Role-playing in the English Civil War
Gene Freak's review (70%)
Inspired by "His Dark Materials", some of the characters in the game are talking animals that maintain their form after the age of twelve. I have added my own twists to the setting making it set in an alternative Civil War era with magic based on astrological signs. The Civil War era has not been well covered by traditional RPGs and is a period of history that has a rich vein that can be mined.
Characters in the game are Astromancers who are involved in the Civil War, normally on the side of the Royalists, though it is possible that players can play Astromancers on the side of the Parliamentarians.
The simplicity and diversity of character options in Astromancer is, in my mind, one of its best strengths. If a game isn't going to have a tight closed skill list I prefer it to have a "anything goes" type skills set up and that's exactly what Astromancer does. The core competency of a person trying at any given thing is their stat plus their skill, without any extra effort, they'll always have that total to rely on. Nice, simple, and because you can name the skills, allows for a lot of freedom. One way characters are really defined from one another is through the selection of Star Sign and Spirit Animal. I'm happy to say there's that there's enough diversity among the Spirit Animals within the same Star Sign that I could easily see two players playing the same Star Sign and not feeling like their shtick is being stepped on. The elemental favor / disfavor rules for Astromancy also tell us a lot right away about what type of magic the character will be competent at. The last piece of the character is determining what Astromantic magic he knows, which is another simple process and, again, there are enough areas of Astromancy to specialize in that even Astromancers favoring the same element won't have to overlap spells if they don't want to. I am very happy with the way starting equipment is handled and would love to see more games take this route - nothing sucks worse than trying to decide if your fighter is going to start with a weapon or armor because you can't afford both. Character Options earns Astromancer 16/20 points. The things I would like to see developed in this category are an exploration of these "cusp" Spirit Animals that get quickly mentioned and then passed over (particularly because the author notes they are "unusual" but doesn't tell us in what way). I'd also like to see a bit more details, since this is a game about nobles, about the different noble stations characters might come from and their effect on play.
I really enjoy token (as opposed to die) systems in RPGs, so I was very excited to see that as the main engine in Astromancer. However, over the course of reading exactly how the token system works, it became less and less clear to me exactly how it was supposed to function and, furthermore, if it would really work at all. My first question about the token system here is, do players announce as they put their tokens in how many they are putting in? Or do both sides hold their hand over their tokens and then have a "reveal" moment? Without it, it would seem the game would be little more than just making sure you always put in one more than your opponent (although, admittedly, the die makes that still an uncertain victory for you). I also believe the token pools may refresh too rarely. Casting spells and combat both seem to be areas where this problem would really come to the forefront. If an Astromancer casts a spell he must pay spiritual tokens to cast the spell and then even more to get it to stick to an opponent (and when your token pool is 6, having to spend over half your tokens to get one spell to work is harsh). If another Astromancer gets into a fight they are going to be spending tokens to win initiative, defend against attacks, and make attacks - which seems like it could empty his token pool pretty quickly. I might recommend just scrapping the initaitive system and just have rounds go in any order people like - everybody gets to act that round, if they are killed that round it takes effect the next round. But that could be the minimalist in me. And speaking of the minimalist in me, I was a bit confused about the presence of rules for falling damage, burning damage, and more than anything else, infection rules. I'm the kind of person who only wants rules for things that are important to the game. Protracted periods of infection don't seem to really gel with the themes and atmosphere of Astromancer in my mind. It just seems really grim and gritty for a game that is fairly fantastical. Burning, falling, and infection are very traditional rules to have in an adventure RPG, I just don't think they necessarily fit with Astromancer (well, you might make a case for burning damage, but then it should be in fire spells where it belongs!).
I really liked the basic idea of the system for Astromancer but felt it really wouldn't work at the table. Astromancer got an 8/20 points for Mechanics. Areas I haven't covered yet that I'd like to see developed are the "borrowing from fate" mechanic and poison / drugs. Borrowing from fate doesn't seem like a complete thought in it's current form, I'd love to see it revisited and a bit more detail given to the fall out from borrowing from fate and exactly what is taking place in game when an Astromancer borrows from fate. As for poison and drugs (and this could just as easily go in the setting section) I think this section should have gotten more attention! In a world where you can smoke a drug that frees your Spirit Animal from your body and allows you to access magic through your Star Sign, certainly there must be other drugs and poisons out there with interesting effects! It also seems drug use might be common among Astromancers since drug use is what gave them their powers in the first place. I also like the idea of Puritans coating their weapons in some poison that temporarily makes your Spirit Animal dormant.
The first few pages of the pdf convinced me that Astromancer was a solid entry in this contest because it so effortlessly put the game in context for me. I knew where I was playing, I knew what time I was playing in, and I was given all the pertinent details of the setting. The setting is strong because it gives us a conflict that all characters can participate in as an overarching conflict for the campaign but not so overwhelming that every game has to be about the war. For Setting, Astromancer earned 18/20. Areas I'd like to see developed are comments on whether there are any other supernatural powers in this world, whether the power granted to Astromancers is connected to anything sinister or has a price, and just in general more details about the metaphysics of this world. I love game world metaphysics discussions! Also, I think the map of Europe should be replaced by a map of Britain with the areas seeing the most battle highlighted...unless the war was taking place all over Europe and I'm displaying my ignorance of history! Also, as mentioned in the Character Options category, it would be helpful to have a list of noble ranks and their responsibilities and whatnot.
I thought Star Signs and Animal Spirits are both well represented in the crunch and fluff of the game. I appreciate the attempt at making horoscopes have an ingame effect but I think that, in general it's a bit much to expect of the GM to prepare that many horoscopes in advance. I might recommend that each player gets a horoscope and that horoscope lasts for the entire session - perhaps he could prepare a few horoscopes for each Star Sign and players would select horoscopes from their Star Sign randomly at the start of each session. Like I said, horoscopes is a good idea in a game that features Star Signs, but increasing GM prep time that way is rarely ever a good thing. The last bit of Integration that I felt was rather splotchy was Astromancy itself. I liked the lists and generally how the power was split up but felt that there was a bit too many specifics involved with every spell. For instance, Astromancer doesn't strike me as a game trying to be a highly tactical skirmish type game, so why do all the spells need to have varying duration? That's going to slow play as players try to remember how many rounds have passed since their Astromancer cast a given spell - and, as with the infection rules, it just seems out of place. You've created a world of intriguing fantasy and constant action - don't slow it down with paper work! Ditch the durations and retool the spells if you think they're too powerful if they last the whole scene. For Integration, I gave Astromancer a 12/20.
Astromancer did an excellent job of incorporating the ingredients of the contest. While a lot of other potential entries did the "talking animals" bit as straight up "animals that can talk" Astromancer put its own spin on them by making them spirtual avatars of the Astromancers. Cool! It's a unique twist on that ingredient. The alternate history category was also handled very well, as previously mentioned in the Setting category. The Unique Style of Magic was accomplished, mechanically it doesn't look a lot different from some other magic systems, but certainly setting-wise it is distinct from some others. I'm willing to not look too heavily into it as I take it this is supposed to be the fourth "minor" ingredient. Finally, the Star Signs which take up one of the defining features of every character in the game. I really liked the place of Star Signs in the setting but felt that, they themselves, didn't give a character much. A Star Sign was a list of spirit animals and an elemental affinity but it didn't do anything more for the character. What might be nice is if you used the list of qualities on all the Star Sign descriptions and say that each player picks three qualities from that list and gets a free token whenever he behaves in accordance with that quality. That could be something available even to none Astromancers. But that's just a suggestion, and it's just one possible way you could bring out Star Sign more as something important in and of itself. For Creative Use of Ingredients, Astromancer earned 16/20 points.
I feel like Astromancer is trying to be two games at once: I hope the freeform one wins out. One of the things I mentioned when I put up my expectations for games was that I would watch for what I thought were "unnecessary" rules and this game certainly included some (in my opinion). I think you should take a scalpel to those parts of the game I've mentioned and then come back to see what you've got, fill it in with even more setting goodness and a touch up the mechanics engine (if it needs it) and continue brushing this piece up. I really enjoyed it!