Art: Stephanie McAlea
I don’t like complexity in my tabletop-roleplaying games. It’s not just my age, I’m also more interested in the adventure than the stacking the of feats and traits. And, as a GM, frankly, the chaotic exploding synergies of games like Dungeons and Dragons make me feel panicky.
However, I don’t like it when glossing over resource management breaks genre conventions — if torches can’t run out, if food isn’t scarce, then players will turn each dungeon adventure into weaponized archaeology.
Unfortunately, I’m also — on reflection — unkeen on randomized emulations that take away the possibilities and drama created by choice: “Oh, you rolled a ‘1’. Whoops your arrows ran out.” (Some games square this circle a little.)
That’s why I was excited when Omer Golan-Joel announced he was working on a Sword and Sorcery game called (drum roll) Sword of Cepheus: 2D6 Sword and Sorcery Roleplaying.
The Cepheus Engine is the flagship for a movement of indy 2D6 games, all under an Open Gaming License related to a certain classic SF game. 2D6 games are generally old-school emulators, with encumbrances and resource management. However, unlike D20 OSR stuff, they have recursive rules — the clue is in the “2D6” — and skill lists rather than classes, meaning you don’t have lots of bolt-on background abilities and feats, because your skill list is your background and distinctive range of capabilities. Normally, character generation is a mini-game in itself. You navigate a career, with one eye on the possibility of aging badly — chicken versus the Grim Reaper — also generating your own backstory as you go. It’s not so good for big sweeping stuff, but perfect for adventurers having adventures.
Art Luigi Castallani
No surprise, then, that Sword of Cepheus does not disappoint. Park your S-Type Scout and come take a look.
And yes, you can die in character generation…
I haven’t actually played this game yet! It just arrived, and — worse — current conditions in Scotland make it impossible to get a table together! I should also mention that I gave feedback on an early draft of this, so my name is down as a “play tester.”
The softback version is nicely bound A4, with 140 well-laid-out pages of text, and good indices. It makes economical use of black and white artwork, some of it old, all of it atmospheric, and none of it so big and black that it will eat your printer ink.
So, what’s in the thing? (Now would be a good moment to go take a look at the character sheet.)
The “Introduction” sets out the genre — “big muscles, big swords, eldritch sorcery, powers of the mind, eldritch beasts” and points to the usual literary inspirations. You won’t be hurling fireballs around like a pyrotechnic Dr Strange, but you might be succumbing to corruption from messing with Dark Sorcery. Risk level doesn’t adapt to the characters, rather it’s something they have to manage.
You’re clearly not in Kansas any more! However, you might well be at a fireside in Crossplains Texas.
The rest of the game lives up to this, though it does assume that you already have a sense of the setting and genre; that makes for a lean usable rule book, but might perplex a younger GM.
Art: Public Domain
Guess what? It’s 2D6 + Stat and/or Skill throughout.
There are massive upsides to this, though it does sacrifice the charm of all those different dice, and physically having two dice per figure can be a nuisance in mass battles (but that’s true of all 2D6 games).
“Skills” and “Character Generation” is what you’d expect: 2D6 for each of 6 characteristics, with optional rules for more or less player choice. You then enter a career, possibly of your choice, and go through 4-year long terms trying to survive it — though there’s an option for failed survival roles to result in an interesting Mishap instead… and the mishaps are generally interesting.
The one-page Skill List is both refreshingly terse — no chains of Feats — and at the same time comprehensive. There are also Traits to pick up. These might have been better called Tags” because they are a catchall for signature character features ranging from the purely mechanical capability– “Backstab” — through to the more narrative — “Ally”. (They don’t stack, there are no chains, and you don’t get to have many of them.) There’s an Advancement System — OMG! In a 2D6 game! — that’s framed in terms of experience, but is really milestone based, meaning you level up between episodes or adventures, with options for Referees to tune the rate of advancement to fit their play style.
All this generates rich narrative, for example one random Event for a Pirate is “Landlubber – You spend a lot of time in port. Gain one level of Craft or Streetwise or learn one Language.” This does, however, highlight the two-edged sword of being setting neutral.
Mechanically, you could pretty much plug Sword of Cepheus into Hyperboria, but also Middle Earth, and anywhere else with a Late Dark Age, Early Medieval feel. However, this means that the description for character generation isn’t entirely consistent and is sometimes vague. The section on Social Standing supplies titles in both European Style and Indian Style — apparently a “Duke” is the equivalent of a “Zammin” (?) — but the Noble Career offers Roman-style Ranks like “Questor” — presumably these represent official positions a noble might hold? — , while a Barbarian can be a “Jarl” and still have a low Social Standing. It might have been better to more descriptive titles — “local warlord”, “powerful landowner” — and also not to flatten the distinction between different sorts of high-status communities. The feudal, the urban and the Imperial managerial class are all different– meaning Norman-style nobles are different in feel from Florentine-style nobles who are different in feel from Byzantine-style ones, and this distinction is present even in the original Conan stories.
Art: Hannah Saunders
A lesser issue is that the character generation does imply some elements of a setting: a world with oceans and commerce and great cities and nobles and a barbarian fringe. It would be nice to have a checklist for this, and also for the various random incidents and mishaps which implies, for example, some fairly recent wars and plagues. (No game I know of ever does any of this, however, so this is not a criticism of this particular game.)
“Equipment” and “Adventuring” together firmly place us in the Old School, with all the kit you’d expect. There are prices for Living Expenses, and simple rules for Encumbrance, Hirelings and Mercenaries, NPC Reactions, optional Hero Points, and for navigating and surviving different environments including the oceans: don’t fall, don’t starve, don’t run out of water, don’t get cold, don’t get hot, don’t catch Black Death… I miss the concept of Tech Level, though. It would be nice to emulate the thing where the really good armour comes from cities far away.
It’s under “Adventuring” that the we meet the well-worn trope of of “Law and Chaos”, and the ongoing cosmic struggle between them. It doesn’t also include Good/Evil, so we avoid the “Kobold Babies” problem, and it does seem to lean into the idea that “Neutral” is probably the most ethical position. Even so, Civilization belongs to “Law” and zombies with tentacles coming out of their noses belong to “Chaos”, meaning it’s not clear where Conan himself would sit. Call this an OK-ish emulation of the original genres and move on, because really it doesn’t matter unless you use magic, at which point the possible spells and the alignment of the targets fit the schema.
Art: Hannah Saunders
“Combat”… Combat is sensibly streamlined while maintaining enough tactical choices. It certainly hits all the Old School marks, though I wish it had slightly more detail. On the one hand, I’m relieved that it hasn’t succumbed to the tendency of 2D6 games to go Full Metal War Nerd with options and add-ons and special ammunition. For a lot of players, including tags like Reach and Bulky will be enough granularity. On the other hand, I’d like to have seen more of a baked-in sense that weapon is tactical choice is character. In this system a Broadsword — basically a great sword — and a Great Axe are functionally the same, just priced differently, and a Club and a Dagger do the identical damage. Despite these gripes, the combat rules are fine and fast, good for emulating the genre, and can be easily patched by martial arts nerds if desired.
“Sorcery” is on the nail for the genre. Spells take time to cast unless you prep them early, are fraught with peril, and you really don’t want to mess up. Magic divides into White, Grey and Black, and there are plenty of spells to go around. There’s a system for Corruption, tables for Spell Mishaps and Mutations, and rules for creating your own artefacts. This is good stuff, with a hint of Lovecraft, but also reminds me of the zaniness of the old Arduin Grimoire — permanent horns, anybody?
Then “Monsters” then “Treasure”, including random magic items — all perfectly acceptable and accessibly laid out. It would have been nice to have some random adventure hooks, but I can live without these.
So what do I think?
I think I want to referee this game.
It’s actually simple and intuitive enough that I would have no hesitation in using this with children or younger teens — they’re often more confused by abstraction than by detail. It’s also a self-contained enough for an inexperienced or out-of-practice GM, though they would be well-advised to be familiar with the inspirational material in “Appendix A”.
All in all, this is not an innovative game in terms of genre, and that’s a good thing. It’s an elegant porting of 2D6 to the realm of Old School Sword and Sorcery. There are no surprises — which is fine by me; I just want to play Sword and Sorcery, not a niche re-imagining of the genre. I look forward to the 2D6 community expanding the possibilities — how about covering merchants and trading? However, the rule book works fine as a standalone, and the leanness is a feature for people like me who have our own settings and themes, or just can be bothered learning somebody else’s made up world.
Art: Public Domain
So, if you want a handful of grit in your dice bag, if you’re more of about Conan than Rincewind, if you like the vibe of OSR, but not the engines, then Sword of Cepheus looks like the game for you.
M Harold Page is the sword-swinging Scottish author of works such as Shieldwall: Barbarians! and Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) NOW AVAILABLE IN OMNIBUS EDITION! He’s currently working on a contract to write a series of LitRPG adventures.