A Quick Review: Ex Novo

After hearing about an interesting RPG that could be run solo, as well as in groups, I took a look at a simple system released by Sharkbomb Studios. The game is called Ex Novo and I first heard about it from a YouTube video, where solo RPGs for the pandemic were discussed.

The idea of a solo RPG was intriguing, but I wasn’t sure it was something for me. The idea of Ex Novo, of a city-building RPG, really struck me though and being only $10 for the PDF, I though it would be an interesting experiment, if nothing else. Having played around with the system, it can lead to some satisfying results.

The Game

The game, at its basic premise, is simple. Select a setting (fantasy, sci-fi, etc), the size of the city and how long the city has stood. Then the players either choose or randomly determine the geography, where the initial city was founded and why. Who runs the city and what factions make up the city’s elite.

With the situation of the founding created, the players then roll on a series of tables to discover the events that shaped the city’s growth and expansion. The game encourages making choices in the city’s lifespan that are fixed past events that were pivotal in the growth of a city, if the city is part of an existing campaign and there are core plot points that require certain events in the city’s history. The use of citizen and power points allows the group to track which factions have the most influence, as well as determining city density.

The system is vastly comprised of random dice roll tables, with ‘what-if’ questions for each result to guide the player(s) into figuring out how each event might manifest in the culture they’ve created


The game is mechanically simple. It recommends a pencil and paper for drawing the layout of the land, tokens to represent citizens and power as well as 3d6 to handle all the rolls in the game. Cue cards can be useful in recording the different factions that govern the city. The group works together to decide what the land looks like, how it is divided up and the initial factions that run the land. Using this handful of tools and a series of tables, the group tells the story of the rise of this city.

The entire rulebook is less than 50 pages and most of that are tables. The game is very rules-light and the only real limitation is the creativity of the group.

The Book

The book is a simple PDF, comprised vastly of tables and sparing artwork. The artwork is simple linework, which for the system of building a city using hand-drawn maps, the artwork showcasing that the maps don’t have to be an elaborate affair is appropriate. The editing is clean and pretty clear (I wasn’t very clear on how power tokens worked after my first read-through). It is simple and not overly elaborate, which is well-suited for a $10 game.


There aren’t characters to Ex Novo per se. The factions and citizens of the city may count, or the facets that make up your city. The city itself is probably the closest amalgam to a character, and its factions, districts and people are simply elements of its personality.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed my first run through of Ex Novo. It proved to be an interesting thought experiment exercise and I see a lot of potential for use in conjunction with other systems. Ultimately, that is how I used it for my initial experiment and it fit well into the system I was using.

In my current 7th Sea campaign, the players encountered an old ruined Mayan city, partially buried in an ancient lava flow. They explored the ancient temples and found it to be some form of holy site. By adventure’s end, they realized that the island’s reputation of being cursed seemed vastly overstated and opted to build a base of operations for reaching out into the Western Atabean. As a thought exercise, I used Ex Novo to design what the city was like before the catastrophe that brought the city to its end. It took about two hours and seeing how the city rose from a humble settlement to a medium-to-large urban center was interesting. I now have an idea of what other mysteries lay waiting for the players as they excavate and claim the island for themselves.

I could see this being a powerful tool for GMs running their own homebrew settings, where, as an extension of a group’s Session Zero, the group could work together to develop the city that would form the center of the campaign, building the tapestry that they will call home and having a hand in shaping who their characters are, based on the world the group has built for themselves.

If you enjoy world building and designing your own world, I think that the $10 you would spend to pick up Ex Novo could be money well spent. Seeing how my doomed Mayan city came out, I see myself using this system again to flesh out the world as my pirates explore the New World in 7th Sea, or a settlement on an outer rim world in Firefly. The applications for the system are quite expansive in a hobby about creating all new worlds.

~ by 1nsomniac on June 3, 2021.

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