This massive book clocks in at 201 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside front-cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC,1 blank page at the end, leaving us with 195 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
This massive core-book for the revised edition of Eldritch Roleplaying (ERP) begins with an introduction that sums up several of the virtues of this system – adequately so, I should mention. At the same time, though, personally, I felt this component to be somewhat overblown, much like a sales-pitch when the very presence of the book clearly does not necessitate this component – this may be a personal pet-peeve of mine, but I do not think games should try to tell their readers how awesome they are and instead stand on the virtue of their own merits – but let’s see whether this works, shall we?
The default assumption of this system is a world of fantasy, obviously. We begin with a glossary of terms and what they mean – since the following review will make excessive use of them, I’ll give you the brief run-down:
-Ability: This specifies a skill or innate capacity.
-Ability Branch: A single component of an ability tree, specifying Specialties and Masteries. An ability check is made via such a branch, with no more than one roll of the basic tier, plus one specialty, plus one mastery.
-Ability Check: Each such check involves one ability branch, rolling up to 3 dice to beat the target number.
-Ability Tree: Base ability + all branches. Tier 1 denotes base abilities, tier 2 denotes specialties and each specialty further branches off into different masteries, which constitute tier 3.
-Base Tier: First tier, always has a single die (from d4 to d12)
-Branch Rank: Term used to establish general competence in an ability branch. Just add max values and check the table.
-Character Points: Point-buy for abilities.
-Damage Reduction: Reduce threat points before the active defense pool.
-Defense Pool: Number of points used to mitigate or cancel threats
-Defense, Active: Using active DP to mitigate one attack via the corresponding ability.
-Defense, Passive: One passive defense pool or fortitude.
-Die-rank: Value of any creature’s single die of an ability tree tier; ranges from d3 to d20 and includes d14, d16 and d18.
-Max Value (MV): Highest die-result possible with a given die or die combination.
-Needed Number (NN): Measure for spellcasting difficulty.
-Restricted/unrestricted Ability: Restricted abilities can’t be used without having at least a certain die-rank, most of the time, a d4. Consider this the ability to only use certain abilities when “trained” in them.
-Special maneuvers: Combat maneuvers, essentially.
-Threat Points: Measurement of the potential harm from a specific ability branch – the damage potential from which active defenses etc. are detracted to determine the actually inflicted harm.
So, to sum it up – we have a system that is very much skill-based, using a combination of dice over specializations and pitting rolls vs. rolls, with minor fixed value modifications, kind of like a variant of Shadowrun that utilizes more die-types over increasing numbers of d6s.
Character creation is simple: You have 30 character points. Assigning age and sex is free and you can modify the value by taking advantages (at cost) or disadvantages (increasing your character points). It should be noted that adolescence is considered to take for all races to reach – while I get the streamlining rationale, such a factor inherently makes me wonder how the “better” races have not yet developed a more stable population
Each race MUST buy the minimum ranks in certain abilities associated with them, which range from 15 (dwarves) to 4 (humans) and racial advantages, if appropriate – all dwarves must expend the 3 character points for night vision, for example. While the individual abilities and costs are provided, a quick glance also shows you the total value, including the modifications of the compulsory advantages/disadvantages hard-coded into the race. Over all, the ability-package as presented makes the races work pretty well and choosing them rather simple – at the same time, the restrictions imposed here by a lack of racial customization directly contradicts the assertion of supreme control over character concepts claimed in the slightly overblown introduction, but that just as a snarky side-note to emphasize why I consider intros like that undue.
The advantages and disadvantages provided run a pretty broad gamut of abilities, again, bringing Shadowrun to mind, just instead of the modification of dice-pool sizes, we have the die-step improvements. This allows for e.g. magical defense that allows a caster to extend it to physical attacks in two steps, with the more costly version also applying to ranged attacks. Subtle casting, attractiveness and similar benefits can be gained as well. Personally, I really enjoyed and loathed one particular advantage at the same time: Literacy. It always galls me in any fantasy setting, when the default assumption is that people can read – it’s an obvious anachronism not supported by the infrastructure in most areas. So yes, kudos for including that.
Being able to read and write ALL languages for one meager character point more, though, actually sabotages quite a few narratives – from strange languages to deciphering ancient tongues, this advantage counters quite a few potential plots, thus rendering its upgrade problematic. Now here would be as good a place as any to mention the easy customization capacities of this system – are you like me and utterly loathe this concept? Just modify the advantage to instead apply on a point per language basis. Want discrepancies in fluency and capacity? Build your own ability-tree. The system is ridiculously easy to modify in these finer components without breaking it, a huge plus when it comes to modifying it to apply to different settings, something you will want to do -but more on that later.
From darkvision (here called Night Vision) to underworld contacts, the advantages are generally solid. Among the disadvantages, one can find addictions, compulsions, missing limbs – you get the idea.
Abilities, as mentioned above, are governed by the size of the die: Unrestricted abilities begin at d4 and cost a cumulative +2 character points to increase. Restricted abilities cost 2 character points to get to d4-size and subsequent costs of die-size minus two for the respective rank. (D12 costs 10 character points, for example.)
On a didactic side, the presentation of the values of character points it takes to rank up is pretty much more opaque than it should be: As presented, one can read the process as the cost depicted representing the total cost of character points or as the cost to increase from the previous rank – while one can deduce the correct way from the examples provided in the book, I had exactly that issue come up during character generation for playtesting, with different players having different opinions. Abilities are noted as P (Primary), S (Support), R (Restricted) and U (Unrestricted). While we get a short list, I can’t help but feel that a proper table would have been preferable here.
Magic items, buffs etc. that sport a +1 to a given ability increase the die-size by +1. In a nice idea, characters can also pursue occupations as an optional general orientation that codifies the character as being, more or less aligned with the role of a given “class.” It should be noted that this is more of a cosmetic accumulation of traditional nomenclature than a description of the capabilities of the character as a whole deal package.
Next up would be the calculation of the character’s defense pools, of which there are two: Active Defense and Passive Defense. Active Defense includes parrying, dodging, agility and unarmed combat and can incorporate static DR via shields. Passive Defense is determined by Fortitude and includes DR via armor, if applicable. The Defense Pool calculations are dead simple – add up the maximum values of the ability tree, including all specialties and masteries. Once again, the basic explanation of the features, alas, could have been more concise – as presented, the basic step leaves you wondering whether active defense accumulates and adds parrying etc. or not – only by delving deeper into the grit of the system does this opacity become resolved, which, once again, presents a thoroughly unnecessary confusion-barrier for novices to the rules that could have been rectified by one simple sentence providing clearer rules language.
Starting equipment and character concept are determined in conjunction with the GM, with suggestions for general, broad roles provided for the individual character roles – melee types for example receive a weapon, armor, shield and steed, whereas rogues get thieves’ tools, light armor and a weapon. Currency substitutes “crowns” for “Dollars” or “Euros.” Equipment, especially mundane equipment, is pretty much glossed over by the system, claiming it does not require the level of detail etc. – we will return to this claim later.
First, we’ll now take a look at the action resolution system: This is actually as simple as opposing rolls get – you roll the dice and if there is active opponent, both applicable rolls are compared, with specialties and masteries adding their die-sizes to the fray if applicable: Let’s say you have someone specialized in Stealth, a subcategory of Skullduggery, with a Mastery in Urban environments – he’d add all 3 to an ability check when sneaking around in an urban environment, but as soon as the character would seek to apply his skillset in the wilderness, he’d only receive the dice from basic Skullduggery and Stealth, but not the bonus for Urban Mastery.
On a downside, I do believe the example provided, which I have here consciously quoted, would have benefited from actually stating that it is opposed by Perception – while pretty much self-evident, clear opposition-structures, especially when explaining the base system, do help. At the same time, the way in which whether a specialty or mastery applies is explained can be considered exceedingly concise, so kudos there. Challenges imposed by the GM follow a similar structure – the GM selects a set of dice to describe the general difficulty, rolls them and compares them to the player’s roll. Here, I have a slight issue with the game – the good-roll-makes-possible-syndrome. it is a matter of taste, but the most difficult tasks are set at 3d12 -and yes, these can be nigh impossible. At the same time, though, a character who is lucky can achieve things the GM considered beyond him.
While, once again, easily modifiable via static DCs or GM-fiat, the general inclination of this swingy assumption of dice vs. dice means that you’ll have a relatively pronounced luck-factor when tackling such challenges – theoretically, you may beat the set-up with a paltry d4. Yes, the chance of this happening is pretty paltry (as anyone with even a cursory understanding of math should know, but I *have* seen rolls like that – more than one…) – so ultimately, whether you consider this a bug or a feature ultimately depends on your personal inclinations. The undeniable benefit of this would obviously be something that works its way through the whole system – namely that you never become truly invincible to paltry/low-level threats. Yes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that you fall to them, but the chance still exists, which is a component that personally appeals as much to me as the swingy distribution does not.
What very much appeals to me and tends to find its way into all of my games in one way or another, would be the pretty concise and easy to use degrees of success and failure that further enhance the randomness factor and reward/punish the respective rolls. Oh, since I failed to mention this – if in doubt, resolutions tend to favor the defender, which is an interesting component that makes generally defensively-inclined characters work better than in similar systems of e.g. the d20-basis.
In case you wondered, btw. – weapons and equipment and fighting also follow all of these rules, with the ability melee weapons leading into very broad weapon groups specialties and particular weapon type masteries, which, in practice, makes surprising amounts of sense. Speaking of combat, let’s take a closer look, all right?
I already mentioned the different defense pools available (and should note that this system makes shields actually relevant and mechanically distinct, which I do enjoy immensely!), so how does initiative work? A round is 15 second long, with a descending order of battle phases, scaling via Agility’s ability down from d12 to d4 in 5 phases, with each phase taking 3 seconds. Creatures with an even higher or lower Agility take their corresponding place in the initiative order and act before (or after, in the latter case) the others. A creature gets exactly one action per round, which can be used to take actions, cast spells, activate magic items or use special abilities. Initiative is governed by the ability tree of Agility, Reflexes and Reaction Time, with equipment further potentially modifying this value. But what if creatures act in the same phase? Here, envision my smile evaporating – fixed order: PC, exceptional creatures, standard creatures, minor creatures. This suggestion allows you to metagame the “named” NPCs out of a crowd and makes no sense within the world – and as such, I loathe it, in spite of the inclusion of NPCs/special creatures having the option to be treated as PCs. Ties between foes and PCs are always won by the PC, another component I’d personally switch on its head, but that ultimately remains my forte because I’m a mean, mean GM Thankfully, a GM can easily, once again, devise a modification of the suggested system to remedy just about every component of the system as presented herein.
But what about surprise? There is a distinction between simple and total surprise, with the latter locking the defending characters out of their active pool defense pools -OUCH. Simple surprise only takes away your action in the surprise round. A character may move 18 yards + MV Agility per round, more if the character incurs a penalty, with masteries further enhancing this. Oddly, the penalty incurred by faster movement makes surprising sense in in-game dramaturgy. Interesting here – the actual feasibility of defensive characters. The D-pools a character has deplete over the course of a combat and simulate fatigue, much like the ones in the classic German old-school RPG Midgard – once they are depleted, you take damage to fortitude, so there’s a difference to Midgard here. At 0 fortitude you drop unconscious, at minus MV fortitude, you die. So that’s how you die. But how do you make creatures die?
I already mentioned the threat pool: This is weapon/magic pillar + weapon group (and bonuses)/spell type + specific weapon/spell mastery. Note that some spells may bypass specific defenses fielded against them, increasing the required roll. It should be noted that no two defense pools can be combined – you either try to dodge or parry, for example – not both. Willpower is used to resist non-physical threats. Dual-wielding characters incur a battle phase penalty and yes, there are simple rules for attacks of opportunity, here called opportune attacks. Interesting here: A character may sacrifice a specialty or mastery to add its MV to the associated defense pool. While not engaged in hand-to-hand or melee, a character may revitalize, regaining 20% of all D-pools. D-pools are tied to encounters, which I LOATHE – you’re all by now aware of why “per-encounter” anything ultimate lands on my “oh why”-list; they make no sense. At the same time, though, the system presented here does have the easy option for the GM to customize this limit away and replace it with a fixed duration of rest etc. – in fact, I’d suggest such a system for pretty much any strenuous activity beyond combat, but again – that’s my preference and not something that impacts the review.
Magic in the system is separated into 7 so-called pillars: Alteration, Arcanum, Conjuration, Elementalism, Illusion, Invocation and Psychogenics. Failure to roll the needed number of the spell to be cast may incur unpleasant effects for the caster, so there is a certain sense of unpredictability inherent in the system, one further enhanced by the basic set-up of swinging distribution of the dice-results inherent in the system. Saving throws are either based directly on willpower and its follow-ups or directly on fortitude. It should also be noted that quite a few spells have essentially built-in metamagic, with modifications to the NN. It should also be noted that aforementioned degrees of failure-philosophy also applies to the general rules of spellcasting. In order to allow for a broad array of customization and homebrewing, what amounts to a DIY-spell-building kit with sample effects and NNs provide a surprisingly concise amount of guidance for the GM and trigger summonings, casting spells as rituals etc. all can be found among the options presented here. It should be noted that, while each pillar receives its array of spells, the focus here lies on the toolkit.
I’ve been talking quite a bit about “GM this and GM that” -well, instead of XP as another resource to track, ERP directly awards character points, cutting out the middleman, so to speak. An elegant solution within the confines of this system. Traps and creature development are also covered with concise rules and plenty of examples for the GM to choose from, alongside tables of generic treasure. Much like 13th Age, monsters are provided in a plentiful array and sport very simple statblocks that do not feature much beyond type, threat dice, extra attacks, DR, HP, Saves and Agility ranks – a minimalistic approach, though at the other side of things. Where monsters in 13th Age derived their rules-symmetry from the lack of swinging dice, the beasts in ERP derive their rules-symmetry from the fact that they swing just as much as PCs do. From classic horses to Lilith herself, the section covers quite some ground, though ultimately, you should not expect too much from the variety of the monsters themselves – vampires may have vampiric bite or hypnotic gaze, yes, but that is all that remains codified – the rest is left to the GM.
Also, much like 13th Age, ERP does feature a kind of primer of a sample campaign setting, with the default world of Ainerêve, whose morphological nomenclature I enjoyed as much as the Tennyson-reference leading into the chapter. And indeed, the somewhat linguistically-versed GM will not be surprised by a rather interesting component of this setting: For one, the world coexists undetectably with ours, as a kind of shadow. More importantly, the dream-connotation is further enhanced by a presumed mutability of lands – folk beliefs, convictions and ideologies transform the world and have significant power, with proximity in establishment being governed by conceptual and ideological nearness. This is at once brilliant, but at the same time also somewhat reductive in that it organizes the world in a fashion that is easier to structure – over all, the world still manages to feel pretty concise in its make-up and depiction, with sample NPCs, information on local law etc. being sported for many in ample details, going so far as to produce a pronunciation guide, nomenclature etc., with ample random name-generators. As awesome as the world is as a conception and as strongly as it might resonate with me and the themes of real world mythology, I still felt myself slogging through the campaign world’s information – this is not a bad world and its premise is utterly AWESOME – but what was crafted from the premise pretty much disappointed me as a rather vanilla fantasy world – hence my assertion in the beginning that you’ll want to apply your own modifications regarding the campaign setting.
The book also sports handy GM two-page cheat-sheets and 2 page character-sheets, which are horizontally aligned.
Now before I jump to the conclusion, what is missing here? 1) Encumbrance. The stance here is “encumbrance is not fun”, meaning you can carry tons of stuff around/potentially generating the Christmas Tree syndrome. Sample poisons/diseases – while provided as hazards, some examples would have been nice and virulence tec. does not feature – the two components exist pretty much in a half-defined limbo that leaves much in the GM’s hands, in spite of plenty of interaction with spells and abilities. I also think the system does require non-battle fatigue systems for weather/exposure etc. – once again, yes, they can be devised by the GM, but I still feel they deserve more focus.
Editing and formatting are okay, though not perfect – I noticed a couple of glitches herein. Especially formatting, quite honestly, annoyed me. Obvious bullet-point lists are simple lists, which detracts from the readability. And personally, my eyes glaze over when I read the statblocks. Why? Because of the overabundance of “>.” You see, “Ability > Specialty > Mastery” is the format and whenever I looked at such a sign, I felt the layout-need to actually insert an arrow-graphic. It may just be me, though. Layout adheres to a 2-column full-color standard that still retains a pretty printer-friendly basis, so that’s nice. The artwork…well. It exists. It neither adheres to a uniform standard or style, nor did I consider the pieces particularly nice. It doesn’t get better than the cover, so art-fanatics may not want to get this for the aesthetic values.
Dan Cross and Randall Petras have crafted an interesting system here – one that is governed by chaos and swinging results, yes, but also one that is pretty transparent in its rules. In fact, ERP is ridiculously easy to learn once you have someone explain it to you – or are an experienced roleplayer. The book, alas, is pretty much as “eldritch” in the beginning as its name implies – the first explanations and sequence of rules-presentations is NOT simple, nor didactically well-chosen in all occasions, which made running this more frustrating that it really should be – for it’s actually easy! When I read the book for the first time, I saw the claim of “easy character generation” and thought “Yeah right! I have no idea what’s going on!” – the key-word here is patience. The sequence of rules-presentation is not particularly well-chosen, so if you don’t let that frustrate you, ERP actually *IS* so easy to grasp and run – you just have to get past the annoying introduction and to the point where all the pools are actually concisely explained.
Now if the above review wasn’t ample clue – I intensely dislike a plethora of design-decisions, not from a reviewer’s perspective, but from a personal one, so no, I am not going to bash the system for it. This dislike never extends to the base mechanics, mind you, but rather to many of the details – and here, the genius component of this roleplaying system shine: This is perhaps one of the most easily customizable systems I’ve seen in quite a while. Don’t like terrain-rules being swingy? Replace with fixed values. Don’t enjoy the tilting of the scales in favor of the PCs to give them a slight mathematical edge in the game of swinging dice vs. swinging dice? Eliminate it in favor of more lethality. This system is extremely customizable and makes defense worthwhile while providing a combat that is streamlined. In my experience, it is NOT necessarily faster than other systems, though – why? Because rolling competing throws of the dice does take up time that cannot be reduced. (Ask anyone who’s ever played a game featuring them…) Yes, you will not be flipping rule-books much and look for obscure rule xyz, but still – obscure rules can be learned, whereas the rolling of the dice versus another always takes the same time.
In fact, this is my second attempt at writing a conclusion, since my first was focused on demolishing the introductory text – and the game does not deserve this. As much as many design decisions rub me the wrong way, as much as I consider the setting’s potential unrealized and as much as I dislike the simple monsters, all of that ultimately does not matter that much. Why? Because anyone halfway versed in crunch-design or houseruling material can customize the hell out of this system, which ultimately is the huge strength of what is presented here – the mathematical elegance of chance and the simplicity of the system’s swinging numbers translate to a game that transcends the limitations of its imho subpar presentation and slight didactic hiccups.
Know what I honestly did not expect, especially considering how much I do not like the setting? I actually found myself enjoying this system – it feels like a great framework. one that can use expansions, polish and a nicer “coat” (layout + art), one that can use expansions to deal with detailed alchemy, necromancy etc. While not absent from this book, the traditions of the like imho can certainly use a more refined and explicit depiction in future publications. Now I won’t use this all the time – the swinginess of results, while endearing for some narratives and stories, ends up annoying me as much as permanently running the cruise-control monsters of 13th Age. But I will return to ERP in the future. It is an interesting system and, if what I wrote, if the customization, is what you’re looking for, then be sure to take a look at this. My final verdict, in spite of gripes and some opacity in the presentation, will clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4. Why? Because to me, l good content and basic structure trumps a nice polish and because I thoroughly appreciate the versatility of this system.
You can get this roleplaying system here on OBS!