Publisher: Green Ronin
Review Dated: 19th, July 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 21
Average Score: 7.00
“You’ve read the book, now play the game!” announces the back of this mystery d20 product. What could the book be? It’ll have to be something that publisher Green Ronin is confidant that most gamers will have read. Lord of the Rings d20? Nope. Not that. It’s a more popular book than the Tolkien omnibus edition. Harry Potter d20? Try again. Less popular than the most recent tales of the boy wonder. What’s this? You’ve read the title of the review? That’s cheating.
Yes, this is a review of Testament, the d20 roleplaying game set in the Biblical Era. Sodom and Gomorrah don’t seem to be Open License. The Bible doesn’t appear to be in the recommended reading list and bibliography. That’s good. I’d hate to actually have to read the thing in order to play this game. So no, Testament isn’t a book that offends me in anyway. I can only hope that someone sent the religiously anti-roleplaying Jack Chick a copy with the disclaimer that Moses wasn’t really a 3rd-level paladin.7th-level Levite priest/10th-level prophet of the Lord with an enchanted staff of control water scratched out.
My God! That was my first reaction as I opened up the 240-paged paperback rulebook. Look at that text size! Look at that density! This isn’t a game I can read without my glasses on. The print is small. The book is black on grey too, there’s no blasphemously boring white paper in Testament. The whole book has the appearance, albeit greyscale, of parchment and the border regions are marked by an insidiously clever darkening of the background rather than by a sharp contrast. Testament is a good-looking book. The illustrations are good. The layout is better. The contents page and index are both accurate and detailed.
What about the content? Goliath is a Challenge Rating 16 Half-Nephilim fighter and David’s as a CR 19 multi-classed wonder. The outcome of that fight wasn’t a fluke. I’d bet on David any day. Multi-classed wonder? Okay. You asked for it. He’s a 7th-level Fighter, 9th-level Psalmist, 2nd-level Aristocrat and 2nd-level Rogue. Psalmist is one of the new classes available to the Israelites. There are plenty of new classes, prestige classes, feats, spells and monsters in Testament. There’s even a type of feat, the mythic feat, that’s sectioned off as not being suitable for normal game balance but which some GMs may allow for a mythic game. I think its right to judge Testament entirely on its ability to provide an engaging game. It’s about entertainment. That’s the key. The introduction makes that point to, “But RPGs work best as entertainment” it says. This isn’t a study guide. This isn’t a theological study. Having decided on the best way to view Testament it is easy to get to the truth. This is a good roleplaying game!
Most campaign settings focus on only a single point of time. It’s not uncommon to read what’s currently going on in the campaign world nor is it unheard of supplements to take the game world plot forward. Testament doesn’t do this. Testament spans eras. In it’s own words “Testament covers four major political spheres over a millennium of time”. The Antediluvian Era is the first possible era, it is given the rough date of 3,000 BCE. Giants walked the land, men lived to be 900 years old and corruption threatens to bring the Deluge of the Lord’s wrath. The book notes eight further eras but they’re all prefixed with the “Israel” tag. In truth the Antediluvian era is the Israelite interpretation of it too. GMs don’t have to concentrate on the Israelite point of view, though it’s easier to do so, the book provides classes and world information for Babylonians, Canaanites and Egyptians as well.
Every character in Testament is flawed. There’s a list of flaws and PCs have to take at least one. The player isn’t allowed to ignore the flaw but can roleplay it as much as they like. I guess that means you can scale the flaw as anything from a mild quirk to an obsession. This is a good idea. It suits the mood of the era and it encourages plot twists and good roleplaying.
Flaws are mandatory but piety is optional. Testament presents the Piety Score as an optional replacement for D&D’s alignment system. There’s an irony here. D&D’s alignment system is terribly Old Testament in its belief. There are no shades of grey and it is not contradictory to kill in the name of goodness. I guess Testament feels the need to shuffle away from that “one way is good, one way is evil” feel in order to fully deal with all the different religions in this setting. There’s no suggestion that following the Babylonian gods is evil. Piety represents how well you follow the teaching of your god. You can fall into the negative Piety level and there’s a risk that you’ll end up getting cursed by your angry god as a result. Now there’s a claim to fame. It wasn’t some wimpy sorcerer who cursed me with the pox, but God! Different religions. Different sins. With typical gaming jinx there’s a layout error on the Israelite Sin chart that draws attention to the fact that rape is only a -2 sin. The Babylonians, Canaanites and Egyptians all list the crime as -3. The Israelites have more sins to worry about, casting arcane magic is a sin, divination is bad and consorting with demons is even worse! Looking at the chart here I can see that “trimming one’s beard at the corners” and “tattooing self” are -1 sins. Just in case it ever comes up in your roleplaying game, sexual intercourse with an animal is a -3 sin for the Israelites but doesn’t seem to feature as a concern for the other religions. The Egyptians Gods may smite you down if you’re cruel to a cat or export one out of the country though. Okay. Despite the idiosyncrasies of right and wrong, I think the Piety system works. It’s better than the alignment system. In the Biblical Bestiary, however, you’ll get the traditional alignment values for the monsters and demons rather than any piety. The same is true of the famous NPCs that pepper the books. Aw. I wanted to see how pious Jezebel (of Babylon, yeah, _her_) is.
Jezebel is another multi-classed wonder. One of her classes is Idol-Maker, you don’t need to be the whore of Babylon or even a Babylonian to be an Idol-Maker as it’s one of the general classes used by the book. The book introduces core classes and prestige classes appropriate to the Israelite, Babylonian, Canaanite and Egyptian spheres. Testament also makes it clear which standard core classes and prestige classes (from the main rule books) are allowable for each sphere. It’s easy to find this information. It’s listed at least twice – good. You can’t be an Israelite and a Bard; the Psalmist replaces the class. Idol-Maker is a general class but it’s not open to the Israelites. I won’t go on with the examples except to note that Barbarians and Druids are out.
Testament is innovative in many ways but the most obvious example (aside from the Biblical Era concept) is the whacking great chapter for battles. The Biblical Battlefield is a reason to buy Testament. The minute a game offers me high diplomacy with the possibility of blood soaked armies as a kicker – I’m there. Testament keeps it simple but engaging. This is a winner formula. There’s virtually nothing on movement on the battlefield, nothing that looks like a war game at all. The system could almost fairly be summed up as two sides lining up and knocking seven shades of hit points out of each other. You can scale the carnage and realism by using either the realistic, heroic or mythic settings. Troop quality matters too. I’m pleased this is here. From watching too much Discovery Channel I know just how important it was. When empires became complacent they tended to meet a sticky end at the sword of the first competent aggressor that came along. It takes a little GM skill to handle magic on the battlefield. Battlefield feats are as potent in battle play as normal feats are in normal situations. There’s just enough in the system to give the PCs in the mass combat a chance to shine. The only downside to this chapter is that if you’re not interested in it then the lists of sample armies go on for a little too long.
Speaking of competent aggressors, imagine the horror of watching your men’s expensive breastplates completely fail to stop the spearheads of rival troops using some strange new metal. Testament can be set in the Bronze Age or later on in the Iron Age. It seems especially fun to run a game just when iron was new and a secret known to a few (enter The Secret of Iron feat). Huh oh? If you’re beginning to worry that your history isn’t up to the game then don’t worry; Testament eases you in. Actually, starting the “Economics, Community Management & Equipment” chapter with weapons and equipment is a cleverly roleplayer friendly way to explain concepts like the barter economy and community building. Running a small community of farmers and keeping safe from raiders is a challenge the PCs are more likely to face than some dungeon inexplicably buried in the desert. Testament provides comments and rules on such things as population changes, random community events and even a childbirth table. There’s a hasten birth spell!
There are lots of new spells. Old stalwarts such as blackguards and clerics receive new Testament styled spells but there are entire new classes with new spell lists that need to be catered for. They are. There are new domains too: Desert, Fertility, Heaven, Pestilence and Thunder. Given all this it comes as no surprise to see that there are pages and pages of new spells. Pages. However! What grabs my attention here isn’t the Dance of Nakedness spell but the Community Protection spell. Testament really does push forward the sense that you’re fighting for your people in a way that many RPGs just fail to do. It’s all about flavour. Testament oozes with flavour and you know it when you start spotting spells that strike you being extremely useful when you probably wouldn’t even consider them in another game. After pages of spells there are more pages of magic items and artifacts.
The Biblical Bestiary is divided up by sphere, that is to say there’s a section for Israelite monsters, Babylonian monsters, Canaanite monsters and Egyptian ones. “Monster” means anything not human. Angels make an appearance here. No stats for God, however. Boo. I wanted to see the Challenge Rating.
Chapter 10 through Chapter 24 are the meat of the setting. The book cycles through the main areas in the region, the Middle and Near East, starting with Israel and Canaan, and looks at the geography, the history of the peoples living there and their beliefs. As is the case for the entire book, the Israelites receive the most attention but no means do they receive all the attention. You can use this RPG to play in ancient Egypt. How cool is that? It’s here that you’ll find the stats or aside summaries for key figures in mythic history; Samson and Delilah, King Nebuchadrezzar, Cleopatra (who seems too late to have a biblical era claim), etc. You’re given sample names, handy if you can’t think of any Canaanite names off the top of your head, lists of deities and notes on cosmological views. It’s enough to make you wish you’d studied ancient anthropology at University, not because you need to have had to understand it all, but because of all this great campaign material that’s just waiting here to be tapped into.
If you’re slightly worried about campaigns for Testament then the book concludes with some observations and advice. It’s pick’n’mix. You won’t catch me speaking in Thous and Thys for normal GMing as the book suggests, I’ll save that for the NPCs. The numerous reference tables at the back of the book will make GMing that much less time consuming.
Poking fun at Testament is like shooting fish in barrel. Jesus saves. The rest of you take full damage. This isn’t a bad thing. As made clear from the trick is not to take the game too seriously and to enjoy it. Cheap shot jokes provide a few seconds of smirks but this game is good enough to provide years of game play. Testament could be an epic in every sense of the word. The campaign setting is amazingly engaging. The d20 adaptation is good and well supported. You need to see it to believe it. If you’re at all sceptical about concept then visit your local store, flick through the book and watch as the shop owner gets ready to accept your money. Testament isn’t a book you can flick through without wanting to buy it.