Sol is an Australian RPG written by Phil Day that was successfully funded on Kickstarter. It blurs the line between fantasy and science fiction and it took me on a rollercoaster of highs and lows. The lows came early as I struggled to wrap my head around this bizarre game, but the highs are what I remember most.
In my initial reading of the unusually shaped Sol manual, I was utterly bewildered (check out the official Youtube video showing the manual design). It was one of ‘those games’, by which I mean the sort that felt the need to be special and come up with its own word for everything both in and out of the game world. Players are referred to as ‘Protagonists’ and the Game Master as ‘Adjudicator’, which are both perfectly reasonable. Things only got more bizarre once I reached the section on character types.
This is a world where fighters are referred to as ‘Deems’, swords are ‘Assays’, souls are ‘Moreses’, spells are ‘Cantations’, minor spells are called ‘Dites’, wizards are called ‘Galdrs’, and so on. I have to say, my initial reaction to this was not good. Why replace every word in the English language with a new one if perfectly adequate words already exist? But I struggled through my frustration, hoping that patience would be rewarded, and for the most part I think it was. My opinions changed a little once I had time to digest the manual, and even more once I played the game.
The Game World
Before continuing I want to give an overview of the world of Sol. The most important thing to understand about Sol is that the world is the star of the show. It is a world which has had meticulous care put into it and has its own societies and ecosystems, and even the seasons and planetary cycles are mapped out.
The game of Sol takes place on a world called ‘Sistere’ which is tidally locked to its sun, Zon. The region of the world the game plays in is the city of Sol which is located in a narrow band between night and day, which experiences night and day as seasons rather than 24 hour cycles.
The city of Sol is the centre of the game, it is the most civilized and technologically advanced place on Sistere, and its people live in a collectivist utopia/dystopia. Solians revere bees as the perfect society, so as you can imagine every Solian is expected to perform their duties for the good of Sol rather than the good of the individual. Depending on your viewpoint this could be seen as paradise or tyranny, and I think that is exactly the point the author was trying to make.
In order to playtest the game I ran four players through the provided adventure module “The Honeycomb Caverns”. The players each took on the role of a member of a ‘Palm’, a team of four talented people who solve problems for the government of Sol. I found this strict number of four players a little tricky to manage at first, but ultimately it wasn’t a problem.
The quest was simple; a carrier pigeon had reported that a ‘Sister’ (Priestess) was missing in action and that the players were to go and retrieve her. So they went off to the honeycomb caverns, a series of caves where Solian scientists had set up a research facility to study the things that wash up in the caves after their seasonal floods.
I am loathe to spoil the story, but naturally the players descended into the caves and fought underground beasts, and ultimately discovered a conspiracy which made them question the very nature of Solian society. It was clear to me that the goal of the adventure was to have antagonists whom the players could sympathise with and even agree with, and that goal was successful in that my group really had to debate what the right thing to do was towards the end. Ultimately they decided to follow the will of the ‘Epistemologists’ (Government of Sol) but it was not a quick or easy decision.
Despite rocky beginnings I really came to like Sol, and I think it has a lot of positives.
Sol is rules-light and is very easy to learn and play. It uses simple d6 dice rolls and has charts explaining the probability of each roll, which I think is a nice little feature.
The Lore seemed dense at first, and I still think it is. However it got easier to understand the more I read, and by the end I felt there was almost no confusion remaining. So the world might be a bit odd, but it’s not beyond the reach of a patient player.
Sol captured the interest and attention of my players who were interested just as much in the world and its intricacies as they were in hack n’ slash. It even provoked some minor philosophical debate in the final scene of the adventure.
Finally, Sol has a unique aesthetic that is very hard to describe except by comparing it to similarly unique works. It reminds me of the work Michael Kirkbride wrote for the game Morrowind (such as “The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec”) or the webcomic “Kill Six Billion Demons”. It is bizarre yet believable, primitive yet advanced, scientific yet spiritual. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, but for some it might be exactly what they are looking for.
Despite eventually coming to really like Sol, it has some flaws which I could not ignore.
Firstly, the writing. Even though I eventually got my head around it I still think the writing was unnecessarily dense. I struggle to see any justification that replacing the word soul with the word ‘Morese’ improves the world, or why it matters that infant ‘Deems’ are referred to as ‘Pyotrs’. It might be interestingly written, but it is badly over-written.
Players felt constrained by their roles. Because each character type is a specific sort of individual in Solian society, their skills, equipment and sex are all chosen for them. Players are encouraged to come up with their own personality or backstory, but none of the players really felt that their characters were truly their own. This might be less of a problem in games where the players control members of a non-Solian race, or Solians who have rebelled against the laws of their people. In that case most of the strict character rules would no longer apply.
One final issue is balance. Some characters found themselves significantly more or less useful than others. The single most useful character in our playtest? The ‘Master Ballistic. The single least useful? The Deem. The Master Ballistic has the remarkable power of owning a gun, and the Deem has the remarkable power of owning a sword, and we all know that saying about bringing a knife to a gunfight. Almost every combat encounter was solved with bullets and black powder, and the swordsman sat in the corner like a neglected child. Maybe that was just our group and party balance is fine in other sessions, but I suspect that giving one character more damage and more range is pretty blatantly unbalanced, and the two players noticed it.
Thoughts and Conclusion
Sol is a game which aims for the stars, and I have to say I really don’t think it hits that mark. Despite that, I really enjoyed it, and found myself developing a soft spot for it. I admire the care that went into it and the ambition, but just can’t ignore its flaws either. I like the world and I enjoyed the game, but as I played part of me did think “I’m pretty sure I would get the same enjoyment for less effort playing a simpler game”.
Ultimately? Sol is a creative and ambitious game and I found it charming. But I think its writing holds it back from being a product that could find a large audience, and only those looking for something very unique or strange are likely to enjoy it. If we think of RPGs as like food, then Sol is like a brick of pure nutrients. It’s got everything you need, but it is not easy to chew.
You can check out more information regarding Sol on their website, which also includes a fan made wiki.
For something a little more hands-on, the team will be running a public game on International Game Day (November 31st) at the Grafton Library 126-144 Pound Street, Grafton NSW.
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