Tuesday 11 November 2008

Lost in Smaragdis by Dariel R. Quiogue

WOAH THERE! Hold on, adventurer! The Legendary Dariel expanded Lost in Smaragdis into the Gods of Gondwane. So I Reviewed that too. Check that one out instead, it's like this but much, much better!

Lost in Smaragdis by Dariel R. Quiogue is a roleplaying game set in a parallel world where the Lost World meets a smorgasbord of historical eras. The core gem of Lost in Smaragdis is (unsurprisingly) Smaragdis, a parallel world filled with Dinosaurs, Conquistador, huge flying machines, Pirates, the remnants of an ancient civilisation and just about any other interesting part of history you can shoe horn into a single document. Reading that aloud sounds like a terrible mess but the setting is glued together solidly. I hope I manage to get that across in the rest of the review. If I don't, please berate me in the comments.

Character Creation

Character creation stomps along the much beaten path: The GM sets the scene, players come up with a concept, decide on abilities, traits, hooks (non-mechanical facets) and so on. A character is defined by a Main Ability (3 dice), which is a single thing that character is best at; Major Abilities (2 dice), which are those things that the character is really good at; Minor abilities (1 dice) are those things that the character can do but aren't really a speciality. As you can see, facets of the character are based around the number of dice, more on this later. Traits are like abilities but they are those things that make you better than other people. I like this mechanic because it augments the abilities. For example, you might choose to have Athletics as an ability but then 'Greased Bloody Lightening' as a trait. You can have up to 3 traits, assigning a number of dice up to each (more later). Hooks are those character quirks and oddities that you might choose to make the character more interesting, such as warts, impatience and so on. They can be physical or mental but do not have a mechanic. Each human character gets 4 health points. Simple as that. Equipment and clothing is then decided before the GM making the final finished adjustments.

There is a great onus on the player and GM to come up with the abilities, traits and so on. There are no large lists of skills and the like. Some may prefer this rules light method, experienced players brimming with imaginative insight will rustle up a character in a thrice.

The system

Is light. A near-zero calorie affair. Your roleplay dietician might recommend you take on extra gaming protein while playing this game else you might become malnourished. If you're a fast and loose personality, this system will be right up your alleyway. Every ability, trait and so on is measured by a number of D20 dice. You declare you action in cinematic sort of manner: 'I spring up out of the bush and dive to leap onto the back of the T-Rex'. By adding that colour, the GM might award some bonus dice, a reward for adding more spirit into the game. It's also recommended that the GM might ask the players how many dice that deserves. A story-telling aspect but not so huge that it might take over.

You roll the number of dice from the most appropriate ability (such as Athletics) and try and beat a target number of any of those dice. The more dice you have, the more likely it will be. Neat. You get to add trait dice too but you can only use them up to the number you assigned. Assign two dice to 'Greased Bloody Lightening' and you get to use it twice that session. A critical is when you roll the same as the target number. The target number is decided by the GM on a best guess but it is recommended that the faster the pace of the action (and thus the faster the thinking of the players), the lower this target should be. I rather like that.

Combat and conflict is performed by escalation. The instigator of the conflict declares the action and the GM sets a ceiling for the opening bid. The instigator 'bids' a target number for it. The opponent then describes a counter action and the target number changes. This goes back and forth until either of those in the conflict elects to roll. The aim here is to get a face paced back and forth of description. The person who elects is likely to be thinking [sarcasm]'Yeah, right, I am sure you are going to be able to do that'[/sarcasm] or run out of ideas. For those interested in a fast narrative and less in the physical tactics of the game, this appears to be a brilliant system. The roll-off is used to determine who gets to narrate the end of the sequence. Damage is simply handled by incapacitating the loser.

The setting

Smaragdis is a delightful setting. Campaign start would revolve around an inland sea called the Emerald Sea basin. Frankly, there is enough here to run an entire campaign and serves as a good example as to what Dariel is trying to achieve. Wildlife own most of it: dinosaurs and giant insects live amongst smaller more recognisable animals. Around the edge of the inland sea are a number of kingdoms, one based on the Spanish Conquistadors, one on French and English privateers (Pirates, really). Others included escaped South American slaves, a race based on the Punic people and Ancient Egyptians too.

As if this wasn't enough, there is an ominous background Ancient Civilisation that left a hugely complex alien machine called the Core, capable of performing acts of 'magic' (although there is no magic per se). To use the machine, sorcerers get hold of Mind Gems and are activated to take control of a number of creatures, speak telepathically or use a range of different functions available from The Core. It's a fascinating idea that I can see working really well, a magical-like system with limits.

One huge benefit of Smaragdis is that to get there, you need to go through a portal. These portals could be from and time and place, which means that you can set your campaign's characters from any period of history (or the future, naturally). It felt that the best choice would be 1930s adventure pulp, Indiana Jones and the like.

How I would change Smaragdis

Smaragdis has all of the elements you might expect from a modern RPG. The book is well laid out 19 pages but the fonts are rather uninspiring. A quick look on 1001 Free Fonts would soon throw up some more exciting type faces. The level of language is high although I think the use of obscure dinosaur names in descriptions is a little jarring. One example involves putting pistols into the mouth of a Mosasaur. I had Google at hand, so it wasn't a problem but if I was reading the book printed, a better mental image may have been constructed using more familiar dinosaurs. The full-steam clash of different times and places, I think Smaragdis would benefit greatly from pictures. Especially in the case of a map of the Emerald Sea. The description is good but a map would really help place the proximity of different cultures.

I would revisit Smaragdis and flesh it out further: hunt down some freebie graphic, add an example adventure, expand on the descriptions of different cultures, build simple equipment lists and grow the list of things The Core can perform. Perhaps governing the weather or other aspects of nature might be fun.

To conclude

Lost in Smaragdis is more a fabulous idea fleshed out into a sumptuous meal rather than a complete game. Even the most unimaginative dullard would have difficulty failing to envisage a campaign based around the Emerald Sea. However, the system leaves a lot to the players and GM, which is fine for those blessed with unstoppable imaginations but for the rest of us shoe-horning a little gaming in after a brain sapping day at work, a little prodding in the form of skill lists named in the spirit of the setting would do wonders. If you're looking for a good campaign setting, then Smaragdis will go a long way to solving that. If you like light rule systems, then they don't get much lighter. If you want something deep to sink your teeth into, then head elsewhere. Dariel has scribed a triumph of an idea in a brief PDF and it may all many GMs need to set up a thrilling campaign, full of daring do and buckled swash. We can only hope that he returns to his pulp creation to plump, polish and perfect.

Update! Rob Lang is shoddy

I should have spent more time googling Lost In Smaragdis. If I had, I would have found out that it was a 24hour RPG project in 2005, which makes the game even more astounding in my mind! I'm going to contact Dariel and try and persuade him to expand it. :)

Update 2013!

If you ask really nicely for something, and I mean really nicely... with flowers and maybe chocolate... you get what you want. No, I didn't manage to copulate with Dariel, I got better. He expanded Lost in Smaragdis to create Gods of Gondwane. What a splendid fellow.


Max said...

This sounds like a fun one. Thanks for the review.

Rob Lang said...

No problems, Max. If you make use of any of the ideas in Lost in Smaragdis, then please do come back and let us all know.

I think it's such a promising setting!

Dariel said...

thanks for the review, rob! and just in time too, i have some new recruits i'm raring to run through a pulp adventure.