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

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Lyre! Lyre! There are no Pants to Set on Fire.

There are some reviews that I want to write and some reviews that I do not want to write. There are plenty of the former, but fortunately fewer of the latter. The reasons why I typically do not want to review a game or supplement are either because the subject matter does not interest me or because the item in question merits a negative review. Sometimes giving a product a negative review can actually be a cathartic process or an exercise in writing skill because it takes greater skill to write a negative review than write a positive one. On the whole though, it is rare that I write a truly negative review, notable examples being of R. Talsorian Games, Inc.’s Cyberpunk 203X and of Goodman Games’ Age of Cthulhu Vol. II: Madness in London Town. At other times, giving a negative review of a book can be an uncomfortable exercise, because after all, you are criticising a publisher’s labour of love. Unfortunately to this list of the latter must be added Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook.

Published by Shades of Vengeance* following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the setting for the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is an interesting twist upon the fantasy roleplaying game. What if the adventurers possess ‘nearly’ all of the skill to go on brave adventures, set out on extreme expeditions, face down dangerous beasts and monsters, steal their treasure, and return again to tell the tale, but none of courage to do so? What if instead, they possessed chutzpah enough to convince everyone of their bravery and of their adventures, and in the process of doing so, have drinks and meals bought for them, have their praises sung from one end of the kingdom to the other—and back again, and eventually become famous to court the attention of the nobility (even royalty). It is a great set-up for an RPG. The players take on of the role of failed adventurers/con men, telling the tales of their derring do and rolling when necessary to determine the outcome of an action or interaction within said tale, with the GM taking the roles of everyone that they face—in and out of the tale, as well as taking the roles of the player characters’ audience.

*Yes, there is an irony to writing a negative review for a game from a publisher with this name.

Unfortunately, the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook does it very, very best not fulfill the possibilities of a set-up that is rife with tension and humour. To start with, it is not very clear as to exactly what the GM and his players are doing in the game. Well, it is sort of clear. It is heavily inferred throughout the first half of the book, but it is not stated outright until three quarters of the way into the book at the beginning of the GM’s section—and even then, not fully. (Which may mean that I have got the description of the game and how it is played almost, but not entirely wrong.) This lack of explanation of how the game is played is ably supported by a lack of any kind of example in the book. So there is no example of character generation in the game. There is no example of actual play in the game. There is no example of combat in the game. Now there are example characters given as filled out character sheets, but these are far from the easiest of things to read.

None of this helped by the organisation of the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook. It opens with pages and pages of fiction, describing the non-adventures of adventure avoiders telling the tales of adventures that they never had in return for fame and fortune—and lunch. This amounts to over a quarter of the book and it is followed by ten pages of descriptions of monsters, so the reader is half way through the book before he begins to look at the rules or character creation or even how the game is played. Lastly an explanation of the book’s title, Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook, is needed. ‘Era’ is the name of the game system, whereas ‘Lyres’ is the name of the game and the role taken up by the player characters.

In Era: Lyres, the players take the roles of barbarians, bards, rogues, and warriors in a traditional medieval setting, that of the city of Yarnolth. Known for its innumerable number of taverns and city squares where the practitioners of Lyres’ arts, that is, the player characters, can pitch up and spin their yarns for potential profit. They must dress the part; they cannot profess to using magic—divine intervention is believable, but arcane arrows are not; avoid being found lying lest they ruin their reputations and end in barroom brawls; and lastly, not be seen committing acts of murder or theft. Instead of actually going on adventures, they will spin stories of they slew great dragons, battered bandits, obliterated ogres and trolls, and more. The more successful they are, the more they will increase their party’s Confidence Rating and thus be able to ‘perform’ at bigger and more prestigious venues.

Creating a character using the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook first involves assigning three sets of points—four, three, and two points respectively—to three different Attribute groups (Potence, Defence, and Reaction) and spending the points to improve the attributes within each group. These points are not assigned on a one-for-one basis, but each attribute needs to be bought up. Since it costs four of these points to improve an attribute to a score of two, every character will start the game with one attribute set at a value of two at the utmost. Similarly, three more sets of points—nine, five, and three points respectively—need to be assigned to the three Skill groups (Personal, Technical, and Interpersonal) and their points divided amongst the skills within the Skill group. Skills are on the same scale as attributes, but are more expensive because unlike attributes which start at one, they start at zero. The end result is that again, a character might start play with a single skill with a rating of two.

The sample character—and this is probably right given examination of the sample character sheets at the back of the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook rather than any explanation or worked examples—is a student turned adventurer, or rather student turned Lyre. He ran out of money to pay for his studies and turned to other means—adventuring! Or not...

Sagacious Sam
Strength 1 Intelligence 1 Charisma 1

Stamina 1 Willpower 1

Dexterity 2 Wits 1 Luck 1

Personal Skills
Brawl 1, Investigation 1, Larceny 2, Melee 1, Stealth 1, Survival 0

Technical Skills
Alchemy 1, Archery 0, Blacksmithing 0, Drive 0, Lore 1, Medicine 1, 

Interpersonal Skills 
Commercial 1, Esteem 1, Instruction 0, Intimidation 1, Persuasion 1, Seduction 1

Derived Stats
Notoriety 0, Size 5, Encumbrance 2, Speed 4, Defence 2, Wound & Kill Modifiers 0, Health & Pain 6

The rules presented in the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook are known as the Era d10 rule set. Era as a set of mechanics uses dice pools comprised of an Attribute plus Skill or an Attribute doubled. To undertake an action, a character rolls the dice pool and attempts to gain successes. Successes are measured against a threshold that may vary according to the difficulty of the action—five to play a tune on your own musical instrument, seven when attempting to persuade a barmaid that you are a hero, nine to pick the pocket of a guard you are talking to, and so on. Rolls of ten allow re-rolls to get more successes and the circumstances of the action may allow the GM to grant a player more dice. Even so, with just a value of one in most Skills and most Attributes, a beginning character is not going to be particularly competent and rarely succeed at anything more than simple actions, except in a very few cases. For example, Sagacious Sam rarely gets to roll more than two dice unless it involves Dexterity and Larceny.

Now the clever use of skills in the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is that although in telling their tales the Lyres are using their charisma and their persuasion skills, they are backing it up with their knowledge and other skills. So it is not just a matter of a Sagacious Sam telling his audience that in order to escape the ogre’s kitchen by using his alchemical knowledge to concoct something so noxious so as to distract the ogres—which is saying something, let us be clear—he has to demonstrate said knowledge. Or rather convince the audience that he can. Which means that players are effectively playing a game within a game, but how that game within a game is played is never really explained. There are some pointers in that the combat rules are not there necessarily for handling fights within the tall tales, unless of course, the players want their characters to be fighting the monsters and have the monsters fight back, but even then there are no monster stats to fight against, just their descriptions for the characters to work off. No what the combat rules are there are for when the audience does not believe the tale being spun and a brawl breaks out. Unfortunately there are no stats for NPCs.

Physically, the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is decent looking book. The full colour artwork is excellent and the writing is acceptable. The issue is simply the design and the lack of development in the RPG.

Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is a game about the non-adventures of non-adventurers describing their adventures—or it should be. As written, it almost is. Whilst there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the game’s Era mechanics—though some might argue that they are too heavy and cumbersome for what the game is trying to do—the design of the book itself, the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook, goes out of its way to be unhelpful in any way that it can. It is not organised for ease of play or ease of learning, it lacks sufficient explanations or examples, and it lacks the equivalent of a good elevator pitch. At the heart of the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is a clever, fun idea. As designed, the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook does its very best to be anything other than that.

Currently the Kickstarter campaign ‘£1 Tabletop RPG Rulebook: Era: Lyres - Pocket Edition’ is coming to an end. For that price, the Era: Lyres - Pocket Edition is worth your time for something to tinker with and perhaps get right as the designer intended.