The Rogue Mage RPG Player’s Handbook

The Rogue Mage RPG Player’s Handbook
From
: MisFit Studios/Bella Rosa Books
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

The Rogue Mage RPG Player’s Handbook is a RPG core players handbook from MisFit Studios/Bella Rosa Books.

Through the years of running sci-fi and gaming cons, I have had the pleasure to meet some very interesting and smart people. Christina Stiles and Faith Hunter were two of them.  Faith Hunter is the author of the Rogue Mage series of novels, and Christina Stiles is a RPG industry extraordinaire.  Together they developed this volume of work that is the RPG to the Rogue Mage universe.

Despite knowing these two great individuals, I have not taken the time to read the novels the RPG is based on.  From what I had heard of them, I was very intrigued.  The setting is currently detailed in three Faith Hunter novels: BloodRing, Seraphs, and Host.  I am approaching this review from a fan of RPGs and not a fan of the books (yet).  From what I have read in this rule book, however, it is a very interesting and rich setting that has a lot of potential for gaming.

From  page #7:
“’Only the Most High can create a new thing, only God the Victorious, and his humans, who breathe with his breath, may dream, devising that which they have not seen, humans with their stories, songs, and poems, humans with their machines which they imagine and build. So it has always been,’” he finished the quote, his tone dropping low with disquiet. “Until now.” – Zadkiel, Seraphs

The Rules

Although it does not say it outright, the basic mechanics are the same as what is in Mutants & Masterminds RPG system by Green Ronin Publishing.  For those unfamiliar, it is a trimmed down version of the classic d20 OGL, allowing for less cookie-cutter characters and much easier and flowing game play.  As you can tell, I am a fan.  The basic differences are as follows:

  • A single dice mechanic – The 20-sided die is all the dice you need.  Rolls are made against a Target Number (Difficulty Class).
  • Simplified character creation and advancement – The system is classless, relying on a character point system to buy talents (feats) and skills.
  • Combat is simplified, eliminating attacks of opportunity, as well as simplifying a lot of the tactically complicated rules.  Hit Points are replaced with a simpler damage system and the combat skill replaces base attack bonus.

Point-based character generation systems are one of my preferred systems – its gives you a good measure of a character while at the same time a lot more flexibility in the creation of the character.  Classic d20 systems run the risk, in many cases, of cookie cutter characters and the only way to avoid it is to have a vast library of class-enhancing books which in itself creates its own complications – hundreds upon hundreds of feats to keep up with along with all those custom class abilities.

Diving into the character generation system of Rogue Mage can be disorienting to those used to classic d20.  You spend points on EVERYTHING – abilities, saving throws, skills and talents.  The ability scores are the standard d20 six – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.  There are four saving throws – Toughness, Fortitude, Reflex and Wisdom.  Toughness ties into the new damage system.

Talents combine various things together that most Classic d20 fans are familiar with – class abilities, racial abilities, and feats.  They also include supernatural powers.  The various types of talents are Combat, Faith, Fortune, General, Power, and Racial.  There are several that are familiar but many that are new and specific to the setting.  I like it when a setting creatively instills some of the essence of the setting through aspects like this.

This take on d20 SRD adds one other aspect that I think should be a standard in all d20 SRD games – Drawbacks.  Not all characteristics of a character should result in some kind of benefit.  Drawbacks round out the abilities, skills and talents by showing a little of the negative in a character.

Combat is simplified in many ways.  With no classes, there is no base attack modifier.  Combat ability is rolled up into three combat skills.  Not every character will be skilled in all weapons and he also will not be equally skilled with the ones he does know how to wield.  Likewise, defense is also a skill.  Parry and Dodge vary like combat skills.

I have extensively played another version of the Green Ronin’s approach to d20 – True20.  Loosely based on the Mutant & Masterminds mechanics, the core mechanic of this system flows very easily.  It is my favorite approach to the d20 OGL mechanic.  With the combination of single-die system and the elimination of hit points, you can get through twice as much action in half the time, still with the same gaming satisfaction as you would with any classic d20 game – and perhaps more.  It is a good choice for this setting.

From page #16:
“The library was on Upper Street, down from the shop a half block, and filled with stacks of books. A lot more than when I went there as a schoolkid to study and do research. The publishing industry had been mostly inactive for nearly seventy years after the Last War, and had only recently reemerged as a power. Heavily controlled by the Administration of the ArchSeraph, a dozen companies nevertheless produced some twenty thousand books a year. – Thorn, Seraphs”

The Setting

The world of Rogue Mage is our own after a very unique apocalypse.  Primarily influenced by Christian theology (although it attempts to stay fairly generic and non-offensive), it generically presents a higher being called the Most High and two lesser beings – Satan and the Messiah.  Serving the Most High are Seraph or angels.  A special version of the seraph was sent down to monitor humanity and they were called the Watchers.  The Watchers unfortunately disobeyed the Most High and intermingled with humanity, influencing it and in some cases subjugating it.  The Most High was called upon to punish the Watchers, ripping their immortality and some of the power away from them.  Although still living amongst humanity, the Watchers were severely diminished in power.

Millennia later, the apocalypse befell the Earth as a series of plagues was brought on by visits from seraphs of death.  Wars ripped through the landscape of Earth as 6 billion people were killed in the fray.  A mini ice-age then encased a third (or so) of the world in ice and a new world order arose from what remained.  Nations we once knew have changed somewhat but what is left of humanity has survived.  New races have arisen after the apocalypse, spurred on by the plagues or strange magic that has surfaced in this new world.

The current time of the setting is 106 years after the apocalypse started.  It is the year 2117.  The geopolitical composition of the world has been heavily influenced by the major religions of the world.  Technology levels vary based on how quickly each nation was able to recover from the apocalypse or how well they were prepared for it.  The world’s population has been significantly reduced since the apocalypse.  Resources vary for each nation, as does transportation and communication.  The United States, half covered in ice, is the center of the game setting.

Now, the world is in a state of limbo.  What people know as Judgement Day has not come and a Messiah has not returned.  Most expect the Final War to come and announce the return of God to this Earth.  Seraphs represent the Most High and the powers of creation, continuously fighting the Darkness and their powers of corruption and destruction.  Dragons, succubus and all variety creatures rise up from Hellholes while seraphs, neomages and other allies fight backThose that descended from Watchers have re-awakened and serve their own purposes.

Along with humanity, there are new races players can play.  Most are some kind of offspring from seraph, waters and demons.  Neomages were the first to appear and resulted from human offspring who developed in the womb of women who survived the plagues.  They wield magic powers and most reside in Enclaves or city-states reserved specifically for neomages (or mages) by the seraphs.  Kylen are winged humanoids resulting from a mating between mages and seraphs or watchers.  The second unforeseen are strong beasts resulting in a mating of a mage and a human. Offspring of a Dark power (like a succubus) and a seraph/watcher/kylen, Daywalkers are so named because they are one of the few creatures connected to the Darkness that can walk in daylight.  The seraph-touched bloodlines are something I would guess comes from the books, as it mentioned a character specifically.  These are special humans tainted by seraphs because of some special service they provided the Light.  In the case given, a character sacrificed himself to save the seraphs, and in return the seraphs vowed to protect the human’s bloodline, forever tainting it with special abilities.  For the role playing game, the author implies there could be other bloodlines.

The races are not your typical RPG races and they take a minute to get used to.  Reading the books probably would help but it’s not totally necessary as the character generation section gives a thorough explanation of the races.  Each have a complex “genealogy,” strongly connected to the mythos of the setting.  Reading about them helps understand the overall dynamic of the setting.

One thing I like about the setting is that it’s not overly America-centric.  It is true that all the action is meant to take place in the US, but at least they give you somewhat of a guide to everywhere else.  I have seen other post-apocalyptic games that completely ignore “over there” out of what just seemed like laziness.  This whole setting is well thought out and complex, which I admire.

One key aspect of this setting is Creation Energy and Magic.  Combining literary aspects of divine magic and sorcery, this setting boils all things magical and miraculous into Creation magic – the power of the Most High and the Light.  It uses a point system to allow a magic user to channel this creation energy to cast spells and perform talents.  The system goes to great lengths to capture the uniqueness of the setting’s magic methodologies and practices – from the source of power to the various means to access more power.

One thing of note is that there are a lot of balancing factors to magic using.  Things like elemental allergies or allergies to specific magical elements that are opposite to one’s Elemental Affinity, possible Taint from accessing the wrong power source, and Power Addiction – all aspects I assume are from the Rogue Mage literary world that were easily translated to the system.

Magic is humanity’s arcane manipulation of creation energy.  One can perform magic through Conjures and magic items called Amulets.  A Conjure is simply a spell and can be cast by any of the magic using races.  Conjures in this system are vaguely familiar to those that are fans of classic d20 spells. There are several dozen Conjures listed, some considered General and open to any magic user to use and others are linked to a specific Element and only available to those with the specific Element Afinity.

The Book

Chapter 1 is an extensive introduction to the game system.  It can easily be printed out and given to players as a quick start.  Chapter 2 covers the Setting.  It delves deep into the cosmology, theology and mythology of the setting.  Covered here in some detail are the events before the apocalypse, the plagues, the Mage Wars and the state of affairs 100+ years after the apocalypse.

Chapter 3 is Character Creation and contains full explanation of the point-based character generation system, more details on each player character race, and guides you through all you need to create a character.

Chapter 4: Abilities, Chapter 5: Skills, and Chapter 6: Talents and Drawbacks give you a full explanation of each aspect of the character.  Abilities, as mentioned, are the “big six” ability scores common to all d20 OGL based games.  Included in this chapter are the rules on Saving Throws, which are also bought with points.  The Skills are what you would expect from a d20 OGL game, except, as mentioned, the combat skills.  Always keep those in mind when buying skills because hitting things (in melee or in ranged) does not come naturally in this setting.

Chapter 7 is the chapter on Magic – specifically Creation Energy and Magic.  It’s important to read this chapter carefully, especially in the case of a game master.  Although d20 based, the magic system is slightly different from what most are use to.  It’s not so overly complex or wildly different that it’s breaks the game, but it is different. A GM should become familiar with it before heading into the game because it will take some explaining to new players – especially those not familiar with the setting.

Chapters 8 through 10 round out various other aspects of the character and his role in the setting.  Virtue/Taint, Money and Luck are three key aspects of a character that add to their experience of the setting and the game.  Virtue and Taint are measures of the spiritual state of beings in this constant war between light and darkness.  Allegiances are basically alignments with Light, Darkness or Neutral.  The Wealth score determines what a person can afford, and Luck Points is a system used by players to push the odds in their favor.  The remainder of these chapters cover basic stuff like age, backgrounds, and equipment.

Combat is left to the final chapter, Chapter 11.  Here, the meat and potatoes of this take of d20 comes in.  Although fairly similar to classic d20, there are subtle changes to make it simpler and run smoother.  As mentioned before, attacks of opportunity are taken out, damage is simplified to a saving throw vs. a damage difficulty, and combat skills replace base attack bonuses and armor classes.  It takes a bit of getting used to, but I feel it leaves enough tactical fun while keeping combat uncomplicated and easy for the GM.

In conclusion, Rogue Mage is a complex and surreal setting with infinite possibilities.  Although it has common elements with other settings I am familiar with, this setting sets itself apart with unique races, ideas and a creative world that has a little of the familiar while just enough of the fantastic to tempt the imagination.

The PDF itself is an extensive and very comprehensive volume but it’s quite obvious there is more to the story than what is contained within the main rulebook.  This is now evidenced through the variety of other supplements that have since been released (2012).  Primarily creature books, the more important book – the Gamer Master’s Guide mentioned sporadically  – is still pending.

The only drawback I can see, from a person that never read the books, is that I have a nagging feeling that I really need to read the books to really grasp this setting.  There are a lot of specialized concepts, terminology and mythologies that I don’t completely grasp and feel like I need to at least read the first book to understand.  The PDF does supply a ton of flavor text and short stories for the reader and those do help once you get the context, but I still have a driving feeling I need to read the books before I run or write for this setting.  And that may be intentional, of course.

For more details on MisFit Studios/Bella Rosa Books and their new RPG core players handbook “The Rogue Mage RPG Player’s Handbook” check them out at their website http://roguemage.net.

Codex Rating: 18

Product Summary

The Rogue Mage RPG Player’s Handbook
From: MisFit Studios/Bella Rosa Books
Type of Game: RPG core players handbook
Written by: Christina Stiles, Faith Hunter, Raven Blackwell
Contributing Authors: Spike Y Jones, Daniel Davis
Game Design by: Stephen Kenson (Mutants & Masterminds)
Cover Art by: Jon Hodgson
Additional Art by: Peter Bradley, Rick Hershey, Joyce Wright
Number of Pages: 242
Game Components Included: Core player rulebook in PDF format
Game Components Not Included: CCore Mutants & Masterminds rulebook
Retail Price: $9.99 (US)
Website: roguemage.net

Reviewed by: Ron McClung