Intended as a game which will allow you to play literally whatever you like, in terms of genre and character, with a game mechanic that revolves around a single D20, the Karma Roleplaying System is presented in a concise and logical manner. Naturally, you will first have to decide the setting and what the game will be about. Then you need to determine if the characters will be true heroes, with exceptional capabilities, or ordinary people caught up in the events of your story. Both the players and the storyteller, as the game master is called, need to be involved as this is above all a cooperative storytelling game, whatever form your story takes. As each decision you need to make is described, there are a few examples given to explain them. One of the critical choices is magic: is it commonplace or rare or misunderstood? (Or absent, athough the writer seems not to have considered that option!) The idea is that you settle these details before people start thinking about their characters.
Next comes a look at the core mechanic, as it's thought necessary for every to understand that before proceeding further. Basically, success or failure at whatever you are trying to do is based on a single D20 roll, the higher the better. Modifiers based on ability and any other factors are added to the raw roll. If you are competing with someone else, whoever has the higher total wins. The target you are aiming at for success is determined by how difficult the task is, with four levels of difficulty available. Critical failure is a possibility if your roll is really atrocious. This section continues with a discussion of the various modifiers which might come into effect and, of course, what happens in combat.
Once the basic rules have been covered, we move on to character creation. It's a point-build system, with the core attributes being split into three groups - physical, cerebral and spiritual - and the points being allocated depending on which groups you designate as primary, secondary and tertiary for your character. The number of points in each one determine your raw talents... which then of course are developed by putting more points into specific abilities or skills. Each group of abilities is affected by a pair of attributes, and most can be used untrained relying on these alone - but naturally you do a lot better if you've had some training. Magic cannot be used untrained, however. There are also talents, or innate abilities, which if chosen are things that your character is naturally good at, such as acrobatics or performance. You can add specialties to abilities which you are particularly good at and choose a profession, which gives a package of benefits; all this reflecting your character's experience before the game starts. Other things need to be worked out as well before you are ready to play, chief of these is Karma. This determines the character's luck (or the favour of the gods), and can be added to one roll per session as well as affecting how easy it is to heal or even raise the character from the dead. Finally, non-spell casters get a few additional points to spend on skills while magic-users gain 'spell creation points' instead.
All the above assumes a normal human being (well, perhaps apart from the magic), but it is possible to create characters of other races and/or ones with super powers if so desired. A wide range of possible powers are listed.
Next, equipping this freshly-created character is considered. The basic idea is that once you know what the character was doing prior to the game beginning, you can assume he has the normal items expected for whatever trade he was following - while you don't need to pay for them, you do need to write them down. Stuff you acquire later on once the game has started is best handled within the context of the game - shopping, stealing, and so on. Character creation winds up with a discussion on how characters advance through gaining experience and getting training.
Elements of Magic comes next, explaining how the magic system and individual spells work. To cast a spell, both a D20 roll (to determine success or failure of the attempt) and the expenditure of 'mana' or magical energy are required. While there is an inherent 'philosophy of magic' underpinning the rules, characters are able to design their own spells and rituals via a point-buy system. Magic use is arcane, psionic or divine in nature, the difference being the power source used. While this does lead to great flexibility and customisation for magic users, it does require that time be spent before the game figuring out a character's spells - there's no convenient list to draw upon... well, some starting spells are suggested to get you going and provide examples, but they are all low-level basic spells. As characters develop their powers they will have to get stuck in to designing their own spells. Magic users are also able to craft magic items. A whole range of different types of item, and the processes involved in crafting them, are listed.
Next comes The Art of War, which looks in greater detail at how combat is conducted in this game. It looks at such concepts as special combat options and manoeuvres, and at the martial arts. Some examples of styles are given, but it is suggested that players come up with their own particularly if they know a little about real-world martial arts disciplines. There's a lot more detail about other weapons-based fighting styles as well - so those who chose particular weapons when selecting skills during character creation can get the lowdown on how to use them to good effect in a brawl. (There's a gem of a spelling mistake here, apparently it takes special training to use a marital weapon... think they intended to say 'martial' here!) There are some good generic descriptions of a wide range of weapons, so you can get at least some idea of what you are wielding; although firearms have been abstracted to generic types - if there will be guns in your game you may wish to research real-world ones and modify the generic details to reflect the diversity of modern firearms. Armour and shields get a similar treatment.
The next section is entitled "For Storytellers" and goes into detail about running a game, beginning with the need to decide just what kind of game you wish to run. Once you've settled on your plan, stick to it and don't introduce other elements on a whim because they looked good, but only if they contribute to the kind of story that you and your players have already decided to tell. Game balance is important too, the 'opposition' needs to be carefully judged so that they are neither impossible to defeat nor a push-over, based on the capabilities of the characters. This is followed by a discussion of the relative merits of meta-plotting and freeform games. Some people have a detailed plot with everything mapped out, others are happy with just a basic idea of what the characters have to deal with... and as usual, something in between usually leads to the best games. Some of the choice depends on the players - are they story-driven, do they have goals for their characters of their own... or are they just out for a bit of fun and a few brawls? There are also some ideas for different kinds of encounters - not necessarily ending in a fight - which can be part of the normal environment of your game, or related specifically to your plotline.
While major characters might be created in the same way as player-characters, a shortened form is provided for the run-of-the-mill NPC, giving you enough detail to know what he can do and how well without getting bogged down. Monster creation gets similar treatment. Finally comes some detail about money and other valuables with which to rewards characters, including a system for determining an individual's reputation based on his behaviour and deeds.
Overall, this is a well-designed and considered set of rules; but one suited to players and referees who have plenty of ideas about just what kind of game and characters they wish to play and plenty of time to use these game mechanics to develop them. It's not something to buy, flick through and run the first game that same evening; but if you are prepared to make the effort, a memorable game tailored to your precise requirements can result.
[4 of 5 Stars!]