July 21, 2012

[Review] Tephra - Steampunk Roleplaying Game

This is the review of Tephra a new RPG from Cracked Monocle, recently Kickstarted.
They asked for $1,000 and they got $22,821 reinforcing my hypothesis we need a good steampunk game before the trend is gone.

Tephra is a traditional RPG with GM/players roles in a Fantasy Steampunk setting.
Tephra is an adventure game and the book emphasize bot the excitement part in living thrilling adventures and the necessity to write a story together, even if the last part is just minimal, considering that 99% of the storytelling is in the hands of the GM, here known as Narrator.

The core rule is simple: roll 1d12 and add all the appliable modifiers (skill, bonus, etc), the higher the better. Results are ranked in Tiers (1 through 4) where a result of 1 through 9 is a Tier 1/Barely Passing success and a result of 30+ is an exciting Tier 4/Beyond Human success. Only additional rule, 1 are botch and 12 are exploding (so you re-roll and add to the result)
In combat the rules are a little more complex. You have a level-based fixed amount of Action Points (3-6) that you spend to do things. When you attack you do 2 separate opposed rolls (Accuracy vs. Evade and Strike vs. Defense) to know if you hit and how hard. If you want to kill something you must drop to 0 both his hit points (the active defense and stamina he raise up when ready to battle) and wounds (the physical resistance of their bodies. Wounds are real wounds with hit locations and game effects (like a smashed hand or a severed head).
Social Skills are a little more ineffable and do not provide by design clear answers. The higher the Tier, the more precise is the description of the target, but the finale judgement still resides in the players.
All the rules are included in 15 pages. That's nice!

Tephra is a traditional game who doesn't innovate anything, but shining with some little twist here and there that can appeal anyone who wants to go Steampunk. The system goes a long distance trying to be simple to play and I'm not worried at the idea of explaining Tephra to a complete novice.  The combat is a little too slow for my taste: four rolls for every attack are way to much and way to unpredictable (widening the numerical scissor of the numbers)

Creating a Character in Tephra is a simple process that takes a lot of time the first times. It's partially random as in the race selection you get 2 racial features in a 12 elements list. Worth mentioning the attributes (Brute, Cunning, etc..) are a derived stat, based on the related skills you know. If you have the skills Brawl 4 and Frenzy 2, your Brute Attribute is simply 6. Specialties are the core of the character and represent all the amazing things your character can do. The Specialties list is huge, with more than 400 possible choices and cover pages from 88 to 262 (yes, almost 200 pages). Please note that, at first level, you know 3 (three) of them.

Creating a character is THE GOOD and THE BAD of Tephra. Attributes as derived stats are elegant, simple and appealing. It's an idea so good I ask myself why this isn't always like that. Specialties are fun, but the process of selecting them is painful as painful can get. 400 specialties are a lot and reading them if you don't want to overspecialize restricting your possible choices, is a long process. Long as in "impossible to do together the first session". Sure, for demos and CONs you can go with pregenerated PCs, but if you wanna play home this will be a major problem for anyone not used to build Warhammer army lists, Magic decks or something like that.

Tephra is a Fantasy Steampunk world. There are 5 non-human races that can be played and that sums most of the fantasy element. Most of the setting information is given through these races. The Satyrs, for example are an artificial race, while thew Farishtaas (who looks like elves) are a genetic manipulation of the Elves (who looks like trolls). In the history of the races, given as a background hooks, there are hints of religious closemindness, oppressive society pressure, racism, wide economic differences between social groups and so on. The geographical gazeteer is really short (21 pages) and includes nations, organizations, and background hooks (with a numerical effect).

The Tephra setting is just sketched. I can go with this, cause there are a lot of implicit background ideas scattered along the book, but probably in really hard for a player to grasp the world before some sessions. That could bring a dangerous approach to the table, when everyone arrives at the table with a character mechanically relevant but totally not related to anyone else. This problem is une of the biggest issues of Tephra and somehow prevented me from having right away ideas of possible campaigns. Tephra relies on the Narrator to do the heavy setting work and does not helps him in any way.

Tephra is not for noobs and with just 13 pages of Narrator related stuff, this book states the concept in a really clear way.

Move along. Nothing to see here. (There is not an adventure in this book, if isn't clear)

I'm really disappointed by this, mostly because Steampunk is a genre not so common everyone is sure to have ideas for. 

The Tephra book is gorgeous. The hard cover book is almost 300 pages long with a nice and tasteful cover art. Inside the book is easy to read and the only page you'll need to refer during the play are just in the front of the book. The artworks are good (but never amazing) but rare.

THE JUDGEMENT (obviously an opinion)
Tephra is a nice game, with good ideas and big problems. At first look, I was not impressed by Tephra but reading it I found some of the ideas inside this book really worthy. Sure, Tephra is not a game for a novice Narrator, considering the heavy load of work and responsibilities this game drops on him. When I read a new RPG I ask myself "What's the right approach to get the most from this game?" With Tephra I'm confused, but probably the "right way is to run a demo adventure with pregenerated PCs and then go with character creation and custom adventures. 
Probably I will try a demo of Tephra in the future. It's a game worthy a shot if you can find a Narrator.


  1. Hey Paolo, this is a great review! Thanks for doing it, and I'm glad you enjoyed the parts that you enjoyed. Haha, I'll be the first to admit that Tephra's not perfect (in fact, it's far from perfect... in fact, it's so far from perfect, it almost bothers me. Well, I guess that's the whole point of being an artist.), but I'm glad it has some good things going for it.

    If you don't mind, I'd love to respond to a couple things. You're review is spot on, I just thought I'd throw out a couple of my own comments (if you don't mind).

    On the Combat Rules -
    You're right in everything. It's pretty easy to explain to new people, but there are some pretty crazy margins in our attack rolls. It gave us a lot to play with though, and it allows for a huge variety of characters. You win some, you lose some. I'm glad to see that you noted our social system is vague by design - we don't want to step on the toes of experienced roleplayers.

    Character Generation -
    I can't design a game now-a-days without wanting to tie-in statistics to abilities, just like Tephra does by having granted bonuses from specialties. It's just so awesome (both as a designer and a player).

    Because of our 400+ specialties, character creation can seem amazingly daunting to some people. It really depends on the personality, though. It's funny you mention pre-generated characters: We've been doing conventions for 4 years, and we've actually found that pre-gens don't work. People like making their own characters, and they typically do it within 30-45 minutes (less if they have help). I don't entirely understand how that works, but by dividing our specialties into skills, it narrows down players' focuses and helps make the process simpler. But I'm probably more like you; if I was to pick up Tephra, it'd take me 6 hours to make my first character (I like to read EVERYTHING). It works for some people, it doesn't for others.

    The Setting -
    I struggled SO MUCH trying to figure out how much setting to give. I wanted a model where people could play in their own steampunk world (our core designers are all world-builders and we like playing in our own setting; when an RPG forces us to play in their setting, it turns us off). We wanted to offer narrators the ability to play in their own game with minimal changes, so I tried not to force the world of Tephra down people's throats. I'm still not sure how well we accomplished that.

    We will be having a ton of expansions coming out that detail out the setting in much more detail. We have a very full world, and I'm excited to share it with you in the future!

    Narrating -
    *shrug* I dunno. I just don't like writing narrating chapters :P

    First Adventure -
    We have adventure PDFs on our site! (But yes, if I did it all again, I'd include a couple in our core book. We really should've included some sample adventures, more pre-generated characters [also available on our site], and better character creation guidelines.)

    The Book -
    Gorgeous!? Considering I formatted the book, you just wormed your way into my heart. Thank you ^_^ I wish we could've had more art, but time and budget limited us. Oh well - next edition!

    Judgment -
    Yep, we definitely did not design Tephra for novice narrators. We designed it for narrators like ourselves, who are willing to think big and learn the rules. We don't spell things out because we like narrative control, and we say so. It's all left to the narrator to give the players the story that the narrator wants.

    Thanks for taking a great look at Tephra! Your review was great (probably the best one I've seen) and I hope you get a chance to play in the future.

    Cheers & Gears,
    Daniel Burrow

    Cracked Monocle Executive Director

    1. Hey there, Daniel! My name's Kris. I just completely randomly stumbled across Tephra this evening - I had never heard of it in my life (I'm sad that I missed the kickstarter!) and snatched it up immediately. Anyway, I've been perusing the web for the last hour or so looking for information or reviews, and saw this one, and read through it.

      I just wanted to say that I love that you popped in to reply to it with your own responses to the things, and while you wanted to give your side of it, you didn't seek to say he was wrong about anything. You own up to the more difficult parts of your system, and explain why it is that way. Good on ya! I'm excited by this book. It's odd to see an "indie" RPG so nicely polished! I'm definitely itchin' to try it out.

      anyway, that's all! You'll probably never see this, but .. thanks anyway!

  2. Thanks for the review. I have been looking for a good steampunk setting and rules and teetering on whether to buy Tephra.

  3. Thanks for the review. I have been looking for a good steampunk setting and rules and teetering on whether to buy Tephra.

  4. I am currently running Tephra right now and having a blast with the system. Sure the choices can be rather jarring, but it gives way for a lot of unique character concepts. Making NPC's is a snap in the game. Its easy to come up on the fly an appropriate bonus for an NPC antagonist and pull out some specialties if you want to give them more of an edge. Still I've hard to house rule a lot in the game as general battles can go for a long time when Hit-points are involved. I have created "Mook" rules to allow cookie-cutter minions that can be a threat but can quickly be taken down in a fight. I also incorporated a variant of a "Bene" system from savage worlds (Each PC gets 3 benes a game but the GM gets 1 bene for every player character). This helps put the PC's at the center of the story and makes them more heroic. In the end, I don't get the low raiting for the game, its a dam good system you should try out!