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Sunday, 28 May 2017

In Sorcerous Service

Ur-Turuk is the oldest and largest of mankind’s cities. Located in Turukstan, it stands on the Gulf of Tharita and is home to a great ziggurat temple to the god Enu, father of the sun and lord of fire, as well as a Vahnam—an association of Sorcerers and their retinues. The primary concern of each Sorcerer is improving his magic, which requires the recovery of ancient Alulim artefacts—the Alulim being giant Ancients who harnessed magic and enslaved mankind long ago—and then deconstructing them to extract the magic. The recovery requires research and then expeditions to travel out beyond Turukstan, but the extraction takes time and solitude, so the Vahnam needs to be protected from outside influences. This is the task of each retinue, who in serving and protecting their sorcerous masters will get involved in city politics and manipulate Ur-Turuk’s various factions, not just the city government and the city guard, but the priesthoods including the Line of Enu, the Temple of the Red God, the Cult of the Blind Serpent, and the Cult of Nissa, as well as the trade guild, the Brotherhood of Coin, the beggars’ guild, the Dust, and various underworld factions, such as the Vanishing Hand and the Black Face.

Sorcerers can cast great magics. They can summon and create things of nature and the elements as well as demons and ghosts. They can also destroy them and shape them, but they cannot use magic to transmute one substance into another, nor can spells be cast to learn things. So a Sorcerer is unable to cast a spell that would determine a cause of death, decode an encrypted scroll, or overhear a conversation from afar. In each case, an expert on the spot would be required—a physician, a scholar, a thief, and so on—to learn such information. Further, the effects of magic are not permanent. A magically constructed wall will collapse or fade, magical food will satiate the appetite and nothing more, and magical healing will only temporarily stave off the effects of wounds and damage. Should a warrior suffer too many wounds and receive magical healing, then when that healing fades, the wounds will return and he will be ripped apart! In such cases, it best to proper, non-magical healing lest a warrior’s wounds should overcome him.

This is the set-up for Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk, a roleplaying game of magic and politics inspired by ancient Persia published by Arion Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Mechanically, it uses the d6 System first seen in 1987’s Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game from West End Games, but structurally it uses the ‘troupe style’ of play pioneered by Ars Magica, currently published by Atlas Games. What this means is that each player controls a Sorcerer; a Major character—perhaps a master swordsman, a high priest, an oracle, an assassin, a noble, and so on; and three Minor characters—a Soldier, a Servant, and a Specialist. Characters are defined by six attributes—Might, Agility, Wits, Charm, Toughness, and Perception—and various skills from the forty-five available. Sorcerers also possess magical skills. Characters also have Perks and Complications.

Character creation gets more complex the more important a character is in a Sorcerer’s retinue. The creation of Minor characters involves a mix of rolls, picking templates, and freely assigning dice to attributes and skills. Guidelines are included if the the GM or his players want a bit more freedom than the methods included for Minor characters. The sample Minor characters have used the standard method. So the soldier in our retinue is an ex-scout who has grumpily been assigned to guard duty where he commands a team of men. He is known for his wary and weary eye, as well as his temper when his men fail him or the Vahnam. The Servant is a Cook, an ex-pickpocket who sought another trade lest her thievery lead to her execution. She is renowned for her advice as much as her readiness to defend her kitchen domain. The Musician likes the limelight and always plays a solo when performing. Unfortunately his eye for company after the performances often lands him in trouble and he knows when to get out of the way.

Souran, Soldier, Old Guard
Might 2D+2
Mêlée Weapons 1D, Block 1D
Agility 2D+1
Missile Weapons 2D, Parry +1
Wits 2D
Tactics +1
Charm 2D
Command +1
Toughness 2D
Survival +1
Perception 3D
Assess Other +1, Awareness +1

Perks: Warrior, Toughness, Danger Sense
Complications: Sense of Honour, Angry, Slow Reactions

Weapons: Shamshir (+2D), Crossbow (4d+1)
Leather armour (+2 Protection, -1 Agility)

Hatefeh, Servant, Cook
Might 2D
Mêlée Weapons +1, Brawling 1D
Agility 2D+1
Craft (Cooking) 2D+2, Larceny +1, Stealth +1
Wits 2D+1
Charm 1D+2
Streetwise 1D
Toughness 2D+1
Perception 2D
Awareness +1

Perks: Common Sense
Complications: Obese

Megabiz, Specialist, Musician
Might 1D
Agility 2D
Dodge +1
Wits 3D
Lore (Music) +2, Language +1
Charm 4D
Music 2D, Performance 1D, Seduce 1D+1
Toughness 2D
Stamina +1
Perception 2D
Awareness +1

Perks: Attractive (Minor), Educated (Minor)
Complications: Showman (Minor), Personality Flaw (Promiscuous) (Minor)

Creating a Major character is more involved, but more freeform. Several roles are given, suggesting which attributes to favour and which skills, perks, and complications to select. Termeh has served the Temple of Enu for decades now, having the gift of being able to read into the flames. She is old now and her powers are waning, but still powerful. She has rivals who would unseat her and are currently feuding with her for her influence over the chief priest. She also serves as an advisor to her daughter, Zarif Rastegari, who is a Sorcerer in the city’s Vahnam.

Termeh, Major Character, Oracle & Priest of Enu
Might 2D
Agility 2D
Wits 3D+1
Religion 1D+1
Charm 4D
Command +1, Persuade +2, Diplomacy +2, Performance 1D
Toughness 2D
Self-Control 1D
Perception 2D+2
Second Sight 2D

Holy Power 1D+2

Perks: High Priest (Major), Burning Faith (Major)
Complications: Ancient (Major), Feud (Major)

Creating a Sorcerer is even more freeform, a player needing to assign more dice to his Sorcerer’s attributes, skills, and magical skills. Notably, a Sorcerer has access to Sorcerous Perks and Complications that Major or Minor characters do not, though Minor Magic is available as a Perk that allow a Major character to possess some magic. Zarif Rastegari is a scholar and Earth and Body Sorcerer who is fascinated with the pure nature of magic. She has inherited some of her mother’s second sight, but not yet harnessed it with spirit-related magic. Her magic must be worked through a ruby that she wears on a necklace and she is better at summoning and shaping with her magic than she is destroying.

Zarif Rastegari, Sorcerer
Might 2D
Agility 3D
Dodge 1D
Wits 4D
Research 2D, Lore 1D, History +1
Charm 2D
Barter +1
Toughness 2D
Self-Control +2
Perception 3D
Awareness 1D, Second Sight +2

Perks: Sorcery (Major), Iron Will (Major), Educated (Minor), Scholar (Major)
Complications: Sense of Honour (Minor), Squeamish (Major), Magical Focus (Major)

Elements
Mind, Light 2, Nature, Spirit, Magic 3, Body 2, Fire, Air, Water, Earth 2

Controls
Summon 2, Destroy 1, Shape 2

Lastly the players need to decide upon the nature of their Vahnam. This is the home and headquarters of the sorcerers and their retinues. It is built using a pool of points that increases the greater the number of Sorcerers and their retinues who make it their home, but it is quite a tight budget, so the players will need to make some careful choices in how they design their character’s home.

Zarif Rastegari shares her Vahnam with another Sorcerer and his retinue. It is located in Ur-Turuk’s residential district, home to merchants and craftsmen, and is a relatively small townhouse built around a central courtyard in which stands a well from which can be drawn pure water. The Sorcerers and their retinues live comfortably in the house as well as eating well. Indeed, it is renowned for its kitchen and the banquets which are beginning to attract guests from across the city. The highest room in the building is used by Zarif Rastegari as an observatory by both her and her mother. The Sorcerers plan to build a library, but the building itself will expanding and that will involve purchasing land from their neighbours.

Residential District
Small
Wealth (Comfortable) 4D+1
Security 3D+1
Facilities
Observatory, Superior Kitchen, Well
Reputations
The Line of Enu (Friendly)
The Cult of the Blind Serpent (Unfriendly)

Mechanically, the player characters are rolling handfuls of dice to beat a target, ranging from Very Easy (5) and Easy (10) to Very Difficult (25) and Heroic (30). These dice can be in any of the six attributes, the forty-five skills, and the thirteen magical skills, typically combinations of an attribute and a skill. An average NPC will have two dice in each of the attributes, some of the skills, and perhaps a few more dice in the skills he is good at or that represent his occupation. Major NPCs and of course, the player characters, will have a lot more dice in their attributes and skills, and thus more dice to roll. In addition, attributes and skills can have pips, either +1 or 2. When two or more dice are rolled, one of them is the Wild Die. When the result of this die is a one, it deducts the highest die from the total rolled, whereas rolls of six on the Wild Die enable it to be rolled again and the total added. As long as sixes keep being rolled on the Wild Die, it can be rolled again and again. 
For example, Souran is going about his rounds late at night at the Vahnam. Unfortunately, someone has sent Black Face assassins—they cover their faces in ash—to murder Termeh, the Priestess of Enu. Souran has the Danger Sense Perk and cannot be surprised, but in the dark, the GM rules that his player must roll to see where the assassins are going. Souran’s player adds his Perception 3D and Awareness +1, so has to roll 3D+1 against a Moderate (15) difficulty. Souran’s player rolls 4, 6, and 5 on the Wild die, which with the addition of the +1, gives a total of 16 and a success. Souran takes up his crossbow and goes in search of the assassins.
 The system is simple and fast. It also allows for automatic successes if a player has enough dice—up to a target of Moderate (15)—and for multiple actions, simply deducting dice for each of the actions that a player might want to do. In addition, some characters possess Hero Points, which can be used to escape the current trap or danger, to maximise the results on the dice roll, or to acquire a clue or assistance for the adventure. Combat is handled by opposed rolls between attacks and Reactions—Dodge, Block with a shield, or Parry with a weapon—followed by damage rolls to overcome the target’s armour and Toughness. Combat does take into account the effect of the excess on the attack roll, so a strike might grant a bonus to the damage roll or reduce the opponent’s armour, smash the opponent’s shield or disarm him, cleave a limb or simply kill him, and so on. Various combat options are covered, including the specific effects of various arms and armour, and in general, combat is short and brutal. 
For example, Souran comes upon the first assassin. Both Souran’s player and the GM as the assassin roll for initiative. Souran has Agility 2D+1 and the Assassin Agility 3D. Souran has 10 and the Assassin 7—Souran goes first and snap fires his crossbow. His player will roll Agility 2D+1, Missile Weapons 2D, and +1 for Souran’s Warrior Perk, a total of 4D+2. The GM will roll the Assassin’s Agility 3D as he tries to dodge, but with a penalty of -1 for armour. The GM rolls 5, 5, and 5, for a total of 14 with the effect of the Assassin’s armour. Souran’s player rolls 5, 5, 5, and 6 on the Wild Die. Then rolls another 6, followed by a 3. To this total of 30 is added +2, for a total of 32. This exceeds the Assassin’s Reaction roll by 17, so Souran’s excess can be turned into the Assassin being disarmed as the crossbow bolt strikes his wrist. The damage roll for the crossbow is 4D+1, whilst the Assassin is wearing leather armour, so has a +2 bonus to his Toughness 2D. The GM rolls 2 and 5, which with the armour bonus gives a result of 9. Souran’s player rolls 4, 5, 6, and 2, which with the +1, gives a result of 18. This is an Excess of 9 more than the roll for the Assassin, indicating that he has been incapacitated—the bolt pierces the Assassin’s wrist, ripping tendons and blood vessels, causing the interloper to cry out in pain and drop his blade as blood pumps from the wound. The other Assassins are alerted to Souran’s attack, but so are the rest of the guards.
 Of course magic lies at the heart of Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk and its approach is to make it fast and flexible. A player  has the freedom to decide the effect, range, duration, number of targets, and so on before making the casting roll for his Sorcerer. Effects can include inflicting damage, boosting the target’s attributes or boosting the effect of an object, restoring a target or object, and summoning a creature. So a Sorcerer might want to blast an enemy with fire, enhance the Strength attribute or Brawling skill of a wrestler, boost a fire into conflagration, and summon a Pegasus to escape or a demon with which to make a bargain. Once these are decided upon, the player makes an appropriate casting roll, a combination of a Control skill—Summon, Destroy, or Shape, and an Element—Mind, Light, Nature, Spirit, Magic, Body, Fire, Air, Water, or Earth. The rules explore each of the thirty combinations. 
So for example, Zarif Rastegari is searching some caves having heard that an ancient Alulim artefact might be found within its depths. Rather than have her companions light torches, the Sorcerer decides draw forth some light. Her player decides that the spell will be Fatiguing (+0), have a range of Self (+0), a duration of one hour (+6), and a ten foot radius (+13). This gives a Target Number of 19 against which Zarif Rastegari’s player must roll a combination of Summon 2 and Light 2 or 4D. 
Once the Target Number is set, all the player needs to do is make the Casting roll. If the roll is successful, the spell succeeds. Otherwise it fails, but on a roll of all ones, a catastrophic spell failure occurs, which means that the Sorcerer might lose his ability to cast magic, knocked out or stunned, or even rip him apart! In general, the more dice rolled in the Casting roll, the worse the catastrophic spell failure occurs is likely to be. Spells can also be combined, so that a Sorcerer can build spell effects. So a Sorcerer not only summon water to impress a tribal chieftain with a Summon + Water Casting roll, but then a Shape + Water Casting roll in order to shape into a fountain or direct its flow. The rules for magic include high magic areas, minor magics and sorcery, limited magic, as well as using spells defensively.

Overall, the magic and sorcery mechanics in Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk are simple and straightforward, but their freeform nature and the freedom they grant in how spells are cast and the effects they have, is not a little daunting. The guidance included helps, but anyone coming to the roleplaying game after playing in fantasy settings where there are set spell lists will still need to make some adjustments and that may impede playing time.

Magic is not the only source of power in Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk. There is also faith. Mechanically, this is represented by a religious character’s Holy Power, essentially a skill possessed by the priesthood by each faith. It is used—or invoked—to add a bonus to other skills rather than as a set of miracles a la the clerical spells of Dungeons & Dragons. If used to so enhance a skill and the skill roll fails, the priest loses his Holy Power until such times as he regain it through prayer and devotion. What this means is that sorcery is very much favoured in Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk and as a result Holy Power is more a sense of personal faith upon the part of any priest rather than drawn from any faith in a deity. This seems to undercut the influence and power of the various faiths and priesthoods in the city of Ur-Turuk and perhaps this aspect could be developed further in supplements for the roleplaying game?

Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk also includes a bestiary and an examination of ancient Alulim artefacts and how a Sorcerer deconstructs them in order draw forth their magic into himself and so improve his magical abilities. This is the only way in which a Sorcerer can improve his magic, though he can improve his mundane skills just the members of his retinue can. Although Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk does not include a scenario, it does include an outline of the opening chapters of a campaign and a discussion of what a Sorcerer and his retinue does on an ongoing basis. The core focus of the game is the conducting of research into the existence and location of Alulim artefacts, mounting an expedition to recover the artefact, and then studying the recovered artefact before breaking it down to extract its magic. This will involve one or more of the Sorcerers, but only the one Sorcerer can study and extract magic from an artefact and this takes a whole season. Major and Minor characters in a Sorcerer’s retinue will aid him in this task, providing support and protection, but whilst this is their primary role, they can also have their own adventures and their own stories. 

Since this is Troupe style play, both the GM and the players can scale up and down their Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk campaign, telling and roleplaying smaller tales with the Minor characters, larger and more heroic stories with the Major characters, and then grander epics with the Sorcerers. So the Minor characters might be involved in small tales in and around the Vahnam; the Major characters in going out and interacting with the city of Ur-Turuk, advising the Sorcerers, and then accompanying them on their expeditions; and the Sorcerers in research, expeditions, and working on artefacts as well as the politics and life of Ur-Turuk. Since each player has three Minor and three Major characters to choose from—and he is expected to switch back and forth between them—he will not only always have a character to bring into the current storyline and situation, he will also be constantly called upon to exercise his roleplaying skill.

Unfortunately, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk does not feel quite complete. True, it includes everything that the GM needs to run the game and that the players need to play the game, but the setting itself feels underdeveloped. Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk is meant to be inspired by ancient Persia and that does not quite come across. It feels Middle Eastern rather than specifically Persian. Further, whilst there is a reasonable amount of background on the city of Ur-Turuk, certainly enough for the GM to work with in the initial stages of his campaign, beyond its walls, there is virtually nothing given, which is an issue since this is where the Sorcerers and their retinues are going to be going on expeditions.

Physically, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk is a well presented, full colour hardback. It feels as if it could be better organised—there is a lot of information in terms of the mechanics and the background to get through before the reader gets to the mechanics for character generation. The artwork varies in quality, some of it very good and nicely capturing the exoticism of the setting, much of it good, but some of it somewhat scrappy in quality. Overall, it is handsome book.

Mechanically and conceptually, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk does not feel like an original roleplaying game. The d6 System is a tried and tested set of mechanics and Troupe-style play is a tried and tested campaign set-up and so will be familiar to many. The combination is more than effective though, the d6 System being simple and fast, the combat mechanics adding a brutality to the game, whilst the Troupe-style play adds roleplaying opportunities aplenty. Both sit well in the interesting setting of Ur-Turuk where a campaign can start, but not really go beyond the city walls. Ultimately, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk promises much, but its setting really needs to be fleshed out and further developed if it is going deliver the full potential of Troupe-style play.


—oOo—

Arion Games will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 2nd and June 4th, 2017 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.