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Purpose Built Centurion

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013 | Posted by FraserRonald

Centurion RPGThe idea for a role-playing game focused on playing legionaries was in my head as early as August of 2009 when I did a podcast series on playing military characters in role-playing games, and did episodes on Republican Rome, the Civil Wars and the early Empire. I had always loved Roman history and the image of the legion, and I had run games set in Imperial Rome, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, but hadn’t thought about actually designing a game for legionaries.

Then I created Sword Noir and Kiss My Axe, and I realized this was something I could do. I decided it was something I wanted to do. And thus was Centurion: Legionaries of Rome set on its long path to realization.

What’s the point, you might ask, of developing a game with such a specific focus when there are other games out there that could probably do the job? One of the reasons is because I can. The mountain climber answer never appeased anyone, so let me try this: other games might do the job, but what if one wants a game designed for the job. There’s a good chance that game will do the job better.

I spent most of my role-playing life playing with one system: Dungeons & Dragons. Why bother to learn another system when this one does what I want? And, yeah, sometimes it doesn’t do exactly what I want, but it’s close, and I can always house-rule it.

So until a little under a decade ago, I was in the thrall of D&D. Completely. It was not a bad place to be, and let me tell you, I am excited about 5E … or D&D Next … or whatever it’s going to be. I still love D&D and that’s because it does its own thing so well. It has created its own fantasy genre that is different from anything else out there. That doesn’t mean it is the perfect game for all genres.

Somewhere along the line, as I played and discovered different games, I realized that system did indeed matter. To me, story still matters the most – it will always matter the most – but wouldn’t it be better to play a game designed around an idea than to try to bend an existing system around it? I loved playing D&D, but it didn’t exactly do Conan, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, or – it turns out – Sword Noir.

Sword Noir was my first actual game design, and to be honest, it was as much rules borrowing as system design. I borrowed those pieces of other systems because they worked for what I wanted, and what I wanted was encapsulated in an idea, a paragraph description of sword noir as a genre that became my design mantra. I realized that I could actually design a game to do what I wanted it to do, a game designed for the genre I wanted to play.

I pushed that even farther with Kiss My Axe. It was based on Sword Noir, but I had specific design goals – such as making combat fast, cinematic and fun – that informed each decision.

I didn’t move forward with Centurion in all that time because I didn’t know exactly what I could do to create a legionary RPG. I had some touchstones, such as the HBO miniseries Rome, and I knew I wanted to hew close to history, to be an actual historical game closer to Kiss My Axe than Sword Noir. What I didn’t have was the design concept.

The dice mechanic came first. The idea was to have a mittful of d6s with which you could build other dice to use in task resolution, so if you had 7d6, you might spend 4d6 to get a d10, another 2d6 to get a d8, and that last d6 would be there all by itself. You’d be rolling a d10, a d8 and a d6 for task resolution, and you’d know the GM’s “hand” before you made those decisions. It’s a little touch of strategy in a game about the legions, which seemed important to me.

Then came the motivation. I needed to provide motivation to the players to meet the game’s concept of a legionary. Three virtues of supreme importance for legionaries become the Aspects: Duty, Honour, Valour. Aspects have changed as the game has evolved, but in the final form, they represent a pool of experience that can be tapped to provide temporary advantages or spent to increase the character’s capabilities. That seemed right for me.

And now, with only a week left as I write this, the Centurion crowd-funding campaign at Kickstarter has enough of a buffer above the required funding so that I can confidently say: this game is getting made. It likely won’t see release until September 2013, but anyone who pledges even a dollar can see the playtest document and get an idea what I’m doing with these rules.

If you are still using generic rules to try to replicate very specific genres, I’m not going to tell you that you are wrong. If you’re having fun, I’d say you are doing it right. I would also say that you might have more fun if you try a game designed to do something specific, a game that ties itself to something rather than nothing.

Not every problem is a nail.


  1. Looks interesting. Actually I have been running a long standing RuneQuest 3 (Avalon Hill) campaign focussed on military with a reasonably roman influenced slant and yes the lack of skirmish and mass combat rules have been a disadvantage. My brother and I have tried various house rules which have had different degrees of success. Some are way too wargamey, some far too simple. For the actual characters, who are specifically a centurion, opito and a vexillary it works well, just when the whole maniple gets involved it can get a bit tiresome. Last saturday we had a reasonable skirmish and I basically just set up a span of miniatures and we went one at a time rolling a single base % which was hit or miss, nothing more detailed other than damage and area if hit. Even so it took over an hour. Had we gone into detail I think we would still be at it:)

    Comment by Tiberius - March 26, 2013 1:30 am

  2. Salve Tiberius! I’ve never played RuneQuest, but Centurion also does not have skirmish or mass combat rules. One of the stretch goals for the Kickstarter campaign is mass combat, but it’s one of the higher ones. I’m going to look at offering it as an option for the $5,000 stretch goal, then if enough people want it, we can do it. Right now, the game is focused on players playing scouts, spies and special troops, allowing the kind of independence and scope of actions most players want in an RPG.

    Comment by FraserRonald - March 26, 2013 7:39 am

  3. Thanks Fraser. Also if one looks on Rome series you mentioned, how at the start at Alesia it was still down to just a few lads doing their bit. So its actually very workable to have the party do stuff a small unit would do in a bigger engagement. So yes scouting, advance guard, manning a siege engine, sneak attacks etc. Also even if a character gets promoted to say centurion, the rest of the party need not just be soldiers, they could be legates, decurions etc. Good luck I hope the system works out well.

    Comment by Tiberius - March 26, 2013 9:27 am

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