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Tuesday 11 October 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Arrows of Indra, by the RPGPundit!

Right, the time has come again for the RPGPundit to review one of his own games. But don’t think of this as some kind of advertisement; yes, obviously I have a bias, but so does everyone else. And mine you know up front. If you prefer, think of this more as a guide to the contents along with some “Designer notes” rather than a more conventional review. I mean, its not like I have to wait until the end here to tell you that I like this product!

Anyways, Arrows of Indra is a complete RPG, in the OSR style (that is, with OGL rules based on everyone’s favorite original RPG). Its published by Bedrock Games, written by the RPGPundit. Its available in PDF or print; the print edition is a softcover, full colour cover with B&W illustrations inside, clocking in at about 180 pages (plus character sheet).

The cover is really amazing (and I can say that while making it clear I had nothing to do with it!), with a matte finish and a beautiful illustration showing a group of Indian heroes holding off an Asura demon at the entrance to an abandoned temple in the middle of the jungle. One detail which might be notable about the cover is that it is, as far as I know, the first RPG cover to feature a transgender person on it (the siddhi or magic-user of the group).

The interior art (again, none of which was my doing) has been somewhat controversial in the sense that some people like it and others really didn’t. It has a style that is meant to evoke old-school art, that is to say, a slightly primitive style; though I think some of the pieces are really quite impressive within that style. Still, not for everyone. I should note that there are also a number of pieces of art from other sources (mostly public domain art), and some really awesome artistic borders on every page. Finally, no one at all has had any unkind words to say about the truly awesome hexmaps made by master cartographer Rob Conley; there are four pages worth of these that put together detail the entire area of the Bharata Kingdoms and its surroundings.

Now, a brief word on what its all about: Arrows of Indra is an attempt to make an Old-school RPG that is based on the world of Epic Indian myth. When designing it, I tried to follow certain rules:

1) over and above all else, I wanted the game to be playable, out of the book, and to be easy and fun to play. I didn’t want players to have to study college-level linguistics or anthropology to have to play, nor did I want what I call “culturewank” to end up drowning out actual playability. For example, I tried wherever possible to use ordinary words in English when such words existed and conveyed what I was trying to communicate; rather than requiring that players relearn common terms in Sanskrit. I used Sanskrit for things like place names, some monsters that didn’t have a readily-available western equivalent, and certain powers or concepts that strongly benefited from using a Sanskrit name without needlessly hampering the reader.

2) At the same time, I wanted the game to be recognizable as an OSR game; while this game is far less similar to any edition of D&D than, say, ACKS or LotFP, it is still very clearly mechanically founded on the OGL. Wherever possible I tried to make the game accessible to those who are accustomed to D&D play, while at the same time without just reducing the setting to a shallow facade.

3) On that note, I wanted the setting to cleave as closely as possible to the authentic historical and mythological sources of “Epic India” (that is, the pseudo-historical India of the Indian Epics: the Vedas, the Ramayana, and particularly the Mahabharata in which the AoI setting takes place), within the context of rules 1 and 2 above.

What this meant in practice was making a number of choices: there were times where I made changes to the mechanics of the game in order to better fit the setting (for example, the skill system, the non-vancian casting, the classes, etc); whenever I did so, I tried to make such a change be one that kept to the old-school feel, while better representing the setting. At the same time, there were many times I had an option between a number of choices regarding the setting (for example, how to present a specific monster); in those cases, I tried to always make the selection out of a list of several authentic possibilities that would keep the game as playable as possible and as close to the familiar as possible.

So Arrows of Indra is not just “AD&D with a dash of Indian backdrop”; and at the same time its not “cultural-academic game which bares almost no resemblance to anything familiar” (avoiding the latter wasn’t hard, by the way, since ultimately, a lot of European mythology has its deepest roots somewhere in India, and there’s a ton of parallels). Everything in the game is there for a reason and has a source in Indian mythology; but this isn’t a “too weird to live” game where you have a rich setting but no idea what to actually do with it and no easy way to get into it without a huge investment of study and familiarization. Its easy-access.

Some people have claimed the game has sacrificed elements of authenticity in order to fit the D&D mold. That’s probably true; I can certainly imagine that someone else could someday make a more authentic game than AoI (whether or not it would be more playable). But the point of fact is, no one has. And you can’t even compare AoI to other non-European D&D-settings; Arrows of Indra stays MUCH closer to the authentic sources for India than L5R does to Asian ones, for example (and don’t even get me started on “oriental adventures”)! I haven’t yet read “Spears of the Dawn”, and I’m sure its awesome but I’d be willing to bet that, at best, it could only match AoI for authenticity.

The end goal, in any case (and which I feel from the playtests and AP reports since the game came out) was to make a game that is definitely Epic Indian adventuring, that is notably different to being in Greyhawk or the Wilderlands, but that at the same time feels very familiarly like D&D: its a game where the players will immediately know what their group is meant to be doing (basically what D&D PCs should always be doing: heroic adventuring!) and in very much the same ways as traditionally, but in a very different world that brings a fresh perspective to it all.

So, let’s take a gander at what’s inside the book, shall we?

Characters are created by rolling for ability scores as per usual; though in addition to the standard elements of scores, race and class, you are also expected to roll or choose a caste and select or be assigned a clan, two vital parts of the setting. These are thoroughly explained in a practical way that explains their role in the world from the perspective of what it would mean to the PC. Its one of the ways that AoI might vary from other old-school games, in that things like culture and customs can (if the GM wishes) be a significant part of the very definition of the PC, and family and clan become a major part of playing in the setting (again, to the degree the GM wishes it). So you also get some quick rules for generating a PC’s immediate family.

For convenience, there’s also a list of 100 male and 100 female names for PCs from a random table, along with a loose definition of the name’s meaning. This was something I added on relatively late in the writing, as a result of playtesting and quickly figuring out that a lot of players haven’t got the slightest idea what a name should be like; I’ll admit that I made the table mostly by just recollection and that most of the names would probably not be historically accurate to the period. Someone creative out there taking their time could probably make a much better, historically-accurate name table.

The player-character races include regular civilized humans of the Bharata kingdoms, barbarian humans (the Bhil), Gandharva (immortal beautiful servants and messengers of the gods), Yaksha (also immortal gold-skinned dwarves who guard treasures of the gods; they are both erudite scholars and passionate romantics), Rakshasa (the descendents of humans interbred with Asura demons; distrusted and tainted), and Vanara (the monkey-men of the south). It's been pointed out that I’ve made the various non-human races (all of which come out of Indian myths of the time) into very close parallels of the core old-school D&D races, and that’s technically true; but again, this was done by making a choice from a number of options. For example, a “Yaksha” could be (depending on which mythological source you look at) a big scary monster, a beautiful tall human, an ethereal spirit with no body at all, or a golden-skinned dwarf who likes to fight, read poetry and guard treasures. I chose from these options the one that was closest to something a D&D player would find familiar.

Some people have also pointed out that I made use of a real-life minority group, the Bhil, in my game, and that I was somehow “reinforcing” the caste structure by including it. These are stupid arguments; I’m utterly opposed to the caste structure in real life, I say so in the introduction to the game itself. But what I am doing is making use of sources. The Bhil are not intended to be “non-humans” by the way they were included, they’re intended to be non-vedic; which they were. And the way people wrote about them back then was no different than how they wrote about, say, the Gandharvas; both were detailed as alternately being not-really-human and/or just-another-tribe. This is a reflection of the mentality of the times, not anything I believe or endorse myself. In any case, moving on to stuff more worth talking about now…

Classes in the game are also set up to roughly reflect the standard class selection of an OSR game, but each have subtle or less-than-subtle differences from their bog-standard equivalents. Priests are not unlike what one would expect in an OSR game, but caste requirements make them far less common, and they have several social restrictions they’re bound to (priests weren’t generally adventurers in Epic India, and I almost considered limiting the class to NPCs; but in the end, as described above, opted for the choice that would be most familiar to OSR gamers). There are also modifications for playing barbarian priest-shamans, or priests that are not of the gods but of Asura-cults.

Fighters as a class are mainly different due to class skills, so more about that later. But there are also subclasses of fighter in the Virakshatriya (holy warrior) which is the term I used to describe those particular Holy-aligned warriors that get mystical powers due to their devotion to a particular god. They’re a little bit cleric, a little bit paladin; and a lot kick-ass. But of course, have serious RP obligations in terms of taboos and rules to follow. Scouts are wilderness men; not unlike rangers but with no magical element to them, but expert trackers, survivalists, good at sneaking, and skilled at fighting barbarians and those giant monsters that the Bharata Kingdoms’ wilderness areas seem full of.

Siddhis are the wizard-class; the main difference between them and your standard old-school Magic User is in that the magic system has been completely redone (this, along with the new skill system, are the two biggest changes in Arrows of Indra, from a mechanical point of view).

Thieves are perhaps the most familiar class in terms of similarity to D&D; and the subclass of Thugee is similar to the Assassin; but mainly I included it almost out of an expectation among players; its not really historically relevant to the period at all (so people can feel free to ignore it if they desire). 

Finally, the Yogi is a physical adept (as compared to the siddhi who is a mental adept). They have some of the strictest mechanical and social/RP requirements of the game (they are renunciates who are forbidden from material possessions, among other things), but also have a serious amount of powers. The Yogi is another one of those that might be better off used as an NPC class only in some campaigns.

Another detail that adds to the richness of the setting in AoI is how alignment is handled. Its very important to the context of the setting, and is divided into “Holy”, Neutral, and “Unholy”, rather than the standard good/evil or law/chaos divides. The alignment system is based on how well one fulfills one’s obligations to the gods; and it basically measures not how “good” a person you are (or how you feel about order versus anarchy) but is a measure of how well the gods look upon you. In subsequent parts of the game, when it comes to things like spells, magic items, monster reactions, and divine intervention, alignment ends up having a direct mechanical impact on play. Because of what alignment represents in AoI (compared to in other games), it is also more malleable and somewhat easier to change (even accidentally!).

I’ll mention that some people have commented on thinking it very odd that I didn’t include details about things like Karma or non-dualism (“Advaita”) in the game; this was absolutely intentional and for the reason that at the time of the setting, these concepts were far less developed than in the Hindu religion today. The spirituality of the setting is a Vedic spirituality, based on the old Brahmanical religion and not the modern Hindu religion. It's actually more historically accurate NOT to have these things in there. Some people also claimed I left out union-with-godhead or reincarnation; in fact I didn’t: the former is something Siddhis and Yogis can achieve, the latter is something that explicitly happens to everyone in the game and there are even some forms of magic that allow a Siddhi to mess with it. They’re just not really crucial to the game because of course, what happens after your PC dies won’t usually have a direct bearing on you as a player; your PC is still dead, after all.

The Skill system in Arrows of Indra is neither a point-buy 3e-style system nor a choose-from-proficiency-list type of system either. Instead, what you get are both background skills (reflecting a character’s family or clan training) and then class skills. Both are set up to be rolled from random tables, though some GMs may prefer to have players choose the skills.
Background skills are all basically career-type skills (divided into tables by caste type), and are resolved by beating a DC on a D20 check, plus attribute and bonus. Every time a background skill is taken at character creation it grants a +2 to checks, with subsequent selections granting another +1. Pretty straightforward.

Class skills, on the other hand, are a mix of career-type skills and special abilities (things like weapon proficiencies and spells, mostly). They are divided into basic and advanced tables; with the “advanced” skills being harder to get at (you need to fill up slots on the basic table in order to get a chance to roll on the advanced table).
Skills for priests include things like languages, theology, demonology and magical rituals (called “arcana”).
Fighters get weapon proficiencies (which grant stacking bonuses to hit and damage each time they are taken), horsemanship, charioteering, and (at advanced levels) things like special maneuvers, exotic weapon mastery, and Command (leadership).
Siddhis get basic spells from the class skills; in the form of Mantras (vibrated chants) or Mudras (physical postures or hand gestures that manipulate energy). They can also learn astrology and demonology.
Thieves (who get all the standard “move silent”/”backstab”/”Climb” stuff as basic class abilities to start with) get a wide variety of special talents for their Class skills: languages and literacy, knowledge of poisons, manipulation (bonuses to reaction checks), urban survival, training in thief-favored weapons, appraisal of goods, disguise, and object identification/lore.

The one other element of character building that we have left to cover are what I’ve termed Enlightenment Powers. These are available to Wizards and Priests from level two onward, and round out the magic system.
Magic in Arrows of Indra are based on two different parts: first, Priests have priest arcana (rituals), while siddhis have magical mantras and mudras. These are the basic spells of each type. Then, both priests and siddhis get potential access to Enlightenment powers, which are generally more powerful types of magic that manifest spontaneously without the need of ritual or verbal or somatic components. First level characters don’t get any Enlightenment powers, but from level 2 onward, every time a Priest or Siddhi goes up in level, they have a chance of learning one or more enlightenment powers. There are three ranks of such powers (and 20 powers listed in each rank), and at each level there’s a percentage chance (for ranks 1 and 2 from 2nd level onward, rank 3 from 5th level onward) of gaining a new power. These percentage abilities are modified by the classes’ prime requisite, and the Intelligence ability score determines a maximum number of powers that can be gained in each rank.

Of these powers, mantras, mudras, and arcana, some of them will appear similar to D&D spells for either magic-users or clerics; others will be quite different as they are based on miraculous powers from Indian myth. So for the experienced old-school gamer playing a spellcasting class in AoI, the magic available will sometimes seem familiar and other times excitingly exotic. The way the mechanics work out, a spellcasting character can theoretically gain between 0-2 enlightenment powers each level until 5th after which they could gain between 0-3 enlightenment powers; they will also likely gain one “class skill” power each level. In all cases any power or spell can be used only once a day, but it is possible to “gain” a power or spell more than once in some cases, allowing for multiple uses. All of this means that in some ways the magician in AoI will be a bit less predictable in his development than in D&D, but is likely to get certain powers that would be the equivalent of high-level magic relatively earlier.

Next up the game features a short but relatively complete equipment section, including details on currency, encumbrance, and in-setting systems of loan and credit (usually handled through clan houses). There’s guidelines too for reselling items. Weapons and armor are all based on real Indian weapons and armor (generally of the period), and include a few more unusual objects like the famous Chakram. Whatever one might say of the interior art, p.57 features a spectacular page with authentic drawings of all of standard weapons as they actually would look, and to scale. Certain weapons like Chakram or Strangling Cords have special qualities that are noted in their descriptions. There are price lists for animals, clothing, food, herbalism, housing and transport, siege weapons, and miscellaneous equipment (including some familiar standard adventuring gear like rope or a 10 foot pole, and some much more unusual items like mala beads or a conch shell). There are also price lists for slaves and for hirelings.

The GM section begins on p.64, and starts off with slightly more detailed rules than you’d normally find in an OSR product for Reaction Rolls (which are used for social interaction as well as for animal encounters) and morale rules. There are rules for travel and guidelines for giving out XP. The combat section is relatively familiar to OSR-fans: the game uses ascending AC, initiative is rolled individually (1d6+dex+miscellaneous modifiers for things like weapon speed or spellcasting penalties). As the tone of AoI is a bit more heroic than normal and also meant to be based on Epic Indian myth, there are a few differences: there’s a “critical hit” rule for rolling natural 20s (natural-20s always hit, plus a hit that surpasses opponent’s AC enables you to immediately make a second attack), and there are special rules for firing multiple arrows meant to make archers more effective than typical in OSR games (this is also backed up by the class skill system, where fighters who choose to focus on archery can end up getting very significant bonuses). There’s rules for fighting from a chariot or on an elephant-platform as well, both important features of Indian combat.

Because healing magic is somewhat more rare in AoI than in other games, there are some changes to healing where PCs heal just a little faster with rest than they would in many other OSR games (though nowhere near proportions seen in later D&D editions); but there’s also rules for the Medical skill and herbalism that go a long way to aiding and accelerating healing without having to involve magic.
Then there’s all the standard goodness for things like charging, cover, wrestling, poisons, falling damage, etc.

The next 36 pages cover the setting, with a detailed gazetteer of the Bharata Lands, a guide to the Patala Underworld, a system for generating cave complexes in the same, and random wilderness and city encounter tables.
The Bharata kingdoms are basically a fantasy-version of ancient India as detailed in the Mahabharata period; I had briefly considered making up some more abstract world with an Indian “flavor” but I decided that nothing I could come up with myself would be able to beat the richness, detail and creativity of the actual “Epic India” of the myths. The Bharata Kingdoms, as of the “present” of the setting, already have thousands and thousands of years of history. They are a series of city-states, small kingdoms, decadent principalities, plus one looming somewhat-evil empire currently engaging in threatening expansion. The western, central, southern and eastern areas each have their own distinct quality and style, but all the lands are united by a common overall culture and heritage (though marked by interesting regional variations). The setting section includes guildelines to what life is like in the Bharata Kingdoms, cultural traditions, holidays, the weather, what growing up in the Bharata kingdoms would have been like for the PCs, gender roles (including details on the somewhat different concepts they had on the gender spectrum), and the “Heroic culture” of the current era (a culture that all but encourages people like the PCs to go out and be great adventurers).

There’s detailed descriptions of all the major kingdoms and important city-states, as well as of the wilderlands that surround the Bharata lands: the imposing and magical mountains to the north, the desert of Thar, the various hills and jungles, swamplands and coastal regions; as well as ruins of ancient cities and temples lost to time, kingdoms of Demons, Nagas, cities of the gods, and barbarian tribelands.
All these details include material on local rulers and personalities, as well as current problems and events (and potential adventuring hooks).

The Patala Underworld is the massive underground cave-network of the setting. How massive? It covers the entire planet, and it goes six vast levels deep. Again, this is based on real Indian myth (though of course, in some of the source texts, the Patala underworld was meant to be taken as symbolic or metaphorical, but for adventuring purposes, once again, I chose the literal view). Each level of the Underworld contains multiple regions with their own characteristics, inhabitants, rulers and dangers, and each level overall has a very different quality than the rest. Not only does the book provide descriptions of the Patala Underworld as a whole, it also provides a set of random tables the GM can use to generate small or large sections of the Underworld (with variations to account for underworld-level) for adventuring purposes. Of course, random monster charts are included for each separate level.

There are also random encounters tables for overland travel, along roads or in the different types and regions of wilderness (including separate tables for the different major jungles or mountain ranges of the setting). This section also contains a table of City Encounters, a description of things to do in cities, rules for fighting in the dueling contests of the Kalari arenas, a random table for potential patron missions, and rules for designing and staying in caravanserais.

The monster section is 25 pages long; and details full stats for 84 different creatures. Every single one of these creatures are specifically taken from Indian sources (with the exception of a couple of giant animals, though giant animals in general are very much in keeping with Indian myth; and the “monstrosity”, a randomly-generated exotic-type monster meant to cover all the really weird types of creatures that appear in myths as one-shots). I should mention that these statblocks are easily and readily compatible with most OSR games.

There are also 19 pages of treasure tables and magic items. Once again, treasure and items reflect Indian myth and history. So for example, while there are certainly magic swords (and maces, lances, daggers, and all kinds of other melee weapons), magic bows are the most significant kind of magic weapon (so in this game, its bows that have alignments and major and secondary powers). While there are some familiar types of magic items like rings or staffs, you will also find magic sutras (holy scriptures), conch shells, mala beads, and herbs; as well as wondrous items like the Yaksha Treasure Chest, the Sea-Emerald of Varuna, the Peacock Crown, the Kara of the Unspeakable Oath, or of course Vimanas (the magical “flying chariots”, some as large as a house). In place of artifacts, there are Celestial Weapons, those weapons of legend that come directly from the gods (or some of the most powerful asura-demons) and have devastating power. These won’t be found in a random treasure horde, they’re only available as major campaign elements, usually to be granted directly from the gods themselves.

The section on the Gods and religion is kept relatively quite small; I could certainly have added a lot more on the subject, but again, I didn’t want it to be an anthropological or religious treatise; its an RPG, and so what’s there is what’s essential to run a credible game. There’s brief descriptions of the major gods, divided into groups (the old Vedic gods, the Vaishnavite family and the Shaivite family, as well as river goddesses); there are guidelines to major religious rituals, and there’s rules on direct Divine Intervention and divine quests; both of which can become increasingly common events for PCs from about 9th level onward.

So at the end of the book, we have a couple of unusual appendices. The first, 6 pages long but jam-packed, is called “higher level play”; but I realize now that this was probably a bad choice of wording, because it implies that the material here is “stuff not usable till your PCs are high level”. In fact, most of it is usable right from the get-go and it is actually more about “high-level play” in the sense of stuff that supports more involved and deeper long-term campaigns. It covers things like long-term costs of living, land ownership and profit from terrains, housing, work as mercenaries, temple priesthoods, running philosophical schools, thief gangs, making money from your background skills, big merchant business, taxation, interacting with royalty (including random tables for “royal attention” for when the PCs get too famous), marriage, children and inheritances, and the standard code of laws and punishments in the Bharata Kingdoms (directly taken from the real-world historical Laws of Manu). Once more, everything in here is directly lifted from different sources on ancient Indian history.

The other appendix is called “In the future”, and it provides a timeline, for those GMs who want such a thing, of future chronological events from the starting period of the campaign until several decades into the future; detailing events as they would transpire in the world if you are following the chronology of the Mahabharata. Of course, nothing obliges a GM to do so.

So, who will like Arrows of Indra, who can use it? 
If you like OSR games and wanted to play one in a non-European setting, well obviously then this game is for you (especially if “Indian setting” was on your list of interests).

If you don’t hate OSR games and really love the idea of gaming in an Indian setting, then this is very likely for you.

If you are an OSR gamer, and you’re not really interested in playing in an Indian setting per se, but would really like to borrow interesting mechanics, random tables, setting elements, or dozens of new monsters and magic items readily usable in any OSR-game’s setting, then this would be for you.

Finally, if you’re not interested in running an OSR game at all, but would like to have extensive setting material for an Epic India setting, then you’ll probably be able to make very good use of Arrows of Indra as well.

Anyways, I hope this “review” has been informative as to what’s actually in AoI, and why.

If you want to purchase Arrows of Indra, you can do so from here in print, or here in pdf.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Deluxe + Image Latakia

(originally posted August 3, 2013)

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