I'm in favor of reviewers mentioning their prejudices up front, so I will do so now: I really don't give a damn about King Arthur. I just don't. I barely liked the Disney Sword in the Stone. "Wake me when there's some girls, guns, cars jumping off things and explosions," is what I said to the award-winning RPG Pendragon. Well, my alarm clock just went off with the release of Arthur Lives!
The game is True20, and requires the main True20 book. It is compatible with the Adept and Warrior's Handbooks as well, and probably with most of your favorite True20 stuff. I was at a bit of a disadvantage without the True20 Companion, but in practice this lack didn't matter much. Systemwise, True20 is adhered to quite closely, which is a good thing as it is one of the best open systems on the market.
In Arthur Lives!, the characters are reincarnations of the figures of Arthurian myth in the modern day. As such, they begin to remember abilities and skills from their previous incarnation(s?) and thus the levelling-up system of True20 gains a new dramatic focus - you're not just building on your in-game experiences, but revealing parts of who your character used to be. Your character is in part defined not just by their capabilities, but by their relationship to their capabilities. If you're a staid middle manager, for example, and you suddenly remember and absorb your past as a seductive and sensual half-nymph, that's going to change not just numbers on your character sheet, but also how your character thinks about themselves and is motivated. This is one of the most innovative approaches to the level system of d20 variants that I've seen in any game.
The first chapter is on creating characters. This is the meat of the Arthur Lives! system. In addition to making your typical True20 character, you select your character's incarnation, and when they become aware of it, they gain benefits including bonus feats that push them along the path of knowledge and capabilities that their previous life had. A reincarnation of Merlin or Nineve will gain magical feats and abilities, for example.
I really can't emphasize enough the flexibility of this section. For example, questions regarding the sex of characters are addressed more thoroughly than in almost any other adventure RPG that I know of. A female character could be a reincarnation of a male Arthurian figure, or perhaps freed from the strictures of the day, a capable female reincarnation might able to upend the myth and take it in a whole new direction. Or, the game could adhere more closely to myth and try to emphasize the legendary relationships as closely as possible. The very fact that this is addressed, and encouraged for players to think about when designing the character elevates this above so many other mythical and historical games. There just is something different between a modern woman and a woman in Arthurian myth, both have something to bring to the table and you've got to make a decision about the nature of your character and what you want to do with it.
The next few sections details some new, Arthur-style feats and magic, with an interesting new system for awakening people's memories, and using remembrances of the past to set up advantages in current situations. A section called "echoes" describes the "reincarnation" of mystical and magical artifacts from the era into the modern day.
One last thing that makes this product sing - it is a labor of love. I didn't even really need the Afterword to tell me that the author is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about Arthurian myth. Remember, I came into the product not really giving a damn about it. All the enthusiasm I have for this game came from the verve and energy he put into the whole product. It has an excellent style that will draw you in even if, like me, you are a bit of an outsider to the whole thing. The impact of this can't be overestimated.
If I had to pick out some things to be improved, here's what I'd be looking for: a pronunciation guide (Malahaut? Lamorak? Morgause? Is Balin BAY-linn or Bal-linn or Bahl-linn or wut?), the incarnation list should be in the bookmarks (I should be able to click on 'Arthur' and be taken straight to Arthur's writeup), and there should be more "famous" Arthurian incarnations (Morgan Le Fay, Modred?) But these are nitpicks.
The purchase includes a printer-friendly and a screen-friendly version, although they are not that different, the screen-friendly version has some color illustrations, but otherwise they're more or less the same.
Arthur Lives! is one of the best True20 games on the market. Arthur fans will want it, obviously, but even if the Arthurian mythos sorta bores you? As one of those people, I'm saying: you want it too.
[5 of 5 Stars!]