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Sunday 24 November 2019

Your Own Tales of a Thousand and One Nights

After Monsters & Magic Roleplaying Game and Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space, the third roleplaying game from Mindjammer Press is Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked: Fantasy Roleplaying in a World of Arabian Nights, Argonauts, and Adventure!. Originally published in French by Studio Deadcrows, it is a roleplaying game inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, Greek mythology, and Crusader legends. The Capharnaüm of the title is a land at the centre of the ‘The Known World’, lying on the Jazirat peninsula, the meeting point for many trade routes, making it the strategic target for numerous powers over the last five millennia. These include the Agalanthian city states to the north whose leaders can only dream of the world-spanning empire they once were, whilst beyond them the barbarian tribes of Krek’kaos on the cold Northern Steppes cut through the mountains to regularly raid the warm and sunny lands to the south. Great trade in silks and spices from the east with Nir Manel and Asijawi have made the merchants of the Jazirat peninsula wealthy. The south, dominated by the dangerous Southern Seas, remains the province of only the maddest of sailors and criminals with nothing to lose. To the west, the worshippers of the Quartered God—the Quarterian nations—prepare their next Crusade of the Knights of the Quarter, whilst the continent of Al-Fariq’n jealously guards its secrets.

It is said that in the world of Capharnaüm the gods inspire both men and women, even said to have walked amongst them in ages past, but since the dawn of time, they have sent their agents, the dragons to watch over over men and women. They do more than that though, marking out those who have the potential to become great warriors and warchiefs, philosophers and thinkers, explorers, heroes, lovers, and more, to become the divine agents of the gods. Such men and women are born with the birthmark of a dragon’s claw upon their backs and so are known as the Dragon-Marked. This mark gives them great powers and potential, the ability to draw upon the stars themselves—known as Lighting Up a Constellation, but six centuries ago, the Dragon-Marked stopped being born. Only in the last few decades have the Dragon-Marked begun to appear again. It these Dragon-Marked that the players will roleplaying in Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked: Fantasy Roleplaying in a World of Arabian Nights, Argonauts, and Adventure!

A character or Dragon-Marked in Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked is defined first by his Blood, three heroic virtues—Bravery, Faith, and Loyalty, his Heroism, five attributes—Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence and Charisma, and which of eight archetypes he favours—Adventurer, Labourer, Poet, Prince, Rogue, Sage, Sorcerer, or Warrior. The three heroic virtues are rated between one and six, as are the five attributes, whilst Heroism is equal to the average of the three heroic virtues. A character will also have a number of skills, again ranked between one and six, gained from his Blood and the archetypes.

His Blood are his tribe and clan into which he was born or raised. The Hassanids, the Salifah, and the Tarekid make up the three Great tribes, and then there are Tribes of the Shiradim , the Agalanthian City States, and the Quarterian Kingdoms, each of which consists of three different clans. Now whilst the Great Tribes are the equivalent of the Arabic peoples of Capharnaüm, and the  Tribes of the Shiradim its Jewish people, the Agalanthian City States its Greeks, and the Quarterian Kingdoms, its Crusaders, these are not intended as exact parallels of own history. Rather they are fantastical versions designed for background and culture rather than as a source of bigotry and prejudice. This is something that the roleplaying game flags early on, making clear that the heroes or Dragon-Marked are beyond such attitudes.

Each of the setting’s eighteen clans gives attribute and skill bonuses as well as a path, a discipline that the character follows. This can be training, a school, a sorcerous college, mystical tradition, and so on, but is a discipline rather than a character’s occupation.  The character does not have to follow this path, but may instead rebel and study a path connected to his clan, but not of his clan. For example, those from the Clan of Yussef, Servant of Salif who follow the Path of The Saffron Dunes are merchants with great skill at Unctuous Bargaining when their constellation is lit up; those of the Tribe of Ashkenim of the Shiradim are elite warriors who follow the Path of the Red Lions of Shirad gain greater results when they Light up a Constellation and they enter a mystical trance; and the Occidentia of the Quarterian Kingdoms who follow the Path of the Occidentian academy of the Order of the Temple of Sagrada, are knight monks who gain a bonus to their combat skills or Sacred Word skill when they Light up a Constellation.

To create a character, a player selects a Blood, a Clan, and a Path, which will give the character his first path ability. Ten are divided amongst the three heroic virtues, which are then averaged to determine the value of his Heroism virtue. Six points are divided amongst the five attributes. Then instead of simply picking one of the eight eight archetypes, the player ranks according to how he sees his character. The first five grant bonuses to various skills. There is an elegance to making this choice, a means of the player signalling and emphasising the type of character he wants to play in the roleplaying game. A player also some free points to assign and lastly, rolls on the legends table to create dramatic background and storytelling aspects to the character. Lastly, the player answers some questions about the character’s involvement in recent events and determines his wealth and possessions.  The process is not complex, but it does take a little time as a player works through the various steps and it is supported by a good example.

Our sample character is Muhdati Sala, a thief and former street rat who defended Capharnaüm against the Quarterians on the Holy Crusade to retrieve the Mirabilus Reliquiae—the holy relic of Jason’s skull, the Quartered God—not out of loyalty to the kingdom, but of his band of thieves and the peoples who would suffer under the invasion. The leader of his band directed raids and guerrilla actions against the invaders. Towards the end of the war, he was captured and taken as prisoner. Whilst in gaol he learned to read and write and even compose poetry from a fellow prisoner. Since his escape and his long journey home, he has begun to look beyond being a mere thief.

Name: Muhdati Sala
Blood: The Children of the Souk
Path: Path of Aziz, Servant of Salif

Heroic Virtues
Bravery 4 Faith 2 Loyalty 5
Heroism 3

Strength 2 Constitution 2 Dexterity 4 Intelligence 2 Charisma 3

Skills: Acting 2, Assassination 3, Athletics 1, Charm 2, Combat Training 2, Command 1, Elegance 1, Endurance 1, Fighting 2, Flattery 2, Intimidate 1, Intrusion 6, Music 2, Oratory 2, Poetry 3, Prayer 1, Riding 1, Save Face 1, Stealth 5, Storytelling 2, Survival 1, Thievery 5, Unctuous Bargaining 3, Willpower 2

Hit Points: 20
Soak: 5
Maximum Initiative: 3
Passive Defence: 11

Path Ability: Light up constellation on difficulty 9 INT + Thievery to recruit Charisma✕Loyalty henchmen

Archetypes: The Rogue, The Poet, The Adventurer, The Prince, The Warrior, The Sage, The Labourer, The Sorcerer

Legends: Crossed the lands of the Djinn unarmed to prove your love; of distant Hassanid origin; escaped from a terrible prison; read an original great manuscript owned by a thespian; fought a demon in astral space; the Muses whisper in my ear

Equipment: City clothing (three outfits), lockpicks, khanjar, jambiya

Mechanically, Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked uses six-sided dice in a ‘roll and keep’ similar to that of Legend of the Five Rings, Fourth Edition. Typically, to undertake an action, a character’s player typically rolls a number of dice equal to an attribute plus a skill and keeps the best results equal to the attribute, with the total ideally being equal to or greater than a difficulty set by the Al-Rawi—as the Game Master is known. An Average difficulty is nine, Difficult is twelve, Heroic is fifteen, and so on. So for example, if Muhdati Sala wanted to cut a purse from a passing wealthy merchant, his player would make a skill roll of ‘difficulty 9 DEX + Thievery’. Which would be roll nine dice (Dexterity plus Thievery) and keep five (Dexterity). One of the dice should be different colour. This is the Dragon Die and when a six is rolled on that die, a player can roll it again and again as long as it keeps rolling sixes. Another way to modify the difficulty of a task is to increase or decrease the number of dice a player rolls.

Managing to roll and beat the difficulty number only determines if the character has succeeded, not how well he succeeded. To determine that, the player looks the dice results which did not go towards the successful roll. Results of two or more generate points of Magnitude, a measure of how well the character succeeded if the roll was a success or how badly he failed if not. Generate six or more points of Magnitude and the character has achieved either a critical success or a critical failure. When determining success and Magnitude, the player can choose to keep the Dragon Die and count it towards his success or not keep it and use to add more Magnitude. 

A player can increase the Magnitude before rolling by having his character swagger. When a character does this, his action is done with great bravado, but the player reduces the number of dice he keeps and so actually making the task more difficult, but increasing the number of unkept dice, which generates more Magnitude. These extra unkept dice are known as Swagger dice. Of course, if the roll is failed, the order of Magnitude towards the failure is even greater.

Lastly, if a player rolls three or more dice with the same result, he is said to Light up a Constellation and have activated a Path ability. These results can come from either the kept or the unkept dice. Alternatively, a player can use points from his character’s favoured Virtue to Light up a Constellation.
For example, Muhdati Sala has spotted a mark in the Souk, a merchant accompanied by a bodyguard. The merchant appears to be carrying a heavy purse on his belt. The  Al-Rawi sets the difficulty at Difficult or twelve. So this will be a skill roll of ‘difficulty 12 DEX + Thievery’. Muhdati Sala’s player would roll nine dice (Dexterity plus Thievery) and keep five (Dexterity), but decides to make two of them Swagger dice. This means he is rolling seven dice and keeping three. The results are 3, 5, 5, 5, 5, 6, and 6 on the Dragon Die. He rolls the Dragon Die again and gets another 6 and another 6 and another 6, and lastly a 2. This means that if he kept the Dragon Die and the best results, he would keep 5 and 6, and then 26 on the Dragon Die for a grand total of 37. Which is definitely a success.
However, the player wants to find out how well Muhdati did and looks at generating as much Magnitude as he can. He already has two Magnitude from the Swagger dice. He decides to switch the result of the Dragon Die to unkept dice because results of six generate two Magnitude, though only the first six counts, not the rerolls. This means that he keeps the 5, 5, and 6, which still generates a result of 16 and a success. It means that he has the 3, 5, and 5 from the roll which generate a point of Magnitude each, plus the two from the Swagger dice and the two from the Dragon Die, which gives a grand total of six Magnitude and a critical success. Lastly, there were four fives in the roll, so Muhdati Sala’s Constellation is lit up and so he has fifteen henchmen ready to help him…
So in this instance, Muhdati Sala does not so much sneak up on the merchant, but exaggerates the sneaking in a fashion that everyone else in the souk can see but not the merchant and his bodyguard. With a quick slice of the khanjar, Muhdati cuts the purse free from the merchant, and with a wide grin in front of everyone pockets a few coins before grabbing the rest and throwing it up in the air to the delight of the urchins which stream into grab the coins and cover his escape.
There is a cleverness to these mechanics, the Swagger dice in particular fitting the genre, but they there is no denying that they are not as elegant and are perhaps too stolid for the type of action-orientated, heroic style of play that Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked and its genre calls for. Extracting not one, but three pieces of information from the one dice roll and then having to work out the arithmetic of the success, the Magnitude, and the constellation is neither quick nor intuitive. It is also not easy to teach, so more than most roleplaying games, it takes time to get players to the point where they will work through these steps unassisted.

Combat uses the same mechanics, with initiative rolled for each round, and combatants allowed two actions per round, such as attack, defend, parry, cast a spell, and so on, whilst Brutal Attacks and Charging take both actions. The Combat Training skill can be used at the start of a fight to grant a character bonus dice equal to the Magnitude, and really skilled fighters can use two weapons. Damage is reduced by a character’s armour and Soak value, but should a character lose half of his Hit Points in a single attack, then he suffers a major wound. The combat system is designed to be both cinematic and heroic in nature though and to that end includes a couple of nice touches. One is that player characters do not involuntarily kill NPCs. Instead their players have to declare that they are delivering a coup de grâce. There is even an optional ‘Epitaph Rule’ which encourages a player to deliver a panche-filled phrase when dispatching a foe! The other is that opponents are graded according to the threat they represent and are treated slightly differently in combat. So Babouche-Draggers are the mooks of Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked and fight as groups, but are quickly vanquished, Valiant Captains are henchmen and are automatically eliminated from a fight with a critical success on an attack, and Champions are the major villains—infamous knights, princes of thieves, evil vizirs, and even fellow Dragon-Marked, who use the same combat rules as player characters. 

To be even more heroic, a character has access to three Heroic Virtues and his Heroism Virtue. They can be gained for intense roleplaying in keeping with the Virtue and lost for intense roleplaying against the Virtue, as well as actions such as saving another’s life, dedicating a poem to the gods, lying to save your skin, and letting someone disparage your gods without encouraging them to repent. The primary use of Virtue is to Light up a Constellation and activate one of a character’s Path ability, but higher Virtues grant an increased Heroism and that has more uses—to consult the Stones of Fate which enable the character to modify the narrative slightly, to make a double attack, to avoid a major wound, to avoid environmental and encumbrance penalties, and so on. What this means is that the more a player roleplays his character in keeping with the Virtues, the greater his Heroism and the more chances the character gets to be heroic.

As with everything else in Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked, Terpsichore, or magic and sorcery, is treated differently according to the culture. Agalanthian Chiromancers bake their spells into clay tablets which can be broken later to cast the spell, Jazirati or Saabi Al-Kimyati manipulate the alchemy of word and art, the Shiradi Sephirim practice a purely spoken form of sorcery, the Quartarian Thaumaturgists practice miracles rather than sorcery. Although several examples of Saabi workings, Shiradi covenants, and Quartarian miracles are included as examples, mechanically, in Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked magic is designed to be freeform, primarily improvised by the player who decides on a spell’s outcome, the Magnitude of a Scared Word skill roll determining the spell’s duration, range, number of targets, and so on. In the case of Chiromancy, the roll is made when the tablet is broken in order to find out how well the spell was baked into it. The basis of the magic is formed by three verbs—Create, Destroy, and Transform—and by learning elements such as Agility, Will, Sand, Proof, and more, which a sorcerer can incorporate into his magic, he can create a wider range of effects.

There is plenty of rich theme and flavour to this magic system and no doubt, there are players who will relish the opportunities for improvisation and flavour it offers. The improvisational nature means that a player should also keep notes about the spells his character has cast, literally creating his own spellbook! The system though is not going to suit everyone though, and in some players hands, it has, like the rest of the system, the potential to slow game system down as decisions are made and the aim of any one spell discussed.

As much flavour as there is in the mechanics, Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked, the setting comes alive in ‘The World of Capharnaüm’, a lengthy exploration of Capharnaüm and its five millennia old history. It opens with a series of beautiful maps of the various regions before going to present each of the cultures, nations, and peoples in no little depth. There is a wealth of detail here in what takes up of over a third of the core rulebook, indeed a surprising amount given that there is enough here to take up a whole supplement of its own. It is followed by ‘Al-Rawi’s Guide to Capharnaüm’, not just advice on running the roleplaying game, but exploring some of secrets and the signature elements of the fantasy of Arabia and One Thousand and One Nights. So it looks at the Djinn and Mirages, then Agalanthian Ruins left by their many invasions, and the gods of Capharnaüm. It includes a good set of monsters and adversaries, including animated statues and skeletons, Chimera, Djinn, Ghul, Golem, Roc, and more, all feeling as if drawn from the best of Ray Harryhausen’s filmography. Lastly, there is a look at the danger of magic and some of the setting’s secrets.

Physically, Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked is a stunning hardback book, drawn from an artist’s palette of sun-drenched rich browns, oranges, and ochres enlivened by sparkling blues and other colours. Some of the artwork is perhaps a little cartoonish, but all of it captures the fantastic and fantasy nature of this world of Arabian adventure. The writing in general is also good, though slightly odd in places, an issue with the translation in the main.

Tonally, it should be noted that being a translation of a French roleplaying game, Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked does deal with mature subjects, obviously differing faiths, but also sexuality, for example, the Path of Mimun enables its followers, known as Paper Virgins, to extract the heroic essence from they make love to. That said, the tone is never salacious, but always mature and measured, and the roleplaying game’s artwork is of a similar nature.

Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked does lack a scenario. This is really its only omission and really, there is such a great deal of background to Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked that the Al-Rawi should be able to develop something of her own. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting to what a scenario for this roleplaying game looks like and perhaps what the designer had in mind.

Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked is a rich, deep, and enthralling treatment of Arabian myth, fantasy, and adventure, evoking the films of Ray Harryhausen. It aspires to be cinematic—and it can be—but the mechanics, though clever, are an impediment to achieving that, presenting prospective players with a steep learning curve in order to be comfortable enough with the mechanics for it to be cinematic. Overcome that, and Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked: Fantasy Roleplaying in a World of Arabian Nights, Argonauts, and Adventure! is a fantastic fantasy, all ready and waiting for the players to make their Dragon-Marked the legends of Capharnaüm.

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