Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Review: Arcana Rising

Now that the final version of this game hit the electronic shelves, it is time I wrote a review of it. To be clear, I was a backer of the Kickstarter project, and I was paying much attention to the development of the game since the first beta; otherwise, I have no affiliations with the author whatsoever.

So, Arcana Rising is an urban fantasy role-playing game; it takes place in a contemporary setting to which magic has been recently brought back by Russian scientists' drilling down into Lake Vostok, apparently breaching the seal that warded the source of magic. From the first two and a half pages we get to know how the Atlanteans ruled thousands of years ago, how their kingdom fell, and how magic was locked away; then a few paragraphs about role-playing games, dice conventions, Rule No. 0, and then we get a summary of character creation.

It is worth noting that a few more paragraphs summarising the setting can be found in Chapter 13: Dungeon Mastering, along with the question "What is Urban Fantasy?" answered. I would have liked if these topics were addressed in the beginning of the book; nevertheless, these things are included but maybe at a counter-intuitive place.

Arcana Rising uses the same underlying system as Hulks & Horrors (review forthcoming), which is to say it is very familiar to players of D&D. There are the usual six stats, classes, levels, HP, and AC, etc. One perceptionally significant difference is that checks are universally of the roll-low type: stats checks need to not exceed the corresponding stats score; skill checks are made with an effectively increased stat; while attack rolls hit on a roll lower than the sum of the attacker's to-hit bonus, the defender's AC, and flat 5. Despite this difference, the game plays very much like D&D.

It is assumed that players portray the good guys (think of Buffy or Dresden) and that they are human (the last chapter includes rules for monster races). They belong to one of the seven classes:
  • Champion: modern paladins, warriors of justice
  • Cleric: good-hearted folk and casters (I mean, prayers)
  • Forestwalker: druid-like people, their powers are tied to the seasons and their totem-animal
  • Gladiator: fighters excelling in close combat
  • Gunfighter: same with ranged combat
  • Rogue: tricksters and sneak-attack-deliverers
  • Wizard: same old wizards, but optionally tablet- or laptop-spellbooks
Characters - based on their luck, Wisdom, and Intelligence - have an Education Level that grants them a few skills and restricts what Day Jobs they may choose. Day Jobs in turn grant extra skills and provide Income; for that, characters need to meet the requirements of the job and make sure their adventuring does not interfere heavily with it. The latter is handled abstractly: each Day Job has a Demand score which is checked after each session. Success indicates that the character managed to avoid being late and was generally able to do his work, while failure means his job suffered from his other life substantially. There are simple rules governing losing and applying for jobs, unemployment, part-time jobs, and freelance work.

The standard currency used in play is Astra, the currency of the planes; an Astrum coin swirls with colours of the five elements of which it is a compound, and its value is roughly that of a fast food hamburger. Equipment costs, Income, and all prices are listed in Astra for monetary exchanges are not part of the game (but for those who want it, there is a short conversion table included). In fact, it is rumoured that some banks maintain a balance in Astra.

Magic is of the spell-point variety; although Wizards cast spells of true magic and Clerics use prayers powered by their faith in the divine will, their mechanics are not substantially different. Both Wizards and Clerics are able to cast a limited number of spells/prayers that require the expenditure of Will and Faith points, respectively. Each spell and prayer has a level-dependent cost; after deciding those points from the total, a check is made (INT/Arcana for Wizards and WIS/Religion for Clerics), which determines if the casting succeeds. There is also a small chance of a mishap and a table with possible results. Spent points recover by sleep.

The individual spells are then treated by level, each having a short description. Most of these spells are your standard D&D spells, oft touched by the atmosphere of urban fantasy. There are also a few paragraphs describing cantrips, the elements, summoning, travelling between the planes, and the relationship of magic and technology.

These are followed by rules for saving throws, adventuring stuff, and combat, none of which has anything surprising. I would only like to mention what XP is awarded for (I believe reward systems are one of the defining parts of a game): killing monsters, resolving threats to the city, recovering artefacts, and acting heroically.

The next three chapters present useful advice and procedures for generating and running cities, threats, and ruins. Cities are handled abstractly; they have a list of important locations where magical creatures may dwell and treasure may lie. A city's character is further determined by what factions are present; we get a nice means of determining what kind of groups are there, how much power they possess, and how they relate to each other.

Threats are similar to cases in investigative series; somebody doing something with a purpose in mind and that is bad for others. We get procedures to determine what creature (and how many of them) poses the threat, how it surfaced, what it wants and how it tries to achieve it, plus how the different factions react to the situation.

Ruins are similar to dungeons in your standard D&D; procedures are presented to aptly name, map, and populate ruins. There are tables to determine previous functions of rooms and their contents (empty, monster, trap, challenge, artefact, or flavour), and a few paragraphs on how to involve different factions and hostile locals. The chapter concludes in describing magical artefacts in detail.

The penultimate chapter describes the Referee's duty and gives advice on a number of topics, including preparation, sandboxing, house rules, creation of new classes and spells, and on awarding XP. Lastly, it offers guidelines for converting OSR material to Arcana Rising.

The last chapter is a detailed bestiary. Monster stats are pretty self-evident, but a page is dedicated to its reading. Some of the monsters are pulled from fairy tales and folklore, while the rest - standard fantasy monsters - is given a bit more setting-specific detail (like how centaurs are nomad raiders looting and pillaging but oft hired as mercenaries, or gnolls are matriarchal creatures living in clans, originally bred by the salamanders as skirmishers in their armies). Each creature is given an origin or association with one of the elemental forces, and also a unique summoning price (for instance, goblins ask for a set of clothes, while gorgons require a head of a hero). It is interesting how much of the setting is revealed through these descriptions.

All in all, it is a great game, building off a system that provably works fine and steering it into a less explored genre. It is nice how case-based and exploration-oriented scenarios all fit the game; a little more examples would not have hurt, though: a page describing a city, another a potential threat, and few more dedicated to a small ruin.

The game is written by John S. Berry and published by his own Bedroom Wall Press (homepage and Google+ Group), and it is available on RPGNow and DrivethruRPG in both softcover and - fully bookmarked and hyperlinked - PDF.

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