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Sunday 1 December 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Servants of Gaius

RPGPundit Reviews: Servants of Gaius

This is a review of the Servants of Gaius RPG, published by Bedrock games, written by Brendan Davis.  The review is of the print version, which is a 112-page softcover book with a very nice full-colour cover; depicting, if I’m not mistaken, a scene of Gaius Caligula himself, alongside some of his agents (including, again if I’m not mistaken, Herod Agrippa).  The interior is black and white, with a spectacular border depicting some nice roman decor, and very well done black and white illustrations, all quite thematic.

Before I go any further, I should note for the sake of journalistic honesty, that Bedrock Games is the future publisher of my Indian-themed old-school RPG, Arrows of Indra.  I do not believe this will result in a biased judgment of the game product (I have given both good and not-so-good reviews to companies like Precis Intermedia or Flying Mice Games, both of which were publishers of prior RPG books of mine), but I do feel its important the reader know up front that I do have a commercial connection to this company.  If anything, I think I’d be more likely to look favorably upon the author for including a thank you to the entire RPGsite, in the credits.  But I think in either case, I’ll be able to contain my personal prejudices and give a fair account of the game.

On a less compromised note of bias, I love the Roman Empire. I specialized academically in this period of roman history, and I ran not one but TWO very long and successful Roman-themed historical campaigns.  So of course, I’m inclined to like this game very much.  That can be a double-edged sword for Servants of Gaius, however, since its just as likely that if it turns out to be badly written, it could severely disappoint me. Let’s find out, shall we?

To start out, we have the premise of the game.  Generally speaking, I try to avoid profanity in review-writing when I remember to do so, but in this case, it can’t be avoided: the concept behind the setting is fucking awesome.  

The “Servants of Gaius” are agents of the very good, very noble, not at all insane emperor Gaius Germanicus, better known to history as Caligula.  It turns out that all that stuff about him being batshit nuts was a historical smear campaign, and the Caligula of this setting was really a great leader, who even had certain divine qualities, and was unfortunately caught up in a war with the god Neptune (this is an especially great touch, since the historical Caligula went to war with Neptune as well, because he was crazy). In the game setting, for reasons unknown, the cult of Neptune has been engaging in a conspiracy to try to subvert and destroy the Roman Empire, by replacing prominent citizens with inhuman shape-shifters.  The PCs are part of a secret order of imperial agents; the Servi Gaii, a group dedicated to investigating and stopping the cult of Neptune.  They’re top-secret, and their identities are only known to the chiefs of this order: Caligula himself, his uncle (and future emperor) Claudius, the Jewish monarch and dear family friend Herod Agrippa, and Sutorius Macro, the current prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

So there we are, the concept is awesome. Now let’s see if the system and setting information actually ends up doing it justice.

Those of you familiar with the game Terror Network (also by Bedrock Games) will already be familiar with the game system for Servants of Gaius, what the author calls “the Network system”. Unfortunately, this doesn’t personally fill me with confidence; the system includes two features I dislike in RPG mechanics: dice pools, and point-buy character creation.  Damn (or should that be “damnatio”? Answer: no, its not correct Latin grammar for the situation).

The dice pool mechanics of the Network system work by having the PC roll a number of d10s as his skill “dots” (ugh, worse still, borrowing the “dot” concept from White Wolf games), and using the single highest-rolled result.  If he doesn’t have any points in a particular skill required, he can roll 2d10 and take the lower of the two results. At least, the single worst element of dice-pool mechanics, “counting successes” is not a part of the Network System, so as far as dice-pool mechanics go its pretty straightforward.  There is also a hard cap on the dice pool: in all cases no  matter what modifiers or skill values apply, you can never roll more than 6d10 in a single skill check, and most times you’ll be rolling between 1-3 dice.

The character creation system is also on the less-offensive end of the “point buy” spectrum.  You don’t see Shadowrun-esque levels of having a huge pool of points from which to buy everything; instead, its pretty modular.  You pick, or randomly roll (good of the author to include that as an option, he gets points back for that!) a social class; this gives you 12 skill points to divide into one’s primary skill groups and 9 for the secondary skill groups. You also choose an occupation, which gives you a free skill point in a single profession-related skill. 

The author loses points again by including an “expertise” system that involves spending skill points to get an extra d10 in a more specialized aspect of a skill (allowing for more character-build wankery), and especially for including point-buy disadvantages (here called vices) which the player can hand-pick (obviously the ones he thinks won’t actually inconvenience him) to get 2 extra skill points to spend on expertises to be more unbalanced; he can choose up to 2 vices for 4 bonus skill points total. Female characters also get one extra skill point in either a Talent (a kind of catch-all for miscellaneous skills, many of which are either artistic or domestic), divination, or sorcery, but in exchange have quite a few limits to occupation and possible future titles or offices.

The imaginary scorecard for this game in my head, if you’re keeping track, is now veering back toward the negative, but wait! There’s something that saves this whole thing big-time, or at least makes up for all the point-buying and dice-pooling: the AWESOME level of attention to setting detail in the character creation process. The author includes detailed and mostly-accurate descriptions of the various Roman social classes, sample professions, Ancestry and family (something else that is given weight in the game and must be chosen at character creation), citizenship levels and their corresponding rights; military, civil, political, and religious titles and what they stand for, and information about the Cursus Honorum.

Up till now, in my own experience, the best RPG-sourcebook for roman matters that I’d found was the old “GURPS Imperial Rome”.  As of this instant, we have a new winner: Servants of Gaius just kicked the crap out of it for detail and historical accuracy, and did so by page 17.   I could leave the other 90 pages out, and directly tell you that if you have any interest in running a roman campaign you should get this book, even if you never plan to use the system.

But I’ll continue for completeness’ sake. As well as the skills and things like social class, ancestry, and titles, there’s also a focus on some other mechanical elements that make the system work for a Roman game.  First, there’s Auctoritas; which is a mechanic meant to represent the level of your character’s influence in Rome.  PCs start at 0, but you can gain points in it as you go along; it allows you to gain favors from contacts or institutions, dealing with matters of honor or legal issues, and engaging in judicial appeals to magistrates.  Auctoritas can also go down if your character dishonors himself.
You also have Allies in the game, which are either Patrons (your social superiors that you are connected to) or Clients (your social inferiors who are connected to you). The patronage system was incredibly important in Roman society, and in the game these are used as an important feature of play. In theory, one can also have enemies (in fact, anyone of the senatorial class starts play with an enemy).  Its a bit troubling that the way the “enemy” mechanic is set up hamstrings the GM: there’s supposed to be a 50% chance each session that each enemy will somehow be involved in the adventure; this is a pretty piss-poor implementation in my opinion, since it forces the GM to have to tailor his adventures around this, or just ignore this and potentially reduce the impact of Enemies as an important game element.  The author should either have come up with some better way of implementing enemies, or just told the GM to wing it.

Skills are divided into a variety of categories or skill groups. Two of these groups will be “primary” for the character (getting 12 points to spread around in those groups) while the other four will be “secondary” (getting 9 points).  This means that by the time you’re finished, you’ll have to spend 60 points spread out over 38 different skills, not to mention special expertise choices (sub-skills). You can buy these skills to rank 1 for 1 point, to rank 2 for a total cost of 3 points, or to rank 3 for a total cost of 6 points. To further complicate matters, you are given the option to “gut” all your skill points from one category, in order to gain 2 or 3 extra skill points to put into some other category. Did I mention I hate point-buy?

There is some clunkiness in the skill system, that is typical of games where you try to incorporate combat as just another part of the skill setup: namely that you have “defense skills”, that are used to reflect passive values that other characters have to surpass to beat you at something: parry to avoid being hit, stealth to avoid being detected, etc.  Because these would be pretty pathetic if the difficulty was just rolling over a 1, 2 or 3 on a pool of 1 or more d10s, the author is obliged to add a “base” to the defense; the base for all physical defenses are 3, for mental ones its 6.  So if you have 2 points in “evade”, you’d have a total defense of 5.

The other skill categories are Combat Skills, Physical Skills, Mental Skills, Knowledge Skills and the catch-all category of “Specialist Skills” (which includes the further catch-all of the “Talent” skill I mentioned earlier).

I had mentioned sorcery and divination, and will now talk about these and “ritual” too: magic is assumed to be real in the default setting of Servants of Gaius (just in case you missed the part about Neptune being at war with the Roman Empire and evil shapeshifters trying to destabilize society, etc), though generally speaking the setting could be called “low mana”. Magic skills are treated much like other skills, though because of their particularities of use, trying to use any of the magical skills more than once in a day results in a cumulative -1d10 penalty to their skill roll. The details on how divination works are pretty vague, mostly detailing the popular Roman methods of divining, and stating that using this skill successfully lets the PC detect some important detail or details about the focus of his inquiry. Ritual involves performing religious rituals to please the gods, which can grant a small blessing, or can potentially lead to divine intervention; but if you perform it poorly, you can be given a minor curse, or outright smited to oblivion.

Sorcery is of course the forbidden magic skill (as in, socially forbidden), it involves the creation of magic tablets or other fetishes that can be used to cause Love, Curses, Fear, or Obsession.
I’ll finish talking about the skill section by pointing out that I love the fact that Rhetoric is a skill in this game.  That is, the skill list is pretty thorough, and fairly topical to the Roman setting.  Its appropriate, now if only it weren’t point-buy.

Vices are disadvantages; which can be a great game mechanic if they were to be rolled randomly, unfortunately no such option is given here. Instead, the player is allowed to pick those vices he wants, meaning lengthy character-creation time wasted while the player tries to suss out what will give him extra points without causing a problem for his character in any way.

There’s a problematic typo here too; in the summary of character creation, it states pretty clearly that each vice “gives you 2 free skill points”, but in the section on vices it claims that each vice usually only gives you 1 free skill point unless otherwise noted. There are 18 vices provided, ranging from things like “cowardly”, “egotistical”, “Loner”, “Lame”, or the aforementioned “enemy”.
The equipment section is detailed on ancient armor and weapons, and kind of short on everything else. They do have an entry for Fish Sauce, though, which is great.

Combat works through skill rolls, with a character rolling his attack against the opponent’s relevant defense value (a static value, as mentioned above), and if he succeeds rolling a further damage roll to see if he scores a wound.  The damage roll is determined by weapon, with melee weapons adding a character’s “Muscle” skill if he has any, and is rolled against a character’s “Hardiness” defense, with armor adding to the hardiness value (except shields, which add to your defensive values not to get hit in the first place).  Any time a character rolls 10s on the attack dice, he gets to roll an additional d10 for the damage roll (this applies to all dice rolled in the attack, so that if you roll more than one 10, you get to use them all in the damage roll).  In the damage roll, every result of 10 on the dice does one extra wound.

The wound system is pretty brutal; if you take a wound, you’re at a -1d10 penalty to all your checks, if you take a second wound you’re at -2d10, and if you take a third penalty you’re incapacitated and start to die (if a character takes enough wounds in a single hit to bring him below incapacitated, he’s killed instantly; likewise if you’re wounded again after already being incapacitated).  Characters who are incapacitated die in a number of rounds equal to their Hardiness score; unless they’re wearing armor or were taken down by non-lethal damage, in which case they’re incapacitated but stable. Dying characters can be stabilized by a Medicine skill roll.

There are a lot of additional rules, mostly governing situations in combat and modifiers to rolls, as well as optional rules, for doing even more deadly combat, mostly (though there’s one optional rule, amusingly called “epicus”, that allows PCs to have more wounds than the default if you want to run a more cinematic type game).

Initiative is based on a Speed skill roll done at the start of each turn. There’s also plenty of rules for other kind of situational hazards, poison, and even disease. There is also a very simple, very abstract but fairly elegant system for resolving large-scale battle. You also get rules for overland travel, chariot races, Senate votes, betting on gladiatorial games, and other fun stuff.

In short the mechanical system, in spite of the things my own personal prejudices incline me against, is fairly complete, written in a straightforward fashion, and very tied into the default setting of the game in a good way.

The setting material begins by talking a bit about one of my pet subjects, history.  It makes it clear that Servants of Gaius takes place in an Alternate Timeline, and that the GM should be free to change around events from Roman history as he likes. The book even talks about theories of history, and how different theories would affect your campaign: if history is treated as a Force (ie. a weight of circumstances) then it means player characters will have a very hard time changing large-scale events because all kinds of factors contribute to the likeliness of these events’ outcome.  In the more extreme range of this theory, you could even say radical events (like murdering Caligula much earlier, or preventing his assassination) will be unlikely to change the overall direction of history because larger-scale events will continue to play out much as they would. I tend to be on the more moderate side of “history as a force” myself, where if a PC does something truly radical, it will radically change history, but other actions are very unlikely to.

Other theories include history as a collection of turning points (meaning history can be radically altered, but only at those key moments of opportunity), or history as “anyone’s game” meaning that history follows no force-like flow, and anyone can change it rather easily at any time.
Obviously, what theory you follow in a historical game will definitely affect how that game plays out in your campaign.

The GM’s section of the game continues by giving some instruction about investigation and intrigue (the main activities for PCs in the default Servants of Gaius campaign), as well as other themes like exploration or military games. The author provides some NPC stereotypes typical to a Roman setting (stuff like Arrogant Patricians, Kind Matrons, hedonistic Epicureans, degenerate nobility, sly sophists, and thugs).  A few brief adventure ideas are provided. There are guidelines for handing skill checks; and a section on historical and literary sources; of course listing “I, Claudius” as a major inspiration for the game and one source the author suggests anyone running the game should read (he’s sufficiently zealous about it that he advocates that if one cannot afford to purchase I, Claudius, they should sell Servants of Gaius to finance it… now that’s fandom!).

The next chapter deals with the Servi Gaii themselves; detailing its organizational structure (in small cells the size of a typical PC group, which have no contact with other cells so as to be unable to betray them), recruitment, and types of missions. You get some details about the most prominent members of the order: Caligula himself runs it, Macro is the chief administrator, and Claudius and Herod are the overseers in the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire, respectively. Other famous Romans in the Servi Gaii include the philosopher Seneca (one of my favorite NPCs from my Roman campaign), who only publicly pretends to hate Caligula so as to distract any suspicions of his membership in the Servi; Narcissus (the highly-intelligent freedman servant of Claudius), and a young army officer by the name of Vespasian.  And I won’t reveal who, to avoid spoilers, but one of the people mentioned in this paragraph has actually been replaced by a Neptunian doppelganger.

Aside from these, we get a list of fully-detailed NPCs, including Cassius Charea (in our history, the guy who eventually murders Caligula), Gaetilicus, Julia Drusilla (Caligula’s sister, who in the setting at least is only falsely accused of being his lover), Marcus Lepidus, Mnester (a famous actor), and Messalina (Claudius’ wife, beautiful and wicked). Information is provided for a number of other characters but without full stat-blocks.

Then we get to the Minions of Neptune.  A variety of options are provided here for the GM: it could be Neptune who is literally behind it all, or the Minions of Neptune might actually be the tools of a different god, or even something weirder than a god. The option is also provided that in fact, the whole “Neptune” plot is entirely a delusion in the paranoid minds of Caligula and the other leaders of the Servi Gaii, and Caligula is truly insane. The chapter provides a list of some of the possible minions of the cult in Rome, and details about their organization, strongholds, tactics, as well as statblocks for generic cultists, doppelgangers (“Impersonators”), and other weird vaguely cthulhu-esque creatures that are connected to the cult.

After this, the book also provides similar generic stats for a number of potential NPCs, including soldiers of different ranks, bandits, gladiators, politicians, normal animals, and some Roman supernatural monsters (centaurs, chimera, cyclops, fauns, hippocampi, and ketea). Then we get a short chapter on the Roman Gods, including descriptions of the most important gods, and their preferred way of blessing or smiting mortals.

Finally, you get an alternate timeline of past and future events, detailing the history of Rome, as well as how future events are likely to play out depending on the success of the Minions of Neptune in their war against the Empire. In this chapter, you also get some details on the city of Rome, Roman culture and law, a list of provinces with some basic details about them (including their governor as of the present date of the campaign, 38AD), roman games, religion in Rome (including details about very early Christianity, a cult that might be mistaken for the Minions of Neptune because of their use of the fish as a symbol), and a nice old-style map of the Roman empire, with a blow up of Italia and its regions. In the book, the author admits that there’s a lot more detail he would have wished to include but had to cut for space concerns; I think of course there could have been more information that would be useful for prospective GMs to read, but like I mentioned, this is already the best Roman RPG-sourcebook I’ve seen.

So, my conclusions about the game: I already said it several paragraphs ago, and I stick by it; Servants of Gaius has a fucking awesome premise, and as a resource on roleplaying in Imperial Rome in the Julio-Claudian era, its absolutely unsurpassed by any other RPG product I’ve seen to date.  If this interests you, you’ll want to buy this game whether you ever plan to play it with its house system or not.  As for the system itself, I think I’ve made my feelings on both dice-pools and point-buy clear; if you however have such bad taste as to like these two elements in your system, you’ll have no problem at all with Servants of Gaius.  If you’re on the fence about them, I can say that the rules are very clearly written, and that at least Servants of Gaius avoids some of the worst offenses of some point-buy systems (mainly by not requiring you to “count successes”, and by capping the number of dice rolled). If you dislike these kinds of systems, then you can still find a ton of good stuff to convert to some other system.

All in all, very strongly recommended.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Compact + Image Latakia

(originally posted August 15, 2012, on the old blog)

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