Zafir promises “A fast-paced, tactical, cover-shooter RPG that brings something new to the genre.” Randy Knapp, the author, sent over a PDF for us to take a look at, but you can find it on drivethrough RPG. Its a 442 page PDF, and a mechanically robust RPG so our review will be a little longer than normal. If you want the short version, “I’m in.” Zafir is best compared to other tactical roleplaying games, and the obvious go to would be D&D 5e, and Starfinder. I’d certainly take it without question over either of these.
I like to start reviews talking about the things you notice before you read. Art, layout, readability, that stuff. I hear that it doesn’t matter much, but for a lot of people, me included, if I get a giant wall of text I really have to force myself to care about what that text says. I want to congratulate Zafir for having being the first 400+ page book I’ve had with a usable table of contents. This is especially egregious for a lot of PDFs. The major section headers are highlighted in a bright, but legible font, and the major sub sections all have their own entry. They managed to get it done in 2 pages which is quite a feat in longer RPGs, and probably really nice with a physical copy. It also breaks out the Player’s Guide, Campaign Setting, Game Master’s Guide, and Appendices each with a large header with spacing. It makes it really easy to find what I need.
The book itself is chock full of art, and they clearly made use of their 22 artists. Each of which gets a plug at the end of the book with social media entries, and portfolio links in case you want to find them (I know I’ve followed a few new twitter accounts). All the art is professional, well done, and gets the image across. Not all of it’s my personal style, but I’ve got nothing to really complain about. None of the pieces are bad or unhelpful, and the artists have all clearly read the prompt they are drawing. I particularly like the landscapes and big pieces that are included. I’ll highlight other favorites throughout the review. There’s a lot of good stuff here. I think If I had to pick a favorite contributor I’d go with Kii Weatherton, this piece in particular.
Special mention to whoever did the 3D cubes to show tactical positioning. That’s a big element of the game, and these diagrams really help illustrate the point.
Each page has a label telling you the chapter and section you are in (players guide, GMs guide, etc) color coded to that section. The headers, chapter titles, charts and everything in that chapter is color coded as well, and each page (where it fits) gets a cool crystal in the right color. I can tell at a glance what section and chapter I’m in at any given time. The book ends not only with an index (something lacking in a lot of longer TTRPGs), but also a glossary of important terms. Seriously, readability on this book is through the roof. Its clear the designers actually put thought into minimizing the amount of flipping around trying to find the right content.
The section begins with a page and a half of italicized text walking you through a history of the world. You can buy the book to learn it, but the broad gist is that a crystal known as Zephyrite was discovered, people used it as jewelry and as a decoration, but then they started to get magic powers. 50 years later, auranite is discovered and folks use it to harness electricity. A tech arms race ensues, and “they mined too deep” discovering a sub-terranian species of alien-folk. A large war breaks out, and rages for 6 years. The game takes place 16 years later, as people are starting to settle into a new normal. I’m skimming but that’s the gist. I like games set at the dawn of a new age, where conflict has just been settled, but you and I both know it isn’t really over. Its a little heavy on jargon for my tastes, but its a good intro to a setting and leaves a lot of room for conflict. Which leads to interesting stories.
After some fiction, the introduction opens with a paragraph I love to see. It makes it very clear what I’m going to play, and what we are going to do. You play a member of a crew, and you’ll defeat marauders, monsters, and automatons, while exploring deserts, ancient caverns, and airships. It elaborates on each of those questions with sections called “Who is it for” and explains that its a game for people who want tactical choices. It also outlines what it isn’t. That’s refreshing. “This game isn’t meant for someone who just wants to tell a fun story with their friends”. It’s “for the person who wants to play a challenging, cooperative strategy game as the core combat mechanic of their RPG.” The trend of one system for every need is something I’d like to see less of in TTRPGs, because its just not the case.
Getting Started (Chapter 1)
What you need to play: 4d6 of different colors. The book provides character sheets to photocopy, and tokens you can print out, and the Zafir website has tons more. A GM needs dice and a battle map with 1 inch squares. Not a ton of investment for an TTRPG, and I’m kind of glad that even though its not D20, they didn’t decide to make me run out and buy a bunch of weird dice. The game says you only need one die of each color, I’d recommend more than that. While a dice pool D6 system, it will call for a D3 or D2 checks, and include a chart explaining how to convert them. This is where fancy specialty dice come into play for a lot of games, but I’m glad I didn’t have to buy them.
The book has the standard “this is what roleplaying is” section, but I appreciate the update. There is a lot of accumulated wisdom brought in here that normally is left for groups to figure out. Stuff like avoiding sex roleplay if your group isn’t close friends. The Game Master advice is things like how and why you should run a session zero.
Character Creation (Chapter 2)
In character creation, you pick a class, origin, pronouns, name, attributes, equipment, items, inventory, proficiency, responsibilities, and languages. Each section contains optional random determiners, but I always prefer to pick.
First level characters pick between Recruits (soldier types), Novies (wizard types), Seekers (spiritualist types) and then can specialize as they go into 2nd level. Later (CH 5), the book explains that you pick advanced and more specialized classes at higher levels. For a book this focused on readability, I’d have included those options here, or at least before the skills and how to play chapter. I have a hard time making a choice this impact-full to my character without knowing how it will turn out.
One thing that kind of peppers in here, and will continue to do so for the remainder of the book is an authors note. This one includes a comment that if you cannot roleplay without expressing sexist, homophobic, transphobic views this book isn’t for you. It’s a welcome thing to see, and doesn’t take up a ton of page space to say it.
The second choice is Origin. You pick between a collection of 6 sapient species, including Insaan (humans basically), Hinn (smaller humans with pointed ears), Rhuthari (Leonine nomads), Dyn (short fox folk), Ath’enki (the sub-terrainian group of blue tusked folk), and Jaan (semi-aquatic lizard folk). Like classes, this is covered in more detail (CH 7), but I can get by with high level here because it has no mechanical impact. As part of origin, you can select a religion. There are 8 presented in addition to agnostic and atheist, but its presented as optional.
Third choice is pronouns, and there is no real mechanical weight behind it, just an explanation that you should pick some, and that the book will use “they/them” when referring to unnamed hypothetical character and it referring to units on a battlefield. It also includes a random chart to tell determine she/he/they if you’d like. There is a little lore about gender explaining that they are basically better than the real world, because homophobia and generally shittyness isn’t tolerated. Overall, I, a cishet white dude think it does a good job.
Fourth, we select a name. This seems like a fast section, and it kind of is. There is a lot of emphasis put on names later on in the origins area so you can pick an appropriate one, but for this portion its mostly just D6 charts you can roll on or pick from with samples.
Step 5 is where we pick attributes and determining derived attributes. There are bases as assigned by class, and derived you will calculate. As a level 1 PC its pretty out of the box, but as you level you should expect to change them.
Sixth is starting equipment, which is straight forward. Everyone gets armor and a weapon or focus. Its a basic table, and you select from a couple of options. Very straight forward. Step 7 is starting items and abilities, and kind of seems like it could have been the same section. Recruits get a grenade or medkit, novices get ignite as an ability, and seekers get terrorize. 8 Is starting inventory, which is all your “random stuff” you may have. It probably also could have been part of 6. It gives a list of 18 items, and then has a random generator for more. None of it is amazing, but some of it is practical. Its things like a canteen, crowbar, journal, and rope. The stuff you might want, but isn’t going to make or break the game. The random table below has 36 additional items.
Step 9 is starting proficiency, which are all the things you might want to do. Your class gives you some starting ones, and you will level up to get more. 10 gives you responsibilities, which are your non-combat jobs, and this is some of the first real customization to differentiate your Hinn Seeker from someone elses. You pick one to be an expert in (getting 3 points), and 2 to be basic in (getting 1 point). These are things like medicine, navigation, engineering, and arcana.
Step 11 is languages, and you can pick to be fluent in 1 and conversational in 3, or fluent in 2. There is a list 15 languages to pick from, which is that spot where its good for an RPG, but not enough to be realistic.
Overall, I like the character creation guide. The game seems very basic for level 1 characters, but has a side bar about starting at level 2, and I get the impression you are supposed to do that after you’ve played a few games. Its very easy to build a level character quickly, and get into the game, and that’s really important.
Missions (Chapter 3)
Zafir is divided into two main phases. Missions, and later on, Adventuring.
Missions are distinct, and an interesting twist. Instead of your normal RPG, where things are fairly freeform, Missions have distinct starts and ends, with clear goals defined by the GM. Each player controls their single Unit, and the GM controls enemy and allied units as you would expect. All units have combat attributes, including Hit Points, Speed, Agility, Aim, Will, Armor Points (which reduces damage), and Shield Points (which act as temporary HP).
Each Mission is divided into Encounters, which the GM will outline, much in the same way as a wargame. Your team needs to go do X, Y, and Z. Everyone starts at full HP, and the the GM sets up a battlefield (which is very important in Zafir). Combat is played very much like a tactical wargame, think Warhammer. The difference being that the GM controls a bunch of units, and the players each pick a single one. In some ways, it reminds me of the stories I see from when Gygax and crew were turning wargames into D&D. Just with more polish and less gut instinct. Each encounter is basically like a small wargame skirmish, leading to the overall Mission.
This section has robust movement rules, allowing you to climb, jump, drop, take cover, and pretty much whatever else you want. This is where those cube based movement diagrams I mentioned earlier come into play. It really breaks up otherwise boring walls of text that are otherwise describing just how far someone can walk at what cost.
One piece that seems timely (With the current release of the combat wheelchair, and subsequent pants shitting of reactionary members of the hobby. Written by a Sara, who I wonder may or may not be the same Disability Consultant as the one credited on this book), is their handling of Grievous Wounds, so Ill dig in here a bit. Traditionally, after a wargame Encounter, in a serial wargame, you roll for lasting wounds, treasure, and leveling up your characters (if possible). Zafir is no different. What is different, is that the Grievous Wounds section has a few pages on disability aids. Broadly speaking, these let you roleplay a scene (or a few scenes) where you get a robot leg, therapy, or hover wheelchair, and can then continue on playing the character. I like it. Its all too often when playing sci-fi games, that a PC gets injured, and then there just aren’t rules on how to keep playing, so you’ve got to reroll. It doesn’t really make sense that this place has hover cars, and not something that helps people move around.
I’m going to skim a lot of this chapter, because its a lot of tactical nitty gritty, and I’d say go buy the book if you want to learn to play. it seems fairly solid, and I ran a couple of skirmish encounters to test, that seemed intuitive enough.
Adventuring (Chapter 4)
In Zafir, Adventuring is defined as the non-combat, roleplaying portion of the game. Its all the downtime between missions, where your character rests, recuperates, shops, and most interestingly to me, takes downtime responsibilities.
Because each class is fairly combat focused, responsibility points indicate how good you are the various tasks that might be called for outside of that. Arcana is your lore, check and spends time reading books and being smart. Engineering is about keeping the lights on, and is probably a mechanic, who keeps everything working. Downtime for someone focused on arcana is probably spent in a library. Engineers are probably in a workshop, or hanger bay. Its not all directly tactical though. Maybe you took Entertainment, and keep the crews morale up. You lead campfire songs, or maybe just hang around cracking jokes.
Zafir has skills as well, and to be honest it took a couple reads for me to tell the difference, probably due too much D&D. The example really helps. Essentially, your DM gives a circumstance die modifier that is applied to your associated Responsibility for the skill. Everyone can roll every skill, and broadly they tell you what you are trying to do. The book gives examples of when you’d use the various responsibilities for each skill. Think about how in 5e you are supposed to be able to use different stats for different skills, but no one ever does. Zafir does. For example, Deceive.
You can use Acquisitions to make Deceive checks to make things seem more expensive than they are, but you can use Entertainment to spread gossip through song. Its an interesting way to handle skills and their use, that gives a wide variety of options. It also eliminates the “I have high str, but my intimidate is low because my cha is low” question that comes up a lot in other games. The page I got the Deceive info from would make a really handy hand out to keep pinned to a GM screen, or for players, especially new ones, to inspire them to use responsibilities with skills.
The Adventuring section is where roleplaying advice comes in, and they spend some time talking about being “bad guys”, and how that might be fun… but it probably won’t be. It also includes some suggestions to make the default setting a little less morally gray. People are going to get shot, that’s the name of the game. Maybe you fight magitech robots or undead though. That is probably a little easier for some folks to stomach, than shooting sapient beings. We also get two pages (and a link to more) about the use of the X-Card, Lines/Veils, and a Script Change. Three techniques that have become a lot more common in the last few years, as we try to actually care about one another’s feelings (something shockingly overdue). This is more of that “Zafir brings modern GMing advice to the forefront” that I’ve been talking about in the GMing portions. Sure it tells you how to role dice, and how to make a character, and the stuff we have seen since the 90’s, but this finally modernizes some of it.
Classes (Chapter 5)
The classes chapter starts off by explaining how to level up, and two highlights right away. You get something cool every level. A new ability, at a minimum. That may not be exciting to some folks, but as the guy who has played a 3.5 fighter to 20, and had half my levels consist of “OK rolled HP and spent a skill point I’m done”, only to watch everyone else get cool stuff, this is a big deal. The second highlight is the XP chart. You only ever need 65 xp to get to the highest level. Its just nice to not see a bunch of 0’s added for no reason.
The class upgrade mechanic is one I like a lot. In fact, its one I use in my yet (probably never) to be released K20 game. It helps set guidelines for the stuff players are supposed to be able to do, gives opportunities to change your class selection later in the game without the chaos of 3e D&D multi-classing, and subtly forces characters to have level appropriate abilities. I do think if I were writing Zafir, I’d have broken Recruit into 2-3 classes. As is, Recruit has 20 class upgrade options while Seeker and 10 between them. Or maybe, Seeker and Novice should get more options making the book a lot longer? Even just another Base Class and the following tree would bring them up to 20 options (10 a piece). I worry a little about distinguishing my Seeker from the other one in the party for the first few levels mechanically.
Ultimately, each class gains some proficiencies and abilities. The abilities are the real meat, and work very similar to 4e powers. In fact, if I were to play, I’d probably print mine on little index cards and put them in front of me, like I did for 4e. If you like that level of tactical combat, this is a big win. If not … how are you this far into a review Tactical Roleplaying Game with roots in warhammer and 4e?
Equipment & Items (Chapter 6)
Zafir uses a bit of an abstract equipment system. Characters can bring 4 slots onto a mission. A primary weapon, secondary weapon, body armor, and headgear. You bring “enough” ammo, which I’m more than happy to see. Your body armor probably has pockets, which allow you to have some extra slots, based on the armor worn. Utility pockets can carry, well, utility items, and grenades. Ammo pockets can carry up to 5 reloads worth of Special Ammo. Hardpoints let you hold a heavy weapon, and a Grenade Pocket is a special grenade only slot.
Most equipment can also be modded. Each item will tell you how many mod slots it has, and you can apply them. Its pretty straight forward, and all together, you can start to see how Zafir is the sort of game where you can spend hours IRL customizing your set up for a mission, if you want. What weapon, what mods, secondary weapon, mods, special ammo, what armor giving what slots, giving what special items. I enjoy that sort of thing, and I think it will play well with the intended audience here.
Sapient Species of Zafir (Chapter 7)
This section is divided into 6 portions, one for each species. Broadly, each one gives a quick physical descriptor, a section on lifespans, a section on classical names, nations & empires, language, religion, and finally traits. The Insaan are your “Basically human” species, but I’ll do a quick overview of the others.
The Hinn are visibly similar to Insaan, if maybe a little shorter and more slender, with pointed ears. Most of their culture is related to the Hinn Diaspora, and their oppressed, forgotten, or simply ignored ethnic identity. A lot of the identification and uniqueness of the species are written as how they are different from the Insaan, and there is a lot of roleplaying hooks here to dive into how your Hinn sees the world and their place in it.
The Rhuthari are a species of big sexy cat people. The book doesn’t call them out that directly, but they are six foot five (converting to Freedom Units from the books metric) and specifically muscular while living on “tropical islands necessitating minimal clothing”. They have a really cool culture, with a pack ranking system based on merit, a cool sun god Baldyr, and a understated sarcastic sense of humor. Plus, if you get exiled, maybe you can play this dandy. This is probably the species I’d end up playing in a Zafir game.
The Dyn are a species of small fox folk. They are your pranksters and tricksters, and I see a lot of folks being drawn here. They are upbeat and light-hearted, and lean into your lovable scoundrel archetype.
The Ath-enki are blue alien people, and very much the unique species to the setting. They come from underground, and are a relatively recent discovery, from the overworld’s perspective. There is a fun little anecdote about how they don’t understand the surface dweller’s god of the sky, and I imagine it would be a fun experience to roleplay someone whose only heard of the concept out in the world.
The Jaan are a semi-aquatic lizard people. The notable feature here is the kinship system of relationships. Essentially, to a given Jaan, all of their parents brothers are “father” and their parents sisters are called “mother”. Meaning their cousins are all brother and sister, and nieces and nephews are sons and daughters. It means a Jaan is going to have a large family, and probably a cool source of contacts in game. Especially when one of the other players didn’t read the full setting, and you are introducing them to your 5th or 6th father.
Inter-species relationships get a call out as well. Broadly speaking, most combinations cannot interbreed, but can certainly be in a committed relationship. Of those that can interbreed are the Demihinn, a product of Hinn and Insann, the Ath-ixa, a product of Insaan and Ath’enki, and the Azurhinn, product of Hinn and Ath’enki. Dominant and recessive traits are outlined, along with their relationship to society and their parents cultures.
Cosmology & Religion (Chapter 8)
Chapter 8 begins with an in setting fiction piece outlining the creation of the universe. It then gives us a quick overview of each of the primary gods of the setting. They tell us the standard aspects, colors, symbols, worshipers, and such, but they also outline other names they may go by. I find this sort of thing way more useful than the history section. Knowing Gaia is also the Earth Mother, because she is associated with life in all forms, and is considered the source of all life because she birthed the first animals queues me right up to run with her in a game. It also lets me vary my language, so every NPC isn’t using the same exact phrasing. (All praise Gaia / Earth Mother, I call our for your help / Give thanks to the Healer). Another thing I really like about the religion of Zafir, is that many of the deities have different worshipers. Sure, the Fivefold Church follows Gaia, but so does the Ath’enki Cave Soul cult. Rival religious sects both claiming to be the true followers of (whoever) is an easy source of conflict in games, and a lot of fantasy games seem to only have monolithic religions and cultures.
Zafir has multiple spheres of reality, and interplanar “stuff” is certainly something that should be expected to come up. One interesting aspect of Zafir to me, is that its a highly advanced sci-fi setting with minimal space travel. Instead, it seems to replace that aspect of sci-fi settings with magic and religion. For example, the Moon is a sphere that orbits Zafir, but it is “on the edge of the Sky and the Void”, no one knows who lives there, if anyone, and its the source of Death Magic. The whole setting is this sort of mix of spirituality, technology, and magic intertwined, and there aren’t a lot of others that do this.
The various major religions each have a few pages dedicated to their tenants, practices, and some sample ceremonies. The one I found most interesting was the Disciples of Jack. Jack is a mortal who ascended, unlike the other deities who are cosmic forces. Jack specifically shows up in the mortal world, shares secrets with folks, and sends his disciples to do the same. That sort of thing is great for an RPG if a GM needs to slip a plot hint to a party.
Zafiri Society (Chapter 9)
We get the Zafiri world map in this section, along with descriptions of the major continents, empires, cities, and all the information you might need to run a game or create a back story. Each region is further broken down geographically with some niely colored charts, showing political territory.
Because the underground is so important to Zafir, so we also get a map of their territories, with tunnels. Tunnels seem really important, because those become the underground equivalent to shipping lanes, and I’d imagine a lot of Missions will involve protecting them from sabotage.
For the true world builder and lore hounds, each region gives its government, population demographics, industries, religions, info on major cities. This chapter also includes calendar information, named days, holidays, weekly season divides, and even the planets axial tilt, so you can confirm that yes, the northern hemisphere is hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. There’s no way for me to get into all of this without writing another 5,000 words, but the detail is there. We get it again from the Ath’enki perspective, and I thought the flip to measurements on tidal influences of the moon was a good way to keep it similar, even if they have no sun.
Next, it goes into Organizations, which are what I imagine most players will do jobs for. We get information on seven types, and plenty of examples of each. They are wide ranging, from Mages Guilds, to Sky Pirates, to setting specific groups like The Guardians. Its good info, and I’m glad we got as many examples as we did, for what I imagine will end up being a frequent setting piece.
The society chapter also includes the in depth history of the setting, and as you’d imagine for a book this in depth, it is in depth. Its broken out in a timeline format by major events with descriptions of what happens in order, and its generally pretty straight forward. It ends with a Modern Day section, which I found nice. Its kind of the “TLDR here’s whats up” that a lot of players need.
The last section of chapter 9 is a series of vignettes called “Everyday Life” and its just short stories for a variety of characters. Its a neat way of showing the reader what sort of PC they should build, and what life should actually look like in world.
Magic & Technology (Chapter 10)
This chapter starts with a dissection of the major materials with magical properties, of which there are 8, and their magical and technological uses. This gives us a clear look at how technology and magic work. I suspect the intention of combining these chapters, was to really drive home the point that its almost one and the same in Zafir. Magic exists and technology exists, but generally magic powers technology, which powers the world.
We get all sorts of information about logical drives (basic computers), light displays (holograms), the nexus (magic based internet), and magitech polymers, aerium projectors (airships), and even mechanoids (robots). Really it’s got a cool magic-punk spin on lots of classic technologies that modern and future settings have, and most of its pretty neat. I especially liked the mechanoids, personally.
The remaining chapters are much shorter, as they aren’t explaining an entire world, but rather a couple of relatively simple mechanical concepts.
Dramatis Personae (Chapter 11)
This is a chapter for the backers of the game. Its got a call out by the author for being as much, but since the game needs sample NPCs, there’s no reason not to do it this way. There are 9 sample NPCs with backstories, and art, my personal favorite of which is Elleglette. A pair of inseparable dyn-essat sisters.
Running the Game (Chapter 12)
This section is all advice about running the game, obviously. Its got your normal GMing advice, but because 3D combat on a grid is so integral to the game, there is a special focus spent in that area.
The pictures of actual set ups of real people sitting around a table, or blocks stacked high make it very clear how the game is supposed to be played. The blocks are an ingenious idea.
One section I like a lot here is called “This Game is Too Hard”. Its about how to handle the game being challenging. As a tactical strategy game, its kind of designed to be challenging when combat comes around. The author throws out 4 suggestions to make the game easier, if that’s what you want to do.
Mission Design (Chapter 13)
Mission design is a lot like adventure design. Its a big topic that you can write a billion words on, or you can jump in and just do it. Zafir gives us 5 pages of advice, and then an example campaign that is super in depth so we can see what we are supposed to do. And Honestly, it looks really fun. Looking at how complex some of the shapes are, I imagine I will be doing a lot of my Zafir gaming via digital tabletop, but it would be pretty impressive in person.
Random Generation Tables (Chapter 14)
What sort of an RPG doesn’t have these? Zafir has 16 pages of them, with 2-6 charts per page. I think it was plenty.
Enemy Units (Chapter 15)
This is the “who do I oppose” section, and since its a tactical RPG, its more like “Who do I fight”. The chapter starts with an entry on how to read each template, and a listing by power rating so you can navigate quickly.
Each entry is very quick to read, and they make good use of multi-columned layout and charts to keep information dense, and legible. There are 72 entries in the book, covering 48 pages. Some entries like the civilian take up 1/4th a page, and longer more complex foes, like Azi-Zahhak, a unique sweet giant undead dragon king monster, take up a full page or so. Have I said I like the lore yet, because that alone would sell me.
Appendix A: How to play Royal Hokm
Royal Hokm is a card game that you can play using real world cards. Its a cool little add on that I can see breaking out when you are in the adventuring phase. The players are playing a few hands, roleplaying in character, while the GM roleplays with folks who want to do some solo roleplay. Its a neat world building addition to the game.
Appendix B: Batarak Script
I love getting fantasy scripts, so I can write messages in world, and give the players props. Its a cool inclusion and the appendix is a great place for it.
To sum up, like I said at the front. I’m in. Zafir is a fully fleshed out roleplaying game, with a robust combat mechanic and rules light roleplaying in a thoroughly detailed world. The combat mechanic has depth and tactical choices without being so complex you can’t use them. The roleplaying mechanics are flexible and light enough that you can do most anything you need, without being lacking and essentially non-existent. The worldbuilding is in depth and detailed, while also having call outs to the important parts for your players who skim. The layout is phenomenal, and the art is high quality throughout. What more can you ask for?