November 11, 2010

Sorcery & Super Science Review

By Patrick Irwin

Sorcery & Super Science Review

A triumph of small RPG publishing

Introduction

This review will follow the material covered in the Sorcery and Super Science rulebook step by step, giving an overview of each section before closing with an overall look at the manual.

Section 1: Cover and Intro

All the usual RPG basics are covered here; a rousing description of the game world’s history, a short credits list, and an equally short and straightforward table of contents that hits all the relevant bases.  Sorcery and Super Science promises post-apocalyptic action “under the shattered moon,” in an Earth that’s been a mess of mutations, time traveling, insane magic and mad technology since 2112.  The section closes with one of my favourite “get-the-players-stoked” lines of any RPG: “it is a dangerous world, but you are dangerous people.”

Section 2: Floating Dice System

From bad-assery straight into a nitty-gritty breakdown of the core system mechanics; an interesting juxtaposition, but one I think works well to draw a reader into the manual.  The dice system calls for the usual assortment of 4- to 20-sided dice, and even for a 16-sided die (which I’ve personally never encountered) but allows for the substitution of two 8-sided dice.

A quick breakdown of the system

Based on seven primary attributes of a PC ranging from -4 to 20 in Ranks (human average 1-3), the Ranks of the PC are added to the opposed attribute Ranks of an NPC (or the associated difficulty Rank for a non-character obstacle) to provide a number indicating the die type rolled, rounding down if necessary.  This number (not rounded down) is also the goal number for success, determined by rolling the indicated die type and adding the PC’s rank and any other modifiers to the roll.  The section also mentions that exceeding your goal number by 2 or more results in a “greater success” but neglects to mention what that might entail.

The section includes a series of varied and detailed example scenarios to illustrate the uses of the system, and these do a more than adequate job of driving the point home and would provide a solid template for even a new GM to return to in determining the best methods for running their game.

Section 3: Creating Characters

Abilities

This section opens with an explanation of each of the primary abilities: Combat, Agility, Strength, Fortitude, Reason, Intuition, and Willpower.  Nothing too far outside the standard RPG box, although the inclusion of Combat as a root attribute rather than a determined secondary or even tertiary one is unusual.  These abilities are determined by rolling one 6-sided die for each, which may be modified later by racial effects.

The primary abilities are used in various combinations to determine a character’s secondary abilities; Health (a decreasing number that measures a character’s ability to take physical punishment), Ego (the psychological version of Health), and Fortune (used to power many class features and give player’s access to additional options).  Movement is a flat value for all characters which can be modified by equipment or powers but is otherwise static for characters.

Of note here is that because core values of the game system such as Health, Ego and Fortune are calculated straight from a character’s primary abilities (rather than being set by class/race choices and only modified by abilities, as in a more traditional system), the system’s power balance will be heavily skewed towards characters who do well in rolling their abilities.

Race

The four races of S&SS are next up on the docket.

  • Humans, who universally hear the whispers of their dead predecessors and use the knowledge they gain from them to become sorcerers, as well as gaining an increase to Intuition and Willpower and never suffering failures due to racial tech differences.
  • Mutated Humans, who have a slight increase to their rolls when determining their mutant powers and an increase to Fortitude and one ability of their choice, balanced with a small chance of failing to use technology dude to racial differences.
  • Mutated Animals, who have a medium increase to their rolls for mutant powers, an increase to Fortitude and a medium chance of racial tech failure.
  • Mutant Plants, who have a large increase to their mutant power rolls, a bonus to Fortitude and a large chance of racial tech failure.

Exactly how racial tech failure functions is not explained in this section.

Destinies

Destinies fill the role that would commonly be termed a “class” in other RPGs, shaping a character’s access to other powers and granting them abilities that set them out from the herd.  Skill sets are also introduced (but not explained in this section) and each Destiny has a set number of “thresholds” and “ranks” to spend in improving their skills.  Each Destiny opens with a short, humorous and immersive blurb from the game world.

First up is the Catalyst, who relies on the secondary ability of Fortune to power most of their abilities.  They are survivors, hardened adventurers, the ones who never should have made it to where they are but somehow have.  Almost all of their abilities focus on spending Fortune to improve their own situation or nerf that of an enemy, though they do gain a small bonus to determining mutant powers.

One ability in particular stands out as an opportunity for either player-GM conflict or beautiful, sexy and hilarious innovation: it’s called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It allows the player, with GM approval, to spend a large quantity of Fortune to make “something beneficial and highly unlikely occur” when in a life-or-death situation.  As a player that has me quivering with excitement, and as a GM grinning with anticipation, but I have certainly gamed with groups where a mechanic like this would be more trouble than it’s worth.

Next we have the Master Mutant, who unsurprisingly strives for mastery over mutant powers, and as such has a large bonus to determining those powers and may trade skill thresholds for power thresholds.  This Destiny doesn’t have many powers in its own right, focusing on increasing the character’s access to and power of mutations.

The human-only class is third, the Sorcerer. Constantly exposed to the voices of the dead, the Sorcerer is able to shape their knowledge into Whispers or spells, rather than having mutant powers.  They can also interact with spirits, defeating them to create artefacts of power to store additional Fortune in.

Finally, there is the Super Scientist, the last bastion of technology and the only thing keeping the world under the shattered moon ticking.  They have an astounding talent for the creation of useful items from the apparently useless detritus of the past, harbouring nanotechnology within their bodies to aid them in their work.  They also have far and away the greatest access to skills, and are so skilled at item creation they even benefit more from the help of others than a standard character.

Generating Powers

This is a short section of tables, recapping previously listed racial and destiny-based bonuses to generating powers and explaining the generation method. Percentile dice are rolled, bonuses added and the results compared to tables in turn. First, Number of Powers, with higher percent results yielding more powers, but lower results giving a bonus to power threshold and rarity (effectively determining the strength of the power).

Then Power Rarity is rolled, determining which of a given list of powers the character has access to.

Power Threshold is rolled next, determining which version of a power a character can tap into. Finally, a player rolls on the appropriate rarity table to determine each specific power their character can access.

This section does an excellent job of explaining the process, and the tables are clear and provide access to all the information necessary at this stage.

Powers, Mutations and Spells

This section is one solid list. All the abilities included here are interchangeable as each of the three categories.  Sorcerers gain spells the same way mutants gain powers, although they have the option of transferring their spells to other characters to confer the benefits onto them. This section is what makes each character unique and provides the real panache to the system. Some of the powers are backed by Fortune, others are independent and function according to their own rules.

All the expected powers make an appearance in this section, enough for you to build a fitting tribute to any comic-book hero or to create your own heroic monstrosity; flight, telekinesis, super-strength, toughness and heightened senses are just a few of the options.

Skill Sets

Skills (it is now explained) provide bonuses to specific conflicts that fall within their purview, adding a bonus based on Skill Rank to whatever primary ability is being used to make the check, unless that conflict falls outside the Skill Threshold of the character. Threshold with regard to skills is a measure of the character’s grasp of less well-known aspects of a given skill. For example, a character might be intimately familiar with the basics of farming (high Rank) but lack the specialized knowledge to set up a hydroponics facility (low Threshold).

All the required skills are covered here with brief overviews of what they apply to; Survival, Construction, History, Knowledge, Lore and Operational skill sets each contain their own list of specific skills a character can gain Ranks and Thresholds in.

Highlights

Highlights are additional background features of a character that provide some form of bonus or added ability. Characters start with one Major Highlight and two Minor Highlights. Many of these are left vague and open to GM interpretation, another opportunity for GM-player innovation and/or conflict, and they are also rolled randomly.

Highlights might give a character a friend in high (or low) places they can call on, a minor additional mutation, or a lifespan remarkable even by the standards of a world filled with mutants.

Whispers

Whispers are a Sorcerer-specific set of abilities, arcane powers gifted to them by the voices of Sorcerers of the past.  They function in much the same way as the powers already covered, albeit usually with a narrower range of application and a higher level of power.  Each Sorcerer starts with two randomly determined Whispers at a Basic threshold, and may learn (or even create) additional Whispers as the campaign progresses.

The Whispers are named after the Sorcerers who created them, and provide a wide variety of powers: one summons a massive tome to hint at answers to a Sorcerer’s question, another calls up an ethereal blade to ward the caster.  There are 9 sets of Whispers with four Thresholds each for Sorcerers to learn.

Experience

This section covers a single paragraph at the end of the character creation chapter; it states that “experience” will be handed out by GM fiat at the end of each game session, based on character actions and goals met and granting bonuses to any of the factors covered in character creation: new powers, increases to ability scores or skills or even additional highlights are suggested as options.

This method of GM fiat allows for a great deal of flexibility in scaling character growth and provides the opportunity for players to see their characters improve with each session.  However, it also places a great deal of pressure on the GM to manage player expectations, and demands a certain amount of maturity from players.

Section 4: Combat

This section covers a more in-depth look at the use of the Floating Dice system in resolving combat.  This is a remarkably short section compared to RPGs of my experience, covering rules for initiative, dealing damage, special effects created by specific types of damage when a result of 4 or greater than a success is rolled on an attack and injuries which may affect the characters primary abilities.  The system favours minimizing die rolls required, and explains that a greater success in combat results in double damage being dealt.  The section is able to be so compact because of the lengthy and detailed explanations for using each specific Power in combat that were included in each Power’s rules.

Section 5: Using Fortune

Fortune (one of the secondary abilities covered in character creation) functions as a key attribute in S&SS, and its more general uses and the rules governing it are explained in this section.  Fortune, it is revealed, can affect virtually any aspect of the game according to the rules and is also called out as an excellent vehicle for GM’s to allow players to modify any situation according to their whim.

While this kind of versatility is exciting and useful in crafting game mechanics, it also serves to reinforce the point I made earlier about the balance of the game skewing towards characters who roll well in the primary abilities, as Fortune is derived directly from those rolls.

Section 6: Equipment

Equipment is rated in economic value using bv or “barter value” as an abstract measure of an items worth in trade.  This section is a delight to my gear-junky soul, with everything from chainmail armor to exoskeleton-enhanced combat suits, lasers to masers to shotguns and bows, miracle pills and hover cars.  Each is described clearly and succinctly, with Thresholds and Ranks assigned to each to govern both use and creation.  This is the stock-in-trade of the Super Scientist, and any adventuring party with access to the skills of such a mad genius could, in time, access all of the items described in this section.

Section 7: Artifacts

Artifacts, on the other hand, are the domain of the Sorcerer.  These are the Magic Items of S&SS, able to be used as a source of Fortune by Sorcerers and granting various powers and abilities to those who wield them.  The enchantments of a Sorcerer can only be applied to low-tech items, so as the manual states, “no magical tanks, alas.”  The section contains a solid, but limited core of items to work from, no doubt intended to encourage house-ruled new items.

Section 8: Creating Items

This section is considerably longer than the combat section was, and its rules are more involved and complex as well.  It details the process necessary for a Super Scientist to use various scavenged components to create works of high technology, such as repairing “a broken car using rubber bands, duct tape and bubble gum.”

The section includes lengthy explanation of what constitutes a Component, what the effects of a components Rank and Threshold are regarding item creation, how characters can then use components and the items they create.  The rules for all of the above are clearly stated, and though fairly involved would lend themselves well to any experienced gamer once he or she had a handle on the system.

Section 9: Creating Artifacts

This is the Sorcerer’s version of the last section, albeit considerably shorter.  It details the steps a Sorcerer must take to craft an artifact, from defeating a spirit to power the item to the rules governing its creation.  Again, the details are clearly laid out and easy to understand (though not necessarily easy for a character to follow through on).

Section 10: Creatures

Second-to-last we have a compendium of the creatures characters might encounter beneath the shattered moon, primarily geared towards adversaries for them.  There’s wide breadth of bizarre mutations, arcane horrors, and technological monstrosities, my personal favourite of which is the Fortunate Son, the ghosts of the offspring of well-to-do corporate execs and politicians from before the cracking of the moon, still clad in their power suits and seeking to leech off the wealth of others.

Stats blocks in this section are small and easily understood, and the special powers of each creature are clearly laid out and explained.

Section 11: Under the Shattered Moon

This last section is a brief overview of the details of what players and GMs might expect from the world of S&SS.  Several secret societies are mentioned, the state of the land is described, and the nature of communities is described.  My pick of the lot would have to be the Church of Parkour, who practice the holy art of freerunning through the ruins and will share the knowledge (or items) they gain with those they deem worthy.

The section also contains a plug for the House of Blue Men, a self-contained adventure and introduction to the system that can be run without the core rulebook.  The character sheet (well put-together and sparing plenty of room for the important details and frequent erasing) and a small world map with attached labels indicating who controls which regions (including The People’s Republic of Quebec, The Quebec People’s Republic, and The Magnificent Greater Free Quebec).

Conclusion

Despite low production values, a tendency to place a great deal of faith in GM-player interactions, and art that is more often amusing and illustrative than inspiring and evocative, I think Sorcery and Super Science is a triumph of small RPG publishing.  Joseph Browning has done a fantastic job of creating a world totally in the hands of the GM and his players, and of giving the players the tools to create any character they might desire from the halls of pop culture or the depths of their own imagination.

The game system lends itself well to both veterans of gaming and total newbies, with a nicely graded difficulty curve that rewards mastery without punishing inexperience.  The random aspects of character creation might frustrate a hardcore powergamer, but I think many would find the freedom from decisions liberating and the character creation process a joy of die-rolling and discovery.

I’d recommend Sorcery & Super Science to anyone looking to inject a breath of fresh air into their playgroup or start a new one entirely.