Company/Publisher: Blacksburg Tactical Research Center
Page count: 48
ISBN: 0-943891-33-7 Capsule Review by Elliot Rushing on 10/18/97. Genre tags: none
Author: Greg Porter
Company/Publisher: Blacksburg Tactical Research Center
Page count: 48
Perhaps I should start by indicating what this review isn't. It is not the result of extensive playtesting, nor is it the result of extensive personal scrutiny. I have read through the material twice, and have come away with enough impressions to allow me to feel comfortable writing a capsule review. There, I've come clean. On with the review.
Epiphany is Blacksburg Tactical Research Center’s foray into the “new” (OK, it’s not new *now*) world of “rules-light” gaming. After striking out successfully (at least in terms of design) with the CORPS system, Greg Porter tackles the dark, mysterious world of mystical Atlantis with Epiphany. A very important point which must be made early is that Epiphany is designed to present a gaming structure for development by the game master -- it is not intended to be a complete game, a la GURPS or AD&D. Mr. Porter’s intent was to present gamer-submitted material based on the Epiphany setting and rules on BTRC’s web site for universal consumption, thus “growing” the game as an internet effort. His success to date has been mixed.
General comments first: the font selections in this book are annoying in that they’re a bit heavy on the eyes for lengthy reading, but the layout is clean (white backgrounds!) and the artwork, while workmanlike, is professional, although perhaps slightly weighted toward the nearly-bare-busted adventuring ladies of gaming yore. Due, I’m sure, to budgeting concerns, the book is printed in black and white, aside from a blue cover, which is simply designed and well done. There is no index; in fact, there is no title page or table of contents, either, but, hey, it’s only 48 pages.
After a slightly (though unintentionally) annoying, though apparently required, bit of fictional introduction, the author moves directly into describing the geography and history of Atlantis and its sister states, Lemuria and Mu. Here’s where things get a bit more interesting. These nations (which together comprise “Hyperborea” -- yes, all the names sound quite familiar) are huddled around the entrance to the “Hollow Earth,” an inner-sphere world, heated by the “inner sun,” peopled by barbarians. Lest I forget, the entrance to the Hollow Earth is at the South Pole. Yes, you’ve got it, Hyperborea is located in ancient Antarctica.
Porter uses a radial geographical system when describing Hyperborea which is interesting and annoying to use at the same time. The long and short of it is, “in” is North and “out” is South, and the wealthier folks live near the center, poorer folks live out on the fringes, with a rugged no man’s land in the ring between them. The respective countries and cultures are laid out well, and the writing exhibits a great deal of thought and loving care for this setting. The differing cultures use Egyptian, Aztec, Viking, and Asian overtones in a nice mix. The setting’s technology is advanced beyond our own, though practically limited by cultural and economic restrictions (e.g., use of firearms is limited to the ruling class). Magic is used extensively in this setting, and is in fact considered essential -- Porter notes several times in the text that the rulers of Hyperborean kingdoms are all accomplished magicians. So, take ancient Atlantis in a world delimited by ice, mix Jule! s Verne and H.G. Wellsian outlandish scientific wizardry, add a strong dash of sorcery, and you have the basic elements for gaming in the Epiphany setting.
The rules for the setting are interesting and simple, at least in theory. Each character is made unique by a few notable attributes, derived skills, advantages (called “boons”), and disadvantages (called “burdens”). Those attributes which are not specifically mentioned are considered average (a nice touch). Thus, the average player could use an index card as a character sheet, although a nicely-done character sheet is included in the text for photocopy purposes.
True to the “rules-light” context, tasks and contests are resolved using a unique and innovative sort of “rock, paper, scissors’ system” that literally uses the players’ hands -- live-action players may want to check this out. It is nicely done, and Porter includes an alternate dice resolution system for folks (like me) who find it hard to envision a game without dice. Without going into intricate detail (and thus risking reviewer error), the task resolution system is based on abstractions, with attributes, skills, weapons, armor, and so forth giving characters ‘advantages’ which affect the outcome. The more advantages you have, the more likely you’ll succeed. Combat is treated identically to other sorts of task resolutions, with characters and NPCs making the equivalent of the “opposed rolls” seen in other gaming systems.
The magic system is also innovative, with magicians calling up ‘shades’ of beings, items, and monsters to use in battle. Since I haven’t studied the magic system in depth, I won’t comment on its efficacy, save to note that it also uses a system of abstractions and task resolution, as listed above, for combat modifiers, spell modifiers, and other effects. Other reviewers (e.g., Michael Richter) have commented that the magic system is one of the stronger elements of the Epiphany system. I’m not inclined to disagree, but the system, designed as it is for open development, is quite abstracted and open-ended, begging for players and gamemasters to fill in spells and shades, which could be dangerous to game balance if done improperly.
Finally, the Epiphany book ends with a short, de rigeur adventure involving political intrigue and an assassination attempt. The adventure does help to flesh out one of the Atlantean cities a bit, but is otherwise unremarkable.
In sum, I found Epiphany to an enjoyable game to read, well laid out (excepting the absence of a table of contents or an index), with remarkably innovative game mechanics designed to minimize the intrusion of the game rules on the adventure, a noble undertaking. I am, however, of two minds regarding this product. (Am I really? Yes, you are.) The Game system is intriguing, but the setting is not. Admittedly, the author’s intent for others to flesh out the setting is also noble, but it hasn’t happened. Also, the author, despite his obvious love for and careful design of the setting, dampens enthusiasm for me considerably by stating and then reinforcing the setting “fact” that the nations of Hyperborea are ultimately “DOOMED.” This foreshadowing of doom tends to imply, Why bother?, and doesn’t put me in the mood to spend time developing the setting for personal use. Thus, Epiphany is left as a nifty system book, with an outline of a setting included. The closest software! analogy would be, I suppose, a beta product.
My style and substance ratings reflect my misgivings regarding the current reality of lack of player support (at least on the website) for the Epiphany setting. However, at a price of merely $9.95 (less than a meal at a decent family restaurant), the book is worth the cost for the rules alone, and I would especially point LARPers to it to check out. If Mr. Porter reads this review, my advice (as a layman) is to take Epiphany, flesh out the rules and particularly the setting (which has considerable promise) in more traditional terms (say 150 pages or so), and re-release the whole as a second edition. A second edition of Epiphany so designed could well fit a “rules-light” niche for magic and science fantasy adventure in the Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs vein.
Style: 3 (Average)