Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg

The year is 485 AD. It is a little over sixty years since Rome withdrew its last legions to leave the province of Britannia to its fate. In those decades, the Saxons have continued to expand their territories from the East, the Picts have continued to launch raid after raid from the North across the Antonine walls, and Scotti raiders have harassed the coasts all along the West from across the Irish Sea. Romanised Britain has been forced to retreat to the protection of the old forts and old towns, of the hills of Wales, and of the old ways. The old religion has also grown in popularity as the druids and bards have returned in the face of staunch opposition of Rome’s official faith, Christianity, but no one can deny that the old magic has also returned. No longer is Britannia united, but a land of clans and tribes, of kingdoms allied through marriages against the invaders, provisionally ruled by the Council of Prydein under the High King, Emrys Wledig or ‘Ambrosius Aurelianus. Despite his efforts, Britannia, or Ynys Prydein—the ‘isle of forts’—as it is now known, is yet to be reunited. As a dark age looms over the people and the land, portents hint—from the High Druid of Britain, Myrddin, no less—that there is a young man who will come and reunite the land into a kingdom.

This is the set-up for Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg, a new Arthurian RPG published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment. It is a translation of Keltia, les Chroniques du Roi-dragon published by Le Septième Cercle and after Qin: The Warring States, Kuro, and Yggdrasill, The Roleplaying game of Norse Adventures is the fourth French RPG to be translated and published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment. In comparison with the other Arthurian RPGs, Keltia draws heavily on Celtic myth and history, opting for a grittier, earthier, and grim approach to the legend. It is not though a truly historical RPG, as it is about the legends of King Arthur, but nevertheless, Keltia does embrace a certain romanticism, but this is in comparison to the high romance of the greatest of Arthurian RPGs, Pendragon, and the broader, slightly less gritty treatment that is Age of Arthur. The players will take the roles of young nobles, clan warriors, druids, bards, priestesses, mages, and more who look to the young Arthur Pendraeg as the future of the kingdom.

The character creation begins with the selection of an archetype, such as Noble’s Counsellor, Mercenary, Druid, Bard, Priestess, Craftsman, Forester, Merchant, Spy, and Emissary. This grants a character a set of privileged skills that are cheaper to purchase. Then nineteen points are divided between nine attributes—Strength, Vigour, and Agility (Body group); Intellect, Perception, and Tenacity (Mind group); and Charisma, Instinct, and Communication (Soul group). Attributes are rated between one and five, with two being the average. A character also has a Gift, such as Blessed by Fate, Brave, or Scholar, and a possible Weakness, such as Arrogant, Impetuous, or Strange. Use of Gifts in play grant a character more Furor—the game’s source of bonus dice, whilst Furor is gained for giving in to a character's Weakness. Some thirty-five points are spent on skills, each being rated between one and twenty. Another twelve points are available to spend on Combat Feats, which are divided into Attack, Defence, and Utility Feats, such as Stun, Mounted Draw, Iron Wall, and Not Dead Yet! It should be noted that Bards, Druids, Mages, and Priestesses have to buy their spells from this same pool of points, so will not be as capable in combat.

Our example is an itinerant blacksmith who has not long since stepped out on the road. He is skilled and wants to make a name for himself, perhaps by working on the arms and armour of a noble and his entourage. He is a giant of a man, at times reckless, but takes great pride in his craft. He is strong to wield a heavy hammer in one hand.

Gruffen ap Wren
Archetype: Wandering Blacksmith
Body – Strength 4 Vigour 2 Agility 2
Mind – Intellect 2 Perception 2 Tenacity 2
Soul – Charisma 2 Instinct 2 Communication 1

Gifts: Colossus, Inspired
Weaknesses: Bold
Furor: 3

Hit Points: 41
Reaction: 6
Physical Defence: 6
Mental Defence: 6
Movement: 4
Encumbrance: 10

Skills   
Athletics 1, Commerce 3, Dodge 1, Drive 3, Forge 8, Herbalism 1, Intimidation 1,  Knowledge (Geography) 3, Superstition 1, Two-Handed Weapons  8

Feats
Boar’s Charge (Level 1), Knock-Out (Level 2), Quick as Lightning (Level 1)

Equipment
Hammer, Knife, Leather Vest, Helm, Metal Bracers, Reinforced Leather Greaves

Mechanically, Keltia uses the same system as Yggdrasill, The Roleplaying game of Norse Adventures (the game's appendix does compare the two). To undertake an action, the character rolls a number of ten-sided dice equal to the appropriate attribute and two of these dice are chosen, usually the best results. They are added together along with a skill level and compared against a Success Threshold—ten for Easy, fourteen for Average, nineteen for Difficult, and so on. The dice can be rerolled and the results added if any of them turn out to be tens. Critical successes are possible if double the Success Threshold is rolled, whilst Fumbles occur when too many rolls of one occur.
For example, Gruffen ap Wren is engaged to repair the sword belonging to a noble which was badly damaged in an encounter with Scotti pirates. The GM sets the Success Threshold at Difficult or nineteen. Gruffen will be rolling four dice for his Strength and adding his Forge skill  of eight to the total. To ensure that he succeeds and impresses the noble, he expends a point of Furor, which means that he will be rolling an extra die and add it to the total. He rolls 3, 6, 9, and 10 for his Strength and a 4 for his Furor die. He selects the 9 and the 10 as his two dice, rolling the 10 again as an exploding die and adds the result of an 8.So far the results are 9, 10, and 8, plus 8 for his Forge skill. The current total is 35 to which is added the 4 for the Furor die, for a grand total of 39! Not only has he succeeded, but Gruffen has gained a Critical Success.  The sword is repaired to as good as new, the noble is impressed, and Gruffen becomes a member of his retinue.
Combat in Keltia uses the same mechanics and is brutal and often unforgiving. Most notably in that parrying and dodging are not passive actions, but active decisions, ones that a player character will often need to forego his attacks to do. Most player characters will have more than one action and so should be able to attack and defend during a round, even though subsequent actions after the first are done at a penalty. If a player character does not have the initiative, it may often be better to opt for defensive actions to withstand the attacks. The types of attacks possible include Classic, Precision, Aimed, Power, and Devastating, each more powerful in turn and each capable of inflicting more damage, whilst also being more difficult to carry out. In addition, the player characters have access to Gifts that give them advantages under certain circumstances, though certain notable NPCs may also possess them.

Although magic in Keltia is known and recognised in Ynys Prydein, it is not widespread. The ‘Blood of the Ancients’ runs in the veins of its practitioners, who in game terms must take the Gift of the same name. The four types of practitioners, the Awenyddion—Bards, Druids, Mages, and Priestesses—all use the Awen skill to cast their spells, but have access to different spells. Spells are divided between common spells like That Which is Hidden or Open sesame! and then the Ways of Blessing and Curses, the Way of Charms, the Way of Divinations, and so on. Druids and Priestesses can cast any spells, Bards cast all spells from the Ways of Charms and Illusions and have limited access to all other spells, whilst Mages and Sorcerers cannot cast spells from the Ways of the Goddess, Healing, and Illusions. Unlike other roleplaying games, magic in Keltia is purely an oral tradition—there are no tomes of arcane lore to study and the only way to learn magic is by being taught. The number of spells available is not extensive, but since it is actually both fairly difficult and costly to learn spells, it makes their use in the game quite special.

Our example mage is an ambitious widow who learnt spells from her mother. As a single woman her situation is uncertain and she wants a man to who can protect her and her reputation. She is not evil as such, but ambitious and prepared to do things that a good woman night not. Nevertheless, in these times when both magic and women are mistrusted, she uses her natural charm before she does her magic.

Talaith ferch Madoc
Archetype: Mage
Body – Strength 1 Vigour 1 Agility 2
Mind – Intellect 3 Perception 2 Tenacity 2
Soul – Charisma 3 Instinct 2 Communication 3

Gifts: Blood of the Ancients, Seducer
Weaknesses: Weak
Furor: 6

Hit Points: 34
Reaction: 7
Physical Defence: 5
Mental Defence: 7
Movement: 3
Encumbrance: 3

Skills   
Awen 5, Eloquence 2, Empathy 5, Knowledge (Divinities) 8, Legends 1, Seduction 2, Short Weapons  2, Superstition 5

Combat Feats
None

Magic
The Way of Charms: Charm, In a Whisper
The Way of Divination: Read Omen
The Way of Mastery of the Elements: In Pwca’s Hands

Equipment
Knifes

In addition to the historical, geographical, political, and social background given for both the GM and the players, the GM receives a section of secrets. Primarily this consists of a guide to creating NPCs and a range of beasts and monsters. These include ordinary creatures as well as things like the Ceffyl Dŵr or sea horses, the diminutive Coblyanu that work the mines, and Gryphons. Only a few such creatures are given, but a selection of traits does enable the GM to modify any of the beasts listed. Lastly, the Renown system lets the GM and players track their player characters’ reputation, though it does require the characters to work at maintaining their reputation otherwise it diminishes over time.

What is lacking is actual advice for the GM in general on how to run the game, but then as written, Keltia is not designed to be played or run by those new to roleplaying. One issue not addressed in Keltia is if the players decide that their characters do not want to follow Arthur nor if the GM decides to take his campaign in another direction.

Keltia includes a single scenario, ‘The Council of Britain’,  which takes the newly created players to Caer Ludein—formerly Londinium—a Britannic bastion in Saxon territory where said council is to be held. They are presumed to be part of a young noble’s entourage attending the council and their journey will involve bandits and difficult locals. As much as the scenario does a good job of introducing the setting—especially the complexity of its politics—it is fundamentally flawed. Simply it is all set-up and no pay off. The heroes travel to Caer Ludein, interact a little with the kings and notables of Ynys Prydein, and then, having hitched their wagon to Arthur’s destiny, ride off into the mists. Despite ‘The Council of Britain’ having a section entitled ‘Conclusion’, there is not actually a conclusion in the scenario, there is nothing else for the player characters to do, there is  no threat to deal with, there is  no objective to achieve. The question is, where is the other half of the scenario?

Physically, Keltia is disappointing. It is disappointing that the obviously original full colour artwork has here been presented in black and white, but that is merely disappointing. The RPG may well be set at the start of the Dark Ages, but does it have to look dreary? It is particularly disappointing that the given map of the British Isles, although in colour, is murky and lacks detail such that it is probably advisable for the GM and his players to find something better online. The writing is also somewhat murky, especially that of the background. The problem is that it has not been fully localised, that is, adapted from the original language to the new language, so it is often difficult to read the meaning correctly, and that is before you deal with the array of Welsh names.

There is a good game to be found in Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg. As presented though, it feels rushed and not yet fully realised. The writing could have been cleaner and easier to read—particularly that of the setting’s politics and geography, the game could have been given more scope than just that of Arthur’s destiny, the map could have been replaced, and the scenario could have been completed—or just replaced with a full scenario that would present the setting to the players as well as giving something for their characters to achieve. Nevertheless, Keltia firmly sets its identity and its take upon the Arthurian legend, supporting it with a gritty, well tested set of mechanics. It is just a pity that the game as a whole does not support either with clearer writing and a better scenario that would have fully realised and developed the game.