Back in 2005, when I was first really getting into gaming, one “new” game in particular caught my eye. It boldly proclaimed itself “the future of fantasy,” a big claim for a brand new game, designed by a brand new studio (Paragon Games), published through White Wolf’s Arthaus imprint for artsy and indie games. That game was The Secret of Zir’An.
Since then, Zir’An has faded into relative obscurity. I never saw more than two core books, grand total, for sale in brick-and-mortar stores. It doesn’t crop up on discussion boards, and nobody talks about running it. (Comparatively; some searching found a couple of examples.) Now and then, I’ve found scant mention of the game, but its company (and its publishers) fell into a black hole somewhere in 2005 or 2006. Of the five books mentioned in the core rulebook, only two were published (the core book itself and the Hand of Fate guide), plus a GM screen. Paragon Games has since disappeared. ArtHaus was eventually folded back into White Wolf, along with its more popular lines, and Zir’An fell with several other interesting games into the bargain bin of obscurity.
Which is, all in all, a damn shame, since the game’s rules system was fascinating, the world was well-designed (if a tad scant), and the game itself was well ahead of its time.
When the game calls itself “the future of fantasy,” it has a very specific idea in mind: a fantasy world which has evolved to a more real-world era, in this case a kind of Dieselpunk era. A lot of people thought the game was Steampunk, which it isn’t; in fact calling it Dieselpunk is a bit of a misnomer. Think of Zir’An as a fantasy world advanced from the 900’s to the early 1900’s, sometime in the pulp era, and you’d be spot on.
Pulp tropes are in abundance here: there’s a lot of fantastic air-power, from zeppelins to Century Clipper-style airships. The firearms are really reminiscent of technology from the 1930’s and 1950’s, a lot of heavy revolvers and rifles, along with some submachine guns and a carbine similar to the BAR. This is a world which has developed trains, photographs, automobiles, zeppelins, firearms, cinemas, tanks, electricity, and has done so in a fairly realistic way. An interesting mix of low- and high-tech, to say the least.
Yet, it’s still a fantasy game; something the designers want to keep reminding us of with the omnipresent fantasy script. It’s very Hindu (or at least Indian sub-continent/Southeast Asia), with some great vibes there, but the designers went a step or two to far with it all. Almost all the items have been renamed, which is immersive, if confusing. So have all the races, of which there are five; broken down, we have humans, elves with a lot of secrets, dwarves, a race of ogre/giants who are great at magic if they can get their minds in-sync, and a kind of feral beastman race with claws and muscles and whatnot. Pretty basic, all fairly interesting, with some new spins on each of them. Once you figure out how to re-translate everything, you should be fine.
The world and its history is truly fascinating; some time back, the fantasy world’s gods abandoned it, leaving it in the hands of the mortals. After this, powerful Fanes appeared, almost gods themselves, who were pushed back after a lengthy conflict. Now, the world’s in a pre-World War state, with nations allying themselves into a large power-block to keep the Fane-backed Tilerian Hegemony in check. There’s also a lot of unaligned states, and a lot of organizations and factions within each state, but the book only gives a brief overview, comparatively. Many of the titular Secrets relate to the Fanes, the various mystery organizations and secret societies, and the secrets the elves have (like their vanished homeland), and although they’re never explained, there’s plenty of ideas to build games on here.
Another thing I should mention: along with the pulp vibe, this game owes a lot of inspiration to Final Fantasy. Besides the overall feel of a technological fantasy world, there’s little details that point in this direction, like the Chocobo-esque riding birds. It’s all done very well, and like most of the inspirations for the game, it all ebbs together quite nicely.
Zir’An uses its own proprietary system, called the Finesse System. It uses four attributes (Physique, Mass, Intelligence, Acuity) as starting points, kind of balancing physical and mental aspects between two sides of themselves. From these attributes come five derived statistics (Reaction, Speed, Perception, Shadow, Hand to Hand); before you start complaining about derived stats, these are pretty simple using simple formulas, and are fairly important when they come up.
From there, it’s a skills-based game, where you choose an Origin, representing your home country and culture, and buy skill packages. Your Origin starts you off with basic stats, a reflection of where you’re from and what you did, and from there you buy the skill packages, which are more like career experiences, costing time to learn but giving you great benefits. Your skills themselves are ranked in levels of Finesse, hence the system name; the levels are Basic, Advanced, Expert, and Elite. If you have to make a skill check, first you compare your skill level to the difficulty level. If your Finesse level is higher than the difficulty, and you’re unstressed—not being chased, shot, on a time limit, etc.—then you simply overcome the odds by being so damn well-skilled, and get to narrate your actions. If not, you have to actually roll dice.
Next, we have aptitudes (Knowledge, Personal, and Social); these aren’t quite skills, but areas of expertise which impact your skills. All skills are filed under one of the three aptitudes, and they end up modifying the rolls you do make. Aptitude values range from 1 to 5, and you gain them from both Origin and skill packages. On top of that, we have skill practices. Practices aren’t skills at all but a gauge of how much you’ve been using each skill, and you can raise or gain practices with XP after you’ve successfully used the aptitude in a session. For example, if you’ve used your Seduction skill successfully this session, at the end you could raise your Seduction skill practice by one for a few XP. Practices also range from 1 to 5, and are the other major thing which modifies your rolls.
Confusing? The actual system is fairly simple to run. The system resolves pretty much everything with 1d10, and most of your rolls will follow the formula of: ATTRIBUTE + APTITUDE (+SKILL PRACTICE) + 1d10. The difficulties are set at 10 (Basic), 15 (Advanced), 20 (Expert), and 25 (Elite), generally an easy curve if you’ve practiced the skill and have a decent aptitude in the area.
Say, for example, that the GM (called a Hand of Fate here) calls for a Mechanics roll at Expert difficulty, to repair some ancient piece of machinery. If the character has the skill at Expert or Elite, you needn’t bother rolling, and instead just narrate what happens. For this example, Matt’s character is rated at Advanced for Mechanics, requiring a roll to succeed. Expert difficulty has a difficulty of 20, which is high, but not unbeatable.
Let’s add up the formula for Matt, since he is bad at math and likely to fail. Mechanics has Intelligence as its attribute and Knowledge as its aptitude. Matt’s character has an Intelligence of 7 and a Knowledge of 4; lucky for Matt, the character he’s playing is also kind of a gearhead, and has 2 Mechanics skill practices from fixing their autogyro in the past two sessions. The final formula (Attribute + Aptitude [+Practice] +1d10) turns into 7 + 4 (+2), totaling 13, plus the d10 roll. Matt needs a 7 or higher to overcome the difficulty of 20.
That wasn’t that bad, now, was it? What it comes down to is learning the new terminology and figuring out the somewhat arcane character sheet. There’s also a Merits and Flaws section called Valdreyr (speaking of new terminology), and a section for you to spend character creation points on martial arts and battle maneuvers.
Combat is the other big stepping-stone with the game, which mostly deals with your Speed and Reaction attributes. When you start a round, you have to come up with that round’s Initiative; each player (and NPC) bids away a certain amount of Speed, which is added to their Reaction to determine who goes first. However, as all combat maneuvers cost Speed, it’s an interesting gambit: do you want to go first and do little, or go last and do a lot? Also, much like in White Wolf, extra successes can be spent on Finesse Effects to modify things in combat (extra damage, better armor piercing on your weapon, hitting a specific location/called shot, or other cinematic effects). In a nutshell, the system is quite streamlined and cinematic, as descriptions generally turn into the combat results; it’s faster than you think, though printing a short list of the available manuevers for your players is a must. I really like the idea of bidding for initiative, even though it means every player’s second character will have a high Speed. Overall, the combat system is surprisingly quick and streamlined, especially after the game’s jargon has been translated.
Zir’An also has two forms of magic: Rune and Shadow. Rune magic is amazingly interesting, giving you various options to use your runes of power. Lesser runes are quick fixes, kind of like Rotes in Mage; slap a Light rune on something to make it a torch, or a Heal wound on a bandage to reduce bleeding. Greater runes are all related to the gods, and can have four ways to apply them. Charms are, like lesser runes, quick activations, good for combat. Talismans apply the rune to an item, giving it the rune’s power—magical items creation, in short. Wards are like Talismans, but instead of applying the rune to the item, it’s applied to its bearer. Glyphs, the final and most powerful kind, are more like rituals; you use them to do large-scale magic, like making a floating city.
Shadow magic is much more subtle and personal, drawing the power of your own shadow to do things. You can jump through shadows to travel, or kill people by altering their own shadows, thus twisting them in reality. Shadow magic is generally more for the NPC villains, and is also one of the big titular Secrets which isn’t really ever explained.
The Flaws of Design:
If you know anything about Zir’An, what you probably heard was about the horrible layout errors the designers made. The biggest of these was to put the designed fantasy language as a background; when it works, it’s pretty cool looking, but a lot of the pages came out as gray, not silver. Several chapters are a muddled mess; one in particular was released on their website in a ‘clean’ format for legibility. The worst offenders include the chapter on antagonists, the section on each of the player races, and some sections on skill packages and world details. The damage is not as bad as people complained it was, but it still makes reading a pain.
The other big problem is the proofreading. A lot of sections are written in such vague terms that you have to re-read them to get the general idea, and in other times the new terminology you have to learn is oppressive. Why spend two paragraphs saying it’s hard to define Valdreyr when you could just say “merits and flaws” to simplify? I can understand saying Dolonorri instead of Dwarf, but why do we have to always say Roha instead of shotgun, or Tchakka Sticks instead of Cigarillos, especially when real words like “carbine” and “watch” are also used? As much as I love the flavor we’re given, splitting the book between an in-character player section and a easy-terminology GM section would have helped understanding it all. In other places, there are various errors, referencing things that were later moved into the Hand of Fate Guidebook, for example.
But a flawed diamond is still a diamond, and if Zir’An isn’t a diamond, well, it’s easily a ruby or emerald. Its flaws are a pain, but a lot of them relate to the short print life of the game. A second print run of the core book, and finishing out the planned supplements, would have greatly helped the line, but alas, wishes are not horses.
On Similar Terms:
The emphasis on exploring lost cities and strange locales is fairly close to Eberron or Pathfinder, and the player beastmen remind me a lot of Eberron’s Shifters (only without the shifting power, if that makes any sense). The heavy use of Fate reminds me of the old Al-Qadim world for AD&D; it’s a similar concept, a kind of Eastern mysticism, only here Fate is the GM. As mentioned, there’s a strong relation to the Final Fantasy games, but in a good way, and a lot of the sections remind me of exploring the lost dwarven ruins in Morrowind. Probably the closest game in theme and style is Exalted, in a lot of ways; the two have a lot of differences, but the play style (fast, high action, lots of intrigue as well as combat) is remarkably similar. As a massive Exalted fan and pulp buff, I feel kind of dumb for ignoring Zir’An for so long. Oh, the first picture in the book is also of a wrecked tank which looks strangely similar to the ones from Metal Slug.
There’s a lot of anime which are also similar; I immediately think of Last Exile and Pumpkin Scissors, the first dealing with ‘30s serial/Steampunk style aerial adventures, and the second with a military unit working to clear up the rubble of a recently ended world war. I also read someplace that the designers took a lot of inspiration from Miyazaki; it shows. The riding birds are similar to the ones in Nausicaa, and the game itself is a lot like Laputa (Castle in the Sky) and Howl’s Moving Castle, which fit fairly well with the Final Fantasy vibe.
I’d argue that Zir’An was made a few years too early, as it bears a lot of similarities to the Indie gaming movement which sprung up afterward (Spirit of the Century, I’m looking at you). Nevermind the shared emphasis on pulp, and the use of the word Fate (cough Spirit of the Century cough), I’m thinking of how Indie games generally come up with new game mechanics emphasising fast and interesting gameplay. Zir’An certainly has its share of new mechanics, which look complex but end up being decidedly simple, another facet of Indie gaming. The major theme which makes me compare Zir’An to the new Indie scene is the whole collaborative storytelling bit, or at least the idea of putting more agency into the player’s hands. Zir’An’s got Finesse levels, allowing you to narrate your own character’s actions if your Finesse level is over the difficulty level, as well as the whole fast-and-furious combat system, which is also highly narrative and demanding on the players for its flow. Technically, Zir’An was Indie before Indie gaming really existed, and that’s probably a part of why the game disappeared.
At one point, I actually found a copy in stock at a local Barnes & Noble, one of the two aforementioned hard copies I found in stores. I skimmed through it, at a loss to decipher the system through its character sheet, intrigued by the almost Indian fantasy script that ran through the book in reflective and muddled silver. In the end, I was left with a quandary on what would be my last major RPG purchase before going off to college. In the one corner, we had Zir’An, two-hundred eighty some pages of black, white, and gray (“silver”), using a system few people had (and have) heard of. Next to it was the World of Warcraft d20 tome, almost four-hundred pages, full-color, and using a system and world popular enough that I figured I’d be able to run it at college sometime. (I didn’t.) The tipping point was that both books were the same price, $40, and comparing the beautiful Udon art in WoW to the smeared grey-silver parts of Zir’An.
I chose the World of Warcraft core book, and I think Zir’An’s problem was that too many people made the same kind of choice. The game had noticeable aesthetic flaws, wasn’t mainline enough, and was—comparatively—a damned weird, if fine, setting. It blended a strange but fascinating world with a system unique enough to make you read the rules but strong enough to stand on its own.
I ended up tracking down a copy for about twenty bucks, and picked the Hand of Fate Guide up at GenCon 2009 for five dollars (one of the many, many books we bought at the fine Chimera Games booth, and then had to lug back seven blocks to the van). The game is definitely worth tracking down—you can find copies on eBay for under $20, reliably—as it is far and away ahead of the curve.