Any of you who have looked at other reviews of mine here on the blog or on the Youtube Channel are likely aware that I have an obsession with historical fiction or at least historically inspired setting in TTRPGs and Fiction. Favorite time-periods in no particular order are:
Bronze Age Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean
Iron Age to Early Medieval Europe
Northeast Asia (Korea, Japan, Manchuria, etc) from Iron Age to Post-Colonial
Imagine my joy when I heard someone was going to be taking a fantasy spin on the Roman World called Vynestra, even though I am not the biggest of fans of 5e settings when a purpose-built system would likely work better. Today I decided it was time, so I sat down and did a look through what is publicly available about the project. In particular, I read through their "Deveros in a Nutshell" primer that was released earlier this month.
Please keep in mind that I am examining a setting with only some press resources and a ~115 page primer to what will likely be 1,000+ pages of content by the time of the Kickstarter for this setting ins fufilled, currently slated to start in May of 2023. I also want to say now that this is not a sponsored post. The creators have not provided me with any special information, resources, or sponsorship. I am doing this out of my own interest in the setting and that alone.
First, some setting explanation. Our Rome analogue is called Deveros. The cultural group and citizens are called the Aldarin people. The Nation is called either the Aldarin Empire or, in the local language, Consentium Populusque Deverosa (C.P.D. a la S.P.Q.R.). The "Empire" is a relic of the past, as it is now an "Oligarchic Imperial Republic." Therefore it is safer to think of the Aldarin Empire is being a closer analog to the pre-republic Roman Kingdom Period.
While advertised as a Roman setting, it was instantly clear to me that there were a number of elements here in the Aldarin culture of Deveros that would have been outright bizarre to a citizen of Late Republican Rome. And no, I do not mean the gryphons on the cover, a Dragonborn legionarius, or Cardin the Cardinal acting as our helpful guide inside. Instead of a river city with 7 hills, we have a large port sheltered in a protected lagoon. The commercial hub of the city, split up by canals and a well-managed river delta plyed by rapidas (gondolas) and infested with bridges, contrasts to the more traditional & ritual-focused Roman city center further inland.
This was clarified early on the creator's intro, that this setting has been increasingly influenced by Venice as time went on in its development. This makes sense considering the origins of the Venetian Republic and the fact that this setting has somewhat more advanced technology in some areas, pushing it closer to Late Roman Empire/early Byzantine in some places to better fit the high fantasy and proto-industrial in others. Venetian influences also enter into a modified economy like references to a glass trade. The Emperor I mentioned earlier has also has been turned into a figurehead much like the Doge of Venice often turned out to be in the late medieval/early modern period.
However, there are many Roman elements that survive in this game. Much of the basic society presented in Deveros matches what you might expect for Late Republican & Early Imperial Rome.
A strong emphasis on class divisions enforced by social ostracism, citizenship, high wealth inequality, and social reputation (though a career in civil or religious service is an alternative citizenship path to service in the legions).
Legions seem to have gone through a partial Marian reform with familiar equipment in the art (a professional core, but still largely conscription-based from the pool of citizens for specific campaigns).
Laws effecting citizens vs non-citizens are pretty well explained despite this quick-guide's brevity.
What bits of the city were get to see in this primer are littered with insulae, taberna, thermae, cultic shrines, gladiatorial schools, an arena, and their roads are patrolled by Vinitari (Vigiles Urbani and Cohort Urbanae rolled into one) and street gangs belonging to the various factions in the district.
What exists in this book of the food culture, clothing trends, and naming conventions is pretty close to Early to Mid-Imperial Rome, though some of the names were a little... strange. (Reading Lorenzo Helios Julius Borealus really threw me. I would have gone with Laurentius instead of its Italio-Spanish derivative.)
Despite being outlawed 300 years ago, slavery still exists. However, apparently many of them are penal slaves? (not wild about this...)
The Aldrin Empire is run by a Consentium & Consentium Minor that seems to fit the roles of the Roman Senate and the Plebeian Council, even though their naming convention fits the Venetian Republic setting more closely.
Deveros is a very ritual & religiously focused city, with many claiming divine descent, religious ritual sacrifice being a source of blessings for characters, and practically every deity having a cult of some kind in the city.
Deveros is also a ethnically cosmopolitan city, with citizenship, class, and claimed divine descent being more important that one's Kinship or national origin (Kin is used as a replacement for "Race" or ancestry)
The three main political factions are sorted by color (Blue, Green, and Yellow), similar to the street gangs and political cliques that grew up around the different factions of charioteers in the Rome and later Constantinople (originally the Blues, Greens, Whites, and Reds). I did not see any references to chariot racing in the primer, but there is a large hippodrome on the map.
While there is not much information on the other cultures of the world, the Qutharian people seem to be this world's Carthaginians (Cathage = Qārt Ḥadāšat). They have a claim of similar origin with the Aldarin people that may be a callback to the legends about Aeneas and Dido. The Jyrden might be Germanic or Gallic Celtic peoples and the Menderin seem to share geographic and lifestyle similarities to the Parthian or Scythian peoples.
What is Inventive and Nice?
There are a number of touches here that I think really fit either the worldbuilding or further draw traditional Roman culture into the everyday actions of the player characters. One is the way that bathing was integrated into the game. If you go to the bathhouse (thermae) for a short rest, you have two options. One, you can get a blessing from the God of Bathing just like any of the other deities. However, you can also instead garner a "Thermae bonus" which seems to take the form of increased healing, temporary hit-points or other bonuses. Sounds like taking a quick dip might be a regular occurrence when your PCs can afford to take the time.
There is also an interesting supernatural, but optional, mechanic for your characters in this setting. In Vynestra's deep lore, the decaying world was revived by demigods a little over 1000 year ago, bringing survivors from the Underworld to live again on the surface.Now these demigods are today's deities. Since then, some beings carry in their souls embers that can tap into the same wellspring that the deities draw their power from. Physically manifesting like a magical birthmark or tattoo at level 2, they grant the bearer access to unique powers that grow with your character, potentially to the point of manifesting into demigodhood as well!
It was also nice that the example background that they provided for this primer was a politically-minded one. The Publus is one that acts as a representative of the People, granting the character an affiliation to one of the three political factions in Deveros and an Ideal that they aspire to that may help define the character's starting alignment and future goals.
Finally, a nice feature is that each NPC not only has the usual alignment, class, and kin tags, but also pronoun and occasionally gender tags. These include if the character is genderfluid [GF], Transgender [T], or Non-binary [NB].
So... What Do I Think?
Well, admittedly it is hard to tell with the pages that we have if I will really fall in love with this one, but I certainly already like it. I do believe that this setting has promise to be an interesting one, even if I am not a fan of using D&D 5E's systems for Roman adventures. One linchpin for me on whether this will end up being a great setting is going to be the other cultures around the Aldarins. It is hard to sell a Roman-inspired setting if you don't have great rivals for them to be held in opposition to or colorful cultures to become a part of the cosmopolitan soup that is Deveros.
As I mentioned earlier, Vynestra will start its funding campaign at some point in 2023. It sounds and looks like a lot of work is already done! You can sign up for email alerts through Backerkit at this link.