Epic Role Playing (note: site plays music), from Dark Matter Studios, is a small press fantasy game with large press ambitions. There are four books on the market at present: Rules Manual, Bestiary, Book of the Arcane and Atlas of Eslin, Volume 1.
So what’s Epic RPG like? Overall, Epic RPG is a mixed bag — two of the books are great, one is decent and one is terrible, and some of the game’s best features are hidden behind a bad first impression.
After generously donating a complete set of books to our forum membership contest, Kent Davis (of Dark Matter Studios) asked if I’d like to review Epic. The game looked interesting and there was a GMing angle, so I happily agreed to review it for TT. My full set of Epic books arrived shortly thereafter.
Over on RPG Blog, Zachary Houghton wrote a thorough and excellent review of Epic in which he tackled all four books at once. After some consideration I decided to take the same approach — they really are best reviewed as a package. (Thanks, Zack!)
All four books are $20 apiece, and are softcover with color covers and black and white interiors. They vary slightly in length, but they’re all between 120 and 130 pages (which suggests print-on-demand rather than traditional offset printing). The bindings are solid, and the paper quality is just fine.
Epic is written in a friendly and informative style, which fits the game perfectly. Rules concepts come across clearly, and descriptive text is easy to digest. The writing often feels a bit breathless, as in this sentence from the Bestiary (p. 16): “The baku grow very large every ten years under the full moon and divide in two.” The credits don’t mention an editor, and all four books could probably benefit from having one.
Unfortunately, there are two problems with the layout, one major and one relatively minor. The major problem is the background on each page, which is designed to look like aged parchment. The artwork used in the background is pale grey and heavily pixellated, which makes the text difficult to read.
The net effect is that the text seems indistinct (almost fuzzy, even though the text itself is crisp), and I found large blocks of text very annoying to read. Not using a page background at all would have been a much better choice. This problem is bad enough that if I picked up one of the books in a store, it would prevent me from buying Epic.
The minor problem is the font used for headers, which makes lowercase Rs look like lowercase Is without the dot. At first glance, “Character Creation” looked like “Chaiactei Cieation,” which was distracting until I got used to it.
In terms of organization, Epic‘s approach is well thought out and well executed. All four books have indexes and glossaries, and the Rules Manual and Book of the Arcane both have appendices full of useful forms. Chapters are laid out clearly, and the books make excellent use of offset text boxes to flesh out and summarize elements of the main text.
Each chapter is introduced by an evocative page of flavor text, most of which mention different guilds or other organizations that are part of Eslin, Epic‘s world. These intros do a good job of setting the mood, and they highlight some of the niftier aspects of the setting.
This is the meat of the game, and the book that’s most likely to make or break a browser’s first impression of Epic, so I’m going to spend more time on it than on the other three books.
The Rules Manual opens with a brief, useful introduction to roleplaying. Key concepts are explained, and there’s a sidebar full of great tips for GMs (which Epic calls Guides) and players. It sets the tone for the rest of the book — in fact, the rest of the game — quite well.
The intro is followed by a chapter on character creation, and this is where Epic really shines. When Kent asked me if I wanted review Epic, I asked him if there was a GMing angle. He had this to say:
…I think there’s a couple of things that are very useful for GMs, one of the primary ones being the use of culturally-tied guilds and occupations to launch characters. Immediately placing characters in a cultural context has been for me, as a GM, a huge bonus in terms of creating conflict and story.
The easiest way to see what this is like in practice is to roll up a sample character, so here we go. In a real game, you might prefer to choose from some or all of these tables, but I wanted to see what the system was like in the raw.
A Sample Character
Rolling for race, I get Merethi. The table points me to the Atlas of Eslin, but the table of contents in that book don’t mention Merethis. Neither does the index. The list of tables in the contents, however, shows a table of Merethi common names, and that got me to the right spot.
I’ll call this PC Ascandus, a name chosen from that table. Next up is family, and Ascandus has three or more siblings. After that, social class: Ascandus is lower middle class, which gets him a bonus language and a little bit of money. Rolling for profession, I learn that Ascandus is a wainwright, which gives him Craftsman, Commerce and Animal Handling as base skills.
The Childhood Events table says, “Learns that he/she was ‘immaculately’ conceived.” Odd, but interesting. During his apprenticeship, Ascandus “Falls from a cliff and survives, suffers acrophobia.” I guessed that that meant “fear of heights,” which it does, but it isn’t actually defined in the table.
Since my interest is mainly in seeing how fleshed out Ascandus will be at the end of this process, I’m going to skip past stats. Next up are unusual traits, and my roll tells me that Ascandus is deaf. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t tell me what that means in game terms.
The section on occupation is what Kent was getting at in his email: guilds, secret societies and other organizations that ground the PCs in the world. The book points me to the Atlas again, and the realm Ascandus is from, Rullaea, offers 45 different occupations.
They all have colorful names, from the Illustrious Guild of Shiplords (a guild of sailor-spies who can learn to tell undetectable lies) and the Blades of Ehr (a guild of thieves specializing in cat burglary) to the Shrouded Hand (assassins in service of the king of Severness) and the Society of Lupus-Mur (a secret society that provides skilled members with a hidden bodyguard, automatically present in any sizeable community).
These are awesome. Reading them makes me want to play the game, and fills my head with possibilities for characters. They’re flavorful, evocative, immediately useful and just plain cool.
I love the idea of this deaf former wainwright eventualy becoming one of the secret masters of the world, so I choose the Society of Lupus-Mur. Last but not least, Ascandus needs an Ethos. Rolling three times, I learn that he’s obedient, egotistic and motivated by revenge/hatred.
So what kind of PC did I wind up with? Born into a large lower middle class Merethi family, Ascandus was apprenticed as a wainwright. During his apprenticeship, he nearly died in a fall, and has been afraid of heights ever since. His parents told him he was immaculately conceived, which went to his head — Ascandus’s ego can get him into trouble.
Growing up, Ascandus was tormented for being deaf, which left him filled with hatred. As an adult, he became withdrawn and observant, with an obedient streak born of a harsh apprenticeship. This made him a perfect candidate for membership in the Soceity of Lupus-Mur, where Ascandus has a bright future as a behind-the-scenes manipulator of commerce and society.
Having been created with random rolls, plus one important choice (guild), Ascandus sounds like a pretty interesting character. He wouldn’t fit into a party-driven game where the PCs are all supposed to get along, but he sounds like fun to play. With a couple of tweaks, I could easily make him more of a team player without sacrificing much of his flavor.
There are some kinks in character creation (like not defining deafness in rules terms and not pointing me straight to the Merethi section of the Atlas), but overall it does what it sets out to do: provides a host of flavorful options to spur creativity, and creates PCs who are connected to the game world right out of the box.
Skills in Epic are distinguished by a system of specialities and masteries. The skills themselves are fairly broad, but each provides two or more specialties — and each specialty includes a mastery and a grand mastery.
So a character could start out with the Medicine skill, which provides basic knowledge of anatomy, healing and surgery, and later take the Forensics specialty. Forensics allows the character to glean information from corpses, and has Mind Development and Mind Perfection as its masteries.
Once you’ve spent experience points to buy a specialty up to +2 or higher, you can then buy a mastery. When the specialty hits +4 or higher, you can take the grand mastery. In the case of Forensics, the mastery raises a mental stat by 1 and the grand mastery raises a mental stat by 2.
Overall, the skill system is rich and flavorful, and I like the way that specialties and masteries work. The skills themselves, however, are a frustrating mix of vague and specific. Let’s use Medicine as an example.
The medicine skill description is very broad, and includes references to both of its specialties, Forensics and Healing. Forensics is explained pretty well, but there are no guidelines for the GM as to how it can be applied, whether it requires tools or what modifiers might be appropriate. Is it harder to identify cause of death from a corpse that’s 100 years old than from a fresh one? Probably, but it’s left up to GM fiat.
On the flipside, Healing is specific and unambiguous. It has to be performed within an hour after injury, it takes at least 10 minutes, it requires special tools and it heals 1 point of damage.
In addition, once you subtract the two specialties from the base skill’s description, one area — anatomy — is left undescribed. Can a PC use their knowledge of anatomy in combat? Or to find out what’s wrong with a patient through observation? Personally, I’d prefer either more specifics or fewer specifics — the middle ground is unsatisfying.
After skills comes Goods and Services, which is illustrated primarily with what looks like public domain artwork from period texts — swords, suits of armor, etc. Epic is lightly illustrated in general, but it works best in this book.
Rules of Play, the next chapter, introduces the basic die mechanic (2d10 added together, plus or minus modifiers, versus a target number) along with combat. Combat involves declaring actions up front (they can be changed later, but you forfeit one action), and you can generally attack, defend and move in one round. The basic rules are quite simple, and seem like they’d be intuitive during play. The rest of the chapter goes into combat options, special cases and modifiers, as well as healing.
This is followed by The Campaign, a chapter devoted to running Epic. From a GMing standpoint, this chapter is excellent. There may not be too many surprises for a veteran GM, but it lays some excellent groundwork. From how to plot out a basic adventure (and campaign) to fleshing out NPCs, this chapter covers a lot of ground succinctly and well.
It also directs GMs to the various planners, act-by-act adventure logs, NPC rosters and other helpful forms that are included in the book’s appendix. This is a step above and beyond the GMing support that most RPGs provide in their core books. Coupled with the accompanying forms, this chapter would even be useful as a standalone text on GMing — it’s that good.
The Rules Manual winds up with a chapter on treasure and special gear, and then, oddly, finishes with a chapter on mass combat. There’s nothing wrong with this chapter, but there’s also nothing else in the core books that points to Epic characters being involved in large-scale conflicts by default.
(If you’re interested in reading about Epic‘s system in more depth, check out RPG Blog’s playetest review. Zachary’s review focuses a lot more on the various aspects of the system than this one.)
The back of the book says that you won’t find stock critters and fantasy standards within, and that rings true: This book is full of odd, unusual and non-standard creatures. Unfortunately, it’s not full of art. In a book with well over 200 monsters, only 22 of them are illustrated. Worse yet, the artwork is almost uniformly terrible — I would rather have had no art than most of the art that’s in the Bestiary.
This is a big downside for me, because as a GM I like to see what my creatures look like. And in a pinch, I like to be able to cover the stats and show my players what they look like, too. This is doubly true when they’re not common foes like orcs and goblins — you can say “orc” and most players will know what they look like. Say “bapa coo,” though, and they have nothing to go on.
There are also a lot of silly and pointlessly bizarre monsters, which goes against the tone set by the Rules Manual (as well as the Atlas and Book of the Arcane, actually). I have trouble reconciling the detailed and flavorful character creation options with monsters like the belching amoeba (exactly what you’d expect), the aforementioned bapa coo (a luminous gas cloud that drains magic) and the cephalobe, a brain-shaped snail.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some cool monsters in the Bestiary. There are, like the whyrmun, tentacle-headed subterranean beings that can spit molten hunks of stone, or the carreau demon, which looks like a man’s body with giant spider legs growing out of its belly. But the bad ones far outnumber the good ones.
Coupled with the fact that there’s not all that much information on each creature (most pages have two or three monsters on them), these downsides really sink the Bestiary for me. It’s all but useless, and I would be disappointed if I’d spent money on it.
Book of the Arcane
Epic has a neat magic system. Spells (called “variants”) cost quintessence points to cast, which is a simple, flexible approach. And they scale, so the better you roll when casting some spells, the better they turn out. The introduction uses invisibility as an example: At each difficulty threshold, your invisibility applies to one more target — so you might need to pick and choose who will still be able to see you.
There’s one red flag in the introduction, though: Scarcity and greater roleplaying restrictions, not mechanics, are used to balance out the potency of arcane powers. GMs are encouraged to make magic-wielding characters uncommon, have them stand out like sore thumbs whenever they use magic and “treat arcane users differently, binding them with greater responsibility to guild and craft.”
In my experience, restrictions like that are troublesome. They often don’t work at all — remember the kits from AD&D 2nd Edition, which used non-mechanical elements to paper over horrible balance problems? They can also mean more work for the GM, as it can be hard to decide exactly how to implement them, or how to incorporate spellcasters into the campaign.
As this isn’t a playtest review, I don’t know whether or not Epic suffers from any of these problems — maybe spellcasters are balanced just fine. But it looks like an area of concern, at least based on the book’s introduction.
There are six arcane disciplines in Epic, ranging from metaphysics to philtrology (the study of potions). As with the creatures in the Bestiary, they’re not fantasy standbys — but unlike Epic‘s monsters, they’re distinctive while remaining useful and engaging, and they add flavor to the game.
Apart from the introduction and the short sections describing each of the disciplines, the rest of Book of the Arcane is wall-to-wall spells. Lots of spells. I didn’t count them, but at 6-10 per page, there are in the neighborhood of 800-1,000 spells in this book.
Each spell has a straightforward or evocative name (straightforward: Optic Enhancement, evocative: The Thief Befriended), a short list of properties and a brief summary of its effects. They’re very easy to understand, and even when the description doesn’t go into much detail, the hard numbers (target area, duration, etc.) leave very little room for ambiguity.
This combination of simplicity, lack of ambiguity and tons of spells is exactly what I look for in a magic supplement. It’s a straightforward approach that can nonetheless be tough to pull off, and Epic really nails it. Along with the Rules Manual, this is the best of the four books.
Atlas of Eslin, Volume 1
Like the Bestiary, the Atlas of Eslin suffers because of its lack of artwork — in this case, maps. Not counting the incomplete color map on the cover, there are four maps in this book. And because they’re done in grey on a grey parchment background, they’re dark, bland and — in the case of the denser maps — difficult to read.
I would have preferred more smaller maps, done on pages with no background (so they’d be readable), or one really good color map. The Atlas‘s subpar maps aren’t a dealbreaker, but they’re also not a very good introduction to Epic‘s world of Eslin. Flipping through this book in the store, I would be underwhelmed by the maps.
Setting the maps aside, this book is divided into four sections: an introduction, which offers and overview of the world, a lengthy section on each of the three main realms, Rullaea, Rimenor and Ursyos-Elkinon, and an appendix of historical data. The bulk of the material is in the middle sections, which describe each realm in fairly general terms.
I actually wouldn’t describe the Atlas of Eslin as an atlas at all. Because it focuses mainly on culture, history and society, and less on geography and location information, it’s really more of a guidebook. This is a mixed blessing from a GMing standpoint.
On the one hand, there’s a ton of information on the different cultures of Eslin, including the real heart of the book — the various guilds — but very little on cool places for the characters to go, and no adventure hooks or campaign seeds.
Given my druthers, I’ll take that info over descriptions of marriage practices and culinary traditions any day, because it’s more directly and immediately useful for my game. I like extra detail, but it should be cut in favor of game-oriented details.
What the Atlas does describe, however, it describes well. Each section opens with a summary page that hits the high notes of that particular realm (a great in-play reference), and goes on to provide a wealth of cultural information. There’s enough about geography and important places to get you started, and the most important regions and kingdoms are presented in more detail.
The meat of the Atlas, however, is the guilds, socieities, groups and organizations that really make Epic pop. These are described realm by realm, and can be found most quickly via the index (unless you already know the realm, of course). Having covered these in the first part of this review, I won’t say anything more about them here, save that they’re one of my favorite things about the game as a whole. There are plenty of them, and if anything I wish there were more.
On the whole, the Atlas of Eslin is pretty good. With more maps and geographical details, and fewer bits of cultural esoterica, it could be better, but the guilds and some of the cultural info save the day.
From a GM’s Perspective
As a GM, there are four things that I really like about Epic. The first is the guild system, which anchors PCs to the setting right off the bat, and does so in a satisfying way. When I read the guild descriptions, they make me want to play the game — which suggests that my players might have the same experience. That kind of initial buy-in goes a long way to making for a fun game.
The second thing I like are the clever mechanics, particularly the skill and magic systems. I don’t like the mix of vague and specific in the individual skill descriptions, but the system of specialties and masteries offers plenty of options to the players.
Third is the game’s organization, which slips occasionally (mainly in the Rules Manual) but is generally excellent. Epic‘s use of sidebars, text boxes and appendices, plus the inclusion of a glossary and an index in every book, should make it quite easy to reference during prep or play. This is something many RPGs overlook to their detriment, and Epic has it in spades.
Fourth and last is the GMing chapter in the Rules Manual, which covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages and provides all sorts of advice.
Unfortunately, the two books that are intended primarily for the GM — the Atlas and the Bestiary — are the worst out of the four core books. With the notable exception of the underwhelming maps, the Atlas isn’t bad — but it could be better.
The Bestiary, however, is unremittingly terrible, which means if I were to run Epic, I would need to put in some serious time converting more setting-appropriate monsters. That’s pretty much inexcusable in any RPG, never mind a brand new one like Epic.
Should I Buy It?
If you’re looking for a fantasy RPG that mixes skill-driven characters with an engaging magic system, and grounds those characters firmly in the setting, Epic is worth picking up. In all of these areas, Epic mixes familiar elements with new ideas and takes them in interesting directions. It may not make a great first impression, but there’s some very good stuff under Epic‘s hood. Just skip the Bestiary.
If you’re not really looking for a new fantasy RPG, but would be intrigued if the right one came along, Epic probably isn’t the right one. The unusable monster book, so-so world book and the game’s layout issues (particularly the page background, which makes the main text very irritating to read) — will likely outweigh the game’s positives for you. (I fall into this category myself.)
I hope this review was useful to you, and as always feedback is very much welcome.