Back in 2020, we backed a plethora of Kickstarters. Let me just say that 2021 is going to be a very good roleplaying year for us. One of them that we backed was a system touted as a collaborative worldbuilding platform with a roleplaying system tacked onto it for good measure. Produced by a company named Adept Icarus and funded on Kickstarter, Arium is one of the more interesting concepts I’ve run across in roleplaying games in recent years. The entire system is narrative heavy and relies heavily on ideative cooperation between the players, but the end result is adventure set in any kind of world you can dream, and the sky truly is the limit.
In the beginning of Arium: Create, it gives the background for the idea.
“For years, Will has been running meetings of all sorts in the corporate world – complex event scheduling, idea generation, feedback gathering, simple voting, and more – using only a fistful of markers, a stack of sticky notes, and a room full of willing (or semi-willing) participants. Maybe he’d throw in the occasional timer to keep things moving along.Arium: Create, pages 6-7
“He used those concepts and tools more than once to help brainstorm and organize ideas for events for various writing groups. That’s where Drew first saw the technique and its potential. His imagination ran wild with possibilities for ways to use it outside of the meeting room. Together, Will and Drew collaborated to come up with the concept of Lean Worldbuilding. They tried it out with members of their writing group, and the system’s success prompted them to take the show on the road to FyreCon 2018. There, they demoed worldbuilding with sticky notes for a modest crowd – about twenty people (probably an exaggeration).”
While our printed materials are still forthcoming, the PDF’s are excellent quality (which one might expect having been edited by Angel’s Citadel friend Char Irrgang of Irrgardless). Create comes in at 52 pages and Discover adds some to that at 76. The aesthetic is very instructional and almost businesslike and while there is color cover and interior art, it doesn’t overwhelm the content or make it feel like the books are supposed to be “art books”. The phrasing is clear and to the point, and effort has been taken to ensure that the ideas are kept simple for both ease of learning and teaching as well as facilitating modest sized groups.
So how does it work? Arium: Create is a 7-step process (starting with step 0) that walks you through a narrowing of focus and providing detail to that narrowed focus until you have a “usable” world to get started playing in. All you really need are sticky notes (or index cards or something similar) and markers. If you’re playing virtually, Trello is a free tool that is used quite a bit to organize your Arium. For an example, see HERE and if you need a template, Will Munn, one of the writers, has created one HERE. Each player also gets three tokens (called Creation Tokens) that allow you to modify an existing idea by saying “Yes, and” and adding to the idea. Any leftover at the end will be able to be used in Arium: Discover as part of character creation.
Each step of creation goes through three phases: A timed ideation phase, a collaborating phase, and a voting phase. The timed ideation phase is where each player writes down on their notecard or sticky note up to three ideas pertaining to the current step (at their discretion, the GM may participate in this). Timing varies by phase and can be adjusted by the GM if needed. The collaborating phase is where ideas are presented and similar ideas are grouped together. In the voting phase, each player and the GM gets a specific amount of votes based on how many unique ideas there are (ideas that were grouped in the collaboration phase count as one idea) divided by 3. While it does not specifically say this, typically when I think about using the Creation Tokens is after a voting phase to modify a concept that “made the cut”.
The first step, step 0 is called Lacunae and is where the group comes to a consensus of what they do NOT want in the Arium. While this is timed, it is the only phase where there is no voting and there is no limit on the number of ideas you can present. If someone in the group does not want something specific in the Arium, it stays out. Period. (This is very much a Consent in Gaming moment which I love). In order, the following six steps go from thinking about the world at a very Macro level to a very Micro level and are: Universal, Big Picture, Culture & Organizations, Landmarks, People, and Goodies. Each of these is described further in the book.
Arium: Discover, on the other hand, is Adept Icarus’ pass at creating a roleplaying game to go with their world creation system. You can use Arium: Create independently, and in fact, it fits rather well into systems like Monte Cook Games’ Cypher System. They will also be releasing what they call a Bridge supplement where they will walk you through a process for bridging your Arium into three other different systems: 5E, FATE, and Tiny d6. If you’d rather, however, Discover offers you a simple roleplaying system that is tailored to use the Arium you made in Create and allows you to roleplay in it immediately.
Character creation is the process of setting a game difficulty level (much like a video game) which gives you a specific number of character creation points (different if you also used Arium: Create). These are assigned to four attributes: Mind, Body, Spirit, and Heart. Once that is done, there are multiple derived attributes that are calculated based on those numbers, but that is the extent of the math. Helpfully, they also give templates based on “type” of character that you wish to play (Tank, Sage, Negotiator, etc…) to give you an idea of how to spread your points in order to most effectively model what you want to do. After that, with any extra creation points, you purchase extra boons (for characters) or features (for items) and if you wish, pay for more by taking banes/flaws (these are the opposite of boons and features). Similar to FATE’s Attributes, these are named things that are true about your character/item and they give mechanical bonuses or detriments in the form of: Modifying the number of dice in the dice pool for a test, adding an “instant” success or failure result, increasing or decreasing the success “range” on a dice, or the ability to reroll dice (making Control or Complication effects more difficult to achieve). Finally, discovery tokens are assigned based on game difficulty level chosen.
The mechanic or Arium: Discover is based on a pool of d6’s. Each test is made against an attribute whose score is the base die pool for the test. This can be modified up or down by qualities (if you are talking about just a character, boons or banes, or if you are using an item, features or flaws). Once you have your final dice pool, these are rolled against a target number of 5 or 6 (unless that too is modified by a boon/bane/feature/flaw). The number of dice that show the target number is the number of successes you have on the roll. The GM sets the target of the roll (typically between 1 – Easy and 6 – “Are you kidding me right now?”). If you meet or exceed the Target Number of successes, you do the thing. If not, you fail.
Independent of success or failure is the mechanic of Complication and Control. These happens when you roll more than one 1 or more than one 6 on a test (respectively). This is a way for a player (in the case of Control and at GMs discretion, Complications) and the GM to introduce narrative twists into the game (similar to Forged in the Dark’s system of Success with Complication or Cypher System’s mechanic of GM and Player Intrusions). Again, this is independent of success or failure so it is possible to fail a test and still gain Control or succeed on a test and still have a Complication. While they are sometimes a challenge for me to come up with, the more I play games that have similar mechanics, the more I appreciate the interesting narrative chaos that such mechanics provide.
Discovery tokens are a spendable currency inside the game (much like XP for Cypher or Stress for Forged in the Dark games) that allow you to affect the mechanics some (either adding an extra die to a test, automatic successes on certain tests, or even directly changing the non-cannon fiction, similar to the “Yes, and” tokens used in Arium: Create. Beyond that, there are some basic rules for combat, certain tests, and other things that typically come up in roleplaying games, but these are very broad stroke. The thrust here seems to be on narrative play and light, flexible mechanics (another thing I like a lot). There is a section with some tips for the Arium Gamemaster along with some optional rules that you can use if you choose to in your games. Finally, there is a section on naming Qualities and how to give them good, descriptive names that enhance the theme of your game.
This is another tough one to critique. From the initial look of Arium: Create and the several Arium’s I have been a part of creating, I’m not sure I would change a thing. The creation process is fun and interesting. If your group buys into the whole group ideation platform that Create provides, it is a very engaging and idea sparking experience. For one-shots and short campaigns, I can’t recommend this enough. It makes for a fairly long pre-game, but for the group that has “played everything” this gives you plenty of fodder to sink a character concept into or for a GM to base a world off of.
With regard to Arium: Discover, while there are examples in the book (and not necessarily a small number of them, I would probably have waxed a bit more verbose on the rules portion of the book. Basically, the rules are pages 43-52. Most of this is short paragraphs and while I appreciate that the game itself is not particularly complicated, it might be useful for someone who is newer to roleplaying to have some more examples and help through this section of the book, particularly if they are going to have to run the game as the Game Master. I don’t know that it needs to get more complicated, or that every single detail has to be spelled out, but it left me with a feeling of “needing a bit more”. Time will tell, I suppose.
In summary, Adept Icarus has put together an extremely intriguing worldbuilding system and a simple but narratively interesting roleplaying mechanic to go with it. They still have more things to come out as part of the Kickstarter, but the quality product that they have put together in these two books indicates that what is still to come will be interesting as well. I highly recommend picking these two up to both look at and add to your collection and gaming and worldbuilding toolbox. For those of you with a more visual bent, have a look at Adept Icarus’ YouTube channel where they have Live Plays of both Arium: Create and Arium: Discover. I look forward to seeing the Flash books, the Bridge, and eventually, when they finish it, Arium: Evolve as well. Until then, happy gaming!
- Josh Walles
Update (3/14/2021, Josh Walles): We received our print copies of the Arium books along with a wonderful little note from the lead designer, Will Munn. These are, in a word, amazing. I’ve never seen zine format prints with such high quality. Thick paper and covers, hefty, well-cut, and sharp printing with durable inks. They have a limited number that they will sell through their website and take to conventions if that becomes a thing in the near future. Otherwise, they will have a print on demand option through DriveThruRPG, but the quality of the copies you get there will almost certainly be not as good as the printing process has changed due to economics. Just another feather in the cap for Adept Icarus. I know we are going to enjoy our copies for years to come.