A few years ago I reviewed
a free RPG called Mythweaver
, which I liked a lot despite its shortcomings. Last year the author, Michael T. Desing, asked me to review a couple of other games
which he'd written. He also mentioned that he was working on a new edition of Mythweaver
, and I said I'd like to see it when it was done. A few weeks ago, he sent it to me. I had expected that he'd filled in the holes and fixed the problems which I'd pointed out in my previous review, so I was initially dismayed to see a much longer and more complex game bearing little resemblance to the original. However, I've attempted to put aside my disappointment and review the new Mythweaver
on its own merits.
Mythweaver: The Splintered Realm is a 111-page PDF divided into five parts: a 6-page introduction giving a brief description of the setting and system; 51 pages of character creation rules; a 24-page chapter for the Mythweaver (i.e. GM), which covers combat, experience, treasure and so forth; an 18-page bestiary; and a 10-page "Campaign Guide". (The two remaining pages are the cover and character sheet.)
The setting is summed up in a single-page creation story involving a war between twin deities of light and darkness. The most interesting bit here is the idea that the various realms of existence, which started out as separate worlds in an arrangement reminiscent of Norse cosmology, were shattered and mixed together during the "Great Reckoning" (hence the game's subtitle).
The basic die mechanic is similar to the d20 System: roll a die, add relevant traits and modifiers, and compare it to a Difficulty Target (DT). The most notable difference is that the size of the die depends on your character level (which ranges from 1-20). Non-heroic characters roll a d4, while PCs start with a d6 at level 1 and progress up to a d16 at levels 15-20. More powerful monsters may use a d20 or even a d24. (There are rules for how to simulate a d16 or d24, though the whole idea seems a bit kludgy to me.) Also, a roll of 1 on the die is always a botch. There are no rules for critical successes, however.
The level system also applies to locations, in a manner similar to "dungeon levels" in Basic D&D. However, not only are opponents tougher and traps more deadly at higher levels, but locks are harder to pick, objects harder to break, and even the DT of listening at a door increases!
Mythweaver offers a choice of nine races and five classes. The races include three types of humans, two types of elves (good and evil), brownies, dwarves, orks and wood trolls. These are about what you'd expect, though there are a few cool tidbits in the descriptions. I especially like the justification given for the usual dwarf stereotypes – they were formerly enslaved by giants, which accounts for their hatred of giants, their obsession with gold (being impoverished slaves, they came to associate material wealth with freedom and empowerment) and their elaborate beard styles (which were their only available means of displaying their social status). I also appreciate the fact that the subterranean shadow elves are described as albinos, which is more realistic than D&D's dark-skinned drow.
Your race determines your base values for the game's eight traits, which are Dexterity, Melee, Might, Stamina, Aspect (i.e. alignment), Intuition (i.e. perception), Reason and Willpower. Most of these range from 1-12 depending on race; the exception is Aspect, which is a positive number for good characters, negative for evil characters, and 0 for neutral ones. Both positive and negative Aspects have their benefits, as well as their limitations. Neutral characters aren't shafted, either; they get to add their "Level Modifier" (LM), in lieu of their Aspect, as a bonus to resist light or darkness magic.
Characters have (25+level) trait points, but the first 20 are assigned by race, so a 1st-level character only gets 6 points to spend as he wishes. Consequently, your starting traits will be largely defined by your race. However, as you increase in level you become significantly more powerful and have more opportunity to customize your character.
Classes are fairly non-constrictive; their main purpose is to determine the distribution of talent points. There are three types of talents – arms, skill and magic – and each class has primary, secondary and tertiary talents, though they may not all be different; for example, the Hunter has arms talents as both secondary and tertiary. You gain roughly one talent point (of one sort or another) per level, with primary talents being gained most frequently. You also gain a very small number of "bonus talents", which can be spent on any type, even those not otherwise available to your class.
In addition to talents, each class has entry requirements and gains a special ability in the form of an increase in die size in particular situations. The Defender (which is the only class that gains all three types of talents) covers paladins, but could also be used for a wilderness protector or a local hero. The defender gains a bonus to rolls against a chosen enemy type. The Hunter gains a bonus to initiative, the Myrmidon gains a bonus to health points, the Mystic gains a bonus to use a particular school of magic, and the Rake gains a bonus to dodge rolls. There are no rules for multiclassing, though they'd be easy enough to improvise.
After the classes comes an optional rule for gaining perks. There are ten perks to choose from, granting a variety of different benefits. The one perk that stands out as seriously flawed is Rage. Rage gives penalties to mental traits, prevents you from doing much besides making melee attacks, and causes you to suffer penalties once it's over; furthermore, it's strictly involuntary. On the whole, it seems more like a liability than a benefit.
Arms talents come in four types (melee, ranged, armor and shields) and five ranks (apprentice through paragon), which determine what equipment you can use. The higher your rank, the bigger and better the weapons/armor you're proficient with. All characters gain apprentice level automatically (except in shields).
There are also two additional feat-like options available: combat styles and signature moves. Combat styles (counter attacks, parry, quick strike and two weapons) are broader in scope and are purchased in place of a normal increase in your arms talents. Signature moves apply to specific categories of weapons (blunt, piercing, etc.) and have different levels, and you choose one each time you gain an arms talent (except in armor). For example, when you increase your melee skill to grand master, you can pick a signature move of grand master level or below in one type of melee weapon. Each signature move can be attempted once per 30-second turn.
The section on arms talents also includes rules for weapons and armor. Their cost depends on the amount of damage they do (or protect from) and the level of arms talent needed to use them. This is shown on a table with an odd quirk to it: the more "advanced" weapons have higher minimum and maximum damage ratings, but cost less for equivalent amounts of damage. For example, for 50 gold you can buy a master weapon with a rating of 8 or a paragon weapon with a rating of 15. The only way I can think of to justify this is that the demand for paragon weapons is lower since so few people can use them – however, since the supply should also be lower, this doesn't really make sense.
Skill talents are quite broad (there are only six: athletics, burglary, influence, lore, nature and stealth), and are rated in the same five ranks as arms talents. In this case, each rank adds a bonus to trait rolls when using the skill. This section also includes a table of DTs which is frequently referred back to in later rules. Tasks are described as either normal or complex, depending on whether they require skill training to attempt them, and each category is rated by difficulty (simple, standard or difficult) and by area level. It isn't as complicated as it sounds; the table is actually straightforward to use, though you'll probably need to refer to it frequently during play. Unfortunately, the terms "simple" and "complex" have a different meaning when describing actions taken during combat, which could be confusing.
One quirk in the skill rules is the way traits are matched to skills. The design notes accompanying the trait descriptions explain that trait rolls should be resisted by the same traits – thus, the Melee trait is used to dodge melee attacks, Dexterity is used to dodge ranged attacks, Aspect is used both to cast and resist light and darkness magic, while Reason is used to cast and resist arcanum magic, and so forth. The rationale given for this is to prevent players from making invulnerable characters by pumping points into a single trait. However, this means that Intuition is used for stealth rolls, when Dexterity would make more sense. An exception is made for burglary (picking a pocket is a DEX roll, opposed by INT), so I don't see why the same couldn't apply to stealth.
There are eight magic talents (aka spell talents), each a different school of magic: arcanum, darkness, deeping, elemental, light, psionics and wilding (i.e. nature magic). (Elemental magic is actually divided into three separate types: cold, fire and lightning.) These aren't mutually exclusive, though – in fact, since each talent has only five ranks, a mystic will have to choose talents from two or more different schools as they gain levels.
Most of the schools are exactly what you would expect; the odd one out is deeping magic, which is described as ancient, nearly-forgotten magic of the subterranean races (though humans can learn it too, for no obvious reason). The sample spells for this school are an eclectic mix of mostly defensive spells linked only by a thematic connection to the earth (and even then, I'm not sure what Reflective Armor is doing on the list).
Spells come in two types, and each spell has a rank (determined by its range, duration and so forth) which is the minimum talent rank needed to cast it. Spontaneous spells are created on the fly and require a casting roll with a DT determined by their rank. (Higher magic talent ranks give no bonus to spellcasting rolls, although a high-level mystic will have a "bigger" die to roll, and probably a higher score in the appropriate trait.) Repertoire spells are prefabricated using the same rules as spontaneous spells, and require no roll to cast. Each time you gain a rank in a magic talent, you add a new spell of the same rank to your repertoire – so a 20th-level mystic will have at most 13 spells in their repertoire, and no more than five in any one school.
Mythweaver limits spell use by time rather than by spending points from a pool, although the limits are much looser than in D&D. There's a limit to how many spells you can cast in a single encounter (1), but you can otherwise cast an effectively unlimited number of spells each day. This is balanced by the fact that the power level is much lower than in D&D.
Each school of magic has five sample spells listed, one for each rank. There are a few special rules applying to individual schools, such as the fact that light and darkness magic can't be used by those of the opposite Aspect, and can't harm those of like Aspect. There are also rules for counter spells, which use up one of your spontaneous spell slots. There are no rules for dispelling a permanent effect, however.
The last part of this chapter lists the steps in character creation and gives rules for hero points, which can be used to boost rolls or to advance your level. There's also a couple of pages on building strongholds and attracting followers once you reach level 10 (which is described as "name level").
The Mythweaver chapter begins with advice on running the game. It's good advice, but probably nothing you haven't seen before. Next come the combat rules, beginning with a definition of time increments in combat. Mythweaver uses 3-second combat rounds, broken into segments of 1/10th of a second. Each weapon and spell has a "delay" equal to the number of segments it takes to use, which determines how many times you get to act in a round. Initiative is rerolled each round. Other actions are defined as either simple actions (such as moving or drinking a potion), which take a whole round, or complex actions (such as picking a lock or searching a room), which take a turn (30 seconds). This section also covers the usual topics such as terrain effects on movement, surprise, charge attacks, and healing. (Health points increase each level, like hit points, but the die roll depends on your level, not your class.)
This is followed by a section on "Good and Evil", describing what different Aspect ratings mean, and the ramifications of having a negative Aspect (including rules on temptation). There are rules for holy and unholy water, places and items, and for reaction rolls. The next section covers dice options (e.g. static resistance values, only PCs roll, and so forth). Then there's a section of rules for special situations such as cover, breaking objects, falling, gaze attacks, morale, etc.. The next section describes different types of encounters, rules for gauging encounter difficulties, and awarding hero points.
The final section of this chapter covers treasure. There are tables for randomly determining both individual and lair treasures, followed by several pages of magical treasures. First are potions, then weapons and armor (complete with rules for calculating Ego scores for intelligent weapons), items, wands and staves, and special objects. The selection of special objects is small, but the rules for "items" (mostly worn items) make up for it in their flexibility. Depending on what you roll on the randomized tables, you could wind up with a Ring of Protection, a Cloak of Might, a Gem of Health, Bracers of Cold Resistance, or a Belt of Stealth – or any other combination of type and effect.
I also like the rules for wands and staves; instead of containing a single spell, they can be used to cast spontaneous spells of a particular school – regardless of whether you have any ranks in that school. (You must have at least one rank in a magic talent to use them, though.) Furthermore, the difference between them is the rank of spell they cast: wands cast low-level spells, staves cast mid-level spells, and rods cast paragon spells.
The bestiary begins with rules for building monsters, similar to those for character advancement. A variety of special abilities are listed with their point costs. Following this is a catalogue of creatures listed by type, such as humanoids, vermin, lycanthropes, undead and mythic serpents. Each category provides examples of creatures at various "benchmark levels", and the standardized creature construction rules allow them to be customized and upgraded to provide a greater challenge. Most of the sample monsters are straight out of D&D: gnolls, bugbears, six-legged basilisks, and so on. Despite the lack of originality, though, the bestiary was one of my favorite parts, because it captures the "classic" feel that I so admired in the previous edition of Mythweaver.
The final section, the campaign guide, describes a sample home base for the PCs (Gryphon Watch Keep), followed by a couple of mini-adventures and a sample dungeon. (The keep includes a trading post with an inventory of typical adventuring gear, which is the only list of mundane equipment in the game.) The mini-adventures are simple and straightforward, but not particularly special, while the dungeon is a seemingly random collection of clever traps and encounters with no explanation.
Mythweaver is written in a single-column sans serif font, with occasional line drawings done by the author. The overall appearance is simple and plain, but not unattractive. I found quite a few typos, but none of them were really serious errors, and when I sent a list to the author he corrected them immediately. The writing style is generally clear and concise and the organization is mostly logical, though there are a few places it could be improved. The instructions for character creation are located near the end of that chapter, as noted, while the combat rules are split between the section on arms talents and the Mythweaver chapter. The length of a turn is mentioned in the description of movement rates on page 13 (2), but given the number of times turns are mentioned in the arms talent and magic talent sections, it would've been nice if they'd been included in the glossary as well.
I had a difficult time deciding whether to give Mythweaver a 3 or 4 for Substance, because the answer depends on what question you ask.
Is it well-done? Considered in isolation, Mythweaver is a pretty good game. It's short, well-written, has a simple and flexible system at its core, and is fairly complete (albeit in a bare-bones fashion). Although I haven't playtested it, it seems basically functional. My biggest gripe is that there are too many layers of numbers. Each range of levels has a die type associated with it, and a Level Modifier, and a benchmark level marking the beginning of the range. Task DTs are equal to the die size for the area's level, plus or minus the LM (depending on difficulty), plus the benchmark level if it's a complex task. While the formula is simple enough, remembering all the numbers involved seems like such a headache that I predict everyone who plays the game will just print out the task DT table on page 31 (or they'll wing it).
Is it better than other games? The answer is, not really. While it doesn't appear to have any really broken parts, there's nothing about the rule system that makes it stand out. The setting (what little exists) is terribly derivative, and on the whole it reads much like yet another homegrown attempt to simplify D&D. The best I can say for it is that it's functional and relatively simple. It has the same sort of old-school feel that Castles & Crusades does (going by the reviews I've read of C&C), and may very well appeal to the same crowd. I don't know whether it has anything to recommend it over C&C, though, aside from being cheaper.
Is it an improvement on the previous version? Well, that depends on what you consider an improvement. Certainly it's more detailed; certainly it's more complete; for the most part, it's better-explained. Whether the system itself is "better" is largely a matter of personal taste. The original Mythweaver greatly impressed me with its elegant simplicity; where it fell short was in the rules that were left out or poorly explained. This new version has the opposite problem, bogging an otherwise simple system down in layers of detail.
Does it accomplish its goals? Herein lies the root of my dissatisfaction with the new Mythweaver. It seems to have been written as a simpler alternative to D&D, and insofar as it is simpler than D&D, it might be considered a success. The problem is that it doesn't go far enough, in my opinion – for a supposedly rules-light game to have level modifiers, charts and formulae to determine task DTs, and combat rounds divided into segments is counter-productive. In fact, it almost seems to have a bit of an identity crisis.
Is it good value for money? If it were a printed book, I would say "absolutely". As a PDF, I'm not so sure. It seems a bit pricey compared to other comparable games I've seen published as PDFs.
If I could, I'd give Mythweaver a 3.5 for Substance – but since I can't, I've rounded down to a 3 because it is, in almost every way, average. It's fairly well-done for what it is, but what it is isn't anything special. However, if you're looking for something that has the feel of old-school D&D without so much of the rules baggage, you may wish to bump the Substance up to a 4. (If Mythweaver sounds like it might be your cup of tea, I recommend you check out the author's blog, in which he explains in detail the design choices he made and the reasons behind them.)
(1) Each repertoire spell can be cast up to five times per 30-second turn, depending on your character level, and you can also cast a number of spontaneous spells of each school equal to your rank in that school, per turn.
(2)Speaking of movement, the way the author switches between different units of distance may be a bit confusing. On p. 13 it says that a move of 30 means you can run 30' (3 units) in a round, or 30 units (300') in a turn. However, on p. 61 it says that you can walk a number of yards equal to your move in one turn, leaving you to do the conversion to units yourself.