Last up for the Game Review Round Robin is Elthos. I kept it for last since its not just a simple PDF of a game. Elthos is divided into two separate packages. The first is the rule set: Elthos Core Rules. The second is the website: The Mythos Machine.
Elthos Core Rules
The rule set is pretty bare bones. It runs on attributes (called Requisites), races, classes, and levels. It uses a fairly simple resolution mechanic, and when it comes to equipment, skills, and spells it simply gives a few outlines. It keeps things simplified like this with the idea that the Game Master can focus on world building and character development rather than mechanics; though, the Game Master will still need to create all the specific gear, spells, etc. herself. Where I don’t agree that the two (mechanical complexity and world development) are mutually exclusive, I can see where the idea would take hold in the wake of D&D 3rd ed and World of Darkness, where designing antagonists practically meant putting a whole character sheet together.
The core rule of Elthos has you rolling 1d6 vs a target number. There’s a chart to tell you what the target number is. Charts can be iffy. If huge, like the old Marvel Superheroes RPG, then you’re looking it up all the time. If small, like Battletech hit locations, then you can quickly memorize it. Although Elthos’s chart lists 36 possible results, it also follows a really simple formula (4 + Difficulty - Skill Level), which makes it easy to calculate your chances. This formula isn’t spelled out until an appendix, and I think it would have benefited from being listed earlier.
A 1 always fails, and a 6 always succeeds. If the target number would be above or below the threshold, then it simply modifies the magnitude if you succeed. As a simple system, its fine; it does its job. Back when I larped NWoD as part of the Camarilla (now MES), a draw/roll of 1 was auto fail and a 10 was draw/roll again, still may not succeed. The 1 in 10 chance of failure, no matter how good you were at a thing could be very annoying, and here it’s a 1 in 6. You can always change that though, and there’s a full appendix dedicated to modding Elthos.
The races are differentiated by some ability tags, the meaning of which you are left to infer, and some play with the three attributes (here called Requisites): Strength, Dexterity, and Wisdom. These have a value from 1 through 6. On top of these you layer one or more of the five classes. Like the classic iterations of D&D, the XP each class needs to raise a level can vary.
Character alignment is mentioned and then deferred to another book amid warnings of its mathematical complexity. You’re told that all you need to know is that there is a good/evil axis and it is measured in points. Later you are told you can do stuff with those points, like spend 10 to gain an Avatar Power.
Gear is kept simple. Differences between weapons is just managed through attack and damage modifiers. Generally, if it gets a hit bonus, then it will get a damage penalty of the same magnitude. This gives a nice reason to tote along two or three weapons so you can change what you use based on your opponent. Armor works the same way.
There is a nice solid encounter creation guide for GMs to grab for encounter ideas. There’s only so many basic concepts for encounters and having them laid out with enough setting based details lets you quickly put together an encounter or larger scenario. Like most of the rules, it’s pretty bare bones, but what’s there is enough to get your imagination going.
The rules end with an appendix on optional rules. This includes everything from changing up movement to carrying capacity to fumbles. It allows you to add aspects to the game as you want. For instance, I’ve always liked the idea of fatigue to limit how long characters can perform strenuous activity, but it is generally more of a hassle than people want to deal with. So it’s best left as an optional rule, like it is here. You can even change Elthos from a 1d6 system to 2d6, 3d6 or 4d6 depending on your taste.
These basics keep the game pretty tight and familiar enough for people who’ve played D&D or any of its many children. Despite the general simplicity, there are some nests of complication that may throw people. One such area is the XP system.
In my experience, most folks are fine with addition and subtraction, but multiplication and division raise eyebrows if not done by 2s, 5s, or 10s. So when I see, "Combat Experience is earned when the opponent is defeated (killed or subdued), and is calculated by dividing the Vanquished Character’s Level by the Victor’s Level and multiplying that Experience Gains Multiplier." I’m immediately thinking, “I grok that, but I know folks that will hate it.” Looking at the formula, a big chunk of me even agrees with it. You see it in computer games where if something is beneath your level you just don’t get XP for it, but math like that in person often turns people off.
There’s a couple other parts like that, such as recovery, pivoting, and terrain that throw in complications beyond what you’d expect from the system’s otherwise very simple underpinnings.
The Mythos Machine
Now the really cool thing about Elthos is the idea of wedding the game system to an online interface. Incarna did it, but it wasn’t as user friendly, and we have sites (e.g. Obsidian Portal) and tools (e.g. Roll20) that try to assist other games.
Setting up your world is pretty straight forward. Check some boxes, basic description, crack open the World Config file and… maybe I shouldn’t have done that last one. You can change just about everything from the Elthos rules here. You can switch the dice from 1d6 to 2d6 or even 4d6. You can rename the requisites, set how characters are generated, adjust how XP is calculated, and a few other things. It simply integrates most of the optional rules so you can easily adjust them for your game.
Instead of clicking on the shiny World Config button you can Manage Places, which takes you to an editable outline format where you fill in information on the description, geography, climate, history, and, of course, GM notes. You can also upload maps and images. The outline format follows many gazetteers so it’s pretty intuitive. You can add or remove places, and from here you can also click a button labeled Manage Campaigns.
Campaign information is top tier stuff, just place, genre, theme, objectives, background, and GM notes. It’s the stuff you need to keep in mind when running your campaign to keep you on track. From here you can also Create and Manage Adventures. Again, the adventure information is pretty top level (place, date, objectives, background, GM Notes, and treasure), but you could probably fill in quite a bit. I’d expect GMs to keep the bulk of the adventure notes separate and just use this to track the important parts or to serve as a reminder / note keeper.
As you may have noticed the world information is laid out like a funnel: start broad and narrow the focus as you go in. It’s very intuitive in that respect. The world tracking tools are also system agnostic. You don’t have to use the Elthos System if you don’t want. Other tools, like the character manager, fully leverage the Elthos System. So you can get as much or as little of it as you like.
Elthos and the Mythos Machine are in an open beta phase. So the only price tag for checking them out is your time. Even if you don’t use the Elthos system, you may still like the website since much of it is system agnostic and its interface is pretty intuitive.
There's only so much you can learn from a game or tool on your first time through, and it bears mentioning that the Mythos Machine has a lot of depth to it to help you out once you configure everything. Here's some input from one of the game's designers regarding how you can make it sing:
Once the GM has set up their World in the Mythos Machine and created the Things (equipment, armors, weapons, races, classes) that they want in their World, there are a number of time-saving functions available that really help with speeding up game prep. For example, you can then auto-generate entire parties of Monsters / NPCs according to your selection of which Races-Classes, and how many of each at what Level each. When Generated it adds the weapons, armors and skills you've assigned for the selected Race Classes. So you get a fully equipped party in about 20 seconds with all the stats calculated for you. That kind of feature has actually saved me quite a bit of time on game prep, and it's one of the features that I think is of real value to GMs. Also Players can log into your World and Generate their own characters and maintain them with their own histories. So there's a number of features you may not have had time to check out in the Mythos Machine that are worth exploring as well.