23 November 2021

RPG Review: Overlight

 

The cover of the core rule book, showing several people from the world of Overlight in the style of artwork typical of Kwanchai Moriya.

Almost two years ago, I discovered a roleplaying game that very much caught my attention. I bought it as soon as I was able, and I have not regretted doing so. Now, I am delighted to write a review for this game. Welcome, my friends, to Overlight from Renegade Game Studios.

An Overview of Overlight

Three thousand years ago, the guardian dragons that watched over the world debated whether humanity had earned the right to receive the eight keys to creation. Seven of the eight dragons voted 'no,' but the eighth dragon disagreed so strongly that he gave the keys to the humans in secret. When he did so, he warned them not to use the eighth key.

This was a mistake.

The humans used the eighth key, and the world was turned upside down. It shattered into seven shards, which are suspended in space above the Endless Sea, as the Overlight shines down from above. Each shard is home to a different species, and is characterised by different dominant terrain types.

Now, the ancient history has been lost, and none remember the world as it once was. But there are some, known as the Skyborn, who have an unusual relation with the Overlight. They are able to refract it into different colours, known as 'Chroma,' which they can manifest in wonderous magical effects.

Players take on the role of one of these Skyborn, and travel among the shards, trying to learn the truth of the world that has been lost to time.

First Point: Production Value

The book is beautiful. All the art was created by Kwanchai Moriya, and it is fantastic. It is colourful and whimsical, but with a hint of danger, which is fully in keeping with the game's theme. The right edges of the odd-numbered pages have coloured triangles to make it easier to navigate between chapters. 

My biggest gripe with the production is that it could be a little more accessible to vision-impaired people. The text is in a serif-font, except the section headings, which are sans-serif. Most text is black on a pale lavender. The exceptions are: the chapter on the different shards (the background is a different colour for each shard, though the background is still a very light shade), section headings (which are still on a pale lavender background, but are red or purple instead of black), and sidebars (which are on pale green backgrounds). These are not huge issues for the visually impaired, but they are issues.

Apart from that, the only complaint I have is that there is no image I could find of the Brendenol Tribe of the Banyari. As they are the most unique of the Banyari tribes in appearance, an illustration would have been nice.

Second Point: Setting

An illustration of the shards of the world of Overlight. At the bottom is the Endless Sea, with seven continent-sized islands floating in a column above it. Light shines down from above, illuminating the highest shards and shrouding the lowest shards in shadow.

The world of Overlight is very different from ours. There is no sky above, only the constant shine of the Overlight itself. There is no sun, no moon, and the only stars are the ones that appear to shine in the Endless Sea that lies beneath the shards. This means that the topmost shard, Nova, never has any darkness. It is a sprawling desert with little shade, populated by the Novapendra: giant centipede-like creatures (which are the only sentient race in Overlight that are not available as a PC race).

Lower shards have 'night' periods resulting from the shadows of higher shards passing over them, which happens sporadically, as the shards float around in a complex pattern that only the most learned of scholars understand. The second shard, Zenith, has few periods of darkness, because there's only one shard above it. Zenith is a cold place of snowy mountains. It is populated by the Hamanu, giant ape-like creatures, and the Zenith Order Monks (who are technically the same species as the Harkeen, but the rules treat them as a separate race).

Below that is Quill, a lush land of jungles and rivers. Many years ago, Quill collided with Banyan, the shard below it, and shattered into many smaller chunks. Quill is home to the Teryxians, feathered dinosaur-like creatures who value learning and stoicism (despite their impassioned hatred of the Banyari). Banyan, meanwhile, is a land of forest, and the Banyari who live there are small furry creatures who are divided into six tribes. Each tribe has a different appearance, but most of them have a symbiotic relationship with a plant that grows around them and forms a sort of living wooden power suit.

The next shard is Hark. Whatever terrain it once had has been subsumed by the city, also called Hark, which covers the entire continent. It is a multi-layered affair, as the city was created by digging into the bedrock to carve the houses and other buildings directly into the shard itself. It is home to the Harkeen, who are basically humans. Also on Hark is the Council of Seven, representatives from all seven of the shards that serves as a de facto government for the world.

Below Hark is Veile, made up of rolling hills and lush fields punctuated by lakes. The Aurumel call this shard home; they are similar to the Harkeen, but taller, slender, and never seen without their masks. They are renowned craftsmen and artists.

The lowest shard is Pyre. It is a hard land of mountains and volcanoes. As the lowest shard, it is most prone to being in darkness as the other shards float above it, blocking out the Overlight from above. The Pyroi call this place home, and the difficult life that they eke out in the rocky terrain leads them to value strength and endurance. They are a warrior culture, as it is hard enough to survive as warriors on their hard and hot shard. They are massive, taller even than the Hamanu, with dark skin that sometimes tends towards red, two fingers and a thumb on each hand, and elephant feet.

There is so much more that can be said about the setting. It is one of the things I love about this game; the world itself is so vibrant, so unique, and so rich in unusual details that it would take a long time to describe it in any real depth.

A collage of images showing the different races from the game.
The various races from Overlight.

Third Point: System

Core Mechanic

Characters do not have attributes. Instead, they have seven Virtues: Might, Vigor, Will, Compassion, Logic, Wisdom, and Spirit. These virtues function very similarly to attributes, though there are some ways in which they are less intuitive than attributes. Each Virtue is rated on a step scale: D6, D8, D10, or D12.

Each Virtue has three skills associated with it (except Might, which has only two, and Spirit, which works differently from the others). These skills are rated on the same step scale of D6 to D12 as the Virtues.

To make a roll, you take three of the dice rated for your Skill and three of the dice rated for the controlling Virtue, plus 1d4 to serve as the Spirit Die, and roll all of them together. Every two dice that come up as 6 or higher counts as a success level. For example, imagine that you were rolling your Persuasion, which was rated at D8, and was governed by the Will Virtue, which was rated at D10. In this case, you would roll 3d8 + 3d10 + 1d4. If two of those dice come up as 6 or higher, that's the basic level of success: Luminous Success. If four of those dice land on 6 or more, you have achieved the second level of success: Radiant. If all six dice results are 6 or higher, that's the third level of success: Brilliant.

The Spirit Die is a little different. Since it can't land on 6, it serves an auxiliary function. If the Spirit Die lands on 4, it will have different effects in different situations. If you are one die short of the next higher success level, it bumps you up to that level. If you score a Brilliant Success and the Spirit Die lands on 4, it promotes the success to the highest level: Legendary. Otherwise, it grants you a Spirit Point. Spirit Points can be spent in various ways, most often to fuel Chroma or to upgrade a success to the next highest level.

Keep in mind, this is just how skill rolls work. The system is slightly different if you're rolling to use a Chroma, making an opposed roll, rolling to attack in combat, or (and this is weird, because money is abstracted in Overlight) making a 'Wealth Test' to see if you can afford a purchase.

This is honestly my biggest concern about this game. As much as I love basically everything else about it, the core mechanic is so complicated and overwrought that it detracts from what is otherwise a nearly perfect game for me. Not only is it hard to remember how the different types of die rolls work, and the different functions of the Spirit Die in each different type of roll, but you need a lot of dice. At a minimum, you need a d4, 3d6, 3d8, 3d10, and 3d12 (if you're willing to roll a set of dice twice if the skill and Virtue have the same rating). Ideally, there'll be 1d4, 6d6, 6d8, 6d10, and 6d12, if all players share the dice. But 25 dice for one game is a bit extreme.

Chroma

The 'magic' in Overlight is called 'Chroma.' These are basically spell lists, but you're only allowed to take Chroma that are associated with your race or your core Virtue. As much as this game purports to be about characters who are remarkable when compared to the 'normal' denizens of their world, the Chroma don't seem terribly powerful to me. Also, given that the Chroma are powered by Spirit Points, which can be hard to come by, I wonder if it can be difficult to use the powers you do have.

Combat

This is the area in which most people are turned off by this game. Combat is highly abstracted. There is usually no defense roll (unless you spend a Spirit Point to take the Full Defense Manoeuvre, which entails forgoing your attack on that turn). There are no damage ratings for different attacks or different weapons; regardless of whether you are punching, kicking, biting, attacking with a sword, spear, arrow, or thrown rocks, you do the same amount of damage (which is determined by the number of dice that come up as 6 or higher on your attack roll).

The rules state that the focus of this game is storytelling, and they don't want that impeded by lengthy combats full or constant dice rolling. Which is fine for players like me, who are more interested in the story anyway, but for players who demand lots of tactics and detailed combat systems, it is a serious drawback. I have heard more than one player look at this game and say something like, 'I was interested until I read the combat rules, then I decided I had no desire to play.'

Final Thoughts on Overlight

I know that not everyone is going to be interested in this game. For many players, it's not fighty enough. For others, the overwrought core mechanic is too hard to get past. And for some, the setting is just too different. 

But despite the core mechanic not being to my liking, I am a big fan of the game. Much like my affection for The Dark Crystal, the world is so unique, so different, so creative, so innovative, that I can overlook the things I don't like about it. I love exploring new and different settings, especially when we have a fantasy setting that doesn't follow the usual elves/dwarves/goblins/etc pattern.

If this sounds interesting to you too, you can head over to the Renegade Studios website and take a look at what they have. Until next time,

Game on!

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