Review – Shroud of the Ancients – Part II

Review - Shroud of the Ancients – Part II

Matt Snodgrass, Play Unplugged

Welcome to the second of a three-part deep-dive review series. In this, we’ll be looking primarily at the magic system of Shroud of the Ancients. If you haven’t yet, make sure you check out Part I. If you have, welcome back, and let’s get to it!

Shroud of the Ancients RPG Core Rules

Shroud of the Ancients RPG Guide (Cover of the Beta Edition)

On Wizarding

The magic system in SotA is ridiculously fluid and powerful. I don’t mean powerful in terms of potential for abuse; I mean powerful in terms of what you can do with it and how malleable and dynamic it is. It really lets you feel like you’re a spellcaster, feeding power into a spell, weaving the strands of magic, pulling from this to feed that. It’s a really interesting system with a lot of potential — but one that, in the end, is spoiled by clunky mechanics and an overabundance of calculations. Let’s dig a bit deeper . . .

Allow me to get this out of the way right now: there are no set spells in this game.

Wait, what?? 

I’ll say it again: there are no set spells in this game, just like there are no set classes. Spells exist, to be sure. And the casting of magic is a very real thing. But the way it’s handled is that the character weaves the threads of mana and bends magic to their will to produce the desired effect. It’s not as simple as saying, “I’m going to cast invisibility on myself.”

In SoTA, the player has a number of ways to accomplish the goal. Instead of just casting Invisibility, the player needs to decide:

  • Am I bending light around the target to increase their natural camouflage?
  • Am I altering the senses of a person (or persons) so they don’t see my target?
  • Am I masking the smell of a character to make him impossible to track by scent?
  • Am I creating an illusion that the target does not exist?
  • Am I making them incorporeal so they’re masked to the sense of touch?
  • Am I making them truly invisible?
Or this. All right; maybe not this.

Or this. All right; maybe not this.

This can lead to innovative ways to accomplish tasks, and it provides a great opportunity for creative players to flex their potential spellcasting muscles. It does, however, come at the cost of sacrificing some gameplay and speed (more on that below).

To accomplish the task at hand, there are 10 set spell traits that are combined to create and cast a spell:

  1. Verbal Incantations
  2. Arcane Gesture
  3. Material Components
  4. Elemental base
  5. Casting Time
  6. Resistance
  7. Power
  8. Range
  9. Target
  10. Duration

The weaving of mana is something of an imprecise science. It’s a constant juggling act, requiring the player to be adjusting up and down various traits that make up a spell. These are called Mana Shifts.

Mana Shifts are required for questions like: Do I want my wall of flame to be really high or really long (or both)?  Do I want it to shield just me, or my comrades, too? Do I want it to be a straight wall, a wall that turns 90°, or a ring to envelop the foe? How hot should it be? How much damage will it do? How long will it last?

All of these variables are taken into consideration when casing a spell.  Then, when these 10 traits and their appropriate Mana Shifts have been identified and calculated (some of which, admittedly, will not come into play for certain spells), a number is determined, and the dice are thrown to compare against that number.

But wait!

There are a few other aspects that need to be considered. Joining or Linking occurs when two or more casters join up to allow one caster to channel their combined power and use their mana as if it were her own. Threading a spell keeps a spell active and connected to the caster so that she can continually pump mana into it to keep it going. Once all of that’s been determined, then you can roll your dice to see if you succeed.

As you can see, there’s an awful lot of wiggle room when it comes to casting spells. You can create a spell that does just about anything you can imagine. The power and flexibility of this system comes at a tradeoff, however.

The negative of all this is that there are a lot of fiddly bits. In the end, casting a spell is a discussion between the player and the ShroudMaster (SM). There are a lot of things that have to be accounted for, calculated, figured out, and agreed upon by both player and SM. But, in the end, the SM is the final arbiter and it’s their discretion as to what a spell will do, what it costs, and how effective it is.

Not only does it take a long time to figure all of this out, but it requires the ShroudMaster to really be on his or her game. If a player casts a spell in one session that does X and costs Y, and the same player wants to duplicate that several sessions later, it’s up to the SM to remember what they did for that spell, what it cost, what the limitations were, and what the skill check ended up being. That’s a lot of recall and computational work just to cast a spell. Overall, it seems like it would be a turnoff to cast a spell in this game.


Uh. Guys? Let me write this all down . . .

Combat feels similar, but to a lesser degree. There aren’t as many permutations for magic, but there’s still an awful lot for the ShroudMaster to figure out. All in all, though, the flexibility that this magic system offers is pretty incredible. If there’s a spell effect you can think of, you can make it happen.

And that’s it for Part II. I hope you liked it and that your wizarding hat and wand are handy . . . because you’re going to need them! Stay tuned for Part III, in which we wrap up our review and leave you with some parting thoughts.

Review – Shroud of the Ancients – Part 1

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