Historia Review – Part 2

Today I’m back with the other half of my Historia review. Last time I talked about the species and professions (equivalent to D&D classes) that can be found in the book. I mentioned that there’s lots more, though, so buckle up and let’s go!

As a reminder, Historia is a D&D 5e setting with a dark Renaissance tone and anthropomorphic animals living there. It’s really a fun setting (more details in that first post) but it’s also full of game options that you can port over into other 5e games.

Ventures

Image © Mana Project Studio

Let’s start with Historia‘s alternative to backgrounds. In vanilla D&D characters pick backgrounds to establish what their characters did before their adventuring career. Maybe their a wizard now but before that your little gnome could have been a sailor or a criminal or a priest-in-training. I like this part of 5e but it only works for a certain kind of storytelling, where the farm kid or street urchin grows up to do great things. There are some holes (if you’re playing a warforged in Eberron they don’t have backgrounds and what if your acolyte’s religion doesn’t fit the listed ability?) but even if backgrounds work for your campaign and setting there’s a bigger limitation to backgrounds. Sure they fill in your backstory but they say nothing about your future.

Ventures are something different, they are about your character’s “small or large expectations about their future and hopes.” Mechanically, ventures are mostly the same as backgrounds with an ideal, a bond, and a flaw (you can pick these or your species’) and there’s a character trait which is a motto or habit. Any of these provide motivations for your character and provide a means to gain inspiration. They also get some tools, money, and/or a proficiency (collectively the venture’s “endowment”) and you’re supposed to come up with a rival and an ally that are related to the venture, contributing to the story. Rather than a complex ability, ventures have a generalized ability called “prominence” which gives you a way to spend inspiration in a new way such as establishing a new NPC or overcoming a specific kind of challenge automatically.

There are nine different ventures in Historia: Art (you want to see nice things), Destiny (you’re headed places), Devotion (you believe in something hard), Discovery (you want to go over the horizon), Enlightenment (you want to master difficult knowledge), Heritage (you have something to live up to), Revenge (you want to get even), Revolution (things ought to change around here), and Void (you’ve lost everything and have nothing more to fear). These cover a lot of ground but it’s also pretty easy to create your own venture in a few minutes if you want to be pursue Founding something or Heisting something. In my game, players should absolutely pick exactly the venture they want because this is a great way of telling the DM what you want out of the campaign, as well as an active way to keep contributing to the plot. Choosing that your character used to be a sailor is cute and all but choosing that you’re pursuing your family’s heritage is a gift to everyone else around the table.

Wealth

Another great innovation in Historia is Wealth. In many RPGs you’ll see money abstracted into a value that tells how easily you can buy things instead of keeping track of every little coin in your character’s possession. This is a classic problem in D&D stories, adventurers wandering around with wagonloads of money, and different game designers have tried different methods of fixing it. The answer for Historia is something called Coinage, the money you have during each chapter of the story (usually one adventure). The Coinage could be “a small coffer containing precious stones, some gold bars or an extremely rare metal, even commercial agreements.” If it doesn’t make sense for your characters to have pockets full of gold then they have favors to call in or a fist-sized emerald they found in the mountains or whatever else.

You get starting equipment from your profession but your Coinage comes from your venture. Most ventures have 10 Coinage but a few (Enlightenment and Void) have 5 and a few others (Heritage and Discovery) have 15. From the chart in the book this means your character probably has a Simple lifestyle and can call on 50 gp in an adventure, though Coinage 11-30 have a Good lifestyle and can manage four times that. The numbers keep going up through Wealthy and Aristocratic lifestyles until Coinage 81-100 which is Royalty and you can get 20,000 gp every adventure to buy incredible stuff. Above 80, though, means that you’re leading a Faction within the setting so there’s some roleplaying to get up to that point.

Image © Mana Project Studios

Influence, Factions, and Careers

Speaking of Factions, an alternative reward for characters in Historia is Fame within various factions. While you can earn Coinage by getting paid or stealing some stuff, Fame is earned by achieving doing great deeds and making a difference in the world. You can also lose Fame if you work against the Faction or disappoint it, making this a sliding scale that depends on roleplaying as much as milestones. Faction rules are generally discussed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide but there are some specifics here that make using Factions in Historia especially good. They each have four tiers of Fame costing five, ten, twenty, and thirty Fame levels and advancement is done by “spending” Fame that you’ve earned (so you don’t have to do a mission for the church, you gain some notoriety and then leverage that into getting recognized by church officials).

Image © Mana Project Studio

As a newcomer, fulfilling the joining requirements, you get a Coinage boost and an initial contact. Once you’ve established yourself with a little Fame (and more stipulations) you get more contacts, more Coinage, and the Faction starts favoring you. Similar bonuses are gained for the the next two tiers, as well as followers and bonus resources from those tiers, and then a final tier which has the benefit of “basically running the show.” There are nine Factions described in the book: the Brethren of Worms (a mercenary outfit), the monolithic Church of Bones, the Circle of Whispers (intelligence dealers), the Confraternity of the Mortified (extremist religious sect), the Emissaries of the Khan (agents of the “Great Eastern Empire,” which could be better), the Fellowship of the Compass (explorers’ club), the People’s Army (a popularist uprising in the Holy Kingdom), the Pug Heresy (a reformationist movement adorably led by pugs), and the Ordo Artis Occulta (sorcerous Illuminati). There’s also some really helpful guidance in making your own Faction to shape Vesteria how you want.

If your character doesn’t want to join a Faction, they can instead pursue a Career. These are mechanically the same as Factions but the benefits are a bit different as you aren’t part of an organization. In the book we get Artisan, Artist, Cartographer, Historian, Mentor, Official, Outlaw, Sailor, and Soldier and some guidance for creating a new Career. I really love the options here, especially with the overlap in purviews of the Factions and Careers. If you are an arimger or soldier profession you probably want to be following a military path and that means you could be a mercenary in the Brethren of Worms or a freedom fighter in the People’s Army. Or you can have a Soldier Career and go it alone or even forge your own path by writing a Mercenary, Protector, or Pit Fighter Career. Or you can mix it up by being a warrior who works for the Church of Bones or a guard for the Khan’s interests in Vesteria… Or buck expectations entirely and be an Artist who fights stuff on the side.

Once again, this system is an advancement and reward mechanism at its roots but it is also a powerful tool for indicating to the DM and the other players exactly what sort of story you want to be in.

Battlefield Play

The mass combat rules in Historia aren’t meant to be a mini-wargame within an RPG setting. Instead the “Pitched Battle” rules are written to “focus more on [character’s] actions and decisions of the player than on the rest of the army.” It’s a Big Picture look at battle and follows a sliding value called Momentum which ranges from 1 (overwhelmingly dominant) to 20 (irrelevant) with both sides probably starting around 10. As the battle wages, characters and players will both influence how the Momentum shifts until one side breaks and retreats from the field.

After figuring out any advantages that one side might have over the other (firearms, sheer numbers, strategic advantage, etc) the participants lay out battlefield details and the objectives their side wants to achieve. Momentum will shift as these objectives get crossed off, building as the fight drags on. Player characters will choose a part of the army to command (such as the first lines or the scouts) or they opt to risk being on their own without a unit. The battle then plays out in tactical phases (army-sized detail) and narrative phases (character-sized detail) which repeat in a cycle. In a tactical phase your character loses some hit points from the chaos and strain of battle, the GM declares the enemy’s actions, you declare your unit’s actions, and then the GM declares “countermoves” (a special “mess with you” move). As your Momentum drops the hit points you lose increases and the opposition’s actions against you multiply.

Image © Mana Project Studio

I realize this is a little hand-wavy but the section is a very quick read and also it gets into the weeds fairly swiftly. Let’s take an example to increase this detail a little. Picture a party of four PCs, each taking command of a different part of an army: the first line, the shock troops, the scouts, and the rear guard. They are fending off an invading army that’s camped in the hills beyond and led by a vicious bandit king. As the battle starts the armies are evenly matched (each at Momentum 10) and that means that each PC starts the first tactical phase losing 15 hit points. The GM says that the invaders’ three actions will be to Assault the first lines, send a Detachment around to target the PCs’ ranged unit, and prepare a Defense against the PCs’ shock troops. The PCs in return will have the first line mount a Defense against the invaders’ attack, the shock troops will Assault the invaders, the scouts will perform some Reconnaissance, and the rear guard will Help the first line with reinforcements. The invaders then get to make a Countermove which the GM will use in this case against the Help from the rear guard. Each of these actions will involve a check by the PC or NPC commander to see if they are successful (Countermoves first, then Defense and Help, then everything else all together) and units might take exhaustion as a result. At the end of it Momentum is shifted (due to Assaults or from objectives) and a new tactical phase begins.

As you can see, even a quick summary of a round of this is pretty complicated. There have been a number of attempts to bring mass combat to D&D and all of them have been somewhat half-effective, ironic because D&D started as a wargame and in many ways still is. I still think back fondly to the 3e sourcebook Heroes of Battle which had the novel idea of making mass combat vague and focus on what the PCs were doing only. More recently, Ultimate Kingdoms brought a kingdom-level framework to 5e which made army conflict a separate system from PC-level actions. In Historia we see a middle way where PCs take actions and the crunch then extends to the whole battlefield. I’m still not convinced that this problem has been fully solved but it’s at least a new system to try out and a middle ground can at least offer something to multiple player types.

Image © Mana Project Studio

Conclusion

This book also covers different equipment appropriate to a Renaissance-era setting (yes, including firearms), specialty equipment for avians to fight while flying, some new notes on how to use Inspiration, grim rules for Wounds and emotional Traumas, storywriting tips for the GMs, some NPCs and prominent figures for the world of Historia… I’m fast-forwarding through these things not because they’re bad (all of them look pretty great, actually) but because you can find them other places. I don’t think anyone’s going to buy Historia for a few pages with new ideas to use Inspiration, but I mention them here because if you are somewhat swayed by the stuff above then just know that there’s even more the authors have packed into this.

I’ve said it in multiple places but it’s worth noting that all of the stuff Historia contains is cool but what’s especially cool is how modular those pieces are. The mechanics for Coinage are really useful but you can use the new professions/classes, Venture, and the new Inspiration tips without Coinage at all. And vice versa. The grim kingdoms of animals with swords and cloaks is appealing to me but if it’s not appealing to you then know that Historia is also an incredible buffet of different modules. It’s also got a cool setting so if you don’t like the D&D mechanics then there are hundreds of pages of rich setting and ideas in this that you could use with another system of your choosing.

I really like this book and the love that went into the layout and writing. If you like what you’ve read, then pick it up today and if you have it and have thoughts then let me know in the comments!

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