The Alexandrian

Tagline: Larry Elmore, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Don Perrin, and Lester Smith. Need another reason to take a look? Sovereign Stone has all the makings of being the first major “generic” fantasy game in over a decade. Need more? You do? Jesus Christ, does nothing satisfy you?

Sovereign Stone Quickstart - Corsair PublishingSovereign Stone is set in a world created by Larry Elmore, with a system designed by Don Perrin and Lester Smith, which will have fiction written about it by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

If you’ve ever been a fan of AD&D or TSR during the past twenty years those names should look fairly familiar to you – Larry Elmore is renowned in the industry for his fantasy and humor artwork; Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman wrote the Dragonlance Trilogy (and its sequel, Legends — some of the only gaming-related fiction to be taken seriously); Don Perrin and Lester Smith are well known for their system and supplement design. It’s one of the most impressive development teams of proven talent to ever coalesce in this industry. The excitement with which I’ve looked forward to this project can be favorably compared to my reaction when I learned that Robin D. Laws would be developing Hero Wars or when I got a chance to playtest Tribe 8.

The Quickstart Rules I am reviewing here for the game are, I believe, no longer available. So why am I offering this review? Because Sovereign Stone is scheduled to be released at GenCon this year, and this review should appear just a week or two before GenCon hits – it’ll give you something to look forward to.

And you’ll definitely be looking forward to it. These Quickstart Rules have only whetted my appetite and added to my excitement. Few people can design a piece of cover artwork as well as Larry Elmore can, so from the very moment when I first slid these out of the plain white envelope they arrived in I knew I had something special in my hands. Elmore’s art continues inside this well-designed and edited package, along with Stephen Daniele and Joy Marie Ledet. Although these latter two are not at Elmore’s level of artistic talent, their work is in a very complementary style – lending a book an artistic cohesion which is sometimes lacking even in graphically well-developed works in the industry. This is kind of unsurprising considering that this is an RPG based on the vision of an artist.

So what do you get in the Quickstart Rules? An overview of the basic resolution mechanic of the game, pregenerated characters, a short adventure, and a short story which is a sort of prelude to the short adventure. Plus you get a gorgeous, two page, rough pencil map of the world of Loerem.

THE STORY

The book opens with a short story by Margaret Weis entitled “Envoys of Shadamehr”. I consider Weis to be a talented author. Perhaps not exceptional, but definitely someone who notice should be taken note of. That being said, this story stinks.

Essentially Envoys of Shadamehr suffers from every type of flaw which this type of story can possibly suffer from (found in the front of far too many RPGs since White Wolf initiated the trend). The exposition is not only heavy-handed, it is poorly handled; you aren’t allowed to connect to any of the characters; and you can practically hear the game session from which this was ripped (right down to the “NPC briefing” which informs you of what you have to do next).

The story suffers even further due to the fact that it is acting as a lead-in to the short adventure found at the end of the book. Basically you’ve got eight or nine pages of a typical fantasy party wandering around through what appears to be a typical fantasy world in a fairly typical set of fantasy situations.

That being said, the story does set out what it accomplishes to do (introducing you to the world) – but it’s a badly chosen form of doing so. A basic intro to the world would not only provide me with more information, it also would have done so in a way which was not immensely frustrating.

THE WORLD

Sovereign Stone is set in the world of Loerem. Most of the information we get regarding this world comes from either the back cover or the blatant exposition of the short story.

This is how I would characterize Loerem in a single sentence: Tolkien by way of D&D by way of DragonLance by way of Robert Jordan.

This isn’t exactly fair to Robert Jordan, since it implies he’s drawing inspiration from D&D, but it still fits. First you have the primary races: Orks, Elves, Humans, and Dwarves. Second, you have the “dark evil which has just come back into the world”. Third, the “dark evil” is using Void magic-wielding Taan – which are large lizard-men.

Remember I said this was a game worth looking forward to? That still holds. None of this is a serious death sentence. The only time it becomes a serious issue is when the bones begin to show through – for example, a lengthy section of the story is an exposition of the Waygates. The Waygates allow you to travel distances which would normally take you months in a matter of hours. Further, the magic which formed the Waygates is decaying and becoming corrupt – making them dangerous to use.

Oh wait, I’m sorry. “Waygates” is the term Robert Jordan uses. Sovereign Stone calls them “Portals”. And, yes, there are some various other cosmetic differences. The biggest mistake made here, I think, is having quickie-transports whose only distinguishing feature you note is that they are magically decaying (thus inviting the immediate Jordan comparison, rather than thinking of the dozens of other extant examples – such as Ultima moongates) and then having that be the very first thing of major note about the world which is discussed in your Quickstart Rules.

In any case, I digress. The world of Loerem has several interesting things going for it:

The Orks are a sea-faring race, advantaged in water magic, and (based on clues in the Weis exposition story) possessed of an interestingly intricate culture based on that fact. The Elves are “a medieval Japanese-like race”, while the Dwarves become “nomadic” and “Mongol-like”. Humans are your standard European fantasy shtick. The Taan are your generic bad guys.

Despite my negative comments above, the world as a whole strikes me as an impressive variant in the Tolkienesque vein – Elmore has taken on the standard tropes and racial types, and then played games with them.

RESOLUTION MECHANIC

As mentioned before, the Quickstart Rules do not include character generation – only resolution mechanics. Attributes and skills are quantified as dice types (for example “Strength: d8”). To make an action check you roll your attribute die and your skill die together and total them. If the total is higher than the target number set by the GM (which is a fixed number) you succeed; if not, you fail. You’ve seen similar mechanical methodology used in slightly different manners by Deadlands and Alternity.

COMBAT

Here’s where I became really excited by the system. Combat maintains a nice clean line – very much being an “AD&D that works well”. I was deeply impressed at how the entire system resonated with that same basic, elemental, easy-to-learn atmosphere which AD&D has; yet improved immensely on it not by adding even more needless junk to the system but by trimming away the needless and contradictory fat which plagues the system.

First, the designers seem to have found a nice compromise between the easy bookkeeping of traditional Hit Points and the slight edge in verisimilitude of Wound systems. Your character has a pool of Life Points (which is shown as a strip of boxes on the character sheet) and can take two types of damage: Stun and Wound. If you take Stun damage you mark off from top down; if you take Wound damage you mark off from the bottom up (with Wounds superseding Stun if the two meet). If all of your Life Point boxes are marked off you fall unconscious. If all your Life Point boxes are marked off as wounds you die. Nice and simple.

[ That’s the way its described in the rulebook. If you want a more mathematical, rather than visual, approach to this record-keeping: You have a pool of Life Points. You can take Stun Damage and you can take Wound Damage. If your Stun Damage + Wound Damage total is higher than your Life Point pool you fall unconscious. If your Wound Damage total is higher than your Life Point pool you die. ]

Battles are divided into turns (lasting approximately six seconds) in which each character gets to take one action (which is declared at the beginning of the turn). Before anything is resolved everyone rolls the dice for their declared action (this is important) – the highest resulting roll goes first, the second highest next, and so on down to the lowest roll.

Now, if you are attacked before taking your action for that turn you have two options: You can attempt to defend, or you can “take the attack” and attack back. If you decide to defend you roll your dice again. If your new total is higher than the attacker’s then the attack is unsuccessful. If it is lower then the attack is successful and damage is determined by Attacker’s Total – Defender’s Total + Weapon Damage Bonus – Armor; which is then divided evenly between Stun and Wound damage (round in favor of stun) unless the bonus states otherwise.

If you “take the attack” you will not be actively defending, but you will still attempt to dodge the blow, rolling Agility Attribute only. Damage is determined in the same way.

Here’s the catch though, if you’ve already taken your attack (i.e., you went first in the turn) and someone attacks you, then you can actively defend without losing your attack for that turn.

Example. You and a taan both want to beat on each other with swords for awhile. You both declare your intention (“I wanna beat up on the other guy”) and then roll your initial dice (Strength Attribute + Sword Skill). You get 14 and the taan gets 11, therefore you get to go first (since you have the higher total). The taan decides to take the attack, so he rolls his Agility Attribute and gets a 7. You subtract 7 from 14, add your sword’s damage bonus (let’s say it’s 3). The total damage would therefore be 10, making for five points of Stun damage and five points of Wound damage (evenly divided).

Because the taan took the attack, the taan now gets to attack back – using his original total of 11 (because this was his declared action). You still get to defend, because you went first – roll your Strength Attribute + Sword Skill and get 12. Because your total was higher than his, his attack is unsuccessful.

In the case of a tie in your initial roll (for the declared actions) the decision to defend (and lose your attack) or take the attack (and roll Agility for your defense) and then attack is left in the hands of the PC. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help you much if its a PC vs. PC combat. Hopefully this oversight will be corrected in the full rules.

Archery is handled slightly differently: The attacker rolls Agility + Bow Skill to determine attack total and the defender rolls Agility + Dodge if actively defending. (There are also some modifiers based on the target taking cover, which implies that in the full rules there will be a more comprehensive look at various combat modifiers.)

MAGIC

Magic, like combat, is “AD&D done right”. Once again, I’m impressed.

In order to cast a spell a mage must know the spell and have it written in their spell book. Although the rules say a “mage may not cast a spell which he has not previously studied” this should not be confused with AD&D’s badly conceived memorization mechanic – rather that line merely means that a mage can’t look at a scroll, copy the spell down, and expect to cast it five minutes later.

Magical spells have difficulty numbers. He rolls his Psyche Attribute + Magic Skill and totals the dice – if the total is higher than the difficulty number he succeeds immediately; if not he may try again on the next turn, adding the new total to the old total until he gets a total higher than the difficulty number. The complex the spell the higher the difficulty number, the higher the difficulty number the more turns it will take before the mage is successful.

Now that’s a nice system all by itself, then they add a couple of extra touches which give it the potential of being an excellent magic system. First, a mage can hold a spell for up to three turns after casting it so long as he does nothing else (so you can hold a spell ready). Second, balance is given to the system by a potential risk – if, at any point while resolving the spell, the mage rolls a “1” on any die, then he loses control of the magic and it goes wild. He can either let the magic fail or take 3 points of Stun damage in order to hold the magic under control. If he ever rolls two 1’s in the same roll, the spell-casting automatically fails and the mage takes stun damage equal to the remaining number of points required to complete the spell.

This is a strong, sturdy base for the spell system (it needs to be complemented with some additional options, a research system, and a system for magical item creation). My one regret is that the resolution mechanic used for it (multiple roles to achieve a target number) was not generalized to other resolution tasks (where appropriate by the GM’s judgment) – hopefully this will be done in the main rulebook, because I do like having a toolkit full of resolution mechanics which can be applied to different situations.

THE MODULE

The adventure picks up where the short story left off, with the players picking up pregenerated characters who were introduced in the story. I’m not going to comment extensively on this (since the purpose of this review is not to sell you on these Quickstart Rules, but rather to provide you a taste of what will be coming in August when the game is released properly), but will point out that it is nothing particularly special in terms of modules as whole. On the other hand, it does admirably fulfill its purpose of guiding you through the basic mechanics, setting, and premises of the game.

CONCLUSION

As I said at the beginning of the review, I am really looking forward to Sovereign Stone. First, the world Larry Elmore has created (at first glance, anyway) is intriguing. I know that there are many who disparage Tolkienesque fantasy with its “generic” elves and dwarves and orcs, but I actually think that – done right – this is an extremely lucrative place for development. Those “generic” elves and dwarves are so familiar to us that it is possible to twist them in the most interesting ways (Dark Sun and Planescape were excellent examples of this).

Second, the system really has me interested. Although its central resolution mechanic appears to lean more heavily towards Deadlands than Dungeons and Dragons, the rest of the system is the first bold attempt to challenge AD&D on its home turf in the past decade. Based on what I have seen here, this system deserves to succeed brilliantly as it gives you every strength AD&D possesses while (seemingly) with none of the weaknesses.

Finally, the creative team assembled here is – as I’ve mentioned before – amazing. With Larry Elmore, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, and the others all under the same roof you’re looking for magic to happen. All you’ve got to do is successfully catch the lightning in the bottle.

I heartily suggest all of you to give Sovereign Stone a good hard look come August.

Style: 5
Substance: 4

Author: Larry Elmore, Margaret Weis, Don Perrin, Lester Smith
Company/Publisher: Sovereign Press, Inc. and Corsair Publishing
Cost: $5.00
Page count: 25
ISBN: 0-9658422-1-5

Originally Posted: 1999/07/22

This review actually serves as a mere prelude for the shit-storm that would erupt one month later when I reviewed the full rulebook for Sovereign Stone and discovered that it absolutely sucked. But that’s a story that will have to wait for another day…

This review was written three years before Ron Edwards’ coined the phrase “fantasy heartbreaker”, but the application to Sovereign Stone is obvious. With that being said, when this review was written I honestly thought Sovereign Stone had the potential to become the next Earthdawn or Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game. Obviously, that didn’t happen. If nothing else, history was against it: No generic fantasy RPG released in 1999-2000 had a prayer.

On a purely personal level, though, I often wonder about an alternate reality in which (a) the Sovereign Stone rulebook actually capitalized on the potential I saw in the Quickstart Rules and (b) I didn’t receive a playtest copy of the 3rd Edition of D&D just a few weeks later. In that alternate reality, I think there’s a pretty good chance that Sovereign Stone would have become my go-to fantasy RPG of choice.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

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5 Responses to “Ex-RPGNet Reviews – Sovereign Stone: Quickstart Rules”

  1. Joshua H. says:

    This review made me laugh; I had the exact same experience. I was a major Dragonlance fan at the time and was overly optimistic about the new system. The failure of Sovereign Stone kept me pretty much hooked on 3rd edition until I recently switched over to the new Dragon Age system. Looking forward to see your review of the full rulebook.

  2. Eldric IV says:

    “If he ever rolls two 1’s in the same roll, the spell-casting automatically fails and the mage takes stun damage equal to the remaining number of points required to complete the spell.”

    So the more time and raw magical power the spellcaster draws together to form the spell, the less damage he takes when he loses control? It should have been stun damage equal to the points already accumulated as it escalates, rather than dissipates, the risk.

  3. GeraintElberion says:

    This is neat timing.

    Have you seen the Pathfinder-compatible Sovereign Stone Kickstarter?

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/571532161/sovereign-stone-pathfinder-edition?ref=live

  4. Josh W says:

    Hmm, I saw that initiative system first in sorceror, I wonder if this game was the inspiration?

  5. Andrew says:

    Any word on Legends & Labyrinths?

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