I stumbled over this book written by Robert Bird while browsing for odd RPG's to try out. I liked the cover and considered buying it, but I couldn't find any reviews at all. I asked reddit with no results, so I decided to buy it anyway because I liked the cover and my curiosity got the better of me. Also, it's quite cheap.
After a long wait, the book finally arrived in my mailbox and I was eager to check it out. I spent a good 2-3 hours giving it a brief readthrough while trying to catch the major points of it.
On the back of the cover, the book promises adventures with villains, wild animals, ruins of old, steamcars, and more. It's safe to say that this 258 page book delivers on all these points. But to what extent?
First off, it features a unique (as far as I know) playing card system, where each player has their own deck of cards. These cards serve as tools for resolving conflicts and challenges. It's an interesting concept but unfortunately fairly clunky, but more on that further down.
The setting features four archipelago island nations in the Meencan Sea. These are collectively known as the Meencan Islands. The author has gone out of his way to create a history with both humans and two other races: Mera, the descendants of mermaids, and Urgs, the ancient observers. The history details everything from the arrival of the humans and Mera, to the conflicts mainly caused by humans, and the technological advances. The two main technologies introduced are tools made from steel in the earlier days and machines and contraptions powered by steam in the later days.
There are also sections on time and seasons, organizations (factions), religions, and even some unique sports including fist fights called Fisticuffs, steamcar racing, and a variant of baseball called WahBaah. Facts on the primary islands of Meencan are introduced over roughly 10 pages, but oddly there's no map to be found.
The rules go into great detail on how to create characters. The main traits are Brawn, Talent, and Will. These all affect their respective skills and many other things such as health, defense, and awareness (perception). You choose a Life Experience, which is essentially a background of something that you're good at. There are five skills per trait, such as Athletics, Melee Weapons, Improvise, Marksmanship, Piloting, Deception, and Problem Solving.
The races all give some interesting perks, and there are a few different languages which the author details over two pages.
Finally, the character purchases equipment with the setting's currency called Jinni, which are steel coins with small pieces of gold stamped into them. There are two other denominations called Marca and Doola as well. A character sheet is provided at the back of the book.
To play the game, each player shuffles a deck of playing cards. A number of factors then decide how many cards they may pick to resolve a challenge.
There is a mechanic called Steam which can be used to power your skill checks, defense, and attacks, and there is also a Push mechanic to get that extra little nudge over to success. Aces are a guaranteed success, Jokers will make the challenge much harder, and Jacks, Queens, and Kings, generate Steam.
When you have drawn all the cards from your deck you are exhausted and must reshuffle the deck and put a joker into it. For every 4 hours rested, a joker can be removed.
Combat is carried out in four phases: Tactical (initiative), Draw (drawing cards), Active/Reactive (taking orders to do actions), and finally Resolution. There is a simple system for gaining the Upper Hand, which is basically used for surprise.
There are rules for encumbrance (but oddly no weights in the item lists), traveling overland, climbing, jumping, falling, lifting/pushing, holding your breath/drowning, resting, and conditions.
Your character has no level but instead gains Glory Points awarded by the Guide (GM) for adventuring and exploring. These points may be used to increase almost anything on your character sheet. You may also pick a Special, which is a special ability such as Quick Draw, Eyes Like A Hawk, One With The Beasts, Aggressive Piloting, or WahBaah Pro.
The second half of the book consists entirely of tools for the guide. It explains how to draw cards as a Guide, how to reward adventurers, creating adventure plots, make NPCs,villains, goons, and minions.
There are chapters on creating islands, wild expanses, ruins, animals, artifacts, and relics.
Now that you should have a grasp of what's in the book, I will briefly go over what I think was good, and later what could be improved.
- I love the cover. It's really simple but it brings forward this feeling of a dark, wild, and dangerous tropical island.
- The writer has a lot of energy. You can tell this book was written with a great deal of passion.
- You only need a couple sets of playing cards to play this game. Most people should already have those at home.
- The three races are all interesting. Even the entry on the humans was decent!
- The steam vehicles are wonderful. How about vehicle names such as a Steamcarp Narwhale, SteamCarp Mighty Salmon, and Randal Steamwares Snapping Gator.
- The Glory Point advancement system looks fun and gives the players a lot of agency.
- There are sports in this game!
- The history is quite believable. It's decently detailed and wasn't a slog to read through.
- The chart to generate plots in the Guide section is excellent.
- Generating NPCs is straightforward.
And now to the things I felt left something to desire. This game does have a fair share of shortcomings, but I try to be as constructive as possible.
- There are no illustrations in this book. Not even a map, which feels like an obvious inclusion in a game about exploration.
- The layout looks like a college essay. Single column, no text boxes or tables, nothing to break up the text. There's also no index, but for a book of this size the table of contents is enough.
- The character sheets are not good. They stretch over 3 pages and while they get the job done, they are not pretty.
- There are several typos and spelling errors. While this doesn't bother me too much I still felt like it must be mentioned.
- It's very verbose. Even though the text explaining everything in great detail is nice to read, it doesn't lend itself well to playability. Things like calculating height and weight take up 2 pages for each race!
- While it's interesting to see a unique coin system I really don't see the point of having the exchange rate be 100 = 5 = 1. It makes it needlessly slow to calculate. Simply solved by only using the coins of the lowest value though.
- Encumbrance is based on your weight. Basically the heavier you are the more you can carry. There is no downside to being super heavy as far as I can tell.
- There is an encumbrance system but no item weights are listed.
- Steel is "found" rather than created which looks a bit odd. It does sound like Steel might be an entirely different metal in this setting however.
- While the playing card system might look novel, it frankly feels convoluted and clunky. There are interesting parts for sure, but as a whole it doesn't work. I think this setting would be better run using another system such as Savage Worlds or Fate.
- Using cards to generate Guide content is not a good idea. A simple table with a roll of some six-sided dice would have been much quicker.
This book came out of nowhere and found its way into my bookshelf. It's a somewhat interesting setting and what I would consider a fairly complete product. I enjoyed reading it and might pull out a thing or two from the setting to use in my own campaigns. It's definitely got personality.
As for the game system, I find it problematic. There are so many fantastic systems out there, and unfortunately this one lags way behind. If I was stuck on a desert island with just this book, could I set up and play a game and have fun? Probably. But if given the choice, I would not be using this system.
So, finally: Do I recommend this book?
It's hard to say. It's obviously a labor of love, and it's not an expensive book. But for the same price as this book there are so many great RPGs out there.
If you already have a huge collection of RPG books and you're curious about this (admittedly fairly short) setting, then I'd lean towards "maybe". If you are still fairly new to the RPG scene or have only tried a handful of games and/or settings I cannot recommend it.