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Review: The Deryni Adventure Game

by Carol Townsend

Katherine Kurtz's world of medieval magic is now a wonderful role playing game based on the Fudge system (see my review of Fudge in last month's The Lady Gamer).

Thirty-some years ago Katherine Kurtz graced fantasy fandom with the well-built world of the Deryni. It is most like 15th century England and Europe, but with a small, very important change: the magical race of the Deryni inhabits the Eleven Kingdoms along with their non-gifted human colleagues. It is a world full of politics and intrigue, duels and battles, and all the stuff that makes for a good role playing game (RPG).

This RPG has been long coming. Ms. Kurtz had been approached by others who wished to translate her Deryni Chronicles and other books into a workable game system. She waited until she had found the right system Fudge and found a game system that matched her vision of what playing in her world would be like.

Fudge is unique in that it gives players and gamemasters (GMs) the freedom to be as detailed or loose as they choose to be. Fudge encourages you to "just fudge it" if doing so will drive the story forward or reward your players for good play. It is a game system wherein you can describe your character in words the basic man-on-the-street would understand ("she's good at cooking but terrible at mountain climbing"), or get down and dirty with the minutia and write out details of the character to whatever degree is wanted. That broad range of play is exactly what the Deryni Adventure Game was looking for.

But enough of that, let's get down to the game itself.

To begin with, the book just looks nice. A standard, hard cover, $40 USD, 256 page work, it sets itself as an equal to any basic system book and lives up to that. It is obvious from the cover art (fans will recognize it as Michael Herring's cover of King Javan's Year) that this setting includes magic, monarchy and monks in other words, it's a fantasy game. Written by Aaron Rosenberg (whose writing credits include books for White Wolf, Clockworks, Warcraft, Guardians of Order and many more), Ann Dupuis (the Fudge expert) and Melissa Houle (the Deryni expert), this book is a satisfying answer to what the Deryni fans have been looking for.

The background and first few chapters are a good jumping in point for fans and new players alike. It is meaty enough to be a good reminder to those already familiar with the world, and detailed enough for the uninitiated to get a good feel for what is to come. It does leave holes here and there, but doing so feels more like an invitation to read the novels than omissions of necessary information. Perhaps more will be included in various supplements to come.

In any case, there are excellent chapters describing the world of the Eleven Kingdoms, including the role of the church an important fixture in the culture. The Church of Gwynedd is the mainstay of most people's lives, and would be equivalent to the Church of England, had it not broken off from Rome in the 16th century. An entire chapter is devoted to the Deryni themselves, detailing who they are, what their magic is, and most importantly, why most Deryni are hidden. The Church of Gwynedd had at one time outlawed being a Deryni, equating Deryniness with witchcraft, and burning Deryni at the stake. At the time of the first novels, the strictures against being Deryni are loosening, and it is possible to live, albeit usually quietly, as a magically endowed person.

The chapters on character creation are where the >Fudge system shines. Whereas some game systems encourage you to roll dice and fit a character around the numbers rolled, Fudge starts with the character concept and spends an entire chapter helping the player define exactly what they want their character to be. Who do you want to play? Adventurer or town-dweller? What role do you wish to fill in society? Merchant or knight, nobleman or priest? What is your character's background? How did they get to where they are now? By answering these and other questions, you start to know your character and can then decide what skills and abilities a person such as your character would logically have.

Most importantly for this game, is your character a Deryni? If so, is she full-blood or half-blood? Does your character know of her heritage? If so, is she hidden or open in her Deryniness? Answers to these questions will certainly determine a lot of other things for your character.

In the character creation chapter, there is a list of suggested questions that can get you started towards understanding your character, defining your family, your attitudes toward religion, and your ambitions, goals and personalities. I feel the book is well worth the price, simply to have this resource for other games.

However, a book like this will stand or fall on its magic system. The quality of any magic system in a fantasy RPG can make or break the book. If it's a logical, easy-to-use system, it is a pleasure to play. If it's a clunky, difficult, patched together system, it's a pain.

I am very happy to report that the magic system in the Deryni Adventure Game is a wonderful extension of the basic Fudge system. It is stated right up front:

"Players and GMs familiar with magic as presented in the Deryni novels may allow their Deryni characters to perform any feats of magic that make sense in the context of the setting, keeping character concepts in mind, and with the GM's permission, of course...just use your knowledge of the books as your guide as to what is and is not possible and don't worry about the rules just fudge it!" 1

This means that if you're a fan, and you know what Truth Reading, Portals and Wards Major are all about, then go ahead and do what a Deryni would do!

However, if you're not as well versed in the magic of the world, or if you just want some rules to back you up, the book supplies some great ones. The rules define what Deryni magic is all about, how it works, what it can and can't do, and how fatiguing most major magic is. The rules also discuss spells and rituals familiar to all those who have read the Camber the Heretic series, and ends up with a solid discussion of the Duel Arcane. In short, it's just about everything that a Deryni fan would want in a game.

The book finishes up with chapters on gamemastering, including some story ideas and plot hooks. I wanted a bit more in that area, but will look forward to supplements as they come out. The appendices are not to be missed. Not only are there the obligatory price lists for basic necessities (which could have included many more items for my tastes) but the book also includes a glossary of church terms and a church calendar. Knowing how important the church is to everyday life in the Eleven Kingdoms, this was a great bonus in the book. There is also a timeline of important events in history, an index of people and an index of place names. Finally, there is a full work-up for Deryni d20. If you prefer to run d20 games, you can convert any and all of the rules listed in the book to your favorite system with ease.

The Deryni Adventure Game has an adequate set of game aids, both in the book and online. There is a map of the Eleven Kingdoms which is a reproduction of a poster-sized map, the full sized version of which is available online or through your own local gaming store. Downloads at the Deryni Realms site include blank characters sheets and copies of the example characters, as well as an extensive FAQ about the Deryni world in general. I especially liked the genealogy charts of the Haldane/Mearan connection and Morgan's line. The Deryni bibliography, listed both as "recommended reading order" and "chronological order", are found both on the website and in the RPG book.

I would be remiss if I, as a Lady Gamer, did not mention one sidebar: "Women in the Eleven Kingdoms."2 The authors take the perfect line, reminding us of some roles that women have in Katherine Kurtz's world. That is to say, women do not go out adventuring as knights errant. Women's roles in Gwynedd mirror those of our world's European medieval and renaissance women. The authors go on to say that powerful women do exist in the novels of Gwynedd and one would not be remiss to play someone like Charissa or Evaine, if one so wished. In addition, they do state that whatever the GM allows is what is played in that game. In other words, if you want to play a woman knight, it's possible it's just not correct, according to the currently established canon.

Finally, I must take a moment to share one final experience. I am credited as a playtester of this book. This is from a couple of years ago when I helped Ann Dupuis run some games at Gen Con. Before the convention, Ann asked me to come up with a set of adventuring characters, some of whom would be Deryni. The character stats (PDF) have changed a bit, due to some tweaks in the rules which happened in the last couple of revisions of the book, but essentially, those are my characters. I dreamed them up, put the group together, and named each one. Those are my creations. So, imagine my surprise and joy when I open this fantastic book and see multiple references to my own characters. Seeing Doral Sendai along with Larsten, Ancara and the others was almost more than I ever expected. The joy of seeing your own work, however small a contribution it is, printed in a major gaming work is wonderful. I wish for everyone who would like to write for the gaming industry to some day feel that joy.

1: Rosenberg, Aaron, et al., The Deryni Adventure Game, 2005, pg. 149.
2: ibid. pg 175.

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