Posted on March 17, 2006 by Flames
A Quick Note
Epic Role Playing is a fantasy role playing game system published by Dark Matter Studios and presented in three separate volumes (the Rules Manual, Bestiary, and Book of the Arcane, respectively). Additionally, a setting designed for use with the Epic system is also available in the form of the supplementary Atlas of Eslin (Volume 1). This review deals specifically with the Epic Role Playing Book of the Arcane, while other reviews discuss other Epic core books, as well as the Atlas of Eslin setting supplement.
What is Epic Role Playing?
Epic Role Playing is, like Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy system by default. That is, Epic Role Playing isn’t an entire game, but a set of rules that can be used to play games (an entire game, of course, requires the inclusion of a defined setting and premise). As a system, the primary design goal of Epic Role Playing is to present a “flexible and open role playing system that fits the needs of gamers”while striking a balance between verisimilitude and playability.
Now, I’ve played a lot of games and fooled about with many a system, but I haven’t ever seen a product with this specific design goal before. As I’m sure you are, I’m used to seeing games shoot for one end of the playability/verisimilitude spectrum or the other, not exploring the middle ground. In this regard, Epic Role Playing may not be unique, but it’s certainly uncommon – Epic doesn’t make you choose between playability or verisimilitude, rather, it gives you both in one package.
This isn’t an easy line to tow, and Epic does have a few rough spots, but ultimately the folks at Dark Matter Studios seem to have nailed it, providing a system that captures both entertaining meta-constructs and a great deal of verisimilitude, while remaining flexible enough to apply to a setting of your choice. Epic Role Playing obviously won’t please everybody (no game system does), but for some folks it may well be the Holy Grail that they’ve been searching for.
I’m always somewhat wary of small press production values as they still, even with the advent of print-on-demand fulfillment houses, run the gamut from aesthetically pleasing perfect-bound, soft-cover books to xeroxed, spiral-bound, crap that could have been printed at Kinko’s for all I can tell. I am happy to report that the Epic Role Playing books (including the Book of the Arcane) all fall squarely into the former category.
The Epic Role Book of the Arcane itself is a perfect-bound soft-cover that is priced to move at $20 (US) and contains 133 pages of content (including several quick references). The first thing you’ll notice is the cover art. Rendered with a watercolor effect, the cover portrays an aged practitioner of the arcane arts (an alchemist by the looks of it) pouring a glowing, yellow, concoction from a small vial onto a human skull. While I very much like the cover art, an argument could be made that the proportions of the subject in this particular piece are slightly skewed.
As a big fan of artwork rendered in watercolor, the covers of the Epic Role Playing books really impress me (although, as mentioned above, the Book of the Arcane cover is of slightly lesser quality than those of the other books in the series). Not only are they stylish, they are also evocative of that ‘high adventure’ feeling while simultaneously providing some insight into what you’ll find within the pages of a given Epic volume. Simply put, the Epic Role Playing cover art does everything that good cover art should do. Kudos to Chris Organ for the excellent work here.
Although it is less visually stunning, the interior layout of the Epic Role Playing Book of the Arcane is both organized and easy on the eyes. The few pieces of interior artwork that can be found in the Rules Manual are all subject appropriate and, with the exception of two pieces (on pages 23 and 29, respectively), are rendered with the same or better skill as the cover, albeit in black and white (and not in watercolor). While slightly less impressive in the art department than the Epic Role Playing Rules Manual was, the Book of the Arcane still outperforms many small-press endeavors here.
Overall, I’ve been very impressed with the physical quality of the Epic Role Playing books. The artwork and layout generally rivals that of much larger publishers and far surpasses that of many small press publishers that I am familiar with. If you need a measuring stick, I feel comfortable saying that the Epic Role Playing rule books are approximately of the same quality as Wizards of the Coast’s early soft-cover class supplements.
Epic Rules of the Arcane
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the real meat of the Epic Role Playing Book of the Arcane comes in the form of rules governing magic. As was the case with Epic Role Playing Rules Manual, the Book of the Arcane cleaves to the design goals of Epic Role Playing where striking a balance between playability and verisimilitude are concerned – even when it comes to something as fantastic magic. So, how does the Book of the Arcane achieve this balance? Read on…
The Six Disciplines
The foundation of Epic’s magic system is formed by six different disciplines (i.e., modes of magic) – Alchemy, Mentalism, Metaphysics, Philtrology, Shen, and Theurgy. Each of these six disciplines is discussed at length in the Book of the Arcane and provides a framework of arcane theory that can easily be tweaked to represent many different types of magic in popular fiction, from Gandalf’s high-powered sorcery to Kwai Chang Caine’s Kung Fu.
Alchemy in Epic Role Playing is specifically concerned with the chemical composition of matter and, therefore, relies heavily upon access to a supply of chemical reagents to be practically applied. Indeed, in order to implement a alchemical variant (i.e., spell), a practitioner must have access to, not only the proper reagents, but vials and stirring rods. In this regard, the Alchemy discipline resembles its namesake, with heavy roots in science as opposed to being based purely in the realm of the fantastic (although it treads some of that ground, as well).
The Alchemy discipline itself is broken up into four specialized areas of study – Gas Theory, Liquid Theory, Reaction Theory, and Solid Theory. While the areas that three of these specialized areas of study address are fairly obvious, Reaction Theory deals specifically with the study and application of catalysts that alter the attributes of a standard chemical reaction. For example, when the Photoalchemical Effect variant is properly applied, it allows a flat surface coated with the proper mixture of chemicals to capture a crude image of the immediate surroundings (i.e., a photograph).
This ‘science as magic’ discipline can easily be used to inject some verisimilitude into an otherwise fantastic campaign, should you choose to use it (again, Epic is a system, thus the use of a given discipline is presented as an option, by default). I can easily see the Alchemy discipline playing a large role in a pseudo-historical campaign based in Dark Ages or Renaissance Europe. Overall, I’m pretty impressed with what the Alchemy discipline offers me as a GM and a player.
As the name of the discipline suggests, Mentalism deals with the applied power of the mind. The lead into this section of the Book informs us that such power is tapped by way of manipulating ceratin sections of the brain which are, typically, not accessible via conscious thought. A master of Mentalism has learned to do what the common man cannot – access those closed-off sections of the brain and employ them while conscious.
Given the nature of Mentalism, its ability to effect the physical, external, world is somewhat limited. Mentalism bears many similarities to Hindi mysticism in that it is largely focused on controlling the mind and body of the practitioner, although it may also be used to control the minds of others and, in this regard, is reminiscent of stage mesmerism. In this respect, the Mentalism discipline is a welcome departure from the more common ‘psionics’ that can be found in many fantasy RPGs.
While it won’t be appropriate for use in all settings or campaigns, I can easily see Mentalism being employed as a staple of pseudo-historical campaigns in settings with an Eastern bent, such as Dog Soul’s Sahasra or TSR’s Kara-Tur. Likewise, I can envision Mentalism turning up in a pulp fantasy campaign, as well, given the prevalence of its obvious inspirations in both pulp adventure novels and Victorian penny dreadfuls. As a fan of all these things, I look forward to implementing this discipline during actual play.
Although the term ‘metaphysics’ has been used in modern times as a kind of catch-all phrase denoting New Age religious beliefs, in the Book of the Arcane, Metaphysics are just that – supernatural physics. The Metaphysics discipline in Epic Role Playing is, like the Alchemy discipline, rooted not in pure fancy, but in science (or, more appropriately, super-science). If Michelangelo had been an adventurer, he would have been an Epic Metaphysicist.
As explained in the Book of the Arcane, Metaphysics are tied very closely to the study of mathematics and their appearance in nature, with Metaphysics variants (again, spells) being applied by crunching mathematical equations in one’s heads. Like Alchemy, Metaphysics are further broken up into four different areas of study:
Calescent Theory – The branch of Metaphysics dealing with thermodynamics.
Gravity Theory – I’m pretty sure you can guess what this deals with 😉
Radiant Theory – The branch of Metaphysics dealing with electricity and magnetism.
Submaterial Theory – The branch of Metaphysics dealing with forces that rule on a less than atomic scale.
From creating automatons from compressed thermal energy to shifting the light seen by an individual into the red spectrum (an effect commonly referred to as ‘infrared’ on our own Earth), Metaphysics introduces an exciting array of scientifically feasible possibilities into Epic. Of all the disciplines presented in the Book of the Arcane, this is easily my favorite.
It may be a bit harder to justify the inclusion of Metaphysics in traditional high fantasy campaign settings (e.g., Faerûn), but I can’t shake the vision of an alternate history homebrew where the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Michelangelo aren’t merely scientists, but dashing heroes who hold the fate of the world in their hands. Alternately, I can also see Metaphysics having a place in settings that draw heavily on the Renaissance for influence, such as the world of Maelstrom.
Philtrology, as a discipline, is dedicated to the creation and application of balms, elixirs, potions, and poisons. Now, I know what you’re thinking – isn’t that covered by Alchemy? You might think so, but the discipline of Philtrology is very focused on the particulars of creating potions, whereas Alchemy (despite its roots in science) is more geared towards producing spell-like effects. Philtrology is broken up into three specific areas of study, all of which are fairly self-explanatory – Curative Formulae, Alteration Formulae, and Poison Formulae.
Unlike the disciplines so far covered, Philtrology will be at home in almost any fantasy campaign, from grim low fantasy in the vein of Thieve’s World to the highest of high fantasy in the vein of Greenwood and R.A. Salvatore. I was, in fact, particularly reminded of the prominent Thieve’s World character, Alton Stulwig, when reading the entries for the various Philtrology variants. If you’d like to play a low-key, but absolutely essential fixture of fantasy society, Philtrology is probably something that you should look into.
Of the six disciplines presented in the Book of the Arcane is easily the most unique, not only when compared to Epic’s other disciplines, but when compared to schools or spheres of magical influence in other fantasy RPGs as well. What is Shen? At first glance one might be tempted to pigeonhole it as a fighting style, but like Caine’s legendary Kung Fu, Shen isn’t a fighting style but a full-fledged mystic belief system dedicated to channeling mystic energy.
Like other arcane disciplines in Epic, Shen is further divided into specific areas of study, as well – the Path of Conflict, the Path of Harmony, and the Path of Neutrality. Shen can, for all intents and purposes, emulate such things as the wuxia antics of Iron Monkey, Chiun’s often amazing feats in The Destroyer novels, and, of course, the mystic Shaolin Kung Fu of Kwai Chang Caine himself.
The manner in which Epic chooses to present Shen (i.e., as a form of mysticism, as opposed to simple martial combat skill) much more accurately reflects the source material than many RPGs do. The downside is that presenting Shen in such a manner somewhat limits its appropriateness to settings or campaigns with heavy Eastern overtones or, at the very least, an analogue to our own Earth’s Asia. The good news is that if your campaign setting does contain these things, the Shen discipline will open up worlds of flavor to you.
Finally, just in case you feared it had been overlooked, we come to the discipline of Theurgy – commonly known as witchcraft, sorcery, and a flurry of other names. What it is commonly know as by a given setting’s denizens has more to do with how it is applied, than with what it actually is. In point of fact, the power behind all Theurgy comes from the same place – a mystical power flow known as Ara (or, alternately, as the Source). Theurgy is divided into the following specific categories based upon how this power is harnessed or applied:
Art of Channeling – Wherein the Theurgist exposes his being to raw Ara and channels it through his body to produce direct effects.
Art of Conjuration – Wherein the Theurgist specializes in gathering, calling, creating, and summoning creatures or other such entities.
Art of Conveyance – Wherein the Theurgist gathers energies and attributes from others and uses Ara to transfer them to himself.
Art of Divination – Wherein the Theurgist uses Ara and its relationship with the universe to divine answers to imponderable questions.
Art of Imprecation – Wherein the Theurgist invokes and abolishes curses, hexes, and omens of a negative nature, as well as various weirds and charms designed to protect against such things.
To indicate that the Theurgy discipline is entirely representative of magic found in other fantasy RPGs is a misrepresentation (obviously, Conveyance and Imprecation aren’t typical fare), although it is fair to say that Theurgy encompasses that range of magic. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I’m a big fan of the atypical aspects of Theurgy (again, Conveyance and Imprecation) here.
While I don’t have to give examples of where Theurgy can be applied to great effect in your own campaigns, it’s worth noting that it does cover all of the ground that the typical magic systems found in many other fantasy games do, in addition to adding some new elements to just keep things interesting. While I’m not particularly drawn to the Theurgy discipline, it does what it sets out to do.
The Possible Pitfall
The arcane disciplines of Epic are skill-based, handled via the basic rules for task resolution present in the Epic Role Playing Rules Manual. Yep, that’s the one possible pitfall. I know that some people really dislike the idea of spells being anything other than automatically successful when cast, and for those people, the Book of the Arcane might not be a good investment. Me? I love the idea of skill-based magic, but even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have a problem with paying the price of admission (I buy a lot of books specifically with an eye toward plundering them for other games). That said, I thought that this potential pitfall was worth mentioning in the interest of being thorough.
The Final Verdict
As a supplement for Epic Role Playing, the Book of the Arcane carries on where the Rules Manual left off, serving up more of the same balance between playability and suspension of disbelief found therein. The ‘science as magic’ disciplines are especially useful when it comes to striking this balance, by bringing an air of verisimilitude to an aspect of role playing games typically associated with pure fantasy.
As a product of general interest, the Book of the Arcane provides some atypical modes of magic for a Game Master to digest and implement in their own campaigns (porting over the spell lists from the Book of the Arcane to another list-based system would be extremely easy). Even if you don’t play Epic, I’d recommend that you give the Book of the Arcane a look based on its low buy-in price and much of the content’s unique nature.
In the end, I wholeheartedly recommend that you give the Book of the Arcane. Whether you’re looking to add elements of the arcane to your existing Epic campaign or plunder some decidedly different takes on magic for use with another system, the Book of the Arcane has a lot to offer you.
Reviewer: James D. Hargrove