Posted on April 10, 2012 by Megan
Available at RPGNow.com
The Introduction recounts some of the inspirations for this game, the chief being Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God novels, brought to the TV as a mini-series 35 years ago… just when I was taking a classical literature course in high school and discovering the pleasures of Roman history! Based in an alterate history world, this game aims to recreate the intrigue, adventure and mystery of the Roman Empire in its heyday, a heady mix to explore.
Chapter 1: Servants of Gaius goes into more detail of what the game entails. Set in Rome, the core concept is that something threatens the well-being of the Empire and of Caligula the Emperor, and the characters are tasked to deal with it… once they have discovered what it is! City-based intrigue and investigation come to the fore, although the ruleset is suited to any activities in any part of the Roman Empire if such is preferred. History paints Caligula as a self-indulgent cruel madman, but no: he was a great Emperor and indeed a god! Who would not flock to his service, seek to defend him from all ills? With a brief overview of this core plot, the discussion moves on to an outline of the game mechanics, based on those used in other Bedrock Games games – the Network System – but modified to suit this particular game. The core mechanic involves a dice pool of d10s, rolled against a target number (or another dice pool if the attempted action is being opposed by someone else). The number of dice rolled depends on how skilled you are at whatever you are trying to do, and the highest number rolled is compared to the target to determine success or failure. That explained, we hear about the general things that will have to be considered as you create your character and prepare to get to grips with Ancient Rome. This includes matters that may jar against modern minds, a fairly rigid class system and a tendency to view males and females as different. The game has been written according to generally accepted historical principles of what is known of the attitudes of Roman society – but naturally it is up to your group to decide just how historically accurate you want to be.
Next, Chapter 2: Character Creation dives right in to the detailed process as introduced in the overview last chapter. Most works by allocation of skill points, the number you have depending on the Social Class you choose once you have decided on age and gender. You will need to decide what your primary and secondary skills are, as well as a wealth of detail showing just where your character sits within society – the priviliges and obligations of the chosen class, starting money, ancestry, occupation, religion and so on. The chapter then goes into detail on each stage, beginning with a discussion on Roman names and the complicated way in which each individual had a whole string of names. This is followed by the simplified class structure suggested for the game, in which there are but five social classes ranging from Senators to slaves. Each have their advantages and disadvantages, and your choice will depend on what the game master has in mind as well as what sort of character you are thinking of playing. There’s a complex system of titles – normally, starting characters will not have a title but may earn one by their efforts during play, but if preferred more experienced characters can be created who already have a title or two.
Skills, which are pivotal in determining what each character can do, come in six groups: Defence, Combat, Knowledge, Specialist, Physical, and Mental. Most are pretty obvious, but Defence is used to protect you against attempts to influence you mentally as well as against physical attack. Moreover, unlike other skills, you do not roll them, instead they provide the target numbers that others need to roll against to attack you. Then follows detailed discussion of every skill available, including notes on when and how you might want to use it. Characters unskilled in an area are not precluded from having a go, they roll 2d10 and take the lower roll as the result. As well as ‘mundane’ skills, magic works in this reality, and there are a range of magical skills that may be taken based around divination, ritual and sorcery. The first two are perfectly acceptable in polite society. Note that there are no ‘attributes’ per se, everything is mediated via the skills you choose for your character. For those who want to specialise, to be particularly good at a given area of a skill, there is the option to spend extra points to gain an Expertise, which gives you an extra 1d10 to roll when appropriate.
Another interesting feature is the way in which Allies are handled. Roman tradition includes a network of Patrons and Clients, where those of higher status or wealth took others under their wing. Both parties incur benefits and obligations from the relationship, and each character starts out with a single Ally although he can gain more in the course of play. It is also bound up with Auctoritas, the system whereby you exert influence, gain favours and so on. Starting characters have zero Auctoritas and this develops as he gains experience and renown. A Patron should have more Auctoritas than his Clients. Characters may also select Vices, disadvantages that add to role-playing potential and garner extra skill points.
Next comes Chapter 3: Equipment. It starts with currency and typical wages for different occupations. Next weapons and armour are discussed. Unlike many games, they are not easy to get – only if your occupation is Soldier or Gladiator will you even know where to go, everyone else must role-play finding someone to make what you are after… and they tend to be expensive. Still, most characters get into brawls, so assuming you have got hold of weapons you can find out here how much damage they do. Hazards such as poisons follow, then modes of transportation. This section seems a little jumbled and it can be hard to put your hand on the rule you want in the heat of the moment. The chapter rounds off with clothing and footwear, and other everyday items.
Chapter 4: Rules describes the game mechanics in detail, concentrating on combat and on the use of skills for task resolution. In combat, there are various options depending on how deadly you want combat to be, such as allowing an automatic wound BEFORE you roll damage if a 10 is rolled when you make an attack. There are notes on healing (and dying) and the expected amount of detail on how actual combat proceeds. It is a round-based combat system, with order determined by a Speed Skill roll. Each round you may make a single Skill roll and a move action. The Skill is normally whatever attack you wish to make, Defence does not count as an action (as it is a target, not something you have to roll). If you wish, you may forego a Skill roll to take two moves or to add +1 to your Defence. Whilst combat is covered in fair detail, it is not regarded as a major part of a game that is more about interaction: intrigue and investigation however will upon occasion result in a brawl, however, or of course a bout in the arena may feature in your adventures. Gladatorial matches and chariot races are included (a must for all lovers of Ben Hur!), as are environmental hazards and more normal skill use. There’s even a mechanism for abstracting Senate votes, for when the matter is not one for which characters want to make speeches, or if it is a background event when characters are engaged elsewhere. There are also notes on modifying the rules to allow for a particular gritty or an heroic, larger-than-life campaign.
The next chapter – Chapter 5: Running Servants of Gaius – is aimed at the game master, and opens with a discussion on alternate history and how to run it effectively. The default alternate history is that Caligula was a just emperor who had to defend against supernatural threats, and the game is designed to accommodate intrigue, exploration and investigation to that end. Naturally, if you want more combat, conquest or lots of arena action, you can include them. One thing that needs to be avoided is allowing too much real-world knowledge of the history of the Roman Empire to affect events in your game. Things may not happen in this reality in the same way, or according to the same timescale, as they did in the real world. Player-characters may alter the course of history, but cannot, should not do so by using their own knowledge of who did what in the real world. Change events as necessary so that avid historians are as baffled as everyone else! There’s plenty of advice on melding history and imagination as you manipulate events; as there is some details on how to ease your characters into the campaign – especially if you choose to use the specific supernatural threat presented as their main opposition in your overarching plotline. The focus on investigation and intrigue do require a fair measure of preparation on the GM’s part, after all it is hard to investigate something that isn’t there! Intrigue works by understanding the people involved and what they are trying to accomplish, so the work for an intrigue-heavy game will be developing an array of NPCs for the characters to interact with. Ideas flow, and plenty more will be spawned, as you read through these notes as they give the GM quite a lot of food for thought. But be warned, this is not something you will be picking up and playing, this game will repay careful planning and preparation. To aid that, this chapter rounds out with a wealth of resources to mine for ideas and flavour alike – drawning on everything from modern fiction, movies and TV series to the writings of eminent Romans like Suetonius and Tacitus (which are available in translation, you do not need to learn Latin!), as well as historical texts and more.
Chapter 6: Servants of Gaius delves in a lot more detail into the core plotline of the characters being recruited to aid Caligula against a specific supernatural threat and is most definitely GM-only material. It introduces the eponymous organisation that the characters will be recruited into, outlining its structure, ways of working and resources. The mechanics of the organisation are such that it is easy for the GM to direct characters to investigate or get involved in whatever it is that he has prepared for them – very neat! There are plenty of ideas for various sorts of missions that you may wish to assign.
Next, Chapter 7: Characters provides you with a ready-made cast of important figures, drawn from history and laid out with full game statistics ready to take their place in your world. It’s followed by Chapter 8: Minions of Neptune, which provides an array of ready-made servants of the opposition forces to counter your characters and their fellow Servants of Gaius. A neat element is that, whilst the threat and opposition is real, its precise nature is left to the GM to determine. Is it a foreign power? Or an individual rival for the Imperial throne? Or is it indeed a god seeking to interfere in the realms of man? Or something else entirely? You decide. And of course, they are not enough on their own. Read Chapter 9: Other Threats for everything from the forces of law and order to wild animals, politicians and gladiators to pit against the characters.
Naturally, in Ancient Rome you do not have to contend merely with other people, wild animals and more exotic monsters. Chapter 10: The Gods is a timely reminder of the interfering ways of the deities of the time. The Romans believed that they often took a personal interest in mortals and, as far as this game is concerned, that is indeed the case! Even if you do not care to have them strolling around, religion played a major part in Roman life, so here is all the information you need to run the cults and temples that feature in everyday life in the Empire.
Chapter 11: Caligula’s Rome not only gives an overview of the city which may provide a base for your adventures, it also explains the history and casts an eye over what the future may hold (unless your characters act to change it). The game is set to start in 38AD but of course by then Rome had already amassed a considerable history, which the characters – as good Roman citizens – should be aware of. So here is the sweep of history, as well as notes on what life was like in Rome and indeed the rest of the Empire.
This game bodes fair to provide some exceptional entertainment. It combines a love of the period, one I’ve shared since schooldays, with a light touch that provides fast and unobtrusive gameplay.
Review by Megan Robertson