Imagine a world, in the far future, that has developed an entertainment program based on history, with all the misunderstandings, errors, and anachronisms inherent from such a distant and ill-educated perspective. Historical figures and events become conflated, confused, and finally co-opted for action-adventure purposes. Suddenly, you have the mighty heroine Diana, Warrior Princess (recently divorced from Bonnie Prince Charlie) and her sidekick Fergie running about, thwarting the machinations of the evil Queen Elizabeth, as well as those of the dark god of war, Landmines.
Thus, the setting for Marcus L Rowland's Diana: Warrior Princess is Xena-esque, all crazy and mixed-up, but using the trappings of royalty and 20th century modern pop culture to replace the Greek mythology. (Short alternate settings mentioned in the text can be run with slightly different tropes and celebrities -- a personal favorite is Elvis: the Legendary Tours, which uses the Mystic Power of Music rather than Royalty). Originally published by Heliograph, Inc., the author has now made it available as a 4.5 MB PDF on sale at Steve Jackson Games e23.
[ . . . and just to please Chad, the author is working on this very expansion as this review is published. Will Chad review it for us? Stay tuned -- Games Ed. ]
The system for Diana: Warrior Princess is rules-light and simple: roll a handful of six-sided dice to roll-over a target number and gain successes; the number of dice is determined by relevant attribute scores; and the quality of result determined by number of successes. Weapons add dice; armor subtracts from combat successes before applying the roll total to hit points. Simple!
The part of Diana: Warrior Princess
that jazzes up this basic system is the concept of Status, which relates to the level of importance the character has to the "television show" they are in (i.e., Star, Co-Star, Guest Star, Extra, etc.). Status determines not just the number of attribute points to be divided up, but also the character's target number for success and
her number of hit points. Status can go up and
down during play, and is mostly used as a experience points pool with mild Drama/Hero Point "story modification" potentials. A very elegant mechanic.
There is also a basic list of weapons, armor, vehicles, and equipment, but be warned -- some of these things work a bit differently than the casual reader might expect -- like the druidic sound weapons called "bagpipes" and the laptop computers that use paper tape and punch cards. Finally, an introductory adventure, "Diana Does Dallas," is included to get GMs and players started. All in all, not a bad selection of material for a 65-page game.
First and foremost, this is a British game, and non-Brits may miss some elements of the humor and satire. For example, as a particularly clueless American, I have no idea who "Red Ken" is, nor do I know if the "Archer" character refers to anyone specific. However, it must be mentioned that the majority of the characters found within are sufficiently well-known or historically important enough so as to be recognizable for the average person (like Prince Albert Einstein, husband to Queen Victoria and inventor of a mysterious thing called "the Bomb").
[Fortunately being English I can explain who they are . . . "Red Ken," leader of the London Underground and friend to newts everywhere is Ken Livingstone, London's left wing mayor. "Archer the Assassin" is Lord Archer, Conservative peer, novelist, and convicted perjurist – Games Ed.]
The editing seems a bit spotty, but there is an ameliorating factor or two here: some of the things that "looked wrong" at first glance to this reader are most probably differences between British and American usage or sentence construction. Furthermore, some of the errors seem to be formatting problems stemming from layout text-flow errors. However, even when one includes all instances stemming from those two issues, this game is edited at the standard quality of the RPG industry.
While the art provided by Aaron Williams is for the most part delightful (something about the illustration for "Wild" Bill Gates, Riverboat Gambler and Computer Programmer, captures the game perfectly for me -- is it the cowboy hat, the mustache, or the small rodent crouching on its "mouse pad"?), there are occasional minor lapses -- for example, the character description of the Undead Chancellor of Evil, Thatcher, says that she is "supernaturally beautiful" and Williams' illustration seems more a caricature of the historical figure than an interpretation based on the game text. A minor cavil, perhaps.
Lastly, the advice to GMs for running adventures -- especially as exemplified by the sample adventure "Diana Does Dallas" -- tends towards the railroad-style end of the scenario spectrum. While this is understandable, given the basic conceit of the entire game setting and mood (reality as an anachronistic television action-adventure show), I would have preferred a bit more discussion on how to be flexible when game-mastering a Diana: Warrior Princess game, while still maintaining the intended free-wheeling tone.
The setting is pleasantly loopy -- you've got various Mystic Powers of Royalty, cell phones that spit out text messages on tickertape, nuclear-powered zeppelins, feral coypu, and pistols and lasers and swords (oh my!). History gets mish-mashed into a weird puree of legend and myth -- for example, America is inhabited by Indians (Sikhs, actually) that hunt emus.
Coming up with a character concept is dead simple if you're a fan of crazy name conflations. I mean, it's obvious that such classics as Bob Dylan Thomas (probably a Welsh bagpipe playing bard with the Mystic Power of Music), Theodore Delano Roosevelt (American frontiersman with a big stick and a gammy leg), and Ella Fitzgerald Kennedy ("the President of Jazz") are all viable Diana: Warrior Princess characters -- though they might fit better in an Elvis: the Legendary Journeys campaign. However, my two current character concepts were created by untimely exposure to celebrity tabloids and British comic books: Bennifer Vaughniston (the gender-bent, crazy-famous actor/ess) and Winston Churchyard (immortal former-Prime Minister plasborg with a death wish). If anyone wants to run a game, I am so ready.
The system -- as described above -- is fast, flexible, and fun. There's not a lot of deep tactical significance to be found within, but it does the job both quickly and admirably. Plus, it's easy to learn. Folding three uses -- attribute points, success target number, and hit points -- into one Status mechanic is a great idea, and really helps the game come together quickly and easily. There's a decent amount of discussion about helping players come to grips with differences in status between their characters; Rowland covers the bases, but -- alas! -- one always wishes for more of this sort of thing.
One obvious but unmentioned in the text idea could be that for a less-cinematic or non-action-adventure setting, it might not be a bad idea to break these elements of Status apart -- pick one element that Status provides for a gritty sort of game, and pick two elements for a semi-gritty/semi-cinematic setting. (I'd probably use this as a house rule if I wanted to adapt the game engine to another sort of game, but Diana: Warrior Princess looks like it'll run just fine as-is.)
Diana: Warrior Princess is a game that should definitely grace the shelves of anyone who enjoys humorous RPGs or rules-light RPGs; even action-adventure or cinematic RPG fans who dislike humor will still probably find value within. Highly recommended.