Tuesday, August 11, 2020


 Reign is the second ORE game I've read so far and I must say, it's a marked improvement over Wild Talents, despite being released in the same year as that game's second edition. I think it comes down to one small change that seems obvious in retrospect - there is now a limit of one special die per roll. That means we don't have players buying matches at character creation, headshots are merely common rather than obligatory (though there's still the issue of the characters' weakest hit location also being the hardest one to defend), and the 5 character point cost to upgrade to a Master die (ie "wiggle die") is actually really tempting.

But I don't want to spend too much time hashing out what went wrong with Wild Talent's system. I'm here to talk about Reign, and suffice to say, for a variety of reasons, Reign is better.

So let me immediately go to the worst thing about it - sometimes it tries to be a generic fantasy system. Like at the beginning of the magic chapter, the first five pages are a discussion of the design consideration that go into creating a fantasy magic system. And it's not a bad discussion. There are some interesting ideas there - like building a "Fortune deck" composed of daily horoscopes and picking one at random to apply to magician characters as a side effect of their spells. However, in the moment, it felt like an intrusive digression away from the setting-specific details I was hoping to read about.

In a way, you could even count it as a credit to Reign's worldbuilding that what would otherwise be solid, engagingly written gamemastering advice feels like a step down from the average tenor of the material. However, if I'm being my most ruthlessly critical, what it really says to me is that someone (presumably the sole credited author and designer) needed to have better discipline over his authorial voice. I really didn't need this book to break out of the fantasy-milieu 3rd person to address me in contemporary 1st person and sell me on the concept of dramatic conflict, using LA Confidential as an example. 

Tell me more about quicksilver demons that hollow out horses and use them as skin suits and less about the movies you enjoyed, Greg Stolze!

Maybe that makes me come across a a bit of a joyless buzzkill (and heaven knows I'm the last person who has any grounds to complain about an author indulging in pointless digressions), but the thing I need to convey to you is that the parts of the book I'm not complaining about are really good.

On average. Some parts are sublime, like the aforementioned demons, the fact that the continents of Heluso and Melonda are two giant humanoids, locked in an eternal embrace, or the way sorcerers become attuned to their schools of magic and transform, body and soul. And it was a very canny idea to define the major cultures by the food they eat, the clothes they wear, and the stories they tell.

But sometimes those stories are . . . hmm. Take The Empire, for example. Their founding legend is that the first Empress seduced four neighboring kings and united the realms by playing off their macho pride and suggesting that the one who fucked the best would be named heir. I think maybe that was supposed to be an example of Imperial art that was decadent to the point of self-sabotage (i.e. how their art is described in general), but if so, the necessary context is far enough delayed in the chapter that I was mostly left with the sensation of reading a grimy and implausible story.

There's also a few details that probably would have seemed more welcome or necessary in 2007, but which mostly served to answer questions I wasn't preparing to ask. Like, I get the intent behind "the most commonly reviled minorities have white skin" - Reign is trying to get us to move beyond our reflexive whitewashing and imagine a medieval fantasy world where the default human (be they peasant, blacksmith, or king) is black. Fair enough. Admirable even. But it feels like a trope.

Similarly, I didn't really need to know that men in this world don't beat their wives quite so much as in medieval times, because women might have magic and that neutralizes the advantages of physical strength. I promise, I wasn't about to write a domestic abuse subplot into my rpg session. If you hadn't brought it up, I doubt I would have even thought of it at all.

Though, to be entirely fair to Reign, people in 2007 did ask those sorts of questions. Boy howdy do I remember the flame wars surrounding this game's most notorious setting detail - that men ride side-saddle because of a common belief that riding astride makes them impotent.

It's kind of a silly superstition and the main upshot of its existence seems to be to arbitrarily cut male PCs off from certain character concepts, but I'll admit to having a sentimental attachment to it, purely due to misogynist meltdowns it provoked. Even after all these years, I can still savor the MRA tears.

Though, if I'm being honest, it's iffy game design. Good worldbuilding. The sort of phallocentric nonsense that has a ring of truth to it. But mechanically questionable. Generally, you want to let people create the sorts of characters they want to create and not throw needless roadblocks in their way (the book suggests making this superstition objectively true, whether through magic, alternate biology, or the placebo effect). 

I think this may be an example of future privilege. In the year 2020, you're allowed to just make a fantasy setting that is "ahistorically" (keeping in mind that none of these worlds are ever the history of Earth) inclusive of race, gender, and sexuality. But in 2007, Reign boldly dared us to look into the mirror and imagine a world where male characters could be denied access to cool classes and where white people could be "savages" (and I just hate that that word is used here without irony).

So, like I said, very good on average. Good enough that I backed second edition on kickstarter, sight unseen. There's a lot here that I didn't cover. Martial Paths that give you access to special combat techniques. Esoteric Disciplines, which are the same thing, but for your non-combat skills. Weird magic, like the ability to forge the souls of animals, people, or demons into a blade. The company rules, which encourage players to engage with the setting's politics. Reign is a game that is packed with ideas, and the only thing it really needs is better focus.

Ukss Contribution: I really am spoiled for choice here. I kind of want to go with the side saddle thing just to keep the legend alive, but that's too much of a Reign thing. You can only do it once, and Greg Stolze already did it.

Besides, it wouldn't be my authentic choice. There's really only one thing it ever could have been - the Hulgue. It's a 1000-foot-tall parasite that sucks the fertility out of the land and then jumps up 30 miles with its 4000-foot-long legs, landing with the force of a nuclear bomb. To fight it, you assemble an army and mine your way into its blood-vessels or airways, making your way towards the heart or brain, hoping that in the meantime you're not shred to bits by the demonic parasites that live within.

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