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Monday 6 July 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Outremer: A Dream of What Could Have Been

This is a review of the RPG "Outremer", written by Clash Bowley and Albert Bailey, published by Flying Mice.  It is a review of the print edition, which is about 286 pages long; the cover is full colour and depicts a slightly racy woman who is nevertheless fully dressed, while the back cover depicts an extremely racy woman who is at best half-dressed (in a kind of belly-dancing costume).

The back cover gives no information at all about the game.  The interior of the book is black and white, with a moderate number of illustrations in the pseudo-photo style that's typical of Bowley's games, and a more than moderate amount of very cool-looking maps.

As the title hints, the introduction of the game explains that Outremer is an alternate-history RPG, one that hinges on a couple of slightly implausible but far-from-impossible deviations that lead to the Christian (Crusader) Kingdoms in the middle east surviving into the 16th century, rather than being fully reconquered by the Muslims as they were in real history.
Only after the timeline is detailed do we learn that in fact, Outremer has a fantasy element: in the game, magic is real.

Next, much like in the recently-reviewed "Lowell Was Right" game, there's a set of rules for creating an "association". These are, as in that previous game, created by a combination/options of selection by point-buy or random rolls.  Some examples of organizations suggested are "arcane mercenary company", "extended family", "courtier's henchmen", "Government Agency", "secret society", "religious cult", "witch hunters", "scholarly society", etc.
They can be based in a palace, clubhouse, castle, farm, derelict church/mosque, warship, sewer, mountain lair, school, etc.   They can also have resources like guards, spies, warships, mounts, medical aid (doctors, barbers, apothecaries or herbalists), an armory, arcane library, trainees, cartography, artificers (makers of devices), etc.

Since Outremer uses the same mechanics of most of Bowley's games, I don't feel the need to go through every detail of it (given just how many of his games I've already reviewed).  Character creation can be generated through random rolls or via point-buy. Characters get "mother's milk" skills, then go through an apprenticeship, journeyman training and full professional terms to get the rest.  There are checks for promotion and periods of training go through 'terms', so as always the influence of Traveller is very much present in this game.

Next we have some races and character options:  Half-angels, half-Djinn, Esotericists, Magi, Minstrels, Crusaders (or Ghazi, their Muslim equivalent), the Kabbalist, Sorcerers, Mechanists (who work with "djinn animals"), Oracles, Dervishes (Sufi mystics); and some quasi-paths, which have less powers but more options for other things (these include Snake Charmers, Fortune Tellers, healers, mystics, or Faqih (Islamic Lawyers). There's also some details on ordinary humans and their relationships/reactions to magic, and on rules for 'latent psychics' (characters that have some minor psychic level that they do not have great skill or control over).

The skill list is large, as Bowley's games usually are. And as in Lowell, you can also choose traits to give you a bonus die on a skill check, if the trait is relevant to the situation. Traits can be things like "standoffish", "methodical", "sleazy", "loyal", "judgmental", "studious", "boring", "honorable", "bombastic", etc.

The next big section is religion, and here we get descriptions of Christianity (including the sacraments, and other 'powers' of a Christian holy person) that also include Protestantism, since this alternate timeline is set in the 16th century and Protestantism became a thing just like in our timeline, and also Orthodox Christianity.  We also get material on Judaism (including important rituals), Islam (including explanations of the five pillars, predestination, Muslim prayer beads and relics, the Quran, and the different Muslim sects including Sufis).  The information here is a very good primer, in my opinion.  All religions have equal worth in terms of being able to perform a "test of faith", which is a saving-throw against mental coercion, seduction, or other forms of attack from supernatural creatures, and to be able to hold creatures of darkness (like Vampires and Demons) at bay.  Atheists will always fail these tests, but believers will have a difficulty set depending on just how devout they are, regardless of faith.  However, Atheists aren't totally doomed because characters can instead do a Test of Will, which is based on the character's END score, rather than belief, and gets bonuses if the character has martial training, has points in the Focus skill, or has practiced meditation.  So the only people truly screwed in this game are weak-willed atheists (like the ones who stop believing in god out of peer-pressure).

This section also has rules on possession by spirits and religious relics and artifacts.

After this we get to the "Adventure generator", which is a set of random tables that can be used to set up the adventure.  They start with a rumor table, then a location table (with places like "The Duchy of Acre", "Principality of Caesarea", "County of Maras", "County of Tripoli"; and with a more specific sub-table for cities:  Damascus, Edessa, Antioch, Karak Moab, the Caliphate of Baghdad, etc.).  Then there's a table to see what's behind the rumor (examples could be a sorcerer, internal traitors, a group of monsters, the Pope, etc.); and finally a random table for the "reward" (how many points the association stands to gain if they resolve the problem), and a list of "sweeteners" (bonuses that might be up for grabs).  By itself, the whole thing is super threadbare as an "adventure generator"; it is more accurately termed an "Adventure-Seed Generator".
Then we get several pages about bounties, which are possible goals to be achieved by the party for rewards, with a list of possible bounties. These are things like defeating monsters, finding/obtaining trade routes, capturing/killing a foreign agent, kidnapping/defeating the Pope or Caliph, or a league of sorcerers.

Next we get the rules for NPCs, with some quick-roll options I've seen in other Bowley books (these include mission, personality, and lifestyle); there are also some quick-stats for "mooks and bravos".  There's also some "Stereotype" traits for NPCs from a particular area; apparently people from Antioch are Arrogant, Argumentative, Hot-Tempered, and Prickly.

The Magic system is based on "Magic" points. These points, however, are used to keep track of how many magical effects can be maintained at one time; when an effect is stopped, the magic point returns to the caster. The actual 'cost' of spells are to attributes, which are recovered after resting. Magi and Minstrels use magic points differently; with Magi using up magic points when they call on the Archangels that are the source of their power, with points returning on the next session.  Minstrels likewise use up magic points, but their attributes aren't spent, instead the performance of their music powers the spell-casting.
There are a set of "Laws of correspondence" to magic:  the best way to cast a spell is to directly touch the subject/object of your spell, if not, to have a part of the object/subject. Third-best is to touch something once touched by the subject/object.  Fourth-best is to have the full true name of the subject/object; and the weakest hail-Mary pass of spell-casting is to make a pun on the object of the spell.  Yes, a pun.

We also get a list of spells for Esotericists (divided into very common, common and rare).

Next we have task resolution and as usual there are several... wait, what?  Could it be that in Outremer there's only one task-resolution system presented?!  That would be perfectly and utterly normal in almost any other RPG, but for some reason Bowley's games tend to have three or four different ways to resolve dice-rolling, so having only one seems a strange deviation!
In any case, the system he uses in this book is "starpool", which is one of the systems he's presented in other games.  It involves rolling a pool of D20 dice (generally equal to your skill rank + 1 die), where successes are counted for each die that gets equal or less than the attribute that governs the skill in question.  So if you have "Firearms" at 4, you'd roll 5d20, and if your Coordination (the attribute governing firearms) was 9, every die that got 9 or less would count as a success. Characters with no skill in what they're attempting just roll 1 die.  You can add to your pool of dice by acting at a later initiative, or lose dice from your pool in order to act earlier.  Characters with very high skill bonuses get multiple attempts at success (or in combat, multiple attacks per round).  Damage is taken to constitution, which is based on a formula derived from various attributes.  As you take damage, there are effects that cause increasing penalties to actions. Armor reduces your chance of success at hitting an opponent.
The number of successes x10 give the base damage, which is then modified according to weapon.

After this we get into a lengthy description of metaphysical cosmology in "the Spirit World", where we learn about the nature of the soul, how to cross to the spirit world (or how spirits cross into the material world), how movemetn and "Spirit constitution" work, and then a description of "spirit creatures". Some examples: salamanders, hags, Succubi/Incubi, Aramzahd Fire Demons, Slyphs and Nymphs, ghosts (of various sorts), devils (also of various sorts), homonculi, lycanthropes, skeptics (normal humans whose total disbelief of the supernatural is so strong that it affects everything magical), wizards, golems, griffins, Djinn (who get seven pages or so, way more than any other type of creature), and various others.

The section on weapons has three whole pages of weapon tables with stats, pretty much everything you could want for the period. There are nine pages of equipment and expenses tables, so likewise quite exhaustive.  We get a page of advice explaining why it would be important to spend money on fancier clothing, servants, and living quarters (for status, basically).

The rest of the book, the last 75 pages or so, are taken up by the setting material.  You get an overview of the peoples of Outremer, and details (with maps) of the major areas, each taking up two or three pages: there's the Duchy of Acre, Emirate of Aleppo, Principality of Antioch, Emirate of Aqaba, Kingdom of Armenia, Order State of Ascalon, Kingdom of Cyprus, Emirate of Damascus, Principality of Edessa, Emirate of Noms, the mixed state of the Kingdom of Jerusalem/Emirate of El Kuds, Principality of Rhodes, and County of Tripoli.
Each area is given description and then details of the inhabitant's ancestry, languages, religions, edges, relations with other areas, cultural traits, political traits, and physical conditions.
Besides this there's information on the sizes of cities, the economics of Outremer, and languages.  There's also a section on the military orders: the Templars, Hospitalers, Teutonic Knights, Knights of St.Lazarus, Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, Knights of St. Thomas of Acre, Knights of St.John, and Knights of St. Wenceslaus, each getting about a page.

The last few pages contain guides to game mastering; explaining a bit about how to handle (pseudo-)historical games, and different play styles. There's a few optional rules (including rules for troupe play), a detailed map of Outremer circa 1560 in the pseudo-history, and then some useful lists at the end: tables of names (for different cultures: Armenian, Frankish, Jewish, Arab, etc.), details on local cuisine, and explanations of Muslim titles.

So... what is Outremer good for? Well, its an alternate history game. A strange one, because it takes a particular point in time, changes it, but then doesn't hang around at that point nor does it jump to the present.  Instead, it ends up in an arbitrary mid-way point.  And there's magic.
I don't have a problem with either of those things, but I wonder just how appealing it will be overall.  I think that a lot of people might dig the idea of roleplaying in a fantasy version of the Crusader States, but is there much of a point of the whole alt-history part of that, and jumping forward in the alternate timeline to the 16th century?
I don't know.  In any case, the attention to alt-historical detail is pretty well done. People wanting a earth-history based game, or looking for something on the realistic end of fantasy, will likely be well served by this game. And if you're a history buff, you can always fuck with the timeline, or just play it all strictly historical, with relatively little hassle.


Currently Smoking: Moretti Rhodesian + Gawith's Squadron Leader


  1. Would've been more interesting as just the alternative history without the magical stuff clogging things up with fantasy mumbo jumbo. I'll have to pass.

    Not seeing "racy" in the murky cover image.

    1. Hi Matt!

      I actually specifically designed it to be trivial to play as a straight alt-history game. All the magic is strictly separated away from the alt history - none of that is part of the history, or of the setting descriptions. I love playing historical and alt-historical games without magic myself, and have run this game as such.

      I know that's a typical response - I see it all the time on The Big Purple, and when I try, I find magic is much more deeply tangled into the game than appears at first glance, but I had that in mind from the beginning. It's a separate and parallel thing, and magic always has a non-magical alternative laid out.

      And yeah - racy? She's showing some neck and her hands... :D

    2. I don't know, maybe 'racy' isn't the right term; but her pose is just like she's trying to be seductive or something. I couldn't find a picture of the back cover image.

    3. She's actually reaching back to untie her hair, relaxing. That's all. ;D

    4. If you could just get some pseudo-activists to be outraged about it, you'd double your sales!

    5. Hahahaha! Good one! :D


    6. I could see racy in a "come hither" 1950s kinda way. Letting her hair down is even a euphemism for letting out her wild side. Bring on the pseudo activists :D

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