Review: Hellas–Worlds of Sun and Stone

Posted: 11 March 2013 in Reviews
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"Cattle die, kinsmen die, every man is mortal; but the good name never dies of one who has done well." – The Havamal

Another review today, as there was no game last weekend – other business called us all away. I hope that won’t become a habit. Anyway: I consoled myself with Hellas: Worlds of Sun and Stone (2nd edition). I’ve had my eye on this for a few years now, but the RPGNow sale resulted in the PDF (342 pages) taking up residence on my hard drive.

In a Nutshell: Ancient Greeks in Spaaaace! Lifepath character generation, skill and feat character improvement, all tasks resolved by rolling 1d20 plus modifiers on a standard results table. Rules are based on the Omni System, originally developed for the Talislanta RPG back in nineteen-eighty-frozen-stiff, when mullets ruled the Earth.

What Makes It Different: The game and the PCs have finite lifespans. PCs are born, adventure, die, and hand on the torch to their descendants. Over perhaps 3-4 generations, the final century of their culture’s existence, the PCs’ families will save, or doom, the universe. And then the game is done; it doesn’t lend itself to ongoing picaresque adventures, and saving the same universe twice would fall flat, I think.

CONTENTS

Note that I’ve made up the headings, the book just refers to "chapter six" or whatever.

Although it’s sort of a space opera game, insofar as Hellas references science fiction at all, it tends to focus on Star Wars. I should also mention that the game is aimed at mature players, i.e. people who are not put off by the occasional semi-explicit sex scene. If you are, best drive on.

Prologue (6 pages)

Here are some pretty pictures and scene-setting narrative, and a one-page summary of twelve key points: What the game is about, what makes it different, and why you should care; a nice touch. There’s also a page of inspirational reading and viewing, and a pronunciation guide.

Chapter 1 (18 pages): Timeline

An amazingly colour-intensive section, full of the background history of the setting and a selection of messages sent from the planet Sparta in the last moments before its destruction – no spoilers here, that happens before play begins. This chapter openly and unashamedly uses ancient Greek history as the framework for a space opera universe; I’ve done the same myself, although on a lesser scale, and it’s an approach with a long pedigree in science fiction.

What can I say, ancient Greece had some interesting stuff going on, and a kick-ass mythology which is also incorporated into the game.

Chapter 2 (16 pages): Society

The dominant race in this setting are the Hellenes, humans with the society, religion and beliefs of ancient Greeks. So this bit rehashes Greek civilisation; I have a historian and two amateur classicists in my group, so that should be entertaining for them as well as myself. You can find that stuff on Wikipedia though, so I won’t go into detail.

The main thing to point out is a cultural quirk necessary for the game to retain the desired flavour; Hellenes have advanced technology – starships, beam weapons, and so on – but they use the minimum level of technology necessary to achieve their goals. This gives the setting a primitives-in-space feeling much like Poul Anderson’s tale The High Crusade, or Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Chapter 3 (26 pages): Space Travel

This is like the love child of Slipstream and Honor Harrington; a multi-layered realm of hyperspace with currents you must follow, sails to sail along the currents, and a breathable atmosphere. (Yes, in hyperspace. Close your mouth, it’s distracting.) There are planetary fragments in the lower layers, where castaways can be marooned, and where it is rumoured vile beasts lurk. Prolonged exposure to slipspace gradually transforms one into a kind of undead called a Shade.

One thing that powergamers will need to ignore is that the slipspace drive, activated on a planetary surface, makes a pretty good bomb. Hellenes appear not to have thought of that.

The discussion of slipspace is followed by explanations of the main types of spaceship, sensors and how to spoof them, communications, trade routes and their beacons, and life aboard ship.

The artwork in this chapter is particularly nice; maps, pictures of planets and spacecraft, and the map, which deserves further mention.

The map shows the planets of the setting on a hexgrid, grouped into regions of space. It’s essentially a distorted map of the Mediterranean, with planets in approximately the same relative positions (and bearing the same names) as Greek city-states. Again, something I’ve done myself before, and it works just fine. Slipspace routes between the planets are marked with arrows to show in which direction one should travel.

Next comes a list of the 36 major planets in the setting, followed by an overview of various regions of space and brief data on each world. Irritatingly, these are grouped by Constellation, then Region, then planet – I prefer to work just with an alphabetical list of worlds and a starmap, this approach means it takes me longer to find each world – and coincidentally makes the starmap more cluttered than it needs to be. It’s clear from the book that the GM should make up new worlds as he sees fit, although that isn’t explicitly stated.

The world statblock includes the dominant race, primary form of government, main religion, temple moon if any, and a couple of key NPCs in the form of a name and a couple of character traits for each, followed by some narrative text. Once you find the planet you’re interested in, this works well enough. There are no rules for generating worlds; and I don’t think the game needs any, to be honest, three dozen worlds is more than enough for a game with a bounded life like this. (I should mention that a temple moon is a giant space station with a god living inside it. How cool is that?)

Chapter 4 (70 pages): Characters

The first step in creating a character is to select a race, of which there are eight; Amazorans (tall, blue-skinned warrior women); Goregons (snakemen); Hellenes (humans); Kyklopes (tall humanoid weirdoes with one eye that orbits their head like an ioun stone); Myrmidons (man-shaped swarms of insects); Nephelai (umm, basically angels); Nymphas (kinda-sorta nature spirits); and Zintar (squid-things that get around in equine robot chassis). The Zorans, who seem to represent the ancient Persians (or maybe Lydians) are mentioned a lot, but are not a playable race – I see they are detailed in one of the supplements.

Seriously, how cool are those? I don’t much like the Kyklopes of Nephelai, but the other six are made of win. It’s the races, and especially the Myrmidons and Zintar, that attracted me to Hellas initially. Well, that and the whole Greeks in space thing. But I digress.

A set of random tables, and a deliberate choice of a profession (there are 37 in the rules), now build out your character by revealing his circumstances of birth and family, his divine heritage and a trademark possession, what happened during his childhood, and what he has done during his career.

Your attributes (10 of ’em), abilities, skills and hit points are assigned by your race, then modified by your profession and random lifepath events. So no buying or dicing for attributes. Your profession identifies which lifepath tables you should roll on; you may make up to five rolls, getting older each time.

You must also choose a favourite god (who will help you later), a destiny you are trying to fulfill (for example "Defeat the villain who slew your family, and take his wife as your own,") and a fate you are trying to avoid (e.g., "Die insane and alone") – the PC’s fate can alternately be chosen, and foreshadowed during adventures, by the GM. The true epic hero has ambitions and disadvantages, and you must choose three of each, and rate their severity – the rules suggest linking them to lifepath events, especially tragic ones.

These all come into play in a nicely interlinked manner during the game through Hero Points and Fate Points, which allow you to take narrative control of the game in some ways.

  • You can gain Hero Points by voluntarily activating a disadvantage to cause trouble for your PC. If the GM tries to do this, you can spend Hero Points to prevent the complication from happening.
  • You can spend Hero Points to gain +2 on a roll, negate a critical failure, negate damage, gain an extra action, stay functional after a critical hit, or change the direction of the narrative with GM approval. You can also give your points to an ally.
  • You can call upon your Destiny or Tempt Fate to gain more Hero Points.Tempting Fate allows you to access more Hero Points, at lower Glory levels, than normal, but each time you do this and fail, you collect some Fate Points; this pushes the PC slowly towards his fate, much like Dark Side points in Star Wars or Corruption in WFRP; once he accumulates 10 Fate Points, the character dies, either in this session or the next, in a dramatically appropriate manner dictated by the situation, his fate, or both.
  • Achieving an ambition allows you to erase one Fate Point from your tally.

I should also mention the customisation points each player gets to adjust his PC at the end of the lifepath, and Glory. Glory measures how famous the PC is; essentially, your PC gains Glory for doing cool, heroic stuff. As his Glory reaches ever-higher levels, he unlocks bonus abilities, depending on which god he worships. However, these gifts remove the hero from play at the 300 Glory mark, for he is gathered in by his favoured god.

Finally, the player chooses a name and an epithet for his PC, for example "Iron-Armed Iolaus of Sparta", or more classically "Wily Odysseus of Ithaca".

The chapter continues with detailed explanations of each skill and talent (feat or edge) a PC could have, and a large selection of suitably Hellenic names – handy for those like me who get stuck after a dozen or so. Finally, there is an example of character creation, and a brief section on improving characters – brief, because it is simple; you buy improvements with experience points.

Chapter 5 (18 pages): Psionics

Or "Dynamism" as the book calls it. Dynamism is one of a PC’s attributes, so can be bought with customisation points if the lifepath fails to bestow it. This chapter offers a framework rather than hard and fast rules; the Dynamist PC must specify a Tradition (a particular school, with its own benefits and drawbacks) and one or more Modes (things you can do, like attack and sense things). In use, the player is expected to describe what the PC is trying to do, and how, and then make a Dynamism check. The game doesn’t expect players to select from a long list of "spells", in the same way that it doesn’t expect you to describe a basic attack as anything more complex than "I hit it with my axe!" (Hi, Zak!)

That said, each mode has about half a page devoted to the kinds of things you can do with it, and several example powers; so you could pick from a list if you wanted to do that.

Chapter 6 (28 pages): Religion

Get yer Greek gods here. The twelve main gods of the Hellenes are listed, with their personalities, favoured locations, spheres of interest – and the gifts they bestow on heroes who favour them at various Glory levels. As mentioned earlier, at 300 Glory your hero moves on to a higher plane, reinforcing one of the key design philosophies of the game; over the course of a campaign, heroes die, and new heroes emerge to replace them.

In this chapter, we also learn more about the temple moons, which are described in much the same way as planets were earlier in the book.

Chapter 7 (42 pages): Equipment

If you’re new here, you will now learn that I glaze over at equipment chapters. This one talks about the standard coinage, wages, the prices of goods and services, clothing, robots (including Zintar "carapaces"), cyberware, medicines, weapons, armour, miscellaneous personal equipment, starships, and other vehicles; it’s an eclectic mix of ancient and space opera technology.

Apart from being somewhat jarred by the idea that the standard infantry weapon for a starfaring society is a freakin’ spear, I’m fine with this. Look, Spartans, read a few pages farther on and you can have a plasma assault rifle. Sure you don’t want one of those?

Chapter 8 (30 pages): Core Rules

We’re 230 pages into the book, and only now are the rules explained. Fortunately, they are simple.

All game actions are resolved using the same results table. The player rolls 1d20, adds a skill or attribute rating, and adds the Degree of Difficulty (DoD) assigned by the GM (there’s advice on doing that); depending on the final score, the result may be a critical failure (something bad happens), a failure (you just failed), a partial success (say, half damage from an attack), a success (you just succeeded), or a critical success (something good happens, like inflicting a critical wound on your enemy).

Your skill rating is skill level plus attribute, so effectively you are always adding in an attribute; these are typically in the range of +5 to -5. There are rules for opposed actions, multi-action penalties, co-operative actions and so forth.

If you can persuade the GM that one of your ambitions is being furthered, you get a +2 on the roll. You also get +2 per Hero Point spent on it, although the maximum number you can spend is limited by your Glory. If you can show that your epithet is invoked, you succeed automatically – you can’t do this often, though, maybe once every other session.

Combat is fought in 6-second rounds, during which a character can attack, defend, pull a stunt or move a basic 30 metres – moving more requires a successful Speed check.

Rolling to hit is a check using the relevant skill rating, which in this part of the rules is called a Combat Rating; damage is relatively constant, being the weapon’s Damage Rating minus the target’s Protection Rating, plus the character’s Strength for melee weapons. No damage dice here, matey. Incoming damage is deducted from the target’s hit points, and reaching zero triggers a Constitution check to avoid dying.

Defence turns the attack into an opposed roll against your defence score rather than a straight beat-the-foe’s-Evade-rating. Stunts are anything that isn’t attack, defence or movement.

Notice that you can move and attack in a turn, but this invokes a multi-action penalty. Notice also that DoD can be positive (helping the player) or negative (hindering); it’s easy to slip into thinking of them as target numbers, but they are actually die roll modifiers.

Oh, I forgot initiative. This is a Speed attribute check at the start of the turn, figures move in descending order of results. I think this is the only check in the game that doesn’t use the results table.

Chapter 9 (18 pages): Game Mastering Hellas

A lot of the GM’s work is done for him by the setting (which provides the metaplot) and the players (who give their PCs disadvantages, ambitions, a destiny and possibly a fate); he weaves these together into an epic, multi-generational storyline.

Hellas has some key adventures which occur at specific points during the metaplot, and a number of others that can be slotted in anywhere. In this regard, it’s much like a Savage Worlds Plot Point campaign, or a D&D/Pathfinder Adventure Path. Since most of our culture’s character archetypes and story tropes come from ancient Greece in the first place, plundering literature or movies for story ideas is even easier than usual – but this is an anti-sandbox; there is an overarching plot, and all individual scenarios must relate to it and move it forwards. This will demand more preparation than I usually put in.

Even more so than in normal RPGs, the universe revolves around the PCs. Nothing of importance happens unless they are involved. NPCs defer to them for their status as those to whom the gods speak in person.

There’s some good advice on creating adventures and setting the scene, including how to allow players input into the latter; serviceable enough, but nothing earth-shatteringly new. You also get guidelines on awarding experience and Glory points, and how to let players spend Hero Points to influence the environment and narrative.

This chapter explains that communities, like regions, worlds or star systems, have stats much like a character. Characters may take action to change those stats, effectively doing heroic deeds to gain experience points for the community, whereupon it levels up – larger communities need more xp to change their habits. The heroes’ reward for this is more Glory. This would be more useful with more examples, ideally a few paragraph-length adventures (there is one, sort of; more would be better).

We’re also introduced to the Respite Phase; essentially, the PCs spend a random amount of time between adventures, during which a random event occurs. The PC is not resting as such, but working at his day job and participating in events which will spark the next heroic episode. Meanwhile, the adversaries of the metaplot (nice book title that) are also causing trouble, assassinating people, persuading the hero’s drinking buddies to go over to the Dark Side, that sort of thing.

Chapter 10 (30 pages): Adversaries

A list of stock NPCs and monsters, taken from Greek myth and legend and reskinned with a science fiction twist. It’s surprising how well this approach works, actually.

Mechanically, they have similar statblocks to PCs, but have a single overall skill rating rather than the many separate ratings a PC has. They do have a Glory rating, which is how much Glory the PCs earn by defeating them.

The more mythical monsters are supplemented by a list of normal creatures and Boons, which can be added to them to create further monsters.

Then there are the metaplot adversaries, who are just plain nasty. ‘Nuff said. There are snippets which hint at why the Hellene fascination with blades might be useful later, but they don’t know that, so my thoughts on that stand.

Chapter 11 (22 pages): Adventures

Here are five key adventures, which between them cover the critical points of the first 25 years of the campaign. Each is broken down into a synopsis, gossip and rumours the PCs may have heard, three acts (each of which has a hook, a conflict to resolve, and an expected resolution), and GM advice, including NPC statblocks.

I was hoping for some more minor scenarios too, but they’re not present – although there is at least one available as a free download, which is almost as good. As far as I can tell without buying them, the other adventure books tell the story of a different campaign entirely.

The campaign was great fun to read, but struck me as a bit of a railroad; there are some things that must happen, and some characters with plot immunity. I did warn you earlier this was an anti-sandbox. However, using my normal yardstick of 1-2 acts per game session, there’s about two months of play here for my group.

Chapter 12 (4 pages): Sample Characters

Which, unsurprisingly, contains two detailed example PCs.

Epilogue

This concludes the story of the iconic characters you’ve come to know through the short fiction scattered through the book, and segues into the traditional character sheets, index and adverts for related products.

FORMAT

The story of one group of adventurers is told in short narratives at the start of each chapter. These parts are well-written, and illustrated in a faux Greek style. Even the red on black layout evokes thoughts of early Greek pottery.

Unusually, Hellas is laid out in landscape rather than portrait format; this works well, and means it’s a better fit to my computer screen. The book is in printer-killing full colour throughout; the black on cream and orange of the main text works well, but red on black for the start-of-chapter narratives is hard on my eyes, and the white on light blue in the setting chapter is even worse.

Basically, this is a coffee-table RPG book.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Please use layers in the PDF file so that I can suppress the full colour page backgrounds.

It wouldn’t hurt for the chapters to have one or two word headings as well as numbers.

A black on white starmap. I know red on black is more realistic, but this is one of the things I might reasonably want to print out and share with the group. While we’re at it, consider using double-headed arrows to avoid duplication of routes.

Referring to planets within regions of space within constellations confused me. I would have preferred a gazetteer of planets in alphabetical order. It also took me a while to work out that constellations in Hellas are political groupings, not constellations as I would normally use the term.

CONCLUSIONS

I haven’t been this excited about an RGP product since Stars Without Number or Beasts & Barbarians; it’s a worthy addition to my ancient Greeks in space collection.

However, I wouldn’t run the Rules As Written for two reasons; first, I see no reason to switch from my current favourites to the Omni System, and second, my penchant for stealing stuff from ancient Greece falls short of fighting with spears.

I’m not sure I have the time or the talent to pull off a 100-year epic story arc, and only one of my players is interested in doing that anyway; but if that’s what floats your boat, you could do a lot worse than Hellas.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5, even if I would probably use Savage Worlds to run it.

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Comments
  1. migobrain says:

    looks cool, remenber me of Dog of Hades, that is coincidently for Savage World, so i would see the way to mix it, maybe using Dog of Hades at it is for a Hellenic centric campaign, and adding the races of Hellas for a more universal kind, good review anyway.

    • andyslack says:

      Yeah, that’d work. I might want to drop some of the Suzerain stuff in Dogs of Hades, or not, but it might be a good place to start from.

      It’s interesting how both settings feel Dune-like.

  2. raikenclw says:

    Some months back, I had a thought about a possible Travelleresque game, using the following premise: the early Greek cultures were descendants of survivors of a misjumped starship and – when Terrans finally invent a jump drive some three thousand years later – they find most of nearby space already filled with the original culture. I found it interesting that (IIRC) Dacian burial mounds were built rather like beehives or (perhaps . . .) as close as they could come to a starship as the materials allowed. This game sounds like it would be perfect for that idea.

    SIDE NOTE: The Hellenes might well *have* thought of slipdrive ships as bombs, because such might well be the origin of those world fragments you mentioned. Perhaps when a slipdrive destabilizes, it *implodes* rather than explodes, sucking everything in the area of effect into slip space You wouldn’t die from the blast . . . you’ll just *wish* you had. >:)>

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