“A roleplaying game of kaleidoscopic fantasy.” That tagline, combined with the above cover art, intrigued me enough to pick up this 2018 tabletop roleplaying game from Renegade Games. An unusual claim, juxtaposed with thrillingly colorful artwork, offered me enough promise to pick up the core rulebook from my local gaming store.
I read the 332-page tome in two days.
Overlight‘s riotous creative imagination gripped me in a way few game rulebooks have. Even the recent RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, probably my favorite game currently on the market, didn’t demand my attention in the way Overlight did. The integration of lore and mechanics made me not just interested, but hungry to read more. When I was done, I was eager to see how the game played—and even got the chance to with a few friends.
The book begins with its most compelling element: the setting. Seven floating continents, named Shards, stack atop one another to form the world of Overlight. Above them is the infinite Overlight itself, and below, an unfathomable ocean. Each shard casts shadows upon those below as they rotate slowly in the air. Upon the highest shard, Nova, the land is a desert of unyielding light, while on the bottom-most shard Pyre, the land is a snow-covered tundra, where life clusters around volcanic springs and the tribal Pyroi worship the great volcano Khar-Ulan.
Six of the shards have an indigenous playable race—called a “folk” in Overlight terms—which is broadly characterized by one of six virtues: Wisdom, Logic, Compassion, Will, Vigor, or Might. Only Nova, associated with the pure white light of raw Spirit, does not have a playable folk—its inhabitants, the centipede-like Novapendra, are not provided rules for player use (which incidentally, is one of my few complaints about the game; who doesn’t want to play a monster centipede?). Among the other six shards live a wildly diverse variety of “folk” for players to choose from: feathered Teryxians like the ancient archaeopteryx, plant/mammal hybrid Bantari, the masked, secretive Aurumel, the mighty Pyroi giants, and finally two human options, the mercantile Haarkeen and the solemn Zenith Order Monks, accompanied by their ape-like Hamanu partners.
Each shard is home to primarily one folk, but inter-shard travel thrives on airships which sail on light. Yet each shard is a full continent, the size of North America or Asia. Over the course of play a long-running campaign might run amok across various shards, or remain on one alone and not come close to exploring the whole landmass.
Unfortunately, these landmasses are only sparsely detailed. While other systems might provide lavish maps and descriptions of various cities, towns, and other places of interest to be explored and embellished upon in their guide to a setting, Overlight has none of that. However, that lack, while it is a lack, does not deeply impair the setting. Instead, I found the sparse detail felt intentional.
Overlight is designed around a mechanics-lite, narrative-driven concept, which seems to be in vogue among “indie” games nowadays. Indeed, the mechanics chapter, “Shard Law,” is the shortest in the book, coming in at a trim 18 pages. In this environment, I found while playing that the detail-lite approach was beneficial because it let us make up more of our own story as we went along. Now contra to this is that for less experienced gamemasters (and I’d merely call myself experienced, not expert) the process of improvised creation necessary is more difficult—there’s good reason many games with specific settings offer a lot of detail. It’s support, so that less creative burden rests on the gamemaster when running a session.
Still, this detail-lite approach is consistent throughout the game, with minimalist rules for equipment, economy, and combat which in other games might fill pages and pages of tables or charts. Even the book’s largest chapter “Radiant Power,” which describes different magical “Chroma” each player can choose for their character, describes the Chroma with a broad brush.
In many ways, the Chroma are the most interesting part of Overlight. They’re how a player really distinguishes their character from one another. While making a character, each player chooses a Folk and a Background. Each folk gets an improved rating in one of the Virtues (Overlight‘s Virtues are similar to characteristics like Strength or Intelligence in other game systems), and the player must choose a “core Virtue” which is not the same as their Folk’s Virtue. It describes how, in some way, that character feels different from others of its species.
The combinations of Folk and Background are somewhat limited, and it’s not difficult for a character to be quite proficient in the skills they desire. However, each character is much more limited in their Chroma options; they can only select Chroma based on their core Virtue, or from a special section to which all their Folk have access. Chroma is where texture is added to each character, making them the player’s own.
What’s really interesting about Chroma, compared to other game systems, is the Shatter system. Each Chroma has three Shatters associated with it. These are negative side effects from using the Chroma. If the player overuses Chroma, they can Shatter, and gain permanent side effects to their character—up to and including the death of their, or another, character. On the other hand, some Shatters are beneficial; the Pyroi Chroma Survivor’s Spark gives the character immunity to fire and heat damage upon the third and final Shatter.
However, in all cases the third Shatter causes the character to lose that Chroma forever.
Overuse can be managed. It’s not impossible to avoid the third Shatter; it comes down to player choice of when to gamble, not just bad dice alone. But these are the cool, character-defining magic powers. You want to use them. Ultimately, I really like the Chroma. They are powerful and interesting, but also create a lot of challenging choices for players to make about when to use them, and if they’ve used them too much.
To determine if a Chroma—or any other skill or general attempt to do something—is successful in Overlight requires seven dice, rolled simultaneously by the player. Three dice are determined by the character’s skill, and three by their virtue—these are rated by D6, D8, D10, and D12—and then the seventh die is a D4. Exactly what the player’s looking for in a given roll varies on what’s being attempted (whether a skill, an opposed roll against an antagonist, or attempting to use Chroma), but generally they’re looking for rolls over six, and lots of them. The more 6+ rolls there are, the greater the level of success.
This method of resolution is complex. To roll any seven-die combination without needing to re-roll dice, a player must own twenty-five dice. In our sessions playing Overlight, getting used to the game’s dice mechanic was the biggest obstacle for my group. Finding and picking out varieties of dice, and re-rolling missing dice, was a stumbling block in a game which is otherwise designed to play very quickly. While it does fit well into the game’s theme of “sevens,” ultimately I feel the roll mechanic should have been revised and reconsidered.
Apart from that, Overlight is an excellent game. The other sections of the book give advice on running the game and describe some creatures throughout the shards of Overlight. And here a piece of praise is owed, for while player rolls are quite complex, the designers have made non-player characters exceedingly simple to play and adjudicate. Finally, the book ends with a short adventure as well as some pregenerated characters to play with.
Overall, Overlight is a good, complete game book. It’s a book I’d highly recommend if you’re looking for something different in your game diet. The art and creation within the book is so joyfully and colorfully wrought that it will inspire hours of adventure. The clumsy resolution mechanic gets smoother as you play—by the end of our second session, the players had gotten used to it quite cleanly—and the narrative style of the game seems well suited for extended, epic adventures.
Although you should be prepared to tell your own stories; as of this writing, only one adventure has been slated for publication, the Ivory Mausoleum. It was scheduled for August, but is still listed as a preorder on the publisher’s website. So for the time being, it seems that adventure support for the game is still lean.
Disclaimer: All images in this article are owned by Renegade Games. I make no claim to their ownership. They can be found publicly either on the Kickstarter page for Overlight, or here on Renegade Games’ website.