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The Sword of Cepheus

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue.

The Sword of Cepheus. Omer Golan-Joel, Richard Hazlewood, Josh Peters.
Stellagama Publishing https://www.stellagamapublishing.com
140pp., Softcover, or 131pp, PDF

Previous settings for Traveller (and its Cepheus Engine offspring) have focused on SF, from near-future (e.g., Orbital, 2300AD, Clement and Earth Sectors) to far (Third Imperium, Reign of Discordia) to transhumanist (Mindjammer). Fantasy has been basically ignored. Terra/Sol Games’ Netherell ‘crossover’ setting was positioned as an enigma in the same universe as their Twilight Sector SF setting, treated ‘magic’ as variant psionics, and was never really supported beyond one adventure.

The Sword of Cepheus is positioned differently: It assumes that the player-characters are all operating in a strictly low-tech environment, with no access to or knowledge of higher tech. The setting for any particular adventure may or may not include magic, but in general will be equivalent to a Roman (or contemporary) through pre-medieval (or contemporary) level of civilization – typically, a heavily-stratified society with no conception of mechanization or mass production, where state-of-the-art personal weapons are swords forged by master swordsmiths, or crossbows and arbalests, and siege weapons are represented by the ballista and catapult, with the latter sometimes loaded with burning pitch.

The Sword of Cepheus is a “core rulebook”, not a supplement to Cepheus Engine. You get a full set of rules, skills, careers, and equipment; all you need to add is dice and imagination (plus pen and paper for keeping track of things). Game balance in The Sword of Cepheus mirrors that of its SF antecedents; the typical player-character isn’t going to be an invincible ‘tank’ that can bull their way through any and all opposition – combat is dangerous, and prudence is recommended. Even having magic available in an adventure doesn’t relieve you of the need for caution and thought; using magic, even for the benefit of someone else, has its own cost to the caster, and many spells that might be put to good use nevertheless have inherently bad effects on the caster – it will rarely be a ‘no-brainer’ to make the decision to cast certain spells.

Having provided that summary of what The Sword of Cepheus is, let’s take a look at what’s in it…

The Introduction gives a summary of what role-playing games are, and what the ‘style’ of The Sword of Cepheus is intended to be. This introduction uses the themes of Gritty Heroism, Dark Sorcery, and Open World. Gritty Heroism should be familiar to Traveller players in general; it suggests that player-characters are exceptional, but not so exceptional that they can’t be killed if they’re careless, or if they try to bite off more than they can chew. This is, essentially, the standard Traveller player-character, just translated into the fantasy/early-historical setting instead of the Far Future. Dark Sorcery suggests unreliable magic, with its own costs and dangers, including corruption of soul and body if ‘black’ magic is used. Open World implies that – like the most common model in Traveller SF settings – the world is the world, and doesn’t become tougher just because you do. This ties back to Gritty Heroism; thought and planning are essential, and just because one character is less experienced or skilled than another doesn’t mean that that character can’t help his/her more experienced companion, and make a difference in the outcome.

The Introduction also calls out the two absolutely unalterables rules of role-playing: The Referee Always Has The Final Say, and If You Don’t Like It, Change It (subject to the Referee having the final say).

A page of description of die-rolling conventions in The Sword of Cepheus could well have been lifted directly from Cepheus Engine, only altering the examples to fit the theme of The Sword of Cepheus. Players of Traveller or Cepheus Engine will find them immediately familiar and comfortable.

Where one starts to see important differences is in the Skills section. Unlike core Traveller, there are no ‘cascade’ skills in The Sword of Cepheus; Athletics, for example, is just Athletics, not Athletics (Climb) or Athletics (Run) or …. Technology-based skills (e.g., Electronic, Mechanic, Engineering, Gun Combat) are unavailable, and those skills which do exist in both The Sword of Cepheus and Traveller or Cepheus Engine should be assumed in The Sword of Cepheus to be pre-technological versions of the skills – that is, Watercraft assumes human-powered or wind-powered craft, and navigation with dead reckoning, sun-sighting and sextants, not powered craft and navigation with GPS. Additional skills are provided in The Sword of Cepheus, such as Alchemy, Archery, Artifice, and Sorcery, to cover the setting-specific needs of low-tech combat and magic. Other differences between The Sword of Cepheus and its antecedents include the handling of languages and improving skills in play.

Character generation will also be familiar; in addition to the standard Traveller and Cepheus Engine method of rolling up characteristics, The Sword of Cepheus allows the older (Classic/MegaTraveller) assignment of rolls to characteristics in order, and also a “Heroic” method where the player rolls 3D instead of 2D, and takes the two best dice. By default, The Sword of Cepheus handles careers more like Classic/MegaTraveller than Mongoose Traveller or Cepheus Engine (failing a survival throw means death; failing re-enlistment means you start adventuring [i.e., only one career]), but both the multiple-career option and the Mishap-but-not-death option are provided. Careers analogous to some of the standard Cepheus Engine careers are provided, but there is very little actual overlap. An innovation in The Sword of Cepheus that some referees may want to ‘back-port’ into Cepheus Engine or Traveller is its ‘Life Events’ tables – rather than a single Life Events table used by characters in all careers, there is a separate Life Events table for each general class of character background – Hinterlands, Village, or City – plus an ‘Unusual Events’ table that may apply to any character. There is a minor error in the Village table: a roll of 6 allows the character to ‘gain a level in Language or Streetwise’; the handling of languages in The Sword of Cepheus suggests that this should instead read ‘gain a language or a level in Streetwise’.

Another innovation in The Sword of Cepheus is Traits. These are described as ‘focused abilities and areas of training which may overlap with skills or characteristics’ and would seem analogous with ‘Feats’ in some other systems. Traits may have prerequisites; where the prerequisite is having a skill, the character must possess the skill at level 1 or better (skill-0, where allowed, does not satisfy the prerequisite).

Equipment is limited to TL0 and TL1 in the standard Traveller/Cepheus Engine tech scale; however, it may be worthwhile to work up a somewhat finer-grained tech scale, as there are some rules where the material that a weapon or armor is made from affects its value in combat. Encumbrance is discussed here, using a simple system that doesn’t rely on or require calculating weight – a character may carry a “light” load of “items” equalling his/her STR, or a “heavy” load of thrice that. Typically, one piece of equipment or object counts as one “item”; some large items may count as two “items”. Small things, such as candles, needle-and-thread, and so on, may not count at all for encumbrance, though this is strictly at the referee’s discretion.

Rather than the SF cliché “credit” for money, The Sword of Cepheus uses the fantasy cliché of “gold pieces” and “silver pieces”, at the usual 1:10 ratio. A conversion table for the more extensive coinage used in other games is provided, as is a table of expected living expenses.

One does not go on an adventure without being properly equipped, and there is a section on ensuring that you are so equipped, with everything from light sources to rations to containers to carry it all in. There is decent coverage of vehicles and mounts, weapons, and armor, and provisions for acquiring hirelings (e.g., retainers, mercenaries, or specialists such as smiths). A slight incongruity is that measurements, where needed, are sometimes – but not always – given in metric system units.

The section on adventuring proper – that is, actually going out to meet strange people and creatures, kill them, and take their stuff – covers more than just combat; reaction rolls, survival, foraging and hunting, getting lost (and getting un-lost), dealing with adverse terrain, and so on, all have their own discussion. Combat, in fact, is an entirely separate section, discussing various important subjects such as dodging, ranged combat vs melee combat, mounted combat, the effects of armor, being knocked down, being wounded and healing, morale, chases, naval (ship) combat, and so on.

The fantasy genre generally assumes magic, and The Sword of Cepheus caters to that with a section on Sorcery. This section discusses such things as learning new spells, casting known spells (including concentration and what happens when the spell fails), tools and assists to spellcasting, the differences between Black, White, and Grey magic, and provides a list of spells and their effects. Note that unlike in some magic systems, whether you intend to use the spell for ‘good’ or ‘evil’ purpose does not affect the spell’s nature as Black, White, or Grey – a Black spell is always Black, and similarly for the other colors.

A fantasy game wouldn’t be fantasy without monsters, and The Sword of Cepheus has a full complement of them. For the most part, a Monster profile looks a lot like an Animal profile in standard Traveller or Cepheus Engine SF settings, and have similar classifications; the definition of “monster” is wider, however, and also encompasses humanoids, extraplanar entities, and undead – and even basic ‘beasts’ don’t have to be ‘scientifically plausible’ as is expected in most SF settings (You want 100kg insects? You got ’em!). As with spells, you get a list of monsters with their behaviors, attacks, and special capabilities that the adventurer encountering one should be aware of.

Having met the monster and killed it, it’s time to take its stuff. The section on Treasure provides the rules for determining what stuff the monster has, and how to identify the special stuff among it. While there is instructions for determining the value of ‘cash’ (gold and silver) and gems or jewelry, there is no means for determining the value of magic items. The section does provide for researching new spells and for creating magic items, and one could perhaps use the associated costs of creation as a baseline for the value of a found item – but it’s still a somewhat surprising omission. A fairly extensive list of possible magic items is provided; while some of them duplicate spells from the Sorcery section (though often without imposing the cost of casting the spell), others seem to have powers completely outside the model of magic described in the rules.

All in all, The Sword of Cepheus is a worthy ruleset if you like a fantasy version of Traveller’s ‘crunchy space opera’ or ‘gritty realism’.