of control, this is by far the killer-app of this game.  There have been a few other games where you play incredibly powerful beings (relative to the typical inhabitants of the setting) but if Sertorius has one thing that makes it stand out from any of the rest, it's the mechanics for management of followers and the roleplaying potential that generates.

On the down side, the setting is not going to be to everyone's taste. It's not quite vanilla fantasy, but also not gonzo. For those who like weird-but-not-gonzo settings that are inspired by antiquity, that won't be a down side, of course.  The system is point-buy and dice-pool, which won't be likely to win a lot of converts from the OSR; but again, if people do like that sort of thing, I guess the dice-pool and point-buy system in Sertorius isn't any worse than the average.  Finally, the organization and presentation of the setting is not really user-friendly. There's a huge amount of material, and not a flowing and easy buy-in to the setting. The only other setting book I can think of offhand that lists its locations place-by-place (rather than region-by-region) in alphabetical order was the Harnworld booklet, and that one was a chore too.

But if you're willing to put in the time, and if the rest of it strikes you as the kind of setting and the style of high-power gameplay you'd enjoy, you may well want to take the nearly-500-page plunge and check it out.


Currently Smoking:  Dunhill Shell Diplomat + C&D's Crowley's Best


  1. "And in particular, the mechanics surrounding followers, disciples and sects of these various groups: how to get them, how to keep them, how they can be used, how they can get out of control, this is by far the killer-app of this game. There have been a few other games where you play incredibly powerful beings (relative to the typical inhabitants of the setting) but if Sertorius has one thing that makes it stand out from any of the rest, it's the mechanics for management of followers and the roleplaying potential that generates."

    Do you think this (and the Grim) can be used in d20 systems like Pathfinder, or does it require extensive modifications?

  2. Hmm, good question. It is in some ways a micro-game. So it might be possible. You may or may not wish to adapt it to D20 mechanics instead of dice pools, mind you.