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Fifth Cycle GM Report: Breaking More Fantasy Hearts and Taking Names

Having played Forge: Out of Chaos for over a year, Jon, Sean, and I decided to put the game temporarily on the shelf and take up another fantasy heartbreaker. I’m now running Robert Bartels’ Fifth Cycle, and we had our first session this week. We were mulling over other possible candidates, but this game won the vote for two reasons: Its system is clearly, efficiently worked out and presented, and it has a strong concept driving its races, cultures, and setting. We were excited to explore Bartel’s unique take on fantasy.

We are going to approach the game nearly as written, but with one major exception out of the gates. I decided early on to let the players choose whichever character race they wished to play. The game’s core rulebook makes you roll to see if you can be a non-human, and it makes those odds difficult—which is quite an odd choice especially when considering the spicy “Military Races” supplement that adds some well-conceived human-animal hybrids to the mix. The supplements to Fifth Cycle make it clear that Bartels himself was having second thoughts about the hurdles he put in the way of playing the non-humans.  

The Characters

Jon has opted to play a Kyton named Xe’blek. This is the oddest of the Military Races. Kyton’s are partly insect, and they possess a hard exoskeleton, one arm that serves as a sharp weapon (called an impak), and antennae. In the world of Fifth Cycle, all the non-human fantasy races are the creation of cruel magico-biological experiments by the so-called Tyrant Mages who lived centuries ago in the Third Cycle. The Kyton are unique in having a strange racial memory of being human and then transitioning into their current crab-like insect state. Jon is leaning heavily into this idea: He’s given his character some skills in archeology, and he’s playing Xe’blek as a character with a strong drive to explore and study buildings and artifacts of the Tyrant Mages to gain insight into his own origins.

Sean, meanwhile, is playing a human named Llewyn who is a student in the College of Earth Magic. His character is from a family of thieves, so his skill set will nicely complement our Kyton friend, and we’re looking forward to seeing how this odd couple develops. 

At the end of this report, I have links to various play documents and a summary of the events that transpired during the opening session. There's also a rough video of our play. If you’re interested in the developments of Xe’blek and Llewyn, please look those over.

But I’m going to focus this report on what went on behind the GM’s screen, concentrating especially on some of the challenging aspects of preparing to run this game with the hopes of providing some insights into GMing and of sparking some discussion.

Campaigning in Dolphinia

Fifth Cycle is by turns intriguing, sparse, and conflicted when presenting the idea of adventuring in Dolphinia (Dolphinia is the region which Fifth Cycle uses as its default setting). For example, there is a notion that a good part of game play will be focused on exploring the “Third Cycle Sites” of the Tyrant Mages. The game is so intent on the idea that it stipulates that the government agents of Dolphinia strictly regulate and tax those who dungeon delve, and adventuring parties need to either obtain an official charter (a full page sample of such a document is provided) or face harsh consequences if they are discovered. Despite this, there is little specific advice about creating actual sites. And when you look at the adventure seeds in the supplements, many of those lead to overland, wilderness, or city-focused adventures, not dungeons.

The “Starting a Campaign” section suggests that skilled people in Jenmaryn City (essentially a capital in the Old World) are often found guilty under trumped-up charges and sent off to Dolphinia as their punishment. So that’s how I’ve started things: Our player characters are prisoners (and slaves) on a ship named the Golden Squid bound for the reckless city of Skilletan. But I’ve already set up some competing factions both on the ship and en route which makes the ultimate arrival point of the characters undecided. One crewmate (Sadie Dawg, pronounced “Shady Dawg”), for example, is a spy for the Brotherhood of Runwin, which is a militant abolitionist group. There are three other convict-slaves on board in addition to Xe’blek and Llewn, and their disposition and drives are not necessarily in accord with those of our player characters.  The crew itself is a mix of loyalists to Captain Whitemane and other less-seasoned (and perhaps more persuadable) novices. This is not to mention the fact that there might be pirates, brigands, or coastal guards along the way who would be interested in waylaying a ship carrying valuable loot and contraband. I’ve got a sense of what the three major ports of call in Dolphinia have to offer, but I’m happily leaving it to Xe’blek and Llewyn to figure out how things will shake out. It’s possible that we will see them in the gladiatorial arena in Skilletan, but we might also see them on the run in some wilderness region that has not yet been explored. They might even opt to abandon Dolphinia entirely to return to some place in Jenmaryn or elsewhere.

Notes on Preparation

To prepare the Golden Squid for our first session, I worked out a basic map of the decks and had some details worked out for Captain Whitemane, Shady Dawg (the secret abolitionist), the First Mate, and the Quartermaster. I have each of those characters on separate 5x8 index cards with their statistics and important notes. For the rest of the crew manifest, I have a list of names and some basic ideas, and I also have some basic statistics for generic sailors, thieves, etc. which I can use in a pinch. The game makes generating stat blocks for NPCs a bit work intensive, so I’m not feeling compelled to have worked out all the details for the entire crew manifest.

I did not anticipate that one of the three NPC convicts (a man named Fabian Rycroft) would play a significant role in our first session, but I was able to use one of those sets of generic statistics for him when he was called into a brawling competition. To add even more surprise to the game, Fabian (whom I allowed Jon to play for the purposes of the bout) ended up rolling a rare Critical Hit against the ship’s champion fighter, which left her sprawled and hopeless on the deck. This will garner Fabian some special attention from Captain Whitemane, who is now going to consider Fabian as more valuable cargo. For our next session, I’ll have Fabian more fully fleshed out on his own index card . . . and he’s also going to be promoted to the more secure brig housing Xe’blek and Llewyn.

On a more macro level, I’ve jotted some notes about some events occurring around the three major ports of call in Dolphinia. These consist of the capital of Gravesend, the riotous city of Skilletan, and the southern city of Markstrand. Some encounters will reveal this information to the players, and that might entice Xe’blek and Llewyn to try to head one way or another. But things are faintly sketched now, waiting for the players to decide where exactly the game will go.

Content Warning

There is some dicey and spicy material in Fifth Cycle that was the focus of pre-game discussion. When you look at the world map of the game, it is apparent that you are viewing a scarcely veiled reworking of the Americas in the East, Europe and Africa in the West, and the Atlantic Ocean in the center. In some sections of Dolphinia, slavery is permitted, with Mixtla (which geographically approximates North Africa) being the source of the trade. There’s a group known as the Shrouders which goes around terrorizing and brutalizing those who are not human. The idea of the non-human fantasy races being the outcome of evil genetic experimentation by the Tyrant Mages adds another grim aspect to the world. To top it off there are religious cults and practices woven into the fabric, and while some of these religious trappings are innocuous, some are not.

One option for play would be to excise all problematic aspects, but that would give us a rather impoverished, bland, and generic fantasy game. We’ve opted to shove none of these aspects of Fifth Cycle aside. Instead, we are squarely signalling elements that might lead to moral or social quagmires, and we’ll be forging bravely ahead knowing that we are all alert to the potentially incendiary material. 

A number of factors are allowing us to operate with this type of forward approach. At the outset, we’ve been candid about signalling topics that might create difficulties, and, since our core group has been playing together for over a year, we can be comfortable stopping scenes to work through or around minefields when they emerge. Also, Fifth Cycle has such a host of invented, imagined, and reworked elements that analogies with the real history are everywhere fractured, inverted, and twisted. As a result, when these elements appear in play, they are fantastically different from their real world counterparts, though an underlying sense of their moral status always remains intact. For example, in their creation of the fantasy races, Tyrant Mages resemble mad Nazi eugenicists gone haywire. But the Mages themselves are now ancient history (they were eliminated two Cycles ago), so it isn’t like the characters are able to intervene in those activities. Instead, we now are left to deal with the multitude of different creatures and races the Tyrant Mages left behind. It’s quite possible that there will be some evil sorcerer who will try to research the spells and rituals of the Tyrant Mages to create some new hybrid mixes, but that person is going to look and behave quite different from any kind of morally bankrupt geneticist of the 20th or 21st centuries.

Inspirational Reading for Fifth Cycle

  • The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells: Dolphinia is like a small continent created by Dr. Moreau, except now Moreau is long dead, leaving his creations to make their way forward in the world.
  • Wieland and other novels by Charles Brockden Brown: I encountered this novel decades ago, and it’s a treat returning to it. Brown is widely considered America’s first great novelist, and he sets some of his work in the colonial era. Wieland features religious fanaticism, spontaneous human combustion, gothic creepiness, and pseudo-magical instances of ventriloquism. Brown’s distinctive early American gothic adds some good mental fodder for the world of Dolphinia.
  • I’ve not yet lit upon a straight fantasy source of inspiration. Fifth Cycle’s notion that the fantasy races derive from the experiments of the Tyrant Mages is from what I can tell unique. If anyone knows of something worth reading along these lines, let us know.

Future Updates

We’ll try to provide semi-regular briefings on our foray into another fantasy heartbreaker. In particular, we should give further consideration to the game’s approach to magic, combat, skill checks, and other essential matters. Stay tuned.

Fifth Cycle One Sheet

The Viceroyalty of Dolphinia

Summary of Game Play


Actual Play
Fifth Cycle


Ron Edwards's picture

I have no idea whether my concept of the fantasy heartbreakers stands up to legalistic scrimmage, but for whatever it's worth, Fifth Cycle is historically the earliest game that I think of as qualifying. Perhaps unfairly I also think of it as one of the least attractive for me to play. Certainly it should be tried on principle, as I would like eventually to play all the games I use the term for; however, it keeps bumping toward or at the bottom of my "next" list.

It has such a weird, obligatory view toward "let's delve down a dungeon." The variables are all covered in the post, but, to say it how I see it, it's as if the author was (or felt) forced to justify doing any such thing in-setting because "we have to have it," but the author doesn't really like it so he also puts all these in-setting restrictions and consequences onto it, therefore with the strange cumulative message, "but not like that!"

What this group is identifying - the trenchant or resonant issues of race, so-called - seems to me to be reaching a little, but I;ve done that a lot myself, especially for Undiscovered. I like how the topic is phrased here - it's a good application of what I was driving at in Monday Lab: Racist is as racist does. Sometimes I think of fantasy RPGs, especially independent ones, as "found art" rife with specific issues, and this definitely fits that concept.

noah's picture

A number of factors are allowing us to operate with this type of forward approach. At the outset, we’ve been candid about signalling topics that might create difficulties, and, since our core group has been playing together for over a year, we can be comfortable stopping scenes to work through or around minefields when they emerge.

Hi Robbie! The topic of trust and safety practices like calling for 5-minute breaks has been an important one for me the last couple of months. I'd be really interested to hear more about these practices as the Fifth Cycle continues.

When it comes to fiction that bumps up against real-world events, I think I'm encountering...not necessarily similar, but maybe related questions with our current Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. I mean, there's obviously a delicious dramatic pleasure in playing evil characters (in our case, 17th-century church-cops). And my questions don't impact my current joy in the game. But if we were playing long-term, I think my character would have to undergo dramatic changes in order to remain viable as as a protagonist I felt compelled to care about and invest in.

To add even more surprise to the game, Fabian (whom I allowed Jon to play for the purposes of the bout) ended up rolling a rare Critical Hit against the ship’s champion fighter, which left her sprawled and hopeless on the deck.

I loved reading about this moment. Did you have the possibility of a point-of-view shift in mind before you played, or did it arise in the moment? If so, how did you make the decision to pass authority over the character Jon over to Fabian, and what was the process for that authority shifting back?

Sean_RDP's picture

When it comes to fiction that bumps up against real-world events, I think I'm encountering...not necessarily similar, but maybe related questions with our current Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. I mean, there's obviously a delicious dramatic pleasure in playing evil characters (in our case, 17th-century church-cops). And my questions don't impact my current joy in the game. But if we were playing long-term, I think my character would have to undergo dramatic changes in order to remain viable as as a protagonist I felt compelled to care about and invest in.

I want to jump in and address this a bit here, and will do so in a longer post for our Lamentations game as well. But as a rule the difference I see in our Lamentations game and Fifth Cycle is that the characters in Fifth Cycle have a degree of empathy. That quality that allows them to live and let live as it were or put themselves in the other person's position. Our Fifth Cycle characters may end up being anti-heroic, but I do not see either of them feasting on kittens. Where as there was / is little to redeem the Lamentations charcters. 

However, I will say that I am not sure what the difference is in terms of the game except that everyone can agree that a Lamentations charcter is a bottom feeder when it comes to a sense of humanity, They are not good people and doing what they do makes others question their sanity, Where as in Fifth Cycle, despite the possibility of racism coming up in a negative way, I suspect most people can empathize with the hybrid races and the dark magic that created them. 

robowist's picture

Apologies for being late in this reply.

You hit the nail on the head when you comment that there is a significant difference between characters in a long-term game vs. characters in a more short-term scenario.

Our understanding of the Lamentations games is that we are planning one-adventure experiences, and that we will then probably set those characters aside after we have "finished" the scenario. This allows the players to conceive of more evil, pathological characters and to have fun taking those characters for a ride.

Meanwhile, our Fantasy Heartbreakers characters are created with an understanding that the narrative arch (whatever that might be) is going to extend across multiple adventures and encounters. I think the players naturally think about this when creating and then playing their characters. They obviously might still commit evil actions or manifest pathological behaviors, but if they do so, they are more likely to going to have to face the consequences of those actions and behaviors in long-term play. 

The decision to have Jon take over (temporarily) an NPC was very spontaneous and unplanned. I had thought that Jon's character (the insectoid Kyton named Xe'blek) might decide to enter the brawling ring, but Xe'blek demurred (for some rich, in-character reasons). Fifth Cycle has a "war-gamey" approach to combat, where you work things out on a hex map, and it made sense in the situation both to have the NPC Fabian step into the combat and also to give delegate the responsibility for Fabian's actions in the brawling match. I was certainly busy enough tackling other GM responsibilities on my end, and it didn't seem that the actions of Fabian at that point would be directly impacting Jon's character..

Though it might not have been explicitly articulated, I think it was nonetheless clear to all of us that the decision to have Jon controling the NPC Fabian was strictly in effect for the duration of the brawling bout.

Maybe we could establish some rough guidelines at this point:

  • If a player's character is not directly involved in or directly impacted by a scene, it's fine for the GM to give a player control of an NPC.
  • The player taking over control of an NPC should have an understanding of the NPC's basic drives and goals. In other words, they should be able to play the NPC in character.
  • It should be understood (either implicitly or explicitly) how long that NPC control/authority will last. The control of the NPC should be limited.

I obviously could have played the NPC Fabian myself, but it was cmore dramatic to have Jon take over the character for that combat. The fact that Jon's character of Xe'blek was literally a bystander for the bout made conflict-of -interest unlikely. Needless to say, it ultimately made the entire scene more dramatic and unpredictable since every key combatant was being directed by a different player at the table. 


noah's picture

Nice! Thanks for putting so much detail in your reply. I was just curious to know a bit about the context of that character hand-off. That kind of narrative shift happens so often and so unabashadly in so many different kinds of fiction that it seems like it should be totally natural to roleplaying (and I think it's fun to observe this thing that is often culturally associated with "GMless" play crop up, totally organically, in this game of Fifth Cycle or in our first run on Lamentations of the Flame Princess). However, I bet there are a lot of interesting variables, table-to-table, that determine if authority over a character shifts, how it does so, and how far the authority extends.

Looking forward to discussing "keeper" vs "burner" player-characters in real-time after we've dealt with all those damned werewolves in Wales!

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm looking over the combat and action sequencing in Fifth Cycle, especially with an eye on my experiences with Darkurthe Legends, Undiscovered, and Legendary Lives, and with a certain caution regarding playing Mystic Forces as soon as it's feasible. I'm hoping you (Robbie, Sean, Jon) can intersect with it and include Forge: Out of Chaos. [Sean, please please, do not include Moldvay D&D.]

I'm not going to be complete. You don't have Glynna in play so I'll merely skip anything special about them, and I'm going to use the individual-ordering option for the Magic Phase without explaining it as an option. I'll also omit the issue of surprise.

It's played on hexes and, evidently, 'ported directly from TFT: Melee (facing rules) and Champions (2-meter hexes), but with very different movement from either.

  1. We have "sides" initiative, not individual, and it's modified by a designated leader's Strategy skill. You'll see how it's folded in with each point that follows.
  2. Magic Phase: spells are cast in order of individual Magic Training, with ties broken by which side gained initiative. There's also a closing subphase in which spells take effect, whether cast just now or in a previous round. The direct effect of the ordering of casting is hard to perceive from reading because spells do not "go off" upon casting - that's something I'd have to learn via play.
  3. Missile Phase: this is conducted purely by initiative; one whole side takes their shots, then the other side. Hit location is rolled for successful shots.
  4. Melee Phase: attacks are made in order of individual Combat Tactics skill, with ties broken by which side gained initiative. Defenses are figured into the attack rolls, so there's just one roll to check each time (and then damage rolls).
  5. Movement Phase: for the side that lost initiative, everyone may move up to 1 hex; then the side that won does the same ... they alternate until, per character, everyone has moved as far as they want or has run out of movement points (an individual score). Note that you spend a movement point even if you don't move. You also spend movement point to change facing more than one hex-side (in fact, one MP per additional side), and this is a whole "go," not combined with moving position. This is also the point when you can use the Charge option.

Ah ha! You see it too, right? Similar to TFT: Melee, the initiative roll does not order individual attacks except in edge cases, but it does allow the winning side a responsive advantage at the ending movement phase. Also, critically, unlike TFT: Melee, you are only able to do things from the position that you gained at the previous round's Movement Phase. You can't "run up" during your action, or anything like that at all. Finally, a higher movement rate is a significant individual feature, as you can position yourself much better during that phase based on what you want to do next.

This is very enticing to consider playing, as there's no discernible "stop" between moving and acting, i.e., no one is really frozen and the ordering merely determines what lands first-and-next. It's also highly consequential, as whatever you chose to do or how to move really sets up a "new now," in a fashion that I value greatly. The teamwork element may seem quaint or wargame-y, but (i) conceivably, the Missile Phase is conceivably broken into individual ordering just as the Magic Phase option allows, without doing any violence to the principles of play; and (ii) it would be very rewarding, I think, to see the difference between a well-disciplined squad vs. a mob.

Again, I don't want to be completist, but the criticals and fumbles strike me as very similar to early RuneQuest, in which they are practically definitive for how the overall combat "goes," and to a certain extent their arbitrary and scary elements must be expected as a feature of violence.

The fantasy heartbreakers offer a far better range of options and purpose during fights than the more trends and trajectories visible through the forty-year sequence among well-known, so-called flagship titles. The reason is very clear: they are grounded in a far better connection to actual people's experiences in play,

robowist's picture

We finished our third session of Fifth Cycle last night, and we ended on a cliff hanger which is likely to launch us next time into our first full-on combat encounter with two giant spiders looking to get their fangs into Jon's Kryton (Xe'blek).

Prior to this encounter we had a brawling match on the deck of a ship: The terms of the contest took missles and magic off the table, so it was a strictly melee-focused episode. And the group did have a couple crocodiles surprise them yesterday on a river bank, but after one of the beasts landed a crippling blow on a horse's leg, the crocs decided to haul the horse into the water for a snack, and the company opted to let nature takes its cruel course instead of risking a tussle with the reptiles. The current situation with the giant spiders is more pressing, so I suspect this fight will be more involved. We'll thus have a better sense of how the whole combat ensemble of Fifth Cycle works later this month. 

The use of the hex map and ordering of the combat sequence rewards strategizing when multiple combatants are involed. The brawl on the ship, for example, was a two-against-one scenario, and the players took advantage of the positioning rules to keep one player in the back of the ship's champion combatant.

It's worth noting that, even though the movement phase comes at the end of the combat sequence, if the combatants are initially separated by distance and looking to engage in melee, then the characters will need to resort to the movement phase before landing blows in the next round. In other words, if two sword-fighters are squaring off in a room the first round would likely involved an initiaive roll, a skip of the magic and missile phases, and the movement phase, and then you are off to the Initiative roll for round 2. If one side has more movement points to spend, they could potentially put themselves at a stron tactical advantage in that initial movement phase by flanking or surrounding opponents.

The rules covering the Initiative roll are distinctive. In the Melee and Magic phases, the Initiative roll might not even be a factor since Combat Tactics or Magic Training rankings are the trump cards. But in the Missile and Movement phases, the Initiative Roll is  critical. Thus far, we haven't thought the Strategy skill (which gives a +1 to the initiative roll for each rank) to be especially important. But imagine a company where one member had a high Strategy rank (thus a high chance of winning Initiative) and one or two of the characters had a high movement and high aptitude with a missile weapon. That would lead to a formidable group if the terrain/layout were right. 

Another notable feature of Fifth Cycle is its emphasis on hit locations. Damage rolls are always accompanied by a roll to determine where the blow lands. Oddly, this makes the combat alternately more forgiving and more harrowing. A single highly damaging blow is not going to kill you (unless your opponent is very lucky and happens to land a critical hit). But a single decent blow might render you unconscious or immobilize a limb. In the case of our crocodile attack, one of the beasts clamped down on the leg of a horse with maximum damage . . . and this happened in the opening Surpise round. So we had a situation where the desitny of that horse was sealed in a fairly swift and gruesome fashion, as the two crocodiles hauled the crippled beast into the water.

There's also a rule that allows a character to Aim a blow: This is only allowed for melee attacks and there's a heavy penalty applied, so I'm not sure how appealing this rule is going to be for the players in our game. But in some situations, if properly applied, it could allow adventurers to overcome a more powerful opponent (by, for example, working to Aim blows at an area which had already received considerable damage). I'm also imagining a magical weapon whose special power is a significantly improved ability to land Aimed blows.

Ron Edwards's picture

One of these days we [anyone interested] should collect all rules about hit location across the titles we know. Until then, I can only give a couple of impressions.

Fifth Cycle apparently follows the RuneQuest model: if you hit successfully, then roll to see where you hit. As I've mentioned before, this exact technique is oddly out of place for the otherwise rather causal, what-is-happening-roll-to-see, split-second-timing games it's found in. Basically, it's achronic: obviously, when you were striking at the guy, you were striking at something, but we only discover what retroactively and only if you hit.

Therefore the initial strike itself is necessarily described abstractly, which is amplified as a "miss" tends to be conceived as a clean miss, as if you were dumb enough to miss a stationary wooden post, or even more abstractly, as a "miss your turn" mechanic.

By contrast, similarly fight-heavy systems without hit location often make more sense to me in play, at least because the degree of abstraction is consistent, and because the people playing can describe things in the moment when they feel like it and when prompted by appropriate numbers, e.g., a failed strike with a good chance, or an especially high damage roll, or anything like that.

Now for the weird part: with aimed strikes. In a system without default random hit location, these are typically an option: you accept a penalty to strike at a body part due to some distinctive advantage gained by hitting it. In gamification terms, fine – it’s reduced-success + higher-benefit. But fictionally it’s very strange to imply that when you don’t use this option, the combatants are whaling away at each other semi-blindly without aiming at anything, and furthermore, what sort of sense does it make that you have a lower chance to hit when you aim, presumably at an opening or otherwise in some skilled fashion?

But wait, it gets weirder. Now let’s add the aimed-strike option as the alternative to post-hit random hit location. What on earth is that? The (thin) conceptual feature behind the random hit location was to retroactively assign the rolled location to the strike’s intended target, i.e., aimed. So it’s a toss-up between two versions of aiming, identical in the fiction, but one has a lowered chance. The gamification is very hard to justify or “live with” in this case.

With this kind of confusion lurking in every combat move, I can see why in my experience every table using a text with this combination arrived at its own semi-D&D semi-Rolemaster semi-RQ semi-GURPS procedure without realizing it. Fifth Cycle seems like a classic example for that effect to occur.

The overall history and potentially whatever databank we can generate would set up a very, very strong methods discussion. I’m eager to talk about what I think occurred to RPG combat in the 1990s.

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