Game Review: Realms of Peril!

"Realms of Peril!" is a much hyped new fantasy adventure roleplaying game from Torchbearer Press, who are notable for releasing other small press success stories as "Space Madness!" and "Nuclear Apocalypse Now!" and also using exclamation points a lot. They've managed to build a name for themselves in the tabletop gaming industry by penning games that are evocative of such old school favorites as "Traveler," "Gamma World" and with the release of RoP, good old sword and sorcery classics like "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons," "Rolemaster" and "Runequest." Fans of classic RPG's have been clamoring for Torchbearer's answer to the fantasy genre for years and now they have something to sink their Cheeto stained teeth into.

Even the game's introduction, as written by founder Max Beard, is reminiscent of the florid and prosaic style of Papa Gygax himself.

"Welcome ye' travelers, to a world wrought with magic, mystery and danger, where around every dark, forgotten corner lies fantastical works of magic and antiquity, and unspeakable horrors of twisted sorcery and wickedness most foul. The tome you now hold in your trembling hands will be your guide to the mythical realm of Avangratianea. Herein lies all the information you few intrepid and adventurous souls need to pit sword and spell against the darkness that lurks in the dark, forgotten places of the world, oh ye' archaeologists of the unknown."

As with their previous releases, Torchbearer Press makes no bones about who the game is intended for. The target demographic of "Realms of Peril" is old school gamers who want to recapture the feel of the classic RPG's of yore, and in this endeavor the succeed admirably. The game mechanics, story and common tropes reflect the "golden years" of gaming perfectly while still offering innovation in many areas. The introduction further states:

"Adventures in this perilous realm are not for the faint of heart or weak of constitution, for it will be a long, trying road to true legendary stature and one to be undertaken only by those of ardent dedication and cunning intellect, who have honed their skills over a lifetime of adventure in similar worlds of fantasy and adventure. So leave ye' behind your strange picture boxes and games of flashing lights and sounds, leave ye' behind the fanciful child's play of brightly colored comic adventures and high-flying Oriental cartoons and embark now upon a grand adventure in the manner it was always meant to be told."

Like many systems, "Realms of Peril" comes with it's own default lore and setting built directly into the game mechanics, meaning that those looking for a more generic system may want to look elsewhere, but the game does offer some interesting story ideas that directly inform the design precepts. The game itself is contained all in one book, with the front half dedicated to character creation and progression, including spells and other abilities, and the latter half is dedicated to the actual running of the system by game masters (referred to as "Magistrates" by the rules) all of which clocks in at just under 300 pages, due to the more freeform style of the rules.

Similar to Dungeons & Dragons, they game features a class/level based progression for characters (in the game referred to as "Job" and "Tier" respectively) and ranges from Tiers 1 through 20, with the character tier itself acting as a modifier for Wound Levels, Physical Defense, Magic Defense, Attack Bonus, etc. Players can choose a "Species" (known as "Race" in other games...even though Species is technically a more accurate term) ranging from Human, Gypsy, Dwarf, Elf, Spriggan, and Troll. This choice informs what Jobs they will be able to select as certain races are barred from certain Jobs. They are as follows: Warrior, Magician, Cutpurse, Acolyte and Factotum. There is also a 6th specialized job for roleplaying novices called "Henchman," which they can move out of only after they've proven themselves, according to the game text.

The core mechanic of the game revolves around rolling d10's and only d10's for challenge resolution. That means that you can leave your Crown Royal bag full of polyhedrons at home, because a handful of 10-sided dice is all you'll need.

Challenge resolution comes in two distinct formats: Combat Challenges (CC's in the game's nomenclature) and Out of Combat Challenges (OCC's).

Combat Challenges are based around opposed rolls between the player and foe. To successfully hit a target, the player rolls a d10 (or 2d10 at tiers above 10th) and adds tier + combat modifiers, while the target rolls against this number adding it's defense bonus. If the player's roll is greater than the target's, the attack succeeds, if the roll is less than the target's roll then the attack fails and the target may make a counter attack, if the roll is a tie, then their weapons lock, and they re-roll until one of them is successful. This is all detailed in the combat charts printed in the Magister's section of the book. This system is designed to keep melee combat lively, engaging and suspenseful while leaving the combat open to narrative interpretation.

After success or failure is determined, the player then rolls a percentage to determine their actual degree of success, comparing the result to a chart detailing hit locations and relevant damage modifiers. Critical hit chance is of course scalable by level.

Unlike melee combat based jobs like Warrior, Cutpurse and Factotum, Magicians and Acolytes with spell casting abilities simply bypass the opposed roll and make a percentage check adding relevant modifiers minus the targets Magic Defense score to determine degree of success since magic in the game is all powerful and thus always succeeds, even if only to a minor degree. This is balanced by the fact that they need to remain in a meditative state for up to an hour to regain their spells whereas melee classes can fight all day long.

The magic system is quite different than we are used to seeing in other games. Spellcasters still have a resource management system based on time based intervals (ala' the classic Vancian system) but there are no "spell levels" to speak of. Instead, Magicians choose one of six different casting "schools" (Conjuration, Transmutation, Elemental, Trickery, Divination and Necromancy) at 1st tier and can only cast spells of that school, however all spells are available to them at any tier. They can only cast a number of times a day as derived from their relevant attribute scores. At later tiers they may select additional schools from which to cast. Spell descriptions are intentionally kept vague to promote a more free form magic system and most relevant details are determined by the aforementioned success roll.

Acolytes, Realms of Peril's answer to the classic healing/buffing class only have access to the "Thaumaturgy" school, which comprised entirely of benign spells for protection, recovery and bolstering of allies. After 10th tier they may select one additional casting school from the Magician's list.

Factotums, who serve as the games "jack-of-all-trades" class can choose one school to cast spells from at 10th tier, including Thaumaturgy.

In keeping with tradition, Warriors and Cutpurses do not gain access to any spells.

Character Health in Realms of Peril is expressed in intervals referred to as "Wound Levels" which are derived from Attributes, Tier and Job. We've seen this mechanic in countless other systems and is a favorite of gamers who prefer realistic battle damage in play. Herein, penalties incurred from taking wounds are expressed in percentage penalties applied to attribute scores, which effect both OCC's and Combat Abilities. So in this game they are a big deal, but luckily this is mitigated by armor, which in another more realistic turn, allow a character to absorb damage rather than avoid hits. Lighter armor absorbs less damage but imposes less of a penalty on their defensive modifier allowing them to still dodge blows, whereas heavy armor absorbs more damage, but makes the wearer more clumsy and less able to move out of the way of danger. One of the stranger design decisions is the fact that wearing armor in the game imposes penalties on the mental attributes of the characters in a severity proportionate to the heaviness of the armor, presumably to keep spellcasters from donning full plate and thus balance the game (though one of the Elves features allows them to cast in full plate without penalty).

Out of Combat Challenges are one of the more innovative approaches the game has to offer, in my opinion. Realms of Peril completely eschews static skill lists and instead allows players to take backgrounds which inform what they can do out of combat for roleplay purposes. For instance, if a player chooses the "Forestry" background for their character, they can roll a check against whatever attribute the Magistrate deems appropriate to the situation (Attributes in RoP being expressed as percentages) for skills pertaining to a forest setting, such as building a shelter of tree branches, or foraging for food, or calming an angry bear. There are similar backgrounds for Seacraft, Magery, Diplomacy, Mercantile, Warfare and many others. I like this system because it gives game masters enough to credit to assume they can figure these things out for themselves, without needing a hard-coded system of rules and numbers to lead them by the hand and also because it is open ended enough to offer a wealth of possibilities.

Character creation in Realms of Peril is similarly streamlined, and begins with the random rolling of attributes, which will be further modified by Job and Species selections.

Character attributes are divided into 4 general attributes (Body, Mind, Spirit, Virtue) referred to as GA's, which are then divided into "specific attributes" (Body={Strength and Agility}; Mind={Intellect and Perception}; Spirit={Willpower and Charisma}; Virtue={Good and Evil}) referred to in game as "SA's". Specific Attributes are further divided into "Sub-specific Attributes" (SSA's) and they are broken down as follows: (Body={Strength [Power and Stamina] and Agility [Dexterity and Speed]}; Mind={Intellect [Memory and Reason] and Perception [Sense and Search]}; Spirit= {Willpower [Focus and Resistance] and Charisma [Personality and Comeliness]}; Virtue= {Good [Valor and Compassion] and Evil [Avarice and Ruthlessness]}.

General attributes range from 1 to 100 and are determined by rolling percentage on two 10-sided dice three times and distributing as they wish, then further distributing these scores among Specific Attributes and then Sub-Specific Attributes. For example, if a player rolls a 50% for their Body score, they can then split that number between their Strength and Agility scores as they like (STR 20/AGL 30) and then split those among their Sub-Specific Attributes as they like, so their final scores might look like Body 50% (STR 20% {POW 10% / STA10%} AGL 30% {DEX 20% / SPD 10%})

At each level, the player receives a 10% bonus to add to which ever General Attribute he or she wishes, and then redistribute among all of the pertinent sub-categories. The exception to this rule is the players Virtue score, which starts at 0, before Job and Species Bonuses are applied. This score is altered for the player by the Magistrate according to how he/she plays their character, offering different penalties and bonuses based on their level of righteousness or wickedness. This is one of the better innovations of the game, as it not only encourages roleplay, but enforces it with actual hard-coded mechanical effects rather than a loosely defined and largely implied alignment system. The one problem here is that the game can be unforgiving to lower tier characters, especially if they role poorly, but the game itself states that it embraces the randomness of old school RPG's and the penalites/bonuses aren't that extreme to begin with, ranging from -2 to +3 (+6 for attribute scores above 100%).

The gameplay and character generation of Realms of Peril offers some pretty fresh ideas, but in my mind the true innovation of the game comes from the Magistrate's side of the screen in the form of encounter design. Realms of Peril has no actual bestiary to speak of, though there are stats in the Magistrate's section for common races and creatures, but actual monsters are designed randomly by rolling percentages and picking results from a series of appendixes and tables to build completely unique and chilling challenges for your players to face. Every thing about encounters is randomized from creature level and type, to number of monsters, to size and special attacks. This is where RoP's lore informs the game design, as one of the major setting tropes is that the world of Avangratianea is covered in fissures of wild, chaotic magic called "ley lines" that cause strange mutations in surrounding wildlife and people.

Furthermore it isn't just monsters that are determined randomly, but other strange phenomena such as space/time fluxuations, wild magic zomes, elemental hazards, etc.

This can of course lead to a low level party encountering something far beyond their capabilities as the party's tier does not factor into encounter creation, but the game's text acknowledges this reiterates that the game: "Is not for the casual hobbyist and these are but a few of the many hazards that all true adventurers must face." On the plus side, this does make every encounter unique and really helps to lessen metagaming and encourage more immersive roleplay, but on the other hand...I mean goddamn...are you fucking kidding me?

My group and I tried to get a feel for this game in play...I mean really tried...and I will admit that the roleplay portions worked out well, mostly because I could just hand wave it all from behind the screen (the game doesn't actually have a screen) But everytime we got into an encounter it was a TPK. They'd role up new characters, I'd roll up another encounter...TPK. I even let them start with 100% in all their General Attributes...TPK. Finally I decided to let them roll up new characters and pit them against a bunch of human rabble...TPK! For peasants they had some pretty fucking formidable stats.

My conclusion is that though this game is marketed and packaged as a fantasy adventure roleplaying game, in actual play it turns out to be a survival horror game. Seriously, what is the fucking point of having a 20 tier progression? It's not like characters are going to last past the first couple of adventures. These mechanics offer some very innovative ideas, but they are applied to the wrong goddamn genre. I can't help but think that the rules system behind Realms of Peril would work much better in a game of Lovecraftian horror than a game of action fantasy.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, at least in Call of Cthulhu I went into the game fully expecting to die.


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