The text of Radiance RPG begins with a "letter" to the gamer outlining the design principles the game employs. These do a good job of framing the basis for everything else a reader will find in the pages thereafter; in other words, this letter brings transparency to the forefront, which is a good thing. The first principle is familiarity; the game contains the major tropes of D&D and fantasy in general, including things like Magic Missile, owlbears, etc. These familiar tropes ground the players, allowing the authors to add more setting-specific details that some might find a bit "out there" (more on that later). The rules are also very streamlined, with a minimum of sub-systems and simple rules that don't necessitate constant reference during play. This is extremely valuable in my opinion, given the heavy influence of 3rd Edition D&D (with its cumbersome rules being one of the big weaknesses of the system). Glad that's not a problem here. The game also aims to be flexible and modular, although not to the extent of D&D Next perhaps. Electrotech has its own chapter, as does magic items, etc., with few references to a specific subject in other chapters, making it very straightforward to simply not use a certain chapter in order to cater to a specific style (the example given being that not using the Electrotech chapter makes for a pretty stereotypical medieval fantasy game, assuming certain classes are also not chosen). Finally, the game strives for balance. I'm not sure that they've necessarily succeeded here, but without actually playing it's hard to tell. Certain options (class features) seem to be obviously better/worse than others, but all classes seem to have equal access to similar kinds of class features. In other words, while trap options exist and can lead to weaker characters, a player's choice of class/race will not likely "punish" them.
Different types of setting are outlined early on, and these include things like classical myth, gritty medieval, comical mash-up, Lovecraftian horror, high fantasy, multiplanar epic, space fantasia, swashbuckling renaissance, Tolkien saga, Victorian steampunk, and zippy electrotech. Because specific mechanical options are not present in most other fantasy RPGs, the system probably does electrotech and steampunk the best. The technology can be as high as power suits, which bring to mind Iron Man or Samus Aran (at least that's what I think of). Thus, one could pretty easily run a "modern" (or even futuristic) game with classic fantasy tropes like vorpal swords and elves. Or not; just as electrotech can be cut to play a medieval-style game, the fantasy elements (while admittedly more entwined in the mythos and mechanics than electrotech) can also conceivably be cut to represent a modern setting without the fantasy elements. Honestly though, you almost have to see the art in order to get a feeling for what "default" setting the authors seem to have in mind.
Character Building - Structure
Choosing a race/class/theme combo, assigning ability scores (the familiar Str, Con, Dex, Int, Wis, Cha), and buying equipment will all make sense to anyone who has played D&D or a similar RPG before. For those who haven't, character creation seems to be laid out concisely in an intuitive way. That said, some sacred cows were slain in the making of this game, and it's about time too!
There are no feats, spell lists, or powers; everyone simply chooses from a list of class features with enough options for heavy customization. Whereas a Wizard might pick up Fireball or Detect Magic, a Fighter would choose Defensive Block or Power Attack. These class features are organized into tiers (basic, intermediate, advanced, and paragon) with higher levels granting access to features from higher tiers. Additionally, class identity is maintained by giving every character 3 core abilities automatically. Fighters get Combat Focus, Rapid Attack, and Weapon Focus, whereas Wizards get Arcane Training, Magic Missile, and Spellbook. Class features also grant skill bonuses, and while there's a defined skill list there's otherwise no way to gain bonuses in skills. That's right, unless you take a skill-specific feature, the skill list is nearly meaningless, being a simple ability check by default. An example of this is that a Wizard can choose to take Dark Lore (+5 to Arcana and Dungeoneering), but might have to give up Mage Armor for it. Considering that there are some class features that boost Comeliness (an attribute that is described as having no mechanical value, but rather a numeric for assisting roleplaying), you can see how intra-class balance can be a bit off.
Another sacred cow slain: hit points! Sort of. Your race grants you Wound points (as an example, Humans are average and get 8) which represent bodily harm, and these never increase. Your level gives you Vitality points equal to (5x level) + Con and these represent energy, luck, and skill. You chew through vitality first, and when that's depleted damage starts applying to your wounds. Wounds recover more slowly than vitality, and vitality is also used to fuel many class features (which is how a Wizard's spells are balanced against a Fighter's maneuvers; both classes would tap into vitality for their more powerful abilities. This also has interesting implications for magical vs non-magical healing, and as an example Witches get an ability that lets them kiss allies to heal vitality.
What else is gone? Armor class. Yep, Radiance uses an "armor as DR" system that arguably makes a lot more sense. So what do opponents use as a target number for their attacks? There are 3 defenses straight out of 4E: Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. Like 4E, Fort is keyed off of the higher of Str or Con, etc. The math for the defenses is a lot cleaner than 4E's discrepancies between weapon and implement attacks, and AC vs NADs (non-AC defenses).
Choice of deity (or lack thereof) contains mechanical weight, as there's a Faith Point system that grants deity-specific boons. There are also guidelines for factions, alignment, and cultures to make sure that characters have ties to the game world, which is a general trend in fantasy RPGs that I'm fond of (13th Age and Dungeonworld have mechanics that serve a similar purpose).
This game has a ton of races. Races provide ability score adjustments (both bonuses and penalties), physical traits (including racial powers and traits that all members of the race get), and Racial Abilities which function much like class features and allow for customization (some players might be happy to note that cultural adjustments would appear here). To provide an idea of scope here, Humans have a list of 27 abilities that you can choose from. Like class features, some of these provide skill bonuses (ex: Army Skills grants +2 to Athletics, Endurance, Handle Animal, Intimidate, and Warcraft), others grant combat bonuses (ex: Pride's Power grants +1 to all attack rolls), and still others offer limited-use powers (ex: Violent Ambition grants a +10 bonus to next attack once daily as a move action). Half Elves have a particularly interesting ability: "Interlude: After 1 hour of uninterrupted romantic intimacy with another person, that person regains 1d4+1 vitality. A person can benefit only once daily from this ability. Costs 1 vitality." Yep, apparently Half-Elves are natural prostitutes. Healing people by having sex with them might bring new meaning to the ubiquitous phrase "I need a heal!" Like the "Intoxicated" condition in the D&D Next playtest, I find mechanics like this to be a bit silly and potentially disruptive, but I guess it's worth a laugh.
The list of races includes Humans, Asimar, Atlan (aquatic people from Atlantis), Drack (Dragonborn), Dromite (insect people), Drow, Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Goblin, Goliath, Grippli (frog people), Half Elf, Half Orc, Halfling, Hobgoblin, Kobold, Lizardfolk (with the worst Lizardfolk art EVER), Pygmy (mythological fey people, not meant to parallel real-world pygmies), Rakasha (cat-folk, basically half Rakshasa), Slith (Githzerai and Githyanki), Tengu (Kenku, or bird people for those not familiar with D&D Kenku), Tiefling, and Warmech (Warforged, but even more like robots and less like golems). Doesn't lack for choices, eh?
Each class has a prime attribute that they use for attacks. Fighters use Str, Clerics Wis, Wizards Int, etc. Medium and Heavy weapons target Fort, light and ranged weapons target Reflex, and magic can target pretty much any defense. A rather long list of party roles is discussed, but each class isn't shoehorned into one of 4 roles like in 4E; rather, a single class can cover multiple roles, and often gets a choice of which role(s) it fills. The roles are as follows: anti-mage, booster (buffing), brute, crafter, defender, devastator, face, healer, manipulator, scout, sneak, striker, summoner, traveler. As you can see, these aren't all combat roles, and perhaps that's enough to encourage people to pick up skill-boosting class features. Of course with anywhere between 1 and 5 class/race features gained at any given level, perhaps the sheer volume is enough to ensure that some of the "weaker," more situational, or fluff-based options get chosen. Or perhaps it will just facilitate min-maxing; without having played the system, I don't know.
Multiclassing exists as an optional rule, and it's more or less 3rd edition style. You forego the usual benefits from leveling up in your class, instead gaining the core abilities and 1 basic ability from your new class. Multiclassing takes time and money, and you're usually limited to a handful of classes by race (Humans can do whatever, as is expected).
Like the list of races, the class list is quite extensive: Artificer, Barbarian, Bard, Blackguard, Cleric, Dhampir (Vampire), Druid, Elementalist, Fighter, Gallant (Swashbuckler), Gunslinger, Inquisitor, Invoker, Mageblade, Medicant, Monk, Necromancer, Paladin, Pathfinder (Indiana Jones), Psion, Ranger, Rogue, Sage, Shadowcaster, Shaman, Shifter (Lycanthrope), Sorcerer (Dragon lineage, can transform into one), Warlock (explicitly evil), Witch (enchanter/illusitionist/empath flavor), and Wizard.
Combat is pretty similar to the newer editions of D&D, albeit more streamlined that 3rd or 4th edition. Like, the-whole-chapter-is-only-8-pages streamlined. The suite of standard, move, swift, and immediate actions will be familiar to many gamers, though Radiance allows for up to 3 swift actions during a turn. Yikes! Many of these fall under what would have been free actions before, though. There is also a list of special maneuvers that require the use of 1 or more actions (up to a full turn), and these include Forfeit Turn, Full Defense, Full Withdrawal, Full Aid, and Readied Action. The 4E Line of Sight vs Line of Effect rules are used. Organization is a little weird with status effects here, as some are presented in their own sections (for example, Blinded is in the Senses section), while others are in the dedicated list of Conditions. Contrary to the otherwise streamlined nature of the system, there is a surprisingly large amount of specific conditions much like 3rd edition D&D (ex. 3 different fear conditions; shaken, frightened, and panicked. Fatigued, Exhausted, and Lack of Sleep are all separate conditions. Etc.). All told there are 20 status effects in just the conditions section, 4 more under Senses, 4 under Special Protection (cover, etc.), 3 under Attacking, 1 under tracking damage, and Death, if you count that. That's 32 (or 33 if Death counts)!!!!! Too many, and it's a major hit against an otherwise very solid combat system. Few gamers can remember the nuances between that many conditions, the differences between sickened and nauseated, etc., and this will inevitably lead to rules-referencing during play, which is counter to the goals of the system. Personally I'd probably port the conditions list from D&D 4E or 13th Age into the game (perhaps with some modifications) because it would run a lot more smoothly. Other than that the chapter very concisely explains moving (with a section on using a grid), attacking, damage, terrain, size, opportunity attacks, area effects, surprise, initiative, and healing. Standard stuff.
The Monster Folio is pretty sparsely populated, but as part of a free download with the PHB I guess you can't complain too much. You've got some of your very basic fantasy staples, a few weird things, and not much else. Gnolls are present, but no goblins or orcs? Ok, sure, if you say so.
Without having actually tried to GM the system, I'm inclined to say I don't like how monsters are presented. Each one takes up a full page of just crunch. Some of this is for different variations of the monster, but still. The stat block is concise if you think about it, but something about the layout just doesn't pull your eye to the important bits, and then outside the stat block you need to keep different abilities in mind. For example, the bulette has 5 base abilities (improved knockback, leap attack, resist mundane arrows, scent, and tremorsense) with variations adding even more (Death's Head bulette gets 3 more abilities on top of the base, and Ironworks bulette gains a whopping 5 more for a total of 10 abilities). Add on to this a list of numerical modifications to the stat block for these bulette variations (presented in sentence form, without a separate stat block, yuck!) and running anything other than the base creature will require the GM to reference a lot of different spots on the page, including mentally adjusting the numbers in the stat block or else re-writing the whole stat block with the changes factored in manually. It's simply not user-friendly.
A more extreme example can be shown with devils. There's a base devil stat block with 10 base abilities. Your different varieties of devil (osyluth, erinyes, kyton, etc.) add 3 to 5 additional abilities, and with the exception of the Balor all use the same base stat block, which is on a different page, of course. Fortunately these devil variants don't adjust the numerical values, but that's still a lot of flipping back and forth just to run a single monster, never mind encounters with multiple different kinds of monsters. One could probably get used to this, but with a trend toward simpler monster presentation in many systems why bother? The GM has a lot to worry about, and adding to that workload (even if it's just a little bit for each monster) has the potential to slow the game down.
If you're too discouraged by this section don't necessarily write the game off completely; this is arguably the system's biggest weakness, and it definitely bears pointing it out up front. GMs used to running 3rd edition D&D might not even notice the problem, and would enjoy an otherwise much more streamlined system.
There's a whole chapter on People, which is to say NPCs. This is where the Factions and Cultures are, but also Townies. Townies are a neat way of quickly generating memorable and mechanically meaningful NPCs of various professions. These can be hired by PCs or simply used by the GM. There's a simple Townie stat block, and then a list of 100 (!!!) different variations. These range anywhere from Witch Doctor (who can heal, possess animals, and make voodoo dolls, among other things; 8 abilities in all) to courtesans (who can heal your vitality if you have sex with them). A lot of these entries are very cool, and serve as a great source of inspiration for GMs at a loss for interesting NPCs.
With such a wide variety of fantasy RPGs on the market these days, any given game needs something unique to draw in players and cause it to stand out from its competitors. I'd say that the selling points for Radiance are the following:
- Players who like the familiarity of D&D (primarily 3rd edition) but want less rules and option glut (which lead to a faster game) could stand to gain from giving this game a look.
- While the game is blatantly grounded in D&D, the designers weren't afraid to slay some sacred cows to make the game that they want (wound/vitality instead of HP and armor as DR instead of AC stand out the most).
- Character-building is simple (each class entry is 2 pages, and doesn't require flipping around looking for feats or assigning skill points), and for a core book the variety of race and class choices is simply astounding.
- Core rules for both magic and electrotech, as well as the existence of a few "modern" class concepts and "horror archetypes" not typically found in fantasy settings, allows for a lot of world, story, and character-building possibilities. If you like the direction Eberron went, Radiance goes even farther catering to styles as far disparate as gritty medieval to futuristic space fantasia, and nearly anything in between.
- Despite monsters looking like they'll be a pain to run, GMs get a lot of tools for creating unique worlds and stories, with sleek mechanics and rules that allow for fast-pace and narrative priority.
- Player-friendly business model of offering the PDF for free, and the hardcovers are pretty cheap too!
So when all is said and done, will I play it? Like Dungeon World and D&D Next it's a game that I'd love to take for a spin, but overall I think 13th Age does a better job of giving me what I want in a fantasy RPG. I probably won't run a long-term campaign with it, but I'm intrigued enough to play around with it and possibly steal some mechanics from it. Can't complain about having "too many" good games available, for it's certainly better than not having enough!