I played the old Suzerain, once. That’s a pretty damning thing when you consider how obsessively my old group used to play RPGs. It’s less times than we played Macho Women With Guns for the love of fate. Coming to review this game I was weighed down heavily with what I dimly remembered of that long forgotten session – muddy rules, a rather ornate and baroque game background – something about incarnating in various realities – and boredom, mostly boredom, and the GM at the time wasn’t someone noted for running boring games, indeed if there was any complaint to be had it was that his games were too high octane. Digging around in my brain I seem to recall having used the phrase ‘RIFTS for ponces’, which is pretty derisive really, especially when you consider that I don’t rate Palladium much anyway. Putting all that aside has been really difficult in coming to review THIS Suzerain, which appears to be a different animal to its predecessor, though it shares some of the boons and follies of the older version. Anyway, that’s why it’s taken me so long to get back around to this review. I wanted to make sure I was pushing that aside and coming back at it anew.Overview
The Suzerain rulebook is a slim fifty pages of very pretty plate artwork and a lot of apparent coffee spillage. Rather than being tied to a particular setting or world this Suzerain seems to be trying to pass itself off as a generic system with specific world books, though there are hints of the New Age mysticism and multiversal aspects in the fiction snippets and illustration explanations throughout the book. The immediate first impression is one of over-engineering for such a small book(let). For your money you get a brief introduction, basic rules, advanced rules, character creation and ‘Feats’ which covers the ground of skills, innate abilities (merits), innate failings (flaws) and special powers such as magic, cybernetics or SCIENCE!
The plate artwork is amazingly good and imparts an almost dream-like surreality to the book which, while it would have been in keeping – perhaps – with the old Suzerain seems very much at odds with the more down-to-earth, generic aim of the new Suzerain. These pieces feel like they clash with the writing surrounding them and the non-plate artwork is just… well, not good. Most of the pages look like a poison arrow frog has just had a mug of past-its-sell-by-date coffee and then spewed poison, coffee and insect guts over the page. There are also Gigantic Margins of Doom wasting large amounts of space on the page and the colourful background rather gets in the way of reading the text. Fortunately the PDF comes with two versions, one of which is frog-spew free and makes for a much more pleasant reading experience, even though the skill section does drop down into a piddlingly small font which it is physically painful to read.
As I mentioned in the artwork section above, the text and the illustration seem to be at odds. The illustration is very much in keeping with an up-to-date, post White Wolf, Gaimanesque, mature sensibility but the writing is extremely ‘matey’ and colloquial, full of asides and little jokes and so on. I don’t have any real issue with this, after all, I tend to write in a quite colloquial fashion in my work, but here it seems totally at odds with the overall sensation in reading the book. It’s like walking in on China Mieville and Anne McCaffrey, dressed in bear costumes and whipping each other alternately with rubber chickens, your expectation is at odds with that which meets your eyes.
Suzerain uses cards for its resolution mechanic and that’s all pretty much straightforward. You take a few cards out of a deck, the higher the better, getting aces is bad, getting the king is a ‘boom’ and you add your bonuses and penalties to the drawn card to get a final value. You compare that against a difficulty and Bob’s your uncle. Sure there’s a few complications but nothing too arduous and there are degrees of success to be scored which is always nice. No real problems with the basic system as it stands. Characters are relatively simple and fairly broadly painted, probably somewhere between Over The Edge and Delirium in complexity though it strikes me that starting characters are, mechanically at least, going to be rather short on interest, the game seems to only really come into its own after quite a while of playing, once the special Feats and abilities really start to accumulate.
Where this all falls down is in combat, most of it is alright since it is really just an application of the basic card system but the initiative system – combining initiative checks with a baroque 100-ticks per round countdown mechanism – is complex and out of keeping with the rest of the system. It’s like suddenly finding a Rolemaster table in the middle of Savage Worlds. Comparison with Savage Worlds is probably a good benchmark for the system since it seems, somewhat, to be targeted in a similar way. Savage Worlds falls down by combining different methods of resolution – cards and dice, Suzerain falls down by failing to keep a consistent level of complexity throughout the system.
* Beautiful plate artwork.
* Complete, generic system suitable for many genres.
* Single mechanic resolution.
* Overwrought design.
* Horrible complexity tacked onto the combat system.
* No background material whatsoever.