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Thursday 18 August 2016

Classic Rant: Lords of Olympus Review

RPGPundit Reviews: Lords of Olympus, by the RPGPundit

Yes, as with my previous products, this is a review of a book I wrote myself. Here’s the thing: we got tons of requests for review from people to Precis, wanting to review Lords of Olympus (or LoO), and Brett Bernstein sent out some copies. Thus far, hardly any has actually resulted in a review.
And later people wonder why publishers would spend a small fortune to send me free books all the way to South America; its worth their weight in gold to know that they will ALWAYS actually GET a review for it!

And my own book is no exception. I’m reviewing the full-colour softcover version, my own author’s copy. Lords of Olympus is also available as a black & white softcover; the only difference is that in the former all the interior pages and art are luscious full colour. Oh, and you can get it on PDF too.

So, to begin with: Lords of Olympus is a diceless RPG where the players portray children of the Greek gods. Yes, diceless. You see, over 20 years ago, a guy named Erick Wujcik wrote the first-ever totally diceless RPG; Amber Diceless Roleplaying. Mr. Wujcik’s game was revolutionary unlike anything that had appeared in the hobby since D&D itself. And the Amber Diceless RPG was a huge success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies over its lifetime, and spawning not one but a whole series of Conventions dedicated to its play, as well as hundreds of websites (most gone now, but back in the early days of the World Wide Web, the net was chalk-full of Amber campaign sites), a huge MUSH, and other things.

I was a big fan of Mr. Wujcik’s work, and developed a friendship with him over email that lasted for over a decade, until the time of his very untimely death from cancer in 2008. By this time, the Amber RPG had gone through two different attempts at a revival (first with Guardians of Order, then when the rights to the game were passed on to a couple of fans) but nothing ever came of it. Meanwhile, the largest Amber RPG presence on the net became theRPGsite, where Erick Wujcik had graciously agreed to allow the RPGPundit to host the OFFICIAL Erick Wujcik and Amber RPG Forum (and indeed, Erick acted as a moderator on that subforum until about one week before his death, moderating from his hospice bed).

A couple of years back, several Amber fans came to the same conclusion: that if the Amber setting could not be, at the very least the Diceless RPG had to be revived and redesigned for a new generation. Two years ago, three separate attempts were announced to create a new Diceless RPG inspired by Amber. Lords of Olympus is the first (and only, thus far) to be published (but we hope it will soon be joined by Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, which is still being worked on; no news that I know of at this time about John Wick’s project, Houses of the Blooded: Blood and Shadow).

So Lords of Olympus is, in fact, system-wise a kind of retro-clone; not a direct copy but utilizing the same skeletal framework of game rules that you see (and may already enjoy) in the previous Diceless RPG, but with a new execution, and changes to how some of these rules play out. LoO has a totally new setting, original powers, original mechanics for item or creature creation, original rules for task resolution, and a whole set of new and original monsters and divine NPCs founded on Greek Mythology. So those who have played and enjoyed Erick Wujcik’s original Diceless rules will be very likely to enjoy LoO as well; but there is absolutely no requirement to know anything about that game or have any experience with it to be able to enjoy Lords of Olympus, anymore than there would be a requirement to have read or played Basic/Expert D&D to enjoy playing “Lamentations of the Flame Princess”. Indeed, Lords of Olympus is considerably more different from the Amber RPG than LotFP is from Basic/Expert Dungeons and Dragons. Outside of the basic mechanical framework, its entirely new and original stuff.

There are some other categories of reader who will be highly likely to enjoy Lords of Olympus: gamers who like high-power play, gamers who like to run a game that has an emphasis on character development, and gamers who like descriptive task resolution (LoO is not a game where you can just say “I roll to attack”!). And of course, most obviously, any gamers who are interested in anything to do with Greek Mythology! For anything ranging from classical mythology, to Clash of the Titans, to Percy Jackson, to the more mythical runs of “Wonder Woman”, not to mention sci-fi, modern occult, and just about anything else you can fit into a multiversal setting.

So in any case, its clear that this review is going to be biased; but I will make every effort that all bias aside, it will be detailed and informative. Let’s take a look at what the book is actually all about:

The book itself, which I had very little to do with apart from the writing, is a work of beauty. Huge kudos to Brett Bernstein and his people at Precis Intermedia for the stunning work. The full-colour edition is majestic, and don’t take just my word for it; everyone who’s seen the book here in Uruguay was blown away by it. The interior has beautiful borders, and a stunning mix of original art and truly fantastic works of classical art. The incredible portraiture of Jupiter, Athena and other classic works comes out in gorgeous full colour. The book is a freaking feast for the eyes.
The layout is also fantastically well-organized and readable; you get two columns per page, very adequate margins and very legible print, with well-defined boxes for examples or optional rules.

The fundamental premise of the setting is a Multiverse, an infinite number of universes that can encompass just about anywhere and everywhere. This multiverse is ruled by the Olympian gods, and can be traversed through a series of connections known as “roads”, of which there are three, one governed by each of the three rulers of creation: Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. Every universe connects to at least one road, and theoretically as many as three.
Implicit in this multiverse is the fact that there are an infinite number of possible Earths as well (though there are many many other universes, worlds, or realms that are not earthlike at all); and there are a few Earths that are particularly important in the sense of having drawn the attention of one or more deity: there’s Classical Earth, which appears very much like the Mediterranean region as depicted in Greek Myth; and Modern Earth, essentially our own world, but you can have any number of other Earths (for example, its implied that Heracles likes to spend time adventuring on one earth where superheroes really exist).

The Player Characters in the default game are all children of Greek Gods (that is, at least one of their parents is a deity); but depending on the type of campaign one runs, they could have been raised on Olympus itself and/or with full knowledge of their heritage, or they might never have known their parent and have been raised on some other world. Depending on the campaign, they may or may not be immortal! The PCs might not be the children of the Olympians either; they could be descended from the Titans, the previous generation of gods who were deposed by Zeus; or they may even be children of the Primordials, the oldest generation of gods who are much less “human”.
The game can also be run as a “heroic mortals” campaign, where less powerful characters are not descended from the gods at all, though this is not the standard level of play.

Characters in LoO have four ability scores: Ego (which governs mental potential, regulating the effectiveness of most powers), Might (physical strength, governing damage also), Fortitude (endurance and damage resistance, an important “tiebreaker” attribute), and Prowess (governing dexterity and martial abilities). Ability scores are measured by “Classes”; where a 0-point investment gives a character “Olympian Class”, a level vastly above that of ordinary mortals. You can “buy down” to lower classes (“Heroic” or “Mortal” class) for extra points to spend elsewhere, or you can participate in the Bidding War, to buy “Numbered Classes” beyond Olympian Class.

The Bidding War is one of the most interesting parts of character creation. It makes the PC party interconnected right from the start, and can create unexpected results, as well as fostering competition if the GM wants the campaign to be one of Machiavellian scheming (a fairly typical kind of campaign setup).
In the Bidding War, the GM auctions off the “First Class” level of each ability score. Players bid to try to obtain 1st Class, and in the process the bids from those who came in second, third, etc. become the “2nd Class”, “3rd Class” and so on.
In task resolution, putting things extremely simple, whenever two ability scores are compared to one another, the higher score will win out: someone with 2nd Class will beat out the guy with 4th Class; the 4th Class guy will beat up the guy with Heroic Class, and the 1st Class guy will beat all of the above. NPCs (and eventually, PCs as they advance in the game) can theoretically hold classes “above 1st class” (for example, the goddess Nike has “First Class +1″ in Prowess; while Athena, the greatest warrior of the Olympians, has “First Class +10″; Poseidon’s Might is “First Class +2″, while Heracles has a whopping “First Class +11″). This is an important innovation from the original Diceless RPG, which allows all characters, PCs or NPCs, to be judged on the same scale for comparison.

There are all kinds of factors that can affect task resolution. In a combat situation, for example, you would need to first consider which ability score a character is trying to use, and which his opponent is trying to use. Beyond the straightforward comparison of Class, you need to also consider how each character is using his ability, how is he attacking? Is he being aggressive or cautious?
You also need to consider environmental factors: does the terrain affect one or both characters’ effectiveness? Is either character injured or tired? Is one using some kind of particularly effective weapon, or wearing some kind of particularly resistant armor or other defense? Is one character outnumbered?
When all of this is done, it is the degree of the difference in Class that will establish whether a situation puts one side of any conflict at a clear advantage, or if the situation is potentially successful but could be modified by these factors, or if the opposing actions are too close to call. In the latter case, the conflict continues; and players can choose to try to change their strategies (possibly switching to the use of a different ability), or to keep pushing on, looking to tire out their opponent (counting on having a higher Fortitude Class than their opponent), or until some other event intervenes.

In what is again an important innovation to the Diceless rules, Lords of Olympus features fairly detailed and specific rules for how GMs should determine everything from the use of abilities, how and when a PC can shift from using one ability to another, to environmental factors, to how to calculate the effect of multiple opponents, and how to judge and quantify all these factors in resolving action. The task resolution rules likewise present very detailed information on injury and its effects, and healing rates based on Fortitude Class. These innovations and guidelines are tested by over two decades of playing and running Diceless campaigns.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Back to character creation! There are optional rules provided for five alternate methods of determining classes apart from the traditional Bidding War. If you really want to miss out on the fun of the Bidding war, you can go with Bidless point-buy, Classless Point-buy, one of two random methods of class generation using a deck of playing cards (I know, heresy in a diceless game! but there you are, I put the option there), or a point-free option where players state the priority of importance of each ability score to them, and the GM assigns the Classes on that basis.

In a standard game, players have 100 points with which to build their character; and while in theory they can blow all of these on ability scores, there’s plenty of other things they can buy. Foremost among these are powers. For starters, unless the GM decides to make it a freebie, you have to spend 10 points to start the game as an Immortal. Aside from that, you can spend points to gain the World-Walking power, which lets you travel between universes on one, two or all three of the divine roads. If you want to be cheap, you can buy the power of the “Promethean Road”, where you use magic to cheat and force your way onto a road, rather than accessing it through divine authority. 

Any child of the Olympian generation can buy Olympian magic, which grants the power to bless or curse, to manipulate probability and to resist the power of entropy. Olympians, Titans, or Primordials alike can buy Primordial magic, which manipulates chaos and entropy to manipulate reality or use destructive forces to create change.

Scrying is a power that allows a character to use devices to obtain visions of other places, people, or times. Metamorphosis is the power to change forms.
Then there are the more minor forms of magic: ineffable names, which are words of power that create magical effects (the names being taken from real Greek “magic words”); Elementalism, which manipulates the four classical elements; Enchantment, which allows one to manipulate the minds of others; and Glamour which creates illusions.
There is also the optional power of Olympian Artificing, which allows the user to create objects of divine power.

Most of the major powers have “advanced” versions which grant additional abilities and cost more points (and are only available to starting characters at the GM’s option). The details of each power give very explicit and detailed instructions about how long each aspect of the power takes to use, how it works, how to judge the effectiveness of the power (usually but not always based on one’s Ego Class), and how long or often the power can be used before it is lost or the PC is exhausted (usually based on Fortitude Class).

There are other things you can buy aside from powers: you can spend points to obtain a Patron (a deity who will act as a sort of ally to the character), or can gain additional points if they start with an Enemy (a deity who is opposed to the character). The game has detailed rules for the creation of Daemons, creatures of all varieties that are infused with a degree of divine power and serve the PC.
Optionally, players can also purchase Daemons bound into weapons, armor, or other items.

Players can also spend points to buy their own Realm, a universe they control (to what degree they control it, and what characteristics it might have, depends on how they spend the points for it).
At the end of the process, players might be left with some points to spare; or they might have ended up overspending. Their surplus, or deficit, becomes their Luck Score; an important “fifth ability” that regulates the PC’s general good or bad fortune, and can affect things like “random encounters”, how NPCs react to him, or even the results of very close conflicts. Importantly, the LoO rulebook gives detailed guidelines about when and how to apply the Luck score (and when you shouldn’t).

If a player is too far gone down the path of bad luck, he may be able to convince the GM to grant him a “Player addition”, gaining a few extra points if he does something for the campaign, like drawing illustrations of his character or NPCs, providing a written log of the game, written details of his character background story, or providing any other kind of contribution to the group (maybe even providing snacks for the group!).

The last step in character generation is the providing of background details, most of which the Player is free to decide. An extensive “Character Questionnaire” is included in the book to provide help in determining the PC’s personality in depth right from the start of the game; and its recommended that all the players go through it together in order to get to know the PCs as a group.
One thing the player doesn’t get to decide is who his divine parent is. That’s for the GM to determine; and in the extensive NPC section of the book, each entry lists which deity may potentially serve as a parent to a PC, and notes on just what kind of a parent they’re likely to be.

There’s one important optional rule that should be mentioned: divine aspect. In the default game, just what the young PC is a god “of” is mostly a flavour element. But optionally, the GM may wish to run a game where the PC’s theme has a mechanical effect on the game, and the book provides two different options for doing so (one where theme has a moderate mechanical influence, and the other where theme has a very significant influence).

The rules on character creation, powers, and task resolution only cover about one-third of the book. The next two-thirds detail guidelines for game-mastering, details on the setting, and a large section on the “divine family” of NPC deities.
The Game Master section helps to guide the Lords of Olympus GM in how to set up and run his campaign, with a great deal of useful advice including how to incorporate the backgrounds of the PCs into the central elements of the setting, how to decide (and effectively run) the level of player competition in the game (unlike most RPGs, LoO doesn’t assume that the PCs all operate together in a “party”, and in many LoO campaign the players might frequently find themselves at odds with one another), how to figure out what’s happening “behind the scenes” of the campaign, how to manage PC death, guidelines on how to run a “Heroic Mortal” campaign, how to handle themes of Fate and destiny in the campaign, how to adjudicate the use of PC Powers, guidelines and rules for how to create new powers in the game, rules for creating Olympian Artefacts, and how to handle PC advancement. There are several options presented for how to handle the latter; what to award points for, including the option of allowing players to set up their own goals for which they can win points for accomplishing, as well as the option of using a more freestyle kind of advancement not based on points or wish lists. There’s also an extensive list of tips and (dirty?) GM tricks for GMing a LoO game, as well as setups for specific Campaign ideas like the “immortality quest” game, the Return of the Titans, the rise of Dionysus, a war between Olympians, the death of Zeus, divine involvement in local wars, Primordial apocalypses, forces from beyond the universe, or the presence of another pantheon of gods.

The setting material gives detailed descriptions of the Multiverse, including Olympus, Atlantis, Tartarus and the Underworld, the Shadow-Realm of Erebus, Modern Earth, Classical Earth, and Other Earths; the Pillars of Heaven, Hera’s personal Realm, the Islands of Chaos, the Pillars of the Sky (and the monsters Scylla and Charybdis), the True Oracle of Delphi, Arcadia (Pan’s realm), as well as other divine realms and worlds.
The monster section gives descriptions and suggested attributes for Automatons, Basilisks, Cacodemons, Centaurs, Cerberus, Charybdis, Chimeras, Cyclops, Dragons, the First Race of Humans, Giants and Giant Creatures, the Gorgons, Gryphons, Harpies, Hydras, Lamia, Manticores, Minotaurs, Nymphs, Phoenix, Pegasus, Satyrs, Scylla, Shadow-beings, Sirens, Sphinx, Strix, Tritones, Unicorns and Werewolves.

The section on the Divine Family provides overall guidelines on how to handle the NPCs as archetypes or as personalities, the culture and customs of Olympus, and GM tips on how to run the gods as one big and very dysfunctional family. After that, every single major Greek god, and a great deal of minors ones, are fully detailed with statistics, personal history, abilities and powers, titles, personality guidelines, frequent locations, relationships and allies, and guidelines for running the deity as a parent. Primordials, Titans and Olympians are all detailed in full, covering 112 pages of the book (with a handy index at the back of the book for quick reference, as well as reference sheets for the gods’ ability Classes, personal symbols, and typical locations). In all, 92 Greek Deities are fully fleshed out for use in the campaign (if I counted right), not just as a set of stats but as plot hooks, parents, background details, and major players in the intrigues of the game; everyone from Aethyr to Zeus, from Epimethus to Phanes, Hyperion to Pan, Ceto to Poseidon, and so on. So even if someone never planned to actually run the Diceless RPG itself, but wanted to have a gaming-friendly sourcebook on the Greek gods for any other kind of campaign, this would be quite the resource.

The back pages of the book also provides a character sheet as well as handy worksheets for daemons and realms.

I’m not sure that it would really be worthwhile for me to present some kind of conclusion to this review; obviously I would rate Lords of Olympus very highly, but then that’s to be expected. More importantly, I hope this review gives you some idea of what the game is about, and what you can find in it. I think that if you already have experience with Amber Diceless, you will find this game both familiar and at the same time quite different (hopefully, in both cases in all the right ways), providing more than enough to make it stand on its own right as a worthwhile purchase. I think that if you’re interested in a game of high-powered epic adventure and intrigue, you’ll enjoy Lords of Olympus very much. Likewise, if you enjoy RPGs with a strong emphasis on characters, on roleplaying, and on a rich setting to encourage the same. And if you are interested in the angle of Greek Mythology, I would daresay that you’ll find this the most detailed game available on the subject. 

I hope this review is helpful to you, in spite of my authorial bias, in figuring out if Lords of Olympus will be a game you’ll like, and of course I hope very much you’ll give it a try.


(Originally posted December 13, 2012)

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