Recently, a controversy about the consultants for Fifth Edition D&D reminded me of a guy who I hadn't thought about in a long time, "RPGPundit", the author of this work. I eventually worked out with searches and so on that someone associated with his publisher had come onto story hyphen games dot com, a forum I post on, and suggested that we buy RPGPundit's products because story gamers might like them.
He didn't quite see why the author believing that people that post on story hyphen games dot com were "swine" intentionally trying to destroy RPGs might affect our thinking on whether to buy his game. After all, if the game was good, why should it matter that the author considers us saboteurs and infiltrators? Couldn't we, logically, gain our greatest revenge by playing his game and enjoying it? And anyhow, haven't we, in this grand postmodern world, fully acquiesced to the "death of the author" school of criticizing texts, which posits that the author's intentions are of only glancing relevance to a text's quality?
On reflection, I had to consider this attitude capitalistic in the most admirable sense of the word. As the atheist Bible salesman said, "If you rubes are buyin', I'm sellin'!" Well, shucks, when you put it that way, mister, I'm buyin'! (Technically I got a copy free for being a Featured Reviewer, but you all knew that. You all did know that, right?) So let's talk about Arrows of Indra.
Arrows of Indra says it's an Old School Fantasy game in an "Epic Indian Fantasy World". Now, I've read some pretty epic fantasy stories from India, the Mahabarata and so on, but I don't have a lot of expertise in the area, so my analysis will be strictly from the position of the setting's playability and the stories that can come from it. Someone else will have to weigh in as an India expert to say if the game reflects the world well, or appropriately, not me.
As I mentioned in another review (Hulks & Horrors), "Old School" tends to leave me cold as a too-broad statement that encompasses too many approaches to give me a solid idea of what it's about. In fact, that's one of the main weaknesses of Arrows of Indra, it occurs on the first full page of text - it says that it's not going to try to tell me how to play.
Normally I leave "what could be improved" to the end of my review (trusting that nobody of sound mind would ever read to the end and therefore leaving readers with an unalloyed positive impression) but since this flaw is literally right up front, I think I should mention it now. This game does not present a clear picture of the role of the GM and the role of the players in the game. It doesn't indicate an objective for either of those roles. I don't think the roles necessarily need to be "defined", since yes, I do know that in an "old school" game the players say what their characters do and the GM says what happens. But I do need to know by what principles I should GM or play this game. Vampire: the Masquerade, for example, urged GMs to create Themes and Tones to help organize their game, and take careful charge of the initial situation of the characters in order to launch them on their way. Champions comes with extensive advice and even mechanics to help me realize the world of superheroes and villains. I get that people don't want to write what a GM does for the thousandth time. But what players are told to do really does matter to how the game is played; if the game is meant to be flexible, then exactly how it is flexible and how to make a decision to "flex" is very relevant to player experience.
This is probably the biggest flaw in Arrows of Indra. If a second edition were to be released, I would highly recommend more detailed descriptions and tools for players (including GMs) to make decisions about how to play the game in an enjoyable fashion.
Anyway, the introduction also reassures us that we won't need to know that much and that what's presented is not in any way considered a reflection of real religious beliefs or a description of an actual caste system. (Someday I would like someone to straight up say "this RPG contains a reflection of my personal view of this religion/political system" and see how that goes, but today's not that day.) I am surprised to find there's no "bibliography" in the game to help me develop my game further. Especially in a game based on a real-world culture and myths, I definitely would like to know where the designer feels I should go for targeted inspiration.
The character creation system includes the normal array of attributes ("4d6 drop lowest?!?! How old school can this really be?!!? flips table"), before delving into the caste features and, interestingly, a family background generator. The cool thing about the family background generator is that it contains a simple overview of what the player character can expect to inherit and when. In tons of fantasy stories and fables, inheritances play a huge role, and it's often overlooked.
Although I was being jokey about the 4d6 thing, I actually think the caste and family background generators take this game away from the "old school" experience as I've normally seen it explained. It's hard to take on the principle of disposable low-level characters when I've taken the time to generate my siblings, parents, and their social situation. That seems to me to be a more story-based approach, like the background questions in White Wolf games or lifepath generators in Cyberpunk or FATE. All in all, so far this seems like a pretty solid story-based character generation system for a fantasy adventure game.
And thank the heavens there's two pages of names. If you aren't at least a little embarrassed by the proliferation of "$1 for a list of names!" products here (and yes, I've bought and used them), then maybe you haven't clicked around the site that much. If you've got a game and you've got a culture in that game that I can't get names from the local phone book, then maybe a couple of pages of names would help. Stories are only as good as the characters in them, and if the name of a character is way off, the story is way off.
Character class selection is next. There are some things about it I quite like, other decisions are more questionable. It is possible, for example, though unlikely, for a character to not qualify for any of the character classes. (This could be fixed by altering the rule about when a player may discard a character in the ability score section: instead of handling it by a sum of the ability score bonuses and making it optional, make it mandatory and tie it to the character creation requirements.) I know that in certain "old school" games, character balance is something to be avoided rather than pursued, but it does seem rather extreme that a player who rolled random ability scores will not only gain the bonuses associated with those scores, have access to better character classes, but might even get a bonus to their XP if they got lucky enough. This doesn't seem like a good way to test player skill, to make so much ride on the random rolls at the beginning of the game. Again, some guidance on how players (including GMs) should approach in-play decisions would be very helpful to understanding the characters classes' strengths and weaknesses in various situations in their story.
I would say the best thing about the character classes is that they really make me want to play them, especially when paired with the next section.
One thing I've liked about many "old school" games I've seen is that they lack skills, or have a much-truncated skill system. As a guy who calculated half-point skills in GURPS and rubbed his forehead working out where to put an NPC's skill points in D&D3, just having characters DO things is just fine by me. However, when playing a character in a world that's very different from our own, it does help to have an idea for "what can I do in this situation". Arrows of Indra does what very few have done - it just makes the selection of skills random. You just roll on a chart and boom, that's what your character knows how to do. Interestingly, the magical effects that some of the characters can perform are also selected randomly. I love this approach, it fits right in with the quick-chargen ethos of the game. You buy your equipment and get going.
As I mentioned earlier, the "Game Master Procedures" section is more concerned with giving the mechanics of the game than in describing how you should apply those mechanics and how you should generate the situations those mechanics occupy. Task resolution adds a d20 to an ability score, with bonuses and penalties.
The same vagueness that I mentioned above infects the XP rules, though. Characters get experience for the value of the treasure they obtain and sell, not for what they hang onto or give away. (You can optionally give out some XP for "grand gesture" gifts.) This doesn't seem to fit the purpose of treasure in the fantastic India stories I've read. And it seems like it would provoke some decidedly un-Epic actions on the part of the characters. A GM may also grant XP for any reason they wish, but with no information on the specific principles of a GM in an Arrows of Indra game, I'm left with no information on what would be a good or bad reason to grant XP. This area of the rules, like the role of the players in general, needs to be fleshed out.
The surprise rules stand out as both clear and very effective. You are going to want to re-read these because they are going to be among the deadliest rules in the book. And they definitely are going to support some very wily moves by the players. (This is also in line with some of the Indian fantasy stories I've read too, the heroes there had no compunction about ambushing bad guys.)
Not knowing much about Indian myth and folklore, I hesitate to weigh in on the extensive Gazetteer section except to say that it seems like a fairly normal fantasy setting - villages and cities, wilderness and dangerous environs, and so on.
One half-step that I would like to see expanded into a full step is the description of gender roles in the world. It seems wishy-washy, saying that if a GM wants, they can permit a woman character to be free of their strict gender role and become an adventurer as in a normal party. I would prefer to see text that says bluntly that the social rules of the setting only apply to the characters insofar as the players desire - if a player wishes to be an exception to any in-fiction social rule, they should be supported in doing so by their fellow players.
There's an interesting description of a third gender role, a man who is raised and takes on the social role of a woman, and it said the opposite might be possible in your campaign as well. Again, I would like to see this area fleshed out and firmed up. Contrast for us a woman who does not conform to her social role (running away from home, learning how to shoot a bow, being real cool) and a woman who is accepted (or not) into another gender role. Still, it's a solid opening to these issues that a lot of other games don't even mention. Steps like this are vital for a game of this type, that is trying to bring us to a fantastic culture.
I love megadungeons and the Patala Underworld ties a megadungeon format to the setting's religion very tightly - the characters can literally descend to hell battling monsters and taking their treasure! That's pretty awesome. Although I appreciate the random room and monster generation tables - this is the only way to handle a megadungeon in this type of format - I do think that either they should have been greatly expanded (the chance that you'll come across the same type of magic spring more than once, for example, seems high) or, perhaps better, saved for a supplement. This would have undermined the author's goal of a one-book game from the introduction, but I think it could have better served the phantasmagorical and exciting material that I felt was over-compressed.
A monster guide and treasure and item list round out the game (the Gods and Religion section should properly be moved to the Gazetteer section). By this point it shouldn't be a surprise that the monsters are fun and you're gonna have fun interacting with them.
It has bookmarks and they're good. The character sheet, though attractive, is not very useful since more than 1/4 of it is taken up with ability scores and bonuses. It would make more sense to have more room for skill descriptions since some of those introduce new mechanics specific to your character.
All in all, Arrows of Indra creates an interesting fantasy culture and situates its adventurers in it much more firmly than the typical "old school" game. It contains all the elements of a great story game: a GM to set up a situation, players to play out their characters' actions in that situation, and the GM works out the consequences with the systems the game provides. It even puts in moral values and questions via the Holy/Unholy alignment system, reflecting favor or disfavor with the gods. It is flexible enough to handle political stories (so long as someone gets stabbed), wilderness stories, and even, with the literal descent to hell, mythic stories. As a story game, Arrows of Indra definitely delivers. (Since I already went over how it could be improved, I won't do that again like I normally do.)
As someone who the author believes to be working as hard as I can to destroy RPGs, it's impossible for me to decide if Arrows of Indra meets its goals. Am I the target audience? Surely not, surely this game was created specifically to repulse me and all swine like me. In that case, the game was a failure since I quite liked it. Perhaps its goal was to force me to play in a way that I would dislike, thereby driving me from the table. But it failed there too - if anything, it's not firm enough in its vision of what the players of the game should be doing. Hm.
Instead, let me take on that 'death of the author' postmodern capitalist attitude - let me flip through the atheist salesman's Bible.
If I separate the text from the author completely and just look at whether it appeals to me, a modern story-loving gamer, there's no way I can say it doesn't. It presents a compelling world, has cool ideas, sets them up for quick entry, and executes them efficiently. This is a world ripe for stories of adventure, loyalty and family in a culture I want to explore and experience.
Maybe you don't appreciate being called a swine and you don't want to buy a RPG by a guy who thinks you're attempting to destroy RPGs. That's understandable. Of course in a corporatist world we are all compromised and the only proper attitude towards anyone we buy things from is unreserved hostility and suspicion, as the pressure of money corrupts all human...wait, didn't I start this review praising capitalism? I think I better sign off before I make things worse. You can make up your own mind at this point, surely.