Playing in the Clockwork World of Tephra << Prev   Next >>
Correspondent M. Gabriel Colbaugh gives an overview of steampunk fantasy RPG Tephra.
By mgcolbaugh on Aug 07 2012 Category:Media, Steamlife


Tephra is the initial offering from RPG company Cracked Monocle. It employs a new game system called the Clockwork System. The game was released in a single, hardcover book that covers all the rules and some of the setting material over 288 pages and retails for $39.99. Tephra is an attempt to provide a really strong Steampunk RPG that incorporated a lot of fantasy elements. Unlike Abney Park’s Airship Pirates, which was largely more science fiction, Tephra does the whole magic and monsters angle complete with separate races, alchemy, and fantastical settings. Wanting to steam up the system as well, Cracked Monocle came up with a new one based on the idea of 12, or the number of hours listed on a clock. As a result we have a game that uses the d12, something you don’t see very often. But does it work? 

The Book:

The book itself is actually quite well put together. It is hard backed with lovely art and a decent binding. The index is fairly thorough, though the appendices are somewhat lacking. The layout seems to follow a lot of d20 core books such as the Star Wars Saga Edition in that it talks about basic rules first, then goes into other areas. Character creation is then followed up by information on races, locations and groups in the Tephra setting, and then more detailed rules and descriptions of gear, attributes, and skills.  

It’s usually easy to find what you’re looking for in the book and it flows very well. While there is some repetition in the writing, it’s done to try to ensure ideas are clear. I would say, though, that a lack of examples does hurt the book in some cases.  I would have liked to seen a step by step run through of combat, which I’m still getting a handle on. A character creation example never hurt either. While the system for it is fairly straight forward, there are a few clunky areas that could be better illustrated.

Overall the book is a strong point for the game, even if there are a few minor quibbles over the writing.

The Setting:

Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of the book. The setting presented is very sparse in detail with little to actually go on as far as running a game in the world of Tephra without making up a lot of information on your own. While there is the customary map as well as descriptions of the races and nations involved, the write ups for them are limited and constantly refer to events without actually discussing them further. What information you can find is often spread out through several sections and, in some cases, sections you wouldn’t normally look for it.

A good example of this would be the main country of Evanglessians. Going through the write up on the country, I find that it’s the largest human country currently in Tephra. I know that they survived the Hurricane Wars, which lasted for a uncertain amount of time, and that there are lots of rich industrial barons. If it wasn’t for details found in other parts of the book, or a few mentions in the Nationality Stories section, I would have no idea that they were run by an Emperor or that there had been a civil war. I don’t know why the civil war was fought, who was involved, and what the result was other than the Emperor and his army won. The lack of setting information such as historic timelines is really the biggest shame about this book. I understand if they wanted to establish just enough to create a basis for the world that could be molded based on the Narrator's need.  If you create a world and name you game after it, however, I want to see details about that world so I can run in it. Instead, I have to guess in a lot of cases about the names of rulers, major historic events, and when things happened exactly.  Without more information, the setting feels more like it was tacked on rather than added for actual use.

The System:

The Clockwork system is where the game does really shine. The writers have been very thorough in working out how to make a new system that flows and is actually fun to work with. Character creation is actually a joy to go through as you have a great deal of variety and options for making tons of different concepts. The rules are simple and straightforward for the most part, though I could’ve done without a contested damage roll in combat. 

Back to character creation. As I mentioned, it’s very flexible with a lot of options. There are no character classes, so building what you want is both easier and harder. On one hand, you have your pick on the direction you want to go in. On the other, you have to really concentrate on concept as you’re not left with a lot of points to start out with. This seems to work out all right, though, as it encourages working with your fellow players to build a team.

Actions and combat success works on a tiered system. You roll, add your bonus, and based on what you received determines how successful you were. In combat, this involves a contested roll to hit and then another contested roll to determine damage. You receive a number of action points you can use in combat rounds with various actions costing points depending on the complexity of the action. Special actions also require a certain amount of points to activate.

The system reads smoothly, and I hope to test it soon to confirm my suspicions. 

The Verdict:

Given the sheer amount of competition for the gamer dollar, the real question is whether or not Tephra is worth the $40 price tag. With several Pathfinder setting books rattling around on Kickstarter and Deadlands: Noir coming out, have they created a game and system that’s able to catch attention away from these other, higher profile projects? The answer is both yes and no.

If you’re looking for a new and unique system that gives you a lot of character flexibility and is aimed specifically with Steampunk and Fantasy in mind, then the answer is yes. The system is very straightforward, mostly easy to figure out, and rather robust. The tier system is nice in that it allows for more chance for success without making everything too easy. That they were able to actually utilize the d12 as the center piece of the rules is also a triumph of gaming engineering. While it might still be hard for them to compete with 3.5 or even Savage Worlds as a basic rule set, it’s intriguing enough to garner a look.

If you’re looking for a strong setting though, I’m afraid you’re going to have to look elsewhere. The information provided is disjointed, hard to track down in some cases, and isn’t enough to actually play in the world of Tephra. For me, this makes the book hard to justify at full price since you’re paying for both a setting and rules and only really get 75% of what was promised. 

It would’ve been better served as two separate books. If they’d released just the system for about $10-15 less, it would’ve been a triumph of a new idea. Instead, it sits as a slightly expensive rule book with a lot of potential to be great. 


Correspondent M. Gabriel Colbaugh spends most of his time serving as a technical writer for a waste-water treatment firm, but otherwise spends time writing about steampunk and enjoying fine haberdashery. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife and two furry children, River and Isabela. He also works to maintain the Las Vegas Steampunk Tea Society with a host of others.


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