Monday, June 14, 2021


 This book is a fucking treasure trove. It's exactly the sort of artifact you always hope to find when you pick up a new rpg book - it's a strange little thing, filled with these fascinating little odds and ends that sort of work together, but also kind of meander in every which direction. It's exactly what you're wrongly remembering the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guides to be. It's alienating in its specificity and the intensity of its interests, but it's also compelling, as it shows you pathways whose ends you cannot anticipate.

Do I love it? Am I saying I love it? I don't know. I think, at its heart, it's kind of a reckless book. It's one of those slim rpgs. I could explain its core rules in about 15 minutes. If you cut out special powers, artifact creation, and domain management, the actual rules of the game wrap up after 22 pages. And then the bulk of the rest of the 200+ pages is all about the PCs' phenomenal cosmic power.

Godbound is a freeform, narrative game disguising itself as an "old school" rpg. Or maybe it's a freeform game with an old school combat system grafted on. Most of what you're going to be doing is navigating resource costs. There's a mechanic where PCs can spend a special meta-game currency to make whatever changes they like to the setting, and the rules for this are largely guidelines to the GM for setting costs. And then the players spend the cost and the change happens. The king agrees with your impassioned moral argument - spend Dominion points. You mutate a bunch of villagers so they have wings and know kung fu. Spend Dominion points. You do have to try and justify it with your character traits and for large expenditures, the GM might require you to complete an adventure. But ultimately you've got a large latitude to make setting changes almost purely through narration.

And warrior angels have precisely 10 hit points and get a +10 bonus to attack rolls.

I think it will work. My intuition tells me there's a niche here. A game style that's basically "bullshitting, bullshitting, bullshitting . . . and now it's time for the dice to hit the table."  Run well, it may even be the best of both worlds. You've got wild plans that provoke huge shifts in the status quo, thrones tremble and the pillars of heaven shake, but then, at a critical juncture, the chaos of the dice steps in to remind you that you're not entirely in control.

But I can also see the failure state - a game system that takes away a lot of the traditional limitations that also serve as the players' hook into the world, so that they can go anywhere and do anything, but there's nowhere and nothing that they're actually invested in. A character might be motivated by wealth, but for players, money is trivially easy to get and doesn't do much for you when you have it. This whole hobby is, of course, a dressed-up game of make believe, but some rules systems are better than others at disguising this fact.

However, I've never been one who particularly needs that disguise, so I think I love Godbound

Or, at least, I've got a crush on it.

I think the source of my ambivalence (and, to be clear, I'm mostly fluctuating between "Godbound is one of the most impressive games I've seen so far" vs "Godbound is one of my favorite games, that I've seen so far") is that it's clearly operating on a very specific wavelength, and I can't be sure that it's one I share because it doesn't easily fall into one of the categories I've previously built for myself. 

It's hard to convey the precise sense of vertigo you get from the contrast between the utilitarian math of its bare-bones rules system and the absolute permissiveness of the power rules. Godbound characters have access to "Words," which are basically just broad descriptors for the sorts of divine miracles that you have access to. If you've got the Word of Earth, you can cause earthquakes or raise fortresses or just become really durable, and just generally do anything you can imagine that falls under the category of "stone, earth, strength, hardness, or durability." And you can use them all right from the beginning, as a 1st level character. The first thing you do in the first session can be to start and earthquake, and it will be just as effective as the earthquakes being thrown around by max-level characters at the end of a years-long campaign.

The main limit to your power is your reserves of "Effort." You start with two Effort, you gain one point per level, and you can buy more as a Gift ("Gifts" are specific tricks you do with your Words that you get an Effort discount on because you spent character points to learn them, but anything you can do with a Gift, you can do with a regular, full-cost Miracle, and I suppose that technically applies to buying extra Effort too, but since you have to spend Effort to replicate a Gift, you'd wind up net losing points on that deal).

So it's a little weird. Your character level is very precise about your stats - your hit bonus, your savings throws, and even the damage you do with your Words, but if you're talking about things that can't be quantified on the character sheet, the sky's the limit. You're just starting out. You've got 8 hit points and a +1 to attack rolls, and merely two wishes per day.

The result is something that seems like it should care about game balance, but is incredibly sloppy about it. You can get end-game level optimized Armor Class fairly trivially as a starting character, but attacks only improve with level. So it's perfectly possible to be nigh-invincible against enemies you have a hard time hitting. Almost every enemy has multiple attacks, and the damage is usually enough that focus-fire will kill a PC per round, but spread out it's relatively harmless. And given the unpredictable power spikes, the notion of any kind of challenge rating system is a whimsical dream.

The resolution of the paradox is supposed to be the fact that Godbound is meant to be a "Sandbox" game, and thus the GM really shouldn't concern themselves with meticulously scaling the challenges. The stats of typical mortal foes are pegged so low that they barely pose a threat to unoptimized characters, even in huge mobs, and it's kind of expected that the typical combat experience is crushing victory by the PCs. The way you encounter Angelic Tyrants, Parasite Gods, and other top-tier threats is by going to where they are. PCs can always control the balance by sticking to the lower-level parts of the setting.

Like I said earlier - it's easy to imagine this working perfectly . . . and easy to imagine it not.

Now, let's talk about the setting.

Godbound has this absolutely amazing cover art. It's an empty throne in a cathedral-like building, set upon a raised dais and the stairs leading up to it are covered with skeletons, all in a desperate climbing posture, implying that they reached the throne with the last of their strength and perished while attempting to seize it, even as they lay dying, unworthy of its power. It's a stunning image, and it quite aptly sums up the setting as a whole.

Everything in this world is marked by a sort of theology of cynicism. In the distant past, human beings solved all of their material problems, and then decided to go to war over petty ideological differences. Even when they had the magical might to storm the gates of Heaven, they arrived to find the Throne of God empty, and the Creator vanished. So they trashed the place and stole the furniture on their way out, but it turns out that some of that stuff was load-bearing furniture, and now the universe is falling apart and things are getting worse and worse as time goes on.

There's this very technological and materialist feel to divine and magical things that runs through the setting. The laws of reality are maintained by "Celestial Engines" which can be broken down and stripped for spare parts that will go on to power magic items or give PCs a magic boost to make bigger and more lasting setting changes. Characters are "godbound," but the only gods to make an appearance are "Made Gods" - constructed in the distant past with powerful lost sorcery, in order to embody the ideals of a particular society - or "Parasite Gods," who have intercepted the misdirected energies of a broken celestial engine and grow dependent upon them, even as they gain potent magical abilities as a result. Missing entirely is a sense of reverence.

I'll admit, as an atheist, there's something comfortable to me about Godbound's setting. There are different forms of life with different powers and abilities, but there is also the basic continuity - everything can be understood in biological or technological terms, and there's no gap where anything as mysterious as a god is necessary.

On the other hand, the only explicit atheist representation, the Church of True Reason, is a pretty shabby organization, a deliberately ignorant cult with an inflexible hierarchy whose unexamined doctrines inevitably lead souls to hell. You win some and you lose some, I guess. It's actually mostly all right with me to have villainous atheists in a game about gods, but "atheism is really a form of religion, and just as arbitrary as the fundamentalism they claim to oppose" is a trope that never fails to annoy me.

 The rest of the setting is pretty good. It does something that I'm obliged to point out as unrealistic, even as I admit it's my favorite type of fantasy worldbuilding - it gives each of its various nations its own high concept fantasy twist, and makes that high concept the center of fleshing out the nation's culture and politics. So you've got the Bright Republic, which is essentially just a magitech version of modern society, and its whole deal revolves around these ancient and irreplaceable magical macguffins that make its technology possible. Then you have the Ulstang Skerries, who are basically viking necromancers who terrorize coastal villages in their zombie-rowed longships. And they both just sort of coexist with each other.

In other words - almost everything about the Realm of Arcem reminded me of an Ukss entry, which frequently made me smile. For the average newcomer, I'd say that it's a world with a lot of diversity and some well-worked-out lore that only occasionally feels like it's stitched together out of spare parts.

Although, you could argue that the "stitched together" feeling was intention, given that the most influential canon event was the Shattering, where greedy mortals' plundering of heaven lead to the previously singular universe cracking apart at the seams, leaving the survivors in disconnected realms separated by a soul-consuming cosmic void.

It can sound a little grimdark at times, but the book directly explains its reasoning - "The best problems are the ones that the PCs can face directly, even if they might not win." Which I'm interpreting to mean that things have to generally be bad enough that it justifies playing heroes with phenomenal cosmic powers.

Overall, my opinion of this book is very positive. I'm not sure it will ever be my go-to high-power game, but it has some intriguing ideas that I wouldn't mind trying out. You don't have to take my word for it, though. There's a free version available. My understanding is that the only thing missing from the full version is the last chapter, a mishmash of miscellaneous topics that are nice to have, but mostly nonessential. If that's the case, I would say the only thing that you're going to really miss is the rules for creating your own realm. The mortal character rules might make for an interesting alternate campaign, but if you're using them, it's because you've already decided you need a break from playing godbound characters. My favorite part was, of course, the rules for playing Exalted in the Godbound ruleset, which are completely transparent in their intent, but also hilariously coy about what they're actually doing - "some games" have "vaguely described Exalted mechanics." I'd love to see the reaction of someone who'd never heard of these "other games." There must be at least 10 pages that seem completely and bafflingly pointless.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of good stuff here. I'm going to go with a classic, though - there's sorcery that allows a mage to drain a victim's remaining lifespan and add a portion of it to their own. This particular implementation has a neat twist, though. The more you use that spell, the more mutated and inhuman you become, even to the point of gaining "uncanny abilities." I like it when magic dabbles in transhumanism.

1 comment:

  1. Phew! I'm all caught up again, and happier for it!