Elthos, written by Mark Abrams is advertised as a lightweight, fast action RPG and can be found at http://www.elthos.com. The website also includes access to the Mythos Machine, a web application for GMs and players to world build and run games that use Elthos. This review is of Beta Version #8.
One Dice, One Table
Elthos is a setting independent system but one geared towards fantasy settings. The core of the game uses just one six-sided dice and one table (the General Resolution Matrix). For all tests or challenges, the skill level of the character and the difficulty of the task are referenced on a table to find the number that must equaled or bettered. Rolling a 6 is always a success and rolling a 1 is always a failure. The corners of the table are the extreme conditions of very difficult or very easy tasks. Here bonus or penalties apply to the roll results. The system can be customised for higher numbers of dice and altered difficulty modifiers.
The universal application of this dice mechanic results in a resolution system that is brief and succinct. I wouldn’t call it lightweight though. Lookup tables built using formulas are complex compared to many other RPG mechanics. The multi-step process of determining the target value is a purely numerical one that is going to distract from the narrative and break up the flow of combat. The formula that generates the table is long enough that it’s not going to commit to memory easily, necessitating the slow process of using the table for every roll.
Characters are based on three requisites – strength, wisdom and dexterity. These are given a value from 1 to 6 by rolling, assigning or spending points. These values then scale to a -2 to +2 bonus applied to skills. Why are the called requisites? Because certain values are needed before a character can take a given class. The options are thief, fighter, chanter, cleric and freeman. If you meet the requisites, then more than one class can be taken, giving access to a wider range of skills and mystic powers. There doesn’t appear to be any disadvantage to multiclassing. Indeed, the only real differences between the classes are what skills are available to each. The freeman class has no restrictions and can learn any skill at the cost of double price.
Skills are bought using skill learning points, each representing a period of study. Characters gain skill learning points as they level up. Rather than just a simple yes / no to use, skills are categorised for each class as primary (used at character level +1), elective (used at character level) and unlearned (a flat 1). This distinction helps to separate the classes and provide characters with specialisations. The skills list provided is stated to be a brief example for GMs to use when building up their setting. A worked example of character creation and character progression isn’t given in this version of the book. I would have found both useful as I was not able to fully understand how the skill buying system worked. The amount of skill learning points available makes it look like skill values could increase at each level but I couldn’t see this overtly described. Instead the impression I got was that skill learning points are used to add a skill to a character and then it’s value is set by if it’s primary or elective.
Characters increase in level through accumulating experience points, gained in turn from the use of skills. Using a primary skill gains you XP equal to the task difficulty times 5. An elective skill grants just the difficulty value in XP and an unlearned skill half of that. This mechanic will encourage players to focus on using primary skills as much as possible to gain that precious times 5 modifier. On the one hand such specialisation could turn characters into one trick ponies; on the other it could encourage creative roleplay as players attempt to justify why a skill might be more than marginally valuable in a situation. Experience from combat is the vanquished character’s level divided by the victor’s level all multiplied by the Experience Gain Modifier. This is a good example of the design ethos of the game – mathematics and Capitalised Proper Nouns. If you’re not a fan of either, then Elthos will rapidly annoy you. However, if you are happy tinkering with equations, variation of the constants used will give you subtle and wide ranging control over the game’s mechanics.
The tactical combat system provided in the book is perhaps the most polished section. Diagrams are given to support the detailed examples, making this section the easiest to understand. Elthos uses a movement point system to restrict and define the number of actions per turn. This is a good idea as it gives the characters more agency. They’re not artificially limited to say a move and an attack. Instead they can move, attack, move or just attack repeatedly without fear of having wasted a fixed action. The combat system features the only use of competing dice rolls for who spots who first and for round by round initiative. I was surprised to see a unique sighting mechanic. I would have thought that the players rolling a check of their observational skills against the enemies using the General Resolution Matrix would have sufficed.
Magics, or Mystic Powers as Elthos prefers, are divided up into spells for chanters, miracles for clerics and mystic skills for thieves and fighters. There’s no functional differences between them, in that they all use mystic points to cast and extra mystic points can be spent to boost them. The variation comes from what they can do and how they are categorised. Elthos recommends that spells be arranged into schools and that miracles are restricted by a character’s moral alignment. Only a small set of sample spells is provided in the version reviewed, with no examples of mystic skills though there are four worked examples of spell casting.
Elthos seems to intrude a little bit into world building at this point. It’s stated that nearly all spells only do damage to mystic points. The writer discusses their preference for making it seem like spell like effects are very mysterious and on the edge of believability. For me there’s an incongruity here. I would have been much readily been able to follow up on a subtle style of magic that manipulates mind and soul if the sample spells had matched this ethos. Instead, the sample magics are straight out of the generic fantasy spell books. If I’m going to throw fireballs around, I want explosions, not just people reacting to something they thought they saw – that’s an illusion spell. I hope that in later versions of the game one or the other path is followed, with my preference being for subtle and cunning magics.
This beta version’s artwork is most pencil drawings of variable quality. The more stylistic pieces are superior, in particular the sketch maps. The character pieces are poor with a two page spread of oddly shaped heads at the beginning of the book the worst offender. Art pieces don’t generally match the topic being discussed, instead serving to break up the text and add colour. The author has included a few photos they’ve taken towards this end. The front cover has clip art borders, lots of black and a typeface so squiggly I had to check inside to find out the author’s name. The centrepiece is a complex alchemical table, purportedly from an upcoming setting book. It’s forgivable to use artwork from another product as it’s quite difficult to find an image to represent a book that’s only game mechanics.
The writing is functional. The game mechanics are explained directly with a more conversational tone adopted when advice is being given. There’s a lot of capitalised proper nouns and defined terms in Elthos – General Resolution Matrix, Smart Play, Experience Gain Modifier. Being definitive about such things is important to avoid term confusion in a system that uses formulas. However, there are a few paragraphs where the keyword density is so high it stops being language.
The text layout is a readable two columns of black text on a magnolia background. The page trim is a starfield, a science fiction motif that repeats in a few of the artworks and is unusual in a fantasy RPG. A couple of minor complaints: occasionally text will skip sideways to the next column if there’s a high level heading on the page and chapter headings don’t stand out enough. The back half of the book contains several appendices of utilities. Appendix B is 9 pages of all the tables and charts from the rest of the book arranged separately for reference. Given the good quality of the contents page, the information is actually quite easy to find in the main text but the appendix certainly makes printing the tables easier. If you’re curious, appendix C contains all the formulas used to build the tables. Also include are quite a few pages you don’t need. This includes 5 blank pages, a hex grid, a square grid and three pages of wide space lined. Given the presence of the Mythos Machine, I’m not sure why I need space on a PDF for my own notes.
Elthos calls itself a lightweight RPG. Instead, I would say that it’s a concise system that sits towards the complex end of RPGs. It has a resolution mechanic that is universally and consistently applied, so you only need one mildly complex lookup table rather than dozens. Character creation will be a familiar amount of work and calculation to D&D and OSR players. I look forward to seeing later versions of the book that have more examples and a more developed artistic theme. If you’re willing to invest the time in building the skill and spell lists, you’ll find an RPG that will work with any setting you can create.