The world of Indie RPGs can be source for some fantastic stuff, that is unquestionable. Some of the best ideas in recent (and not so recent) years have come from small companies that don’t have to worry too much about keeping up appearances or formulas. They produce what they want to because they think it’s cool and we either like it or not.
Therefore, when the opportunity to review two games published by Sword’s Edge Publishing came upon, I agreed happily. The first game I read was Sword Noir, the oldest of the two games sent to me.
Written by Fraser Ronald, Sword Noir describes itself as “A Role-Playing Game of Hardboiled Sword & Sorcery.” Uhmm…
Later on, in fact one page later on, the author explains about that statement. Basically he’s trying to mash up Swords & Sorcery type of setting with a hardboiled detective fiction very common in Film Noir type of feeling. By his own statement, this is his attempt to define the genre. That is quite a goal!
The book is a small book at 9×6, think about a novel size book, and packs 104 pages in black and white. It’s not a heavy book and that is, by all means, a good thing for me. The binding is excellent. Perfect bound and solid enough that heavy reading has been applied and not a single dent has been made. This book will last a lot of time.
With the layout we run into a few issues, though. Firstly the book features a grey background with some city buildings at the bottom. Alas is dark enough to make reading difficult in places. Those places are mainly the bottom of the pages, where the text gets so close to the edge that it sits right on top of the decorative landscape. Paragraph separation and rhythm is wide enough that it avoids to great extent the “wall of text” effect common of many single column books, so well done for thinking about that.
The amount of illustrations is scarce throughout the book too, which is a shame because the ones that are there look very good, even though the grayscale printing wasn’t kind to them.
Then things take a turn for the worse as soon as the character creation chapter starts. Make no mistake, this is not a game for beginners and the author makes that very clear. Character creation can be a bit confusing, even though it’s been designed to be as flexible as possible to help you create characters with flavour.
To be honest, the main problem I found with the character creation process was getting used to the terminology used to describe the elements that form each character. For example, during the creation process the players have to choose a “Faculty”, which is meant to “represent a character’s aptitude, and is usually a skill or talent.” Wny not call them that?
Each character characteristic has a rank that goes from Weak to Legendary. Each rank provides a modifier that will be used later on to add to the dice roll. There are various of those characteristics, which the game calls Qualities to create your character and some of them will be detrimental to the character, thus conferring flaws as well as aptitudes.
It takes a while to get used to it, I have to say, but after a while they make sense.
The mechanics for dice rolling are very simple in theory: roll 2d10 and add your modifiers to your roll. Simple.
There is a table with Task Ranking and Target Number. That allows you to decide the difficulty of the task which will give you a target number the players have to match or exceed in their roll. The difficulties go from Weak to Mythic. But things are a bit more complex than that. In order to decide what the actual target is, the GM must decide on the level of complexity for the task and then add any other modifiers from whatever qualities the opposition happens to have. For example if the players want to climb a wall and it’s difficult to start with, the test will have a rank of “Great” and a target number of 15. If it is raining and thus the wall is slippery, the target might be increased by 2 and thus become a 17.
Once you get used to it, the system is not too bad, but it does get some to get used to it.
Then there is magic and I must admit here I got a bit lost. Characters can either be Dabblers or Sorcerers. A Dabbler is, in a nutshell, a scholar of magic; someone who knows about magic but can’t cast spells. A sorcerer can cast spells. And that comes at a price.
Magic is based on the five elements of the Wu-Xing, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. They can be used either in a generative or a destructive cycle and each element has associations. For example Wood is associated with flora, wind, growth generative and crushing.
And here things become confusing. Fire has association with pounding and water with drilling, while earth has association with damp and sound and metal has associations with smell and dry. I don’t know a lot about the Wu Xing, so I don’t know if these things relate to it or if the come from the imagination of the author, but they make little sense to me.
To cast a spell in game terms is a long process; the more powerful the spell, the longer it takes and more difficult it becomes. That I like. I also like the price one pays for the spell. If a spell suffers a critical failure, damage will come to the caster. Lots of damage. But if she succeeds in casting, the empowering energies of magic might corrupt the caster and have a mental effect, from insanity to addiction. So yeah, damn if you do, damn if you don’t.
After that there is a chapter about how to run Noir type settings. Intrigue, politics, economics, alliances… all of the good things that matter in an investigation-led environment that has a fair bit of fantasy and combat thrown onto it. Handy chapter, though, once again must be repeated, not for the beginner. A lot of assumptions are made about the players knowing how to play an having played role playing games before.
The game also comes with Everthorn, a city of more than a million and a half inhabitants where the adventure takes place later on (more on that in a bit.) The city comes with a lot of what you need to run games in it, though not enough to fill in every gap. In fact there are a lot of gaps you’ll have to fill yourself, and that includes gaps in the cartography. For a city that’s meant to be huge, the map feels small by all intents and purposes. A nicely designed city, but just too small for the amount of people who are meant to call it home.
A short list of the most important personalities in the city (all of them men) to provide with a few background characters are also present.
The adventure does what’s supposed to, introduce the players to a world of intrigue. The plot? Find a missing woman. I don’t want to spoil the game, so I will say no more, but there are twists, fights and surprises. It’s not revolutionary, but it holds itself up very well.
Sword Noir is a very valiant attempt that does a few things right and a few things not so right.
Layout is mediocre, with badly chosen background and uninspiring layout choices. The illustrations are too scarce, only five of them, and the only women present appear to be prostitutes in one of the illustrations. The rest are all men. That also includes the background characters. All men.
A parity fail.
Me mechanics are interesting and should be easy, but the writing makes it difficult to fully understand how they’re meant to be used. The same can be said about the magic system. There is something in there, but it doesn’t shine brightly enough and it’s not conveyed strongly and clearly enough.
Which leads me to the next problem: Editing. This book needs a lot of editing. Not just in finding the odd typo or spell error here and there, but in terms also of sentence structure and organisation. It needs a lot of work.
Overall this is not a bad game. The city has potential and the idea of investigation in a Sword and Sorcery world is appealing, but it really feels like it’s the first game and not enough development was thrown into it. It’s the kind of game that the author knows extremely well and hasn’t thought enough about how to convey that knowledge to the uninitiated.
For the price of the PDF, this game is worth exploring though you’ll find yourself adding a lot of canon and house rules to the system and setting shortly after you start playing it.
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