Sunday, May 12, 2019

Scion: Ragnarok - Chapters 4-8

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.

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