Game: Chain of Being
Publisher: Limestone Publishing
Review Dated: 30th, September 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
Chain of Being is one of those rare creatures; it’s a humorous RPG that’s actually funny. The game described as; “The Fantasy Roleplaying Game of Epic Absurdity” is actually more of a spoof on the fantasy genre than it is far out and zany. It’s a large PDF. All 190 pages are meticulously book marked and its nice and easy to jump to where you want to be. There is a good deal of black and white illustrations throughout the book and this adds significantly to the size of the PDF. The high-resolution version of the product is actually just over 36,000K in size but the ‘standard’ version is about 9,500K. Taking the CD option for this particular electronic RPG is likely to suit most people.
This review is for the d20 version of the game. In it’s natural state Chain of Being uses the Higher Arc system. The Higher Arc system is pretty good. Higher Arc can be fairly crunchy at times but provides for degrees of success and is essentially class-less. This flexibility is essential of Chain of Being and I’m pleased to see the d20 system put to the test and converted appropriately. Degrees of Success in the d20 system are achieved simply taking the difference between the final totals of opposing dice rolls. The class-less approach to roleplaying is achieved by adding one more class to the game. The custom class is strange thing. Under the auspices of the custom class your character gains no hit dice, feats, special abilities, spells, attributes or anything else other than skills as he gains in levels. He has a lot of skill points to spend. There are new skills though and these skills include the likes of “Increase Hit Die”, “Gain Feat” and “Increase Ability Score”. This works quite well, translating nearly into a straight point based progression system and yet retaining the benefits of levels for game mechanics like magic user’s casting level. I think it needs a little more clarification and tidying up though. I can use my “Jump” skill as many times as I want but I very much expect that Limestone Publishing did not intend the “Increase Ability Score” in the same way. The d20 system of Chain of Being also inherits a lot of Higher Arc’s hard work. The hit location tables here are exact in their minutia; almost funnily so.
If you’re new to both Higher Arc and d20 then go for the Higher Arc version of this game. This d20 translation holds only one advantage over the original and that’s if you’re already comfortable and confident with the game mechanics then it’s easier to sit back, have fun and be spontaneous. That’s what the Chain of Being is all about.
Chain of Being is not all about the mechanics. It’s about the wonderfully weird world in which it is set in and the groups of people who inhabit it. There are the common fantasy races and then organisations of note.
In Gameality there must be an infinite number of races but the main PC races detailed are: Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, Humans, Orcs, Sprites, Treep (Tree people) and Trolls. The write up on each of these races is intensive, offering everything from the basic appearance of the race (female dwarves have beards) through racial slurs and general traits and languages. Each of the race sections has a picture showing male and female of the race. These illustrations are like a funny caption game as you scroll down the PDF. As the picture starts to load (and this delay can be obvious, especially in the hi-res version) you’ve time enough to imagine just what the caption might be and typically the writers at Limestone never fail to hit the nail on the head and provide something witty.
One of the most surprising inclusions in the game is the 25-paged chapter for the various organisations that exist throughout Terrek. These organisations serve both as valuable and much needed meat for the game world and as classic examples of Chain of Being humour. The Dungeon Enthusiasts, for example, 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.”
There are two types of magic in Chain of Being. There’s magic cast by mages and magic cast by avatars. This translates well enough into Arcane and Divine magic but it requires suitable suspension of disbelief or at least a couple of experience levels before you can consider a character to be using avatar magic. Wizards, Sorcerers and Bards are the best candidates for mages and Paladins, Clerics, Druids and Rangers for avatar. This distinction is not a game mechanic one. It is possible to be playing a Custom Class spell-slinger and thus be using and learning spells in a similar manner to Wizards, Sorcerers and Bards and yet be wielding divine magic. The importance of gods in Chain of Being will be most noticed by the players when it comes to magic. Gods don’t particularly like mages and that’s something to worry about. Avatars who, as their name suggests, channel their magic from their god must actually worship the god for this to continue. There’s a suggested -2/+2 modifier for divine spells based on how pious the avatar has been. Game mechanics like this make a lot of sense, Limestone Publishing are particularly good at poking fun at these foibles of fantasy roleplaying. This isn’t an unfair advantage or disadvantage for avatars/divine spell casters though since there’s a similar table for the use of appropriate materials for mages/arcane spells. There’s a handful of news spells as well, spells like “Advanced Food & Drink Purification” and “Egoth’s Generic Modular Elemental Deathspell”. The latter spell actually comes with a handy collection of tables for working how just how much damage is done for being caught in a number of different effect shapes (cones, beams, etc), damage types (acid, heat, etc) based on degrees of success. The spell isn’t unusual in that it comes complete with levels of success suggestions, many of the others to do, but it leaps out as a valuable resource from the supplement that could easily be used elsewhere too. Where there are spells there are magical items and this rule isn’t broken here. Many of the magical items are illustrated and I there’s no doubt that anyone who puts the Helmet of Stupidity on is deserving of everything they get.
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 as is essentially a bestiary. 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 are plenty of easy to use ideas, such as tips to rip off myths and fariy tales, twist published adventures. exaggerate stereotypes 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. The largest of these chapters though is the Setting. There are over 20 pages of setting, offering up everything from detailed city states, seas and even the heavens. Every D&D player should visit Gygaxia.
Chain of Being is an inspired game and this is a brave d20 conversion. I thought any attempt to take a class-less game and mould it into the wrapper of the d20 system would be doomed from the outset but CoB does pretty well. There’s just a touch of awkwardness though, trying to fit all the baggage that comes with core d20 does get in the way of the flexibility and fluidness of the original name. On the other hand if you’ve already mastered d20 and see no reason to try anything else then this version of Chain of Being fills a much neglected niche; the comedy game. My CD of Chain of Being (d20) also came with the wonderful Void RPG which is the only game that successfully uses the d0 system.