Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Review: Engines & Empires

This review is part of a series on thematic OSR games (as defined here). Also note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you).

Engines & Empires is an old-school steampunk fantasy game. It has seen multiple iterations over the years (the first version saw the light of day in 2008, I think). This review concerns itself only about the most recent edition released in 2017.


System Summary
  • There are four stats (Strength, Dexterity, Intellect, and Charisma) determined by 3d6 in order. Modifiers are rare (only 18+ scores have +2, for instance), and they are used sparingly (STR affects melee attacks and hit points, DEX affects ranged attacks and AC, INT affects saves and languages, and CHA affects reaction and morale). For everything else, attribute checks are used.
  • Attribute checks are the roll-under d20-type, but the target number is not the score, rather a derived value (the character sheet includes a separate column for them).
  • There are four human classes (Fighter, Expert, Mage, and Tech) and three examples of demi-human classes (elfin adventurer, goblin sapper, and dwarfish ranger). The demi-human classes are basically combinations of the human classes (fighter-magician, fighter-tech, and fighter-expert, respectively).
  • Encumbrance is handled through an 8×8 grid, separated into four quadrants. Items have an Encumbrance Value (broadsword takes up 1×2, while daggers are 2:1, meaning two daggers fit in a single square). Load level is determined by the number of empty quadrants.
  • The game uses a copper standard.
  • Hit points are not randomised, and they are kept pretty low (a 10th level Fighter with 18+ Strength has 50). AC is descending base 10, and it is used as the chance-in-20 for attack rolls (with to-hit bonuses added to this value).
  • Characters gain 2d3 wound levels when they are reduced to 0 hp and for every hit they receive thereafter. There is a d6 roll as well to see if they fall unconscious. At 6+ wounds, they perish.
  • Everyone may take three moves per round. Each action costs a number of moves (e.g. movement costs 1 move, attacking costs 2, etc.).
  • Magical powers are either tricks, spells, or rituals. Tricks require a Charisma check; spells cost 1 mana each but they never fail (which translates to as many spells per day as levels); while rituals have a level requirement, they take hours, and they require certain components and a successful Charisma check. Tricks and rituals are also differentiated by the in-game mechanisms behind them: they rely on either spirit-channeling (compelling unseen spirits to do the caster's bidding) or æther-weaving (mentally reaching out to the ætheric plane and bringing it to our world). Learning new magical powers takes time and requires either a mentor or written guidance.
  • Similarly, there are three categories of devices Tech characters can design: gadgets, preparations, and inventions (somewhat analogous to tricks, spells, and rituals, respectively). They all require schematics or formulas to learn, and crafting the devices takes time and costs money. Gadgets (such as Electric Torch, Skeleton Key, and Sniper Scope) are the simplest; a failed crafting (Intellect) check indicates that the gadget is prone to breaking down. Chemical preparations (such as Antitoxin, Explosive Rounds, and Mutagenic Serum) don't require a crafting check, but the Tech can only prepare as many chemicals per day as their level (and they lose their potency after 24 hours). Inventions (such as Phonograph, Rocket-Powered Boots, and Bio-Current Adjustor) have levels just as rituals. They take a lot of money and time to build, and require a successful crafting (Intellect) check, lest they turn out to be defective in some way.
  • There are a handful of magical items described (6 weapons, 3 armours, 5 potions, 7 herbs, 4 rods, 7 miscellaneous items, 1 artefact, and 1 relic). Additional magic items and random tables are in an appendix (but those are mostly the ones familiar from the good old games).
  • There are also rules for creating magical items. Three distinct methods are described: crafting, deeds, and enchantment. Crafting items requires the appropriate crafting skill (the book suggests a -10 penalty on the check!) and the necessary materials (there is no definite list, but a few examples are included). Epic deeds and accomplishments may turn mundane items into magical ones; suggestions are given for both when this might happen and what powers the items could attain. Finally, four special rituals are described that create permanent enchantments.
  • A couple optional rules are also presented in an appendix (higher maximum levels, Vancian magic and technology, traditional five saving throws, weapon proficiencies, and racial traits using a fate point-style mechanic).
  • Alignment represents an inherent relationship to a cosmic force, not morality or philosophy. As such, it doesn't change. People without magic are Lawful as they are creatures of civilisation. Monsters are Chaotic. Everyone else (including demihumans and magic-users) is Neutral. There are only three spells and a single artefact that reference alignments.

Things I Liked
  • Demi-humans have favoured and disfavoured attributes, meaning they must swap the two scores if the favoured attribute would be lower. It elegantly skews the average stats to reflect the different natures of demi-humans, yet it does so without modifying the minimum and maximum values (this is something I have actually stolen for my latest Rappan Athuk campaign).
  • 60 background skills, similar to AS&SH (e.g. Butcher, Navigator, or Wainwright); everyone starts with one (the Expert gets more). Learning them isn't tied to levels but time and money.
  • Spells and technological devices are numbered.
  • There is an optional system for chaotic surges upon critically failing a trick or a ritual, and it uses Futhark runes for æther-weaving and Tarot cards for spirit-channeling.
  • The encumbrance system is very gamey, and I like it. There is a neat way of determining how much time it takes to retrieve items based on which quadrant they are in. The only downside is that it either requires a lot of erasing or tokens to make proper use of it (or a spreadsheet, I suppose).
  • Prices are given in copper pieces (and a few in iron pieces, plus the really expensive stuff in gold pieces), so things are easy to calculate (I hate equipment lists that feature different currencies all over the place).
  • A note in the wilderness adventure rules describes how much time it takes to search a 3-mile hex for different things (4 hours for a village, a day for a shrine, and a week for a well-hidden cave entrance). Very useful.
  • The target number in combat (for a "roll equal or under" sort of d20 roll) is the target's AC plus the attacker's bonuses, which means the system relies on addition more than subtraction, and it preserves descending AC.
  • Energy drain is a reduction of maximum hit points (temporarily, of course, although it heals very slowly). I like it because it weakens the victim in a less frustrating way than straight up level drain, and it is also easier to keep track of (I have implemented a similar rule in my games, and it worked out pretty well).
  • The author makes it clear that E&E works best with a physics-based cosmology rather than a mythological one (in case the campaign takes place in a different setting). It's always good to have the game's assumptions and the author's best practices spelled out in a rulebook.
  • Creatures are divided into types, and monsters are listed both alphabetically and ordered by HD for each type.
  • Wandering monster tables by terrain type and dungeon level are included (for traditional games, it should be as trivial to include as a table of contents, IMHO) - although I must note that these tables don't take full advantage of all the creatures described in the book (in fact, it seems like almost only the classics made it into the tables).
  • The treasure placement guidelines would work wonderfully with other dungeon crawling games (it presents a simple way to determine the amount of treasure each cache is worth with respect to how much maximum XP the dungeon is determined to provide).
  • All the useful tables are collected in an appendix, plus there are a bunch of neat little things, like a character sheet, a detailed index, and a calendar (with moon phases, solstices, and equinoxes marked!).
  • All text, tables, and game rules are designated Open Game Content.

Things I Disliked
  • The rules were mostly clear but a little too verbose for my taste (it slightly hinders referencing the rules during play).
  • Using three columns for describing spells and devices is a clever trick for conserving paper, but at the same time I find it aesthetically displeasing. It's a minor quibble, though.
  • Practically no bookmarks or hyperlinks in the PDF (even though it's circa 230,000 words on 266 pages, my PDF reader tells me).
  • Techs start with a laboratory to create chemical preparations, but it is only mentioned before the descriptions of preparations and nowhere near the class description.
  • I would have liked a couple starting equipment packages (I know, The Nightmares Underneath has spoiled me).
  • The example traps are all of the boring "poison dart" and "scything blade" type. Where are the cool traps utilising all the weird magic and steampunk technology presented earlier in the book?
  • I appreciate etymology as much as the next nerd, but devoting half a page to the proper word use when talking about denizens of the Faerie and the Shadow seems excessive to me (the most important point being "fey" is an adjective, not a noun; use "fae" or "fay" instead).
  • Only vestigial rules for domain management and city adventures. There should be tons of tools and advice regarding steampunk adventure design.

I want to make it clear that I love this game. I find the core system easy to grasp. I like how descending AC is made consistent with the rules. I like the gamey inventory management. I like the spells and the technological gadgets. I love the monsters, both new and old. However, I think this game could be way better if it included detailed procedures for generating suitable content (cf. The Nightmares Underneath or anything by Sine Nomine Publishing) or a lot of advice and a bunch of lists (cf. Ghastly Affair). I guess you can always check out the relevant GURPS sourcebook for ideas, but that's not the same. I feel like it's a huge missed opportunity - even if it's a free game.

Engines & Empires was designed by John D. Higgins and published in 2017 through his imprint, Relative Entropy Games. It is available in PDF and hardcover formats through Lulu. You can read more about further supplements and other upcoming games from the author on his blog.

2 comments:

  1. The original version of Engines & Empires was one of the first OSR games I found. I liked it very much. Thanks for reviewing the new version!

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  2. Hey, thanks for the review! (It's a rare thing to get direct feedback on a book like this, so I greatly appreciate the criticism.) Anyway, I thought I'd drop in here and talk about some of your likes & dislikes.

    I do feel the need to point out before anything else that the magic system (and indeed practically all of chapter three, with the exception of a few tweaks and additions) is open game content from another, considerably more famous OSR game — which, I'm given to understand, the terms of the OGL forbid me from mentioning anywhere other than the OGL citation itself at the end of the book. Folks can easily figure out where it's from by checking there.

    For that nifty little treasure allocation rule, I'm indebted to a blog post on JB's B/X Blackrazor.

    Regarding the encumbrance grid, my local players do in fact just draw pictures of the items in question on the character sheet and erase when the need arises! It turns out to be less burdensome in practice than it sounds.

    The wandering monster tables (and equipment and trap lists) come from another OSR/OGL source, namely the game that served as the base system for the old edition of E&E. Yeah, I'll cop to being lazy here and not adding anything new or interesting.

    Etymology… yeah, I went over the top. And I regret nothing! Nothing, I say! (Because the "fey" thing -really- irks me.) Well, maybe I regret something. I might not be full Gygaxian purple prose, but I am annoyingly verbose. It's a bad habit that I still wrassle with.

    With respect to your final point, though: that was something I went back and forth on for quite a long time. Do I go whole-hog and make an already long book even longer by including the same chapter every other steampunk game has on Victorian society and social mores and the British Empire and yadda-yadda-yadda? Or do I take a page from the game I'm aping, B/X D&D, and include about as much info on Victorian society as B/X had on medieval society (which is to say, jack-diddly-bupkis)? I opted for the latter because, in the end, my aim was to make a steampunk "Rules Cyclopedia." A rules reference containing nothing more or less than the stuff I might need to look up as I run my own home games. (I hope that at least explains some of my design decisions.)

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