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Sunday, 23 August 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Volant - Kingdoms of Air and Stone

This is a review of the RPG "Volant - Kingdoms of Air and Stone", written by Clash Bowley with Levi Kornelsen and Klaxon Bowley. It's published by Flying Mice Games.  I'm reviewing (as always) the print edition, which is a 275 page softcover, with a full-color cover depicting an image of some kind of flying castle-rock around which there's a fight going on between people riding on giant birds.  The interior is black and white, and features only very sparse illustrations, mostly at the start of chapters.

By the introductory description, Volant is a "game set on a world where a magical catastrophe has left humans without magic, settled on mountainous floating islands - called skylands - while the world below has descended into darkness and terror".  So, a bit like Waterworld only in the sky?  Anyways, the ground is inundated with monsters and barbaric savage humans, and all civilization is in the skylands, which vary from the size of a small village to some the size of entire mountain ranges as large as Belgium. If two skylands are kept in contact with each other for enough time they fuse together into a single larger skyland.  The stone that the skylands are made of is called "floatstone" and it can be made into flying vessels; but these cannot actually descend below a certain altitude, meaning you can't get down to the ground with them.

Aside from these, humans in the skylands also make use of giant birds, which they've trained as mounts.

The setting has a late medieval/early-renaissance tech level, and there's no magic (since it was all burned out in the magical-apocalypse).

Like many of the more recent Bowley games, the rules actually start with the concept of creating an "association".  That is, defining who the party is and why they are together. By random roll or selection, the group starts with a number of points ("capital") which they can then invest in a variety of group resources.  They also roll or choose the basic nature of their assocation; sample choices include things like "alchemical guild", "assassins", "courtier's henchmen", "extended family", "government agency", "mercenary company", "merchant traders", "political cabal", "religious cult", etc.
Resources include things like the home base (examples include palaces, clubhouses, port warehouses, theatres, a ship, cave, castle, abandoned farm, complex mountain lair, school, an oasis in the desert - are there deserts in the flying rocks? - or small to large skylands); guards and security, warships, spies, transport, medical assets, libraries of various sorts, training, soldiers, and artificers.

Character creation in this particular iteration of Bowley's standard system is based on either assigning a set of pre-set stats (boo!), or point-buy (BOO!!).  Sadly, no random generation here.  Characters then get another set of points, based on the starting age you choose to play the character: the older you are, the more points you get, with which to buy "professional templates" (a set of skills and bonuses that are focused on specific careers).  You can buy as many of these templates as you have points to spend, though some templates have pre-requisites. There are 96 different templates, so a fairly huge selection to choose from.  While I bemoan the lack of randomness, the template method is way more practical than just giving players a load of points and then having to spend hours and get the help of an accountant to work out what skills to buy.

There are also some helpful "template trees" that allow you to quickly reference what kind of templates you should purchase in order to follow a particular career-path ideally.

After this, there's an "optional" mechanic for group character-generation that seems so bizarre and so unlike anything I've seen that I suspect the hand of Levi Kornelsen in this. The mechanic seems like the typical gimmicky story-gamey stuff out of the forge. In brief, it involves using a deck of cards and having players play cards on each other while selecting templates, the cards forcing the player or players to do a variety of things: you can 'block' the player from being able to take a template, you can force a character to take a template, you can block a card someone else just played, or you can actually force everyone on the table to switch characters!  In theory the play of each card requires that the player also impose some kind of story-style 'backstory' that affects the character.

Obviously, my opinion is that this optional rule is garbage. I'm sorry, Clash, if you were the one who came up with it, but it's definitely not the kind of thing that belongs in a regular RPG.  Thankfully you made it clear that it's optional. 

As with most of Clash's systems, Volant has the curious quality of providing various different task resolution mechanics, ALL of which use the same stats but different rolling-methods. The Starpool system is a d20 dice pool system. Starnova uses a d6 pool.  Starzero uses a d6-d6 method.  And Starworm is apparently a variant of Levi Kornelsen's Ouroboros Engine, which itself descended from Starpool; thus it too uses a d20 dice pool system, but slightly differently from Starpool.  Of these, Starnova is described as the "grittiest", starzero as an "averaging mechanic", starpool is cautioned to "look more cinematic than it is", and starworm has the detail of having results that one can "buy off" or "buy into" (with all the storygaminess that implies).

Skills, regardless of system, work on pluses; as in Traveller a +0 is the default starting level of a skill. The skill is modified by the attribute that it relates to. For every five or more levels you have in a skill, you have a level of "mastery", each of which gives you a reroll attempt on a skill check.

As in some of Clash's other more recent games, he makes use of the mechanic of "traits".  These are point-buy here, and are useable to give bonuses to other actions when used, if the GM judges they are applicable to what is being attempted.  Example traits include things like "hot-tempered", "Pious", "Greedy", "Poker-faced", "Sly", "Sarcastic", or "Foul-mouthed". Traits can only be used a limited number of times, but if you use a trait in a negative fashion (that is, to your detriment instead of benefit) you get one trait point back.

There's also "Edges", which are free-floating bonuses. They are dependent on conditions (for example, "Shadow" as an edge would require that you be operating in the dark, or you could use your "Extreme Weather" edge in snowy conditions); and are used to re-roll a failed check.

Maneuvers are special combat feats, which you gain on the basis of age (this seems a bit odd to me, because it makes no career distinctions: a 32 year old knight and a 32 year old scholar will both have 3 combat maneuvers). There are shield maneuvers (like shield strike), sword maneuvers (like fast strike), staff maneuvers (like trip), team maneuvers(like turtle formation), bludgeoning maneuvers (like roundhouse), spear maneuvers (like lunge), axe maneuvers (like chop), fist maneuvers (like rope a dope), missile maneuvers (like chance flurry), or social maneuvers (which are still combat maneuvers, they involve things like tricking your opponent into leaving himself open, sympathy which can get bystanders to call for mercy on your behalf).

Some of these maneuvers seem vastly more easily applicable than others, and vastly more beneficial. Some of the same maneuvers are given for multiple weapons, but each must be taken separately (so having "chance flurry" with sword does not let you do a chance flurry with a missile weapon or vice-versa).

There are, as usual, some nice and very thorough equipment lists, and also the standard NPC section, which includes some quick-roll tables for NPC generation as well as a basic set of stat-blocks for default NPCs like a highwayman (skywayman?), assassin, ranger, soldier, etc.

Next we get to the part on Alchemy. As spell-type magic no longer exists in the setting, alchemy is a big deal. It involves the making of potions through the use of naturally-magical substances.  You get a step-by-step description of the processes involved, and based on the production there is a resulting 'strength' of the potion.  Potions can be used to effectively give you an "Edge" in a specific action, or to act as a poison, or for healing. There's an interesting apothecary-style list of typical potion bases, with descriptions of how thye're prepared and what they grant edges in. 

The section on "Skylands" has a set of mechanics for generating a random skyland, rolling for its size, number and type of resources, and then points to allocate for number of cities and their chief trade resources, cultural traits, and conditions. There's also random tables for government types, how rigid castes are, and cultural oddities of various kinds (economics, personal oddities, odd recreational activities, fashion, and taboos).  All in all, I'd say this section does quite a good job of letting you (mostly randomly) create a section of skyland, and that's certainly a plus from an old-school perspective.

After this we get a short set of micro-rules about how to do a negotiation. It seems a bit abstract and arbitrary to me.  Definitely not the kind of thing I care for much.

The section on religion establishes that religions vary wildly in the skylands, and that there's no definitive proof as to the correctness of any of them. 

Here, there are guidelines for designing religions which, rather than random rolls or point-buy, are based on choosing from a series of option-lists, for the type of deity involved, the interaction worshipers have with their faith, the hierarchy of the religion, its influence, taboos and obligations, places of worship, perspective in terms of tolerance vs. heresy, the duties of the faithful, paraphenalia used in worship, and overall theme of the religion (e.g. "punishment", "guilt", "love", "propriety", etc.). One can obviously choose more than one option in each list in some cases.  If you are acting in accord to the PC's own religion and against something that is contrary to the religion, you get an edge. If you are a strong believer (an undeviating fanatic) you get a double edge.  The GM must determine just what level of belief a PC has based on their actions. Any character who is a believer can ask for a miracle, once per campaign (a strong believer getting a second miracle per campaign).  The miracle should never violate the structure of the religion, nor need it be granted if the GM has an "insurmountable" reason not to do so.

Next we get into a description of the structure of the world, or rather, the skies of the world, including the great wind currents of the planet.  This is a short section of about three pages. It is followed by the section on Ship Creation, which is 12 pages counting the ship stat-sheet, and the section on Giant Bird Creation which is 21 pages including the bird stat sheet.  It seems odd that birds would get a larger section than flying ships, and that they can be 'created' at random in the mechanics. I can't say I really mind the latter because I love me a random generation table, but precisely here is a place where you'd think instead there was a set number of species of giant bird with reliable stats. Ship creation is point-buy of a sort, where you build based on the type of weight and crew allowance you want the ship to have. There's lots of fine rules on ship weapons, and ship speeds and maneuverability.  Bird creation is random, determining size, damage points, special abilities, flight capabilities, armor, and qualities like feathers, beaks or talons (its weapons, essentially), diet, intelligence and aggression, habitat, carrying capacity, etc.

The next 25 pages or so cover the aerial combat rules.  These are very detailed, and pretty much a combat micro-game in themselves. They are not dissimilar to the aerial combat mechanics we've seen from Clash in some of the In Harm's Way series, only with giant birds instead of sopwith camels.  Wargamers will find these really good; while non-wargamers who nevertheless like a good system will still find it simple enough to manage. Only people who prefer really abstract ultra-lite combat rules will have any kind of problem here.

The last two sections of the book are definitely the most interesting: "what is on the surface" and "creating monsters".  They both contain a set of random tables, the first for creating native tribes, and the second for random creatures.  There's also a list of reasons why anyone would ever bother going down to the (incredibly dangerous) surface. The random tribe table is not about "number appearing" or "treasure type", but instead contains stuff like "relation with 'bird people'", "distinctive belief", "cultural oddities", and "taboos & permissions".   Cultural oddities include stuff like : "odd gender roles", "sexual barter" or "body modification".  Taboos include things like "left-handers", "dancing" or "eating utensils" (as lists of stuff that is forbidden).  

The monster tables are a bit more conventional, being somewhat traveller-esque.

Finally, a kind of appendix of "examples" is presented, with some sample religions, sample nations, associations, birds, ships, and monsters.

So on the whole, I think that Volant is yet another sign of the increasing skill that Clash Bowley shows as a game designer.  In spite of some weird things, the overall feel of the setting is that of one of those weird science-fantasy worlds on the vein of Jorune (though not nearly as incomprehensible).  The subsystems aren't perfect but they show a lot more creativity than earlier works of Bowley's, and by including an aerial-combat subsystem he nevertheless keeps playing on his strengths. 

I don't know how many people are specifically looking for this kind of game, but there is a lot of stuff here that a GM could use for gonzo style D&D settings too. All in all, worth checking out. 


Currently Smoking:  Lorenzetti Oversize + H&H's Beverwyck


  1. Awesome! Thank you very much for another fine review, Pundit! I'm actually currently running Volant as a tolkienesque traditional fantasy, with no skylands - the skylands regions refer to regular earth regions, and the surface rules refer to the wilderness between. There are no flying ships, but there are giant birds, though they are only being used as messengers in the game. So, yes, you can use the tools in Volant to play a traditional fantasy/create a traditional fantasy setting.

    1. Interesting! well, I did think that some of the random design elements could be transplanted to OSR setting ideas and such.

    2. Most everything in my more recent games are designed to be usable with most any game, and I encourage that use.

  2. I never use playing cards in my RPGs. For any reason. GDW committed suicide doing that.

  3. This use of cards is entirely optional, Shawn. If you like that sort of thing, use it. If not, no foul. :D

  4. It's a shame Shawn will miss the coolness of the Aces & Eights shot clock.

    This doesn't sound like a setting I'd play but as always I give bonus points to ClSh Bowley for going where other games fear to tread.

    1. Matt - There are a lot of cool things that are done with cards, but there is no disputing taste. If you don't like something, there is no amount of cleverness that will make you like it. That's why I make such things optional - hell, that's why I give a wide choice of resolution mechanics! Likes and dislikes are not necessarily rational, but are nevertheless powerful. Roll over and roll under are mathematically the same, yet some people vastly prefer one over the other. :D

    2. And thanks for the bonus points! I collect 'em for cool prizes! :D