I have to thank one of my Facebook acquaintances and fellow game design/small publisher for this one: Lex Arcana. It looked interesting, and out Dungeons & Dragons campaign has been set in an alternate late antiquity Roman Empire, so i was interested in it for material to crib. After hearing it was a good system, but picked up the PDF and read through it. Then bought the Encyclopedia Arcana, their “sourcebook” on the setting in PDF. Then found a print version of both, plus the “Demiurge” (GM) screen at Miniature Market and picked them up. (I was really impressed with their selection, prices, and the speed of delivery — check ’em out.)

Back to Lex Arcana… Apparently, this had been a popular game in Europe in the 1990s, but recently was re-released through Kickstarter. First off: these books are gorgeous! The artwork is as good, and in some ways better than the stuff Wizards is doing for D&D and even the superb Odyssey of the Dragonlords. This holds through all of the products I’ve gotten, thus far, including a module in PDF on Constantinople. Production values are high — the paper quality, binding, layouts — it’s all just top shelf. This was easily one of the best buys for an RPG I’ve dropped money on in recent years.

So it’s pretty. How’s the system? Character creation can be a bit confusing at first, but I followed the flow they’d laid out in the book and had a version on one of my player’s characters from the D&D campaign banged out in under 15 minutes. Not bad — I do judge a game system based off of how long and how difficult character creation is. If I can knock out a character in 15 minutes or so and get playing, I’m not usually impressed. There’s a bit of weirdness where your attributes — strength, etc. don’t directly apply to things you do; they combine into….fields, I guess would be a good way to put it, like War or Nature or Society. This gives you a number from 2 to 18 being the top starting number, if i recall correctly. You pick skill, which give you a modifier to rolls in a certain field — bows in War, for instance. You pick your weapons and armor, and you’re ready to go.

The conceit here is you are part of a special force of the Praetorian Guard that hunts down mystic weirdness and threats to the Empire. There are rules for rising through the ranks, but also for magic and more importantly, for gaining favor from your patron deities. The piety score can be used to gain a bump in a test up to getting a bit of Olympian back-up. Magic here is not the “shoot fireballs from your fingers” stuff of D&D (thank the gods!) and focuses on pre and postcognition, interpreting omens and dreams, scrying, and manipulating the gods for favors. This is low magic that requires rituals, time, and effort to get something out of it.

The basic mechanics is a hit a target number system. How you do this is different…you get all the normal polyhedral dice for the game, but which ones you roll — that’s the difference. For instance, if I have a de Bello (War) of 16, I can chose dice that add to 16 (up to three dice, no more) — so I could do a d12+d4, or 2d8, or 2d6+d4. What’s the point of this? You ask. It does look like it could be confusing and slow play for new players, but for experienced folks, i think they could game the hell out of this for mathematical benefit. In the above example, you’re not rolling below a 2 (or 3 with the last option) which can be good for easier tasks. If you roll max on all dice, you roll them again and add to the original roll. What about odd-numbered die — d5, d7? Yes, that could be a thing. Combat is pretty straightforward, with damage based on the quality of your hit. For every three over, you gain a multiplier to the weapon damage. You’re not just getting up, either, if you get munched; damage here can be pretty deadly.

The downsides: there’s a lot of Latin used to give flavor. The character sheet and the used of terms like custodes, the agents of this group you’re supposed to be part of, might throw some folks but i suspect if you’re interested in this, that’s flavoring you might like.

The core book cost me $46. Is it worth it? Hell, yes. This is the first game one of my players — a Romanophile — is truly, actively interested in playing; another is a late antiquity historian turned acupuncturist — he’s in, as well. It’s pretty, well-designed, and there’s a lot you could crib for a setting or another game system. I fused the Piety system here with the one from the Odyssey of Theros book for Dungeons & Dragons 5e for our current game.

Instead of doing a different review, i figured I’d merge this with the other Lex Arcana products I picked up. Easily, the best sourcebook I’ve read in some time is the Encyclopedia Arcana.

This book is a genuine book of scholarship tweaked to be a setting guide for ancient Rome. There’s stuff on the road systems, the post service, the military (army and navy), shipping and trade, the ranks of government and society, as well as food, clothing, disease, and lastly magic. Written by Francesca Garello, it’s well worth picking up even if you don’t get the game; I’ve already be cribbing stuff for our D&D game. This was about $40 and yes, it’s worth every penny. The art, writing, research, and production values are sine que non.

Lastly, the Demiurge Screen.

Pretty much everything you need to quickly adjudicate social interactions, investigations, fights, experience — it’s there. The cardboard is thick and top-quality, the art is good and evocative of the setting, and it’s surprisingly cheap at $18 over on Miniature Market.