Design Mechanism’s 2020 Lyonesse roleplaying game is a fantasy roleplaying game based on the Lyonesse novels—Lyonesse (AKA Suldrun's Garden), The Green Pearl, and Madouc—of Jack Vance. It was written by Dominic Mooney, Dave Morris, Pete Nash, Mark Shirley, and Lawrence Whitaker1.
Despite the best efforts of Andrew Wheeler, I am not myself a Jack Vance fan. Why, then, acquire a copy of a licensed roleplaying game set in a Vancian world I’ve not read?
Firstly, the game engine is essentially the Basic Roleplaying Game engine, via Ontario game company Design Mechanism’s iteration of Runequest, which in turn begat Mythras. As previously established, I am a big fan of the BRP lineage of games.
Secondly, I find focusing on licensed products for worlds about which I know very little is an effective way to constrain my incessant nitpickery. See also my copies of the Elfquest, Stormbringer, and Hawkmoon RPGs, not to mention the Thieves World RPG supplement.
Thirdly and finally, the aspect of Vance’s fiction that most annoys me in fiction—the tendency of the narrative to shrug its shoulders helplessly at the success of amoral sociopaths, individual and en masse—actually works pretty well to facilitate roleplaying campaigns2.
As for Lyonesse itself…
The first thing readers will notice on lifting their copy out of the shipping box3 is that it is a weighty tome, a 510-page hardcover. It is lavishly illustrated, has a two-page table of contents and a detailed twenty-seven-page index. On closer reading, one will discover that the text itself is extensively cross-referenced. It is as though the designers wanted players to be able to find that for which they are searching. The degree to which production values have improved in the more than forty years I have been roleplaying is astonishing. Lyonesse is a fine example.
There are nine different format combinations for purchase, ranging from premium colour hardcover + pdf to standard colour pdf. I believe my hardcover is standard colour. The illustrations are fine (although almost all B&W). I find the maps hard to read, which is an issue encountered so often the issue may not be the current consensus for map design, but an indication of how terrible my eyesight has become. On a related note, the perfectly reasonable choice of font size is just on the line between being readable with glasses on if I hold the text at arm’s reach or with glasses off if I press my nose to the page. This whole growing old deal really sucks. If you, like me, have two boiled onions for eyes4, the pdf is probably the way to go. Pity because the physical product is beautiful.
In keeping with the multitudinous format choices, while the designers offer a standard set of rules, designers know that players may not care for all of them. Therefore the text also gives optional alternative rules.
The organization of the book is somewhat unusual, in that it begins by detailing the world in which the game is set. The setting of Lyonesse is based on ancient folklore and set on the Elder Isles west of Europe, islands that will someday sink into the ocean like ancient Atlantis and 21stcentury Britain. The period is a 5th century as imagined in the 12thcentury, with as much concern for historical verisimilitude as Geoffrey of Monmouth displayed. The Elder Isles are a high magic, mostly pagan setting, with the caveat that, for reasons I will get to below, players should not expect access to any sort of magical healing.
The timeline of Vance’s novels is provided and can be used as the backdrop for the players’ adventures.
Character generation does not appear until page 149, by which time readers will have the necessary context for various details in the character generation (unless one is the sort of total knob who flips to game mechanics first because one did not consider the rulebook was organized in the manner it was for a reason). Mechanics appear on page 247. The game is skilled based, classless, and the characters are comparatively fragile. Anyone familiar with the BRP lineage will find the mechanics familiar. Players unfamiliar with BRP will find the rules easy enough to comprehend.
If twenty-year-old me had encountered this, his head would have exploded. This is a professionally-produced, well-bound, lavishly illustrated text a million light years away from the crude, saddle-stitched books that were the state of the art almost half a century ago. It’s quite impressive, and I am sad that I deferred reviewing it for a year.
Lyonesse is available here.
The actual contents are as follows:
An overview of what readers will find in this book.
The Lyonesse Saga
A precis of Jack Vance’s Lyonesse Saga.
The Ten Kingdoms
Descriptions of the ten kingdoms of the Elder Isles
Society & Religion
What it says on the tin. The pagan forces are powerful on the Elder Isles and Christianity is a minority faith.
What it says on the tin. Making judicious choices is facilitated by understanding the background, which is why this is positioned so late in the tome.
There is a cross-reference to hit points on page 10. Page 10 does not seem to mention hit points. I suspect this is a holdover from an early version of the MS. The reason it caught my eye was because Lyonesse eschews the common practice of giving BRP characters total, whole body hit points. Rather, hit points are tracked separately for each of seven hit locations. Don’t worry, though, it is not only possible but easy to die: the average chest (the hit location with the most hit points) has seven hit points, while the average rapier does four or five hit points of damage per successful thrust. Jab jab! Or alternatively, aim for the head, which has fewer hit points.
The means by which characters achieve tasks. They come in two basic flavours: skills anyone can learn, and skills accessible by virtue of one’s career.
Passions, Oaths, & Luck
Passions motivate, oaths compel, and luck enables one to survive poor life choices.
What it says on the tin. More interesting than it sounds.
Towns, Villages, & Feasts
How communities function on the Elder Isles. Of particular note is the lengthy and detailed Vancian meal-generation system, which my non-gaming foodie landlady found quite intriguing.
The essential game mechanics used by Lyonesse. If you’ve ever played BRP games, most of this will be familiar.
The rules pertaining to physically hurting other people. Like all BRP combat rules, they are ultimately derived from Steve Perrin’s experiences in the SCA decades ago. Thus armour reduces damage, despite which combat is frequently deadly. Decisions that require one to consult the combat rules are an excellent example of what I meant earlier by “poor life choices.”
There are two flavours of magic: fairy, which is somewhat risky to use, and Sandestin, which is essentially demon summoning and extremely dangerous. Using either is an excellent way to attract the great sorcerer Murgen’s attention. His attention often involves disproportionate retribution. In other words, mundane characters should not count on having access to magically enhanced medicine because the practitioners who might provide it may have self-immolated or been transformed into iron columns.
The intelligent and non-intelligent, magical and non-magical non-human inhabitants of Lyonesse.
Like many settings, Lyonesse offers access to alien realms. Yes, this means in principle you could port characters from other BRP games into Lyonesse, finally answering the question “Can one cast Bladesharp 4 on Stormbringer5?”
Heroes & Villains
Pre-generated NPCs who might help or hinder the player characters.
Notes for Games Masters
Advice on how best to run games set in Lyonesse.
What it says on the tin.
1: The full credits are:
Written by Dominic Mooney, Dave Morris, Pete Nash, Mark Shirley
and Lawrence Whitaker. With thanks to Viktor Haag.
Artwork by Simon Bray, Vianney Carvalho, Daniel Comerci, Jensine Eckwall, Les Edwards, Eric Lofgren, Jeremy Mohler, Shannon Potraz, Vivien Rozsa, Paul Sementilli, Joshua Stewart, Lee Smith, Dean Spencer, Tom Tyler, Chris Yarborough, and Outland Arts
Cartography by Colin Driver, Daniel Hasenbos, and Ronan Salieri
Editing & proofreading Paul St John Macintosh, Brian Pivik, and Steve Sherman
Playtesting by Alistair Clamp, Camo Coffey, Philip Gaul, Chris Gilmore, Erich Glinker, Chris Hart, Sean Jenkins, Dan Ruffolo, Joshua McCallan, and Emma Potts
Special thanks to John Vance, Koen Vyverman, Chris Hart, Les Edwards, Paul Sementilli
Dedicated to the memory of Jack Vance
2: On a related note, while I prefer to readSF, I like to play fantasy RPGS. The compromises in the settings that are necessary to produce a playable RPG annoy me less in fantasy than they do in science fiction.
3: Unless one purchases the PDF, which weighs very little and also offers instant gratification.
4: Until a couple of years ago, I’d have said the left eye isn’t even connected, but it turns out the information collected ends up somewhere. I can draw with my left hand what I see with my left eye without ever being aware of what I am seeing. My brother speculated that perhaps there are two James, one of which has been forced to be a voiceless spectator for sixty years. That’s pretty funny: my own personal Fortunato!
5: While Stormbringer almost certainly will function in Lyonesse—and won’t that be fun?—Runequestmagic likely will not.