Copyright © 2002 by Mark Damon Hughes <email@example.com>
Eilfin Publishing <http://www.eilfin.com/> by Adam D. Theriault, Antonio Da Rosa, Phillip Theriault ISBN 0-9688784-0-7 US $29.95/CAN $44.50 Hardcover, 368 pages
There's a little "Quickstart Guide" version of this system and an intro adventure over at <http://www.eilfin.com/> as free PDF files. While it's VERY terse and leaves out most of the character creation system (using skill packages instead), it's playable as-is. If you're still undecided after this review, go try it out.
The book itself is a solid hardcover, with a strong cloth-backed binding. The margins are nice and small and the print is regular size on a plain white background; there are no background images making it impossible to read half the pages, and no fluffing up the page count with inflated fonts. However, there are eye-straining grey-background "Note:" boxes with smaller print, and these often hold important rules. The setting chapter also uses this tinier print, but no grey backgrounds.
There's no index, but there is a detailed table of contents; not only is it standard operating procedure for me to bemoan the lack of an index, but there are several rules which have a bit in one place and a bit in another, so an index would help.
Undiscovered has a running chargen example, which helps quite a lot in getting the gist of the rules quickly. All non-trivial processes have a summary (if there's more than two steps involved, and even the feeblest intellect might get confused, they have an algorithm), and there are 8 pregen characters (plus the chargen example). It's a very newbie-friendly game.
The art throughout is superb. It's all by the same artist, Robert Carlos, and the consistent art style - almost all of which illustrates the text rather than just being random pictures - is a nice change from "clip-art games" or the Vampire Revised effect of cartoony characters on one page, angsty portraits the next. This is one of the best uses of game art I've seen since Jorune or Providence. A few more of the creatures could have used illustrations - I'm still unsure what Kakamoras look like (are they cannibal Fuzzies? Or tribbles? Or rats? Or... what?) - but it's damned good.
The text is very well-edited; there are few obvious typos, and aside from the combat example's strange mix of tenses it uses correct English (Canadian English, but they don't write "eh?" anywhere...)
There are 7 "races" (as usual, these are actually species, but the RPG industry seems stuck with D+D's malapropism), each of whom get an advantage, usually a flashy one:
- Humans ("merely" more skilled; 5% more starting skills, and 10% more skill improvement. Naturally, they also craft superior crossbows or leather armor... um, what? Why?)
- Alfar (Elves, with sharp senses, nightvision, and either an archery bonus or innate spells)
- Dwarves (infravision and an earth elemental power)
- Dusters (shapeshifters who can turn into snakes or lesser dragons)
- Seraphim (wingless "angels" of the dead god of magic, who must choose to either be very fragile but powerful mages, or less fragile but also less magical...)
- Muklags (big, horned, hairy beastmen - Orc equivalents, I suppose, as there are no Orcs in the bestiary)
- Dracomenscs (dragon-men, with wings, tail, scaly hide, breath weapons, and opposable thumbs...)
Each race has a few subraces, and you can also play many of the intelligent "monsters" from the bestiary. The setting chapter mentions Half-Alfar and other crossbreeds, but there are no rules for them. The races are an interesting mix, and nobody's overpowered, but there's little in the way of culture. With the detail present everywhere else, that was a bit disappointing.
There are 8 stats: Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, Spirit, Agility, Dexterity, Charm, and Luck. Each stat is percentile, ranging 15-75 for humans. There are two chargen methods: a point-allocation system (400 points, with a +5 to -5 random adjustment to each stat at the end), and a totally random method (30+5d10 for each stat for humans). Unfortunately, the random method averages 60 points higher than the allocation method; if you don't mind playing what the dice give you, you would always choose the random method.
Each stat has a table of bonuses (now, where have I seen that organization before?). Most are just what you'd expect, but a few bear closer examination.
Endurance determines your hit dice: END 41-60 provides 1d10, and since you start with END/2 Life Points, you'll double your LP in 4.5 levels. Intelligence provides more skill points every level: INT 41-60 provides 10 SP, and since you start with 100 SP, you'll double your skills every 10 levels. So skill points have a much smoother progression than in many games, but while LP aren't on a runaway inflation, they're escalating faster than I'd really like, even in heroic fantasy. Still, at least characters don't start fragile; it's similar to Hero or Palladium's scale.
Spirit determines your learning rate: SPR 41-60 is 60%. You have to roll to be able to improve a skill, after you've paid the skill points. You don't lose the points if you fail the roll, but you do have to wait a level; this takes a lot of the sting out of chance-based skill advancement (one of my Call of Cthulhu characters never once managed to improve any skill except Cthulhu Mythos... Not that I'm bitter about Walter going insane and becoming a Nyarlathotep cultist, oh, no).
Charm determines leadership, negotiation/bartering bonuses, and the number of permanent magic items you can use. What? Well, okay, if that's how it works around here; at least it keeps characters from loading up on the gadgets, though it doesn't apply to potions, scrolls, or charged items. But even if you do want to tie it to a stat, why not Spirit instead? This smacks a bit of trying to get the munchkins to spend points on Charm; it might work, but for entirely the wrong reason, and it won't improve their role-playing (nothing will do that except setting them on fire, and even then they can only role-play a munchkin who's been set on fire; I have proven this through careful and repeated experimentation, email me for videos).
Luck provides combat bonuses, randomly determined on a small table at chargen only. Unfortunately, the only other use of Luck I can find in the rules is if you worship Luxing, the goddess of Luck. Maybe it's just me, but static, reliable bonuses seem inappropriate for Luck. I'd recommend, at the least, adding some non-combat bonuses to the table and rerolling every morning or whenever "omens" of some kind seem to change. More uses of Luck rolls would help, too. As it is, Luck is just a "Badass-Meter".
This is the meat of the system; there are 150 skills, 80 pages of descriptions and rules. You can almost always tell what a game is about just by counting pages: magic comes close, but mostly in Undiscovered you are what you do (and magic is just a special effect of some of the skills).
The task system is just a plain percentile roll. There's a system for opposed tasks (whoever succeeds by more, or at least fails by less, wins), but no result qualities, weird dice tricks (a la Unknown Armies), etc. Those gimmicks can make gameplay much more detailed and more fun as mini-games, but can also be distracting from in-character mode. But since this is a skill-oriented game, not a deep in-character game, I'm slightly disappointed by the lack; even Basic Role-Play (Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer) has non-combat critical successes, let alone Rolemaster and most modern systems.
Characters get a pool of skill points (everyone starts with the same amount) to buy skills with, and gain more skill points every level. You might think you just pay some point cost and you've got the skill, but no, it's not that easy. Skills are rated very strangely. They have a "skill level" of Initiate, Novice, Adept, Expert, or Master (which is non-intuitive to me: Initiate feels more skilled than Novice) which provides new abilities within a skill, and a "proficiency level" of 0 to 5, which just increases bonuses. These are laid out in tables showing the skill point cost and the bonus or chance of success for each combination. Urgh, I'm gonna have to copy one in as an example:
Boxing Skill Level Level Initiate Novice Adept Expert Master 0 Free -> -10 AR 1st 3 -> +1 AR 2nd 5 -> +2 AR 14 -> +4 AR 3rd 8 -> +3 AR 21 -> +6 AR 38 -> +9 AR 4th 11 -> +4 AR 28 -> +8 AR 51 -> +12 AR 80 -> +16 AR 5th 14 -> +5 AR 35 -> +10 AR 64 -> +15 AR 100 -> +20 AR 143 -> +25 AR
The first number is the cost in skill points, the part after the arrow is the bonus. "Level" is the Proficiency Level, and "AR" is Attack Rating, your percentile bonus to hit. It's ugly, but not all that complex, you mostly just pick the best levels you can afford. Many skills have a simplified progression (0 Initiate to 5 Initiate, then 5 Novice to 5 Master, no diagonal combinations), and you cannot buy above Initiate skill level at chargen, anyway. Still, it's unnecessary complication, and leaves the book with many pages of skill tables.
Those caveats aside, the skills are extremely detailed, and almost always give new abilities for each skill level (Initiate, etc.); there's actually new stuff to look forward to in skill development instead of just getting a few percent better. For a long-term campaign especially, this will pay off.
One page. Including alignment (a score from evil -20 to good +20, starting at -3 to +3). Thankfully, alignment just controls reputation, it doesn't dictate behavior; the GMing chapter has a section on adjusting alignment during play, but no penalties for changing. Well, as I said, this is a skill-oriented game, so I can't fault it for being focused.
The equipment chapter has a detailed encumbrance system, many pages of price lists, and descriptions for weapons and armor, but not for equipment. The standard fantasy economy is in force, with 1 gold piece = 10 silver pieces = 100 copper pieces; all fantasy worlds use this economy, just as all alternate history worlds have zeppelins. But there are more rules on encumbrance and money a few pages later, and they really should have been together.
And to think that formerly, Paranoia, 1st Edition was the only game that got away with calling it that. "The Basics" has the rules for long-distance travel (but combat movement is inexplicably hidden in the GMing chapter), money and carrying equipment (which should have been back in the equipment chapter), combat, holy symbols/exorcism (which should have been in the skills chapter with the Holy Symbol skill, or forward in the Miracles chapter...), hazards, and skill/stat contests. Still, all of that is only 11 pages long - a vast relief after my fears of yet another hyper-detailed and unplayable combat system, like in Imagine!
Combat is as simplistic as you can get: you hit if your percentile roll beats your Attack Rating by the target's Defence Rating or more. Damage is a flat die roll (1d6 for a dagger, 1d10+1 for a broadsword, etc.) so you'll have to hack away at a target a bit. There are no detailed wounds, but 01-05 rolls or use of the Critical Strike skill can increase damage. 96-00 rolls are fumbles, making you miss and drop your weapon. Armor increases your DR, and some armors halve some types of damage. If you hit 0 Life Points, you fall unconscious, and a bit below that you die. The Parrying skill provides a chance to avoid damage, and the Roll skill provides a chance to reduce damage. As you might have figured by now, most of the special cases are back in the skills chapter, which is why The Basics is so short.
If you're looking for detailed combat, this is not your game. If you want to get it over with quickly, it's fine; a great many RPGs have flavorless combat systems exactly like this one. I would really have liked at least hit locations and maybe an optional wound chart... But that's a dark and slippery path leading to all sorts of awful systems and only a few good ones, so sticking to a bog-standard hit point system is understandable.
There are four power systems: concoctions, magic, psionics, and miracles.
Concoctions (magic oils, potions, medicines, poisons, and antidotes) can be made by anyone with the right skills, and include detailed ingredient lists:
Before adding any ingredients to an invisibility potion, you must first place 3 small beads of silver in the pot.
Initiate: It takes 6 hours to brew this potion over a small cook fire. Simply boil a pot of pure mountain spring water and mix in the required ingredients: 7 leaves of Lady's Mantle, 1 small diamond, and 2 small pieces of Mandrake root.
[The Initiate-level invisibility potion lasts 5 minutes -Mark]
The ingredients and time required should keep them from throwing game balance, and it's a unique system; the closest I can think of is the potion system in the Might & Magic computer games. The only problem is that the ingredients themselves are not defined or even listed in the equipment prices, so how do players acquire them? In the Quickstart Guide, but not in the main book, there is a listing for "Herbs and roots (to brew 1 oil) 50gp"... Unfortunately, other than that, it seems to be left up to the GM.
Magic has one skill per "Coven" (spell list). The covens are: Truth (detection/divination), Change (transformation), Destruction (attacks), Protection (defenses), Enchantment (summoning/binding, conjuring items, making magic items, and motion control; not the most coherent coven...), and Lies (illusions). Each coven has 10 spells each of Lesser, Regular, and Greater power (making 180 spells), and each increases in power as the mage's skill improves.
You add all of the spell points from all of your coven skills together to determine your total spell points - this is true of psionics and miracles, as well. A starting mage should be able to cast 10 or so low-level spells a day, and can even cast 1 or 2 major spells. After emptying all power, that starting mage will need 2 days to recover fully. How quickly mages will ramp up in power depends on how much of their skill points they put into magic, but it looks like they'll have double starting SP at level 10 or so. Magic recovery rates do not increase, though, so a high-level mage can be worn down by attrition.
There's also a "Disrupted Spell" table used if the mage is even bumped (let alone attacked) during casting; it is very unforgiving to mage, target, disrupter, and anyone unlucky enough to be nearby. Mages apparently have short, unpleasant lives if not cautious.
Psionics are divided into four skills: Telepathic, Telekinetic, Pyrokinetic, and Psychokinetic (leftover powers: emotion control, astral projection, regeneration, sixth sense... why are these all one skill?), each with 27 powers total in Minor, Regular, Major, and Special power levels (making 108 powers). Psionics are reliable, fast, cheap (compared to magic or miracles), and quite powerful. I'd be very careful with these, and maybe not allow them to PCs at all until I was used to the system. A skilled psionic can be nigh-invincible...
Miracles are divided into 11 skills, each with 7 powers (making 77 powers), and each increases in power as the worshipper's skill improves. There are a few interesting ones, but most are prosaic, stock miracles. On the other hand, they seem better balanced than the psionics. The deities of the setting provide a bit more spice; you can only use certain miracle skills depending on your patron god, each has a unique bonus miracle, a holy symbol power, and behavioral requirements. However, they do not have much personality, any mythos, or details on their worship, they need much more expansion.
Experience is level-based but classless. The XP chart is quaint, nay, archaic, but I'll get back to that in a moment. A few pages on, in the GM section, are the experience rules, which confirm the focus of the game on problem-solving and skill use. Combat awards are the least valuable: 10 XP times your level, and everyone who helps in any way in a combat situation gets the reward. Problem-solving, ideas, and avoiding confrontation through skill use are worth 5 times as much as combat, role-playing 2.5 times, and completing an adventure 10 times. There are lesser point rewards for every skill use, every spell you cast, etc. The system actually rewards best the things literary fantasy heroes really do most.
This isn't an absolute guarantee of the players adopting the intended behavior - Palladium's experience system also rewards problem-solving vastly more than combat, but Rifts munchkins still massacre everything that moves, then bitch about how they're not rocketing up in levels, "so can I just kill off my old character and make a new one from Rifts World Book 237: Unkillable Gigadamage Monsters(tm)?" - but it sure helps with mature groups, and can help lead young non-munchkins in the right direction.
What annoys me most about the table is this: the increment to the next level increases every level, but most of the experience rewards are multiplied by your current level, so it should remain evenly paced. So why bother with the table? Why not have fixed XP rewards, and a fixed cost (1000 XP, or whatever) to go up in level? It's not that the levels and table are unplayable or anything - I'm perfectly willing to use 'em in Rolemaster and Palladium - but it's unnecessary obsolete baggage. Older systems can get away with it because we just didn't know better in the Elder Days, but why does a new system have this ridiculous thing?
The GMing chapter starts with an overview of chargen and skill use, a big help for beginning GMs with this system, especially. Alas, the rest is a random collection of notes and rules, many of which should have been in other chapters. Expanding on the encounter design notes would be nice, too, but there's only so much space, I'm sure.
Permanant magic items require practice with a skill (one instance of the skill per item you possess!) to use at all, and the skill must be improved to access more powers in the item; and remember the limit from your Charm stat. The sample items range from trivial to godlike, and there are rules for creating new ones. The system and samples encourage more of a literary fantasy approach to magic items, like Stormbringer, the One Ring, etc., rather than D+D-style armories full of boring +1 swords that you discard when you get a better magic item. Here, you have a strong incentive to keep your magic items, and they grow in power with you.
There is a long small-print history of the world from creation to the present, a detailed overview of the Empire of Vrod, and a detailed guide to the city of Vrod. They crammed quite a lot of material in 14 pages, it's good stuff, most of it has good adventure possibilities, and it doesn't define to death every square inch of the planet (the Empire of Vrod is a teeny little section of the world map). My only complaint about it is that there's a distressing tendency to what I call "die-roll names" - too many letters in them rarely found in English words, and not always pronounceable. But then, Aztec names were like that, too, and I doubt they had dice. "Tezcatlipoca, it's your turn to roll for initiative again..."
There's 50 pages of bestiary. Unlike most FRPGs, Undiscovered is actually usable from just one book. Some of the beasties are unique, like the Amphipteres (birdlike lesser dragons). Others are, um, not so unique, like the metallic-colored Good Dragons and chromatic Malignant Dragons; those are amazingly familiar, now, where have I seen them before? Each entry has full attributes, a description, ecology notes, combat notes, and special abilities.
As I mentioned in Races above, you can use quite a few intelligent "monster" species as PCs, or as skilled NPCs. Heh. Wait 'till those bastard players have to keep my 10th level Goblin adventuring party from "town crawling" their village...
In all, this is an excellent FRPG. It's not revolutionary by any means, but never claims to be (and what a nice change that is from the usual "We are God's Own Bollocks! Lick us, we're tasty!" announcements, as with SenZar, Synnibarr, Imagine, and any game by John Wick, in decreasing order of worthiness). There are no game-breaking flaws, and much to commend in it. Character creation is not fast, but neither is it the accountant's wet dream of Rolemaster chargen. Combat could use a little more detail, but it's fast and simple. With the pregen characters, you could teach someone everything they need to know in less than 10 minutes (20 minutes with the skill sets from the Quickstart Guide), and start playing. And yet experienced characters aren't gods; even high-level characters won't have enough skill points to do everything well.
I'm giving it a 4/5 for style (1 point off for no index, but otherwise an almost perfect presentation), and 4/5 for substance (2 points off for having no result qualities, a flavorless combat system, that silly level chart, and the few other minor flaws, but 1 point back for being complete, and not split into 2-4 books).
Last modified: 2002Jan17