Children of the Sun
Children of the Sun Playtest Review by Mike Zebrowski on 08/01/03
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
It is a fantasy world with duct tape.
Product: Children of the Sun
Author: Ross, Grenfell, Gray, and Pollak
Company/Publisher: Misguided Games
Line: Children of the Sun
Page count: 350
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Mike Zebrowski on 08/01/03
Genre tags: Fantasy
I apologize for such a long review. However, Children of the Sun is a massive and dense book. There are a lot of concepts to explain and comment upon. It is also an expensive book, both in terms of money and time. This is not a game that you pick up on Monday and start running the following weekend. My goal is to present enough factual information and personal observation in hopes that it will aid the reader in determining if this game is for them.
For what it is worth, at the time of this writing, I am running two ongoing campaigns with 6 players apiece.
Children of the Sun
Children of the Sun (CoTS) is an RPG set in the fantasy world of Raevich. It is a setting that that mixes magic and technology to produce a bizarre fusion that is reminiscent of the United States in the 1920's mixed in with post-WW2 optimism, Victorian era exploration, and assorted fantasy trappings such as magical spells and non-human races.
CoTS also sports its own custom rules known as the Token System. It is a rather involved system that has a high learning curve. The primary goal of the system is not speed, but keeping all the players involved in a combat even when it is not their turn. There are even rules for social interaction that nicely bridge the gap between simply making skill checks and actual role playing. The Token System uses all the standard types of dice and lots of them. It is best to have at least two different colors of dice while playing.
Physically, the CoTS rule book is very attractive. It is a hard cover book that is just over 350 pages long. It sports a full color cover on the outside with black, white, and blue text along with several color plates on the inside. One the inside of the covers are full color maps. On the inside of the front cover is a map of Krace, the main island of the setting. On the inside of the back cover is a map of the Known World. Neither map has a scale listed on it. The authors have stated that the Krace map is 1" = 100 miles and the World map is 1" = 800 miles.
The book has an extensive table of contents and index. Also included are two lists of all the Techniques (spells) used in the game. One list is alphabetical and the other is by Technique rank (level). As there are over 600 Techniques spanning over 60 page, these lists are extremely useful to have.
Overall the artwork is quite good; however, there are several pieces that only look good with a cursory glance as close inspection will reveal problems with proportion. Another problem with the artwork is that it is composed primarily of character shots. There are very few pictures of what the environment looks like.
The text is laid out in a two column format for most of the book. It switches to three columns when listing the various Techniques. Most of the text is black on white with blue being uses to highlight tables and headings, a technique that works very well. The only complaint about the text is the choice of font. In the font that was used, the number one looks like the letter I. While a minor nit, it can catch the first time reader off guard and lead to confusion in certain sections of the book.
The quality of writing is a mixed bag. The words that appear in the book are written in a clear and straight forward manner. The problem lies in what was not written or edited out. Often times an important concept will be mentioned only once. Given the length of the book and the complexity of the rules, it is easy to overlook a particular concept and it is often a pain to located it later on as it might not be in the spot where the reader would expect it to be. Compounding this problem is the relative lack of examples. While there are some examples, there are many sections of the rules would greatly benefit with the inclusion of additional examples. At the other end of the spectrum, there is information that is mentioned, but not in the book. For example, the Herbal Healing skill mentions that the difficulty number for using the skill to forage for medicinal plants is based off of the environment, but nowhere are these difficulty numbers detailed. Fortunately, this type of gaff is rather rare.
Related to the quality of writing is the organization of the book or the lack there of. The information is simply not as organized as it could be. For example, the section on melee combat maneuvers is not found in the section on melee combat but in it own section that appears after ranged combat. Rules for leaping and falling are not found in the movement section of the combat chapter, but instead are found in the GM advice chapter.
CoTS opens with a brief history of the Known World. More accurately, it follows the events that occurred to form the island nation of Krace starting in the Lost Ages and concluding in the present day. There is also a timeline that details the parts of the history that do not apply to Krace directly, but it is not as detailed as the main text.
The Cliff Notes version is as follows:
The world was created from the dreams of the Dreamer. It was a golden age with the usual grand achievements. The Dreamer awoke, walked throughout the world and then went back to sleep. This time the Dreamer did not sleep well and had nightmares. Accordingly the world was beset by these nightmares and much was destroyed. During this time the Avendera retreated to their underground Vaults after feeling betrayed by Humans. The great human empire was destroyed and the survivors scatter. One group was granted refuge in the kingdom of the elves. The Dreamer rolled over in his sleep and the Age of Nightmares end.
The elven kingdom grew, established many colonies, and became decedent. Around this time the Avendera returned to the surface world, but kept the locations of their Vaults secret. When the Hu'kra raiders started attacking the elven kingdom, it quickly crumbled and many of its colonies declared independence. One such colony was Lysirial.
Lysirial became prosperous and decedent. The island of Krace was discovered but ruled off limits as a holy place due to the fact that nobody was able to safely land on the island due to the reef system surrounding it. Lysirial was later engulfed in a civil war when an expedition to Krace returned in a gigantic ship carved from a single tree. After the old government fell, colonies were established on Krace.
After the initial settlement of Krace was completed, the power hungry governor of Krace rebelled against and tried to conquer Lysirial. He failed and retreated to Krace to fortify himself against the expected counter attack. Instead he was overthrown in a popular rebellion. Krace became its own nation and quickly established diplomatic ties to the other nations of the Known World.
Meanwhile, the elves of Lysirial had become downright mean. Non-elves were reduced to slaves and were sometimes experimented upon to create demonic fusions. The other nations of the Known World protested but Lysirial diplomats stalled them. Eventually, Lysirial embarked on a war of aggression that becomes known as the Great Conflagration, Raevich's version of WW2.
The war ended with Lysirial becoming a cursed island haunted by demonic fusions, the undead, and other nasty things. The world has now entered into a post-war economic boom with Krace being the main benefactor due to it geographic location. Meanwhile Elves all over the world are treated with suspicion and in many cases outright hatred that would make the KKK proud.
In keeping with its fantasy roots, CoTS features a number of different races that can be used as player characters. Eight different races are described in the main rule book, but there are hints that other races exist in the world. Each race is given a one page description opposite a full page picture of a member of that race.
The Avendera are a race of short lion people. Due to the betrayal during the Age of Nightmares, the Avendera tend to be secretive about many aspects of their society. Unfortunately, there isn't any secret information in the book, such as what the Vaults are like, that a player could use to role play an Avendera.
The Banfilidh are the strangest race in the entire game. They are essentially animated piles of vegetation. Often times they are humanoid, but this doesn't have to be the case. They tend to be about 2 feet tall and weighing only 10 pounds. They lead a tribal existence and are effectively immortal. For obvious reasons, they tend to be the most concerned about how the other races treat nature. Due to their lack of organs, they can take hideous amounts of damage in combat. But because they are plant based, normal healing methods don't work well for them.
The Hu'Kra can best be described as Viking raiders. The are a bear-like race from the rugged lands of the frozen north. For most of known history, they raided the other races until a peace accord was reached.
The Luparathi are 12' tall wolf men native to Krace. Their society is extremely primitive and very few of the them have been tamed enough to be allowed in civilized society. Tame Luparathi often serve as mounts for the Kracian army and many other people of Krace view them a property.
The Thorqua are a race of 3 foot tall turtle people. They live in small communities and have a very New Age outlook on life.
The Zheol-Jhe were transformed by the Dreamer during the Age of Nightmares to live under water . They have a highly militaristic society as they fight the force of darkness that live under the sea.
The Elves are typical fantasy elves. They are tall, good looking, and long lived. The twist in CoTS is that elves are almost universally blamed for the Great Conflagration and face a lot of prejudice and even outright hatred from non-elves. It doesn't help that there are Elves out there who are trying to form their own version of the 4th Reich.
The Humans are your typical humans that you find in almost every fantasy game. The twist in CoTS is that humans have the ability to breed with any other race, except for the Banfilidh, creating half breeds. Half breeds tend to face lots of prejudice for various reasons.
The magical underpinnings of the CoTS setting are well developed and provide a solid foundation for the rest of the setting. Magic, magical creatures, and magic devices all depend upon the interaction between the material world and the world of Aether.
The primary tenet of magic is that everything in the material world is reflected in the aetherial world and vice versa. This means that magic is based on a series of causal relationships. So when action A is performed in the real world, it is reflected in the Aetherial world as event B. Event B causes event C to happen in the aetherial world which is reflected in the material world as event D. Roughly 1 out of a 1000 people (of all races) have the ability to manipulate magic by exploiting this causal relationship and they are known as the Talented. Also of interest is that this causal relationship doesn't have to be initiated by living beings. It is possible to build a mechanical device that will produce magical effects. This is the basis of Arcane Engines.
Arcane Engines, as the name implies, are devices that produce magical effects. These devices can mimic the functions of a wide variety of real world devices such as PDAs, motorbikes, tanks, aircraft, and stoves with magic and they can be constructed and used by anyone. They also fill the role of superscience devices found in pulp stories.
One major let down is that Arcane Engines often serve as throw-away McGuffins and their long term effects are often ignored. An example of this is a device known as an Arcane Tracker that is used in one of the example adventures. This device functions as an inertial tracking devices that sends its location back to another device that moves around a map to indicate location. The implications of this device are enormous but are ignored.
The Aetherial/Material world reflection also impacts magical creatures as well. For example, a water elemental could be reflected in the material world as a small pond. If that pond is drained and its water used in a brewery, the water elemental would change into a beer elemental. What happens to the elemental as the beer is consumed is left as an exercise for the reader.
The level of technology in CoTS is poorly defined. While it is similar to Earth of the 1920s, there are many deviations due to the influence of arcane engines and magic. Unfortunately, what is and is not available is not described anywhere. The best that one can do is comb the equipment lists and take a guess. For example, radio was discovered a long time before the setting's current day; however, the telephone and telegraph are still unheard of concepts.
The island nation of Krace is the default setting of campaigns and it has a geography that is unseen elsewhere in the Known World.
The island is rather large and is about 2/3rds the size of India. Around the outside edge of the island is a ring of mountains. Inside this ring, and dominating the island, is one huge forest. The forest is composed of trees with bark that is as tough as steel. These trees grow several thousand feet high with their branches intertwining to form a hard, rock like surface as well as a twisting cave complex. Within this forest lives some of the nastiest creatures in all of the Known World. Also within the forest are various fungi, dark fruits, and medicinal pollens that bring a high price on the open market.
Politically, Krace is the youngest of all of the major nations being just under 400 years old. Given that several of the races, such as the elves, can live longer than 400 years, there is an interesting clash of cultures as many of the rulers were either Lysirial citizens or are a generation or two removed from their Lysirial roots. The long lived rulers still fear that there are Lysirial Loyalists plotting to retake Krace and the shorter lived races fear that the former Lysirial citizens still cling tightly to their past. Adding to the tension is the fact that, for most levels of government, the positions are hereditary and the fact that humans can breed with almost any other race.
The Token System uses a modified version of the traditional attribute skill vs target number model. All of the attributes, as well as many other items such as weapon damage, are measured in dice pools. Skills are measures in ranks from 0 (unskilled) to 10 (Grandmaster). The dice pools can operate in one of three ways : Quality tests, Resistance tests, and Peril tests. The dice pools exploded in all three methods. In other words, if you roll the highest number possible on the die, you re-roll it and add in the new number rolled. This is repeated until you no longer roll the that highest possible number on the die.
To perform a Quality test, a player rolls all of the dice in the dice pool, selects the single highest result and adds in his skill level (if applicable).
To perform a Resistance test, a player rolls all of the dice in the dice pool, adds his skill level to each of them (if applicable), and counts the number of results that meet or exceed a set target number (successes). This is similar to the Shadowrun and Storyteller systems.
Peril tests are identical to Resistance tests except that a player always rolls two dice. These tests are often used as a method of saving throws with three possible results (0 successes, 1 success, or 2 successes).
Examples of uses of Quality and Resistance tests will appear later on in the review.
There is a fourth method of dice rolling in the Token System that the rules generally ignore and that is the Knowledge test. Knowledge tests are only based on skill ranks and are percentile rolls. For example, for a character to know an general piece of information, the target number is 25% times the applicable skill rank.
Effect Dice also deserve mention. Many of the rules of the rules refer to "Effect Dice" or "Dice of Effect". Basically, Effect Dice measure the level of effect of a particular action. Sometimes they have an associated die type and sometimes they do not. Often times Resistance tests are used to reduce the Effect Dice on an action.
For example, the technique "Light Blast" normally causes 2d10 damage; however, it can be resisted. If a person gets 1 success on their Resistance roll, they only take 1d10 damage. If a person gets 2 successes on their Resistance roll, they don't take any damage.
Character are created using a highly structured allocation method followed by a more free form point allocation system for fine tuning. It should also be noted that all PCs are Talented and therefore have the ability to wield magic.
First a player divides a set of dice between 9 attributes. These attributes are Strength, Agility, Vigor, Focus (intellect), Perception, Discipline(willpower), Charm, Leadership, and Ferocity. After the dice are distributed, the die types are modified by race.
Next the player allocates 5 skill ranks between various knowledge skills based on where his character has lived. The player then allocates 3 skill ranks between various occupations representing his past and current jobs. The player then chooses 5 skills that represent what he did in those occupations.
Finally a player customizes his character be spending a number of development points. These development can be used to buy new skills, improve existing skills, buy magic points (explained later), to purchase Techniques or racial advantages.
One interesting twist in character creation are the racial advantages. While each race has its own set of automatic advantages and disadvantages, each race also has a set of advantages that can only be purchased. This represents genetic and cultural differences between members of a race. So while all Banfilidhs become intoxicated easily, not all of them can see in the dark.
Character advancement is simply an extension of character creation. A player is awarded development points that can then be spent to improve his character based on a diminishing returns model similar to those found in the Shadowrun and Storyteller systems. As an added twist, the availability and use of a qualified trainer is built into the mechanics. If a PC uses a trainer, the development point cost is smaller than if a PC trains on his own. The quality of trainer also determines how long the PC has to spend training to increase in skill. Unfortunately, there isn't any suggested monetary costs for trainers, so a GM will have to wing it.
Basic Skill Resolution
As can be deduced from the multiple methods of rolling dice, there isn't a single, unified mechanic in CoTS. Instead, the various systems are built around Quality, Resistance, and Peril tests with the occasional Knowledge test tossed in for good measure. In practice, this give the GM latitude to mix and match die rolling methods to achieve the feel he desires.
For example, if a PC tries to sneak past a guard, it would normally be opposed Quality rolls. However, if the PC has an ingenious plan to sneak in, the GM could assign the plan some Effect dice and have the guard make a Resistance test vs the result of the PC's Quality test. For each success that the guard achieves, the Effect dice goes down by 1. At zero Effect dice, the guard would spot the PC. At 1 Effect die, the guard might notice something but decide to ignore it.
To determine the target number of non-opposed tasks, such as scaling a wall, CoTS provides a two dimensional matrix that cross references the required attribute level and skill level need to complete a task. For example, a GM determines that climbing a small cliff would require modest agility and a novice climbing skill. This would give a target number in the 5-9 range.
CoTS features a social interaction system that bridges the gap between role playing and straight mechanics that is quite simple to use. First, the player role plays out what his character says. Second, the GM judges the effectiveness what the player says and assigns it a number of Effect Dice. Next, the player makes a Quality test using the most appropriate social attribute (Charm, Leadership, or Ferocity). The target then makes a Resistance Check using the same attribute vs. the result of the Quality test. Each success reduces the Effect Dice by 1. If there are 1 Effect Dice left, the target goes along with the PC.
This system is expanded even further to include social attacks. This allows swashbuckler banter and mighty battle shouts to have an effect on combat. After all, when the 12 foot tall wolf creature lets out a mighty howl at the start of a battle, it will have a negative impact on the moral of his opponents.
Combat in CoTS is a complicated affair. It is not meant to be fast, but rather to keep as many PC involved in the action as possible.
Before getting into the combat rules, it is necessary to explain how weapons and armor are rated in CoTS as well as the types of damage.
All weapons and armor are rated like attributes in that they have dice pools. The real nifty thing is how the dice pools are often tied to the quality of the weapon. An average quality sword has a rating of 2d6, while a poor quality sword has a rating of 1d6, and a legendary quality sword would have a rating of 5d6. As a weapon or piece of armor takes damage, its quality rating and thus effectiveness drops. The price of the weapons are also tied to it quality rating. Unfortunately not everything uses this system. Armor and firearms can only be purchased with fixed quality ratings. Fortunately, it isn't hard to reverse engineer the prices and bring them in line with melee and missile weapons.
There are two ways that damage is measured in CoTS : Stain and Wounds. Strain is the type of damage that is dealt directly by weapons. Whenever a character is suffering more Strain than their Strain Limit, they a dealt a Wound and their Strain is reset to zero. For every Wound past the first, all of a character's dice ratings are reduced by 1 until the Wound is healed. The number of Wounds that a character can suffer is limited to the amount of dice that they have in their attributes. When their Vigor, Focus, and primary social attributes are all reduced to zero, the character dies. It should also be noted that if the damage from one hit exceeds a character's strain limit, there is a Wound Chart that is consulted to generate additional suffering for the character. This can be anything from weapons being damaged to additional wounds to instant death.
This system nicely blends together a hit point system with a wound level system. It offsets the chance of a lucky die roll killing off a character in one blow while keeping even relatively weak weapons deadly.
In all types of combat, the same basic procedure is followed. First, the attacker make a Quality roll for the controlling attribute, a Quality roll for the weapon, sums the two results and adds in the appropriate skill. The need to make two Quality rolls in order to make an attack is the primary reason that it is good to have at least two different colors of dice as it speeds up combat.
After calculating the attack value, the attacker's combat advantage is calculated. This is basically the amount that that attack succeed or failed by with the maximum value being equal to the attacker's skill level. In melee combat, an attack is always assumed to hit unless the target dodges and a negative combat advantage is generated. In ranged combat, an attack hits only if the combat advantage is zero or greater.
Damage is then rolled and the combat advantaged is added in. If the combat advantage is a large enough negative number, it could cause the attack to do no damage at all. The target then makes a Quality roll for their armor and subtracts the result from the damage. The remainder is the amount of Strain that the target takes.
In range combat, the attack roll is compared to a calculated target number. This target number is based upon the usual factors: size of the target, movement rates of the shooter and target, snap shooting, etc…. One interesting and sometimes annoying twist is how the range modifier is calculated.
Every ranged weapon has a Range Factor, which is measured in yards. To determine the range modifier for an attack, all one has to do is divide the range by the Range Factor. There are just two small problems with how this is implemented. First of all, the maximum range of a weapon is not mentioned. Secondly, the Range Factors are often numbers such as 7, 8, 12, and 16. Many people are not use to dividing by such numbers and it can slow down combat.
In melee combat, the attack roll is opposed by a similar roll made by the target. When attacked in melee combat, the defender has several choices. The defender can chose to counter-attack, actively defend, passively defend, or dodge. In a counter-attack, both fighters make attack rolls and calculate their Combat Advantage based off of the difference between the rolls. Both then make damage rolls and add in their Combat Advantage. The net result is that both characters will likely take damage. Active defense is similar except that the defender triples his melee skill and doesn't roll for damage. Dodging is also an opposed roll. If the dodging character generates a higher result than the attacker, the attack misses completely. Counter-attacking, actively defending, and dodging all require characters to use an action. If a character doesn't have any actions left, or doesn't want to use one, they can passively defend. Passive defense is a much weaker form of active defense.
On the subject of actions, each character can take any number of basic actions (aiming, shooting, melee attack, dodging, etc…) each turn; however, for every action beyond the first, there is a -1die penalty. While this system works smoothly with the wound system, players can easily become confused when trying to figure out how many actions that they can take each turn. The main source of confusion is the fact that the order in which actions are taken is important. A character with a 2d6 Agility and a 3d6 Focus could make two melee attacks and then use a Technique; however, that same character could not use a Technique and then attack twice.
One real nice aspect about the melee system is the multiple attackers rule. If a character is facing more than one opponent at the same time, they suffer a -1 die penalty per opponent beyond the first. This makes it real simple for a GM to overwhelm a combat focused character with lesser combatants. With enough opponents, a character can be reduced to only passively defending.
The Token System is named after it "Token" mechanic. Each character has a "token" that they can spend once in each round of combat. By spending the token they can support another character's action or interrupt an action. For example, Character A can spend token to shine a beam of light into Character B's opponent's eyes thus given Character B a couple extra dice for his attack roll. Another example, a character could spend a token to shoot at an attacker that is rushing forward for a melee attack before the melee attack is resolved. In both cases, the character using a token is acting outside of the initative order.
All of the PCs in CoTS are capable of wielding magic and magic has many uses in the game and each uses has a cost measured in magic points. In combat, magic points can be spent to increase attributes, recover strain, negate offensive magic, and to cast Techniques. Also, the magic points refresh each round. The use of magic points give the character a powerful advantage over their opponents as it effectively gives them a dice pool that they can distribute as needed.
The magic rules can be divided into two parts : Techniques and Devices.
Magic spells are known as Techniques in CoTS. Techniques are similar to recipes and practically any part of the spell (such as range, duration, number of targets, and damage) can be modified on the fly.
To cast a Technique, the character states any desired modifications, spends the required amount of magic points, and makes an opposed Quality test using Focus. If the roll was successful, the Technique goes off. Some Techniques allow the targets to make Resistance rolls and/or spend magic points to reduce the effect of the Technique. One of the quirks of this system is that there isn't a skill associated with spell casting. It is a straight up attribute roll.
Magical devices include divine relics, Linked Devices, and Arcane Engines. Divine relics tend to be unique magic items complete with their own special rules. Nobody know where divine relics come from or how they are made. Linked Devices are magical items created by and can only be used by Talents, which includes the PCs. Arcane Engines are magic items that can be created and used by anyone with the right training. Rules for constructing Linked Devices and Arcane Engines are included. Also included in the book are many examples of all three types of magic items. Unfortunately, many of the Linked Devices and Arcane Engines can not be constructed with the rules provided. Also, the rules for constructing Arcane Engines are very sketchy, limited, and incomplete.
As is standard for a game that features the "Exploration of the Unknown" as a campaign option, the rule book contains a wide variety of animal threats to throw at the party. Of particular note are the entries of Spirits and the Undead. For both entries, CoTS provides the theoretical underpinnings of such creatures, a detailed construction system, and a number of examples. Unfortunately, these multi-page entries really should have been placed in a chapter of their own instead of in the middle of the critter chapter where all of the other entries only received about a half page of coverage apiece.
Children of the Sun combines a conflict filled world with an interesting game system and packages it up in a beautiful book. It offers a wide open setting that can accommodate a variety of campaign options from political scheming to hunting for air pirates to good old fashion dungeon crawls through the heart of Krace.
Its greatest weakness is that it is a game that has to be played in order to fully understand the game system. However, once the system is learned, the reasoning behind many of the design decisions becomes clear and the system acts as an interface to the game world. The biggest challenge for a GM will be convincing his players to stick with it long enough to learn the system.