Spain doesn’t have a very long tradition in role playing games. They got into my country in the mid 80’s and only gained popularity in the very late 80’s and early 90’s. First a few games for the few of us who had bothered to learn English at school, and then, little by little, some translations here and there starting with the big ones like Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Traveller.
Still, we did adopt them very passionately and a huge amount of very good games have been produced in this time. Super hero games to medieval fantasy, horror, crime, science-fiction…
Despite the fall in popularity in the mid 90’s, some companies still produce work and, surprisingly frequently, with terrific results.
La Puerta de Ishtar is one of those results. Crowd-funded, this game captured a lot of imagination from a lot of people and raised enough money to guarantee truly excellent production value, including some of the hardest hard-covers I’ve seen in an RPG!
The 384 pages tome is home to a serious and brutal game that Rodrigo Garcia Carmona, the author, warns very clearly to be for adults.
La Puerta de Ishtar is very much a Conan type setting based during the end of the Bronze Age, in a world where stone and iron are rare commodities and survival is as difficult as it is worth it.
La Puerta the Ishtar brings us the world of Akkad, a civilisation between two rivers and in the middle of a dessert that’s as lethal as it is beautiful. The land is dotted by city states ruled by a powerful magician whose power is only beaten by Sargon, the God-Slayer who rid the world of the Annuniki and started a new era where men rule the world.
Since, Sargon’s rule has been unquestioned and unquestionable. The most powerful alchemist, he’s somehow managed to find the secret to immortality and his power has not diminished in the millennia he’s been ruling. But that could change…
First things first; the book itself. With an incredible cover painted by Manzanedo, an artist that is as talented as you could possibly wish for, the rest of the book is printed in black and white and populated by a mix of artwork styles that work more often than not, although it doesn’t always feel very cohesive.
The layout of the book is on two columns that read very well. Big font and well-structured paragraphs with perfectly discernible titles, they guide the eye very clearly through the book. No unnecessary distractions in the background and the inserts are very well framed to make sure they are not obtrusive.
Notable that each chapter starts with a paragraph that narrates the dialogue between a slave and his young master to give some idea of the content and atmosphere of the game. They also end with a short bullet-point summary of its content which is very welcome indeed.
The book starts with a description of the playable races. They are not all that original, in the sense that they are mostly human, there is a Minotaur type race that enjoys a tremendous strength, and a humanoid coyote called Uridimnu who live and are better suited to the desert life. The remaining five races are either noble Awilu, the slaves Mushkemu, the Assiroam merchants and the freemen from Cimmeria (I told you it was very Conan!). All of them with their traits, advantages and disadvantages that make them unique and separate from each other.
The character creation is very simple. With a d6 system, determining abilities and assigning skills shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
The rules are also simple. Set a target – the higher the more difficult – add the relevant rolls and abilities and if you roll higher you succeed.
What sets these mechanics aside is the way they’re implemented. Although it is expected that the game will feature plenty of conflict, the emphasis is on the story telling and cinematic action. Dice rolls are recommended only for the times when the players face a real challenge, not for routine checking.
There are two types of combat, “fully-featured” and “brawl”. Brawls is a way to resolve combats with one roll of the dice. The idea is to use that mechanism when the odds are overwhelmingly with the players, but not so much that they can’t be affected by the experience. For example if four players faced two foes they can defeat. The brawl means the players will almost certainly defeat the foes, but will suffer minor injuries, while still leaving a small chance of serious harm.
The rules also include Passion, Determination and even Sacrifice. Passion and Determination are rules to use extra dice in situations when a titanic effort is needed. That means people can achieve otherwise impossible goals and complete unachievable goals.
The Sacrifice rule allows a character to obtain a really impossible task, but at the expense of his own life. Even that rule, it still leaves a narrow gap open for success without dying. Very small chance, but is there nonetheless. That’s the way heroes are made!
Equipment, lifestyle and society do receive a lot of attention, and the descriptions and rules for their use are clear and to the point.
Talking about the world, this is where this game truly takes on a life of its own. Carmona hasn’t spared any effort in delivering the world of Akkad to minute detail, starting with its history and a timeline that expands over 60.000 years and which ends, conveniently enough, in 2012.
Society and culture are very well described with tons of details to make sure players know how to behave to bring a congruent atmosphere. Everything has its proper name; it has its own measurements for distance and time, its own commerce system, cosmogony, cosmology, legends, non-player races… And they are all truly fantastic!
The magic system is also quite special. From the start it is recommended that magic is kept away from the players. Although there is plenty of information for the players to be able to become magicians and alchemists, the magic system is probably the cruellest I’ve ever seen. Not just because the spells and rituals involve components that are extremely difficult to find, but because they also involve emotional components that only evil and depraved souls would want to use. For example, the spell to help prolong your life involves sacrificing the life of someone you truly love so you can prolong your life by as many years as the years that person had ahead of him of herself. Needless to say babies are very much sought after.
A great part of the magic system depends on the use of demons and spirits and how to command them. Since demons are truly horrific creatures, the price to pay in order to exert control over them is very, very high. Of course you can always try to find someone to *be* the price so you don’t have to pay it.
Therefore, spell makers are feared and despised by most. And they are hunted by some cities. So; not good. However, magic is extremely powerful. A magician with a handful of spells becomes a powerful foe.
Then we have the bestiary. As you would expect, the creatures there, although not hugely numerous, they are terrific and horrific. No, really, they look seriously scary. Each creature has been provided with stats, history of where they come from and an illustration that do them perfect justice.
Lastly the book ends with an introductory adventure that helps the players go even deeper into understanding how the world plays and how while getting into the intrigue, the politics game and how magic affects anyone and everyone who comes near it.
This is a truly superb game. Full of flavour and richness, it is very easy to get drawn into it from the start. Although the level of detail can feel a bit overwhelming at times, and getting used to the nuances like measurements and other idiosyncrasies of the game could take some time, however, the level of agency and involvement will make the whole experience a lot better.
Indeed not a game for beginner, though. Not because the mechanics are not approachable, but because the social complexities and depth would probably be wasted in a group of novice players.
With a bit of experience, and if you don’t have a problem to play a game that is equals measures fantasy and horror, this game is a must have.
La Puerta de Ishtar is available from:
If you have enjoyed this review, please consider donating a small amount of money to help support this website.
Thank you for your support!