Review: Imperium Chronicles

December 28th, 2008

And now for something completely different.

A couple of months ago, I was given a copy of the Imperium Chronicles Basic Rules, along with a request that I review it.  After my experience with Dread, I was determined to play a session or two before offering any opinions.  Turns out it’s a busy time of year, but we’ve finally completed a short plot, so here’s my belated review.

imperiumchroniclesImperium Chronicles is a science-fiction roleplaying game by William Mitchell.  The Imperium of the title is a 700-year old interstellar human empire founded by families of royal blood.  For the last 180 of those years, they’ve been fighting an on-and-off war against another interstellar state, the Magna Supremacy.

The Imperium seems to be based upon a late-medieval/early-Renaissance European system.  There’s an Emperor at the top, followed by the Five Families — the most important aristocrats — then by the lesser aristocrats, the middle class of clerks, merchants, bureaucrats and other commoners with some power, and finally by the underclass, the serfs who find themselves all but unable to achieve any sort of power outside of criminal clans or extremist groups.  There is, notably, no church or other organized religious group — although there are monasteries, which appear to be focused on the study of psionics.  More on that later.  There’s very little social mobility — it’s very rare for an aristocrat to be raised from the ranks of the commoners, and it’s not even terribly easy for the underclass to become rich and successful enough to become members of the middle class.

The known universe is more or less limited to the Imperium and the Magna, with a handful of minor “client states” accorded to either.  The borders the Imperium doesn’t share with the Magna are swathes of uncharted space and a “Great Rift” — setting up what is in essence a simple two-sided confict.  The social stratification within the Imperium offers potential for a second sort of conflict.

The System

Imperium Chronicles uses a system very similar to d20; players of third-edition Dungeons & Dragons should find much of it familiar.  The basic task-resolution mechanic is a roll-over system using a 20-sided die against a target number.  There are familiar character races, attributes, hit points, skills, and levels, although there is no character class.

There are seven races available.  In addition to the humans, who form the vast majority of the aristocracy and therefore hold almost all of the political power, there are the feline Akiak, the elflike Dahl, the reptilian Draconians, the orclike Gordians, the green-skinned Magna (yes, as in Magna Supremacy), and the canine Vogar.  In other words, all of the usual suspects.  None of these options is new and exciting, but they serve well enough as a base for the game.

The attributes include Strength, Dexterity, Stamina, Intelligence, Psionics, and Charisma.  Familiar.  What distinguishes them from D&D is the way they’re determined — there’s no random roll.  Instead, base characteristics depend on the character’s race; humans get all 10s across the board, while other races begin with some stats lower and some higher than 10 (but still adding up to 60 total attribute points).  Then the player can distribute 5 attribute points among his attributes to raise them.

This means that no human can start with a stat lower than 10, or higher than 15.  The highest base stat for an alien is 14, so that could be pushed as high as 19.  Bonuses are just as they are in 3e D&D, so that would give a +2 for humans or a +4 for aliens.  This makes choice of race more important than in D&D, but it also pigeonholes aliens much more than D&D pigeonholes its nonhumans.  With a base Charisma of 5, no Magna is ever going to run for office.

Hit points and levels are essentially the same as those in D&D, although the amount of experience necessary to gain a level is slightly different.  Experience is earned by defeating opponents and completing missions.  Hit points are determined by race, not by class (and modified by Stamina); humans and magna are the sturdiest races, with starting values of 20, while cat-men, elves, and (oddly enough) orcs are the most frail, starting with a measly 12.

Everyone gets 16 skill points at first level (modified by Intelligence) and 4 skill points (modified by Intelligence) per level thereafter.  This is slightly different than D&D — the Intelligence modifier at first level isn’t multiplied by 4.  There are no “cross-class” skills — every race can train every skill up to a rank equal to the character’s level plus 3.  Some races get to start with 4 free ranks of a skill as a racial trait; for instance, humans get 4 ranks of Bluff.  Skills will not be a surprise for anyone who’s played 3e.  Unfortunately, they inherit many of the issues that made 3e’s skills problematic, such as fixed DCs (or “Difficulty Levels (DLs)” in Imperium Chronicles) that become trivially easy at high or even mid levels.  The lack of cross-class skills does mean that you evade the “anything tough enough to challenge the rogue is impossible for the fighter” problem in spirit, although it’s likely that you’ll still encounter that issue, unless each member of your party trains in the skill in question.

Players also get to choose their character’s social rank, which gives them free skills and, for aristocrats and the underclass, affects their starting money.  Only humans can choose to be aristocrats, and magna must be underclass.

Character abilities are based on a point-buy system, with abilities costing 2, 3, or 5 points.  A character gets 10 points at first level, and 5 more for each level thereafter.  Some abilities have prerequisites that need to be met.  Abilities include martial arts, psionics, combat talents, starship piloting, and more.  Psionic abilities function much like D&D magic; most powers are usable once or twice per day.

Combat functions much like D&D, too.  One major difference is armor:  in Imperium Chronicles, armor (beyond the lightest) reduces your Dexterity, making you easier to hit; however, it reduces the damage of an incoming attack.  Therefore, a character wearing a massive, thick suit of armor will find it hard to dodge, but the armor will keep many of the shots that hit him from hurting him.  Combat is deadlier than in D&D — not only do most weapons do more damage (2d8 or 3d6 isn’t unusual), but a character dies at 0 hp.  A character can have a mental “snapshot” taken in a friendly base location, such as a city or space station, and a clone will be created from that snapshot if the character dies; however, the clone will “lose” any experience the character gained after the snapshot was made.  Snapshots can be reused, which somewhat mitigates the lethality of combat, but becomes fairly punishing for a character who dies a lot — they’ll keep losing their experience, levels, and probably (unless their body is recovered) gear.

In addition to weapons and armor, gear includes lists of nanotechnology, implants, toolkits, vehicles, and drugs and poison.

For the GM

Imperium Chronicles includes quite a bit of in-depth material about GM functions such as creating new creatures (something 3e could have used more of).  A range of creatures is provided, stretching from mutated animals such as the giant cockroach to humanoid races such as the cannibalistic Ghul to the truly offbeat Tubby Wubbies, which are, to quote the rulebook, “the result of toy marketing and biogenetics gone horribly wrong.”  Designed as living teddy bears, a defect in their cybernetic brains caused them to develop psychopathic tendencies — but by then, they’d already gone to market.  This is the sort of idea that Imperium Chronicles could use more of.

Another new idea that fares less well is the introduction of rules for reputation and factions.  Reputation is a numerical value that can be gained or lost with a particular faction, and having large enough positive or negative scores will have an impact upon NPCs who belong to that faction.  Reputation with a faction is modified by a character’s race, social class, and charisma.  This is similar to systems in some MMORPGs, such as Warcraft.

The rulebook wraps up with four lengthy chapters dedicated, respectively, to robots, starships, star systems, and an adventuring chapter that includes a sample world complete with NPCs, locations, and some plot hooks.  The level of detail offered is impressive; these are important elements for a sci-fi feel, and their coverage does not disappoint.

The Strengths

Imperium Chronicles, due to its similarity to third-edition D&D, was very easy for my group to pick up.  It shares many of the strengths of D&D, most particularly its nearly-uniform d20 resolution mechanic.  The rulebook provides ample material to cover the needs of both players and GMs, and any GM who has some experience with 3e will be able to quickly prepare a campaign.  Preparation is generally easier than in 3e, in fact, because mechanics such as EL/CR are absent, and a fair amount of guidance is provided for creating creatures, worlds, and factions.

The setting is rich enough to provide for many kinds of games.  War against the Magna, diplomatic wrangling, class politics within the Imperium, interplanetary trade and piracy, exploration of the uncharted depths of space, struggle for survival on a savage backwater world — all of these are easily possible within the setting.

Also, I’m happy to report that both the table of contents and the index are detailed and extensive.  Looking up a rule or an item is quick and easy.

The Weaknesses

One of Imperium Chronicles’ strengths is its similarity to 3e.  That’s also one of its weaknesses.  Despite its laser rifles and starships, it feels derivative.  Much of the system looks, feels, and plays like “D&D — in Space!”  Such elements as the character race options and the melee weapons feel like direct transplants from the fantasy RPG.  There are moments of inspired creativity, such as the Tubby Wubbies, but a good deal of the game feels like a rehashing of the same familiar content.

Further, while Imperium Chronicles provides plenty of material for an experienced GM, it offers little direct advice about gamemastering.  A novice GM could easily find himself lost; an interstellar empire is a vast canvas, and while the sample world provided in the Adventuring chapter is a start, it barely begins to touch the possibilities.

Imperium Chronicles is also, like D&D, rather combat-focused in its rules.  It offers some guidelines for managing trade, for instance, but much more space is devoted to combat, and combat is one of the ways in which characters are expected to advance.  This isn’t a weakness per se — there’s nothing wrong with a focus on combat — but those who would rather focus on the diplomatic or trade elements of a sci-fi game might be better served with a different system.

Finally, Imperium Chronicles’ genre is hard to place.  There are some elements which would feel at home in hard sci-fi; star systems, for instance, and the planet creation rules, seem fairly realistic in nature.  However, there are also “soft” sci-fi elements.  And space opera elements.  And cyberpunk elements.  And science fantasy elements.  It feels as if the game is striving to cover all of these different sub-genres, but the end result is that its atmosphere is diluted.  Different systems within the game are quite sharp when examined on their own, but when they’re placed next to each other as part of a whole, they feel inconsistent.  The “mind magic” version of psionics Imperium Chronicles uses just doesn’t feel right when set next to the planet-creation charts, and neither of them quite meshes with the war between the human Empire and the large, belligerent green-skinned aliens.  Tastes may vary, but to me, this feels clumsy and inconsistent.

The Book

Imperium Chronicles is a 254-page PDF.  Its layout is reasonable, with text large enough to be easily read and a generous use of section headers to make material easy to find.  Artwork is mostly computer-generated stuff of poor to middling quality, but it illustrates what it needs to, and that’s plenty for a smaller project like this one.

RPGNow lists the PDF for $14.99, though it’s currently (as of this writing) on sale for $12.  A printed perfect-bound version is available from Lulu for $19.99.  I can’t testify as to the quality of the hard copy, but assuming it’s decent, that’s a reasonable price for the page count.  Personally, I prefer having a physical book available to reference during a session.

The Verdict

Imperium Chronicles is an ambitious project.  If you’re a fan of third edition, and you want a game that will allow you to run a wide variety of plots within the science-fiction genre, then you might want to take a look at it.  Personally, I feel that the setting is a bit too inconsistent; I would prefer a game that focuses more clearly on a certain subgenre, whether that’s hard sci-fi, space opera, or cyberpunk.  In order for me to focus on one of these sub-genres within Imperium Chronicles, I would need to rewrite or ignore parts of the system, whereas I could use a system such as HERO to run a space opera game or a hard sci-fi game with much less work on my part.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a generic system such as HERO to Imperium Chronicles, but the fact is that there are also specific systems which handle a particular sub-genre well.  For instance, Traveller is a well-known science-fiction game, and it has, from my limited experience with it, a more consistent “feel” to it than Imperium Chronicles.

I might have been more inclined to forgive this if I’d found more of interest here.  But while there are moments of brilliance, too much of this game feels like a D&D rehash.  Perhaps I’m just jaded, but my group found it hard to get past the similarity.

Finally, it’s a more lethal game than I generally like to play.  I also suspect that the system would fall apart at higher levels, much like 3e does; however, I haven’t actually played at that level, so I could be mistaken.

Imperium Chronicles is otherwise reasonably well-executed.  Clearly, though, it isn’t the game for me.  Following my play experience with it, I’d rate it at 4/10 or so.

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4 Comments

  1. William Mitchell, Apr. 30, 2009, 2:32 pm:

    Hi Scott:

    Just wanted to let you and your readers know that I’ve published version 1.1 of my game. Although the new version doesn’t touch on all of the points you raise here, I’ve tried to address at least some of them:

    • I’ve changed the starting attributes system. Instead of having set starting values for each race, the new version uses die rolls and racial modifiers to find your characters attributes.
    • I’ve added a new rule for awarding non-combat experience.
    • I’ve cut the damage done by weapons and other attacks by half to improve survivability.
    • Lastly, I’ve removed some of the “less fortunate” artwork and added some newer, hopefully better, art in their place. :-)

    I realize that my game may still not be your cup of tea, but I’m trying to improve it as best as I can, while still maintaining my vision of what I think the game should be.

    Sincerely,
    William Mitchell
    Imperium Chronicles RPG

    William Mitchell´s last blog post: Basic Rules Version 1.1

  2. kmfrye, Jun. 16, 2009, 12:48 pm:

    Reviewer makes a good point. One might as well play Traveller, recently re-released by Mongoose Games.

    There is at the very least 30 years of referee support for Traveller, plus most of what Imperium Chronicles seems to offer.

  3. Scott, Jun. 17, 2009, 3:46 am:

    This reminds me, I need to check out the revised version.

  4. area_51_games, Aug. 23, 2013, 1:57 pm:

    So far the version of 1.3 Imperium Chronicles is a improvement of the original.
    And no I.C. and Mongoose Traveller do not have the important factors in common.
    if you have Played Traveller , it is more simplifier Technology and don’t it Version of the future is simple and so is its Mechanics., while this is not a bad criticize of Traveller , it’s weak progressive system has always been its Achilles heal.
    Imperium Chronicles is made to be adapted in my opinion and flexible, it is no different then the original Dungeons and Dragons in as it is more open to game masters insertion of their own settings and Ideals, of all the science Fiction rpg out their I think that I.C. has the right structure and mechanics. if you like d20 future this is fare superior and it is what I would want the next version of that other well know game to run along.

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