Historia Review – Part 1

Hello folks! I’m back with a rare dip into the world of D&D 5e games. It’s been a while since I talked about a 5e game but the world of Historia is just so epic and surprising that I couldn’t stay away!

I’ve been pretty consciously moving away from games based on 5e for a while because that’s not currently what’s at my table and also they don’t really need the signal boost. As I said, though, there’s jut so much going on with Historia that you really have to hear about it. I could describe it the way the publishers do as a “Dark Fantasy Renaissance Setting for 5th Edition” but you can easily tell that it’s missing something important just from the images above. So maybe we amend that to “Dark Fantasy Anthropomorphic Animal Renaissance Setting for 5th Edition” but that makes it seem like just rules for animal characters and not a very detailed and complicated setting. So let’s change that up to “A Dark Renaissance Politically-Deep Setting for Anthropomorphic Animals for 5th Edition” and we’ve created quite a mouthful. That mouthful doesn’t even convey, though, alternatives to alignment and Background, the rules for Influence and Fame, the tactical rules for mass combat…

Image © Mana Project Studios

There’s a lot in Historia, arguably too much to just take and run with. It follows a recent spate of RPGs about anthropomorphic animals from the fellow 5e games of Realms of Pugmire and Humblewood to the farther afield Root and Wanderhome. However, Historia is more of a buffet of several different ideas and only one of those is anthropomorphic animal characters. If you had no interest in playing a dog or a hedgehog then I wouldn’t expect you to crack open Pugmire or Humblewood, even if you love everything in the 5e system. However, even if you have no intent to ever play an animal character there are plenty of reasons you might still want to use material from Historia. However, the setting itself is certainly the most striking feature of the game so we’re definitely starting there.

Vesteria

While the setting of Historia, a Europe-like continent called Vesteria, is certainly deeply detailed and full of plot hooks and opportunity, it’s also just as buffet-oriented and adjustable as the rest of this book. There are three scenarios offered by the authors and gaming groups can take their pick of which Vesteria they want to play in. It all revolves around the question of “if there are anthropomorphic animals, what’s the rest of the ecosystem like?” You could treat this as a “Cruel Fable” and picture Historia as a darker version of Disney’s Robin Hood (basically a gritty Renaissance but the people are played by animals). You could also opt for an “Evolved Society” where some animals gained sentience and thumbs but there are plenty of livestock species and wild game that are still dumb animals.

You can also go for the thorny “Macabre Coexistence” where the divide between dumb wild animals and sentient anthropomorphic animals is clear: you might have a swan in a dress walking a normal-looking dog on a leash while two anthropomorphic dogs glare daggers. Clearly there’s a lot of uncomfortable implications in that last scenario but maybe that’s what your group wants…

Regardless, the continent of Vesteria is divided up into four areas which are reminiscent of feudal European nations but also delightfully different. The Confederation is an alliance of city-states similar to the mercantile cities of Renaissance Italy. It’s fairly open to whatever different take you have on things making it a natural starting point for campaigns, but also leading to some crackpot leaders and religious heresies. Speaking of religion, the Holy Kingdom has all the violent inquisitors and uncompromising churches you could want. Specifically, the dominant religion of this world is the Church of Bones which holds sacred the massive bones of the extinct Ancestors and the divine soul that rests in the bones of all sentient beings. The rest of the body is just meat, by the way, so it could conceivably by (say) eaten by carnivores.

Image © Mana Project Studios

The Green Pit is a lawless and wild place of deep forests and mining cities. It’s also full of pre-Church practices and traditions even though it’s been converted, so this is the place to find stone circles and strange idols. Lastly, the Avian Islands is all about birds, obviously. It’s more interesting than that might suggest, though, as it follows a deeply traditional, caste-based system and also has the sort of genius inventors and scientists that you expect from a Renaissance-themed setting.

Each of these places has cities, traditions, and a detailed map. There’s also so mention of far-off lands (the Far Lands, the White Desert, the Khan’s Empire, the Kjaldorn Islands and more) but so far only names for the most part. Still, there’s plenty going on in Vesteria and boatloads of plot hooks even before the neat twists on established tropes.

Familiae and Species

In a vague nod to the Linnaean Classification System, the animal world is divided up into Orders although confusingly they equate to Linnaean classes rather than Linnaean orders. I guess the authors want to avoid “class” because in feudal societies social classes are such a big deal so… Whatever, let’s roll with it. There are two Orders described in the core Historia book: Theri which are mammals and Aviani which are birds. Each of these has Familiae which are general groupings of different types of animals, further divided into individual Species. Mechanically, there’s no standard D&D equivalent to Order (maybe “type?”) but Familia is equivalent to race/lineage and Species to subrace. Just like all elves have a broad set of characteristics that they share and then high elves, moon elves, etc get little extras of their own, a Rodenti has certain qualities and then they choose to add Beaver, Mice, Rabbit, etc traits on top of that.

Image © Mana Project Studios

On the Theri side of things there are a ton of different options for players to choose from. Canidi are dogs of all sorts are a varied and adaptable sort with five Species: Dogo (guard dogs like pit bulls), Domesti (house dogs like poodles or spaniels), Hounds (tracking and hunting dogs), Levri (racing dogs like greyhounds), and Primoi (huskies and malamutes). There are lots of dogs because they dominate the land thanks to being central to the Church of Bones. The Edenti Familia is a collection of burrowing and climbing creatures: Anteaters, Armadillos, Pangolins, and Sloths. The very cute Eulipi are all those tiny little insectivores: Hedgehogs, Moles, and Shrews.

Another Familia that people are probably excited for is Felidi which all the felines: Cats (house cats), Lynx, and Pumas (or mountain lions, cougars, catamounts… it’s a whole thing). The Licai are those not-quite-dogs out there: Coyotes, Foxes, and Wolves. The Mustacei are various forest predators and they have some cool abilities to track and pick fights, which all six of these Species do: Badgers, Martens (like pine martens), Otters, Raccoons, Skunks, and Wolverines. Somewhat similar but much calmer are the Rodenti Familia with another five Species: Beavers, Mice, Porcupines, Rabbits, and Squirrels.

Switching gears entirely and headed into animals that most other games skip, the Ruminsi are herd ungulates who for some reason are portrayed as honorable salt-of-the-earth: Bovinae (cows, oxen, water buffalo), Deer, Goats, Moose (yep!), and Sheep. Sauti is a very small Familia with just two Species: Boars and Pigs. There are also two Species in the Urcidi Familia (bears): Black Bears and Brown Bears. Finally the Vespertili Familia is bats and (from popular demand, one assumes) there are surprisingly three separate Species: Bats (brown, house, and most other types of bats), Rossetti (fruit bats), and Vampire (who mostly revel in their sinister reputation).

Image © Mana Project Studios

In the Aviani Order there are fewer Familiae listed here but there are some really good ones still. The Anseri Familia is most water birds: Ducks, Geese, Pelicans, and Swans. My real-life second favorite birds fall in the Corbei Familia: Crows, Magpies, and Ravens. Going back to water birds, the long-legged, long-necked birds are found in the hard-to-pronounce Grarcona: Cranes, Herons, Ibises (yes they are portrayed as scribes and scholars), and Storks (yes they are portrayed as parental). Small songbird species are in the Pici Familia: Nightingales, Robins, Sparrows, and Woodpeckers. Players who want fighter Avians will gravitate towards the Rapax Familia: Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures. Just as pugnacious are the groundfowl of the Ruspei Familia, though they are also homebody Species: Chicken, Peacocks, and Pheasants. My actual real life birds are in the Strigi Familia which is all the owl Species: Barn Owls, Little Owls (like chestnut-backed owls and saw-whet owls), Owls (the big ones like barred owls and great horned owls), and Tawny Owls (who are so cute).

Let’s take a minute to compare the Historia approach to other games. In general, a lot of authors have taken wide approaches to covering the whole of the animal kingdom by making broad categories that can accommodate whatever your favorite one is. Sure story games like Wanderhome and Root tend to focus on role instead of species but even the other d20-based games in the Realms of Pugmire setting don’t choose particular breeds of cats or dogs and leave it open enough that your favorite type of animal is ready to go. That’s not the approach here and when this is done in the past I’ve been disappointed with games that have a specific selection of species (I won’t go on a tirade by Cairn comes to mind) and while Humblewood comes closest it’s not what you’d call “comprehensive.” Certainly there are holes in the Historia list here (why aren’t Bluejays in the Corbei? there are Mice but what about Rats? are Hawks just Eagles?) but it’s also easier to ammend.

Image © Mana Project Studios

By choosing to break down the lineage part of 5e into Familiae and then adding Species under that, the authors of Historia have made it much easier to add in species you might be missing. If Species worked like elf or dwarf and a player had their heart set on something not yet provided, it could take an hour or more to come up with something for them and even then balancing could be a real pain. Here, though, if your player wants to play something that fits in one of the Familia but not specifically a Species then you could come up with mechanics for them in ten minutes or so. “Want to be a chipmunk? Sure I’ll just tweak Squirrel and mostly your stuff will be Rodenti.” “You love everything horse-related? That’s cool, start with the big chunk of Ruminsi and I’ll add a few horse details for Species.”

If a player wants to go farther afield (penguins are most likely their own Familia and ostriches, emus, etc another) or they really want to play another Order (though I assume it’s just a matter of time before a sourcebook with reptiles, amphibians, and potentially others shows up) then you’d have more writing. However, let’s also make not that there are 63 different Species here! That’s a lot and while you might have differing opinions on all the mechanics you can’t say that you’re missing out on options.

Instinct

Image © Mana Project Studios

Now we come to the first cool bit of adaptation from D&D as presented in the Player’s Handbook. Each Familia has a set of instincts that they follow and Species have their own unique instincts, besides which there are Instincts for Predators, Prey, and Omnivores. Like alignment in vanilla D&D, you can ignore these instincts but they are the baseline impulses that you feel. Take, for example, a hedgehog character: as a prey species they feel they “get what they want by avoiding confrontation,” as a member of the Eulipi Familia they have a pull to “appreciate the daily routine and [are] adverse to change,” while as specifically a hedgehog they are solitary and keep others at a distance.

From these you write out your character’s bond, ideal, and flaw (or defect) from scratch, starting with the words “I want,” “I can,” and “I must” respectively. In other D&D frameworks you get bond, ideal, and flaw from a background and can write original ones but (in my experience) no one does. For Historia, however, you don’t have prewritten options and instead have the prompts of instincts to help you think about your character. That hedgehog, for instance, might look to their instincts and decide on the following…

  • Ideal: I want to find a quiet home free from fighting. (based on Species instinct)
  • Bond: I can find a routine or method that guides people. (based on Familia instinct)
  • Flaw: I must avoid violence if possible and avoid making waves. (based on combining Prey instinct and Familia instinct)

No other character will have this exact set of ideal, bond, and flaw, even if they are a similarly-minded hedgehog. You can also switch things up by pushing against a flaw (“I want to overcome my natural cowardice”) or massage the meaning of the instinct (turning “routine” into “ritual” or “laws”). It’s very good and while a rule for “instinct” works best with animals, changing this to “principles” or “values” makes this a tool for any 5e game.

Professions

The Historia equivalent of character class is Profession… Again, maybe the authors wanted to not confuse things with social class but also they might want to remove expectations from veteran D&D players. Mechanically, though, Professions are constructed the same way as D&D class so there’s nothing stopping you from using Player’s Handbook classes in your Historia game. However, there’s nothing to stop going in the opposite direction either since the Professions aren’t especially animal-related. You can port these options over to make a Dark Renaissance setting with humans, elves, and dragonborn instead of martens, boars, and nightingales.

The Alchemist is somewhat a spellcaster but they deeply and fascinatingly borrow from real life alchemy. You effectively make potions and poisons for people to use and mixing things together is a bonus action as long as you have your focus, though you’re limited per short rest. Alchemists pick “essays” as a subclass to refine (heh) their abilities starting at 2nd level.

The Armiger is a classic fighter type, including fighting style like the champion subclass in the PHB. Armigers have access to firearms like everyone else and they have Action Dice (d6s that can be spent per long rest to boost attack rolls) which can be pretty devastating. Their “war archetype” subclass determines the type of combatant they are, whether gladiator or paladin or warlord.

Image © Mana Project Studios

Things get a lot darker with the Flagellant which is maybe a little too dark for me. While real-life flagellants in the 14th century sometimes drew blood, it wasn’t as fetishist as movies portray but Historia flagellants definitely do. By voluntarily taking damage, flagellants can boost rolls and spells (paladin and warlock spells) to higher levels. Their “philosophy” further hones this with ascetics (mystical vision), fanatics (combat ability), and holy guides (leaders).

The Magus is a spellcaster (sorcerer and wizard spells) and they combine maybe spellcasting styles. They have training and books but also Enchantment Points (like Sorcery Points) and they certainly feel arcane with a lot of intricate twists. They choose Secrets that give them specialized spells but also mysteries that give them more and more power and there are metamagic options and Twists and Major Arcana to further customize and then eventually a Personal Spell which… Honestly, I really like how personal the practices of the magus work out to be but the idea of playing or (worse) GMing a magus gives me a headache.

The Merchant is a face and social networker for your party and they can be collectors, smugglers, or business tycoons. I really love the idea of having a class profession designed all around building the setting and establishing contacts. Of course in 5e everyone has to be good at fighting too or the whole thing melts down so merchants are good at “analyzing” and so get initiative bonus… Other than that, though, this is really fun.

Image © Mana Project Studios

The Priest is the less bloody alternative to the Flagellant, in other words Cleric (although they get Ranger spells too). They get Channel Divinity (nothing about turning undead, though) and can give sermons to sway crowds. They can be healers or prophets or… I think you can picture what’s going on. It’s solid but I think is mostly interesting if you buy into the setting and it doesn’t have to rely entirely on mechanics.

Image © Mana Project Studios

While all characters can use firearms, the Sapper is a master of all things gunpowder. They can customize their weapons, fix up other people’s stuff, shoot harder, fire more bullets… It’s good and also not limit breaking so I’m excited to see it in action. The technician specialty can even make new technology like a gatling gun or something!

The Scholar is another cool direction for a class where they have broad knowledge and careful secrets. Most of their utility has to do with their field of study: doctors can help with healing, inventors can repair and modify technology, politicians can charm and lead. I’m especially happy that there don’t seem to be any combat abilities awkwardly shoehorned in there.

A Scoundrel is basically a repurposed rogue and… actually yeah that’s the whole deal.

For heading out into the wild, your bet is the Venturer who has abilities to explore and survive in the wild. Lots of improvising, hiding, and gathering supplies. Obviously they will be of limited utility in urban areas, although the storyteller subclass is somewhat a bard who can inspire and charm. Really cool and a nice non-magical ranger option.

Next Time…

We’re only about halfway through the book right now so there’s lots more to talk about! If you have questions or if you’ve also been slowly chewing through Historia then let me know in the comments!

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