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Broken Swords and Battered Shields: Core Rules

Broken Swords and Battered Shields RPG

The Foreword is inspirational, painting a picture of an imagination-driven game system that adapts to the needs of many different types of gamer, even when they are sitting around the same table! The Introduction continues in the same vein, explaining how BS&BS puts control firmly in the hands of the GM or Loremaster, empowering him to create the style of game he wants... but there's more. Players get the same flexibility in their choices as well! It's all about making choices, apparently.

Chapter 1: The Game attempts to explain these concepts in more detail. Just about every RPG claims that you can play it in a style that suits you, so how is this accomplieshed here? The key concepts are having a clear idea of what sort of a hero your character will become (over the course of the game, that is, not at the beginning!), having fun and creating a story that all involved can look back on with pride. There's a distinct heroic feel, it's assumed that your character will develop into one of the great heroes, the sort of person who's summoned when the land is threatened, the one about whom songs are sung and legends are told. Still, characters have the familiar building blocks of race, attributes, careers and skills and knacks to describe them; with a resolution system that uses percentage dice in the main, though the normal collection of d4, d6, d8, d10 and d20 is required as well.

Next, Chapter 2: The History begins to weave the story of the setting, the backdrop to your heroes, by presenting the creation myth of the world of Soluna. Moving swiftly on, we come to Chapter 3, entitled The Races: Civilised and Uncivilised. Each race has its own history, background and culture - and of course your own character's approach will vary depending on whether he was raised in the racial heartland or lived as an expatriate elsewhere. To facilitate communication, a handsign language called Trade Sign is used worldwide with everyone knowing it in addition to their native tongue. So-called civilised races have banded together into nations while the uncivilised ones live along tribal lines. Irrespective of classification, all races wage war for a variety of reasons, many of which appear trivial to an outsider but of vital importance to the people involved. Each of the races is then described, with notes on the regions in which they are found and the modifications to attributes and particular skills which are appropriate. Humans, having scattered all over the world, have several distinct sub-races from which you can choose - but other races too have more than one variety to pic from. Throughout, little snippets of background bring these races to life and should aid in playing a member of them effectively. Altogether it is a rich and deep background in which to set or play a game.

Then comes Chapter 4: Careers - Skills and Advancement. Characters can choose a 'career path' based on their ambitions and motivations, or even try a few before settling on one. The aim is to eventually attain 'godhood' - although what that means precisely is left to the Loremaster and players to determine. That sounds straightforward enough, but the actual mechanism is extremely complex. It does, however, give you almost limitless options as to how your character chooses to develop. Careers come in various groups that we'd recognise as fighters, clerics and so on, but each has several variants each with its own progression. To add to the confusion, the same name gets reused in one instance (both the first step in the Battlemaster arcane career and the third one in the Avant-Guard mystic career is a Blade Weaver). There are specific points at which the option to either change career or operate two in parallel are possible; and a cut-off point of a level beyond which you are now set on your career path and no futher changes are possible. Having tried to explain what is going on, the chapter continues with full details of each separate career path and the levels you pass through when following it, along with the skills and knacks you can learn from that career. However, when you read the career path descriptions, in some cases the promised complete freedom is not there. The stages are quite rigid in the way you have to develop - for example, a duellist has to master the pistol before the sword, an aspiring bodyguard has to prize-fight with his fists and then learn to kick-box - although it does seem that some very varied and diverse characters are possible. The descriptions of the different careers and stages are evocative and comprehensive, although at places a good proof-read to ensure clarity and eliminate sentences that do not go anywhere would be of benefit.

The career options thoroughly explored, we now come to Chapter 5: Creating a Hero. This is a step-by-step walkthrough of the process. It's interesting that the author has chosen to present all the options of race and career first, so that you have the opportunity to decide what the character's going to be like long before you put any numbers to him. However, before starting, there is an explanation of Hero Points, a form of bonus that can be used to modify individual die rolls by +/- 10% declared before the die is rolled. There is also a system of birth signs under which your character can be born. Randomly assigned by a percentage roll, they grant minor gifts or talents to each character. The starting character also has a randomly-assigned Birthright which gives some indication of what he is like - perhaps he is cunning, has a filthy temper or a well-honed body that everyone notices (this accrues bonuses to apply to your abilities once these are determined). Next another die roll determines your social background. Each background gives some skills or other feature such as contacts to further develop your character as a person. Once we reach the basic attributes, however, you get more control as a point-buy system is used. The number of points you have depends on whether the campaign is to be realistic, fantasy or high fantasy; and you can get more by accepting disadvantages such as phobias. The attributes are detailed at length, so you can understand the ramifications of your choices. The way each one can be used in play is described here, so don't skip over! Once the core attributes - and there are 3 categories (physical, mental and spiritual) each with 4 individual attributes, so you end up with a detailed picture of what your character is capable of - are settled, you start on the derived ones like your combat abilities - again a huge range of attack, defence and dodge statistics, including how you deal with magic. The chapter ends with some notes on creating a racial mount, if you qualify for one.

Next, Chapter 6 looks at Common Skills. These are the ones which are available to any character, as opposed to the career-specific ones detailed earlier. For each one, there are brief notes of how they can be used in play. This is followed by Chapter 7: Character Development. To begin with it discusses writing a background for this character you have just created, helping you define just what he's like, how he fits into the world and how he intends to develop over time. As well as the factual background, you are also encouraged to look at his emotional characteristics under the headings of outlook, virtue, desire and ambition. Clearly, this game is designed to assist role-playing by helping you to define just who your character is. Now the character is ready to enter the game world, so the next stage is to discuss Character Advancement - he's not going to stay the same for long! As the game is played, rewards in the shape of 'Motes' are given, and are used to advance through the career structure as you see fit. Skills increase through use, and you need to keep track of successes that you have in each skill to be allowed to roll for an increase of 1% at a time. However, although the mechanics for developing skills and knacks are clear, the underlying philosphy is always that there has to be an in-game reason for why your character has learned that particular thing. Finally, character death is discussed. Being fantasy, this may not be final but there are consequences in game mechanic terms.

Chapter 8: Heroic Magic System gets to grips with the mechanics for magic use within the game. As it does not have conventional 'spell lists' for magicians to choose from, rather expecting them to derive their own effects, this is quite a complex subject. The basis is the elements - both natural ones like the classic air, earth, fire and water plus additional elements such as wood and metal; and the senses - touch, taste, smell and so on. Each element's characteristics are discussed to explore how they may be use to construct the spells that you want to know. Magic is deeply personal, and the same spell cast by two mages can appear and work quite differently to bring about the same effect. As a magic-using character progresses through the spell-casting careers, he earns Spell Creation Points which are used in the creation of his personal arsenal of spells - as well, of course, as getting more powerful at casting them. There's a lot of detail to work through, and this system will best suit those players who are fascinated with what makes magic 'work' within the alternate reality of the game. The classification system will however make it quite easy to start with a known spell from another ruleset and create your own version of it with this mechanic.

Then Chapter 9: Prayers and Powers does a similar job for those who serve the gods. There isn't a system of 'divine magic' to parallel the arcane, though: a cleric does not wield magic or study, yet miracles happen around him (provided he has the gods' favour, of course). A character's faith and ability at prayer is what causes the effects... and the Loremaster has to assess, based on how well the character is being played, how he stands in the eyes of the gods and hence what the results of the prayer will actually be!

Chapter 10: Heroic Combat System looks at how combat works within this ruleset. It is a system which aims for realism and flexibility, allowing the player a great amount of freedom in what he can do - while reserving to fate, chance, the roll of the dice to determine the results and damage done. Beginning with a D20 roll to determine intitiative, combat then proceeds in 60-second rounds, which ought to be cracked through in about a minute apiece real time. What you do in that time depends on your combat abilities but it's intended to be fast and furious, and to be based on a description of what you intend rather than preset types of action. The designers and playtesters have found that the best method of keeping everything under control is to use an abstract 'battle board' - this can be purchased or a simple version is available as a free download. Basically it's round, represents 60 seconds and works on the principle that whatever actions you choose to take they will take a finite amount of time. To liven things up, there are also Combat Event Cards, randomly drawn as the fight progresses.

Chapter 11: Armour deals with that important detail of protection. Naturally, characters can invest quite a lot of money in their armour, and this chapter details just what all the different armour types do for you, depending on the body part protected. Once protected, on to Chapter 12: Weapons, to make a selection. This chapter looks both at what is available and how it works in combat. Note that primitive firearms and explosives are available.

Next, for more peaceful moments, Chapter 13 deals with Crafting - looking at how you can make your own weapons and armour, or have it made to a particular design rather than take the standard items described in the preceeding two chapters. The important aspect of incorporating enchantment is also covered. As you might need to purchase these items, the next chapter - Chapter 14: Monetary System - is important: after all your characters need to obtain all manner of goods and services. Both paper money and coin are available, or characters may trade gemstones or precious metal for what they require - or resort to barter or providing services in return, of course! This chapter also includes the everyday things that characters will need to buy: food, clothing and all the rest. More exotic things follow with Chapter 15: The Alchemist's Shoppe looking at potions and the like. (You can buy poisons as well if you insist!) If you have the ability to make your own, you can buy ingredients and even formulae.

Chapter 16 explains the Mote Advancement System, touched on earlier, in detail. It is intended that both the Lorekeeper and other players can award motes, while some are automatically granted for anything from actually being present at the game to victory in combat. The motes awarded by other players and the Lorekeeper read a bit like the Oscars, there are a set list from which the group (or Lorekeeper) has to decide which character is most deserving of each one. The chapter then moves on to monetary awards and even to the need for many characters, particularly at low levels, to have a job or other means of putting food on the table when not out adventuring. This can be abstracted as a downtime activity or played out as best fits the moment.

Next comes Chapter 17: Lorekeeper's Compendium. It's advised that players don't read it - but as it more covers the 'how to' of doing the Lorekeeper's job it should not pose much of a problem if they do, provided they understand that some things are best left to the Lorekeeper! The beginning covers story telling, story balance and story creation; and then looks at the art of coping with characters who come up with actions you have not considered in your plotting and keeping the game moving. Next is some guidance on running combat: both in terms of game mechanics and in the aspect of making it a role-playing experience as well - something often forgotten with the usual concentration on combat rules in most games. Then Chapter 18 looks at Creature Creation - the ordinary animals, mounts and monsters that will inhabit your world. It's quite complex, something to do in advance not when you need a monster mid-game! Fortunately, Chapter 19 is the Creature Tome, with a fine array to get you started (well-described but no illustrations, alas!). The book rounds out with a Glossary of Terms and an Optional Section which looks at some ideas for modifying the core rules to suit your particular needs - particularly good if you like cinematic and dramatic critical hits and fumbles!

Overall, it is apparent that a lot of thought, creativity and hard work has gone into this ruleset. While such as the deities and races have detailed backgrounds, the world itself is left to your imagination. Both Loremaster and players are in tern going to have to invest work and creativity to make this system work to its full potential, and while I'd not recommend it to novice players, in the hands of experienced and dedicated ones a very rewarding experience could result.

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Reviewed: 5 October 2008