The pathway to the stars is paved with the bodies of the fallen. The slow drift from Earth into the cold void has not gone without hitch or sacrifice along the way. Greed, politics, ideology, nationalism – these and more have made the journey along the River of Heaven a hard one – and yet, perhaps, the future holds a promise. Can the scattered fragments of humanity grasp the possibilities of the Bright Age and transcend their differences to embrace their full potential?
River of Heaven is a hard science-fiction tabletop role-playing game. Set centuries in the future, the age-old tale of humanity’s intolerance, ignorance and greed threaten to sweep away the Bright Age and sink once more into darkness…
River of Heaven is a self-contained tabletop rule system and setting, written by John Ossoway and published by D101 Games. The book uses a variant of the OpenQuest rule system and you can play with just this book, dice, a few friends and something to record your characters.
You can purchase a physical book or a 247-page PDF, with a very nice cover by John Hodgson and a solid scattering of colour illustrations. The interior artwork is simple and functional, a slightly unusual style that nevertheless works.
Having come straight off the back of reading and reviewing Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels, the broad structure of River of Heaven felt quite familiar. They both run off a similar percentile driven system – owing their origin to Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system in the distant past – and they both kick off with character generation, detail supporting character creation, and then the background material of the setting.
The mechanical heart of River of Heaven springs from Newt Newport’s OpenQuest system. At a basic level, you have areas of expertise – like Deception or a skill with melee weapons – rated on a percentage scale. To complete a standard task, you roll d100 and aim to roll equal to or below. If circumstances favour you, adjust the target up. If not, drop it down. If you roll equal to or less than a tenth, you get a critical. Roll exactly 100 and you’re always going to fail – even if you have managed to train your ability to exceed one hundred.
The system has one essential design choice declared up front – keep modifiers simple. Rather than worry about lengthy calculations of small positive and negative modifiers, weight up the pros and cons, then apply a substantial one. Firing at a distant target in heavy rain at twilight? -50% to your roll. No need to sweat the small stuff, juggling a dozen modifiers only to find you end up adjusting the roll by -5%.
The other guidance that really supersedes big mods is – don’t roll the dice at all if it breaks the flow of the game. If you have an action packed situation and you know the character has a decent skill in it, why stop to worry about whether they’ll fumble? If a player character has Drive 80% and you know the bad guys don’t even have a Drive value written down, do you need to roll? Maybe you do – maybe the players want a stress-filled chase scene; but, if the roll is just to see if the character fumbles and that isn’t going to advance the story, why roll?
So, River of Heaven starts out with a little background, both in game and out – a two-page Story So Far and then various pages on what the system and setting offers, an example of play and so on – before launching into character generation.
Rather than go through material echoed from the OpenQuest core, I’ll touch on what River of Heaven does differently.
In character generation, you get Concepts, which offer a quick portrait of standard character archetypes, along with suggested skills and augmentations. Choose a Concept that comes close to the sort of character you want to play, then allocate points to characteristics and skills as you choose. Or, you can go all old school and roll some dice for the high-level characteristics.
The Skill section offers a range of fairly broad expertise, mirroring OpenQuest and adding in areas needed for high technology. All Skills start with a base value – calculated from core characteristics – and then you assign points to increase them. Skills cluster into general groups – like Combat, Knowledge or Practical skills – and depending on your Concept you’ll assign your points in different ways. I felt a few areas came off very broad, but that would be a personal thing and actually critical of OpenQuest rather than River of Heaven.
For example, Deception (based of Dexterity and Intelligence) covers checks for Disguise, Sleight-of-Hand, and Stealth. Personally, I think that’s quite a broad brush – as an actor might have more skill in the first, less in the second and none in the last – whereas a spy would probably be the other way round. And then, why DEX + INT as a base, when personal presence (Charisma) seems quite relevant?
The section also discusses the rules and offers plenty of examples, which I always value. The basic skill check is equal or less. For opposed rolls, both parties roll and equal, less and highest wins out.
Augmentation handles the physical upgrades that humanity employs to enhance their effectiveness and overcome deficiencies. In a hostile universe and on alien worlds, you need to have an edge. This pokes into the area that a fantasy world filled with spells and magic items. in this case, Augmentation costs money and needs the facilities to install. You might use BioEnergy to power the more significant upgrades – especially where relevant to combat – and need to make an activation roll. Most of the time, it just works. On the downside, if you install too much of the stuff you lose your humanity and over time the transcendence toward machine will rob you of your character!
I felt this section read quite loose and a bit too vague. Indeed, by the end of the book I wasn’t really sure how relevant BioEnergy would be outside of combat. In a way, that simplicity makes for a tool that doesn’t attract endless book-keeping, but I think more guidance and structure would help.
Sections on Equipment and Transportation provide you will a considerable list of technology, weapons, vehicles, and starships. You have a solid scattering of background on the tech, details of the tech levels required to produce particular gear, and costs where the player characters might have sufficient funds to own something outright.
The River of Heaven setting embraces a primarily human-centric universe. Aliens have existed and still do, but most current examples represent adversaries and savages. Those aliens of sufficient advancement to offer bleeding edge technological advance have either died out millennia ago or exist in a state beyond our ken. The first contact with alien life in our Solar System resulted in a war against an insubstantial enemy able to possess victims and turn them against us.
Some tech in these chapters has come from alien sources or through reverse engineering of alien concepts. These technologies come black box and ready to go. Other technologies humanity can manufacture themselves with the right resources and facilities. With a touch of history and a sprinkling of Dune, Guilds control certain technologies – like quantum communications, piloting and engineering of Step Drives, an alien propulsion system that draws on wormhole technology.
Combat comes sandwiched between Equipment and Transportation. Like Luther Arkwright, River of Heaven emphasizes the last resort of combat. When you have energy weapons and alien technology, you don’t want to wade into a battle at every opportunity. Better to consider the covert, the diplomatic or the lateral options.
In The Mission – which deals with game mechanics – but especially Combat, some of the clutter free promise of the system comes unravelled. While much of the aversion to modifiers and complexity remains thankfully intact, occasionally the game missteps. This caught me hardest on the Ranged Attack Situational Modifiers table. The section starts by stating ‘The following modifiers are not cumulative,’ but the fourteen presented modifiers include footnotes like ‘Modifiers within these sections are not cumulative. However, modifiers from different sections are cumulative.’ and ‘Attacker condition modifiers are cumulative.’ Sad face.
It’s a not insurmountable niggle that this sort of thing happens more than once, where the clean modification by +25% or -50% descends into smaller changes. Again, this critical comment applies to the OpenQuest core as much as River of Heaven. I wanted a system that stuck to those guns of clean living and simple modifiers…
The heart of River of Heaven lies in the following three sections – The Bright Age, The Hegemony and Islands in a Sea of Stars. The first provides a detailed timeline of one thousand years from now to the opening of the 31st century. Some parts repeat material from the opening of the book but go into more detail, picking out key years and game-changing events.
The Hegemony looks to the trinary system of Alpha Centauri and the population settled there. Site of the first colony, the section outlines the history, personalities, encounters, politics and planets that make up the region. In principle, this would seem the focus for adventures in the River of Heaven core. The rise of the Hegemony politically challenges the core. They were first to make contact with the Machine Intelligence – a civilisation born from rogue sapient AI – and have become a focus of explorers, treasure hunters, reactionaries, anarchists, fanatics, pirates and spies.
From this section, you could take any point in time and play out the adventures therein. You could strike the trail of the first settlers, weather the storms and conflicts of growth, handle the challenge of first contact, or deal with the repercussions of growth – all spanning hundreds of years. For those familiar with sweeping story games like Microscope, I can see real potential for generation hopping campaigns in this background.
For those who don’t fancy Alpha Centauri, details of the Solar System and other worlds lie in the next chapter. Throughout the background, we have had fleeting and tasty references to aliens, ancient ruins and lost civilisations… But, herein lies an issue.
Instead of rich setting material thick with exotic alien vegetation and twisted architecture, Island in a Sea of Stars – a section that occupies 21-pages of the book, not far off 10% of the page count – has way too much planetary and spectral information. The carefully catalogued and tabulated material serves no purpose, unless you’re playing River of Heaven as an Elite-like trading simulation. The chapter describes key systems and within each the primary worlds that offer some form of a habitable biome, but so much lacks gameable detail and worries too much about scientific facts.
Who will ever reference the Obliquity to Orbit of a planet? Yet, we have this sliver of information (amongst other throwaway data) for every planet. Hard sci-fi is about the science, but not at the expense of viable setting information.
It would have been far preferable to have the information to hand that tells you whether you’re going to have a hard time picking up a Hard Suit and a Heavy Stunner on Persephone or not. Instead, we have diagrams comparing planet size, descriptions of system debris, and paragraphs outlining the presence of uninhabitable worlds.
River of Heaven doesn’t contain an adventure but does have six half-page Adventure Seeds to kick you off. I would have liked to see more – perhaps shorter -seeds. Alternatively, a clearly stated hook or two per planet in ‘Island in a Sea of Stars’ would have been good.
Finally, the book offers Friends and Foes – outlining statistics for adversaries, aliens and wildlife – and References – which suggests further reading and viewing opportunities.
To strike out with a summary of River of Heaven, yes I will be running this game. While not perfect or necessarily complete in this single volume, the system and setting hold tappable potential.
The solid benefit of the OpenQuest heritage means that you can scavenge more enemies and obstacles from any game that runs on a similar system – from the gold covered Basic Roleplaying game through Mongoose’s Legend to The Design Mechanisms’ RuneQuest. If you’re a gamer already, you have every chance of already owning material reasonably compatible with this game.
Of OpenQuest, the simplified approach and desire to keep crunch minimally won me over; but, presented here that simplicity at times becomes obscured.
In respect of the background and the hard science edge, I feel some background real estate would have been better spent. The repetition of elements from the start of the book and the fascination with the spectral class of stars could have been used to further detail personalities, organisations and alien ruins.
River of Heaven’s timeline shows all sorts of opportunities for adventure and I hope the John and other writers have a chance to explore. I’d like to see adventures and material exploring the whole sweeping history and not just the start of the 28th century. Our galaxy is filled with potential!
My review is based on a personal hardback copy of the game. River of Heaven, John Ossoway, D101 Games. Available on RPGNow, $15 PDF, with options for softcover and hardback.