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Friday 24 December 2021

[Free RPG Day 2021] Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power

Now in its fourteenth year, Free RPG Day in 2021, after a little delay due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday, 16th October. As per usual, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases, which traditionally would have been tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Of course, in 2021, Free RPG Day took place after GenCon despite it also taking place later than its traditional start of August dates, but Reviews from R’lyeh was able to gain access to the titles released on the day due to a friendly local gaming shop and both Keith Mageau and David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3 in together sourcing and providing copies of the Free RPG Day 2020 titles. Reviews from R’lyeh would like to thank all three for their help.


For Free RPG Day 2021, EDGE Studio offered Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power. This is a quick-start for Embers of the Imperium, the roleplaying game based on Twilight Imperium, the classic ‘4x’ (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) board game. It uses the Genesys Narrative Dice System—first seen in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Third Edition—but ultimately derived from the original Doom and Descent board games. Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power comes with everything necessary to play—an explanation of the rules, four pregenerated characters, and an exciting, action-packed scenario for the Game Master to run. What it does not come with is dice and the fact that both the Genesys Narrative Dice System and Embers of the Imperium—and therefore Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power—use propriety dice is a small problem. Not an insurmountable one, but a small problem, nonetheless. Fortunately, EDGE Studio has made available a Genesys Dice App free to download which will alleviate that problem unless one or of the players lacks a mobile device.

Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power opens with a rules summary. The core mechanic requires a player to roll a pool of dice to generate successes and should the roll generate enough successes, his character succeeds in the action being attempted. The complexity comes in the number of dice types and the number of symbols that the players need to keep track of. On the plus side, a player will be rolling Ability dice to represent his character’s innate ability and characteristics, Proficiency dice to represent his skill, and Boost dice to represent situational advantages such as time, assistance, and equipment. On the negative side, a player will be rolling Difficulty dice to represent the complexity of the task being undertaken, Challenge dice if it is a particularly difficult task, and Setback dice to represent hindrances such as poor lighting, difficult terrain, and lack of resources. Ability and Difficulty dice are eight-sided, Proficiency and Challenge dice are twelve-sided, and Boost and Setback dice are six-sided.

When rolling, a player wants to generate certain symbols, whilst generating as few as possible of certain others. Success symbols will go towards completing or carrying out the task involved, Advantage symbols grant a positive side effect, and Triumph symbols not only add Successes to the outcome, but indicate a spectacularly positive outcome or result. Failure symbols indicate that the character has not completed or carried out the task, and also cancel out Success symbols; Despair symbols count as Failure symbols indicate a spectacularly negative outcome or result, and cancel out Triumph symbols; and Threat symbols grant a negative side effect and cancel out Advantage symbols. Only Success and Failure results indicate whether or not a character has succeeded at an action—the effects of the Advantage, Triumph, Despair, and Threat symbols come into play regardless of whether the task was a success or not. Task difficulties range from one Difficulty die for easy tasks up to five for Formidable tasks, and in addition, certain abilities enable dice to be upgraded or downgrade, so an Ability die to a Proficiency die or a Challenge die down to a Difficulty die.

In general, the dice mechanics in the Genesys Narrative Dice System—and thus, Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power—are straightforward enough despite their complexity. They are perhaps a little fiddly to assemble and may well require a little adjusting to, especially when it comes to narrating the outcome of each dice roll.

Combat is more complex. Initiative is handled by a skill roll—using Cool or Vigilance, and attack difficulties by range and whether or not the combatants are engaged in melee combat. Damage is inflicted as either Strain, Wounds, or Critical Injuries. Strain represents mental and emotional stress, Wounds are physical damage, as are Critical Injuries, but they have a long effect that lasts until a Player Character receives medical treatment. When a Player Character suffers more Wounds than his Wound Threshold, he suffers a Critical Injury, and when he suffers Strain greater than his Strain Threshold, he is incapacitated. The various symbols on the dice can be spent in numerous ways in combat to achieve an array of effects. So a Triumph symbol or enough Advantage symbols could inflict a Critical Injury, allow a Player Character to perform an extra manoeuvre that round, and so on, whilst Threat and Failure symbols inflict Strain on a Player Character, three Threat symbols could be spent to knock a Player Character prone, and so on. Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power includes a table of options for spending Advantage, Triumph, Threat, and Despair in combat, as well as a table of critical Injury results. It does not, however, include a table for spending Advantage, Triumph, Threat, and Despair out of combat—a disappointing omission for anyone wanting to do a bit more with their character’s skills. That said, the Game Master should be able to adjust some of the options on the table to non-combat situations.

Lastly, the rules in Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power cover NPCs and Story points. Apart from nemesis-type NPCs, most NPCs treat any Strain they suffer as equal to Wounds, and Minions work together as a group. In Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power, there are two pools of Story Points—one for the Player Characters, one for the GM. They can be used to upgrade a character’s dice pool or the difficulty of a skill check targeting a character—NPC or Player Character in either case, or to add an element or aspect to the ongoing story. The clever bit is that when a Story Point is spent, it does not leave the game, but is shifted over to the pool of Story Points. So if the Game Master spends a Story Point to increase the difficulty of a Player Character’s Perception check to determine the motives of an NPC, she withdraws it from her own Game Master pool of Story Points and adds it to the players’ pool of Story Points. As a game proceeds and Story Points are spent and move back and forth, it adds an elegant narrative flow to the mechanics and will often force the players to agonise whether they should spend a Story Point or not as they know it is going to benefit the Game Master and her NPCs before it comes back to them.

A character in Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power has six characteristics—Agility, Brawn, Cunning, Intellect, Presence, and Willpower, plus a range of skills from Charm, Computers, and Cool to Ranged (attacks), Skulduggery, and Vigilance, as well as range of special abilities. The four pre-generated Player Characters include a reptilian Xxcha, an overly optimistic liaison who carries an antique Lazax grav-mace; a Human Orbital Drop Soldier with a dislike of the L1Z1X; a curious Hylar Field Scholar who travels in an exosuit which enables him to survive out of water; and a Hacan Wayfarer merchant captain looking to restore her family fortune and is an expert negotiator with word and gun. All four Player Characters are nicely presented in a busy, but easy to access character sheet which gives a clear explanation of the character background, roleplaying notes, skills, equipment, abilities, and so on—plus each comes with a decent illustration of the character. Of note, each Player Character has an agenda, for example, the Hylar Field Scholar’s requirement to record and gather all data and samples they can of new or archaic technologies. There are boxes throughout the scenario which inform the Game Master when each of the Player Characters has an opportunity to fulfil their agenda, and notably, it is not up to the player to remember to bring it into play, but rather that the Game Master should remind the player. As such, there is no benefit in game to fulfilling an agenda, but it does provide roleplaying opportunities and motivation, and provides a chance for each player to showcase his character.

The setting for Twilight Imperium and thus for Embers of the Imperium and Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power, is a space opera in a vast, sprawling galaxy. For twenty thousand years, the galaxy prospered under the Lazax Empire, governed by a Galactic Council which gave everyone a voice. Both the Lazax and the empire would be destroyed in a series of wars that would culminate in the bombardment of Mecatol Rex, glittering throne world of the Lazax and the seat of Council, by the reviled Mahact Kings. The subsequent Twilight Wars lasted for millennia, but more recently, the great galactic powers have come together—warily, and established a Galactic Council amidst the ruins of Mecatol City. There is peace, measured diplomacy, and careful co-operation, but in a new age when the members of the councils do not yet fully trust each other, there remain threats which would return the galaxy to chaos once more—the L1Z1X Mindnet, Vuil’Raith Cabal, Mahact Gene-Sorcerers, and Nekro Virus. In response, the Galactic Council established the Keleres, an agency dedicated to dealing with threats larger than any one faction can effectively deal with. Though dedicated to the safety of the galaxy, the Keleres is dependent on the factions for support and resources, as well as for its members—also known as Keleres—and most of them have to answer to their sponsors as well as the agency. The Player Characters are of course, members of the Keleres.

The scenario in the quick-start, ‘Ashes of Power’, sends the Keleres to Herool’s Truce, a tidally locked world which has only regained contact with the rest of galaxy in recent years and from where a Keleres informant has reported the possible discovery of unknown, Imperial-era technology and the presence of unsanctioned L1Z1X agents. There they are to investigate the possible disappearance of the informant, confirm the discovery of the ancient technology, and if they do, prevent it from falling into the hands of the L1Z1X agents. It sounds a simple enough mission, but the Player Characters will need to find the ship they have been assigned, get to the planet, deal with it bureaucracy, follow up on a rumour or two, all before facing off against the cybernetically enhanced L1Z1X agents. Divided into three acts, in the first act, the Player Characters will be briefed about their mission and find their ship; in the second, they will conduct their investigation on Herool’s Truce; whilst in the third, they will confront the L1Z1X team and discover whether or not the rumours of ancient technology are true. The scenario takes its time to help the Game Master, clearly indicating skills necessary and their possible outcomes, as well as presenting numerous ways in which the Keleres can approach the mission. They can be open about it with the local authorities, they can try and avoid getting the authorities involved, and although there are numerous opportunities for combat and conflict, with many of them, the scenario also suggests other ways of dealing with the situations. Along the way, there are opportunities for each of the Player Characters to fulfil their personal agendas and explore an interesting world which has been cut off from the rest of the galaxy for centuries and consequently has an interesting society and geography. There are lots of chances to roleplay too, which is helped by the succinctly done backgrounds for each of the Player Characters. 

The scenario concludes with notes as to what happens next. This takes into account the fact that the Player Characters might not succeed or might even side with the L1Z1X agents! There are consequences to both outcomes as well as their being successful, and these could play out should the Game Master continue with an Embers of the Imperium campaign. In addition, the PDF version of Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power comes with support that includes two extra Player Characters, their agendas, and extra encounters for the scenario’s third act. Also included is a map—which was not in the Free RPG Day release. The extras increase the number of players possible or character choices available.

Physically, Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power is as nicely done as you would expect from the publisher. It is well written, the full artwork is good, and the sample Player Characters are excellent. If there is a downside perhaps it is that few of the NPCs are illustrated, and there are no maps or illustrations of the world of Herool’s Truce, both of which would have helped the Game Master portray the world for her players.

Ultimately, if there is an issue with Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power, it is that it uses the Genesys Narrative Dice System and that does take some adjusting to. Get past that though, and Twilight Imperium: Ashes of Power offers up not just a solid introduction to the system, but a thoroughly entertaining and exciting introduction to Embers of the Imperium with a really good scenario and some nicely done pre-generated Player Characters. 

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