Lex Arcana: An Empire Without End Quickstarter by Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello, adventure by Giacomo Marchi, 2019 Quality Games S.r.l.
Long-time readers know that I will often talk about newly-arrived games in the Grubbstreet household. Many come in. All are flipped through. Some are read. A few are actually played. When I talk about the new arrivals I don't go into a lot of details and hesitate to call my write-ups reviews. The big reason is that games should be played, and reviewing a game based on the text alone is like reviewing a play based on its script. It can be done and done well (look at the voluminous amount of Shakespeare commentary), but doesn't get the experience of the game itself. Similarly, reviewing a live play is like reviewing a performance, where a lot of elements come into play, but I think it is more honest to take it out for a spin.
Anyway, this is a review. I had the chance to run my regular Saturday night crew through the Quickstarter, and got a fair idea of both the mechanics and the game world. So here goes.
Lex Arcana is the X-Files in a Roman Empire that never fell. The year is 476 CE in our parlance, which was when the (Western) Roman Empire fell. In this world is is AUC (Year of the City) 1229, and Rome is still chugging along at its maximum empirical extent. This is mainly because a) there are gods, and b) there is divinatory magic that allows Rome to avoid letting things fall apart.
That doesn't mean there are no threats to the empire, and that's where the Player Characters come in. You are custodes (watchmen, guards, agents) of the Cohors Auxilaria Arcana, which is a special detachment of the Roman Legion, recruited from across the Empire to deal with supernatural dangers. You've been touched by the gods and act as agents of Rome. You may be sent off as the result of a vision, an omen, or a report from the hinterlands, and given wide leeway in dealing with threats to the Empire.
You have Abilities (Called Virtutes) and Skills (called Peritiea) Ah, that's another thing. Everything is named in Latinate terms, which helps in getting the proper feeling but can create havoc in play. The good news is that most of skills and abilities make sense to a non-Italian speaker - your coordination ability is Coordinatio, your combat skill is de Bello. The bad news is they truly need a Pronunciation Guide for the poor semi-literate English-speakers. My dog-latin would make a hound howl, and I am afraid I risked one of Jove's Thunderbolts mangling the language. The game master, by the way, is called a Demiurge.
Anyway, you have "Dice Points" in your Abilities and Skills, and this is interesting. You can roll any type of dice (d2, d3, d4, d6, d8,etc...) for an ability test up to the maximum number on that dice. So with a Coordinatio of 12, you can roll a d12, or 3d4, or 2d6, or a d10 plus a d2. It is an interesting mechanism. Adding to that is that the dice "explode" (like in Spelljammer's smoke powder rules) - if you get a maximum on your dice (all three d4s come up 4), you roll again and add that to your total. Which sometimes is overkill, since you will likely have made the Difficulty Threshold already.
Results also come in degrees of success - You can increase damage or get more information if you beat the Difficulty Threshold by a sufficient number. For every three points you get an additional success. In combat, both sides roll their de Bello, and then high score wins damaging the loser (tying rolls do nothing - you are clanging swords at each other). Degrees of success can multiply the damage. Shields can affect whether damage is done, and armor reduces the damage itself.
One nasty bit is that multiple attackers on the same target add their rolls over a single round (tempo). The first attacker makes his de Bello, then that result is added to the next attacker's score and so on. So a mob can really overwhelm a solitary defender (One of the group was hit hard by a number of giggling child-demons and almost got wiped out).
The group was sent by their local magister into long-conquered Gaul to check out a vision he had. They find a bandit lord who seems to be a lot more charismatic than he has any right to be. He is supposedly a "new Vercingetorix" (yeah, I tripped over that name, though I know it from Asterix et Obelix comics), who was the last great Gaulish chief. In tracking the Bandit Lord to his lair, they discover that the Celtic gods themselves are restless and seeking to mount their own resurrections and rebellion.
And the adventure moved pretty smoothly, with a good combination of action and interaction. There are a lot of random tables for the Celtic gods bedeviling the player characters, and not all of them immediately visible, so I chose results as opposed to rolled them. The story line does have a false branch, in that the heroes can explore the west or the east of the main city(my group, of course, investigated both, setting off ALL the encounters in the process). Regardless of choice, you eventually discover an outpost of the Bandits (same encounter regardless) which in turn leads you to their secret base and potentially a big battle scene (which runs pretty well for such a large number of combatants - my team forced them back into their keep and laid siege, forcing the Bandit Lord's surrender, much like Vercingetorix did). Unfortunately, the way the adventure is written, there is a very small chance the player characters find out WHAT was really going on - why this schmoe got the favor of his gods in the first place.
But all in all, it was a pretty good setup (we're a bit leisurely in our play, so we wrapped it up in about four or five nights). It gave some good challenges for a low-level group. There was a good mix of the prosaic and the fantastic. We had to walk through the combat carefully at first, but it came together naturally.
The game has elements of traditional (D&D) style RPGs - the call and respond nature, the game master, the use of polyhedrals, to be comfortable, but enough new material (combat system, sortes) to challenge established players. The setting has great potential (I have a number of additional sourcebooks), and gives the players a strong direction of what they need to do (your boss had a bad dream - go check it out). In the Quickstarter, the differences between the classes is a matter of dice points you have, but that expands out in the core ruleset.
Final summary? Worth playing, and worth playing again. A good time was had by all. Just wish I had taken more ranks in dog-latin.