Tephra is a lesser-known RPG in a steampunk setting. It’s set in its own fantastic universe with a highly customizable rule set. The book opens with a quick breakdown of roleplaying and the steampunk aesthetic.
Chapter 1 is about the clockwork system. The system only relies on a single dice, a d12, and a set of success tiers. Whenever you make any check you roll a d12 and add your bonuses. The result is calculated by tier with tier 1 being 1-9, tier 2 being 10-19, tier 3 being 20-29, and so on. A tier 1 is barely a success, tier 2 is a full success, and any tier higher is another degree of impressiveness. The d12 acts a bit differently than the d20 in something like D&D. A nat 1 will still be a pure failure, it denies the adding of any bonus making the result a 1 before difficulty penalties are applied. A nat 12 “explodes’ meaning you save the 12 and roll again. You then add the two rolls together before adding bonuses. This can go on for as long as the player continues rolling 12s. Characters have hitpoints and wounds with them suffering no serious injuries until their hitpoints have run out. Weapons and armor have damage and soak classes, respectively. their classes are determined by their size with a medium sword having a damage class of 6 and a heavy sword having a damage class of 8. When an attack is made a player rolls accuracy vs evade. This is one of the only rolls in the game that is number vs number instead of tier vs. tier. Afterward, if the attacker is successful then they roll strike, if using a melee or bow weapon, and the defender rolls defense. Their resulting tiers are multiplied by their class. So a medium sword with a 6 damage class will deal 18 damage with a tier 3 strike. A medium armor with a 3 soak class will absorb 6 damage with a tier 2 defense roll. All actions in the system are done using action points. Unlike other games with standard and move actions Tephra gives players a pool of action points they can spend however they want. Early level players get 3 and gain an additional 1 every 4 levels. Moving costs 1 action point and attacking costs 2. At high levels you can game the system to attack up to 7 times in a turn.
Players are given 12 called shot locations so that one can be determined randomly with a d12 if needed and all locations have 3 levels of effect. Being hit there, being wounded there, and being fatally wounded there. For example: Being shot in the arm makes you take a -2 to all rolls using that arm for one turn. Being wounded in the arm makes you suffer a -6 to everything using it until your next breather. And being fatally wounded on your arm is having it cut off meaning you have to stop the bleeding and can’t use it. The game relies on 5 main attributes (Brute, Cunning, Science, Dexterity, and Spirit) for all of your main rolls. These attributes are determined by your skill points invested in them. Brute, for example, has the skills Brawl, Frenzy, Overpower, and Resilience. Whenever you level up you get a few points to invest in skills. So if you have 3 in Brawl and 2 in Resilience you have a 5 Brute. Social tells is the weakest part of the book with only a minimal covering of how it functions and all checks being relegated to Cunning. Most status effects are either flat penalties or tiered penalties.
Chapter 2 covers character creation and is the shortest chapter, taking only 2 pages to cover the whole thing. You pick a race, pick their racial traits, you place 3 points in 1 skill, 2 points in 2 skills, and 1 point in 3 skills. Then you calculate your attributes, and pick 3 specialties to learn. These can only come from skills you have points in and you have the prerequisite. If you chose a crafting skill you pick the augments you know. Then you choose starting equipment, calculate your stats, and choose a background. Background stories have little effect on the actual game.
Chapter 3 covers the races of the game. You have many of your standard fantasy races though they have been creatively reimagined. You have boring humans who only get a single page. Then there are ayodin, a fish people similar to zoras in the Legend of Zelda franchise. Next is the elves. But these are not your tolkein-esque pretty elves. They are grotesque muscle monsters. They’re the big brute characters of the game. Next is the farishtaa, elves you look and act like tolkein elves but only achieved it through intense genetic engineering and giving themselves psychotic personality issues. The gnomes are the classic forest loving tiny people. They have rifles made of wood and have the closest thing in the game to natural magic. Last are satyrs, the classic goat men of myth. However while they are still party animals they are also a genetically engineered slave race who broke free and have made their own nation. The races are one of the best parts of Tephra and really stand out. They’re familiar enough to get into but different enough to feel unique, with the exception of the humans and maybe gnomes.
Chapter 4 is the lore chapter and is severely weakened. The map only shows one nation in full, giving you glimpses of the others, and the nations only get a couple pages each to give their history and setup. Some nations don’t get any pages at all. Aside from a few blips here and there the world is mostly plain and open for the GM, or Narrator as the game prefers, to do what they want. There are a few cool organizations and only 3 religions, one of which basically just being institutionalized atheism, leaving only two religions who already don’t get along. The atheism religion, called Free Will, is one of the more interesting things in the book but this is also because the other two religions are so underdeveloped. More religions and a deeper understanding of the other two would have really made the world come to life a bit more.
Chapter 5 covers the gear. Weaponry and armor in the game function very differently from normal games. Weapons are separated by melee, bow, crossbow, and firearm. Their stats are determined by their size. Light, medium, heavy, and super-heavy are the sizes and determine everything, from damage class to range. Everything else about how the weapon appears is up to the player. Bows and melee weapons use strike to determine damage while crossbows and firearms just use the accuracy roll. Ranged weapons have a readying cost depending on their size. A medium firearm takes 1 AP to ready it unless wielded with both hands. So using it one-handed would cost 3 AP. There are a couple of animals to buy and some standard gear, as well as information on the currency used. Otherwise, like most of the other chapters, chapter 5 is fairly empty. There isn’t a lot in terms of stuff to buy and equip.
Chapter 6-10 covers the 5 attributes and their skills. This is where the player is introduced to specialties. The player receives 3 specialties at level 1 and then gains and additional specialty every level after. The max level is 12 so a full character will have 14 specialties. Most of a characters combat stats come from specialties. While each specialty is a special ability on its own, like being able to walk on air or hitting the ground so hard it creates a 20 ft. deep crater, they also each give 3 stats. The first two vary by specialty while the third is always hitpoints. For example: Crimson Weapon is a specialty that allows you to spend an extra AP when making a melee attack to cause additional bleeding damage. This specialty also grants the player 3 strike, 1 priority, and 10 hitpoints. The player can get accuracy, evade, strike, defense, priority, speed, augments, DIY, wounds, hitpoints from specialties. Chapter 10 is the Science attribute chapter and covers crafting. When crafting you select an object that you have the crafting specialty for, like Weapon Smith which allows you to craft melee weapons. These specialties grant augments and Do-It-Yourself points. The DIY determines how many free inventions you can maintain at any given time. Augments are the special abilities given to weapons and the more augments you have from specialties the more augments you can select to learn. Most give two augments so you will learn them in pairs more often than not. All of your crafting specialties share the augment pool so if you craft potions and swords you need to decide how many sword augments you know and how many potion augments you know. All items have 3 augment slots which can be upgraded to 5 later. So craft a melee weapon, choose a size, and fill in the augment slots and you’re done. Chapter 10 takes up nearly half the book and chapters 6-9 take up most of the other half. There are no classes in the game and no path a person must follow. Allocate skill points and choose specialties that sound cool and you’re good to go. It’s exceptionally easy and free form, allowing you to create whatever character you want. This is the strongest aspect of the game and the most fun part.
Chapter 11 is dedicated to the narrator who runs the game. It gives some nice tips on creating parties, running the game, using the setting, and more information on steampunk. Most subjects, though, are glossed over quickly. Enemies are given one page, as are rewards. And downtime is only given a few paragraphs. It’s 15 pages which is better than many other sections in the book but still underwhelming.
The last bit is an appendices for all the specialties but only gives their 3 stats and no page numbers. The last two pages are the character sheet which is marvelously done. The design is fantastic and it is very easy to read. It’s design also means that a level 1 character and a level 12 character both only have two sheets. It’s very useful for people new to role-playing and don’t want the 9 page pamphlet required for some games.
Overall, the game is great for new players and very easy to understand. Unfortunately there are many spelling errors throughout and anything outside of the player options is lacking. There are hardly any environmental rules, there are no enemies or creatures, there is nearly no lore, and rules for handling anything aside from combat are either poor or absent. A player for this game will have a lot of fun with the right narrator and an open mind for character creation. Unfortunately, the narrator for this game will have to house rule and improvise almost constantly. Other books like the Narrator’s Accomplice have come out since which attempt to fix a lot of these issues, however the game was mostly shut down before the much-needed lore expansion could be finished. It was released in free pdf form and with how cheap the whole game is it’s a great buy for someone wanting something different from the big names. If you want to learn the secret of the Hurricane Wars and travel in a strange steampunk world then check it out.