Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Zenobia by Paul Elliot, a classic

Plunge into the deserts and cities of ancient Egypt and Persia in Paul Elliot's Zenobia. A magic infused mix of historic places and myth. Search for hidden cities, plunder tombs and go toe to toe with scorpion men. Bound together by a simple D6 system, Zenobia is all about the setting. And what a fabulous setting it is.


Zenobia is set around the time that the Roman Empire was going to the dogs. The Empire is not referred to as Roman, which demonstrates Paul's desire to meander around historical accuracy (for good reason). It is set in the Eastern reaches of The Empire, which was fractured into warring Kingdoms including Persians, Palmyra (run by Queen Zenobia), and Galls. Hordes of filthy Goths rampage at the fringes of The Empire; providing a hairy, slavering and uncouth monster in the closet. The depth of description feels bottomless, I'd recommend having the map at hand (downloadable from the website) to assist in placing the barrage of names and locations. There is plenty of backdrop conflict to plaster a campaign across. Tales of Farthing Wood this is not.

The setting's core explanation is partitioned into manageable chunks, starting with a history of the area. If you've never read anything from this timeframe, it can be a bit of a jolt but judicious use of Google will sort that out. Geography is painted beautifully and with map clasped in a sweaty fist, you should have no trouble working through it. I certainly felt the light headed whirl of transportation to the ancient world when reading it through. I could almost feel the dusty mountains drying my throat and the relief of the moist Middle Sea (The Med). The most useful section, Everyday Life, is next and leaves nothing to chance. I challenge you to find a better social commentary in any free RPG. Clothing, economics, law and order, housing - I can go on - entertainment, how the calendar links with the seasons... You might be agahst at first but to read it through won't burn any grey matter (just yet) as it gets to the point on each subject and drills just enough to find oil.

Character Creation

The order of Character Creation is different to most RPGs, hammering a perfectly square peg into an ideal square hole. More emphasis is placed upon your origin, rather than the raw statistics. Characters fit into (but are not constrained by) one of three types: Adventurers, Crafters and the Learned. Adventurers are the heroic types, who live up to their name. A smorgasbord of archetypes are available from the monosyllabic, bemuscled and oiled Conan-clones camply swinging their 'swords' around the ancient world through to the dark and devilishly charming Prince Kasim played by Omar Sharrif in Lawrence of Arabia. Crafters are those people who work their fingers to the bone in the hard graft of the 5-to-9 (or ...29 hours a day in the mill and pay the mill owner for the priviledge of coming to work...) and the Learned are the scrolly types (like 'booky types' but before books) who aren't invited to parties and have trouble conversing with the opposite sex. Crafter and Learned creation rules are dealt with in different sections later in the book. Most players will opt for Adventurer because there are more than enough options.

Character creation has seven steps:
  1. Select a culture of origin, which gives you a language and some character bonuses

  2. Roll up attributes Might (1D6), Fate (1D6), Hits (2D6+10), Craft (starts as 1), Learning (starts as 1)
  3. Set previous experience (character class), which furnishes you with a special skill, cash and so on

  4. Select social class, such as peasant (I like the idea of referring to my players as peasants) that give different worthy bonuses.

  5. Pick skills (of which there are only few).

  6. Choose initial equipment, scimitars and such.

  7. Fill out background.
A lot more thought is required to get through the process than in many games and I think this fits the setting like a glove. It should (and does) matter where you come from. It should (and does) matter what social class you came from. Everything it should do, it does. You will end up with only a few specialist skills, marking your position in the team carefully. The process to fill out character background is a good example where Zenobia excels; it's not just a simple paragraph saying that characters with backgrounds are more interesting, it leads the exploration process with questions, tables to roll and a list of appropriate names! An idea I'm going to scribble down and shamelessly use for my own freeness.


This could not be simpler. Roll 2D6, add your Combat modifier, highest wins and causes the loser to bleed. The more you win by, the more the loser bleeds. Until they're dead. The Combat modifier is the sum of your Might attribute and any weapon modifiers. There are some 'elaborations' (delightful phrase I've lifted from the rules) but they only add richness to the simple system rather than overcomplicated. Damage is the difference between the two rolls (of 2D6+Combat) and you take that off your hits, accounting for armour first. If you get down to 3,2 or 1 Hits then you fall over. 0 is dead. You can opt to save the difference to use later to make 'crippling blows' (more in a moment) more deadly. If you lose a round, then you lose the points you've saved. This add risk to the whole deal.

If damage dealt is more than 4 then you get to do a Crippling Blow, which are brilliant. Crippling Blows are listed in a table ranged from 4 to 10, there are a couple for each level the player gets to choose from. For example, for a value of 4, you can choose between Chest slashed open and ribs cracked or Leg cut badly, slashed to the bone. Brilliant! You can use Fate points to shrug off damage in a typically heroic way. This system leads to some wonderfully descriptive combat, something I very much approve of. There are also some unarmed combat with less lethal but still satisfying descriptions such as 'Smash Face'. Hurrah! Missiles, nets and so on are also covered but only to demonstrate how the rules fit that too, rather than introducing a raft of new rulings.


Like all good Classical Epics, calling on Gods can make actions happen automatically but burn precious Fate points until you sacrifice something to the gods. The Gods are well described (and use the Roman nomenclature for you Classics buffs out there) and are the in-game explanation for experience points, which is rather neat. You can increase your God wielding by becoming an Initiate and then a Priest. You get spell-like powers based heavily in a Priestly. Cults firm up praising the gods into definitive camps, each shown in huge detail. Magic is wielded by Philosophers and Magicians and there are special Learned character types for them; the starting Attributes are rearranged as you might imagine - both being better at writing and less good at stopping swords going through their eye sockets. A Philosopher is the keeper of arcane knowledge - part scientific, part understanding the world. A Magician calls upon dark powers.

The Other Chapters

How far can you go in a day on a camel across a stony desert? I'm a computer programmer living in middle England, that doesn't really come up that much. The action resolution chapter covers this and a huge number of other things such as surprising people or gambling. The Monsters chapter covers all those favourite classical beasties: Giant Scorpions, Cyclops, Goatmen, Furies and more. Treasures are listed in their own chapter. The Golden Fleece isn't there but Paul does cheekily mention that you can plunder myth and I feel that he left out the bleeding obvious ones to make space for one you might not have thought of. For those who felt that the first section on local geography was a little light, after reporting to a mental health worker, you might want to check out the monolithic Lands and People Chapter should satiate your thirst. All 42 pages of it. I'm willing to bet that Paul is a GM because the GM's section is glorious. He has included a huge amount of Adventure Hooks, Campaign creation help, NPCs and other secret goodies.

The Book and Resources

Originally written in 1999 and revised in 2004, this 226 page PDF is neatly formed in 2 columns with a smattering of images by the superb John Hodgeson. The in-column graphics are charming and the Monsters chapter has a few poingnant pics. The front cover image isn't in the PDF (a shame) but you can get that from the website. Tables are collated at the back and the contents page lists only what is needed. The backup resources are all of a high standard too, some submitted by other authors. If you do think that you might run out of resources then Googling any of the names or keywords Paul has used will throw a plethora of information.

What I would do to it

I've scratched the surface with this review. Zenobia is big. It's huge. It's on an appropriately Classic(al) scale. I wonder if I can level the same complaint that's been levelled at me. Is it too big? I think that 'too big' is relative but as a game writer, you either want to make your game as accessible to as many people as possible or you make it for yourself and sod everyone else. Paul's gone to great length to smooth over historical detail and endless pithy argument (I'm married to a Master Classicist) to make a more interesting game, so I'd imagine the former. To make Zenobia more accessible, you could arrange it in more manageable pieces, a step-by-step approach. Broad description, character creation and mechanics, first adventure. Then add Magicians, Priests and Gods. Then another adventure. Then more detail. Then another adventure. Repeat. This format is rubbish as a reference book but I think people might get through it with a bit more ease. In a few places, a good general description might help (especially at the start of the Gods section). The geography section needs the map included. You can get it on the website but it really needs to be there, on the page. At the end of the history, a good 'Current state of play' round up would help show where to start from. I'd like to see more of the inter-God bickering you get in classical novels, also the players get to 'use' the Gods but I'd like to see the gods being their petty, childish selves too. Spending the Fate point leads to you winning that action but then the side affects could be less than desirable.


Have you ever read the Illiad? Did you get through it? Have you seen the film Troy? Did you get through that? There's a good reason why you've sat through Troy and not the Illiad, it's more accessible. However, which one is more rewarding? In Troy, the oiled Pitt prances gaily about with his 'cousin' Patrocles before going on a pouting rampage upon hearing of his death. In the Illiad, Achilles is a fully blown deus vox psychopath who seeks revenge for the one he loves, who died because he has a teenage strop. Zenobia is enthralling and detailled. I can't do it justice here. I nearly didn't publish this today. In its stead, throwing onto the stage the next entry nervously waiting in the wings - to give me more time - but this review would end up 226 pages long. I knew I had to just finish it.

If you download anything this year. Download Zenobia.


Badelaire said...

I took a brief look at Zenobia back when I first discovered Mazes and Minotaurs last year. It looked pretty cool but I was so high on M&M that I never really gave Zenobia a close look. I think I need to go back to it sometime soon.

Great review!

Dave Tackett said...

Very nice review. This looks to be a very cool game. Thanks!

Though for the record, I love The Illiad (when it's well translated) and found Troy to be rather mediocre.

Rob Lang said...

Thanks chaps!

@Badelaire, Zenobia is a masterpiece. I could have waxed further about the good use of language and the non-patronising way in which the interactions between different groups. It's truly splendid. And for free! With John Hodgeson's graphics. For free! The mind boggles.

@Dave, glad you liked the review. If you liked the Illiad, you'll love Zenobia. I must admit struggling through bits of the Illiad - the endless list of ships and the oral tradition style of telling the story is a bit like pulling teeth. However, looking back at the whole is astounding. I find Zenobia much the same way.

Mike said...

Zenobia is one of the finest role-playing games I've ever had the pleasure to run. The fact that it's free is an incredible bonus, I would happily pay for this!

The material presented in the main book is sufficient to power a campaign for a loooong time.


Nero Grimes said...

The links in the post are duds.

Zozer Games is here.

Bonus! Warlords of Alexander!

Paul! Dude! Kick ass - take names - unleash the Gender Re-assigning Atomic Wedgie!

Inspiration reading for my Amped Up Arabia Campaign.

Asen R Georgiev said...

I read through the Illiad and the Odissey in 2nd grade. Troy almost bored me enough to stop watching, though not quite...
Yes, comparisons are frankly pointless, not to mention probably offensive to Homer's memory, and Zenobia does indeed give me the authenthic feel.