Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Engine: unique variable dice pool system
I can't get enough of reading new RPGs. It has been my guilty pleasure for years. When first Overlight: A Roleplaying Game of Kaleidoscopic Journeys crossed my feed as a Kickstarter in 2017 or so, I started watching it like a hawk. The Art, the High Concept and the unusual design all seemed really compelling to me.
I bought Overlight in the Spring of 2018 as a birthday gift to myself and greatly enjoyed it. This was a little bit before the stresses of everyday life started to push me towards faster, lighter systems and ultimately towards the OSR. This game is decidedly not OSR in design, but might have an appeal to my readers.
Overlight is a unique fantasy setting in which people from several bronze-age Earth civilizations were rescued from an impending cataclysm ant transplanted to a strange world. Many of the transplanted humans magically assumed non-human forms under the influence of the perpetual divine light that washes over everything and saturates it with divine magic (the eponymous "Overlight".)
The Player Characters are Skyborn: people born so saturated by the holy light of that they possess miraculous powers, and are marked by luminous, iridescent eyes. Whether by destiny or due to stigma, every Skyborn is a misfit and feels compelled to look for something different out of life. Most become heroes, healers, or terrifying villains. Many join a sacred society dedicated to channeling their members' powers for the common good.
Each character comes from a "folk" (race) from the various Shards ("layers" ) of the floating islands that make up the game world, and chooses a background from possible upbringings or professions for that folk. Many of these races are non-anthropomorphic and quite unusual, like the Teryxians (feathered serpents) and Banyari (squirrel-like creatures that ride in symbiotic plant bodies.) Each character has a series of Virtues that measure their aptitudes and personal strengths Each Virtue is associated with a color, a shard (layer of islands) and the people of that shard.
|Haarkeen Child with Teryxians Tutor|
by Kwanchai Moriya ©2018 Renegade Game Studios
Virtues and skills are expressed as die values, with a baseline of a d6 for human average. Trained skills being a D6. A character's personal strengths and honed skills can increase to being d8s, d10's, or even d12s. When a test is required, you usually use three dice of the type associated with your Virtue, and three of the type associated with a skill. So if you have a d10 Logic and a d8 in Crafts, you would roll 3d10 +3d8. Wealth is also measured as a die, with rolls made to see if the PCs have sufficient resources for a trade.
All pools have an additional d4 "Spirit Die. " Successes are gained by rolling 6 or higher. The number of successes determines the degree of success. 4s on the spirit die round up an odd number of successes to the next even number (and degree of success), or add 1 to the character's limited Spirit Pool. Odd numbers of successes can also be boosted to even by spending from the Spirit Pool.
This Spirit pool is a limited resource that is regained solely through rare die rolls and role-play. It is used to activate character powers, tweak die pools, or perform special maneuvers in combat, such as disarming foes. In combat, a character gains a temporary Fury Pool that can be spent instead of Spirit.
The Spirit virtue is generally handled differently, and is not used to form dice pools. Thematically, it is also handled differently: The shard Nova is inhospitable, and the unplayable centpede-like Novapendra are either inscrutable mentors or villains reminiscent of the Vorlons from Babylon 5.
Each character starts with a selection of skills and upgrades to Virtues based on their folk and background. Hit Points and starting wealth rating are assigned by a mix of folk, Might, and background. PCs also get a pool of points to buy and upgrade skills and Virtues. All characters have a core Virtue that represents the spiritual strength of the character which must be different from their folk Virtue, representing how that character is a misfit from their folk.
Skyborn, including the PCs, possess miraculous powers called Chroma chosen based on their Core Virtue. These are the powers that really set Skyborn apart from other characters.
Over all, Overlight is a clever design that takes quite a few risks, some for the better, some for the worse. If you are looking for a break from Medieval European fantasy, you can't go too wrong with Overlight. It's setting is brilliantly designed, and could easily be adapted for other games.
What I Loved
|Aurumel Matriarch by Kwanchai Moriya|
©2018 Renegade Game Studios
The artwork of Kwanchai Moriya is absolutely breathtaking. I can spend a long time looking at each piece and still find something new each time I revisit it.
The Artwork alone was worth the price of the book, and if I were to have my choice of artists to illustrate my children's book, Moriya would be my top choice, (although Dusan Petricic is a favorite second.)
Overlight as a game a ought a bright world where light and color are magic lives and dies by its art. And this Art does an amazing job of bringing the world to life, with many intense scenes that offer a sense of motion and energy to balance character portraits.
The world of Overlight is a world of floating islands stacked in seven layers above an endless ocean. All are bathed from above by a perpetual magical radiance, and day and night come from the unpredictable shifts of the floating islands casting shade on those below them,.
|Map of the Overlight Setting by Kwanchai Moriya|
©2018 Renegade Game Studios
This setting comes with its own cosmology, including several mystical beliefs, superstitions, taboos, untruths, and secrets that gives it real depth as a setting.
The cultures of the setting are inspired by the mythologies and beliefs of several ancient Bronze Age cultures from Europe (the Spartan Pyroi) Central America (the Aztec feeling Tyrexian's and Amazonian Banyari), The Middle East (the Persian-feeling Haarkeen and the Old Testament Egyptian or Caananite Aurumel), and East Asia (the Zenith Monks and Hamanu straight out of Journey Into the West). They give a welcome break from Medieval Europe.
Overlight is packed with factions, conflict and intrigue enough to easily bring this setting into a campaign. You will not lack for material to work with.
Overlight is one of the most structurally cohesive games I have ever seen. Everything from the art, layout, character design, and even the game engine are themed around the colors of the visible spectrum as refractions of divine light. Even the fact that the dice pool numbers 7 for the seven colors is included. The shards are stacked in order of light frequency, for example. In order to have one of the seven shards be White Holy Light, they had to compress violet and indigo into "purple", but even there they put two different folk on Zenith to represent violet and indigo in the character options.
The writing style of Overlight, when its creators allow themselves a little flexibility, developed a unique voice that serves to emphasize the mysteriousness, the focus on spirituality as significant to what a character does, and the psychedelic and mystical nature of the journeys they hope the game will inspire. These flights of prose are not found everywhere in the book, but where they show, they are quite enjoyable.
The game's structure, especially how Spirit Points and character growth are handled, mean that the GM needs to make sure characters are going to witness wonders, have a chance to help people, and get involved in experiences of art, beauty, and spiritual edification.
Characters in Overlight most definitely do not conform to The standard Western fantasy character archetypes. You will find no halflings, dwarves, or elves here. Instead, characters may choose from two cultures of humans that are radically different from one another, tall and slender masked entities that have mastered body modification to the point where the masks they wear are the only solid part of their identity, squirrels that are melded to living plant armor, blue feathered winged serpents that are masters of mathematics and science, elephant-footed barbarian giants, and demon-fighting psychic ape-men , all of which make for a very different palette of character options.
Spirit Point Mechanic
Spirit points are the energy that fuels a character's abilities. Players may start with a pool from their leftover character build points. Otherwise, Spirit Points can be gained either by being awarded to players, or by dice rolls.
The dice method is simple. If a PC has an even number of successes on a dice test and the d4 Spirit die is showing 4, they get a Spirit point. This is a rare, but very welcome event.
The other method is going to be how PCs get the majority of the Spirit pool refilled, and where the system is perhaps at its best in setting tone: Characters get Spirit Points for things that uplift and inspire. One might gain Spirit Points for witnessing a scene of wonder, participating in ritual experiences, appreciating art and music that uplifts them, or for doing something good that makes a positive difference. They also are rewarded for completing adventure goals.
This locks in the tone of the game, as in order to allow the players to make use of Spirit points, and therefore their Chroma powers, they must be given a chance at witnessing the miraculous and wonderful.
One of my biggest gripes about many small and mid-sized press releases in the TTRPG field is that they often lack good villains, if they have any at all. Many games settle for having a tool for generating "monsters" and maybe have samples that correlate with common enemies in the genre the game emulates. But villains beyond orcs and goblins are a lynchpin of any good adventure. And a role-playing game that doesn't offer a few good ones is missing out on a golden opportunity to set the tone of the game, enrich the setting, and inspire the GMs.
It can be hard to figure out how to use the setting if you have no idea how to create good conflicts in it. And that is a failing even of many otherwise brilliant creations.
Overlight has many factions and villains for each shard. Almost all of them have a faction of everyday citizens who are going to make prime villains. They often have one or two particularly sinister cults or criminal organizations, from Pyroi slavers to corrupt Aurumel Houses to Haarkeen thevies' guilds and the Iron Hamanu that hate the human presence in their land.
And many of the "beasts" the game presents are rich, compelling creatures. The Novapendra are enigmatic mystics that can be patrons or villains, but they are always inscrutable, manipulative, and dangerous. Even a seemingly good Novapendra might still devour the souls of enemies, and most seem complicit in a conspiracy to hide the existence of Earth from the other people of the world.
The Yamari demons are sensual, seductive, horrifying, and grotesque all in one package, and can be played numerous different ways, from beings of ancient evil accidentally woken by careless spelunkers to a kingdom of evil, to cult patrons, to a grisly vampire walking the streets of a settlement as needed.
System Feels a Bit Forced
The constant reinforcement of Overlight's tone makes the game feel a bit forced in places: Often, the game uses modified rolls, such as for environmental hazards, or the surge abilities of beasts that feel like they have been shoehorned into the seven-die mechanic. Sometimes unified mechanics are overrated, and it is clear a few extra subsystems might have been in order.
Overlight's core rulebook can be a bit of a labyrinth. The chapters have unhelpful names like "Radiant Power" (magic), "Shard Law" (rules) and "Secret Knowledge" (Game Master systems and tools). Often the information you are seeking is scattered about the book, and you need to hunt for it, especially when first learning the game. The original PDF I received had no working hyperlinks and no bookmarks, making finding rules infuriating when I was planning a test adventure. Thankfully, the most important information tends to be put on tables where they are a bit easier to scan for.
Poor PDF Optimization
When I first bought Overlight the PDF was a nightmare. Not only do you have to hunt for information, but with poor compression, massive image files, and multiple image layers, Overlight could take minutes per page to load on my old Samsung Galaxy Tab-E. Reading it required tiny dips,, because I could only buffer four pages at a time.
Without bookmarks, and with broken hyperlinks, it is a wonder I didn't give up and demand a refund.
I do understand... this was a book that is meant to be beautiful, colorful, and evocative right down to the graphic design. Marring that with pixilation or a black-and-white version seems like sacrilege... but it ia no good if it can't be learned ad played.
In 2020, a more optimized version of the document was released with fixed hyperlinks, slightly more optimized images, and bookmarks. It still takes a long time to buffer when I jump ahead on my new tablet, but it is far more usable than the one I downloaded in 2018. I still believe that this game is in dire need of a black-and-white version for reference packaged with the beautiful color PDF.
Honestly, if ever there is a book I regret getting in PDF and not in print, it is Overlight. If I had money to blow, a physical copy would be very high on my list.
Doesn't Deliver on Non-violent Structure
A lot of the hype around Overlight when it was first marketed was that it would offer an experience where non-combat encounters would be as challenging and rewarding as combat would be. In the end, these claims were toned down before the game hit desks and inboxes. In reality, what it offers is a very abstract combat experience that offers practically no variation from other kinds of checks.
Combat is simple, with no rules for special weapons or armor. It has a few maneuvers and the Fury Pool to make use of them, but otherwise combat is just a test to see how much damage you inflict, like any other skill test.
What this means is that combat is no more interesting or sophisticated than any other kind of test, which is hardly the same as making non-violent conflict and problem-solving equally exciting.
What it does do well is make combat quick and highly lethal, which will encourage players to find alternative ways past dangers when they can. This is one of the things I admire about OSR games, and find equally helpful here.
Chroma are Lackluster
The magical powers of the Skyborn, the Chroma, are disappointing, given that they are the thing that apparently sets the PCs and their kind apart.
Each Chroma, when used, extracts a number of points from the Spirit Pool equal to the Spirit die rolled to activate the chroma. If the PC needs more Spirit than they have in their pool, they experience a shatter, a spell failure that has negative effects. Each time a Chroma results in a shatter, a negative effect described in the power description occurs. The shatters get worse each time they shatter with that chroma. The third time a character shatters, they lose the use of that chroma permanently. Some shatters will kill you outright
The result is that players use them exceedingly sparingly, and only when their Spirit pool is at 5 or more. As Spirit recovers slowly in most game, this means most PCs will almost never use Chroma, making them tertiary to the game, rather than the thing that makes the character special.
Most of the powers feel pretty narrow in application, they do not feel like miraculous powers of someone channeling the pure divine. They feel like a selection of magic-user spells.
The description of the world suggest that minor acts of magic are everywhere; that the citizens of the Shards have at least some access to simple spells and community rituals that make life better for everyone. And ir emphasizes that these magics pale in comparison to the miraculous powers of s Skyborn.
However, we never see any descriptions of this everyday magic, what it means, how it is used, or how important to the world it really is. Without any specifics, it is hard to judge what magic should and should not do, how it is received, and in what ways does it change or modernize the world.
Playing Against Type...
Thanks to how virtues are formulated, we have at least a vague idea of what the average citizen of a given shard is like, and how they live. But that is little explored. In fact, most of the game is written through the lens of these allegedly rare and super-powered individuals to the point where we don't know anything about the mundane people.
This means that there isn't much to play against when you are expected to play against type. No Skyborn is like the rest of their folk. They value things differently and emphasize a different virtue than their folk, and this is supposed to make them a misfit. But how can we play against type when we barely understand what the "type" is in the first place? And if all characters are played against type, then how are they even remotely special for it?
Notions of Logic
This one is a pet peeve, really. The game developers seem to have a very weak or twisted grasp on what Logic is and how it is used. Logical characters are portrayed as cold villainous, and stragnely foolish. After all, the Logical Tyrexians commit living sacrifice of their Banyari neighbours, worship dragon-like beings, and wage perpetual war on Banyan.
Logic isn't usually on the side of worship, sacrifice, unquestioningly following a faith, and mass murder. And yet Logic is associated with sociopathy with dreary predictability.
Likewise, all Compassionate characters are portrayed as saintly and heroic. Which shows a lack of understanding just how truly awful "for their own good" gets in history. Its a bizarre strain of ideology that echoes over and over again in the book.
Overlight takes some big risks, and there are huge payoffs in return. It is always interesting to see innovation. And trying something new in terms of the cultures represented, an emphasis on transcendental spirituality and its variety of chracter ideas make it a stand-out creation.
It is not without its flaws. Like any really creative endeavor, it feels scattered and disorganized, sometimes extremely so. And it doesn't always live up to its ambition. Early on, the book was literally too pretty to read thanks to the way it scrambled tablets. The system, while clever, feels forced and strained in some instances. Likewise, it feels that they were so focused on making the idea of the Skyborn cool, that they failed to follow through on the things that allegedly make them unique.
The cruelty of Logical characters, the Heroism of compassionate ones, the idea of all PCs being rebellious misfits, and a few other choice moments in the design of the game make it feel naive.
Overlight is not a perfect game, but it took a lot of risks, and wound up with a fast, simple game system and a glorious setting presented in a beautiful book. Definitely worth checking out if you want a game where spirituality matters, that builds on Eastern and Mesoamerican mythology, that emphasizes characters as seekers rather than as warriors, or that tries something radical with characters while making their character, rather than their abilities determine how they succeed.