Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Weird Wars Rome


This book brings together three things I really like: Savage Worlds, the Weird Wars series of supplements for that game, and ancient Rome. This is the product of a kickstarter that closed out at the end of August 2013 and yes I was a backer.

  • Savage Worlds has been around for over ten years now. The rules have been printed several times but there's never really been a drastic change in "edition", nothing comparable to the edition changes we've seen with D&D over the years. It's right at the top of the systems I like the most but have played the least, having run several short campaigns but nothing longer than six months or so. I run it when I can and I follow the game pretty closely as there's a lot of interesting stuff, both from Pinnacle and from the multitude of third party publishers for the system. There is almost always something interesting in the works.
  • Weird Wars started out as a d20 game set in World War 2 back during the early 2000's d20 boom. I had many of the books for that one (since sold off) and I ran a few episodes of it. The material in it was pretty solid and the mechanics were fine but it never really felt like something that needed the full 20-level zero to hero to demigod progression. At the time I thought it would have been better as a GURPS campaign and that's still not a bad idea. Since then it has been reborn as ongoing set of releases for Savage Worlds, beginning with Tour of Darkness - Weird Wars Vietnam back in the early days of SW. Since then we have seen a new Weird War Two book as well and now we have Rome.
  • Ancient Rome is something I've been interested in for a long time. I took latin as my foreign language in high school and took plenty of ancient history classes in college. I consider it an "area of interest" and pick up new books on it whenever one catches my eye. I also think it has great potential for a fantasy campaign with a slightly different flavor than D&D.


This is a single volume about 100 pages long, with PDF, softcover, and hardcover versions all coming out of the project. About half of it is for players and about half is for GM's. It's very pretty, with full color throughout, a parchment look to the page ground, and plenty of art.

Let me say up front that this is not a general resource for either the republic or the empire. This is very much focused on the military of Rome, the legions, and the military history of Rome. If you want a more general resource for gaming, the GURPS Imperial Rome better covers that angle. If you want a military focus though, this is probably the best single resource for that kind of game that I have found.

There is a character creation section that covers things like ranks and titles, there is coverage of Roman military equipment, and some setting rules covering things like sieges in Roman times and naval battles with galleys. This is plenty of material to make a member of the legion and get a good feel for what he's about. These sections give you the "who" and the "what" of Rome. Note that there is no way to start the game with magical powers - no arcane backgrounds, no holy stuff - you may be able to do some pretty cool things but you are not a wizard or a cleric in the D&D sense.

There is a section on both the history of Rome, from rise to fall, and the regions covered by the Romans at some point, typically province by province. This takes less than 20 pages but it is solid and is plenty to get a player up to speed on "Rome". For this section in particular, I like the balance of breadth vs. depth. If you want more, there are lots and lots of books out there on this subject. This is the "why" and the "where" of Rome. I should also note that all of this is real history - none of the weird stuff is in here yet. That comes in the GM section.

Then comes the "War Master's Section" and we have a rundown of the general weirdness, some mechanics, a guide to running a military campaign, a random adventure generator, two adventures (kind of a mini-capping), and a bestiary. Again, this is about half of the book and it is packed with useful material. Call this the "how" of a Roman campaign.


So how would a Weird Wars Rome campaign play? Now I haven't run this yet but here's how it looks to me: It's a militarized Call of Cthulu where you don't always lose. To expand:

  • The assumed beginning is that you are new or lightly experienced members of the Roman army 
  • As you carry out your duties and fight some battles you become aware that there are some strange things going on
  • Sooner or later you confront this strangeness directly and (hopefully) overcome it

Upon confronting the weirdness you could of course die or be injured, but you might also go mad (there are insanity/trauma rules) and you might be inducted into one of the secret societies that fight the weirdness to preserve humanity, expanding the options beyond straight-up military campaigns. This is where the magical powers can enter the campaign as these groups can teach the characters some new tricks. There is also some discussion around a campaign that spans the range of Roman history, playing a series of mini-campaigns with descendants of earlier characters fighting the secret war across the centuries which is a cool idea.

Now is this a campaign you run for ten years and everyone has characters retired to keeps and temples? Maybe not. It is certainly conducive to an intermittent and episodic mission-style campaign with no set end point. I think you could run it with a gradual progression up the ranks approach and end up with the characters in positions of power where they can take on a bigger role in both the nation and the ongoing war.

I have a vague concept in my head right now where over time the weirdness becomes more known and the emperor creates "Legio XIII" to deal with the problem on a larger scale - it's still a secret, but this 13th legion's leaders know what's going on and the unit is sent in to deal with problems that are on the verge of getting out of hand. This would add the fun of keeping the secret a secret on a bigger scale, potential rivalries with other legions who resent this other unit joining in, and some political fun as nobles and others scheme around the fringes.

To enhance the flavor of a Roman RPG there are a lot of tools available:

  • Use Roman numerals as much as possible. They're easy to learn and easy to read.  There are dice numbered this way and that adds more to the game's flavor than you might think.
  • Throw in a little latin, at least for titles and the names of the cities and provinces which are easily found in this book and a ton of other references as well.
  • There are plenty of Roman and other ancient miniatures available. This helps change up the look from a typical D&D game and Savage Worlds works well with mini's. There are supposed to be figure flats coming out for this specific game as well.
  • Ground it in history - pick an era, pick a region, and set your adventure in that specific time and place.  Use historical figures associated with your chosen setting. Even if your players aren't history buffs this makes the world feel more real just like it does for Faerun or Glorantha, and it has the advantage of being actual history - it might come in handy sometime other than at the game table.


  • This is unlikely to be a sandbox campaign, at least right out of the box. I can see ways to maybe run it that way but the game as presented is more like a superhero campaign: You are defenders of the status quo and when a threat to humanity or Rome arises you must deal with it.
  • This is a game with swords and magic but it is a pretty long ways from D&D in that you are not stating out with magical powers and you are not typically motivated to fight this fight for loot and XP's
  • On a power scale Savage Worlds is more cinematic than GURPS but less so than D&D 4th Edition so your characters should last for more than one fight and be able to do some cool things but you are not actually superheroes

One other note: like the other Weird Wars books Rome takes full advantage of Savage Worlds' designed ability to allow PC's to easily run their own NPC companions and fight larger battles in a session. The PC's may be accompanied by other legionnaires, auxilia, or helpless villagers caught in a bad situation. This can really enhance the feel of being in a larger scale military operation and should be a lot of fun with all of the colorful elements of a Roman force.


  • Having recently rewatched HBO's "Rome" with Lady Blacksteel it's a good source of inspiration as the two main characters are Roman soldiers in the late republic. If I ran this game I'd expect to see a lot of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus in any characters I or my players made.
  • Gladiator - pretty obvious but this movie deals more with internal Roman politics while the game is more focused on weirdness in the provinces and the frontiers of the realm. At the very least though the music makes for a good background while playing.
  • Also having rewatched/introduced Apprentice Blaster to King Arthur, the Clive Owen version form a few years ago, I think it's a really strong source of inspiration for a campaign in Roman Britain. There are some interesting characters, you get a feel for the land, the opposition, and the overall situation, and there is plenty of room for weirdness. What might the "Woads" do when the Saxons invade besides call on Arthur? What if the Saxons have some more sinister influence than just conquest? What the heck is really going on at that villa in the middle of barbarian country? I can run an adventure based on this without almost no prep at all - it writes itself!

Next-to-final-thought: This is one of the few RPG's that would fit in well at a historical miniatures convention and I bet it would be a blast as you get a bunch of players who really know about these characters and this era get to dive in at a micro level and geek out, and then you get to throw zombies at them. I think it would be a blast.


This book solidly covers its promised subject and strikes a perfect-for-gaming balance between brevity and detail. If you play Savage Worlds and are interested in a Roman campaign it is definitely worth a look. If you do not play Savage Worlds I'd say it's less of an easy "yes" and may be more dependent on the price and your personal sensitivity to that. Much of the content on Roman history and military equipment could be picked up through other non-gaming sources but it is handy to have a single book that brings it all together if that's a type of campaign you are interested in trying. I, however, do play Savage Worlds and I feel that with this book, a rulebook, some cards and dice, and what's in my head I could run an enjoyable game for my friends or my kids or both and run it for quite some time.  

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