Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Scion: Hero (2nd Edition) - Chapters 3-6

Part 1

There's a certain amount of relief that comes from finally having a usable version of Scion. The rest of the book is largely devoted to game mechanics and they are, at least at first glance, functional. The low-level powers look a lot heftier and more satisfying than their 1st edition counterparts, which bodes well for the future books in the series. The main thing I want out of a game about playing the offspring of the gods is the feeling that I'm going around wielding god-like power, and Scion: Hero delivers.

The biggest innovation along those lines was the introduction of Marvels. In 1st edition, when you wanted to play the son of the god of death (or what have you), you invested in the Death Purview by buying Death Boons, and your character could do whatever those Boons said you can do. Often, these things were not very good. And usually, even when they were good, they were less good at their price point than just buying a similarly ranked Epic Attribute.

Second Edition solves this problem by changing the way characters interact with Purviews. Now, you gain access to the Purview as a whole through various means (you get one innate Purview, then the rest are granted by Relics and Guides), and once you have access, you can improvise Purview-related magical effects called Marvels.

Marvels can be any sort of magical effect you can imagine, as long as they stem from your Purview's theme and don't get too grandiose in scale. The mechanical limits of how Marvels present themselves are fairly well defined. So you can use a Fire Marvel to throw fireballs, but not to summon volcanoes. To cure frostbite, but not to raise an army of flame-eyed zombie soldiers, like in Thor: Ragnarok. I'm eager to see how this system will evolve in the future books, but characters already feel more like "the god of X" than they ever did in 1st edition, even at the highest levels of power.

Boons in this system are just pre-packaged Marvels. Maybe a bit cheaper, maybe a bit more effective, but every Boon can quite explicitly be emulated by a Marvel. In fact, you can even use Boons of other Purviews as inspiration for Marvels in completely unrelated Purviews. You may have to reskin the effects, and at the very least justify it with a certain amount of rhetoric, but it adds a lot of versatility to even the simplest Scion characters.

The semi-redundancy of Boons takes a bit of the sting out of only having a fixed number of them based on your Legend level, but at the same time it kind of makes that limit feel superfluous. It's difficult to see the harm in letting players just buy whatever Boons they want with xp.

It's a bit early to say, but if Scion 2nd Edition winds up having a fatal flaw, I think this is going to be it. Not necessarily Boons, per se, but the way the xp system as a whole winds up feeling vestigial. What this really wants to be is a level-based game, with advancement happening along very precise milestones. And there's nothing wrong with that, but because it's mostly built like a point-buy game, that means that there's no guarantee that characters will have distinct niches or roles, and a lot of the balancing that could be done by discrete levels is left to chance.

Because the new Storyguide system has fewer opportunities for catastrophic failure than Scion 1e, the worst case scenario is a game where players have a noticeably different effectiveness due to the GM's focus on one type of challenge in preference to another. Yet that is a flaw so common in rpgs that it's barely worth noting.

Since this is likely the last Scion 2nd Edition book we'll be seeing for awhile, Ill take a moment to share my thoughts on the line as a whole. It's a massive step forward, and does quite a bit to fulfill the promise of the original game. I wouldn't call it an unqualified success, though.

I haven't talked a lot about the new presentation of the pantheon because I don't actually know enough about this subject to have an informed opinion. They feel better researched and more respectfully presented than first edition's, but that's just an intuition. I think the game does better re: representation because it's diverse in a very contemporary way. It's aggressively inclusive and it puts big warning signs around potential sources of Eurocentrism, but in establishing its world, it is (almost excessively) wary of creating synecretism.

It's a good concern, because white synecretism is almost always going to be colonialist, but as I mentioned in my post on Scion: Origin, this comes at a cost. In its zeal to affirm that every real-world belief is treated as true, it sometimes sacrifices opportunities to make the World feel real. I don't regard that as a flaw in the game, because I can't count it as a flaw when people have the humility to say, "you know what, I'm not going to appoint myself arbiter of what religions are more accurate than others." However, "these two mutually contradictory are both true" is a sentiment that's only tenable in the abstract. Every particular game of Scion that's actually played by real people is going to wind up declaring some religion or other to be wrong merely by virtue of featuring particular events, involving particular characters, happening in particular settings (and as much as I respect Scion: Hero's storytelling chapter's advice to be culturally sensitive and not say a religion is wrong, I'm pretty sure avoiding it is a practical impossibility).

That, however, is not a critique of Scion, 2nd edition. Rather, I think we are dancing around a larger critique of fantasy as a whole. Hero cites John Milton's recasting of Egyptian gods as Christian demons as the sort of thing not to do, and while I agree that it's a massively offensive thing for him to have done, I kind of also have to acknowledge that he was backed into a corner there. If the goal of your book is to "justify the ways of God to men" then that is a pretty clear statement that you're coming at the writing with a definite point of view. And how does Milton reconcile the existence of Osiris with his own brand of Christianity?

Making him a demon was pretty shitty, but it's no more of an invalidation of kemeticism than saying Osiris doesn't exist. Maybe it would have been better to leave them out entirely, but that's a pretty hot take to have about Paradise Lost in 2019 ("it would have been better if there was less of it.")

Look, I don't want to get wrangled into playing Milton apologist here. The point is that fantasy fiction that draws on mythological themes is always going to have a different point of view than the original sources. The story where all the Greek myths are 100% literally true has already been written - it's called "the original Greek myths" - with the caveat that a lot of what we think of as "the Greek myths" are actually just contemporary Greeks doing, 2500 years ago, what we're doing now and telling secular stories based on Greek mythology, sort of like how Milton's Paradise Lost has practically become Christian canon in the last 350 years.

Any new use of old stories is going to be intrinsically transformative. Even if you go with "the old Greek myths are 100% canonical and now it's 2500 years later," you're still changing the meaning of the old stories by placing them into a new context, "the Greek myths, but in a world where the Greeks are not the only civilization worth the name." A world where the sun is pushed across the sky by a giant dung beetle and where the sun is a flaming chariot is not a world that honors both traditions. It's a world where they're both wrong because the word "sun" is being used in some kind of off-brand Platonist sense to mean something other than "that big, fiery orb that I'm pointing to right now, up in the sky."

That's not to let everyone off the hook with a blanket "you can never be 100% true to other cultures, so you shouldn't bother trying," but rather to say that you're going to have to approach it like anything else - as something with the power to harm and the power to help. Nobody loves being told they're wrong, but there are ways to do it that are sensitive and ways to do it that are needlessly hurtful.

Bringing it back to Scion. I don't think Scion actually succeeds at its goal of creating a world where all myths are true. But I think that in failing to achieve that goal, it nonetheless makes a very fine rpg. It can't create a coherent setting, due to its own editorial constraints, but it can provide all the tools needed to make ten thousand different Scion-adjacent settings, and that's a pretty great accomplishment.

UKSS Contribution - Air traffic controllers having to route planes so they don't accidentally crash into heaven. That's the sort of detail that appeals to me, an ardent materialist. If I were writing Scion, the setting chapter would be 100% things like that. ("And, um, the entrance to Hades is a cave in southern Greece, and they've got to put up warning signs and barbed-wire fence all around it because people keep wandering in . . .")

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Scion: Hero (2nd Edition) - Chapters 1-2

Part 2

Scion 2nd edition's setting material is like a box of puzzle pieces. But instead of coming from the same puzzle, the pieces are from 10 different puzzles and they're all mixed together and you don't have any picture to build off of. But also, it's good.

Okay, so maybe the metaphor quickly got away from me there. Chapters 1 and 2 of Scion: Hero are all about the game's setting, and there's a lot of good stuff here. But you can't engage with it the way you usually would an rpg setting. It's attempting to set a certain mood, to deliver a certain feel, but it wants to leave the bulk of the actual world-building to the GM. There are a lot of examples, of things like the various types of cults that are active in the World or the sort of activities incarnated gods get up to when they create scions, but the text commits to a relatively small number of particulars.

Like, the Norse god, Tyr, owns a weapons company, called Fenris Arms. It's an interesting and logical thing for Tyr to be doing in the modern day, it fills a little-considered niche by providing high-end weapons adapted for the disabled. Yet it is more or less one of a kind. There's no talk about Dionysus' nightclubs or Shango's minor league baseball team. The text uses Fenris Arms to suggest those other things might exist, but honestly, the only reason it's canon is because of the pun.

Which is fine. No, really. With ten pantheons in the book and more to come and then, on top of that, all the others which exist in the real world canonically existing in the World of Scion, there is not enough room in any one book to list all the ways the gods will influence the setting. You've pretty much got to take the broad approach.

It just requires a different mindset from the GM. The book is only the beginning. On some level, that's how it always works. No game supplement I've ever read has filled in every detail. But usually you get the broad strokes, the significant actors, and some general sense for the boundaries of the world.  Scion, so far, hasn't really provided even the broad strokes. It's more given the guidelines by which GMs can create the broad strokes for themselves.

For awhile, the word "toolkit" was fashionable to throw around in rpg marketing. Scion 2nd edition is one of the few times I've felt like the word actually fits.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide

I wonder what tabletop gaming was like in 1989. There's just so much in this book that doesn't track. The races chapter, in warning about allowing new race/class combinations, suggests that if you were to allow elves to be paladins, you'd have an entire party wanting to play elf paladins. And then it goes on to imply that this is a bad thing. As if the players didn't just hand you a whole campaign premise on a silver platter. As if a group of six elf paladins, traveling the land fighting evil in the name of the sylvan gods wouldn't wind up being an absolute legendary campaign. Honestly, it was so baffling an objection that it left me wondering if perhaps I was missing something.

But really, there's a lot of stuff like that going through the book. There's an assumption of an adversarial relationship between players and DM, where the players are always trying to get away with something and it's up to the DM to try and keep them in line. It's an odd dynamic that misses a lot of tricks narratively and socially.

It probably explains the abundance of cursed items in the magic items section, though. At least a dozen times you'd get an item that quite explicitly says "this looks exactly like some other benign item that your PCs are going to want, but it will kill them dead." Like, there's an enchanted broomstick that if you sit on it and command it to fly, it will just straight-up start beating the shit out of you. It's a hilarious slapstick image, but it raises some difficult worldbuilding questions. Who is making them? Why are they even still around? Wouldn't they get destroyed the first time they killed someone? Or at the very least get warning labels attached?

Ultimately, this adversarial relationship is probably at the root of the bad DMing advice this book keeps throwing at you. Present the players with misleading information, re: magic items. Elves can't get to the highest levels of the wizard class to preserve game balance, because being able to detect secret doors 1/6th of the time is worth giving up the ability to cast "wish." If the characters have too much money (by whatever nebulous definition you want to use) then you should jerk them around by targeting them with taxes, curses, or thieves.

Then again, maybe there's a paradigmatic issue at work here. When the book passive-aggressively dismisses the idea of critical hit tables (proving that even D&D itself can do "unlike other games") it does so with notion that it would be "unfair" not to use those tables against PCs. The game is almost ideologically opposed to asymmetrical mechanics, but it doesn't seem to acknowledge that the DM's role is almost by definition asymmetrical. They could just spawn hundreds of high level monsters at any time. So when the book expresses concern that allowing monsters to break bones or sever limbs will make the game too difficult for the PCs, it rings a bit hollow when a few pages later it lists a poison that can kill instantly.

I figure there must have been a culture surrounding D&D that I'm just not getting. A complex of shared assumptions that make the odd leaps seem logical. Yet looking back, it is clear that I was never actually part of that culture. I remember playing the game "wrong," but if I'm going by the rules as written, there are very few that I didn't use. So that vague memory I have, of a sensation of ignoring large portions of the text, it must have come from me glossing over the balance and advancement sections and just using the game as a story engine, rather than the weird inconsistently-tuned, chaos-embracing, trap-ridden tournament strategy game it thought itself to be.

I think I made the right choice, all those years ago, in turning my back on this game. Nothing I've read here has inspired any particular regret, and I can say with confidence that there are at least 4 versions of D&D I'd choose over this (4th, 3rd, BECM, and 5th - in that order). But that confidence is worth something to me. It means that when I read all the classic supplements I still adore, I'll be thinking in terms of conversion to a new system, rather than trying to recapture an imagined past.

UKSS Contribution: Domesticated yaks. Sure, I could have gone with one of the more amusing magical items. There are certainly plenty of colorful and evocative ones to choose from. But the book makes a point of giving special movement rules for yaks, in the middle of its discussion on riding animals for long-distance travel. I figure that means I can take a moment to remember them too.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Scion: Origin

Scion: Origin is a strange, orphan book. It has a reason to exist within the larger Scion 2nd Edition line, but that reason seems to be to allow Scion: Hero (2e) to be more niche. It's a position that meets with my approval, but I wonder how it would look coming in fresh. Some newbie is looking into Scion, sees Origin with the relatively reasonable $40 price tag, and decides not to overcommit, just dip a toe into the series and see what it's all about.

What sort of game would such a person find?

It wouldn't be bad, but it would be odd.  

Origin, as a concept, can work. It's got a good pitch. Broadly multicultural urban fantasy in which the myths and legends of yesterday get a modern makeover. You're a regular person in this fantastic world, and whether by curiosity, ambition, or fate you're drawn into a life of mystery and adventure. I'm picturing an occult procedural where the case-of-the-week revolves around satyrs or mermaids or werewolves, and the game in my head is pretty darned good.

It's a shame then, that Scion: Origin doesn't quite give you the tools to do that. It's not like Scion, 1st edition, where the tools that exist are broken. This version of Scion is a functional game in itself. It's just that unlike, say, the New World of Darkness core, Origin never quite commits to the idea that mortals-only is a viable alternate mode of play. The book expects that you will play at origins-level for awhile, but only as a prelude to hero-level games. If you're going into it expecting to play "regular" (albeit implausibly competent, in keeping with the genre) people indefinitely, you're going to find yourself butting up against the limits of the system pretty quick.

The main culprit is the Knack system. Ordinarily, when a storyteller-family game wants you to play as a mortal, it gives you some sort of game-mechanical widget to fill the same niche as the big games' supernatural powers. Scion's storypath sister game, the Trinity continuum is instructive. It too is the "normals" book, but it has a bunch of extra stuff. "Edges" are basically just Merits renamed. And "Skill Tricks" are very narrow-application boosts to your character's skills that would be relatively unimpressive stacked up against even the weakest of supernatural abilities. But the very fact that they're available at all says something about the game's intent. When you build a "normal" character, the game has your back for the long haul. You will always have a bunch of interesting stuff to spend your xp on.

The Knacks in Scion: Origin seem like they'd serve a similar function, but there's a catch. You can only have one. Oh, the game lets you buy as many Knacks as you like, but it's constrained by a frustrating rule. At the beginning of each gaming session, you choose one of your knacks to be "active." Your active knack is the only one you can use. If you want to use a different one, you have to wait until the start of your next session and swap it out.

This rule isn't quite as draconian as you might think . . . if you are planning on quickly moving on to hero-level games, where your number of active knacks increases dramatically. However, for a pure origin-level game, the mechanic takes all the worst parts of D&D's vancian spellcasting.

Oh, were you expecting an "and?"

I'm going to break the illusion of the blog a little bit and talk about something similar from Scion: Hero (I read the pdf about six months ago - for the blog I'm going to read the book). In Scion: Hero, your number of Boons (magical powers) is strictly limited by your Legend score. The only way to get more is to advance your character's whole power level (Legend determines your available magic points, resistance to certain powers, strength of certain effects, and is just generally your "how magical am I" stat). It's a little more forgiving, because you can improvise boon-like effects, based on your available Purviews, but the mechanics feel very similar to what's going on here.

And I think the reason is obvious. They're overcompensating. Scion, 1st edition had so many ways you could make wildly unbalanced characters at the same Legend level that they've gone in the other direction, putting characters on a very narrow and measured track of power.

It's an admirable goal, but I feel like this approach throws the baby out with the bathwater. Characters can now only grow up and not out, which makes climbing the Legend ladder much more important. Scion: Hero is going to have much more longevity than Scion: Origin, if only because it covers four Legend levels instead of one, but it too is going to wind up feeling like a prelude to Demigod, and that in turn a prelude to God (probably). In the long run, the limits on Knacks and Boons is probably going to be one of the things I eventually houserule (though I'd like to play a few more games with the rules as written just to be sure - my intuition could be totally wrong).

Aside from that one issue, 2nd edition looks solid. I can't say for sure how well the system will scale, but I can see the groundwork being laid for the future books and it looks robust. Only time will tell, though.

The last thing to talk about is the setting. Scion: Origin probably has more raw setting material than all of 1st edition combined, and the outlines are pretty great. Scion, 2nd edition's World finds a unique tone that is rarely seen in urban fantasy of any kind. The World works much like our own, but all the various ancient gods openly and verifiably exist. There's no sort of masquerade-equivalent. In one of the fiction segments, a character's encounter with divine magic is captured on video, uploaded to youtube, and it's only a minor plot point. It effects her relationship with her girlfriend, but it doesn't change the World. It's just the sort of thing that happens.

The Setting chapter has a bunch of cool stuff like that. Norway has troll preserves. The police will sometimes call in scions to consult for them. Movies about mythological figures are a lot more popular. It's great. Its only flaw is that the magic in this setting is based off of peoples' religions, and that invites a certain degree of metaphysical mushiness that (at least at this level of view) doesn't really work to the game's benefit.

A lot of the Setting chapter is given over to a very abstract discussion about how in the World of scion, every religion can be correct, despite mutually contradictory doctrines (about, say, how the sun moves across the sky), and how this doesn't necessarily lead to a world that looks all that different to our own.

Don't get me wrong. It's good to be respectful. And because Scion 2nd edition's lumpy metaphysical soup appears to exist solely to avoid having to canonically declare any real religion "right" or "wrong," I am not going to complain about it. But there's a tradeoff. The setting would be easier to use if it were grounded in the concrete. If you could draw a timeline and say "God X was responsible for event Y on date Z." If the varying rules of the conflicting pantheons were confined to particular places. If entities deemed universal by their followers were nonetheless limited and particular here.

But that would require rounding off the sharper corners of various doctrines. Of making definitive theological statements to serve the needs of the game. And there's no way to stop something like that from sounding at least a little bit colonialist.

So the designers made a call. It's not the call that I, an iconoclastic atheist, would have made, but I respect it. And while it's more apparent in Scion: Hero, 2nd edition in general just feels more thoroughly researched, less Eurocentric, and more inclusive than 1st edition. And if making hash of the cosmology is the price of all that, then I completely on board.

UKSS Contribution: This is a tough one, because all the best stuff in Scion comes from real world mythology. I guess I'll go with the Kitsune, though. Mischievous fox spirits who want nothing more than to live the high life on someone else's dime? Extremely versatile.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

AD&D 2nd Edition - Player's Handbook

Just handling this book was a serious nostalgia trip for me. AD&D 2nd Edition was my very first roleplaying game. For a long while, it was the only one I even knew existed (I guess I probably inferred the existence of an AD&D first edition, but honestly it's not a thought that came up all too often). My original Player's Handbook saw a lot of rough use. I still have it, but it is sunbleached and disintegrating, held together with at least three different types of tape. I wound up buying a replacement copy several months ago, and the brightness of the cover and the cleanness of the pages was a sensual shock. At least for a moment, I remembered what it felt like when I was young, and the rpg hobby was new.

However, my parting from AD&D 2nd edition was not an amicable one. Once I became exposed to other games, a great many frustrations and complaints immediately crystalized, as if from nowhere. I realized that I didn't like the way the rules seemed ad-hoc and arbitrary, the way its fantastic elements were siloed off into the spellcasting classes, the stultifying narrowness of its implicit setting assumptions, and THAC0 was bad, too. I didn't just become an overnight convert to other rpg systems, I became a passionate apostate. AD&D 2nd edition, once my favorite activity in the whole world, became the antithesis of everything I enjoyed about the hobby.

Generally, I've found that when I go back to media that pissed me off as a child, I'll have mellowed considerably towards it as an adult, seeing virtues I was too proud to acknowledge, in that absolutist way that children have. Why, I can even almost kinda see the point in college football. I'd have never admitted that at 14.

So were there any similar revelations after going back through my old Player's Handbook?

Sort of?

All my old complaints are still as valid as always. AD&D 2nd edition reads like a stitched-together Frankenstein's monster of house rules and tournament nitpicking, but that's not quite as bad a thing as I made it out to be. For one thing, there's not as much of it as I remember.

I don't know. Two-hundred and thirty-six A4 pages felt like a lot back then. The Player's Handbook wasn't just a book, it was a tome. There were so many rules, and they were different enough from each other that there were no shortcuts to memorizing. It was such a burden.

And don't get me wrong, AD&D 2nd edition has rules where it doesn't need rules. The swimming section takes up a whole page, with its various corner cases and situational modifiers. It doesn't need to be that long. Vision and Light did not need to be its own, separate chapter. There is cruft.

But, when you consider that spells, once again, take up half the book (sigh), it turns out that the AD&D rules come in at 124 pages. That's really not all that much, all things considered. I'm blessed with the knowledge that a well-written game could have covered the same ground in 60 pages and still captured the same feel, but I'm also cursed with the knowledge that younger me was overreacting something fierce. I mean, GURPS exists.

What then, is my verdict on the AD&D 2nd Edition Player's handbook, given the perspective of history? Well, AD&D is still not a very good game, and you should probably look up an OSR alternative if you want to play its style of game, but 2nd edition is a noticeable and welcome step up from 1st. I miss half-orcs. I miss assassins. But those losses aside, second edition is clearer, friendlier to both newbies and experts, easier to reference, and both more complete and (slightly) more consistent. It is the game AD&D 1st edition was trying to be.

UKSS Contribution: Dungeons and Dragons does this weird thing where some of its magical spells will have reverse versions, condensed in the same text. The Light spell has a companion, Darkness. Cure Serious Wounds reverses to Inflict Serious Wounds. And so on. If you learn the spell, you automatically learn its reverse, but they count as separate spells for purposes of memorization and whatnot.

I'm not taking the reversal mechanic as a whole, but I bring it up because sometimes reversing a spell results in something that would be a pretty weird spell on its own, and it's one of those weird spells that I'm interested in.

So, you know how it's a pretty boilerplate fantasy thing for a magician to turn their enemies to stone? The White Witch did it in Narnia. It's a spell in Final Fantasy. And so on. It should come as no surprise then, that you can do it in AD&D as well.

What is surprising is how you do it. See, "Flesh to Stone" is not a spell in AD&D. It is rather the reversal to a spell. The standard (and I want you to imagine this "standard" with about a dozen square quotes around it, because italics for emphasis is really not conveying how much work the word "standard" is doing here) spell is actually "Stone to Flesh."

Petrifying your enemies like Medusa is a side effect of the AD&D wizard's regular curriculum. When they are receiving tuition in the dark arts, what they initially study is how to turn rocks into meat.

And I know what you're thinking, "oh, you mean the harmful version of the spell is a perversion of the restorative spell that cures petrification? You know, it's kind of dismissive to call that 'turning rocks into meat.'" But while you would be right to think that healing basilisk victims is a major application of Stone to Flesh, you'd be missing what I'm trying to tell you. You can use this spell on ordinary rocks!

(Imagine me running around for several minutes with my arms flailing in the air like a muppet in panic mode)

How? Why? The spell description suggests it might useful for tunneling. Excuse me while I vomit forever.

So I figure that this must be connected to some big metaphysical thing. Like how in Norse mythology the world was built out of the remains of the frost giant Ymir. In UKSS world, all stone is part of the body of some ancient god. Some order of wizards, studying magic like particle physicists study atoms, found out that you could use a certain spell to flip the switch back and forth. Later, this knowledge was weaponized into a petrification spell, but that's just incidental. Every magician and  natural philosopher knows that rocks contain the magical signature of unspecified primordial meat.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Scion: Ragnarok - Chapters 4-8

Part 1

The last half of this book was devoted to a long adventure that purported to make the player characters central figures in the Ragnarok prophecy. It mostly didn't work.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of good stuff here. A meteor strikes Earth, kicking a dust cloud that darkens the skies and ushers in three years of winter, meanwhile an ancient curse darkens the hearts of humanity, replacing kindness with cruelty, trust with suspicion. Nations that have been allies for generations stand at the brink of nuclear war, not just over scarce resources, but out of a dark fate, spoken before the beginning of history.

Into this chaotic and decaying world, the creatures of legend make themselves known once more. Dark elves hold entire communities in their thrall with their sinister beauty and charisma, becoming bandits and warlords. Ice giants, operating out of seized North Sea oil rigs, use the twin powers of illusion and weather control to threaten modern navies with their oversized viking longships. Dragons rule the skies, and magic is an open power, one more resource for the struggling masses of humanity to squabble over.

But hope is not lost. Those whose fate becomes bound with the Scions find the curse lifting from their hearts. By the example of their heroism, they may inspire the masses to band together against the darkness, and stand united in their hour of greatest need. It is not an easy or rapid process, but if the heroes keep faith, they can become the core of a new, more just civilization to emerge from the ruins of the old.

It's an amazing setting, and as near-perfect a campaign pitch as you're ever likely to see, but unfortunately, this is Scion 1st edition, and thus it had to hide all of its great setting ideas inside merely passable adventures.

This is explicit here, just as it was in the core books - you're supposed to be having all these side adventures in Ragnarok world. The book's three adventures are meant to act as bookends. The first is a starting adventure. The second happens when you're ready to transition from demigod to god. And the third wraps it all up. They're all part of the same story, but they're not meant to be played back-to-back. You're supposed to take some time to grind xp, explore your powers and the world, and just generally build your individual legend.

But you're also meant to just sort of infer what that might look like, based on the background details provided by the adventures themselves. Which sort of just winds up directly inverting the proportion of useful information to one-time-use adventure stuff the book should contain.

The big problem with the Ragnarok adventures is probably thematic, though. There are things that are supposed to happen, and thus the adventure puts its thumb on the scales, mostly by encouraging the GM to withhold information until too late. As a result, a lot of it comes across as merely allowing the players to be present for important scene-setting.

Take the first adventure. The characters are roused by their divine parents. An important relic has been rediscovered. With it, the giants could trigger Fimbulwinter, the prelude to Ragnarok. You rush to the site, do some detective work, meet some colorful characters, and learn that the giants got their hands on it three days before you arrived.

More detective work and you track down the giant in charge. He's protected by powerful forces you dare not anger, but he's hospitable. If you can best him in three challenges of cunning, might, and skill, he will grant you any boon you care to name. Win, and you can demand the relic as your rightful prize. And when you do, he's like "sure, whatever. We don't need that thing any more. We triggered Fimbulwinter three days ago. It was literally the first thing we did with it. I'm just holding onto it for sentimental reasons."

A short time later, a meteor strikes the Earth.

I don't want to get too high-handed here. The premise of the game is that it's about Ragnarok. So you can't stop Ragnarok before it happens. I don't think anyone would want that. Nonetheless, it's a little weird to make that the focus of the adventure. The whole thing seems pointless, at least from a perspective of achieving your stated goals. The real stakes of the conflict, though it's never directly states, are the potential allies you can secure by helping the giants' victims. Perhaps that's okay, though. Perhaps the real preventing the apocalypse is the friends we made along the way.

There's a lot of that over the course of the campaign. Things happening offscreen that are predetermined. Or the adventure assumes things that are unlikely to happen according to the rules (during the demigod portion of the adventure, you are captured by soldiers under threat of being shot with their completely mundane rifles, despite the fact that any well-built demigod is going to be practically bulletproof.) Or you succeed at your stated goal, only to find out that you wanted the wrong thing.

It all leads quite inevitably to the final battle, the doom of the gods. Despite spending the whole campaign trying to avert it, you never actually succeed. The best you can hope for is that some NPC you dealt with 10 sessions ago shows back up to help you mitigate the damage. If you gather enough of these allies, you can even save one or more of the gods that canonically die in Ragnarok (basically, however many ways you want to split the party determines your upper limit for these stunts). In theory, if you are combat-specced enough to defeat Surtr, the king of the fire giants, you can even avert the final, fiery death of Midgard itself.

Then all you have to do is rebuild a world that has been ravaged by meteors, storms, and monsters, where half the population has died from famine and war. Easy.

Overall Scion: Ragnarok is a frustrating in much the same way that Scion 1st edition as a whole proved to be. It describes interesting events happening, and dares you to work out the implied setting where those things are possible. It's filled with fascinating mythological concepts, but the mechanics are all over the place. Its tighter focus makes it unique in a way few other games can match, and I can only hope that 2nd edition can do it justice.

UKSS Contribution - I was really moved by the story of the Fenris wolf. The gods kept chaining him under the pretext of getting him to show off his strength, and he kept going along with it. The unfairness of this must have gotten to the writers too, because he got a redemption scene in the final act.

I'll admit, though, that my brain must have been infected by internet dog memes, because even though I know he's as intelligent as anyone, I kept picturing him saying, "Why you doin' me a heckin' bamboozle, frens?" when he was being bound by Tyr.

So, that's my contribution, Meme Fenrir. If I had to think of it, you have to think it now too.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Scion: Ragnarok - Chapters 1-3

Part 2

My enjoyment of Scion: Ragnarok was slightly muted by my enjoyment of Thor: Ragnarok. Not by a lot, but by enough to be noticeable. The book would show a picture of Heimdall and I'd be like "hey, that looks nothing like Idris Elba." You know, silly stuff like that.

Leaving aside pop-culture cross pollution, Scion: Ragnarok (or at least the 1st half) is absolutely the sort of book the Scion line needed more of while simultaneously being just a little bit pointless.

The best and most useful part of the book was Chapter 1, which summarized some of the major stories of Norse mythology. Like none of the other material seen in Scion so far, it gave a real feel for the Aesir as a living pantheon and cultural tradition, sketching out core relationships and delivering deeper, more nuanced characterization for some of the game's most important NPCs. And yet . . .

Very little of it was actually specific to the game. A book on Norse mythology would likely have worked even better, and may have even had time to go into details about the secondary characters that only briefly got introduced. As much as I thought "this is great, I need this for all of Scion's signature PC pantheons," it was inevitably followed up by "wait, I could have it, were I willing to hit the internet and do my own research."

But that sounds like a total drag. The problem with doing your own research for a Scion game is that a lot of the directly useful information is going to be broken up into a dozen sources, some of which are going to be fragmentary (say because a society did not have widespread literacy before the Christians came and forced the stories to go underground) and most of which is going to be wrapped up in the ponderously flowery language favored by the generations that first translated them into English (when they've been translated at all). And that's not even getting into the multiple versions that stem from theological conflicts, historical evolution over time, and plain old translation decay.

In other words, it was very useful to have someone do the work for me, but ultimately, if they're doing the work anyway, why wouldn't they just write a mythology book for a general audience?

So, I wish there were an equivalent book for all of Scion's default pantheons, but I recognize that such a wish is ridiculous in the extreme.

Chapter 2 was another mechanical chapter, and I have nothing new to say about Scion's mechanics here. Ragnarok did not correct the game's mechanical problems, but for the most part it also didn't make them worse. Some of the spells were a bit more functional than we're accustomed to seeing in Scion's magic system, but there aren't enough of them that we can start talking about it as a flaw.

Chapter 3 was pretty bad, though. It's stats for the gods of the Norse pantheon. So already you know they're junk. But the weird thing is that with only two exceptions, all of the gods were Legend 12. It's not a detail we've covered before, but in Scion, you've got a stat, called Legend, that measure's your character's overall power. It ranges from 1 to 12. In theory, everyone with a Legend rating of 9-12 is a god, but in practice, those lower ratings never get used. If your name made it into the history books, you've got a maximum Legend rating, and that's just how the overworld works.

The reason for this is pretty clear - the rules in Scion: God say that you can't pass down favored purviews unless you can use the purview's avatar power. Avatar powers are only available at Legend 12. All of the divine parents listed in the books pass along favored purviews. Ergo, Legend ratings 9,10, and 11 are for PCs working their way up to full godhood and certain mythological monsters with godlike characteristics. It's ridiculous, because the Legend system is supposed to give you the ability to express the nuances and hierarchies of divine power, but the stats in this book's 3rd chapter tell a different story. Bragi, the God of Poetry and Odin, the All-Father, have the exact same mystical potency and that's the system working as intended.

Oh, Scion. I have such high hopes for second edition.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought - Chapters 7-10

Part 1

The back half of the book was mostly mechanical. New charms, martial arts, spells, magic items. The stories and flavor of these things were all really good, but I'm afraid the set as a whole suffers from the same basic problems as the core book. The central idea of minor charms that can be stacked together to dial in the power of your central tricks is one that is fundamentally flawed. Even if it weren't too much work at the table, it front-loads a lot of complexity into character creation.

However, Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought is probably better in this regard than the core. The charm trees, while still loaded down with questionable charms, feel less sprawling overall. I expect we are at the beginning of a process we also saw play out in 1st and 2nd edition - where as time goes on and the writers and editors have more practical play experience, they will start designing for the game as it actually exists, rather than what they imagined it would turn out to be in development.

It's just a shame that the factions that come first in the game's life-cycle, the Solars and the Dragon-Blooded, are always the ones to miss out on the increase in design expertise. I'm calling it now - 4th edition will have Infernals be core.

My main feeling about this book, when all is said and done, is that it is long overdue. The Dragon-Blooded/Solar conflict is the driving force of the setting and many of my early 3rd edition games fell apart because of a lack of Dragon-Blooded antagonists.

Of course, this book doesn't really solve that problem, because it mainly just adds ways to build antagonists as if they were full characters, which is less than ideal. Quick characters require just as much bullshitting as they've always done. Still, I've got better benchmarks for what the heights of Dragon-Blooded power look like in 3rd edition, and that's not entirely useless. Though with no way to gauge overall character strength, I'm guessing it will take a lot of trial and error before I manage to dial in to the proper challenge level. I'll probably wind up having to eyeball it, in which case that's something I could have been doing all along.

Still, this book has a lot going for it. It looks great, with plenty of gorgeous full-color artwork. It introduces new characters and locations. It broadens and expands the Dragon-Blooded power set in satisfying and interesting ways (when it's not doing foolish things like telling you to reroll your 6s).

I'm left feeling bullish about the future of Exalted 3rd edition hardcovers. I think they're going to keep getting better, and as the edition becomes more lived-in, the power sets will evolve into something a bit more useable. I can already see it starting here, and I hope the trend will continue.

UKSS Contribution: I'm going to go with one of my favorite of Exalted's canon characters - Ledaal Kes, the flamboyantly gay chessmaster/forensic accountant/super spy/inventor/pretty boy. He may even be too much of a good thing, but when has that ever dissuaded me?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought, Chapter 1 - 6

Part 2

Minor confession: I have another place where I talk about Exalted books. I know, I know, it's a betrayal, but I started that thread in 2014 and I feel like maybe it's earned the right to first dibs on all my new Exalted books from here on out. Call it sentimentality. Call it a commitment to order. Either way, once or twice a year, the blog is going to get the scraps.

But they're going to be good scraps! I promise. Don't think of it as me giving my best material to another venue, think of it as a dedicated thread allowing me to offload my petty and concrete observations in order to free me to think about more abstract matters.

Yeah. That's the ticket.

Today I'm going to talk about something strange I noticed while reading this book, and how I think it raises some important questions unique to tabletop rpg design.

First, though, a bit of background. This book is about a faction in Exalted called The Dragon-Blooded. There's several unique things about them, but the most important is that, alone of all the major Exalted types, they can pass their magical powers down to their children. The largest and most powerful group of Dragon-Blooded in the setting is an extended family, descended with varying degrees of legitimacy, from the Scarlet Empress. They're called The Dynasty and since the Empress' disappearance, they have been competing with each other to see who gets to rule the Realm.

The thing about the Dynasty is that they're ruthless imperialists, plundering the nations of the world to bring back massive amounts of tribute to support their bloated, parasitical lifestyles. The other thing about the Dynasty is that they are an authoritarian matriarchy, where women, especially mothers, have institutional, legal, and social privileges. The third thing about the Dynasty is that, due to new children being potentially new Dragon-Blooded (and thus wielders of incredible magical powers), they are obsessed with fertility and marriage. There's a sort of minimum quota of children that each couple should have if they want to stay in the good graces of their noble house.

The final thing about the Dynasty is that they're remarkably LGBTQ friendly.

That's weird.

They made an obnoxiously right wing society and then made them super casual about the one thing the right wing obsesses about above all others. It doesn't track.

But it makes perfect sense why they did it. They Dynasty is a player-character group. They're sort of the default group for you to be a part of when you make a Dragon-Blooded character. Even the other potential options are largely defined by their relationship with the Dynasty. So if you're an LGBTQ player and you want to create a character like yourself, you can, and be comfortable in the knowledge that nothing in the text justifies random NPCs acting like an ass towards you because of your identity.

I like that. It's a very humane way of handling the issue. Tabletop rpgs are a very immersive form of entertainment, and the fictional bigotry of the characters in the story can feel a lot more like real bigotry than it would in a novel (or, worse, be used as a cover for real bigotry from your fellow players - that's got to be the worst feeling there is). So to have the text give no excuses and no occasion for it, that's a useful thing to help marginalized people enjoy the game.

How much, then, does it matter that it's done in a transparently post hoc way? You'd never give the Realm that sort of easy-going approach to gender and sexuality if you were writing them into a novel, or a movie, or even a video game. Not only does it feel inconsistent with the society's other values, you'd also lose a whole bunch of potential drama, conflict, and social and philosophical speculation.

I think those are captivating conflicts and fascinating questions. What if you're trans or gay in a culture where heterosexuality is rewarded with super-powered babies and thus is mandated by state, society, and god? You could make a very interesting fantasy antagonist out of the consistently right-wing Realm.

But maybe, when we're talking about a game, there are more important things than being interesting. Maybe drama, conflict, and social and philosophical speculation should take a back seat to everyone feeling welcome and comfortable and able to indulge in high-budget fantasy mayhem without having to explore the limits of their identity all the time.

So there you have it. If you play Exalted and you wind up being chased by implacable religious fanatics who want to kill you over something you don't control, it will be because you have the wrong kind of superpowers, not because of who you love. There's something beautiful in that.