“Bolarius is a world unlike any other.” Quote from Bolarius
It’s also a game unlike any other. Truly, this game takes a unique approach to TTRPG, especially for a module designed to be compatible with D&D 5E. Realistically, the contents of this book are exceptionally flexible and can be used with a wide variety of game systems, yet its character is so defined, unique, and expressive that Bolarius somehow stands isolated from any game system.
Instead of saying Bolarius can be employed in most game systems, you might say most game systems can be used when entering the world of Bolarius.
What’s it about?
To say that Bolarius is a setting, or a guidebook doesn’t do the rich, detailed, even delicate narration within the pages of this book justice. It offers more than a simple description of towns, beasts, magical items, and a little lor. It’s the blueprints of a soul. And as melodramatic as that may appear, I truly can think of no better summarization of this enchanting book.
Bolarius reframes the structure of the classic fantasy epic so that the goals and themes move away from triumph and towards peace. A common approach to writing an adventure places the players against a villainous adversary; good versus evil. Thomas Vorderbruggen, the writer behind this poetic project, found a new and compelling objective for the plot, acceptance and solemnity. It’s not to say that the PCs feel no draw our motivation towards action, but rather that the goal they look to accomplish centers around finding peace with the world instead of conquering it.
If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind around this, don’t feel bad. We’re accustomed to epic adventures depicting heroic deeds in a battle between good and evil. Vorderbruggen shifts the narrative and in doing so offers a stunningly unique and beautiful experience. Bolarius is a world with an ever-dwindling population, it’s a world coming to the end of its life. The people understand the time of their passing approaches and have accepted that truth. The priorities found within the world shift in a realistic and relatable way. Why conquer your neighbor when you both will soon be gone? The lore and world-building provide the necessary tools for a DM to craft an adventure that reflects the themes of acceptance, peace, and serenity.
Classes and playable races receive a refreshing reimagining in line with the overarching theme of the world. Instead of being violent and aggressive, Barbarians become strong, hard-working stoics that reveal their short tempers when things go awry in their steadfast world. Artificers are respected for providing the world stability and comfort during its final years, but they may have a burning desire to do more with the time they have left. Paladins understand that every life grows more precious and valuable with each passing year because, with each passing year, fewer lives remain in the world.
How does it work?
The real magic of Bolarius comes from the many pathways the writer establishes to reach the overarching theme of acceptance. Vorderbruggen accomplishes this by providing multiple tools. Bolarius is not a module with specific plot points that need to be accomplished; rather it supplies the building blocks and raw materials to construct a thematically unique story of your own. A DM can start with their theme and then use the details found within this book to build a narrative that supports that theme.
The overarching theme is acceptance and solemnity, but that can be broken down to express a variety of supporting motifs with the properties of the world provided in this book. The places, people, and ideals of Bolarius give you the setting and the values of this world. To create an antagonist or an antagonistic situation, the DM need only provide opposition to those values.
For example, Vorderbruggen writes about a legend describing mysterious floating temples or castles high in the atmosphere. The structures were built by a long past but powerful empire. No one living today has ever seen one of these grand sky palaces or even knows for sure if they really exist.
Does that sound like the plot of an amazing story or what? Mysterious temples floating so high that no airship has ever been able to reach them. Of course, our dedicated adventures will find a way to reach those great heights and see what marvels the ancient world once held.
There are a dozen ways you can introduce this plot to a D&D table. For a DM, these ancient floating palaces in the sky serve as a writing prompt, yet they are so much more than that. The people of Bolarius view these temples in several ways. They may hold the secrets to some ancient mystery, they could be temples dedicated to the god Borbol, or they may be militaristic and possess a stockpile of weapons; which holds no value to the world below. Or it could be none of these things, it doesn’t really matter. Each of these perspectives offers a path to writing a story that leads not to conflict and overpowering an enemy but towards peace and finding stability for the characters and the world of Bolarius.
What is truly unique about what Vorderbruggen has done isn’t the lore itself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s coherent, elegant, rich, and varied. Exactly what you want for your next TTRPG adventure. What makes this book so special, is that it completely redefines what an adventurer can be. We’re used to the battle between good and evil, but a quest to find acceptance and peace in the world, that’s new. That’s a game that I’ve never played before.
But what about the action?
This is written with D&D mechanics in mine. Of course, any TTRPG system could easily make use of this book, and most game systems rely heavily on combat and conflict. That’s okay, there are still things to fight. For instance, the book provides an interesting and new warlock patron. Bolarius is home to marvelous creatures known as the skywhales, but when these creatures die and fall to the earth, the spirits could be summoned and are known as fellwhales. These patrons could be malicious or benevolent, so their warlocks could be equally kind or wicked.
Bam, a bad guy in the form of an evil warlock and a patron that fits in the narrative of this world, but wait, there’s still a unique opportunity here. These fellwhales are spirits that were corrupted by the nature of their death. As a result, they wish for something to be corrected in the world. Instead of approaching a villainous warlock and its evil patron in the usual “let’s run over and kill it,” adventuring style, perhaps you need to heal the soul of the fellwhale. Find a way to help it move on and obtain peace.
Vorderbruggen also provides new mechanics that fit within the themes of the world. They’re unique items that can be crafted during long voyages on airships, or the party might hunt skywales for fortune and glory. A thorough and concise explanation of the mechanics behind these “mini-games” makes learning the system easy. Even the systems that offer alternative rules provide an intuitive reason for the alteration. That makes it so much easier to remember what the options are for both the DM and the players.
Should I buy it?
If it isn’t obvious by now, I absolutely adore this book. Yes, you should absolutely buy it. I’ll admit, Bolarius and the themes expressed within the book may not be a good fit for everyone. Some people love horror games or dark and sinister themes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. One’s preferences and tastes may not align with the style employed in this book, but you should still buy it.
Hear me out. Vorderbruggen really turns Dungeons & Dragons on its head without ever having to rebuild any core systems. There are a few new additions to the mechanics, but that’s not why this book is so unique. You should buy Bolarius because even if it isn’t your style, Vorderbruggen will show you how to make a game completely new and exciting without ever having to touch the mechanics. His approach to redirecting the theme and goals at the center of a campaign completely changed the feel and style of D&D. This entire book is an instruction manual for good writing.
I found Bolarius to be an outstanding and elegant supplement suitable for any TTRPG, but, of course, it’s particularly appropriate for use with Dungeons & Dragons. Redirecting the goals and themes of D&D creates a whole new game but with the same familiar mechanics we are used to. Players and DM’s comfortable with their game system don’t need to learn a whole new set of rules in order to play a completely new game. Bolarius isn’t just providing a new story and a new villain, it’s providing a new experience.
I would also note that Vorderbruggen’s writing is exceptional. I found myself compelled to continue reading about this unique world and all that it has to offer. I was consistently curious and awestruck by the eloquent and captivating descriptions of this land approaching its inevitable end, but most impressively this world didn’t need warring armies or bloodthirsty monsters to be enthralling. The intricate yet relatable world ensnared my imagination and left me immersed in a mystical land made all the more beautiful by its approaching doom.
The art found within the pages of this book also deserves considerable recognition. The illustrators masterfully embodied the tone and themes of Bolarius. Everything from the skywhales to the illustrations accompanying the classes and the magical and mundane items that can be found within this world stands as examples of true talent. Every time I turn the page and found a new illustration, I can honestly say that I was excited by what I saw.
I highly recommend it to any DM or GM interested in a totally new approach to writing a TTRPG. If you’re a homebrewer or an aspiring game designer, this book offers a lot.
If you’re interested in picking up Bolarius, it can be found on the writer’s website or at DriveThruRPG. I’ll provide a link to both below as well as links to the Instagram pages of the artist that worked on this book.
If you have read Bolarius, please leave a comment and tell me your thoughts. And if you have any suggestions for other games you’d like to see reviewed, please contact me. I’m always looking for something new.
Until next time, keep sailing the skies with one eye open. Skywhales soar above these cotton clouds.
Gregory Formenteau (@Gfromenteau)
Joel Kleine (@midlifedices)