This article originally appeared in Pyramid #13
ARIA: Canticle of the monomyth
Published by Last Unicorn Games
Designed by Christian Scott Moore and Owen M. Seyler
Price: Aria Roleplaying $29.95 / Aria Worlds $25.95Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth, published by newcomer Last Unicorn Games, is an ambitious new entre into the fantasy roleplaying arena. The first two Aria books, Roleplaying and Worlds, present some of the most scholarly and thorough concepts ever to grace the genre. The exploration of the Monomyth, the archetypal Hero's Journey in which the hero's actions guide the future of their society, will appeal to Joseph Campbell junkies everywhere.
The central concept in Aria is cooperative storytelling in a setting where the scale can telescope from the minute to the epic. The same system that creates a neighborhood can create a nation, a player character can become the progenitor of an entire family line, a turn can last a second or a millennia. Most importantly, Aria allows you to roleplay any size entity, from an individual character to a country.
This flexibility is a little unsettling at first to old-school roleplayers, and there are no hard-and-fast rules included to arbitrate the scale of the game. According to the designers, the spirit of Aria is to make all decisions by group fiat. Want to play an epic span of history or the trials of rival families? Fine, as long as everyone agrees.
The first book, Aria Worlds, is a welcome addition to any serious roleplayer's library. Worlds offers a logical and thorough system for creating fantasy Narrative Environments. These settings can be anything from a country inn to a city to a continent. Using either common sense or Interactive Creation (dice and charts), the Mythguide (Aria-ese for the GM) and the Ensemble (everyone else) answer a series of interlocking questions about the setting: How big is it? How old is it? What are its philosophical foundations? And so on.
In working through the process of world-building in Worlds, you discover Aria's greatest design strength . . . or flaw, depending on your temperament. The detailed narrative that carries you through the setting creation process (and in Roleplaying, the character and cosmology creation processes) insulates you from the underlying system. Every stat has an impact on future design; it's just not always obvious how. This will vex "minimax" players, because they won't know how decisions made in one part of the system will affect them later. The byzantine relationships between stats become obvious after the first couple of tries. Luckily, the book has an excellent index.
The strength of this design, besides short-circuiting power gamers, is that details can be added when needed. There's no need to flesh out the whole world in an evening. You probably couldn't anyway.
Aria Roleplaying, the phone book-like second offering from Last Unicorn, is the real meat of the game. It includes an extraordinarily thorough section on character generation, the Aria game system itself for combat and character actions, the Interactive History system, and a remarkable magic metasystem.
Character generation exemplifies the idea that everyone comes from somewhere, and everyone knows somebody. It simply does not allow lazy (or quick, depending on your taste) character creation. The first step is to create the setting from which the character comes. You do that using the Worlds system in the first book or the truncated version of the same rules in the second.
Along the way, you outline your character's family and its own "roleplaying" aspects. This defines the kinds of childhood skills you can learn, while setting the framework for a Perpetual Genealogy: the underlying beliefs and goals of a family that are passed from generation to generation. When you play a game as epic as Aria, characters tend to die of old age before the end of the story. It's up to the succeeding generations to carry on the family heritage.
You also design the Vocational Setting where your character develops his professional skills. Even on-the-job performance is considered like in Worlds, the narrative insulates you from wondering exactly why it's important. Just trust that all will be answered and play along. The combination of specific childhood and vocational information results in a specific skill list that is logical to that particular character's upbringing. It's also different for every character.
One interesting idea presented in the character generation system is Windows of Opportunity. During creation, you can spend situational, developmental and vocational Windows to explain a unique aspect of the character that doesn't fit into the restrictions of the kinship, setting or vocational criteria. For example, a child raised in a peasant setting may normally learn only agricultural and survival-type skills, but a Window of Opportunity might present itself so the child can attend a world-class fighting school in the nation's capital. It's a neat and convenient system, and it adds depth to the creation process.
The magic rules included in Roleplaying are a consistent toolbox for creating any kind of cosmology, spell or effect. By defining various aspects of an "Origin," or source of magical power, you can develop internally consistent rules for everything from god-induced miracles to psionics to demonic summoning. You need a taste for homework to get the most out of this system, however, because of the scope of details that are possible.
The Interactive History rules included in Aria Roleplaying encompass a variety of actions a nation can take during Aria Time (an interval lasting anywhere from one to 10 years). This is Aria's contribution to the roleplaying medium. By playing in Aria Time, players create sweeping histories for their world, discovering new story ideas along the way. In the intervening years governments may rise or fall, new countries may be discovered, technology may improve or decline. It's a little like a paper and pencil version of the Civilization computer game.
Another neat Aria idea is Leverage Pools. These Pools political, social, cultural and diplomatic represent abstract influences the player may spend on behalf of the character during Aria Time to affect the narrative environment. For example, a merchant prince may have received points in his diplomatic leverage pool for successfully moderating a conflict with another country. When the game jumps to Aria Time, he can spend these points to open a new trade route to another country. The player then provides a narrative explanation: The merchant has won the trust of his king, who loans him enough money to buy ships and hire a crew. When the merchant makes first contact with the new country, the game drops back into traditional roleplaying, and so on.
Everything in the Aria metasystem uses a 1-10 ranking system (with some 1-5 or 1-20 variations). Conflict resolution is fairly straightforward: A base number (usually 3) plus rank (in skills, various measurements in the narrative environment, or whatever strikes the Mythguide's fancy) minus an arbitrary difficulty level (again, Mythguide's discretion). The final number is rolled on a d10.
The character and conflict resolution systems included with Aria are hardly central to the game. Since character creation guidelines are primarily narrative, Aria characters transport easily to any system. The only time the Aria system is necessary is when the game is played in Aria Time. Until another company tackles the idea of roleplaying nations, Aria's system of leverage pools and Interactive History works nicely.
One benefit of purchasing Aria is a free subscription to the company's newsletter, The Canticle. Written by both fans and staff, The Canticle offers the same scholarly thoroughness as the original product. It includes excerpts and previews of future Aria products, sample worlds and characters, and variant rules exclusive to the newsletter.
Page for page and pound for pound (the first two books are almost 600 pages of material), Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth is an excellent buy. It's sufficiently generic that its best ideas can expand any fantasy game, the art and production is beautiful, and the research and thoroughness of the game is unparalleled. Now if only you have a couple months to read it all . . .
Article publication date: June 1, 1995
Copyright © 1995 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to email@example.com.