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Thursday 11 September 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Novus Fantasy Roleplaying Game

In this, the glory days of 5e, the OSR, and exciting new projects with other established systems (the games inspired by Call of Cthulhu, or Amber, for example), it takes either a certain kind of guts or a certain kind of stupidity to make something that bucks the trend, particularly if it's not even likely to be a darling of the dwindling storygame crowd. The Novus RPG is just such a game, and I'll leave the matter of courage vs. idiocy to the reader; so all that remains to be seen in this review is whether there's anything in Novus that would make it stand out enough to really catch the attention of gamers in this present time.

The Novus RPG is written by Tim Dugger, published by Firehawk Games through Chronicle City. It's a softcover book about 125 pages long, with a color cover of a stylized dragon (wyvern, technically) on the front, and black and white interior artwork. 

There's plenty of artwork inside the book, and generally of good quality, but the radical variations in art style is a bit jarring: the art jumps back and forth between comic-style western fantasy art, some old-fashioned images that might be public domain, and anime-style drawings. I think that even if it had meant using less art, the author would have been wiser to stick to one style.

A note about the author here: while the production level of the book is certainly above the level of 'amateur', there's a lot about Novus that would, were I not to know who wrote it, lead me to assume that the designer is someone outside the "industry", potentially one of those 'heartbreaker' authors who is producing a labour-of-love without much knowledge of what's actually going on in the hobby, or much broad-base experience with RPGs.  You might think it was someone who'd played a few games, and thought "I can do it better", and went on to invest their time and money in producing a game they were assuming would win them fame and fortune, almost inevitably incorrectly.
But Tim Dugger is not an amateur; he worked for ICE, wrote the HARP rpg (which was a kind of Rolemaster-lite), and was theoretically working on the Rolemaster Revised RPG before the company went south.  So this is not a heartbreaker, but rather a case of a certain kind of designer seeking to make his new mark. 

It just doesn't always read that way.  Even the back cover blurb reads like Heartbreaker material: Dugger hightlights the classic heartbreaker laundry list, trying to impress us with how there are "6 player races", "8 Backgrounds", "8 Character Classes" (with a note about how there's "customizeability allowing for each character to be unique", and how "the 2 mage classes allow for up to 21 different types of mages"), "Dozens of spells", etc.  The only thing missing are big exclamation points or some statement about how the game is superior to other rpgs; thankfully it doesn't go that far.

There's nothing spectacularly innovative about Novus.  It uses a base system of 2d10 die rolls, versus difficulty target numbers.  One feature is that the dice "explode" and "implode", a die roll of 10 allows you to roll again and add to the value; a die roll of 1 means you roll again and subtract from the value (this has the side-effect that "exploding" will have a much greater potential of ADDING to your roll than imploding does of subtracting).  There's also a "nova roll" rule, where a result of 10 and 1 results in neither implosion nor explosion; but characters gain a Fate Point any time they roll this combination.

Creating a character involves thinking of a character concept, choosing a race, a background, a class, determining stats, and investing one's points.  I should note that stat generation is offered in three different methods: there's not just point-buy, there's also a random generation method, and a method based on a pre-selected array of stats. So, that's good at least. Races are completely standard: human, elf, dwarf, halfling, half-elf, and half-orc. Background is essentially where your character was raised, with options like barbarian, hill-village dweller, rural, underground, sylvan, and urban (divided into lower, middle, and upper class urban; apparently only urbanites have social-class divisions).  Character classes are not as central to character creation as in D&D, and this lighter touch might be of appeal to certain types of gamers; classes include archer, fighter, mage (which comes in "classic" and "dual", the latter having access to two different types of magic but being less competent with either than the classic mage), martial artist, minstrel, scout and thief.  Note that the "mage" classes, within their various 'schools of magic' include options for what would amount to a cleric/priest class as well as a druid).

The 8 primary stats for a character are the 6 standard for D&D plus speed and willpower. Like D&D, stats get a bonus or penalty based on their value, and it is this 'stat bonus' that will generally matter (as in, that will be added or subtracted to rolls) rather than the stat itself.
Secondary stats include defense (the base target number to be hit in combat), hit points (which seem to start rather higher than in D&D), movement (based on race), spell points (for those classes that are spellcasters), and finally Fate Points.  The latter, as you might guess, are a secondary stat that allows you to have special, universe-cheating effects; like spending a fate point to act outside your normal initiative turn, escape a fatal situation, gain extra actions, gain a "boon point" (more on that later), get an extra die roll to add or subtract to any single roll (or to get a flat +5 or -5 to a roll), getting an 'inspiration' clue about the world, narrate some 'story element' to affect the world (it does note that the GM has veto power), to remove a "snag point" (again, more on this later), or finally any other 'special' thing that the player proposes and the GM approves of.
Needless to say, while this mechanic as written is not a full-blown storygaming mechanic, it's still very far from anything I like or want to see, particularly in those couple of areas that are so open-ended they could lead to a situation of players trying to argue with GMs about what "ought to" be allowed or not. 

But this isn't the end of character creation! You have 30 "character points" that are used to purchase skills, talents, combat moves, and spells.  This, unfortunately, kind of defeats one of the main benefits of the presence of a random method for stat generation, as any time saved from the need to point-buy the stats is lost by the need to divide 30 points between dozens of options of different 'special stuff' elements.

Skills are divided in cost not by type but whether the skill is favored by the character's class or not.  There are 19 skills in all, all of them quite standard D&D-type skills, except that both combat skills (essentially weapon skills) and spellcasting are both purchased as skills.
Skill rolls of any kind, including combat or spellcasting, can generate the aforementioned "boon points" or "snag points".  If you roll particularly well (10 or more points over the difficulty of the check) you gain one or more boon points; if you roll particularly poorly, conversely, you gain "snag points".  These are basically like criticals or fumbles, except you get to choose the specific effect they cause from a list.  There's no random element involved in the selection of which snag or boon effect you pick; which is likely to lead to a lot of gaming-the-system to get the most favorable boon possible for you (which is not particularly a bad thing, really) and the least unfavorable snag possible (which I think is a very bad thing).

Talents are likewise feat-like abilities. There are 38 of these.  So even so far, you've got 30 points and you need to work your way through 57 different options of where to spend it. Character creation is not likely to go quickly, unless you have very stupid or very uncaring players, and could at this point go tortuously slow if you have power-gamers or character-optimizers who didn't already come prepared with detailed research on the best possible options to take.
Some talents are "trainable", meaning you can take them later in the game; these are things like Advanced Combat Training, armor training, languages, physical training, mounted combat, sense magic, stat increases, and weapon specialties.  Other talents are untrainable, meaning you can only get these talents at character creation.  These are things like ambidexterity, darkvision, extra spell points, fast mana recovery, nightvision, or second sight.
Talents cost a variety of points (anywhere from 1 to 25) depending on how powerful the author thinks they are. Inevitably, part of the character optimization process will be figuring out exactly which special powers have the best cost-to-actual-utility ratio, and finding those talents that are under-priced in comparison to the broken things you'll do with them (whether or not the use in question was ever the actually intended use).

The equipment section, mercifully, doesn't use point-buy.  Not only that, it doesn't just throw money at characters and then make them shop.  Instead, it has a set of standard equipment, per class, with some possible variations. Good call.  The equipment list is relatively thorough and mostly standard for what you'd expect in vanilla fantasy.

Combat rules are pretty straightforward: roll 2d10 plus bonuses and modifiers, and beat your opponent's defense value.  One might think at first glance that this is directly out of D&D (only with 2d10 instead of 1d20), but it could also have been derived from Rolemaster. It should be noted here that shields add to your defense value, but worn armor does not, instead it has an AR value which is subtracted from any damage dealt against him; so if you always liked that kind of thing, this is a plus.  Actions you can take in a given round are based on Action Points; with each character having 5 action points, and different kinds of actions taking up different values of AP expenditure.  There are a variety of special moves you can perform in combat, some of which are basic combat moves (which anyone can perform) and others being advanced combat moves (which must be paid for, and which have a certain level of combat skill as a prerequisite for how many advanced combat moves you can purchase).  Having the Combat Training talent allows you to get more advanced combat moves than characters would otherwise be able to have. 
There are also combat styles, which are a set of combat moves connected to a specific type of weapon or attack (e.g., archery, boxing, sword & shied, two weapon fighting, etc.).   The combat moves associated with that combat style will cost less for a character that matches the prerequiste skill level for that style than they would if you bought them generally.

The magic system is based on different "schools" of spellcasting; the schools include black magic, divine magic (clerics), high magic, mysticism (monk-type powers), natural magic (druids), and wizardry. Each style uses a different source of mana (black magic, for example, from the infernal planes; while Wizardry from the astral), and a different casting style (high magic uses material components, divine magic uses holy symbols, wizardry uses magical words, etc.).  To cast a spell you must make a difficulty roll using your Spellcasting skill, and spend the right number of spell points.  Wearing armor doesn't affect the ability to make the skill check, but instead it costs more spell points. Starting spellcasters begin with between 10-15 spell points, plus one point for every rank in spellcasting; and with many spells costing as little as 1 SP to cast, it makes for a more spell-heavy scenario than what you'd get from old-school D&D, to be sure.  Spell points also recover fairly quickly, you automatically regain 1 SP every half-hour, and a lot more if you are resting or sleeping.
The book provides about 88 spells in all, with 16 of these being universal, and then each school getting an extra 12 spells.   The spells themselves are pretty standard and many have their equivalent in D&D.  There are also special summoning rules, with guidelines to how to summon (usually otherworldly) beings (angels, elementals, animals, creatures, demons and devils, etc), and making a pact with these beings for service. 

The GM section begins at page 84.  It presents some advice as to how to resolve rolls, difficulty levels, and the handling of snags and boons.  It also deals with GM-adjudicated situations like falling, extreme temperature, traps, lighting, starvation/thirst, swimming and drowning, travel times, injuries/death/healing, and then presents the advancement system.  Oddly, a 1st level character starts the game with 100 xp.  All classes gain xp at the same rate, and advancement slows over time but at an arithmetical rate (each level taking 100 more xp to reach than the previous one did).  Base xp for an adventure is 30 + 50/session taken to resolve, with more xp on top of that for encounters, and individual awards for heroism, accomplishing personal or party goals, and contributing plot elements.  Since this gain is steady regardless of level, the end result will be that even though it doesn't appear so at first glance, advancement will slow considerably over time (not that there's anything wrong with that).  It seems to me it would be quite easy to get between 150-200xp per adventure per character, meaning that the first couple of levels will go by in 1-2 adventures, but it would take 5 or 6 adventures to go from level 10 to 11.
Every time a character goes up in level, they gain 15 character points, which can be spent on skills, combat moves, spells or available talents.

There's a monsters chapter, with about 19 pages of monster stats, with between 2-4 monsters a page on average.  The monsters are all pretty much fantasy-standard.  Some details are given about setting up both planned and random encounters, though no actual random encounter tables are provided in this chapter. There are also treasure tables, but are fairly simplistic (straight 'by-level' tables with no special accounting for the potential variation between sentient and non-sentient or any other qualities), and it's stated that the table is only a guideline.  There's a selection of about six pages of magic items; a small but not negligible selection.

An appendix at the back simply repeats the more important tables of the book, and provide a character sheet.

So what do we conclude about Novus?  I just don't know if it's in the right time or place to make a big impact.  I think that if you want a game that is similar to D&D but definitely not D&D (and not just in the sense of an OSR variant-game), I guess this could work for you.  I think that if you already know the author, and like the author, or dig the kind of games he's clearly quite influenced by (stuff like Rolemaster or HARP, though this game is much less complex than either of those), you might like this.
If not, I doubt you'll find anything in Novus that will draw you.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Poker + Brebbia no. 7


  1. Ill take it simply on ditching vancian magic.

    1. Lots of RPGs did so before and since. If you want D&D without vanican magic, check out Lion & Dragon!