Monday, December 10, 2012

Rules-Medium And Proud: Review of the Novus RPG

Today I’m reviewing Novus, the fantasy roleplaying game by former Iron Crown and HARP designer/author Tim Dugger, via Firehawk Games. To get the paperwork out of the way up front, I reviewed the Deluxe PDF version of the game (I’ll get to the tiers of how this game is offered in a bit), which was emailed to me for the express purpose of doing a review on the product.

Now, given the author’s prior, long-standing relationship with Rolemaster and HARP, I thought I’d see much more influence from those games—possibly with quite a few fiddly bits, or simple re-write. That’s not say aspects of design from systems like HARP don’t pop up (to the game’s benefit!), but don’t come in here expecting a d100 percentile system. No, Novus is its own game, as will likely be seen as we go on.

So, what were the design goals of Novus? From the text on the back of the book, we learn “Firehawk Games did not set out to re-invent the fireball, it tried to make a fun and flexible game that can easily be adapted to many different styles of role-playing and many different settings. Firehawk Games wants to give you an old school experience with modern, up to date rules, and we believe that Novus fits the bill perfectly”.

With that in mind, let’s jump into the book. Novus rings in at 130 pages, including the interior cover, and starts off (after the credits) with the Table of Contents page. If you were wondering, our sections are Introduction (4 pages), Character Creation (34 pages, includes Race/Class/Skill/Talent/Equipment), Combat (14 pages), Magic (29 pages), Running Novus (11 pages), Creatures & Treasures (29 pages), and finally the Appendix/Index/Character Sheet (8 pages).

Before we get too deep into the book, let’s go over what’s going to be a big part of Novus: the resolution system. Now, Novus uses a 2d10 dice mechanic (again, not percentiles!), with a couple of tweaks. Here are the basics:

-If you’re breaking Novus down into a base mechanic, it is simply this: 2d10 + Modifiers ≥ Target Number (TN). Basically, whether you’re trying to roll a skill, make a saving throw, hit in combat, or cast a spell, you’re going to be using this mechanic as the basis for what follows.

-The dice in Novus are both “Exploding” and “Imploding”. That is, if you roll a 10 on your d10, you sum up your 2d10 roll, then roll another d10 and add that to the total. If you roll another d10 on that roll, well, you keep adding until you stop rolling 10s.

-As far as the “Imploding” goes, if you roll a 1 on either dice, you sum up the two dice, then roll another d10. The additional dice is subtracted from your earlier total. If you again roll a 1, you keep rolling and subtracting until you stop rolling 1s. There is no crossover on the two; so if you roll a 1 and a 9 (sum 10), then roll the extra dice and it comes up as a 10, it does not explode. Your total would be 10-10=0.

-If you roll a 1 on one dice, but a 10 on the other, this is a Nova roll. The dice don’t explode, but neither do they implode. You add your dice as normal, but something weird or unexpected happens. (You also earn a Fate Point, but more on those later).

Now let’s discuss the other key parts to the system, which are Boons and Snags. If you roll sufficiently above the Target Number (TN) of your task, you get a Boon Point, with 1 Boon Point Award for every 10 points above your roll. Be it a general roll, a spell, or fighting, Boon Points must be spent immediately, and give you some manner of effect or kicker to your action. You might get a free attack, increase damage, a bonus to your next roll, or any number of other interesting effects. Depending on the level of power involved and the number of Boon Points accumulated on a single action, your options can range from quickly reloading a weapon to a mortal blow against an enemy. We’ll discuss those a bit more in-depth, but it’s a really neat add-on that doesn’t get in the way while functioning as both a critical system and a bonus one.

-The flipside to Boon Points are Snag Points. Much like Boon Points may be spent to have something good happen, Snag points are spent for an adverse effect. Again, depending on how bad the Snag is, a number of things might happen—ranging from a simple delay to true catastrophe. Bear in mind that in the game as written, the player gets to pick the type of Snag their character encounters. For gamers like me that don’t like the players having this sort of input over their fate, it’s easy enough to tweak.

Now that we have seen the basis for resolution in this game, let’s get into the character options. After an introduction laying out the basic game mechanics, we get into creating characters. The basic fantasy races are represented here (Human/Dwarf/Elf/Halfling/Half-Elf/Half-Orc), and stats range from 6 to 20 for a normal human. As you may well imagine, each fantasy race has certain bonuses to abilities and stats; Humans are the most adaptable, and so get bonuses to spread out among stats and skills; Elves have bonuses to Dexterity, Speed, and the like; Dwarves are as stout as you’d imagine; and so on.

Once we’ve noted Race, it’s time to pick our Backgrounds. These are packages that describe the sort of upbringing and home a character had while maturing, and provide free skill ranks to represent the skillset garnered during the formative years of the character. As an example, if I decide my character has a Barbarian background, I’m getting some free ranks in skills such as Athletics, Combat Skills, Survival, Tracking, and a few more. Aside from Barbarian, Backgrounds include Hillock, Rural, Subterranean, Sylvan, and Urban (Lower/Middle/Upper). This is something we saw in products such as Rolemaster, and a bit of character creation I have always found gives a nice basis for what is to come.

Now that Race and Background have been picked, we go into our Class section. Classes, of course, are basic roles for the characters. Novus doesn’t completely pigeonhole what any character can do because of their class, mind you; it’s just that certain Skills will be noted as Favored, meaning they come at a much lower cost. Each Class also notes Prime Stats, which are presented as guidelines of stats that will likely be very useful to the user.

The basic Classes represented in Novus are Archer (somewhat akin to a martial-type ranger), Fighter, Classic Mage (magic users dedicated to a single school of magic), Dual Mage (proficient in two schools of magic, but not as strong in either as a Classic Mage), Martial Artist (think along the lines of the D&D monk), Minstrel (more of a skald or troubadour), Scout (a mix of ranger and rogue), and Thief.

I know, I know: you didn’t see the Cleric anywhere on the list. They’re actually a sub-class, of sorts, under Mage. Depending on the school of magic a Mage chooses, they have a different title, neatly laid out in a chart. We learn there are Warlocks (Black Magic), Clerics (Divine Magic), Magicians (High Magic), Mystics (Mysticism), Druid (Natural Magic), and Wizard (Wizardry). We’ll discuss more in regards to magic in just a bit.

So, we’ve chosen Race, Background, and Class, recorded our bonuses for each, so it’s time to generate Stats. This might seem a bit backwards from some games, but it seems to work well enough here. Three methods for generating stats are provided; Random Generation, Point-Buy, and Standard Array. Each Stat consists of the actual Stat Value (what you roll), and the Stat Bonus, which is determined by your Stat Value. Your Stat Bonus is added into relevant rolls throughout the game.

There are eight Stats, which should be self-explanatory: Charisma, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Speed, Strength, Willpower, and Wisdom. (One note: Speed is more raw reaction time or reflexes, with Dexterity being more about grace or coordination). Your Stat rolls are assigned as you wish for your character.

We then move on to Secondary Stats, derived in part from your main Stats above. Defense (DEF) is how hard you are to hit in combat, and functions as the attacker’s Target Number. Fate Points function to give a number of beneficial effects, from rolling additional dice to getting an extra Boon Point to spend, and are garnered via a Nova roll or going up a level.

Other Secondary Stats include Hit Points (a measure of your overall health; as you would imagine, these decrease if you are hurt in combat), Movement (how fast one can move per Action Point used), and for Magic Users, Spell Points.

From here, with Stats having been recorded, it’s time to build up this new character. Players receive 30 Character Points (CP), which can be spent buying Skills or Talents. Skills are purchased in terms of ranks, and are also adjusted by a relevant Stat Bonus. The Skills are all listed out with a proper description of each and how it might be used. Note that both Spellcasting and Combat Skills are listed as Skills, and players purchase individual disciplines listed out under both of those (for example, a Fighter may have ranks in Combat Skills: Heavy Blades, but also Combat Skills: Spear and Combat Skills: Wrestling/Grappling).

As far as Talents go, these are special abilities a character has, such as Extra Spell Points, Extraordinary Aim, Minor Adept, and even Language Talents. The costs range from a single Character Point to begin to know an additional language to 20 or more points for some of the major Magic and Combat items. There are over 3 dozen talent options here, and I am told another 56 appear in the support product Libram Novus #3. Some Talents are marked as “trainable” (such as Combat Training), which denotes it is something that can be earned through play and leveling up.

Aside from Skills and Talents, you can also buy special Combat Moves with CP, though we’ll come back to that. I’ll also mention at this point, since it’s already been asked of me once, yes, given judicious application of CPs towards the right Skills and Talents, it is possible to make a Fighter who can cast a couple spells, or a Mage who can hold their own in combat. Obviously, there’s a cost to that sort of diversification, but it can be done.

We move on to the Equipment section. Novus recommends that players simply start play with the “Tools of the Trade”; that is, equipment their character could reasonably expect to have. Suggested lists are given for each Character Class, along with some options depending on the type of campaign. For campaigns that prefer the Wal-Mart approach before starting to game and for general game reference, a somewhat brief equipment list is provided, along with costs and basic explanation of in-game currency.

For Shields and Armor, we are greeted by some of the standard conventions from many kindred fantasy games. Heavier armor protects better, but can slow a character down and impede spell usage. Interestingly, shields tend to make characters harder to hit by adding to their DEF roll, while armor mainly benefits them via damage reduction. Make no mistake; this is a game in which even a small shield can be a very good friend to a combatant.

After some listings for Food & Lodging and Transport (I appreciate the inclusion of a Riding Wolf), we come to Weaponry. This is an important section, because Weapons might not work how you’re expecting them to.

You’ll see costs for all weapons, range (if not a melee weapon), and whether they do Bash, Slash, or Pierce damage, but you’ll also see something called a Damage Rating, or DR. This is a static value; for instance, the DR for a Broadsword is 8, but for a Baton it is 4. This works because in Novus, when a successful hit is given in combat, the DR is applied, plus any Stat bonus, plus a +1 for each degree of success over the target’s DEF. So if an attacker meets or beats a defender’s DEF rating by 2 points, and is also adding a 2 point Stat Bonus in with his Baton, he’d be doing 4+2+2=8 points of damage, minus whatever his opponent’s Armor Rating was. The Combat Skill ranks are not added for damage, only to hit. Bear in mind that especially heavy weapons might cost more to actually use in combat, so there is a bit of a trade-off there.

With that, we’ll jump into Combat, which is the next section in this book. Since we’ve already described how weapons and weapon damage work above, we’ll get into movement and actions. During each round, each character has 5 Action Points to take. This might sound a little fiddly, but in essence, it’s just stating what the character can do. For example, drawing one’s weapon or making one’s base movement costs but single point. A basic attack will cost most characters 4 points (smaller/lighter weapons can cost less), as will casting a spell. Other items are covered here, but it’s really not complex, and is pretty common sense.

As for order of combat, it’s pretty straightforward: Roll for Initiative, Declare Actions (highest to lowest initiative), Resolve Actions, and End Round (skipping over Initiative unless there’s been a big change). This section also covers a number of contingencies that might pop up, from Called Shot to Cancelling Action to Flanking. It’s concise, understandable, and a sign that they nailed one part of the game they really needed to get right.

The next part of the Combat chapter covers Combat Moves. I mentioned earlier these can also be bought with Character Points. There are two types of Combat Moves; Basic and Advanced. Basic Moves don’t cost anything in terms of CP, and can be used so long as you have the Combat Skill for the weapon you’re doing it with. For example, Block is listed as a Basic Move, and if I wanted to do so with my Combat Skill: Spear knowledge, it wouldn’t be an issue.

On the other hand, Advanced Moves require much more investment. If I don’t have the Combat Training I Talent, I’m basically limited to only 1 Advanced Move for every 5 ranks in a Specific Combat Skill. Combat Training I lowers that to 1 Advanced Move for every 3 ranks, and Combat Training II puts it on a 1:1 Rank/Advanced Move ratio. These Advanced items include making a Feint for a bonus to a character’s attack, or making a Probing Attack to better ascertain the abilities of one’s opponent for bonuses in subsequent rounds.

I’ll be honest; though there are some really cool things you can do here (though nothing too outlandish), this is probably the toughest part of the game to grasp. Novus really needs a handy reference sheet for all of these Moves.

To confuse things a bit, there are also Combat Styles. Combat Styles are a subcategory of Combat Skills, and represent a specific type of martial expertise. For example, Sword and Board represents proficiency in fighting with sword and shield. Essentially, Combat Styles give discounts to the cost of learning a specific list of Combat Moves. However, the Combat Moves therein still have to be purchased, and are still subject to Combat Training restrictions. Along with the Combat Moves section, this section could use a bit better clarification or presentation. It’s not impossible to understand, but you don’t want to overwhelm players with options and numbers presented in one block after another for things they can do in-game.

After Combat, we come to Magic. Since magic works essentially on the same resolution mechanic as the rest of Novus, there’s not a lot of heartburn here. Spell Points are used, and there’s a nice write-up on how the different schools of magic draw their arcane power and what their casting “style” consists. For example, Black Magic users rely on the energy of the Infernal Planes, and usually have some sort of focus item to aid in their casting (indeed, they’re at a negative to cast without it!). Divine Magic-Users rely on the power of their deities, but usually need their Holy Symbols to effectively wield this divine gift (or are also at a negative to cast!). It’s a nice bit of flavor to make the distinction between the various Schools.

Spells are purchased via Character Points; just because a mage has chosen a specific school does not instantly give him access to the spells therein. Each spell must be bought separately. There are the different costs for a spell: Major Adepts (Mj), such as Mages, will pay the least for spells, while Minor Adepts (Mn), which include characters with lesser magical ability, will find themselves paying more for the same spells. Non-Adept characters (N) can learn generalist spells in the Universal school (the one school all users may choose from), but pay through the nose for them.

Armor is again addressed; spells won’t automatically fail if a magic is wearing armor, but they have to expend more Spell Points to successfully cast.

The list of spells for each school is fairly basic—about a dozen in each school outside of Universal (though lots more magic is presented in the Libram Novus supplements), but spells are customizable to a degree. Each spell has casting variables that adepts may choose to heighten the duration, effect, or damage it results in. These variables do increase the difficulty of casting and cost a bit more in Spell Points, so it definitely means a tradeoff of sorts. There are some neat spells and options here, such as Casting Boons and the chance of Counterspells, but I would have liked to have seen perhaps a few more actual spells included.

Spells each have a TN to beat, but in addition, many of them reflect Saving Throws that their targets can make to lessen the effects of a spell. As we close out on this section, it strikes me that this is a pretty well-done chapter. The magic system of Novus presents the opportunity for multiple styles of magic while staying in line with the core mechanic. That’s a win in my book.

What follows the Magic section is a chapter dedicated to running a Novus game. There are some nice tables in here, showing examples of TNs for a number of different types of challenges the players might run across. All manner of hazards, penalties, and yes, dealing with death are all covered here. Leveling up (wherein the players get more CP to spend), experience points, and other Game Master items are discussed in what is a short, but overall informative and useful chapter.

The Creatures & Treasures chapter that follows is basically what you’d expect, with many of the classical fantasy gaming foes being presented with a block of stats and basic description. I was surprised a bit to not see more artwork in this section, but I suppose most anyone picking this up will know what to expect visually in terms of a Cockatrice or Zombie.

The Treasures aspect of this chapter is pretty interesting; it’s only a few pages long, but gives some examples in terms of multiple kinds of treasure, not just magic rings and weapons. Herbal Remedies, Potions, and the like, also get some time in the sun here. I will just say to give you some idea of the Herbal Remedies listed, the section starts with Aphrodisiac Antidote, and end with a Sedative.

The Appendix gives us handy charts of Boons and Snags of all types. This is a very nice addition to the book, and should be useful for Game Master and player alike. I will say I would have liked to have seen some of the other charts and tables in this book, such as Action Points, included in here as some sort of easy printout. That would only help in getting players up to speed quickly.

The book finishes up with both a character sheet and a good index, the latter being just about essential in my opinion in any RPG over 32 pages. It’s always nice to see those sorts of things being taken care of.

What of artwork and layout? In terms of art, Novus doesn’t stand out, with perhaps the exception of a few pieces, but neither does it detract from the product. I will say the juxtaposition of so many styles, especially in the Races section, can be a little jarring. The layout and presentation is professional, easy to read, and shows clear experience in gaming and RPG publishing. I would liken some of the layout choices as akin to what we saw in some of the Iron Crown products in the days of HARP, which I thought were very nicely done.

In terms of line support, Novus already has 8 supplements out, in the form of the Libram Novus, smaller pdf supplements that introduce optional rules, more magic, expanded classes, and more. It’s somewhat in line with the sort of “Express Additions” we used to see for Rolemaster, which I always found very handy and useful.

So, in summary, what did I find lacking in the product? I mentioned some of the divergent styles of art don’t quite click together, and I do wish a little more had been presented in terms of magic options in this main book. The Combat Moves and Combat Styles section could have been more user-friendly, as well.

Turning from that, what were the highlights of this product? I think the base mechanic is simple, yet provides for some fun results via Exploding/Imploding Dice, Boons, and Snags. Static damage for weapons, as well as the basic combat system, both seem simple and fun, especially when you throw in Boons as part of an it-is-but-it-isn’t critical hit/effect system. This is a pretty easy game to comprehend overall, but at the same time, it passes the test of being able to build two fighters or magic types that seem very different from one another. I played around with this game over the weekend, just seeing how it might do with being ported to a number of homebrew settings I have been working on, from Bronze Age to a sort of a Renaissance fantasy. I think it could do both equally well, to say nothing of traditional fantasy.

All in all, if you’re expecting either extreme complexity or an exceedingly rules-light game, that’s not what Novus is. It occupies a sweet spot of rules-medium fantasy gaming without adding unnecessary complexity, something that almost seems a bit of forgotten art when you look at what’s currently in vogue. There’s a place for this type of RPG, and Novus makes a strong case to be an option for the gamer looking for that type of experience. I’d almost put this game in the center of an imaginary triangle between Dungeons & Dragons 3.x, Rolemaster, and HARP. This is not as heavy a game as, say, Rolemaster, but it manages to be well-structured without being difficult to grasp. A game that is well-supported by its rules by being simple in its basic mechanics is a beautiful thing, and I found myself liking Novus very much on that account.

For a gaming group, Novus will probably not be a high barrier to new players, as it seems pretty easy to figure out, but should also have enough customization available to keep older players happy. Old School players might not like some of the bells and whistles in combat, but Novus seems as if it would be very easy to run without those options “turned on”.

You can grab Novus in a no-art version for only $2 from RPGNow (there are bookmarked, art-filled , and hyperlinked pdfs available for a few dollars more), but the rules are also linked and presented at the Firehawk Games website (, so that you can check them out for yourself for free. Print and PDF bundles are also available via RPGNow and DriveThruRPG, and as I write this, there’s one heck of a sale going on for both.

So, that’s the Novus Role Playing Game, by Firehawk Games. If this sounds like your sort of game, I hope you check it out. Thanks for reading, and Happy Gaming!

1 comment:

Shane said...

Thanks. Good review. I will check this out.