Game: Chain of Being
Publisher: Limestone Publishing
Series: Higher Arc
Review Dated: 3rd, September 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 7
Average Score: 7.00
Chain of Being is a roleplaying game like no other. For a start this review is for the electronic version of the Higher Arc rules edition and that’s a 266-paged PDF. That’s a hefty download but some of the enterprising online stories offer you the chance to have a CD copy mailed to you through the post.
Really. Chain of Being is a roleplaying game like no other. It manages to be very funny and entirely serious at the same time. It is a professional approach at a humorous game and it doesn’t get carried away with trying to be too wacky or zany. In fact you very well say it’s a successful parody of typical high fantasy roleplaying games. Villages are repeatedly terrorised by dragons. Barbarians see no reason why they shouldn’t wander through cities in their underwear. There are dungeons all around the place. The style of the parodies is to poke fun at the usual roleplaying tradition and then to put a twist into it. I get a strong Monty Python vibe from the writing. I noticed a few sly references to The Quest for the Holy Grail. In fact, if you’ve seen that film (and why not?) then you’ll have a head start on the sort of humour you might find in Chain of Being. The best single bit of advice I read in the product, though, was not to try to be funny. Despite the quality of Limestone’s writing it would have been all too easy for a reviewer to slaughter the concept of the game simply because it’s so hard to be spontaneously funny on demand.
Chain of Being is a serious game though. The table of contents is three pages in length. Three pages. That’s dedication for you. That’s attention to detail and attention to detail is a good introduction to the Higher Arc mechanics that are Limestone Publishing’s system. It’s not the intention of this review to put the game mechanics under scrutiny but since there are d20 and Higher Arc versions available I think it’s right to offer up some quick notes on the Arc. Higher Arc is level-less and class-less. There’s a whack of text in the product which explains the advantages of this and they’re preaching to the converted with me; expect it’s not a holier than thou bit of text, it’s a thought out set of comments. Higher Arc uses a lot of tables since it uses a clean degrees of success system. Since the game system uses degrees of success it is easy enough to learn the tables quickly or do without. You know a good result as and when it’s rolled. The attention to detail comes in two forms; mechanic play and game play. Mechanics are thorough enough to offer up different types of damage – it matters whether you poke someone with your sword or bring it down in a wild stroke from over your head. Hit locations boil down to fingers and toes if you want or pull back to see whether you hit the rider or the mount. In game play terms the authors really do seem to have a knack of knowing what actually goes on in a game and what sort of stuff player characters try doing and so there are rules or examples of that.
There’s an awful lot of reading in the rules then. We’re not even at the character generation bit yet either. Fortunately, since the book is funny it’s peppered with lovely examples. You can’t cut’n’paste from the PDF copy and so I imagine Limestone isn’t too keen to have all the jokes ripped out and exploited by websites. Ahem. However. I’ll make use of just a few for the purposes of providing a fair review! Here’s what I mean about how examples with a comedic kick can lighten the reading load. The example below illustrates the falling damage rules and comes from the chapter “On Permutations: Beating People Up & Turning Them into Newts”.
“Verb Bellowsmember, a dwarven barbarian, has fallen from the top of his horse. Since he was standing on his horse’s head at the time, and he had a very large horse, this entails a fall of 7 feet (the distance between the bottom of his feet and the ground is 7 feet). The Cobbler checks the Damage from Falling Chart and finds that a 7 foot fall means an attack proficiency of 8. Since Verb is falling on some sharp boulders, she adds a bonus of +5 to the attack (+4 for landing on a rigid surface, +1 for the sharpness). The she rolls the attack. Vern, if he survives, will learn a valuable lesson about standing on his horse’s head above sharp objects. “
See; it’s funny. It’s zany funny without being in your face. The Cobbler, by the way, is the GM.
By the time you’ve read the introduction, the information about Gameality and the two chapters of mechanics you’re made your way through 52 pages of the 266. If you’re not a fan of the crunchy side of the hobby then you’ll welcome the arrival of the Cultures chapter as much as I did. Unfortunately, the PDF bookmarks get a little mixed up here and I don’t think it’s on purpose. All the type-chapters for the various core PC races (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Orc, Spite, Treep and Troll) are stuck under the Dwarf race heading and not under their individual race. It’s a bit of a bother but doesn’t detract too seriously from the contents of the chapter. I do like the Limestone writing style. It has that detailed yet succinct quality that I wish I had myself. Here, in this flavour heavy section the author has the chance to let that quality shine without the interference of too much game foo. And it’s great. The illustrations really help too. The male and female of each race are pictured and a witty caption for them all. All the illustrations are in black and white but given the size of the e-document that’s not a bad thing. It’s worth noting that there are no sidebars either. If do want to print this out then you have those two facts going for you at least.
One of the most surprising inclusions in the game is the 25-paged chapter for the various organisations that exist throughout Terrek. The curse of the PDF bookmark strikes again though and the Dungeon Enthusiasts have all the section bookmarks for the entire chapter in their part of the hierarchy. The Dungeon Enthusiasts are a loose nit collection of rich people who build dungeons as a hobby, as a work of art. They’re the people responsible for how the term “dungeon” is tends to be used for any underground area. They’re also why your players might spend a scenario rounding up monsters for the dungeon rather than trying to rid the place of them. Special attention, I believe, must be given to the “Meta-Oracles of the Sacred Polyhedra”. These people have worked out that their world is just a roleplaying game. They’re right too. Once more I just can’t help myself quoting from the text. This in on the philosophies of the organisation and the Cobbler is the GM.
“To this end, the Meta-Oracles are interested in somehow harnessing the power of the Cobbler. They may not know exactly who or what the Cobbler is, but they do know that it’s an almost incomprehensibly powerful being who words shape the very fabric of their universe. The Meta-Oracles figure that just as other mortals once replaced the gods of the Olympiad, their organization will eventually replace the Cobbler, giving them nearly unlimited power over everything. That’s the long-term goal, anyway.
The Meta-Oracles have learned from their studies that the Cobbler controls NPCs. Naturally, this makes every NPC a pawn of the Cobbler, and necessarily an enemy of the Meta-Oracles. The Meta-Oracles thus ban NPCs from their organization.”
After the chapter on organisations the book takes us into the important individuals. It’s a nice touch. This is the character generation system. It’s a class-less system but there are nearly four pages of possible careers though; bullet point suggestions with a line or two of text for each. There are some treasures hidden away here such as the page that gives tips on making a funny character; just get yourself a decent concept and the rest should come. You’ll get decent concept ideas from the product. As with the core Higher Arc mechanics the character generation system is long because it’s thorough. Skills are optional though. You can cater for your crunchy preferences and can do without if you want.
Then there are more rules. Character generation introduces new levels and concepts – like the various ways to do magic and so this is all divided up into chapters, sections and pages and put down in meticulous detail. As always there’s plenty of Limestone’s intelligent humour injected in and this makes all a whole lot easier to read through. The thing with PDF products is that flicking back and forth, coming back to a chapter when you’re ready for it or skipping ahead to the next section isn’t quite as easy with a book and so this tends to stretch things out. Roleplaying games, like reference books, are rarely designed to be read from cover to cover in one linear read. If you try doing just that with Chain of Being then you will increasingly come to appreciate the writing style and frequent jokes.
The last couple of chapters in the book are there to make your life easier, especially if you’re going to try your hand at Cobbling. In turn the chapters on Adventuring, on the Setting and then on Allies and Adversaries offer up reassurance and insight into the slightly different from of roleplaying that marks out Chain of Being as being, er, so different. Allies and Adversaries is the most recognisable of the three, a mix of beastiary and NPC templates. The Adventuring chapter really does help to sooth any concerns you might have about the challenge of creating a humorous concept for a game. There’s plenty of easy to use ideas, such as tips to rip off myths and fariy tales, twist published adventures. exaggerate sterotypes or reverse them entirely, to try ruthless sadism from time to time and, again, not to worry about humour. Except, of course, this isn’t a British game and so you have one less u in humor to even worry about worrying about.
It took me a while to read through Chain of Being. It arrived during a particularly busy patch of real life and yet I found it quite cathartic to open up the document on my computer and read a bit before getting back to work. This isn’t a play test review and although a read through of the Higher Arc rules hasn’t left me confused and I do think they’re all explained clearly I just know that I’ll want to roll those dice (sorry, those polyhedra of fortune) a few times with it just to get the feel. It’ll be easier to be funny if you don’t have to worry about rules. I appreciate the fact that the document is printer friendly but some of the game tables suffer just a little from the curly letter font. Chain of Being will surprise people. I suspect the idea of a comedy RPG will struggle to appeal to the masses but I think it deserves a chance. I don’t see it replacing Paranoia but as with that infamous Sci-Fi spoof I do see the game being pulled out and played on those rainy weekends were enthusiasm for anything too serious has been washed away.