Earlier this month, in Italy, the Modena Play convention took place. This is one, if not the, most important Italian event about boardgames, RPGs, wargames and, in general, everything tabletop. This also means that this is the best occasion for Italian gameplay devs to showcase their creations. When I attended, I didn’t know that GearGames, creators of Vulcania RPG (which we previously covered), were holding a series of demos of their Steampunk pen-and-paper RPG that has been succesfully kickstarted and in pre-order phase. As soon as I discovered the demos, you can bet your grandad’s favorite hat that I had to play it. So I met with the other players and one of the creators of the game, Simone Raspi, hosted the session for us.
The demo lasted about two hours and a half and consisted of a short quest where us players took the role of a group of premade bounty hunter characters following the tracks of a dangerous assassin. The last news we had was that he went to a nearly deserted island, contended between two nations. The group was composed of 4 players (should have been 5 but one was a no show). There was a mercenary specialized in dual wielding a pistol and a katana, an engineer with a knack in stealing and a prosthetic arm that can launch a harpoon, a scientist with snake eyes specialized in the use of explosives and acid while yours truly had the control of a charming and persuasive rascal with a very useful drone armed with a flame thrower and a saw blade (which I named Sparky) that he controlled with his mind.
The actual quest was quite short yet eventful. After reaching one of the few settlements of the island, we discovered that our assassin managed to convince the mayor of the place to give him passage towards one of the giant flying cities (which are more like slums) that float around the world. We managed to reach the place, and after a fight on a destroyed bridge, some information collecting, and some more fighting, we managed to secure our target and leave the city. I summarize extensively for the sake of brevity but many shenanigans happened between those events, like when the engineer used the roped harpoon in his arm to carry us on the other side of the destroyed bridge like he was Tarzan, or when we used the drone to stealthily drop one of the incendiary grenades manufactured by our scientist right in the middle of the table where two guards were playing cards.
Characters have quite an array of skills. The entire scope of how every single skill works was not explained in order to streamline the demo, so we’ll have to wait for the manual to come out for an in-depth look. What we do know is that skills are separated into four categories (Vigor, Dexterity, Mind, and Magnetism) and every category contains 4 skills (in the red gear in the picture below). You use these skills as modifiers for various checks. For example, as the charmer of the party, my character managed to convince the mayor of the settlement we encountered that we were not a menace by using my +7 on Charm. As another example, when the time came to drop a grenade on unsuspecting guards using the drone, I had to make a check on my Discipline skill to control the drone by making it fly as close as possible to the ceiling in order to not be spotted. Nothing particularly different from other systems honestly but, you know, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Vulcania Combat System
While the mission itself was relatively short, it allowed me to get a general idea of the flow of the game and its potential. Vulcania utilizes a d12 system where every ability check or hit roll is determined by the roll of a 12 sided die. There are no opposed rolls in the game, meaning that every action only needs to roll a value (plus the value relevant skill) higher than a definite amount decided by the game master to be successful. Damage works similarly. If you hit with your weapon, you deal an amount of damage depending on the result of the die without modifiers. For example, the pistol I used always dealt one damage but if I rolled a natural 12, I dealt two damage instead. My drone’s sawblade dealt two damage on any roll of 10 or higher. There are other weapons in the game that can deal up to 4 damage following this logic.
One thing that is noticeable is that the game works on very small numbers. Weapons deal up to 4 damage (as far as it was revealed) and the enemies that we faced had a number of hit points in the single digits. This is a deliberate choice by the developers. Their focus for Vulcania is to keep the rules simple and straightforward while giving the players space for their creativity and reducing the number-crunching prevalent in other RPGs is a big part of this design philosophy.
Vulcania Opportunity System and Gears of Fate
Another peculiar thing that sets Vulcania apart from other games is its opportunity system. While fighting, if a player rolls an 11 or a 12 it has the chance to use an ability in one of its opportunity slots. These are special effects that can be used only in such circumstances. For example, the mercenary of the group, Fujiko, was specialized in fighting while wielding two weapons, a katana, and a gun. She had an ability that allowed her to use an opportunity on a dodge roll to get a free attack on an enemy with her weapon. My drone also had one of these skills. It had the possibility to set an enemy ablaze with its flamethrower when rolling an opportunity on an attack with that weapon. If you rolled an 11 or 12 but don’t have an opportunity that you can use (for example if you get an opportunity on a dodge but have no evasion related abilities) you can take a free movement. This mechanic is extremely interesting because it allows for a great variation in a combat scenario, especially considering that you have a chance out of 6 to roll a “critical”. The provided character sheets had many empty opportunity slots, which means that later in the game, you will have more ways to exploit a high roll.
Another interesting mechanic is the “Gears of Fate” system. Every time a session starts, players get three gear tokens that can be used in many ways. The possible uses that have been explained to me included spending one of them to reroll a bad die or to use an opportunity on a roll that would not warrant it. Once spent, the only in-game way to earn more is to receive one as a reward from the master by making exceptional and well-played actions. Apparently, the master has few of them to use as well. During the final fight, he allowed the boss to get free of a sticky trap he fell into a round early but he awarded an extra gear to the player who set the trap down to make up for it. It looks like a decent compromise between the need of the master to balance a fight on the fly while keeping it fair for the players but it definitely needs to be observed better once the manual is out.
Talking about the Gears of Fate system, of course, it’s impossible to not make a parallel with similar systems present in other RPGs like Pathfinder’s Hero Points system and the Inspiration from the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Both of these are examples of a narrative related resource that can be spent to influence situations in ways otherwise impossible.T he main difference is the lack of scarcity of the Gears of Fate in respect to the resources related to the other systems. You get 3 gears every time you sit down to play and you can’t stockpile them between sessions, so players are incentivized to actually use them. There’s also more of an exchange of gears between master and players, because the master can use them both as a reward and a way to make the fights more interesting. This means that the gear system is more integrated in the actual gameplay loop than the similar systems present in other RPGs where hero points and similar resources are special tools for special occasions. The closest comparison to this in many ways may be Fate Points from Evil Hat’s Fate system which has a similar give and take aspect.
Vulcania Final Thoughts
Vulcania, as a system, values simplicity and immediacy over anything else. The creators’ belief is that by leaving the fine print out of the rules, the players’ creativity will be able to create more interesting game situations. From this demo’s experience, I can say that they are not wrong. Anything we wanted to do could be determined very simply with very little dice rolls but this did not prevent us from trying many different approaches to the problems we encountered, rather, I felt encouraged in trying different things.
The initial experience with Vulcania definitely a positive one. The game plays smoothly and the world looks interesting. It’s to be seen if the system holds up to more scrupulous scrutiny but for that, we will have to wait for the release of the manual, later in the year.