Review of REIGN

Name: REIGN
Publisher: Schroedinger’s Cat Press
Line: ORE
Author: Greg Stolze, illustrated by Daniel Solis.
Category: RPG
Cost: $41 USD Softcover + PDF, $36.80 Softcover, $19 USD PDF
Pages: 363
Year: 2007

Disclaimer: I love the One Roll Engine (ORE), and was predisposed to like REIGN. It is a game that essentially had me at “Hello.”

Where it does get interesting, however, is in how I didn’t react quite as I expected to the product. I’ll summarise the rest of the review in a paragraph or two:

I was expecting to get another exploration of the ORE rules, tailored as they all have been to the game’s context, in this case, fantasy. I was expecting optional rules tweaks that could be applied to other ORE games for fun and profit. I was 95% sold on the game by the idea of Company mechanics alone, whereby there are rules for statting up abstract human organisations such as religions, social movements and megacorporations and having them fight it out. I expected that the rest of the game setting was going to be essentially gravy, on top of all that.

I was not expecting to find that the setting itself is something I am treasuring as well, but I am.

This means that there is nothing in this book which is not worth owning. I will now go into more detail and explain why this is.

I’ll start with the physical book and layout, before moving on to Content. Discussions of the game’s content will be broken into reviewing the Rules, and then Setting, although there’ll be some slippage. I can tell this is going to be a long review, so I’m trying to make it as accessible as possible

First Impressions: The Tangible Reality of the Book.

It is a thing of beauty – though I am working from a hardcover copy not currently available.  I am quite stunned at the quality of the printing and binding on this one.  It’s thick, it’s detailed, it’s sturdy.  It compares favourably to all those pretty RPG stalwarts like oWoD Vampire: Revised.

The artwork is stunning. I’m impressed by how it’s very stylish and thematic, is spread through the book, and is integrated into the text in a way that doesn’t intrude.

This is a very easy book to read. Different fonts and stylistic approaches have been taken to the core material of the book, the flavour-text that illustrates points and sets up the world, and the sidebars and boxes, so they’re easy to tell apart. And the effect is, as mentioned, pretty.

There’s even a very intuitive ‘progress bar’ effect as you proceed through a given section, which I think is neat. It’s unobtrusive, but I grinned when I figured out the pattern.

As I’ve been reading the book, I’ve been making an effort (albeit not an encyclopaedic one) to follow the page references provided, because there was good information on RPG.net that some of them were wrong. I figured, what was a review that didn’t cover that possibility, right? Well, thus far I have located precisely one misfiled page reference (One on Page 98 that suggests the rules for Squishing dicerolls is also located on Page 98), and one minor typo. This suggests that there are some, but no more than the occasional glitch. I’d certainly hang out for an errata page, because just speaking for myself, the ratio of quality to typo means I’m probably not going to notice errors. YMMV.

Generally, the book is laid out with the most specific information right at the beginning, and then branching out into the more general. The core rules are right at the start before Character Gen, and setting information is later.

Now, on to the actual game.

The Rich, Fertile Fields of Content.

And what content it is. The opening fiction covers a page, but achieves exactly what it needs to. It’s evocative, thematic, and to the point. Then we have a succinct, clearly written explanation of the One Roll Engine. Just so that this is review a useful resource to those who’ve never heard of the ORE, the idea is to roll a pool of d10s, and look for matching numbers. The higher the match, the better the result, but the more numbers in the match, the faster the result happens. These are called Height and Width, respectively, and which one is better depends on circumstance. One roll is also interpretable in combat to cover damage, hit location, and initiative. It’s fast and to the point, but is atypical enough it can take some practice with everyone rolling at the same time. Once you get that, you’re away laughing.

The Rules.

There are some basic system tweaks for the ORE in REIGN. For example, there’s situations which use wasted dice from rolls, and squishing rolls so that you can lose a point in Width to get more Height or vice versa is accounted for. It’s all explained succinctly.

In fact, that’s something I’ll cover here. Conversations on RPG.net have made me realise that something I thought was great about the 2nd Ed Unknown Armies core book is something that some people don’t like. For the sake of completion once again, REIGN possesses a distinctive, continuous authorial ‘voice.’ I like it. If you thought the ‘Rules for Murdering a Human Being’ combat chapter in UA was brilliant, you’ll like this. If you didn’t, well, you’ll find it here too.

I’ll also mention throughout the book that, along with the clear, informal authorial voice, there are regular occasions where the book addresses particular rules and explains why something has been designed that way, and what purpose it’s designed to serve, both from a GMing perspective and a player perspective. I really like this, because it can help figure out what’s intended, and also because it’s clearly laid out so that if in your game that purpose isn’t needed, you can bend/amend the rule accordingly.

A central tweak to the dice mechanic is that you cannot have more than one special dice in any given pool, under any circumstances. This is another example of why the ORE is fun to work with: it’s an insanely simple rules tweak, but the ongoing ramifications are quite significant.

On to:

Character Generation.

REIGN has two different methods of character generation, point-buy and One Roll. They are explained clearly, interestingly, and the why of having two different approaches is also covered, along with discussions about why it might be handy to mix them up within one party.

The ORE skills list has been compacted in an intuitive way, and the way they relate to governing stats is crystal clear. The consolidated skill list also allows for social-fu rolls to be resolved exactly the same as any other challenge, essentially emulating combat. The person doing the persuading/seducing/etc rolls their skill+stat pool, and the person being persuaded or trying to argue against them rolls their defending pool. Successes from the defence become gobble-dice, each of which subtracts one from the width of one of the attacking matches. Spoil a roll so a Width of 2 becomes 1, and presto, it doesn’t work. Ensuring everything is consistent seems a great idea to me, because it keeps things simple and easy to conceptualise.

Character attributes – including money, for example – are kept abstract, which is a direction that my friends and I have been moving slowly for several years, as we figured out what we tend to do in any case. To see such a system formalised this neatly is excellent, and saves us the trouble. In-game, you want to make that shiny new magical sword yours, in game? Buy it as a Possession advantage to the right level. There’s nothing saying that you can’t use the sword without it, but there are discussions about how – if the players are invested in something – those things deserve a certain level of plot-immunity. The GM can screw with them, but should make it appropriately dramatic and interesting. Want to be moneyed? Buy wealth, and there’s a simple system for indicating what you can do with it, similar to the optional rules in Wild Talents. Another thing I appreciate is that the Problems (ie, Disadvantages) are of the variety where you get additional XP when you are disadvantaged, not at character gen. I also appreciate the fact there are rules for how players can change around points or XP put into skills they’re not using.

There are Passions: Missions, Cravings and Duties, which are all neat ways of conceptualising a character, and they’re optional so you can elect to have all or none. The basic gist is that you get dice when following them, and lose dice when avoiding them. If you have slightly conflicting Passions, then the dice cancel out. Mostly. And if you’re engaged in following a Mission, a Duty and a Craving, then you’re scarily motivated.

Then we get to Martial Paths, and Esoteric Disciplines. These are specialist skills, either for combat or normal skills, which allow for all sorts of interesting tricks. Each Discipline or Path has multiple elements, which you get one after the next.

On to:

Company Rules.

And now we’re into serious meaty goodness. Companies, as mentioned, are one of the things that I’ve been interested in from the start, and the rules do not disappoint. Greg Stolze has commented that he wanted these rules to be like a ‘hat’ that could sit on pretty much any sort of game, and I can see what he means.

My impressions at the moment is that you can do almost anything with them, since the rules are that flexible. However, because of this flexibility they’re not immediately lending me inspiration for what, precisely, to do with them right now. From past experience, this will last only until one of my players has a bright idea, so it’s a not something I’m worried about. Greg Stolze commented once that he might stat up some of the occult organisations from Unknown Armies using the rules, so that people could play around and have them chew on each other. I’m thinking that’s exactly the sort of hands-on inspiration that’d get me fired up. What I can say is that they are elegant and succinctly explained.

Each company has a goal, which is why it exists. This can be as simple as “Gather material wealth,” and it can change over time, but it needs to be there. Their equivalent to stats is Qualities, such are their martial prowess, amount of money, and how internally loyal and motivated their members are. There are ways of raising the power of those Qualities in the short term through tactical cunning, and through gambling.

The rules for how Companies can improve those Qualities permanently are clearly explained, and funnily enough involve inter-Company cannibalism where you only guaranteeably improve (or in some cases, at all) through gnawing on another company bigger than you. Or through performing a merger, either willingly, neutrally, or with hostility.

There is a sidebar, already publicised on RPG.net, entitled “Traitor! I’ll Stab You in the Face!” This charmer covers what happens when different elements of one larger Company, such as a conspiracy within a nation, for example, go into conflict. Either the numbers in the example are a little off or I’ve confused myself, but the mechanical intent of the section I think is pretty clear. My central point of confusion is that the REIGN examples tend to flow from one to the next, changes in one being carried over within one overall ‘scene.’ Here there’s one change that reduces a Quality to 2, and then the next example something else happens, and that’s described as also reducing it to 2. Possibly a typo, but it’s pretty minor in any case.

If the equivalent to stats for Companies are their Qualities, then what are their Skills? Glad you asked. Essentially: the PCs. The characters have wide-ranging impact on short term improvements to how the Company fares, and this is something I can see having a broad-dynamic impact on gameplay for every game that the ‘hat’ sits on. I’m not specifically inspired, but I can see the potential. It’s going to be really fun the first time one of my players pitches a dangerous military move for their Company, justifying it with: “Ah yes, but it will be less dangerous after we sink their fleet at harbour.” The whole concept seems rife with possibilities where GMs will sit back, steeple their fingers, and say, “Tell me more.”

There is a large, but easily comprehensible, list of things which Companies can do, and how to resolve them. Police actions, espionage and counter-espionage, and the glorious grab-bag that PCs will want to be part of called “Unconventional Warfare.”

The section ends with some sample Companies, which certainly helps illustrate what can be done with them, and a detailed discussion of the many different fruitful ways that the relationship between PCs and their Companies can be made to play out. One very important point which hadn’t occurred to me is that alone, if the PCs die, it’s game over and possibly new campaign. With a Company, if the PCs die, the Company they worked to build keeps going, and is a ready source of new potential PCs. In any case, a lot of thought has been put into how Companies can be a valuable addition to damned near anything, and I’m looking forward to exploring them.

Combat.

The rules for combat in REIGN follow the same essential pattern for all ORE combat.  What I’m thinking people are more interested in is how the comat in REIGN is different to the rest of the ORE.

Firstly, it seems slightly less lethal. There has been concern from various sources about what precisely this means. Well, it’s still pretty lethal. The main concession is that limbs aren’t automatically severed when they’re filled with Killing damage, the damage instead flowing into the torso. Armour exists as AR, each point of which blocks 1 Shock and 1 Killing. Tower shields exist as portable hard-cover, behind which certain hit-locations are essentially invulnerable. But it’s still got the baseline ORE lethality: get hit in the noggin without a helmet and you’re almost certainly toast. One thing that does change the odds is that most weapons tend to be one less damage than in other ORE variants, where Width + 2 Shock and Killing was typical for firearms. Here you’re likely to see Width + 1 Killing, as often as not, although some weapons simply ignore armour.

Given that NEMESIS is freely available, it will hardly be a chore to change if this does sit poorly with anyone.

The section is well laid-out, with part given over to the Big Seven, or a discussion of the seven things most likely to come up in combat.

And then we get to ‘Unworthy Opponents,’ and the ORE is provided with mook rules. Here I sigh contentedly. Unworthy Opponents have a Threat rating, variable depending on circumstance and background, and they are rolled as a group. I’m particularly pleased that enemies faced with these rules are not always pushover mooks; it’s quite simple to adapt into a Quite Threatening situation, where a mass of enemies is being resolved through one roll to make things faster (and easier on the GM). On the other hand, there are also rules available to prevent a mob accidentally causing a TPK if the GM rolls too well. Morale attacks exist for when the PCs just want to make the mob run away, and are a nice touch.

What’s really impressive is how simply the basic principles of mook-rules become Mass Combat Rules with just a simple shift in scale. Certainly well enough to cover the middle ground between PC combat and Company combat, and since any PC followers are also covered as Unworthy Opponents.

Advanced Combat.

And lo! The ORE recieves new toys. The Combat chapter is brilliantly simple, and is all you’ll ever need. Advanced Combat contains gems that some people may want. Here, for example, is where the Martial Paths are kept, along with more complicated manouvres anyone can try. If you want to sever limbs and do the whole ‘permanently disfigure thy opponent’ thing, you can. And again, I like that there’s a discussion of how and why these have been seperated from normal combat, and what they can be used for.

I’ve never played Exalted, but from descriptions I’ve read the Martial Paths sound like Charms that aren’t magickal and don’t sunder creation. Some of them, the Eye of Death for example, are just scary. There’s also very clearcut discussion that some Paths replace lower levels as they go up through trumping their mechanical improvement, whereas others provide multiple options. Very nice indeed, very portable to the rest of the ORE, and a great guide to making your own, or simply renaming these.

Magic

The Magic section begins with something I didn’t expect. There’s an entire section devoted to a meta-discussion of magic in fantasy settings, covering different approaches and problems – and how the solutions to those questions would shape a world in different ways. It’s brilliant, and we haven’t even hit REIGN-specific magic yet. Reading this would be a useful piece of groundwork for pretty much any game where someone wants to figure out the role of magic in their world. It ends by working through the exact questions the section raises, but focuses on the REIGN setting. It’s a neat way to learn about it: you cover how and why the questions and their context is important in the wider scheme of things, and then look at how they were answered here. I’ve been absently figuring the main questions out about different fantasy settings, like Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and they’re great for conceptualising things.

There’s no mind-control magic or love-spells, and most magic in the setting is based on a method such as song, dance, speaking, writing or drumming. Which does mean that it’s possible to defend yourself by smashing a lute at an opportune time. Others may decide to Attune themselves, which means they have a much easier time on one particular path of magic, but are cut off from any others. And if they flub the Attunement roll at casting, Bad Things Happen, although its nice that despite side effects, you’re still Attuned. The rules for counterspelling (which is something anyone can try) are consistent with the Dodge rules, for the ORE, which will be a great timesaver. There’s also a neat, simple rule for how magic pretty much qualifies as an instant Morale attack on Unworthy Opponents if it has area-effect.

An unexpected but very cool element of the setting magic is that since magic is performed frequently through other tasks, many times spells must be cast as a multiple-action. After all, you’re not just casting a spell, you’re simultaneously using your Ritual Scarification skill, or dancing.

Generally, the schools of magic in the book feel innovative and interesting, and again give a good guide for making your own.

Onward to:

Bestiary, Lovely and Terrible Things Happen, along with Assorted Miscellany.

The last parts of the book are by no means the least important, but by now you need less detail.

The bestiary is beautifully illustrated with calligraphic designs for each creature, and I like the reasoning behind the fact that baseline critters in REIGN are designed to be more dangerous than other RPG critters. The supernatural critters are intriguingly evocative, including some that have to be treated as full Companies due to their size and threat.

Terrible Things Happen covers bad things that can happen to PCs, involving extremes of heat and cold, along with the ubiquitous falling damage and a widely interesting collection of native poisons. Here we also have a discussion of ghosts within the system and how they’re designed to function both inside the game, and their meta-purpose, which I think is superb. Similarly, demons are very neat beasts indeed, and both supernatural critter is quite different from what you’d expect.

Love Blossoms covers good things that can happen to PCs, and opens with a metadiscussion on the role of love between characters in RPGs that I think is worth putting up there with the discussion on how magic works in fantasy as a great textual resource for any game. It also includes goodies like enchanted artefacts, acquiring rank, title and land, and living happily ever after, before lists of Stuff to Buy. And if anyone’s interested, then we hit quite a solid Index.

The Setting.

First thing’s first: REIGN’s setting is non-Tolkienian, non-Eurocentric fantasy. Many of the centres of ‘civilisation’ aren’t white, and there’s nothing that really leaps out as being ‘feudal Japan with the serial-numbers filed off,’ should that be one of your pet-hates. It’s an interesting place to read about, based around two continents called Heluso and Milonda, and four initial nations are covered in the core book.

Here are the quotes for where Greg Stolze summarised the four main nations on the REIGN website:

“DINDAVARA: Prussians with katanas, only black.

ULDHOLM: Pushy, progressive, enchanted trade unionists.

THE TRUIL TRIBES: Primitive, sexually repressed, nomadic cannibals.

THE EMPIRE: Senescent, decadent, inefficient… still dangerous.”

Detailed information on each of the Four Nations is broken up through the rest of the book. I think this is excellent, because it breaks up the flow of both rules and some setting info into digestible chunks. I know that even when great content, I’ve started to glaze on occasion in the past where all the countries are next to each other, and start to blur. Each nation has distinctive artwork for their sections of the book, and maps at the beginning which travellers have written on. These are nothing if not evocative, containing advice like “Eat only meat, drink only ale,” “Respect none but the headman,” and other gems.

The only slight point of weirdness with this layout pattern is that in some cases you get the information on one of the nations a long while before any other setting information, which means it’s out of context. If there’s a mention of a nation’s relationship to a “black-skinned empire,” it’s going to come from nowhere. But even so, I still think it’s a good system.

Each section begins with a story told by the people of that nation, and a discussion of why that’s relevant. There’s detailed information on what it is like to live in that nation from the perspective of both visitors and natives, and why they value what they do. Each also ends with a series of potential seeds, broken up into three sections: inspiration ideas for new characters, for new Companies, and for new campaigns, or elements of campaigns.

You may have noticed that I’m being vague about the shape of the world. This is deliberate, as I think that it’ll work better if you find out for yourself. Suffice to say that we’re talking something interesting, and that I like it. I also like the structure, where you find out about the world as one of the last things in the book. I think it works well this way, as you absorb it slowly rather than leaping out at the start.

There are enough elements of the world left open both for players and GMs to explore, and for supplements to fill in.

Conclusion

REIGN rocks. I’m impressed with it on pretty much all levels. It isn’t perfect, but it’s still worth reading as a book in its own right, almost like it were fiction. In fact, that’s basically what I’ve been doing over the last several days, taking breaks to read sections to my girlfriend and flatmate due to cool factor or Comedy Gold.

In fact, I haven’t mentioned that yet. The authorial voice I mentioned earlier means that this is a very fun book to read, and frequently funny, such as the description of “Disfiguring Strike” as leaving someone looking like a blind monk tried to write a poem on their face with a rusty meat-cleaver.

I’ll summarise thus:

1) It contains at least two elements about roleplaying generally that I think are useful in pretty much any context, and in the case of magic, useful even for conceptualising normal fiction.

2) It’s rules expand on, and fit elegantly within the ORE, adding a different approach to magic and all sorts of other goodies. Then there are the Company Rules which can apply to most games, should you wish.

3) A very intriguing setting, even ignoring all the other points in its favour.

4) Incredibly pretty book, with good binding.

5) Damned good read.

Grade Summary:

Setting: A. It’s great to see a richly constructed setting which has put serious thought into how the societies involved work, and which aren’t Eurocentric at the core or copy/pasted from our world.  There’s plenty of interesting stuff in there, and I could totally see myself using it for other systems if my players were so inclined.

How Easy Is It To Explain The Setting To New Players: B+.  This is trickier.  It’s still pretty good, because each individual nation can be described quite quickly and cleanly, but there are elements of how the basic world works which, while awesome, can be be a brain-bender.

System: A.  I like the One Roll Engine, and it really sings here.  In all of the elements of the design, a lot of thought has been put into how to get a huge amount of interesting information out of a single roll, and the minor tweaks to that pattern which you can get from Martial Paths, Esoteric Disciplines and such has a big but elegant impact.  I’d also be happy lifting a lot of these elements out to use them in other One Roll Engine games – and I’ve already done so.  It works well.

How Easy Is It To Explain The System To New Players: A-.  I think REIGN does a particularly good job, out of all the ORE games, in explaining how everything works, and doesn’t bother with the extra layers of complex detail presented by things like Wild Talents 2nd Edition.  With that said, it’s a very different approach to initiative and resolution than what other games go for, which can take a little while for people to wrap their heads around.

Ease of Character GenerationB+.  This is pretty straightforward, but it’s important to make sure all of the skills and stats are explained because they’ll have a big impact on how the character plays.  This is obvious and goes for every game, but I figured it’s worth mentioning: the practical difference between a character with a big Body + Fight pool and someone focused on Dex + specific weapons and martials paths will be significant.  I love that the distinction is there, but it does need to be explained to everyone ahead of time.  The upside is that there are no hidden interactions or things to watch for: what you see is what you get, but it’s important to make sure you understand what you see.

Is Character Generation Safe? : A.  Character generation is not just safe, it’s something you can do randomly: it’s possible to roll a big old handful of dice and then decide from a rapidly readable series of charts which collection of random points would be the most interesting framework to build a character with.  It’s still creative and interesting, because each dice result can apply to three different columns which you choose between, not just for background, but because of what it means for your skills and stats.  Your job is building someone interesting out of the options presented by the dice.  It’s great fun, all on its own.  Even for using normal character gen, much like the rest of the ORE, while it is possible to create accidentally broken characters ones, it should be obvious to the GM and other players where to flag issues.  REIGN is also harder to build overpowered characters in, because of the limit on Hard and Master dice.

Practicality of Use in Play: A-. I like how the book is arranged so that in combat, for example, the general process of resolving things comes first.  If you want to zoom in on more detail, you can.  If you want to zoom in even further to the point where putting someone in an armlock – and breaking out of one – have their own consistent interpretations of results, then you can.  The index at the beginning is also fantastically clear, and even has its own breakout sections so if you’re looking for information on the Four Nations, it’s all in one place despite not being in consecutive sections in the book.  My impression is that you’ll be needing the index because of the amount of information in the book, so it’s good that it’s so strong.

Ease of Running Sample Adventures: B+.  The world is rich and vividly described, and there are all kinds of adventure hooks hanging off every single conceptual tree.  The only issue is that whoever is running such a game will probably want to be familiar with the system first, just because the ORE can vary wildly in how fun it is if something is off – and I say this as someone who has messed up ORE sessions before.  This is magnified slightly by the fact there aren’t sample adventures in the book – given the detail applied there don’t really need to be, but it’s a crutch for unfamiliar GMs which isn’t there.

Entertainment Value: A+.  Anything written by Greg Stolze is a goldmine for interesting ideas presented in interesting ways.  If you don’t like ‘strong’ authorial voices, you won’t like this.  I like it.

– Kev

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