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Epic Role Playing Game Manual Review

Posted on December 9, 2008 by Flames


Available at Amazon.com

Holy hell, what a game.

A couple years ago, the folks at Dark Matter Studios released an RPG called Epic Role-Playing. It was a game I enjoyed, found very well-crafted for a first attempt, and ended up giving a generally positive review to. However, one of the complaints I (and several other reviewers) noted was that Epic was too segmented. The original Epic came in 4 parts—the Rules Manual, Bestiary, Book of the Arcane, and Atlas of Eslin (the default setting for Epic, which also listed many of the guilds/profession available). This compartmentalization was likely a big turn-off to many who otherwise may have given the game a try.

Well, never let it be said that the folks at Dark Matter do not listen to constructive criticism. The Epic RPG is back in one book, condensed, but with the original Rules Manual and Book of the Arcane included in their entirety. The Bestiary and Atlas of Eslin are also included in abbreviated form, but more on those in a minute.

(Note: In some of the following, I have copied some play and rules examples from my earlier review. This was only done in places where I felt the original examples were better and complete as-is).

As for Epic’s Game Manual (which is what this edition is proclaimed to be on the cover) is 303 pages long (not including reference sheets, logs, and character sheets in the back, of which there is a goodly amount), with a color exterior (the original near-watercolor style illustration from the original Rules Manual) and a black-and-white interior. Physically, this is a good-looking book for a black-and-white product, and Dark Matter did take the opportunity to ensure the layout for this product was clean and pleasing overall. I would have liked to see a few more illustrations (more on that later), but overall, the text and organization are very good.

The prior version of Epic was remarkably free of typos; this version continues in that. I only found a very few typos, with the disclaimer that I am not the typo fiend some other reviewers manage to be.

Let’s go over some of the rules of Epic:

Creating Characters

After we pass the obligatory “What is Role-playing?” introduction, we go right into background. You can either choose to roll or select items such as Family, Social Class, and the resulting Background skills. This list is extensive, broken into tribal/state society sections, and is a nice way of fleshing out a character with some skills he picked up from his family’s occupation. There’s many to choose from, and they sort of have a Burning Wheel-esque flavor in terms of comprehensiveness and variety. After this, one chooses or rolls on a childhood event table. Some of these can increase or decrease your social standing or attributes, add another skill or unique trait to your character, or provide you with extra starting wealth.

Characters then choose an apprenticeship, using the aforementioned occupation list, which gives plenty of options for all walks of life. A (very small) sampling includes Artist, Armorer, Jeweler, Merchant, Performer, Petty Thief, or for the well-born, perhaps Knight (squire) or an upcoming member of the nobility. You can then roll/choose on an Apprenticeship events table, much like the earlier Childhood one in form and function.

OK, so we’ve managed to flesh out our character through the apprenticeship portion of his life. Now we’re going to start statting him up. Stats take the form of Vital Attributes, or (VAs), and number ten in all. Agility gives you bonuses to move and to athletic skills; Beauty does so for so social interaction. Build, Might, and Vitality all go towards making your character a more hearty, powerful specimen. Essence, Intuition, Presence, Will, and Reason all go towards your Talent in Skills. It may seem like a lot, but there’s no extended math or difficult equations here—the character sheet is set up to make it all very straightforward. Spread out the stats as you like—relative values are described in the book. They’re also spared from relative abstraction by very good descriptors of which areas each governs, and why a certain build of character would prefer a high rating in each.

If you’d like, at the end of the section there’s an unusual traits to roll for as well, and the discussion of alignment. After that, it’s time to pick an occupation!

Occupations

Epic does not use character classes, such as “Fighter” or “Rogue”. Instead, players choose (or are chosen by) a Guild. Guilds aren’t simply Ye Olde Merchant’s Guild or Thieves’ Guild, but instead organizations often with regional, religious, and/or natural affiliations. I consider this one of the best parts of the game. For example, a player wanting to run a fighter might turn towards the Archers of the Scarlet Mark (mercs), the Constables of Brightwall (lawdogs), or the Cavaliers of the White Lance (courtly warriors). Rogue/thief types might pick the Blades of Ehr or the Counsel Macabre. There are organizations for just about any “class” concept: some loose, some strict, some broadly defined, others narrowly so. Each guild had its own history and circumstances that make it stand out in broad relief against the others. The guilds and occupations are extremely well done, full of life, and brimming with conflict potential. There are nearly 50 Guilds in all, and they are probably my favorite feature of the entire RPG.

The guild chosen will provide the character with a starting skill set. At higher levels, if the character sticks with the guild, there are elite secret abilities and advantages he can gain through his association with them (more on these in a bit). It should be made clear this is only a starting point for your character. You want to leave the guild? Fine. Decided your true calling isn’t as a mage, but as bard? We can work that, too. After the initial character creation, the PCs are under no compunction to continue in the service of any guild; do so only if you wish to.

One of the best features of the character creation/occupation section of Epic is the presence of checklists. During every step, there’s a checklist on the page, making sure you’re on track and giving a little more background a precisely why you’re doing what you’re doing. A nice idea, even if character creation is straightforward and isn’t exactly advanced calculus. Not needed for cagey old vets, I suppose, but nice to have if you’re a less experienced gamer. If you really want to create your own professions and disregard the default setting entirely, there’s a good article on Epic’s website for doing just that.

After picking our occupation, we finagle some final stat numbers, and we’re ready to look at Skills.

Skills

First off, the skill-tree system Epic uses is known as the Faculty System. Skills are broadly-defined areas of aptitude, such as Lore, Melee Arms, or Science. Each broad skill area is defined by a different Attribute: for example, the Theology skill area is governed by the Intuition Attribute. This attribute gives you a bonus (depending on how high it is) to your Talent in said skill, Talent is what makes it cheaper to buy levels in that skill. High Talent=cheaper skill level purchase.

Now, each Skill has what’s known as Specialties. These are exactly what they say they are, specialties in a skill cluster. So, for example, if I have a Skill Level of 4 in the Military Arts and a Specialty of +1 in Command, when using my Command skill I would add in a bonus of 4 plus 1 to my skill roll. Say I hadn’t purchased that +1 in Command? That’s okay, I still have a 4 from the aforementioned Military Arts Skill it belongs to, which means I can add that 4 to any specialty from that skill subset, be it Command, Tactics, etc. It’s a little like Rolemaster FRP’s skill system, only without all the math. It’s a nice way of diversifying skills between characters.

Higher levels of Skills and Specialties are purchased via Experience. Experience is usually doled out in chunks of roughly 3-7 points about every other gaming session, depending on how involved the players have been. Epic recommends incorporating training periods into your games, so your character doesn’t instantly become better at fishing in the middle of a dry dungeon crawl.

Skill resolution rolls generally work the same as in other RPGs; the total skill roll versus either a difficulty check or an opponent’s opposing roll, if suitable. Arcane/magic skills work virtually the same way. No problems here.

Masteries are, as the book says, “refinements of specialties that represent years of concentration and focus on one specific area of study”. Basically, it’s a way of honing in that specialty to an elite level. In game terms, it can be pricey to invest in these, but it can also be really worth it to set your character above and beyond.

For example, we had a character in our group who more or less was our fast-talker, our resident rogue (in game terms he belonged to The Column, a huge black market syndicate). He had invested heavily in the Commerce skill, especially the Bartering Specialty. When he had a high enough bonus to Bartering (+2), he purchased the Mastery of Bargain, which meant he could find any normal item for 50% off the list price, or an imbued/magic item at 25% off! A mastery in (Melee Arms) Bladed Weapons can give a character another attack (which can be big in Epic), or one in an arcane specialty will make your usage of lowest-level “variants” (think spells) be without cost! All in all, Masteries are not too unbalancing, but do let characters excel where they concentrate most.

Grandmasteries are even more expensive refinements of these specialties. They come after Masteries, obviously, and are when characters become so amazingly supreme in a specialty that it borders on the arcane or paranormal. Some are pretty straightforward. For example, if you gain Grandmastery in one of the Melee Arms specialties (say Bladed Weapons or Axes), you can do a triple strike with your weapon, attacking three times at half accuracy (which in Epic terms, can be devastating). Others, like (Perception) Detection, can gain True Sight and be able to discern the magical. Others can mean a boost to Attributes to indicate your honing of those faculties. There’s even a Grandmastery in Fishing, which ensures you, as a true elite of the elite in your chosen craft, can catch fish so uniquely nutritious as to be capable of light healing. Obviously some folks will write that off as a pointless or silly Grandmastery (and our group did get some chuckles out of it), but it’s still there for the taking. Special attacks, thieves that defy magical detection, magic-users able to cast spells with supreme efficiency, craftsmanship worthy of magical investment, all reach their zenith with Grandmasteries.

Remember those “elite abilities” allowed to certain guild members only? Well, those are Masteries and Grandmasteries that are unique and can only be learned by one of their guild/profession. Many of these are “secret” and may require a sacrifice or devotion of (game) time to learn. These range from martial bonuses to material and social ones, and really ensure that the same 4 Masteries don’t show up for every character every campaign. With nearly 50 Guilds and Professions in Epic so far, and each of those having one Mastery and one Grandmastery apiece, it’s really a very diverse and fun system. Remember, though, they will cost you, so no character will be unbalanced by having Masteries in every important specialty. Which is good, I think, since most people who become among the best at something don’t often repeat that extreme success in too many other fields.

My one true beef with the skills section (and I suppose character creation) is that characters receive no further Experience allotment initially to further customize skills. Since the Rules Manual was published, fans have commented on this, and I really thought addressing the easy solutions discussed with Dark Matter by various fans might have been included in here, but I did not see it.

While some may argue that 1 or 2 sessions isn’t too long to wait for this, I gave me players 3-4 starting Experience to customize their skills a bit more. In the long run, I suppose it doesn’t matter very much if you follow this example or stick with the book, since they’ll have that Experience soon enough.

Combat

Combat is split up into turns, which last 10 seconds each. Each turn consists of three phases. Phase One is Declaration of Actions, which is almost a nod to scripted combat like you’d see in Burning Wheel (though not that far-planning or dependent on counter-actions and the like). Each player says what he’ll do that turn. The defaults every character can use each turn are:

1 Attack (or Skill Roll/Magic Use)

1 Defense (Parry, Evasion, etc.)

1 Movement

1 Shield Block (if you have a shield)

Of course, various enhancements, masteries/grandmasteries and the like can increase the number of times you can do things in a round. Keep in mind you can also change your tactics mid-turn, but have to forfeit one of your actions to do so.

Phase 2: Order of Actions (Initiative):

This has been bandied about as “longest weapon goes first”. Not exactly true. Everyone makes an order roll. Highest roll goes first. Folks who have invested in the Maneuvering (Reaction Speed) skill get bonuses to this roll, as do folks with point-and-shoot loaded weapons, such as the crossbow. Negatives can be applied for clunky weapons or complex spells. Now for that longest weapon bit. Say I have a longsword and my opponent has a knife. In the first turn of combat, while we’re still closing with one another, I get to go before him by merit of my longer reach. But if I had ignored him yet moved into the range of his knife, he’d get an attack against me immediately, even though his order/initiative was lower.

OK, we’ve said what we were going to do, we’ve figured out when we’re doing it, now let’s find out what happens. Some actions, such as walking, talking, or picking up something are automatic. Others, such as an attack or casting, need our resolution rolls. The game uses a 2d10 mechanic for resolution, be it combat or skill-related.

So say Zacharius is fighting Red Shirt 1. I’m using a longsword. I have a melee arms skill of 4 and a bladed weapons specialty of 2.

So I’d roll 2d10 plus 4 plus 2. Say my 2d10 nets me a 10. That’s a 16 total. Red Shirt completely scrogs his roll and ends up with a 10 total to parry. So I hit the bugger. Longsword damage is 2d10. We’ll say I have a PWR (which is what governs extra melee damage) of 7. I roll a 4 on my damage, add the +7 which totals up to 11 in all.

Now it’s his turn. He wails on me with a 17. I roll to parry, add in my (melee arms) bladed weapon specialty since I’m parrying with my longsword, but only roll an 11 total. Red Shirt rolls for damage and hits me for 6 points (wuss). But wait! Unlike the unimportant Red Shirt, I’m wearing armor, which has a Protection Level (PL). My light armor only has a PL of 2, but that’s 2 points of damage I don’t take. So in the end, Red Shirt hits me for 4 points of damage.

Well, I took some damage. Well, how do I tell how injured I am? This is where my Life Points come in to play. Life Points are a result of several attribute modifiers, but let’s say I have 5 Life Points (or LPs). There are six boxes on the character sheet. Imagine each one holding 5 LPs (if I had 6 LPs, each would hold 6, etc). When I fill up that first box with 5 LPs of damage taken, I carry the rest over to the next box. Each box represents an Injury Level. So long as I haven’t filled up my first box (box 0), I’m still at Injury Level 0. If I had taken 6 points of damage, I would have had to carry that extra point over to the next box. And then I would be at Injury Level 1, and at -1 for all actions, For an IL of 2, I’d be at -2, and so on. Increasing injury levels represent the wear and tear on your character through battle and such, and start to throw in those negative modifiers to represent his injury.

You become unconscious at an Injury Level of 5 (the last box), and when you’re out of boxes, you die.

It’s actually one of the more efficient and clean ways I’ve seen of keeping track of degrading ability and health through injury. The boxes are right there on the character sheet, though you may want to put a piece of scotch tape over them if you plan on keeping the same character sheet for a while.

When you roll two 10s on an attack, that’s a Critical Hit. You then roll a 1d10 to see where you hit (we ended up taking GM license with this to make it a bit more dramatic), or if it was a called shot, you automatically hit where you were aiming. You also roll a d10 to see what just type of grievous damage you did.

Crits do some nasty things. They effectively damage armor, cause bleeding (which causes more LP loss each turn until stopped), dislocate or break bones, cause paralysis or shock, or just drop the character where they stand (fatality). Pretty unpleasant stuff to have happen. There aren’t huge reference charts for this; in fact, the whole section consists of one chart and one page.

There’s also Critical Misses, which do all the things we’ve come to expect from such ill fortune.

There are more options in melee combat, so every action just isn’t a generic attack or defense. Actions such as Shield Bash and Charging are covered well, and in simple terms. There are also modifiers such as Fighting Prone or Surprise Attacks. All of it is pretty easy to pick up, to be honest. Combat is pretty deadly, especially for poorly armored characters without the sense to choose their battles (or how they fight them). Still, you can usually survive a flub here or there.

I’d say combat for a party of 4 took about 7-8 minutes a round at the start, but the learning curve was very good and soon those same turns were only taking 3-5 minutes, depending on severity of action.

Also included are illustrated examples as well of how combat works using minis, which is never a bad thing. My players generally liked combat, especially once they learned it and it got a bit more fluid. It’s a proactive experience, and really helps keep everyone immersed in the action.

The Goods & Services chapter is quite comprehensive and put together nicely. Prices for just about everything your players will ask for in-game are here. Short or lacking equipment lists are a personal pet peeve, and I’m glad to see that’s avoided here.

There’s also a fairly nice section on campaigning, including a random encounter table, travel events, training costs, etc. After this, we hit the Treasury, which is a definite check-plus for Epic. It discusses the varying quality of swag, and then goes into a discussion of magically imbued items. A very liberal selection of imbued armor, weaponry, and miscellanea is included, as well as instructions for creating your own.

Chapter 8 is all about large-scale and group-level warfare, and how to run unit-level battles. Epic manages to keep this section lively and understandable, and has some interesting bits on siege warfare, purchasing units, and how auxiliary staff and organization can affect a fighting force. This chapter ends up as another check-plus for Epic. Following that is an OK glossary, an index (which I feel should be federal law for all RPGs over 40 pages), and a host of sheets: a character sheet (which has to be one of the best-designed sheets I’ve seen of late), a reference sheet (very useful), and campaign, adventure, and battle logs (mileage may vary). All the sheets and a GM screen are also available for download at the Epic website.

Overall, the rules portion stays very reader-friendly, provides lots of examples and guidance where needed, and presents itself with a refreshing clarity.

On to the Book of the Arcane, which is a place where Epic really and sincerely shines:

Magic is again by Guild choice, although it’s possible for one to gain some arcane knowledge in their earlier apprenticeship and then totally abandon it for another path. The arcane mechanics in this game are fairly simple. As stated earlier, magic is learned in the form of Skills/Specialties. When one wishes to cast a spell, they basically make a skill check. A power point-type system to indicate magical drain is present in the form of Quintessence Points (QP), which are basically how high your skill is in whatever dominion of magic you’re using.

According to the Book of the Arcane, there are 6 different forms of magic:

Alchemy: Perhaps the most familiar of the six to new arrivals, alchemy deals with the manipulation of chemistry through both scientific and mystical means. Alchemists can specialize in theory regarding Gases, Liquids, Solids, or overall Catalysts (Reaction). Examples of what an alchemist can do are create maelstroms in water, stop items from deteriorating, liquefy targets (!), weaken materials, reduce mass of an item, and all the other things alchemists who lived in our world wished they could do.

Mentalism: This discipline of the mind requires great concentration and will of thought to affect the user as well as the outside world. Very strong against sentient creatures, it is very limited else wise. One practicing mentalism might be able to detach his body from physical pain, cause others to fall into peaceful or terror-filled dreams, project their psyche for a bird’s eye view, or attack the inner workings of an opponent.

Metaphysics: Metaphysicians may choose specialties regarding thermodynamics, gravity, electromagnetism, or even submaterial theories. Arcane reasoning bends the laws of the universe to the whim of metaphysics. One can nullify gravity, change inertia, and warp time and space among many other abilities in this realm.

Philtrology: Herbalism and the study of flora and fauna, and imbuing and enhancing properties found in nature. These folks can create potions and compounds of deadly poison, healing drafts, and miraculous effects on the human body. The philtrology section includes a list of herbs/poisons to put the old Rolemaster one to shame. Those in this discipline can often use said herbs and elements naturally for lessened effect.

Shen: Shen has a feeling of an oriental discipline about it, but is practiced by those ranging from woodland folk to religious types. At its heart, it is the focusing of body and mind together through years of discipline. Users of Shen may increase physical performance to pull of incredible jumps or martial feats, make deadly attacks, or improve their defense against both the physical and arcane.

Theurgy: Nasty. Also referred to as the Black Arts. Often use ghostly or demonic power from beyond as a source of energy. They use a familiar to focus their casting energy. As with any talent, there’s more than one side of the story, but they are generally looked down upon as evil witches or warlocks. Their powers pretty much range the entire gauntlet of mystical tradition.

Also included are rules for creating new variants, always nice to see. Epic’s magic system might be simple in game mechanic terms, but there are enough variants here to keep magic fiends happy for a good long while.

The Bestiary section of this book is really only excerpts from Epic’s stand-alone Bestiary product. This is the one section of the book that I really wish had been done better. The monsters/creatures included are interesting and show some unique takes on some old adversaries, but there just aren’t really enough of them for a product like this. I’d have liked to have seen a wider range and selection of baddies, even in a sampler. Additionally, several of the creatures are unfamiliar, and not all creatures have illustrations included. This was a bit of a disappointment, to be certain. An expanded sample bestiary online or some sample encounters would go a long way to remedy this.

The excerpts from Atlas of Eslin are much better, with a good selection of Professions and Guilds to cover a wide variety of character options. This default setting was very enjoyable; human-centric, detailed enough to be interesting without being so heavy-handed that it drowns out free gaming. I will freely admit I have taken several of the aspects of the realm of Rullaea and have added it some of my homebrew worlds as well. Kingdoms, religion, political structure, magic in society, and other aspects are covered nicely. I would recommend that the full Atlas of Elsin is an enjoyable read on its own.

Ultimately, with so many RPG games and systems out there, you have to ask yourself, “What does this system or game do better or different than the perennial front-runners?” In this case, Epic can boast a killer, unique magic system, an enjoyable, well-considered default setting, and rules that allow for a wide degree of customization while retaining a sense of familiarity and a low learning curve.

With their Game Manual, Dark Matter Studios has made a good RPG more accessible, and I think that can only mean good things for for those wanting to check out a smart, well-built fantasy RPG that brings an awful lot to the table. This game plays like it has undergone severe playtesting, with each section considered, evaluated, and re-considered. It’s a real pleasure to see such a well-crafted game get a new edition that is richly deserved. And while there are some missteps along the way (see, I hadn’t forgot the Bestiary), Epic remains one of my favorite fantasy RPGs of the past few years, and one I hope others take the time to discover in the form of this new volume. In my mind, it’s one of the best “traditional” style RPGs of this past year–mechanically solid, while still possessing enough innovation to make it well worth your while to check out.

(Disclaimer: My name does appear in the “thank yous” at the front of this book for suggestions I made regarding the previous edition of this RPG)

Review by Zachary Houghton

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