Review: Faith & Demons–The Rising

This Savage Worlds plot point setting is a 294 page book (PDF, in my case) from Mystical Throne Entertainment, written by Aaron T Huss. You definitely need the Savage Worlds core rules to use it as intended, and the Fantasy Companion is useful, though not essential.

For quite a few years now, I’ve been meaning to set up a campaign in and around the Byzantine Empire during the Dark Ages, but never quite managed to do the work; since that’s exactly what Faith and Demons: The Rising is, I couldn’t resist.

CONTENT

A Skald’s Tale (6 pages)

This is the normal in-character short story to introduce the setting. ‘Nuff said.

Introduction (11 pages)

The fall of Rome casts a long shadow in Western society, and especially in RPGs. How many games can you think of that use (as WotC puts it) a "points of light setting"?  One where the PCs’ home is struggling to rebuild after the fall of a previous mighty empire? Damn’ near all of ’em, and this one is no exception.

The setting is based on 10th-11th century eastern europe, when cultures still clashed over the remains of the Roman Empire. It’s thus set in the Dark Ages, rather than the much more popular High Middle Ages (15th century with no printing press or gunpowder, although both of those limitations have weakened over the last 20 years).

Unusually, the book is not afraid to name names and use real-world religions. More on this later, but it’s unusual for a publisher to risk this. I note that Islam and Judaism are absent, however; maybe in a later supplement.

The "common tongue" is also treated in an unusual, and more realistic, way than in most RPGs; it refers only to the party, not to the setting as a whole. The group picks an historical language – Latin, Greek, or whatever – and from then on, all PCs speak it. However, NPCs are under no obligation to do so.

The remainder of this section discusses suitable character archetypes. These include the ubiquitous fighter, the feudal lord, the monk (the scholarly one, not the kung fu master), the thief, the woodsman (ranger-type, for D&D players – usually some sort of nomad), and the spellcaster (various types, some religious and some not so much). The character’s home culture can be thought of as applying a trapping to his archetype, especially if he is a fighter or a lord.

Character Creation (34 pages)

This follows normal Savage Worlds practice for the most part, so I’ll concentrate on the differences.

The one that stands out to me is the use of Common Knowledge, which the game splits into a couple of dozen subskills, which would correspond to languages, religious knowledge or Area Knowledge in other games, and splits each of those subskills into levels – Unfamiliar (you can’t roll), Familiar (rolls are at -2), Informed (roll with no modifiers), and Expert (roll at +2). That sounds complex, but actually it just formalises the core rulebook statements on Common Knowledge. Mechanically, it allows the game to focus on the impact of language, religion and nationality without tying up most of a PC’s initial skill points to do so; but it does so at the cost of increased complexity, as in effect players now need to track half a dozen extra CK skills – the ones granted by their nationality, and half their Spirit die of free choices.

Characters are assumed to be illiterate, and only Experts in a language can read or write it. So, it’s possible – likely, even – that your PC may be literate in some languages, but not in others.

Before choosing Hindrances and Edges, each character needs to specify a nationality and religion. This grants certain edges or skills free, balanced by mandatory hindrances which don’t count against the character’s limit, and also defines which CK specialisations he or she has. Each of the eight major nations of the setting is listed, with an historical overview, specified CK options for their nation and language (and generally a choice of several religions), a racial minor hindrance, a couple of free skills at d6, a paragraph on each of the main types of warrior fielded by that nation, and a list of names – very helpful if you suddenly need a name for a Croatian barmaid, for example.

Characters effectively start with 3-4 advances from their nation of birth, largely due to the free skills. From discussions on the SW forum, I suspect this is because with only humans available as a race, the designer felt the need to help players differentiate their characters more easily. This is a solution to a problem I have never encountered, and don’t expect to encounter in future, so I might well force people to buy their "free" skills and edges with their starting points. That said, SW’s power curve is flat compared to other games, and PC advancement doesn’t change play dramatically, so it wouldn’t hurt if I didn’t.

So far, I haven’t worked out if the minor national hindrance counts against the normal complement of two such or not. I can’t see it mattering much either way, so long as I’m consistent.

Edges (26 pages)

There’s the usual slew of new edges (nearly a hundred of ’em in fact). Interestingly, Detect Trap and Disable Trap are edges, adjusting your Notice and Lockpicking skills, rather than subsumed in a character’s skills as is the SW norm.

Quite a few of the edges exist to bend the character in directions that his nation was famous for historically; this is especially true of the combat edges which reflect historical tactics. I haven’t used the rules enough to know how well this works yet, but I do applaud the effort.

Arcane Backgrounds (41 pages)

The standard Arcane Backgrounds of Magic and Miracles are supplemented by new ones: Druidic Magic, Necromancy, Rune Magic, and Shamanism. Weird Science, Super Powers and several ABs from the Fantasy Companion are forbidden in this setting. Each gets its own section, listing the relevant skill, initial power points and powers known, the list of available powers, a discussion of how it works, backlash rules and trappings.

The chapter shows how long it takes a character to learn a new power – he must return to his temple, school or master to do so, then spend between a day (for Novice powers) and 7-12 months (for Legendary powers) in study, prayer, meditation or whatever. I like this, and if I were paying any attention to the campaign timeline in Shadows of Keron, I would adopt it forthwith.

There are 10 new powers, of which Resurrection ("Raise Dead") drew my attention the most – it’s an option that SW often overlooks, I suppose because PCs don’t actually die that often.

The main religions for the major nations are each presented with a description of their purpose, aspects (key words for their core beliefs, such as "generosity"), duties (what believers are expected to do), sins (what they are expected not to do), a timeline from their founding up to the time frame of the setting, and main gods or other figures. The religions covered are Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Germanic Paganism, Shinto, and Slavic Paganism.

Equipment (23 pages)

As I said above, this is a Dark Ages setting. That means no plate armour or greatswords, for a start.

As usual in RPGs, the equipment list has a heavy bias towards armour and weapons. I was reminded as I read through this of 1st Edition AD&D, which had what felt like dozens of different polearms, including the dreaded Bohemian Ear-Spoon. Suffice to say that each nation has its own version of the shortsword, longsword, etc with its own name and subtle differences (thankfully, most of these are descriptive chrome rather than mechanical changes).

Weapons (but not armour) can also be enchanted by Runesmiths, giving them bonuses up to +5 – the weapons tables show each possibility with its stats and cost worked out.

Torso armour, however, can be layered, as was commonly done in real life in the period – this is simple enough, there are some types of armour that can be worn underneath others, and in this case both the Toughness increases and the weight are cumulative.

There are also magical implements – these are not covered in the same detail, with whether the implement is a wand, ring, or whatever being treated as a trapping. These give the user bonuses on powers which do damage directly, such as bolt, but not on other spells such as healing. This is a fast, easy system of magic items and I like it.

Finally, we have optional rules to reflect the change in item cost caused by it being local or made a long way off.

This is the last section players can read; everything from here on is GM-only territory.

Game Master’s Eyes Only and Setting (5 pages)

This starts by explaining that the setting and campaign are an alternate history Dark Ages with added gothic fantasy, and what that means.

The premise of the setting is that undead and demons are growing in power, and intent on destroying the world, humanity, and its gods. Those feudal lords who have an inkling of what is going on are recruiting stout-hearted adventurers to stop it. However, this is happening during a time of continual border clashes between cultures and political intrigue, which complicates matters.

Nations Overview (18 pages)

Eight nations are examined in detail; Anglo-Saxon, Bulgaria, Byzantium, Croatia, Hungary, Japan, Kievan Rus and Scandinavia. I was expecting six of those, but the Anglo-Saxons are a little unexpected, and Japan completely so. GM information expands on that given in the character creation chapter with more history, climate, linguistics and other snippets of data.

Following this, although not really a separate chapter, is a list of common diseases of the period and their game effects, from Cholera to Typhoid; and then a selection of adventure seeds, with a campaign framework intended to tie them together.

Bestiary and New Bestiary (50 pages)

Two separate chapters, these, but merged for simplicity of review. The Bestiary first notes that things not suiting the setting should be avoided – Constructs, for example. It then advises what creatures from SW and the Fantasy Companion do, and do not, fit the setting.

The New Bestiary is, as you’d expect, new monsters. As usual for SW settings, these include human commoners and soldiers as well as supernatural beings, which include various angels and demons, undead, and other creatures common to the legends of the relevant time and nations.

Plot Points (15 pages)

The book’s plot point campaign is a hub-and-spoke one centred on Kiev; the PCs live there, come out to do stuff, then trot home for a slap-up feed and lashings of ginger beer. It takes them from Novice to Heroic, through ten plot points and up to 16 Savage Tales.

Travel is time-consuming and difficult, as it was historically. However, the PCs’ lord (probably an NPC, but possibly one of the characters) provides them with horses or boats; it’s in his interest that they complete their missions quickly. This is not just because he wants it done, but because the longer you are on the road, the more rolls you make on the Travelling Events table and its associated random encounter tables (which vary by PC Rank and terrain type); and sooner or later one of them will kill you, or at least delay you.

Campaign (33 pages)

The overview and random encounters dispensed with, we now move on to the actual campaign. There are three adventures each at Novice, Seasoned and Veteran Ranks, and a final one at Heroic. The characters work through these to increase their lord’s wealth and power, weaken the forces of Chaos, and eventually face them in a climactic battle for the fate of the Earth. The book talks about what the characters could do next, whether they succeeded or failed; but in my opinion, the story arc is dramatically complete at that point, and one would be better off moving on.

Savage Tales (17 pages)

Here we have additional adventures, shorter and less fleshed-out than the plot points perhaps, but longer and more detailed than the adventure seeds we saw earlier. There are 6 aimed at Novices, 5 for Seasoned PCs, and 5 for Veterans. Including the plot point adventures and the free teaser adventure in the web supplement, you have 27 scenarios in all, or about a year’s play for my group.

The book finishes with a list of recommended reading and a character sheet.

FORMAT

The PDF has been designed for use on ereaders; this is most obvious in the layout, which has a single column rather than the more fashionable two columns side by side. It’s very printer friendly, with plain black text on a plain white background, and (apart from the colour covers) only the odd black and white illustration every few pages.

Full marks for format, and especially having thought about reading it on something like an iPad or Kindle. Not that I’m biased or anything.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

The sequence of sections confused me in a couple of places; the equipment chapter, and the campaign framework in the nations overview, which I would have put after the plot point campaign. Nothing that reading things a couple of times couldn’t clear up, but I would have understood things more easily in a different sequence.

The inclusion of Japanese characters, creatures and adventures was jarring for me. I couldn’t see a logical reason for it, and suspect they are there purely because gamers love samurai. As the book is called Faith & Demons: The Rising, I assume there will be other books in the Faith & Demons line; I feel Japan should have been kept for another book, focused on the Far East.

CONCLUSIONS

The basic premises of Faith & Demons: The Rising are tried and true; saving the world from rising chaos, and successor states squabbling over the loot of a fallen empire. What is unusual is the explicit use of real-world events, organisations and religion; not only is this appropriate for the setting, but the rich tapestry of real history gives a sense of depth and continuity otherwise difficult to achieve.

My instinct is that this started out as a D&D campaign, and has been converted to SW; it doesn’t bother me, and is not necessarily a bad thing if true, but there are all sorts of little hints that suggest the author is well-versed in some edition of D&D. Probably 1st Edition, if I had to guess.

It’s well-researched, carefully thought out, and confusingly laid out in places. As a source book for Dark Ages Savage Worlds games, very good. As a source of interesting ideas to cannibalise, not bad at all. As a plot point campaign, while I can see myself running it, I don’t feel the urge to drop everything and start on it right away that would gain it the 5 out of 5 rating.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

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