Orun Review

From New Agenda Publishing, Orun is a “Post-Apotheosis, Afro-Centric, Space Opera”… which is a lot to wrap your head around. As I learned in my interview with author Misha Bushyager some time ago, Orun was written to explicitly get away from some of the default assumptions in a sci-fi setting. In doing so, the publishing team has made something that is accessible to gamers but also new and strange in some truly wonderful ways.

The Post-Apotheosis Setting

The setting for Orun is truly a space opera setting, a sprawling, exciting galaxy of planet-sized wonders and existential stakes. For inspiration, the setting draws heavily from Yoruba religion and a lot of terms and concepts are adapted to this sci-fi setting. The history of the galaxy centers around the arrival of multiversal beings called the Orisha who arrived in the galaxy and visited the sentient species around the galaxy. They were previously a species living in normal spacetime but they discovered technology that seems like magic to others and a psychic practice that allowed them to transcend to other, higher dimensions within the extensive multiverse that enfolds our own reality. The Orisha built paradise worlds called Oruns (“sunlight” in the Yoruba language) which propelled these species into a post-scarcity existence that brought enlightenment and the chance to follow the Orisha into apotheosis. They’re work done, the Orisha left again and entrusted the species they had helped to spread their message and the secrets for ascending to the higher state of being known as Ori.

Image © New Agenda Publishing

Of course, you can’t have everything be perfect forever or there’s no tension for the plot. This interstellar paradise was nearly destroyed by a mnemonic virus called Sopona which started the Psychic Wars. Just like the Orisha could create effects like magic and transform the souls of their student-species, the Sopona created nightmarish tragedies and remade reality and minds into pain and suffering. As an alliance known as the Union of Ascendancy (UA) brought together the worlds resisting the Sopona and some of the ascendant came back as a group called the Oluru to guide the galaxy. The Sopona was fought back, returned, and vanquished again to leave the galaxy broken and in need of guidance. To fix it the Oluru appointed servants called the Djali, which is what player characters are in Orun, who keep out of the politics and squabbles of the galaxy to return the worlds of the galaxy to the paradise provided by the Orisha and heal the wounds of the past. It doesn’t help that after eighteen hundred years it appears that the Sopona virus might be returning again.

Image © New Agenda Publishing

Against this backdrop is a number of worlds that are detailed with incredible locales and factions that vie for power in the remaining societal vacuums left by the Sopona virus’s impact. While the tone of the setting makes it clear that Apotheosis is the right and true way, at the fringes of the space claimed by the UA are more secular, selfish, and individualistic factions that can be allies, adversaries, or something in between. There is the Hegemony of Free-Aligned Worlds which were separated from the ascendants during the Psychic Wars and remain leery of Apotheosis because of superstition and stories about the Sopona trauma. Existing between these worlds and the Union of Ascendancy are the Great Mercantile Houses, capitalists trading between them, and shadowy criminal kingpins called Oro Lords, the violent side of capitalism. The advanced technology gifted by the Orisha centuries ago (abbreviated as Orishatech) cannot be created thanks to loss of knowledge to the Sopona threat, but the Great Mercantile Houses create and sell cybernetic Ayétech from pre-Orisha times.

With the UA surrounding the galactic core and the Free-Aligned Worlds as a ring midway out (with the Expansion Zone between), on the edge of the galaxy in a threatening arc is the Ajogan Dominion. Dominated by a terrifying viral species called the Vuu, the Dominion only understands war and is a constant threat to both the vulnerable Free-Aligned Worlds and the careful peace of the UA. There’s also a group of raiders called Beast Riders who harness and subjugate space-whales called Amotekun (“leopard” or “cheetah” in Yoruba) which they force to be mobile bases for plundering vulnerable systems. The Ikorira (“resentment” in Yoruba) are a vicious insect species that infests and kills other species’ communities for unknown reasons. Lastly, the Unwaking are a desperate cult that believes conscious, objective thought is how the Sopona virus takes over so they want to turn everyone into mindless zombies.

Character Creation

Lots of setting, right? I assure you I skipped lots of details too. But now that we’ve waded into this dense setting, the obvious next question is how the player characters fit in. We’ve already established that the PCs are all Djali, the guardian priesthood of the Orisha who follow the directives of the Oluru who returned from Apotheosis. The Djali have made it very clear that they are separate from the government of the Union of Ascendancy (which is too heavy handed for many Djali), though they are typically aligned with the same goals. Each Djali carries a tool and symbol called the Nikisi Bar, also known as the “Walking Stick,” which is an Orishatech item of amazing capabilities (a singularity weapon, defense shield generator, antigravity device, and quantum computer) as well as incredible unique beauty. Characters have base attributes known as Auras, five threads of the Orisha’s teachings that together show the path to Apotheosis. They are “physical perfection through Grace, universal understanding through Harmony, boundless knowledge through Light, mastery of mysicism through Spirit, or domination through War.” On top of these are the character’s Skills and they can use Reputation scores to talk to the various factions of the galaxy.

Image © New Agenda Publishing

The book presents eleven prominent species as options, though you can also make up new ones as there are “hundreds, if not thousands” of other species out there. The Ako’Obirin are a fusion of two different species into a symbiotic jellyfish-mushroom figures that can separate and rejoin to adapt to any situation. The Alimnuro are energy beings who perceive the cosmic radiation as beautiful music and have a religion centered on sun-worship. The B’Bocci are aquatic creatures resembling sea slugs mixed with plants, natural diplomats and conversationalists. The Fitora are insectile collectors of knowledge helped by their unique life cycle, devouring their parents and subsuming their knowledge and skills. The “deer-like” (and Lovecraftian) Holowans are natural telepaths and their broadcasted thoughts are a full sensory experience. The plant-based Igi Eniyan are carefree and beautiful, though they are wanderers after their homeworld was destroyed in the Second Sopona War. The yeti-like Karok are like toothy little Ewoks, formerly bent on galactic domination but thanks to the Orisha’s influence they have turned their industriousness to good. The Khoban are soft-spoken philosophers, resembling blue-skinned humans who can see the souls of different species. The Oyan are the closest thing that Orun has to humans, the most trusted servants of the Orisha with their incredible technology encoded directly into their DNA. For the interesting Ndichie, let’s go directly from the book: “The Ndichie are idalized, 1.5-meter-high polished metal funary automatons of the Oyan dead… the preserved image of the person they were is projected atop the mask as a kind of ‘hologram skin,’…” I mean, come on that’s awesome. The Vuu also appear, though I don’t know how these parasites fit in as Djali.

Combined with their species, characters have backgrounds that provide their class/career abilities from before they joined the Djali. You can be an Aeronaut (pilot), Emissary (diplomat), Explorer (self-explanatory), Grifter (tricksters), Mercenary (warrior with shady connections), Minister (healer), Operator (hacker), Soldier (warrior with legit connections), Spy (sneaky-sneaks), Technician (gearhead), and Virtuoso (performer). After that you pick out your homeworld, either a species homeworld (the impressive Orun, one of the massive artificial planets made by the Orisha) or just one of the major planets of the galaxy (the so-called Ayé). You get a chance to fine-tune your Auras and Skills to differentiate yourself and after that you pick your Path, the Aura that’s your principal means of perfecting your soul enough for Apotheosis. Your Reputation with different factions gives you skill boosts and contacts, but sometimes also debts for special requests. Lastly, you pick out gear including weapons, armor, medical, utility items, and vehicles (including spaceships). These are all customizable with various tech upgrades, including the option to make them miraculous Orishatech.

Image © New Agenda Publishing

Game Mechanics

Like many systems, characters in Orun achieve things by rolling a die (in this case a d10) and adding their attribute (Aura) and Skill rating (typically 1-6). The twelve Skills are Adapt (survival), Covert, Culture, Entertain, Inspect, Interface, Learning, Motion, Medic, Rapport, Repair, and Weapons. There’s no set pairing of Aura and Skill, sometiems you might roll Grace + Weapons (for ranged weapons) and another time you might roll Grace + Motion (for climbing or jumping) or Light + Weapons (for battlefield tech). I really like adaptive systems like this because rolls are never just rote numbers. Even if you’ve done something a dozen times (like making a ranged attack with Grace + Weapons) you have to think of what the roll is and why it’s those things. These combinations are added to 2d10 and then compared to a Success Chart with challenge totals of zero to twenty, or compare to an opposing roll from an NPC.

Something new here is the idea of Agbara or “Energy,” pools of points associated with each Aura. This is similar to the ability pools in the Cypher System or Invisible Sun and just like in those cases you can spend Agbara to boost your rolls with the points or keep your strength up. The easiest way to spend Agbara is by giving up a point for a +2 on a roll. Agbara points also work as a sort of expendable hit point pool, though, so if you take a hit you deplete Agbara points first (specifically the Agbara of the roll you just failed to take the damage) and after that you take Wounds which are harder to heal and more deadly. If you take your full Wounds pool of damage (equal to War + Motion + 2) then you’re Injured and on the verge of death. You get Agbara or Wounds back at the start of a scene but Agbara comes back much quicker, sort of like Stamina and Wounds in the Genesys System.

Image © New Agenda Publishing

The last way to spend Agbara is with Talents, an aspect of characters that we’ve skimmed over up to this point. Talents are a familiar game term, special abilities above and beyond what most can do (often costing Agbara), but in Orun there’s the extra wrinkle of being tiered. You start the game with three Talent points and can spend them on the first tier of Talents. If you get the first tier, though, you can spend another point on the second tier instead of getting a a new Talent. Third tiers require the first two tiers and they cost two Talent points so you can’t start with them. I like this design of special abilities, letting players decide whether they’re going wide (many Talents) or deep (a few Talents at advanced tiers) and it’s also interesting that there are so many avenues for Talents. Their are Defining Talents from your background, homeworld, and species (and Advanced Species Talents if you’re really into your species) and there’s also Aura Talents (you need at least 3 in the Aura to qualify) and Universal Talents (things like being tougher or more resourceful or having extra clips). All of this means, of course, that you are free to specialize in just how your character identifies. You could be an Ndiche Explorer but whether you choose Talents from being Ndiche, being an Explorer, or both equally will shape what you do. You might also mix things up and come from the combat-oriented Karok homeworld, Orun Ibinu, and choose Talents from that. Or maybe that’s all just interesting background and you’re really all about your Light Aura so that’s where your Talents are from.

On the surface, there’s not a lot of complexity to the Orun Horizon game system: roll 2d10 and add an Aura and a Skill (possibly spend Agbara or other mods) and compare to a challenge or an opponent’s roll. This is the groundwork for a lot of games… but the flipside of that is that Orun is pretty accessible. Once you try it out, though, the balance aspect of Agbara points and interpreting the various Auras starts to create a unique feel. Even before that, picking the path of your Talents from the web of options makes it feel like your creating a unique character instead of a role for a game.

Adversaries and Adventure

The last seventy pages of the book is devoted to NPC adversaries and an example adventure. The NPCs are grouped by faction (Ajogan Empire, Merchant Houses, the Ministry of Ascendance, Oro Lords, Union of Ascendancy, and general alien threats). They have streamlined stats (and easy tools for making new adversaries) and plot hooks to use them, as well as some cool artwork of very thematic sci-fi characters. There are also Sopona infections that you can add to other statblocks so you can take the Merchant House guard or Ministry explorer and make them a secret Sopona infected. Nice.

Finally, there’s guidance on making adventures for Orun and how to balance all the different parts of the game’s setting, then an adventure to get you started. “The Last Sunrise on O’Doti” is about a performer who is arrested on a Free Aligned World for fomenting rebellion. It’s a great intro to Orun, with the capacity for firefights and investigation but also philosophical debate and pursuing a greater purpose.

Conclusion

Orun is subtle. At first glance it seems like a decent sci-fi setting with new species and an epic backstory, plus a roll-plus-attributes game system. Once you open up any given part of it, though, you start to see something different under the surface. Take, for example, the Sopona. Spreading antagonist viruses are a sci-fi staple from the Borg to The Expanse‘s protomolecule; there’s even memetic viruses that mutate the infected in settings like Eclipse Phase. The Sopona Virus, though, is something else and its nature makes it a unique sort of threat. The promise in Orun is paradise in this life and beyond, literal apotheosis for whole cultures to become as gods. The Sopona Virus is a creepy sci-fi infection to be sure but it’s also a corruption of that beatific promise. You are rooting out its dark influence but you are doing so to make literally better worlds and in the service of enlightened gods that you can meet and talk to. This isn’t a war of evolution, it’s a war of souls.

All of Orun is like this and the themes and ideas found here are wonderful. Even if you don’t like the system, the background story has a different perspective on sci-fi that you can bring to your favorite sci-fi system (it would definitely fit Burn Bryte, for example). If you do like the system but the lore is too dense, the Horizon system has enough of Orun‘s philosophy baked in that using it with a new setting also brings some of this wonderful uniqueness with it. Check it out and see for yourself!

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