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Saturday, 27 June 2015

Ridiculum bella Rome

From TSR, Inc.’s The Glory of Rome for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition to Chaosium, Inc.’s Cthulhu Invictus for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, the world of Ancient Rome has been regularly visited by the gaming hobby. Some have been simple and straightforward like Pax Gladius, the 1PG from Deep7, whilst others have been sublime, such as Thyrsus Games’ much missed Fvlminata: Armed with Lightning. Two of the more recent entries in the genre have been military based. First 43 AD in 2012 and then Weird Wars Rome, launched on Kickstarter in 2013.

Published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Weird Wars Rome is part of the Weird Wars line of horror settings that began with Weird War II and has since visited the Vietnam War with Weird Wars: Tour of Darkness. The set-up for each of these military settings and campaigns initially sees the player characters as simple soldiers fighting on the front lines who are exposed to something strange, unnatural, even horrific. The encounter is enough to suggest that the enemy is using means more than outré to fight its war and the player characters’ survival is enough to bring them to the attention of the Twilight Legion, a secret organisation dedicated to fighting the evil unleashed by the enemy. Once they have its attention, the secret society will test the player characters and then send them to fight its missions in order to thwart the greater evil…

So it is with Weird Wars Rome, a campaign setting that requires the Savage Worlds core rules in order to play it. Unlike in most campaigns and RPGs based in Ancient Rome, this is an entirely military based campaign setting, with the player characters taking the roles of members of one of Rome’s mighty legions, all assigned to the same unit, a Contubernium of eight men. That is if they are legionaries, for they might also be auxiliaries (infantry or cavalry), gladiators, medicii (medics), or speculatores/exploratores (scouts, bodyguards, couriers, and even spies). There are no rules in Weird Wars Rome for creating civilian characters (or indeed guidelines for running civilian-based campaigns), but an enterprising War Master—as the GM is known in the Weird Wars series—could easily create new Occupations if he has access to suitable source material (Cthulhu Invictus would be a good source for such an endeavour). Alternatively, such material would form the basis of Weird Wars Rome Companion, right…?

Name: Aulus Didius Ravilla Nationality: Roman 
Rank: Novice Occupation: Legionary
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d4, Strength d6, Vigor d6 
Skills: Climbing d6, Fighting d6, Lockpicking d6, Notice d6, Throwing d6, Stealth d8, Streetwise d6
Charisma: 0
Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 4; Sanity
Hindrances:  Bad Luck (Major), Greed (Minor), Wanted (Minor)
Edges: Shield Wall, Sticky Fingers, Thief

Weird Wars Rome adds various new Edges (advantages) for creating characters, most of them military-related, such as Military Family, Aquilifer (eagle standard bearer for the legion), and Signifier (spear standard bearer for the century). As this is a horror setting, characters also have a Sanity stat to reflect their ability to withstand the shock of seeing the monsters and supernatural threats they will encounter in a Weird Wars campaign. Sanity points are lost for failing Fear checks and if driven to zero or below, a character is likely to acquire a disorder such as Flashbacks or the Shakes. These can be overcome through rest and recuperation at a temple or sanatorium, but this does take time. If a character still has Sanity points, he can gain lost points by expending his ‘Spoils’ of war on charitable deeds.

Other mechanics in Weird Wars Rome  handle rewards and promotions, both naval and siege warfare, for finding and spending ‘Spoils’ of war found after any battle or campaign. In addition to being spent on charitable acts, these can be donated to temples to gain blessings, given as gifts to gain the benefit of a veteran’s wisdom, carousing, bribing a superior to get out of duties, simply to rest, and so on. Where characters have access to ‘magic’, it will be in the form of divine Miracles rather than Arcane sorcery, the latter the province of the enemy such as the Druids of Gaul and Britannia and the mages of Greece, Egyptus, Parthia, and elsewhere. The likelihood of a character learning magic will come later in any campaign once he has proved his duty to the Twilight Legion and devotion to the right deities.

Mechanically, Weird Wars Rome uses the Savage Worlds system. This is a relatively light, pulp action system designed to handle single player action as well as combat between military units. The two included campaigns will involve military skirmishes of varying sizes, the player characters being expected to take command of the Roman forces where possible. Both ‘Rome’s Nightmare’ and ‘Mountains of Blood’ are Plot Point Campaigns, meaning that there are periods of time—both long and short—where the player characters can engage in adventures that are not related to the campaign. In the case of Weird Wars Rome, the War Master is free to slot adventures of his own design in between the Plot Points or create them using the given Adventure Generator.

‘Rome’s Nightmare’ take place during the 2nd Punic War and sees the player characters serving in the legions as the Carthaginian general Hannibal lays waste to the north of Italy. The return of their deceased comrades to the battlefield and their survival brings them to the attention of those who have knowledge of the dark means that Hannibal has brought to the northern hills of Italy. Where ‘Rome’s Nightmare’ is a defensive action, ‘Mountains of Blood’ takes place during an invasion, that of Dacia under the command of the great general Trajan. It is also a much shorter affair, one that also has them facing an indigenous foe rather than one that the enemy brought with them.

Both are presented in a chapter entitled ‘Legatum’ or Legacy. This is because the two campaigns in Weird Wars Rome are linked. Not in terms of plot, campaign, or foe, but in terms of generation. The idea is that whilst one set of characters fight one Plot Point Campaign, it is their descendants that fight the next and their descendants that fight the next, and so on and so on… Each descendant will benefit from a legacy of of his forebear’s campaigns, sometimes a curse, at other times great status and knowledge. Now this can only be done the once with the two Plot Point Campaigns given in Weird Wars Rome, but the supplement also includes descriptions of several other wars that the War Master could develop into campaigns of his own. Some of these, such as the wars to conquer Britannia could be run using the same characters, slipping campaign interludes between the military ventures, but others are far enough apart to run as part of a generational campaign. The description of each war includes a ‘sub rosa’ section detailing the dark means by which the enemies of Rome will turn to drive out the imperial forces. The War Leader will need to take note of both the ordinary and outré aspects of each war in order to develop it into a campaign of his own.

The bulk of Weird Wars Rome is devoted to Rome, its history and empire, and its conduct of war. It includes a gazetteer of the empire, though the latter is understandably broad given the space restriction and the great swathes of territory it has to cover. Rounding out the supplement is bestiary of Rome’s allies and enemies. The range of monsters suffers from the same problem as the gazetteer, having too much territory and too many creatures to cover effectively.   

Physically, Weird Wars Rome is a slim, ninety-six page, full colour book. Some of the artwork is excellent, but much of it is too cartoon-like and at odds with the grim nature of the better pieces. Whilst the book does pack in a great deal of information, it does not need another edit in places. In particular this is one book where you do need to know how to use the term ‘decimate’ in the correct sense. Especially if it is defined correctly at the beginning of the book. 

There are a number of odder problems inherent to Weird Wars Rome. Most of the time the player characters are going to be very similar, more so if all playing legionaries. There is room to play different types of characters once the player characters become involved with the Twilight Legion, but even so, the supplement only offers a limited number of character types and further, by modern standards, the supplement offers little in the way of female characters. Again, this may become possible when the characters become involved in the affairs of the Twilight Legion, but again, the War Master will have to work to make this possible. Further, it offers little in the way of civilian characters or civilian-based campaigns, but this is by design. All of these issues deserve to be addressed in a companion. Another issue is the lack of monsters—not that there none, but rather there are not enough and perhaps more could have been done to associate them with particular territories and wars, in particular they tend towards pulp archetypes rather than the creatures of myth and legend.

One interesting aspect of Weird Wars Rome is the place in it puts the players. ‘Rome’s Nightmare’ is a defensive action, but because ‘Mountains of Blood’ is an offensive action, it places the player characters in the role of the invaders, literally the 'faceless' forces of Imperialism, stamping the authority of Rome on another country. This is a role that they will take again and again, especially if several of the other wars given in the supplement are played through. The characters are in many cases the oppressors. How happy the players are will vary from one group to another...

Perhaps too succinct in places, there is, nevertheless, much to be made of the contents of Weird Wars Rome, though a companion volume would be more than welcome. Despite its limitations—many of them self-imposed—Weird Wars Rome is a solid treatment of its subject matter, supported by two decent campaigns and the means to create more.