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.

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