Sunday, January 26, 2014

[Review] Swords of Cydoria


The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I'm walkin' to the office when a beaked purple four-armed gorilla comes ridin' up on a dinosaur.


He tells me all about this Basic Roleplaying game he wants me to review by the name of Swords of Cydoria. He says it's got airships, rayguns, swashbuckling, psychics, super-gadgets, kung fu, aliens… and, yeah, four-armed mutant gorillas and dinosaurs.

(At least, that's what I think he said. Turns out beaked gorillas got lousy diction.)

Anyway, all that stuff sounded right up my alley, so I says I'll do it.

Not that I was gonna argue about it anyway. Oh, I ain't afraid of any four-armed mutant gorilla, mind you. But the dinosaur was double-parked.


Swords of Cydoria is a Chaosium monograph for use with Basic Roleplaying ("BRP"). It presents a setting that asks what might happen if a seeming world of swords and sorcery made undeniable but limited alien contact. (There's a lot more to it than that, of course.) The answer is that it depends upon how close you are to that point of contact. As a result, the setting can resemble everything from Conan to Buck Rogers, with the average sitting somewhere around John Carter.

Chapter One: Introduction

This chapter provides a broad-brush description of the planet Uruta and the continent of Markania, a sort of savage pulp wonderland of vast deserts, swamps, volcanoes, jungles, and floating mountains, all filled with sand squids, giant bugs, dinosaurs, four-armed mutant apes, and who knows what else.

The city-states of Cydoria form the hub of civilization. Twelve years before the time of the game, a War of Unification took place over Cydoria between the cruel Vrildarian Empire and the Coalition of Timan, each backed by an alien race -- the Rhakadians and the Phanosians, respectively -- and provided with high technology for the struggle. (The mysterious energy field surrounding Uruta known as the Oudh prevents an outright alien invasion.) The Phanosians suddenly abandoned the Coalition, and the Empire was victorious.

Now the Empire jealously guards access to technology. Propeller-driven areo-ships may ply the skies, but woe betide the commoner caught with a laser pistol…

Of course, with such an expansive and multifaceted setting, the question arises as to what the player characters do. The chapter offers multiple compelling suggestions, including artifact hunting, running an areo-ship for hire, courtly politics, law-defying technology, rebellion against the Empire, and survival in Markania's savage frontier.

The chapter concludes with a very welcome glossary of terms.

Chapter Two: Creating a Character

Character creation in Swords of Cydoria follows the same basic setup found in other BRP-based games. What makes Swords of Cydoria stand out are its twenty-six cultures and nine new races. The former include militaristic hawk-riders, high-tech movers and shakers, cavemen, amazons, inbred mutants, and self-mutilating snake-worshipping freaks, along with rough analogs of some real-world cultures with interesting twists (e.g., the Viking types live inland and ride elephant-sized musk oxen).

The races:

  • Capridian: Philosophical antelope/goat men.
  • Cyberdroids: Robotic warriors and explorers.
  • Deru: Subterranean frog-like creatures.
  • Daka: Fierce desert-dwelling lizardmen.
  • Phanosian: Undercover alien spies, identical to humans, working against the Empire.
  • Xoogs: Genetically-engineered former slave races.
    • Brux: Huge, ogre-like labrorers.

  • Jinx: Small, smart, sneaky, goblin-like humanoids.
  • Orix: Orc-like humanoids bred for combat.

  • It's an excellent selection that goes a long way to making the setting feel alive.

    The chapter also includes a list of available professions. Most are from the BRP rulebook, retooled for the setting, with some new ones in the mix as well. Among the latter are the Biomancer, who creates potions that produce temporary mutations, and the Jedi-like Guardian of Adhara, who defends the helpless with the powers of Ta’oudh (see below).

    Chapter Three: Equipment and Technology

    Far more than a simple equipment list -- although the chapter includes a prodigious one -- this section examines the effects of technology on society and the legal efforts to control these effects, along with the quirks of technology particular to the setting. (Uruta has no fossil fuels, for example, and the height of native military technology prior to alien contact was the air rifle.)

    The chapter paints a vivid picture of a society making a jump from late Middle Ages/early Renaissance to scifi levels of technology, albeit in a harshly-regulated fashion. In the Cydorian city-states, broadcast energy transmitters allow for such luxuries as electric cars, air conditioning, and modern kitchen appliances; however, while commoners may partake of such things, they may not personally own them and must rent them from the nobility. Adventurers may well fight with a sword in one hand and a plasma pistol in the other in true sword-and-planet fashion, but getting caught without a permit for that pistol and you'll be fighting one-handed. Meanwhile, away from the cities and their broadcast energy towers, life remains harsh and primitive outside of a few alien outposts and bits of clandestine technology. Appropriately, the chapter includes rules for forging documentation.

    A highlight of the chapter is the section describing aero-ships: craft held aloft by anti-gravity and driven by electric-powered propellers, looking very much like War Rocket Ajax of Flash Gordon fame.

    One of the stranger aspects of the chapter -- and, indeed, of the setting -- is the use of the Repair skill to produce super powered gadgets, with provided examples such as flight packs, invisibility cloaks, and healing ray projectors. Such devices seemingly and inexplicably leapfrog the capabilities of even the most advanced alien technology. An earlier draft of the rules included wizard-like "thaumaturges" who could bind the spirits known as Aya into devices to replicate the arcane technology of the ancient gods known as the Sdara Vatra, which would have made a lot more sense in this respect. What does make sense are the included rules for modifying existing technology.

    Chapter Four: Powers

    Aside from the aforementioned super powered gadgetry, four other sources of superhuman power exist within the setting: fate, biomancy, psi-magic, and Ta'oudh.

    (In actuality, mutations exist as well and are intrinsic in certain species, animals, and at least one human culture. Especially given the fact that certain whole regions are noted for producing mutations, I see no reason why such powers shouldn't be available to any character.)


    Many games have some variation on the "Fate Point" concept, so the rules for spending power points to manipulate fate in Swords of Cydoria in order to reduce damage, re-roll, use Luck instead of a skill, shift up the result of a die roll, cause maximum damage on a hit, or assume partial narrative control are not unique by any means. No, what makes this ability interesting in this particular game is that it exists within the setting rather than as a meta-game mechanic and that it is only available to specific races, and even then only to members of those races who take no other powers.


    As previously mentioned, biomancers create potions that induce temporary mutations (five minutes by default). Given the relatively low power of mutations in BRP, I'm not sure that the ability to gain one for a mere five minutes is all that impressive, but I like the power in concept, at least.


    "Psi-magic" abilities are simply BRP psychic powers. I really dislike the term "psi-magic", because it implies the knowledge of (1) psychic powers and (2) other forms of magic, neither of which makes any sense in this setting.

    The game does include two new psychic powers: Divination, which involves consulting with the spirits known as Aya to benefit from their vast knowledge, and Bind Aya, which binds these beings into "Aya stones" in order to consult with them at will.

    For my own game (which, sadly, never got off the ground), I decided to make the written-out thaumaturges masters of the Bind Aya ability, using it to create their remarkable gadgets.


    The powers of the mystical martial art known as Ta'oudh consist of reskinned sorcery spells from the BRP rulebook and works surprisingly well in this regard, replicating various personal augmentations, flashy chi blasts, mystic healing, wuxia leaps, and so on. The only minor issue that came up during character creation was a bit of mild disappointment that Ta'oudh's Jedi-like practitioners do not have access to "Jedi mind tricks", that being the province of psychic powers.

    Chapter Five: The History of Cydoria

    This chapter might best be understood as the known history of the setting, starting with the origin of the Nazarians -- something akin to the setting's ancient Atlanteans -- and moving forward though the first contact with aliens on to the present day.

    Chapter Six: The World of Uruta

    Since the other continents get only passing mention, this is really a gazetteer of Markania, not Uruta. That said, the chapter does a stellar job of taking GMs on a tour of the setting. The only real problem is that the place has so many terribly cool locations, you may well have a hard time deciding where to start.

    Chapter Seven: The Society of Cydoria

    Here the game covers the organization of Cydorian society, from the government and nobility down to the commoner. Along the way, the chapter covers the pivotal role the introduction of alien technology has had on society and describes (but doesn't stat out) the key players in the Imperial Court.

    Chapter Eight: Secret Societies

    The setting features all manner of shadowy organizations, and this chapter details a dozen of them.

    Countering the evil Empire as detailed in the previous chapter is the Demetrian Resistance, an underground rebel force that is all that remains of the Coalition of Timan.

    Given the harsh restrictions on technology, the description of the Black Market was a must. On the other end of the spectrum, the chapter describes the guilds of the Octavium, the almost monastic order devoted to various forms of engineering with the blessing of the Empire. Then there are the Techno-Heretics, independent operators dedicated to breaking the Octavium's technological monopoly and stripping away the fear and superstition associated with applied science.

    The section delves into the secrets and history of the Jedi-like Guardians of Adhara as well as the ninja-like Katari assassins guild.

    And what would a sword-and-planet game with aero-ships be without aero-ship pirates? That's where the Pirates of Dazumi come in, led by their enigmatic masked queen, Shadowfox.

    Chapter Nine: Alien Worlds and Cultures

    While space travel exists in the setting, it really isn't a feature of the game. That being the case, I was pleased to see that the author nevertheless provides a tour of the setting's solar system. This includes worlds that are homes to multiple cultures and environments along with massive space independent space cities. This information may not get a lot of use, but it does add to the setting's already strong verisimilitude.

    Chapter Ten: Allies and Opponents

    I love a good bestiary, and Swords of Cydoria delivers.

    The chapter begins by statting out human NPCs of all sorts, doing so with excellent breadth and depth. (As an example of the latter, the section offers the basic stats for a barbarian warrior, then features equipment and weapon skills specific to multiple barbarian cultures.)

    Next come the non-human NPCs. Here the chapter covers both those previously set out as PC-worthy and ones far more savage and/or exotic. Among the latter: insect-men, hawk-men, intelligent octopi and rats, feral Xoogs (that nicely fill the ogre/troll, orc, and goblin niches), and my personal favorites, the four-armed mutant gorillas.

    Then there are the monsters. The Urutan spins on assorted giant-sized animals predominate, including giant bears, beetles, wasps, gila monsters, dragonflies, spiders, crabs, snakes, musk oxen, and even hagfish and maggots (shudder). Dinosaurs are present but unstatted, the chapter referring readers to the stats in the BRP core rulebook. The facts behind the mysterious Aya spirits appear here, as do details on the immortal mutated kaiju-like monstrosities known as the teraxes.

    Finally, the chapter details some of the environmental hazards adventurers may face, such as toxic rain, dangerous flora, glowing radioactive fog, wild gravity fluctuations, and the psychic phenomena known as shadow zones that produce the setting's equivalents of both ghosts and zombies.

    Chapter Eleven: Gamemaster's Guide

    Here the game first returns to the campaign premises described in Chapter One, fleshing them out and offering multiple potential plot hooks for each.

    After discussing the themes and genres present in Swords of Cydoria -- of which there are many -- the chapter delves into the true history of the Sdara Vatra, which is to say, the true history of the setting. It's quite an impressive tale that explains most (but not quite all) of the setting's weirdness in terms of a combination of hard scifi and "sufficiently advanced" technology. It's definitely not reading material for the players, and it might even turn off some GMs who prefer more mystical explanations for a pulpy world like this, but it's great work that caps off the full scope of the setting.

    The chapter then covers the various ways PCs may be rewarded for their efforts, be it wealth, power, or even artifacts.

    And speaking of artifacts, they get an in-depth look here as well. With their mysterious workings, occult-like methods of activation, and astounding powers, these are the true "magic items" of the setting. Among the items of direct use to adventurers -- disintegration spears, force field belts, flying discs, healing shrouds, sun blades (a.k.a. lightsabers) and so forth -- are explanations of the Oudh itself and the Gate Keys that allow highly limited access through it, which in turn explains so much about the setting as a whole: the lack of an alien invasion, the lack of radio communication, the presence of psychic powers, and, indeed, the presence of all sorts of other strangeness that the GM may want to add.

    Chapter Twelve: The City in the Mirage

    This is the game's introductory adventure, and it's a great one. At its heart, it's a good old-fashioned wilderness trek to a dungeon crawl through the haunted ruins of a lost civilization, albeit one written in such a way as to accomodate any of the suggested campaign premises presented earlier. Far from being one of those halfhearted introductory adventures that give you the barest taste of the game, here the players will have ample opportunity for interaction with many fully-statted NPCs, monster-bashing, exploration, and puzzle-solving. I daresay that even if you never pick up the game again after running this adventure, it would be worth the price of admission.


    As mentioned previously, Swords of Cydoria is a monograph, meaning that one person handled everything: writing, art, layout, the works. That being the case, this game leaves me mildly stunned. Not only does this book look professional from cover to cover, with amazingly good art and text that's highly readable and almost totally typo free, but it also looks like a professional Chaosium book. If you'd told me that this was some kind of oddball supplement to, say, Stormbringer, I wouldn't have batted an eye.


    It says a lot about this book that I've had to put some thought into who should not buy it. Obviously, those averse to BRP should avoid it, since it does rely on the BRP core rules. Of those who have or would be willing to buy BRP, those uninterested in pulp/sword-and-planet adventure should probably stay away as well.

    But I think that fans of pulp, scifi, swords-and-sorcery, wuxia, superheroics, and even the Wild West will all find something to love about Swords of Cydoria. I really can't recommend this book highly enough.

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