Following the core games of Chronicles of Darkness, the designers were left with a question of where to go from there. The first of their limited lines was Promethean: the Created, a game about monsters who were seeking to become human.
As a game line, it was popular, but often ran into issues with actual play. With a revitalized and renewed Promethean 2.0 on an early release, I’m going to take a crack at this one.
Raid some graves and wait for lightning to strike, this is Promethean: the Created.
Deity and Demiurge
The history of the Created is…sketchy at the best of times. Part of this is explained simply by the fact that, of all the creatures in the Chronicles of Darkness, Prometheans are likely the most rare. Their manner of creation, however, is not up for debate.
A human, within the grips of madness, attempts to animate an inanimate object, granting it life. How this happens, and the reasons, vary a bit, but one thing is consistent: obsession. This obsession attracts Pyros, the Divine Flame, and allows the Demiurge (creator) to imbue non-living matter with life.
The issue with this is…it’s wrong. I don’t mean morally, but that it literally should not work. Prometheans are created, but they are in a world that rejects their very nature and existence. Humans feel it on an instinctual level and begin to obsess over them. This is usually hatred, but can manifest in a lot of other unfortunate, and always harmful, ways.
Pyros itself isn’t exactly a morally positive force. It has two sides, and the negative is called Flux. Where Pyros creates, Flux consumes. This leads to entities called Pandorans, failed attempts at Prometheans, which hunt and consume sources of Pyros.
Prometheans, then, are in a sorry state: they are aware, somewhat alive, but flawed. And so they did as most creature do: they sought a way to change it. Alchemy became their source. After all, it offered transformation: lead to gold. Prometheans modeled themselves after these ideas and began their magnum opus: find a way to become human.
So begins their Pilgrimage. Where it ends…who can tell?
The premise of Promethean is…difficult. Being an entitiy which is effectively a walking hate generator…isn’t exactly something someone does to unwind. I think that might be why it didn’t do as well as later gamelines. The second edition did a lot to help with this, though, namely hammering down more precise methods for how certain Prometheans come about as well as making a lot of things more ambiguous. However, it also hammered out how the Magnum Opus can be achieved. All Prometheans have a goal…and a good way to achieve it. Further, from the get go, you have ways to limit or reduce the hatred you get. It’s still a struggle…but this is Chronicles of Darkness we are talking about.
Making a Promethean follows the same formulas you’d expect. Most, but not all, belong to a Lineage. Each Lineage represents an original Created that later created more of its own, passing down certain traits like a family line. Each has a humour, most modeled after the traditional four humours with a couple of oddballs. The Lineages are:
- Frankensteins: Oddly, the newest of the Lineages, their yellow bile humour makes them quick to anger. The first was, of course, the archetypical Frankenstein’s monster. But you can call him Mr. Varney.
- Galateids: Tracing their lineage to Galatea, these Prometheans were made to love, but their sanguine humour makes them prone to embody its darkest aspects.
- Osirans: Cold to the extreme, they claim to be the oldest of the Lineages, tracing their ancestry to Egypt and the legend of Osiris. Their humor is Phlegm, and it makes them a calculating lot.
- Tammuz: The Named were created to be slaves, but they rebuke that concept. The Golem of Prague was, perhaps, the first of their kind. Their black bile makes the taciturn and grim.
- Ulgan: Ripped apart in sacrifice to spirits, the Ulgan are not entirely of this world. Their ectoplasm humor makes them kindred to spirits, and…somewhat odd.
- Unfleshed: Proof that Pyros is hardly discerning, these are animate machines, created not to be human, but rather to be artificial constructs. Their oil humour makes them obedient and servile, but potentially volatile.
- Extempore: Unique lineages which hail from many different possible places. They may be failed experiments, or entirely new Lineages.
Each Lineage has what’s called a Bestowment. These are traits which are related to the Lineage and can be used to one’s advantage. A Frankenstein, for example, might have the ability to use their patchwork nature to sew other parts to themselves while a Tammuz might be incredibly stalwart and unshakable.
The next step, of a fashion, is the Refinement. Refinements are, essentially, stepping stones on the path to being human. These are basically Promethean’s version of factions. The difference is that, unlike others, faction changing is required in the path to humanity. Each has an aspect of how a Promethean wants to change themselves. They are divided into common and uncommon. The common refinements are:
- Aurum, Refinement of Gold: “Monkey see, monkey do” is the name of the game for Mimics. They seek to become human by…studying humanity. Most Prometheans will go through it at one point or another.
- Cuprum, Refinement of Copper: The Pariahs seek to refine themselves in an almost monastic, hermetic manner. They seek to hone themselves mentally and physically.
- Ferrum, Refinement of Iron: Survival is the name of the game for Titans. They will use their body to endure any trial. Their notion is that they will take their stolen body and make it their own.
- Plumbum, Refinement of Lead: Originists look to the start in the hopes to see where to go. They, more than others, seek to understand the Promethean nature so as to move on from it.
- Stannum, Refinement of Tin: Unique among refinements in that it’s not so much a conscious choice as a reaction. Any Promethean can become a Fury, requiring no training or time. All they can do after is work their way out of Torment and hope to gain something from it.
That does it for the common refinements. All Prometheans travel through these, and they require no tutoring or teaching. That said, Prometheans also do some…unusual studies to refine themselves.
- Aes, Refinement of Bronze: Sentries are, on a whole, good people. They seek to become better people by acting as help to others. In a lot of ways, they seek to find humanity through sacrifice.
- Argentum, Refinement of Silver: Humans aren’t the only things alive in the world, and Mystics seek to understand them. Really designed for crossovers, they look to other supernatural creatures, seeking to understand humans through the shadowy figures around them.
- Cobalus, Refinement of Cobalt: Cathars don’t worry too much about messing up. Impurity is what they look to refine, increasing control of their flaws to understand their own shortcomings and how to improve them.
- Mercurius, Refinement of Quicksilver: Pyros, the mystic animating energy, is the focus of Savants. Something of a meta-refinement in that it seeks to teach a Promethean how alchemy works to better understand how to use it in the future.
- Phosphorum, Refinement of Phosphorus: Most Light-Bringers are daredevils to the extreme. They seek to blaze a trail forward, never turning back. Of course…twice as bright…half as long…
One other refinement bears mentioning, but I’ll get to that one later.
A lot of the rest is familiar, but a few things that bear mentioning.
Virtue and Vice are replaced by Elpis and Torment. Elpis is what drives your character toward their Great Work. Torment, by contrast, causes you to stumble when you use it. Torment bears mentioning because it is a trait as well as a state of being that one can fall into. Torment is, basically, an alchemical imbalance. The humour takes over, driving their actions.
The Promethean power stat is called Azoth, a measure of how much the Divine Fire is condensed in a Promethean. It has a lot of the same traits, but has a couple odd ones as well. Azoth, like fire, radiates and can be detected. this can be an issue as Pandorans can sense the energy and use it to track a wayward Promethean. It also increases Disquiet and Wasteland (more later). One odd bit is that a Promethean can, if they desire, lower their own Azoth for 24 hours. This lets them get by a little easier.
I Want to be a Real Boy
The story of Promethean is one of transformation. Alchemy, that odd interim between spiritualism and science, became the method the Created used to attain this. The game’s theme, then, is a bit of a taoist idea: it’s the journey, not the destination.
Playing a Promethean is unique. See, when I said that the world hates Prometheans, I mean that in a very literal sense: the universe thinks they are wrong. Humans known on an intuitive level. The longer a Created stays around people, the more this causes an issue called Disquiet. Humans become unhealthily obsessed with the Promethean, manifesting in various ways, but almost always ending in violence and rejection.
However, this is somewhat smaller compared to another issue: the Wasteland. Effectively, the Wasteland is the cosmic equivalent of Disquiet: the world is rejecting the Promethean. This manifests a lot of ways, but none of them are good. Prometheans can only really offset this in a few ways. One is by ritually bleeding their Azoth out into a prepared area. Working with other Prometheans and creating bound Throngs is another way, with different Legacies helping to balance things out.
If Azoth gets too bad, it can lead to a Firestorm. These manifest as destructive outpouring of pyros…and it’s always bad. Weather, earthquakes, flesh and mind warping energies…all can happen. There are a couple of good aspects. One is that it can clear a wasteland completely, though this is a bit of a desperate act. The other is that it can aid prometheans or harm their foes. It’s not a great method, but it can be useful.
The Promethean condition is a somewhat unique one. As alchemical furnaces, they can do things others can’t. Powers are called Transmutations as a result. Each Transmutation is granted by a Refinement. This is a mechanical difference in that a Promethean might shift between many, but the understanding of each is unique. A bit of an odd thing is that, as a result, a Promethean might learn a full tree in one Refinement and need to relearn it under another. It’s somewhat offset by the fact that you get some powers simply by joining. Transmutations range a bit, from using Pyros to enhancing one’s own strength.
One other is Vitriol, which is represented as a unique form of experience. Basically, it’s gained slowly over time, but let’s Prometheans raise their power or bind Transmutations to themselves permanently. Both of these are highly valuable, and Vitriol experience is vanishingly rare. It’s somewhat odd, however, because it’s not an abstraction: it’s a literal substance and, as such, can be stolen. Pandorans are the most likely culprits, but anyone with the proper knowledge can do so…even Prometheans.
However, all of this is really summed up in Pilgrimage, which is the morality stat of the game, and it’s unique. Basically, a Pilgrimage is a set of markers, called Milestones, that a Promethean must attain before he can achieve humanity. Some of these are set in the path as he winds through his Refinements. In each, he takes on a Role which defines how he approaches that Refinement as an aspect of study. This is probably my favorite aspect of 2.0. In a lot of ways, it makes the game more personal, but also defines the journey along the way. A promethean must travel through his Pilgrimage, but it leads to the Magnum Opus: the New Dawn, a chance to be human again. Second edition lays it out nicely, even detailing what happens after. It’s rare, but this offers a chance at a good ending, which, for the Chronicles of Darkness, is a rare thing indeed.
Of course, getting there is difficult…
Disquiet is…well, a bitch. It twists and warps people against you. Other supernaturals aren’t really immune, either. In fact, everyone except Beasts and Demons has it affect them in some way. Demons can even still feel it, it just doesn’t affect how they behave.
It might seem, then, that everything is antagonistic toward you. And that’s…kinda true, actually…
Still, even Prometheans have a few special enemies…oh joy…
The first on the list are the most obvious: pandorans. Pandorans are, basically, what happens when a Promethean tries and fails to make a new one of himself. They are creatures of Flux, and as such, seek to consume and destroy. They’re feral things, twisted and distorted, and are endlessly hungry for pyros…the easiest way to find that being a Promethean. Worse still are sublimati. These are pandorans that assume a twisted kind of intelligence. Unlike normal pandorans…sublimati are fully sapient and very, very cruel. At first glance, they might be mistaken for a fallen Promethean, but they are still creatures of flux.
Speaking of creatures of Flux, remember how I mentioned there was one final refinement? Well, that would be the centimani, the refinement of flux. Rightly called freaks, centimani are those prometheans who abandon their Pilgrimage to embrace being monsters. There are a couple of things to note. First is that it’s a refinement. Unlike a lot of the evil factions, there’s nothing stopping a Hundred Handed from using a quick burst to Stennum to escape and begin the process of returning to the path. The second is that…honestly, Centimani are probably among the more sympathetic villains. While most evil factions are just that, a Centimanus usually has given up out of despair, desperation, or even simple curiosity. They will do terrible things, but…well, there’s nothing that prevents them from coming back, though it may be difficult.
Mortal foes are even more strange, particularly alchemists. Alchemists are capable of using pyros, but to do so warps them. Simple alchemists are those who use their lesser abilities to help themselves. However, some alchemists discovered that Prometheans can be…harvested for their pyros and vitriol. Using it gives alchemists great power…at the cost of their sanity. Alchemists are sort of a mirror for Prometheans. A promethean wants to be human, and is willing to give up the benefits of his state to do so. An alchemist abandons humanity for the sake of being transhuman like a Promethean.
One last set of players worth mentioning are the Qashmallim. No, I don’t know how you say that, but these are basically entities of the Divine Fire. They often appear as fiery apperations, not unlike the burning angels of the Bible. They serve as…well, somewhat odd entities. Most seek to motivate Prometheans along their Pilgrimage…though this can happen in odd or even contradictory ways. Some are warriors, some are judges, some are simply messengers. They are creatures of the Principle…whatever that is…and usually will act in equal parts protagonist and antagonist during a story. They come in a few flavors. First, there is a division between Elpidos, or the Elpis Qashmallim, and Lilithim, or Flux Qashmallim. While it might seem like a split between protagonist and antagonist, this isn’t always the case. An Elpidos might cause a Promethean to stumble in some impossible task while a Lilithim might act as a whip, hounding a Promethean to continue his journey through discomfort. There are also lesser, greater and arch-qashmallim. The former two are easier to understand, while the arch-versions are…sublimely powerful and difficult to understand, not easily divided as their lesser brethren.
Raising the Dead
Promethean, as a game line, fared rather poorly. Much like Wraith before it, it had a high and difficult concept to execute. I initially wasn’t overly fond of it either: why would I want to play a character that everyone literally hated? As I looked more at it, I actually became rather fond of it. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but I appreciated that it was trying something new. I will say that this is not a game for everyone. Unlike a lot of games, this one really takes an adult mindset to understand and wrestle with. It also takes trying to grapple with a lot of existential concepts and high weirdness.
If this appeals to you, give it a shot. Frankenstein would be happy.
Next on the list, we’ll take a look at a very dark Faerie Tale with Changeling: the Lost.
This one was, admittedly, a bit of an impulse buy that I wasn’t sure about. Superhero game? I’ve tried those. They’re usually a bit of a mess because…well, superheroes are a somewhat unique genre, and they take a unique kind of system to be playable. There’s a reason that superhero video games are so hit or miss.
Masks is an interesting game, one that takes the concept of storytelling and creates a basic, flexible system to allow it to work.
Grab your cape and don that domino mask: let’s take a look at Masks.
New Kids on the Block
The setting of Masks is Halcyon, a bustling metropolis. Over 10 million people, lots of neighborhoods with towering skyscrapers, bustling streets, nice parks, and diverse populations.
And it’s always the target of alien invasions, dimensional incursions, and paranormal activity.
As a result, superheroes have been a thing in the city. These are divided into four generations. The gold generation are the first of these superheroes, coming out of the depression and World War II. Then came the Silver generation, where superpowers became more powerful, with higher stakes than simple costumed thrives and occasional giant monsters. Teams became important. Then the Bronze generation happened, and a darker turn occurred. This generation was focused on making themselves new, trying to find better (often permanent) solutions to the issues that faced them.
The modern generation, then, is where you come in, a new generation of heroes, set to decide what they will become.
The setting is a somewhat secondary feature. Comic buffs will note the nod to comic book ages, with a lot of the tropes and concepts working their way into the actual history of the setting. It’s a nice touch, and gives some of the setting a unique flavor. Rather than deny any part of the history of comics, the setting tries to work it all as a history.
The characters, then, are the driving force. The setting is, ultimately, what the players choose to make it. They could become a dark band of anti-heroes, but more trend toward ambiguity. The setting encourages the characters to be a reconstruction of superheroes, taking into account all that came before, to make something new.
With that, let’s get into the heroes themselves.
Hero in Training
The main cues for the characters come from what are called Playbooks. You can think of Playbooks like classes…but honestly, that’s something of a disservice. Playbooks are something more akin to character and narrative archetypes. For example, one Playbook is called the Protege. A Protege is defined by a student/mentor relationship between them and an older hero. The Protege has similar skills and powers to their mentor, but ultimately has a narrative centered on where they will go with their own identity. The best example would be Dick Greyson. As Robin, he was defined by how his training was similar to Batman. They were hero and sidekick, really the best example. As Greyson grew up, though, he changed, eventually stepping out of the shadow of Batman to pursue his own goals his own way as Nightwing. While the student and mentor have similar talent (experts in hand to hand combat, detective work, and stealth), there are notable differences (Nightwing relies far more on charisma than fear, and his acrobatic skills are more pronounced).
Playbooks, then, become what role you take in the narrative, how you progress, and also what kind of powers you will (or will not) have. They also define particular struggles and questions your character will face. A Legacy character must contend with the weight that inheriting a title will bring, while a Doomed has a…well, doom, that cannot be avoided, but might, with time, be faced and overcome.
When one is making a character, teambuilding is important. First off, people can’t double up on playbooks, at least not at first (more on that later). Second, there is a system called influence that determines who’s opinion your characters cares about, and different playbooks allow different teammates to have influence over you. Finally, each playbook has background bits to fill in with other team members. For example, the Protege has the question of why the team stuck together after and how they kept in contact. They also have to choose a teammate they worked with before the rest came together and someone their mentor doesn’t trust.
Playbooks are, honestly, a unique system, and I mean this in a very good way. Each playbook has a different style, but also a different set of mechanics that force certain narrative considerations. A Nova, who’s powers are vast but difficult to control, is going to have to contend with collateral damage while a Janus is mostly concerned with keeping their dual identities separate. It’s a fun way of bringing diverse genres together.
The other aspects of your character to note are Labels and Conditions. Labels are…kinda stats…I say ‘kinda’ because they’re much more fluid than most stats and may change repeatedly even in a single session. Labels usually provide a bonus (or penalty) to various actions. Labels are how a character views themselves and, by proxy, how others tend to view them as a result of their actions. So, Danger represents a character viewing themselves as a dangerous person to contend with, while Mundane is a measure of how human a character would view themselves. Again, very much a narrative concept.
Conditions are issues your character can face. These range from Angry to Hopeless. They impose penalties on certain actions. These aren’t things your character necessarily wants, and there are ways to clear them.
Two more stats of importance that come up in play are Moment of Truth and Team Moves.
A Moment of Truth is when a character gets to seize the narrative. This is when the Legacy fully takes on the mantle of the family or the Protege defines their path. Basically, while you can’t control others, you do exactly what you want. These are the “big hero” moments. The “world of cardboard” speech from Justice League would be a great example for Superman.
Team Moves are ways to clear conditions when you’re with your teammates. These are usually moments of triumph (so usually after conflict recovery) or moments of weakness (usually when things are looking hopeless). Each playbook has certain sets, so it helps to know when they kick in.
Playing the game is pretty simple with regard to system, at least. Roll 2d6, add modifiers (usually a label), then check to see if you got 7 or higher. If you do, you get a ‘hit.’ Ten or more is generally a better success.
The game itself only has a certain number of actions one takes. These are called Moves. They are broad and encourage a more narrative style of play. For example, Directly Engage a Threat can be done numerous ways, but always involves moving in and trading blows. If you’re a raging invulnerable juggernaut, you may do so just by wading in and exchanging blow for blow. A more agile character might move in and fight while deftly dodging and using their weapons. A magic user might move in to strike with an arcanely charged fist. It all is dependent on characters. There are Moves specific to Playbooks, and they range a bit, but can be extremely useful to the character type.
Character advancement is done through the playbook, and each one advances a little differently. However, all share a stat called Potential. Potential gets filled every time you roll a miss (yes, really: you get XP by failing) and in some other scenarios dictated by playbooks. When you get 5, you gain an advancement. Advancements are, again, specific to playbooks, but set some interesting mechanics. You can, for example, take more moves from you playbook, cause someone to lose Influence over you, or lock a label, making sure no one can ever alter it again.
Eventually, you can start taking more…advanced…advancements…god, that’s clumsy. These are opened after you’ve gotten some more advancements under your belt, and are far, far more radical in their application. For example, a character might change playbooks to one that someone is not currently playing. Alternatively, a character can take “adult moves.” No, these are not XXX rated, just moves which require a bit more finesse to pull off. They’re generally more powerful, but can come with some repercussions as well.
Eventually, a character might decide to retire via advancement or become a Paragon of the city, joining the ranks of the adult heroes. This lets a person start a brand new character and, essentially, game on as long as they wish.
Overall, Masks is a fantastic game for team based superheroes. It has a unique narrative flair that draws out the uniqueness of the genre. If you want to run a team of teenage supers, check the game out. It’s still a new one, and new supplements are coming out. Here’s to hoping it keeps going strong.
So as I browsed DriveThruRPG looking for the latest Traveller books (I’m looking at you, High Guard), I noticed a book among the top sellers.
Godbound. Curious, I decided to investigate and found it was not unlike my last review, Gods of the Fall, in that it was designed as a freeform, “become a god” type of game. However, this is where similarities end. Ascension is certainly a fun idea, but how does the game itself hold up?
Fight your way to heaven and get ready to seize the Throne of God: this is Godbound.
Have You Seen My God?
I’ll say this for the game: the backstory is certainly interesting.
Over a thousand years ago (the standard measurement that says you are talking about fantasy history) the Former Empires ruled and life was good. Education was everywhere, disease was unheard of, and everyone had food, work, shelter, and life. This was due to High Magic, which was basically hacking reality using the authority of God, being used by the theurges.
Yeah, it’s capitalized because this setting basically sets up a monotheism, at least at first. See, the Empires decided to start fighting each other (human nature being what it is) until finally, the theurges decided to do the unthinkable: confront the Almighty and ask who had the right to decide the fate of all humanity. So, they stormed the gates of heaven, beat down the angels, approached the throne…and found it empty. God was not there. If he ever was, none were sure. However, the theurges saw a chance here.
In an attempt to seize the throne, they forged new gods, the Made Gods. These artificial gods waged war unheard of before, with powers hitherto untapped. Their wars damaged the fabric of reality itself. The Last War, as it came to be called, did not end with a truce or some great victory, but rather simply winnowed away as the Made Gods faded from the world, destroyed or simply lost.
The world now is diminished, but something new has begun. Some mortals have begun to inherit divine power, shards of the Promethean flame. These Godbound quickly gather power and worship, including you.
While the background explains you, it doesn’t get at some of the serious craziness of the setting. The Former Empires may be gone, but new ones stand in their place. These range from a republic which maintains high level technology to a set of necromancer pirates to a country ruled by automata with mortal serfs. Technology ranges from barbarians with nothing but primitive weapons to what are effectively railguns. Magic and technology frequently interplay, creating things like the Godwalkers (mecha with divine power) and magically powered clockwork cybernetics.
Of course…all of this is somewhat fragile. Every area has problems, issues that need to be resolved, and the Godbound are free to solve them as they wish.
As I said, the setting is nuts, but also has a sort of internal cohesion that lends itself well to campaigns. Want to play a forge master who also happens to have a clockwork arm? You can do that. A savvy sorcerer? Yep, that’s a thing.
Making a Godbound is a bit like making a Dungeons & Dragons character. The standard ability score array is present, though modifiers are a bit different. They’re also a bit…odd in terms of functionality. You aren’t going to be increasing them much during play, and some innate powers you’ll have (more on that in a bit) can cause them to jump.
What’s much more interesting is the features that get added. One is called Facts. Basically, you choose three Facts about your character: one about where they’re from, one about how what they did prior to their ascension, and finally one about an important relationship or organization they’re with. The facts give a bonus when they come up. These help to flesh out your character as something more than numbers and “god of X”
Speaking of, one thing that helps define your character is Words. Words are, in effect, your domains and spheres of influence. Each one is a part of the character’s divine nature. These range from elemental like Earth, to obvious ones like Death, and more esoteric ones like Wealth. These carry innate powers with them, some of which are quite potent. Further refinement gives access to divine gifts. These are…well, basically your superpowers. Usually, they’re quite potent in several situations or supremely potent in a single area.
Words are probably the most defining aspect on your character. You can blend together words of Endurance, Might, and Strength to make a potent god of Warriors. Alternatively, Artifice, Knowledge, and Wealth can be a potent support character off the battlefield, knowing and creating whatever is needed at the time. Or, perhaps, you’d prefer Command, Passion, and Sorcery for a mystical leader. Further, you can perform miracles by spending Effort points (think divine power) to do…things. A few things are detailed for what can and can’t be accomplished, but…yes, miracles are every bit as miraculous as you might expect.
There are some optional character options that are worth mentioning. The first is artifacts. Characters can, theoretically, have Artifacts at character creation or build them later…and they are potent. Seeds that grow cities, armor that sacrifices followers to preserve the life as the wielder, or a signet ring that lets you open paths to other realities.
Other options include becoming a local divinity (being god of a nation has perks), martial arts, and themed Godbound to offer a bit of a different focus. The optional rules are nice, giving choices to certain groups who want, maybe, a martial arts epic or play a shapeshifter. Oh, and the mecha. Yeah, divinely powered mecha called Godwalkers. Amusingly, they’re less useful for Godbound than they are for their mortal servants.
Overall, character creation is interesting. There are a wealth of options and it’s entirely possible to make non-combat characters with terrifying capability. It’s a simple task to tweak a character just how you want. Take the war god example. You could swap Endurance for Alacrity to make a swifter combatant who attacks from every angle imaginable, or swap Might for Bow to become a fierce combatant at any range. No two godbound will be exactly alike, and that is a good thing.
What Hath God Wrought?
So…what do Godbound do? Much like with Exalted or Gods of the Fall, the ultimate answer is: whatever you want to. Unlike Gods of the Fall, there isn’t any grand prophecy. Heck, you’re more in the dark than usual: no one is entirely sure what you are! While Exalted has a metaplot and numerous big characters and threats and Gods of the Fall has the Seven Prophecies, Godbound is very much a sandbox idea. Ultimately, the reason you want characters to have goals is that it’s going to be important.
This is where a few concepts come in that are useful for new deities: Influence and Domain.
Influence is a set of points representing how much power you have over something when you give the situation your undivided attention. You could use it to change things so long as you are present and shift and change things to your advantage, but it’s something that requires a hero to focus. While these changes can be lasting, they tend to fade when a Godbound character isn’t directing attention. Mechanically, this operates by committing the Influence to a task. So long as it it bound up, the change remains. However, once it’s loosed, you can move on to the next project. This allows characters to slip from situation to situation.
Dominion is a bit different in that it allows a character to make lasting changes without personal oversight. This can range from forging an artifact to subtly altering the fate of the area. This tends to be a slow process, so it can’t be used on the fly like Influence, but it does give you some serious pull. Dominion is spent on a permanent basis, but it also makes permanent changes. It also tends to be a relatively stable resource.
Influence is something that comes and goes as the character sees fit. Dominion is something accumulated, mostly through worshipers. As your followers grow, so too does your acquired Dominion. One fun aspect is that you get more points based on how hard your tenants are to follow. A general “be a good person” won’t net you as much as “make one piece of art each month” which in turn won’t hit the “sacrifice a virgin in public every week” level.
The two aspects make it possible to enact real changes on the world, and in my mind are highly useful tools. You can directly deal with it via roleplay, or more off screen with influence, or with a lasting effect through Dominion. With those tools, it becomes far easier to make your will manifest.
Contenders for the Throne
Of course, it couldn’t be completely simple. There are forces and foes that will oppose you. Some are relatively simple. Mortals can oppose you, but there’s not a lot they can do individually. One system that is around is called Fray, which allows a Godbound to simply deal damage to unimportant foes. This allows them to simply clear out various issues.
Of course, real foes do exist. Spirits, summoned entities, mobs of lesser foes, and Eldritch spellcasters offer a significant challenge in their own way. There are also angels, parasite gods, and even remaining Made Gods that could potentially destroy lower ranking pantheons. These foes are potentially in the way due to the character’s goals, relationships, or even simply because they are both contenders for power.
These aren’t the only issue one can face, of course. Each country has potential problems and issues. These range from the Bright Republic’s power systems slowly failing to the necromantic pirate nation…being run by necromantic pirates…I really feel like I shouldn’t have to explain that one. Still, each nation has issues. Add this to mystic curses, the primordial darkness making life difficult now and again, and the world generally being complicated…and you have a world that could use some problem solvers.
Honestly, this is probably the most open-ended segment. There are certainly antagonists galore, and many of them will reveal themselves as you strive for power. I’d say the world is…ever so slightly better than Exalted and Gods of the Fall, if only because the world isn’t in constant danger or just a terrible place to live forever. Like the two games, the game is about making the world better…if you can.
Be Ye God or Goddess
Final thoughts on this one are going to be brief. Overall, I see the game having a lot of potential. When I compare it to other games of incredibly powerful individuals, it doesn’t have quite the depth of Exalted, nor the grand scheme of Gods of the Fall. What it does have is options, and lots of them. It’s probably the first game I’ve seen where building a god of _______ is a viable concept that is both nuanced and mechanically important. Further, the different optional mechanics, simple but easily customized design, and plethora of methods of accomplishing goals make this a worthy game in its own right. I’d say give it a look, particularly if you’re looking for something properly mythic.
What the…where did this game come from?
Where have I been these past months?
(Looks at schedule). Oooooooh…right…dying…
Anyway, this latest release for the Cypher system, which was derived from RPG legend Monte Cook’s Numenera, snuck up on me. Despite having a vague inkling that it was, in fact, a thing, I hadn’t paid it much mind due to the aforementioned life-cessation related activities. That said…it’s a doozy, done in the way that only Monte’s team could really do.
Grab your spark and get ready to Ascend: this is Gods of the Fall.
No Gods, Plenty of Masters
The gods are dead.In the golden age, they were the shepards of humanity, guiding and watching to ensure the people would prosper. They granted knowledge, magic, channeling their divinity to raise all. For millennia, the world was at relative peace.
Then they fell.
Rather spectacularly, I might add. Their heavenly realm, Elanehtar, burning, crashed from the sky into the earth, scattering into millions of fragments. One kingdom was gone entirely. Others survived, but greatly diminished. The people took a new name for their land: Afterworld.
Forty-two years have passed. In the wake of the passing, others have risen to power. Slavery runs rampant, dictators rule with iron fists, monsters rampage out of control, and the people see no way out. Reconciliators, atheists who expunge last worship of the gods, enforce their brutal regime, the dragon (mega-sorceress) Nulumriel rules the Nightlands, and Nod, a moon formed from nowhere, blocked out the light of the sun in one area. Oh, and something called the Annihilation Seed is sitting in a dark underground world called the Deeps that may be responsible for the Fall.
Yet things are not without hope. In the Book of Fate, the Seven Prophecies were written by the God of Destiny. They declare that these things will pass at the hands of gods…which is where the players step in.
The setting is…honestly very interesting. It takes its cues from classic mythology, but if the gods just up and went extinct. The world is basically set so that the players get to not only be heroes, but true saviors. Further, a lot of things GMs might use anyway (ancient prophecy, tasks to gate into higher power) are built into the world itself.
I Have Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds
How does one go about becoming a god? Well, the good news is that for purposes of the game, the PCs start at normal level and the decisions they make affect what kind of deity they become.
For those who have played other Cypher games, the creation will be familiar: “I am an adjective noun that does something.” There’s just one small addendum at the end: god of domain. That’s right: want to be the god of death? Go nuts. Goddess of the Sun? Rock it. Like the other traits, this one advances over time, but with some additional caveats.
As you advance, you gain additional powers. These range from simple like summoning a heavenly servant to generating earthquakes. These powers aren’t free, though. You have certain tasks that need to be done before the powers work, ranging from deciding your domain to deciding your own dogma. A couple require serious tasks. Overthrowing dictators, destroying ancient evils…that sort of thing.These extra bonuses allow you to do superhuman feats, pushing into territory meant for…well, gods. These place you well outside of normal mortals, and lets you tackle such issues as Hellmaw, a giant underworld guardian or leap tall buildings in a single bound…which is nice. It’s about a 50% increase. Given some of the things you have to fight, that’s a great help. Speaking of…
I Will Teach You To Fight Legends
To put it bluntly, life as a god isn’t an easy one in the Afterworld. The Order of Reconciliation is an early threat. Basically, they’re an enforced atheist organization. “Enforce” in this case means burning anyone who claims to be a god as a heretic. It’s an odd, backwards world we have here…though admittedly, I have to wonder what they do with gods of fire…There’s an assassin’s guild called the Tranquil, and the rank and file witches, wizards, and other mortal antagonists. Outside of the cities and Nightlands, orcs, goblins and ogres drift around. Of course, there are other races outside as well. The Sleen are a race of snake men. They worshiped the old gods, and are very clever. The Taran are eyeless hulking humanoids. Both are playable and can ascend to become gods themselves.
Really, though, the biggest challenges aren’t the monsters you fight, but rather the oppressive conditions of the world itself. It’s messed up, both on a natural and supernatural level. Hellmaw, that dragon thing you see, is supposed to be an underworld guardian, but is currently rampaging through the multiverse. Slavery is now an accepted institution, as is bribery for crimes like torture and murder. That moon called Nod is blocking out sunlight for the largest civilization. Fixing these problems isn’t as simple as fighting a monster, but still lie within the realm of possibility for dedicated heroes.
Meet the New Gods
Overall, this is a great setting piece, and well worthy of the Cypher system. This review might feel a bit short because the mechanics are already set. Overall, if you want to play as fledgling gods, this is a great system to do it in.
Eclipse Phase: (n) 1. the time between infection by (or induction of) a bacteriophage, or other virus, and the appearance of mature virus within the cell; an interval of time during which viral infectivity cannot be recovered.
Eclipse Phase is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious projects ever tackled in tabletop gaming. Not in scope, scale, or story, necessarily, but rather in how the marketing would be approached. That said, the game itself is something my friends and I have played in between Pathfinder, Exalted, and World of Darkness. It’s an interesting look at horor in general, and is perhaps one of the best hard science fiction games I’ve come across.
Sleeve up and get ready to face some X-threats: this is Eclipse Phase.
The StoryEarth is gone. It was always heading that way. Between climate change robbing us of food, oppressive governments robbing us of rights, and the corporations robbing us of everything else, the world became a hostile place. Technology grew far faster than wisdom, and several technologies changed humanity forever. The first was nanotechnology growing at such a rate that nanofabricators become a reality, able to create anything needed so long as the raw matter is available. The second is far more game changing: a computer capable of storing the collective consciousness of a human being no larger than a man’s finger. This, combined with nanites that read the brain’s entire composition and neural impulses, means that humanity can store their minds onto these drives. With this, humanity has become immortal. Unlocking the mind allowed humanity to uplift creatures such as octopi and primates.
The last technology, though, would be the final nail in the coffin. Wars were being waged everywhere. Uprisings were taking place as the disenfranchised took up arms against the increasingly brutal regimes. And then the TITIANS were created.
The TITANS were massive artifical intelligences, seed AIs, capable of parabolic self-improvement. They were also created in such a way that they did not view themselves as being part of the larger whole of transhumanity.
And then…something happened. The TITANs rebelled, and humanity was scourged from the earth. Earth, once the home of humanity, is now uninhabitable. Weapons shifted the weather in terrifying directions. War machines made by the TITANs still roam the world. Something to the tune of 90% of humanity was lost, their backups uploaded by hunter drones.
Things get worse. Humanity is now scattered across the solar system, and now is attempting to stave off extinction following the catastrophic destruction of its home world in what becomes known as the Fall. Transhumanity reacted…as they do. The corporations run the inner systems, and most of Venus and Mars is run by traditional corporate governments. Jupiter is now controlled mostly by the Jovian Republic, a staunchly conservative bastion of humanity…and against transhumanity. Titan is now controlled by the Titanian Commonwealth, a neo-anarchist movement. Beyond that things get…weird. The Ultimates work as eugenic supermen, brinkers go beyond the pale, and exhumans abandon their humanity entirely.
To prevent another Fall, several groups band together, forming Firewall. Loosely organized into cells, working on shoestring budget and using methods most would find, at best, questionable, the Sentinels of Firewall combat existential threats to save transhumanity.
God help them.
All Alone in the Night
To call you “screwed” in this game is charitable. Earth is gone. Humanity is now “Transhumanity,” including uplifts, artificial intelligence, and…some odder things. You band together with a group of others to combat existential threats, or x-threats. Firewall calls on Sentinels of all backgrounds. Hypercorporations, anarchists, people from the fringes, governments, socialites, hackers…all legitimate options. They face off against transcendent intelligence, aliens, and…stranger things.Eclipse Phase takes some seriously wonky assumptions when it comes to characters. If you remember my review of Shadowrun, it had some seriously odd concepts. Well…this takes the cake. First off, your character isn’t one part, but two. The first is your ego, or your essential you-ness. It contains your memories, knowledge, intellect, and experience. The second is your morph, or…for lack of a better term, body. That’s not an exact definition, but it’ll have to do. Your morph can range from a normal human to a robotic hovering tank to a giant crab. Yes, after all this time, you can be a giant enemy crab.
But this really doesn’t get at the kinds of crazy you can do. Your mind is a complex program, so you can alter it, copy it, even create smaller versions. You morph can be altered, upgraded, given enhanced senses…and it’s all very neat. It creates some real logical insanity as well. See…humans aren’t exactly used to those things. It’s a forced, and very artificial, kind of evolution. You get shot, you wake up, and you’re in a new body, you realize you cut out your own memories…hell you can program yourself to do things that ordinarily you would find insane. It leads to some decidedly odd problems, and can cause your character to slowly lose their grip on reality. This is all before you get into legality and ethics.
So, let’s talk mechanics and a bit about how the characters operate in the world.
The system itself is fairly simple: roll a d% and compare the results against your skill. Modifiers come in, and you succeed or fail.
Sounds simple, right? And it is. In terms of core mechanic, it’s pretty basic. Damage is all d10 based, so no need to fish for additional dice, and, further, dice rarely go over the need for 2-3, so you won’t need a lot of them to play.
Now on to the character. As I mentioned, characters are divided into Egos and Morphs. Different character aspects are bound to each, and can influence the other.
The first step is choosing a Background and Faction. Background is where your character came from. You might be an uplift, an artificial intelligence, or a space colonist. Several options exist. Factions, on the other hand, is what your character is now. Anarchist? Hypercapitalist? Jovian? Socialite? The options are all over, and can shape a lot of who your character is.
The next bit can be a lot of chaos: spending free points. You get to up your stats, some of which are relatively straightforward and others are…not.
Aptitudes are your raw stats. They are pretty straightforward, though things like Somatics aren’t necessarily intuitive.
Skills are much more easy to understand, and form the base of most of your actions. Your aptitudes work for ‘untrained’ skills at varying rates.
Spending points can be…fatiguing. You can buy merits and drawbacks, skills, morphs, traits…it goes on and on.
One odd bit is the Reputation system. Rather than cold, hard cash, a lot of characters can instead opt to have a reputation in certain networks. This lets you call on favors or even owe someone to try to get something you need. This is important in every game, but can be critical of you are living outside of the central system. The reason is simple: this is a post-scarcity economy.
What I mean by this is that credits are how you purchase things in the inner system, but nano-fabricators can make basically anything you’ll need. Further, reputation can let you call in favors to get things you need far easier than purchasing them, and often give access to off the market favors. You can certainly get some things like blueprints with credits, and from there construct what you need, but with a nano-fabricator and some time, you can do a lot with those blueprints.
TransitioningOk, now let’s talk about some of the oddities of the game. By this, I mean beyond the fact that you’re an immortal cyber-ghost that can change bodies and cyber yourself to all hell and back.
The TITANs left behind a legacy, and it’s an ugly one. As one book notes, most of what you have is a result of the Fall. Some of it is questionable as to whether they actually are TITAN tech, but…here we go.
The first things are the Pandora Gates. What are they? Think the Stargates as designed by John Carpenter. They connect to a system and leet you travel through a wormhole to reach far destinations instantly. Sounds nifty, right? Except no one is sure who built them. TITANs? Seems unlikely, given there seems to be networks that existed for extinct species. Factors? Maybe, but then why don’t they use them? There’s also matters of the gates being…odd. Sometimes they work fine. Sometimes they cut off mid transmission and cut a person in half. One story details a woman who was kidnapped during the fall and missing. She came back in a different body…which had been traveling in the gate at the time. The original ego is a bit annoyed. Add in the strange places it takes you, from a station orbiting a black hole to a full on Dyson sphere, and you have a lot of weird and potentially hazardous stuff.
Next on the list: the Exsurgent virus. This thing is…possibly mislabeled as being only one thing. It’s basically a nano-virus…kinda, that is designed to rewrite humans. The scary thing about it is that it, somehow, can ride through backups. To give some ideas, the virus ranges from the relatively benign Watts-Maclaud strain to viruses that rewrite your body and mind into things that wouldn’t qualify as even remotely human.
The Watts-Maclaud is an interesting phenomena. Those infected go a bit insane, but also gain what are basically psychic powers. Initially, they can enhance their own minds, boosting logic, suppressing undesirable emotions, or allowing their subconscious to do most of the processing in combat. Later abilities include touch range telepathy and frying people’s nervous systems. This is probably the softest science fiction in the setting, but…well, that’s super-intelligence for you.
Some of the factions of the game also stretch or even bust the idea of being human. The exhumans are, in effect, those who decided that humanity is an outdated concept and they would be come post-human, abandoning any vestiges of humanity. Not surprisingly, this tends to lead them to being hostile a lot. A different faction, the Ultimates are…well, as one Firewall agent put it, exhumans with a code of conduct. They are adherents to self-improvement and tend to view the rest of transhumanity as inferior…which can be taken to some extremes.
By this point, you may be wondering what exactly you could be fighting that’s so bad it makes you feel like a helpless child. Well…read on.
Like any good game, Eclipse Phase takes a central concept and stretches it to gives some decidedly unique concepts. Different kinds of games, however, require different antagonists.
The first, and perhaps most obvious problem you’re likely to face, is the TITIANs. Not directly, mind, but rather what is left behind. Aggressive nano-plagues that reshape the body into hideous monsters? They have those. Robotic monstrosities which can seemingly break the laws of physics? Yep. Viral infections transmitted by sensory perception? Basilisk hacks. Dealt with one on Tuesday. These are just some of the horrors the TITANs left. This is…I guess as close as you get to a default Eclipse Phase game: strange remnant that jeapordizes transhumanity, go solve it. As you can see, it’s a good set of problems, and no one is really sure what they’re in for.The TITANs themselves are an ever elusive threat. There’s a lot of spoiler territory with them, but the important factor to know is that they are supremely intelligent and vast beyond measure. Where they went and what they have as an agenda is a large black box. A lot of what they are doing is up to the GM, but they’re not given stats for a reason.
Another odd antagonist…maybe, is the Factors. Factors are…basically sentient slime mold colonies that make contact with humanity shortly following the Fall. They’re truly alien. Not a lot of really known about them, and little is elaborated on, but they’re mysterious and potentially horrifying antagonists as they may have faster than light capability, among others.
The worst one, though? Transhumanity itself. Yeah, it’s depressing, but we’ve been working on killing off swaths of folks we don’t like since our first primitive ancestor picked up a rock. We’ve gotten good at it. The Ultimates are a fascist lot, discriminating against ‘gene-trash,’ the Jovians view anyone not human (no mods, no morphs, no gene therapy) as…well, not human, and therefore the enemy, the Consortium may well blow everyone to hell, and the exhumans abandon their humanity…sometimes deciding to destroy transhumanity in the process. OZMA, the corporate version of Firewall, is doing some shady stuff, things from the Pandora Gates stand a good chance of presenting terrifying stuff, and people smuggle it back to make a quick buck.
Questions that Matter
Some might ask, “what kinds of themes does the game tackle?” …ok, fine, I ask that, at least.
One of the driving themes is the question of human identity. Namely, what does it mean to be human? Much like Ghost in the Shell or Blade Runner, there becomes a question: what is humanity when the things we usually associate with humanity no longer apply? The fact that you can swap bodies is weird enough, but things like uplifts and AI working alongside you can lead to the question of whether or not human identity is even important anymore. Factions like the Ultimates push what humanity is, and singularity seekers and exhumans go beyond even that, seeking to become post-human. Heck, the Jovians try to cling to being human, strictly human, going to an opposite extreme.
Another central question is what one is willing to do to ensure the survival of transhumanity. It’s…not a comfortable question. One of the introductions mentions that Firewall sentinels are far from heroes, noting that you will have to make decisions like nuking a habitat to prevent a nano-plague from spreading or shoving a child out an airlock because they’re turning into an Exsurgent. Firewall are, at the best of times, morally gray. That shade gets dark. Are you willing to work with criminals? What about soul-stealers, people who copy egos to turn into slaves?
One last theme to touch on is, despite everything, Eclipse Phase isn’t completely dark. There are chances, real ones, to see where transhumanity is pretty damn awesome. The authors themselves are strong believers in open source and moderate forms of anarchism. Proof? Most games you’d pirate will get people annoyed. CthulhuTech has little things asking you to support them because they need the cash. Dungeons & Dragons just out and out didn’t have PDFs for a long time because they were tired of the piracy. Transhuman Stuidos? Pirate their game and they’ll give you a pat on the back and an “atta’ boy!” A lot of it is the idea that like minded folk can band together and, with some simple policies, live decent lives together with mutual contribution and technology. Yeah, some of it is rose-tinted, but it does give some hope. There’s also things like advocates for uplifts and AIs, small bits where everyone gets along, and even the general idea that, as much as we all dislike each other, we’re in this together.
Eclipse Phase is a game well worth exploring. It is flexible enough to tell a wide variety of stories and is honestly one of the more unique settings I’ve stumbled on. If some strange science fiction or survival horror tug at your heartstrings, give it a look.
I’m not sure what I’ll be reviewing next, though I assume it’ll be Mage for the recently redubbed Chronicles of Darkness. Keep an eye out.
Man…been a while since I did a gamecraft article. Well overdue, I think.
The topic today is what to do when you want to add something to the game that wasn’t there before. This one will be a bit shorter, but let’s delve into the idea, what I mean, and how to go about it.
Not on the Master Clipboard
I’m going to start with a small story. Back a while, a friend of mine was running an adventure path for Pathfinder. The AP was, appropriately enough, Rise of the Runelords, the first AP created by Paizo. It was good fun, with me as a half-elf oracle along with a dwarf monk and fighter and a human sorcerer and rogue. Life was pretty decent, overall. One minor addition was that the GM wanted to include some things that, in other areas, might be considered minor artifacts. The monk got a mask (luchador…long story), sorceress could turn into a dragon, rogue got a different mask, fighter got a special axe, and I got the ability to turn into an ooze demon…also long story.
The point, however, is that none of these things were, strictly speaking, statted. The GM, inventively, made minor quests for us to go on. After, we had these powers or items, and they…worked as they did.
The reason I bring them up is because these things helped to sepearate out our characters just a little bit. We were already a ragtag bunch of misfits, borderline criminals, and a tendancy to be a bit…zealous in our approach, but these things, in some ways, added that much more to the characters.
Just a Dash…
The trick when adding something to the game is to make it worthwhile while not making it game breaking. I’ve been in situations with both being present, and it created a sort of…problem. Another example was when, in a Dungeons and Dragons game, the GM added in a gunblade. Ok…I mean, not the worst idea. The mechanism behind it was at least interesting, loading alchemical items to create effects. However, it was…unbalanced, to say the least, doing overwhelming amounts of damage before enchantment and coming at no real cost to the character.
A good way to start adding something is to ask why you are adding it. Take the two above examples. The first was an attempt to make the characters special. They added some confusion, character development, gave us something that was uniquely ours. That, in my mind, is awesome and props to my friend Kevin for doing it. The second is…fan wankery. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with adding something from a popular fandom. Pathfinder includes an honest to god brawler archetype for Captain America shield throwing and another for hunters that want to be Robin Hood. Again…nothing wrong. The problem is the focus. It pulls things away from the character and instead makes it about the GM and his fandoms.
I’ve played homebrews in the past, ranging from fun (a few homebrews charms in Exalted) to the abysmal (an entire homebrews Final Fantasy game…) and it comes down a lot to how one chooses to incorporate them.
Balancing It Out
Really, homebrews additions to a game are easier than most people think, but harder than some would like to admit. Ultimately, the trick is game balance and flavor.
Game balance is critical because no one (except that guy) likes playing overpowered characters. Fewer like it when their character is rendered useless because of a broken character.
A simple way is to balance things against what exists already. Let’s look at D&D for inspiration.
In the game, magic weapons are balanced to be appropriate for each +1 that would be added. Looking at the lines, +1 can also be an additional 1d6 elemental damage. There are, in the core, rules for fire, cold, and electrical. For a long time, there wasn’t one for acid, but that was an easy homebrew: 1d6 acid. It wasn’t markedly better than any of the others, so it had no real balance issues.
So, roughly, you had a choice of +1 to attack and damage or an extra 1-6 damage, but with a chance that you come across a monster that made that enhancement useless if they had resistance.
This is mostly why there was never a +1 enchantment that did sonic damage. Sonic damage tends to have fewer monsters with resistance or immunity to it. This is usually balanced by how difficult and/or rare it is. Few classes have regular access (the Bard being an amusing, if understandable exception) and those that do usually have it attached to sub-par spells or abilities. It’s a bit like an armor piercing bullet: most of the time, you’re better off using a regular one, but now and again, it helps get through that extra protection.
Home brewing in a sonic damage weapon would be tricky, because it’s not worthy +2, but it’s too powerful for +1. The odd solution was to make it a +1 that only happened on a critical hit, but had a 1d8 instead of a 1d6 to help with the chances. It’s not a bad one, just one that requires a bit more chance than most.
These are the kinds of calculations required to drop something into a game. Theoretically, there’s nothing stopping you from entering anything you want (artifacts, potent powers, etc), but one should be careful about how they are introduced.
If I have once critique of the Runelords set up, it’s that the powers came at different times to different people and, while balanced, were difficult to incorporate sometimes. My character was last in the running. This wouldn’t have been so bad, and it was a fun addition to his character arc, but I only got to enjoy the trick it bestowed for the last 1/6 of the game, where others had gotten theirs much earlier. By the time it entered into play, it wasn’t of much particular use, having been outstripped by the build and items I had acquired or built over time. Similarly, our rogue got his item…a bit early in my opinion. The item made him a powerful character at lower levels, and it became routine by the time he got to higher. While rogues certainly need the boost a bit more than oracles, it was probably an early peak.
Which is the other key to remember: make sure people aren’t feeling left out. Generally, when a wizard is starting out, it’s a good time to give them a cool item because, really, late game they don’t need much help. Anything at that point is just gravy. By contrast, a fighter at earlier levels is much better off, and granting him a potent artifact later on will make him feel all the better. But really, seriously, don’t give one person and one person only access to this super cool stuff. It’s…limiting. Unless you want inter-party conflict over a single powerful item (happened once in an Exalted game where none of us trusted the other with the fabled Eye of Autochthon), it’s a poor maneuver since it shower clear favoritism.
And We’re Doing This Why?
This is the second bit. Ultimately, a lot of homebrew comes about for flavor reasons. Generally, people want to add something to the game that isn’t there, and usually, the reason is because they think it will add to the game. This is where I need to add a word of caution, because this is probably one of the critical balances of the setting.
Namely, what is and isn’t a good addition.
Now, to be fair, everything about flavor tends to be subjective. What works at one table might bomb at another and vice-versa. Part of it is feeling things out. Generally, at the table I play at, the term “fan-wankery” gets tossed around a lot, and you can guess how much we approve of things like gunblades and giant swords being added where they have no place. I’ve played at groups where those same things get added all over the place.
In my opinion, adding something like a gunblades to, say, a high flying fantasy adventure with magitech and steampunk elements is perfectly fine. Heck, adding it as part of a technomagic society in a game is…ok, at least. Randomly adding it to, say, Fâerun? Probably not a great idea. Sorry, hung up on gunblades…
The point is, adding something, even something odd, can be done, and even done with a fair bit of fun, but the setting and characters should always be the focus. If a character can benefit from, say, an alchemical spear that has an explosive tip, sure, why not?
Make sure the game is fun for everyone! When you add something, don’t make it the focus, but just one more little neat thing about your game.
Oh, where to begin…
Once upon a time, there were games. They were fun, yes, but hitting the level of epic power was almost always out of reach of all but the greatest of characters.
And then along came Exalted. This was a game that drew on inspiration from everything that wasn’t Tolkien. However, the game faced an uphill battle. Solid rules were problematic, the game often haunted by mechanical quirks, and mathematical nightmares.
There is something truly amazing about the game.
I’ve waited years to write this review. So here it is. *Deep Breath*
Grab your daiklave, ready your kung-fu, and get ready for the fight of several lifetimes.
And the World Was Dark and Formless
In the beginning…there was nothing. In the nothing dwelt beings of omnipotent power and might. They were eternal, outside of time, simply existing. But then, everything changed. The Primoridals formed Creation.
The Primordials, Titans of immesurable power, shaped Creation, gave it laws, formed life, created the gods to act as custodians and guardians. To the greatest, the Incarnae, were given the most power. Yet, they feared their creations, and thus bound them with the Great Geas, that none could raise a hand against them.
But the gods, for various reasons, sought to rebel. Autochthon, the Great Maker, weary of his Titan bretheran, aided the wayward gods, as did his sister, Gaia. In his power, Autochthon forged shards of power, then bestowed them to the Incarnae and Gaia. Thus, the Exalted were born.
Servants and weapons of the gods, the Exalted did the impossible: they beat the Primordials. For their ability, they were given rule of Creation while the gods dwealt in heaven.
Of the Exalted, the greatest were the Solars, chosen of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.
However, in their death throes, the former Titans cursed the gods that had risen against them. While they were ready, they did not foresee that their curse would slide to their Chosen.
And the Exalted slipped into madness. The Solars bore the curse most heavily, and as a result, the Dragon-Blooded and Sidereals rose against them, slaying them and binding them into a prison.
Thousands of years have passed, and times have changed. The Dragon-Blooded, weakest of the Exalted, now rule the world. The Lunar mates of the Solars wage endless war against them and the Sidereal traitors. But the Scarlet Throne is empty, and the world is on the brink of destruction.
And the Solars, the mad God-Kings of a lost era, have returned. For salvation, or destruction, none yet know.
The story of Exalted hits a lot of the right notes: epic tales of heroism, the Titanomachy, fatal flaws, and a chance to truly make a difference. The setting and various Exalt types allow for a lot of diversity of play. Further, it gives a lot of weight to what you are. You’re not just some random adventurer, you’re the chosen of the gods, remnants of a struggle of a previous age. Further, you’re flawed, and that flaw is built into the game itself.
Ok, I will not lie, when I saw the cover, I was a bit…underwhelmed. The art itself wasn’t bad, just that the front cover of a game like Exalted should really wow people. Then I opened the book.
There is a lot to like about it. The artwork is, for the most part, simply amazing. It really evokes the concept of the mythic hero of old rather than the anime feel a lot of folks felt second edition was going for. The art feels like it’s a mixture of ancient myth and modern storytelling. The page design is also beautiful in a very subtle way. The page looks like papyrus with small art in the margins. That art is quite interesting itself, changing from section to section. Overall, it’s a beautiful design.
If I have some gripes, it’s the lack of style consistency. The art can be anything from anime to almost three dimensional art. As a result, it can be jarring going from one to the next.
I am Become Death…
So…making a super-powered demigod…shouldn’t be too tricky…
Character creation for Third Edition has a lot of familiar hallmarks, particularly if you’ve played Storyteller games in the past. The first step is your concept and caste, which are closely related.
Every Exalt (cept one, later) has divisions called Castes which are meant to evoke certain archetypes. For Solars, these are:
- Dawn: Warriors, champions, and generals.
- Zenith: Priest kings, prophets, and holy warriors.
- Twilight: Savants, occultists, and crafters
- Night: Spies, assassins, and scouts
- Eclipse: Diplomats, bureaucrats, and outriders
Each caste does something really well. If you want to put the hurt on, it’s hard to beat a Dawn. If you like to sneak, Nights are probably good. Want to be a consummate diplomat? Eclipse would be good.
These are flexible. There is nothing to say that a Dawn cannot be a sorcerer or a Night cannot be a warrior, but they have several benefits that others would not in their archetype. Each caste has a set of abilities you can choose. Dawns can choose any weapon category, Nights are adept at quickness and subtlety while a Zenith can give rousing orations and convince even the most hardened rivals to his cause.
Further, each has some abilities tied to their specific caste called anima effects. Animas are expressions of your soul made manifest when you use your power. Dawns can frighten anything, Twilights gain several mystic abilities, and Eclipses can seal oaths with supernatural consequences.
Ok…that’s step 1.
The rest of creation is more freeform. Attributes, like World of Darkness, are split into Physical, Mental, and Social, and you similarly choose a primary, secondary, and tertiary. The difference is…your tertiary is the secondary in Vampire. Yep, you’re a superpowered demigod: it has perks.
Abilities are like skills: more focused and refined and usually what your roll in conjunction with an Attribute. Abilities are also what your powers, called Charms, are keyed off of (at least as a Solar) and so it is important to know what you want to focus on. As I mentioend, each Caste has some abilities they’re better at. Unlike 2e, these aren’t set in stone. Caste abilities are selected from a group of 9, and you choose 5. It allows for some flexibility before choosing favored abilities, which are similar.
A new concept, and one worth talking about, is the supernal ability. Supernal abilities allow you to ignore Essence (think level) requirements for charms. This is…well, it’s what lets you do a lot of your nastiest tricks.
Merits are particularly interesting in this game. They encompass a lot of odd abilities. For example, Artifact gives you control of a powerful relic. It could be a sword, a set of armor, a globe which stabilizes reality around you, or a mech called a Warstrider. Another, more mundane example, is Backing, which represents an organization supporting you. Merits are small benefits, but measurable in how you build your character.
Last are some odd stats unique to this game. If you’ve played or know anything about the Storyteller system, the conecept of a Power Stat should be familiar. This game has Essence, which is a measure of your character’s inner power. This manifests as motes, your fuel stat. Third edition breaks from tradition a bit in that Essence is no longer a purchased stat, but increases as you progress in experience earned. Solars still have the best mote pools, so there’s that.
The last bit to discuss is experience, which is actually quite fun. You get normal experience points usable on anything, and then there is what’s called Solar Experience. Solar XP is…kinda like bonus roleplay XP. You can earn it in several ways, but the most common is good roleplay (including your flaws coming into account) and what are called role bonuses, which is doing something your caste is supposed to do.
With some bonus point spent, life is good, and your character is good to go!
Surviving in a World of Gods and Monsters
The system of the current Exalted is revamped from the old storyteller system. If you’ve played any White Wolf games in the past, the system will be familiar: d10 dice pool, success at 7 or higher, 10s are doubled. After this is where things get streamlined.
Combat draws heavily on inspiration from Dissidia: Final Fantasy of all things. Your initiative is built and acts both as a turn order mechanic and as fuel for launching an attack. When you build it enough, you can launch a decisive attack, which will damage an opponent’s health. It’s simultaneously intuitive while allowing for a lot of different tactics and strategies, particularly with the various powers of the Exalted. You can save up for one mega blow or do a ‘death of a thousand cuts’ strategy.
One aspect that (thankfully) got an overhaul is social interactions. Second edition had what was referred to by the devs as “yelling at each other until one person ran out of willpower.” It was boring, flat, and allowed for some serious abuse in the right hands. The current system plays off of what are called Intimacies. These are things your character cares about, be they people, objects, or ideals. They vary in strength and can mean a lot of things, but they are both your defense and weakness for social activity.
If someone wants to influence you, they have to play off of an intimacy. They might try to convince you to betray your friends with the idea that they have your spouse. However, you can also use them to defend, so you can invoke your principle of “I can’t abide a traitor” to defend against it. This system is interesting since it encourages players to be inventive. Intimacies are simultaneously your biggest weakness and only defense.
Crafting is also it’s own minigame. Basically, doing crafting activities earns crafting experience in a few flavors. As you build bigger projects, your experience type goes up. It eventually allows you to build artifacts, including the coveted N/A (or beyond the normal 5 dot) artifacts. These can potentially change the world. So…better start crafting those horseshoes.
There are systems in place for mass combat, combat on ships, raising animals, poisoning people, surviving in the environment…just about anything that might go crazy.
I’ve made a lot of references to it, so here’s what Charms are. Charms are, more or less, your supernatural powers. They range in potency and effect, but generally start simple and grow in power, expanding on the simple to be more potent. As an example, let’s go to my favorite of the combat trees: brawl. Brawl is unarmed combat, and more brute force than anything. One of the starting charms gives minor bonuses to grapple a foe and some extra initiative. This leads into charms that let you secure a foe with strength, maintain you grapple longer, grab foes well outside what you should be able to, and shake a foe the size of a mountain to death. That’s not even the apex.
There are other powers you can access, including supernatural martial arts such as the iaido based Single Point Shining Into the Void and the insidious Black Claw style (use love as a weapon!). The last is sorcery, which is powerful even by Exalted standards. At first, it lets you summon swarms of obsidian winged butterflies that cut your foes apart. It goes up from there. These powers require a bit more in terms of rules and investment, but allow you to pull some interesting tricks.
All of these powers are designed so that your character will grow in power. You start potent enough, but can get even more so over time. Of note is essence, a stat which increases slowly as you gain experience. This is what locks most powers. However, your chosen Supernal ability lets you bypass this, making you gain potentially hugely powerful charms from the onset.
One last bit is equipment. Equipment in the game is a bit more abstracted than usual. Weapons and armor fall into light, medium, and heavy with unified stat blocks. Adding tags is what makes weapons unique. This works well enough, though I’m waiting for more armor tags than the two that currently exist.
Artifacts are far more variable and far, far more potent. Each is simply superior to the various counterparts. Further, artifacts grant access to evocations, powers unique to the weapon which can do things ranging from generating deadly poisons to protecting the user from harm to generating active volcanoes when striking the ground.
Crunch-wise, the game does an admirable job on a lot of fronts. Overall, the game makes you feel properly powerful, but has it’s own limitations. Combat can go a lot of ways, but can also lead to potentially slow combat.
The Good Fight
What do you send against characters that gods fear?
Amusingly, despite what you might imagine, the Exalted have no shortage of foes lining up to knock them around. The myriad of enemies the Exalted Host face are diverse and ever present. To be certain, your characters are never without someone to face.
Tradition holds that there are four main types of antagonists: character vs. character, character vs. the supernatural, character vs. nature, and character vs. self. All of these are possible in Exalted, and all of them have their place.
The most important conflicts are Exalted vs. the problems around them. These could be several things, ranging from a petty tyrant to a rogue spirit to another Exalt. Let’s cover a few.
Mortals aren’t overall powerful…but there are a lot of them. A lot of the people you will encounter are mortal. They may not be powerful, but they are numerous, and, on occasion, break into some crazy territory. In this edition, mortals can cast sorcery, a departure from previous editions. Some can grow potent in combat. That said, most of the time, they’re there are background, NPCs, and for them the setting is less ‘crazy awesome’ and more ‘cosmic horror.’
There are creatures slightly above mortal. Giant man eating boars, sharks that swim through mists, mortals crossed with animals, and mutants from the Wyld. These are usually threatening…but might also be allies. Often, an exalt will befriend (or perhaps tame) such entities.
Spirits are another matter. “Spirit” is a somewhat nebulous term in Exalted, but a few commonalities are that they are non-mortal creatures which are normally insubstantial but can manifest. They embody many types, ranging from elementals to demons to gods of Yu-Shan. Spirits are numerous, varied, and thus can be a varied foe. They range in power, with the least being slightly more dangerous than, say, a bear, and the most dangerous being deadly even to a full circle of Solars. Basically, think animism: if there’s a concept, there’s probably a god attached to it.
Fair Folk are…odd. They’re from entirely outside of Creation, and thus are…kinda nothing given form. Think Lovecraft elves…which is basically what they are. They have varied goals, but they tend to mess with reality in a lot of ways. Like spirits, they’re a varied and strange lot. They tend to be more perfect than mortals, but they’re also empty.
Some entities are powerful that simply…exist. Behemoths are one, giant monsters empowered beings of great potency. Other creatures, strange and powerful, exist throughout Creation, the giant living mountain Juggernaut and the strange Mother Bog, a living swamp.
One nugget of wisdom for RPGs: nothing tests any character quite like one of their own. This is every bit as true in Exalted, perhaps even more so. Exalts come in several flavors, and more are being revealed. Here’s a breakdown:
- Solars: Not every solar works at the same goals…in fact, many will disagree with one another…and they’re every bit as powerful as you.
- Lunars: These are barbaric shapeshifters seeking to topple the Realm. Oh, and one was probably your spouse in a past life. How that will play out is a bit…ambiguous…
- Sidereals: Over half of these guys want to kill you. The others mostly just want to control you. All of them have been the secret masters of Creation for thousands of years…and most likely won’t want you to interfere.
- Dragon-Blooded: The least powerful, but by far the most numerous, of the Exalted, whose power is passed through bloodlines. They run the Realm, and are what most people think of when they hear “Exalted.”
- Abyssals: Deathknights who fight for the Deathlords for the Underworld…the DeathWorld! Dark mirrors of the Solars that draw power from destruction.
- Liminals: Exalts created from the madness of a driven mortal combined with a strange force known as the Dark Mother, these Exalted often work as ghost hunters and mercenaries.
- Exigents: New to this edition, these are Exalted powered by the Divine Fire channeled through a god. They are a wide and varied lot, each one ranging in power, abilities, and purpose.
These are those found in the core book. More exist, including the corrupt Infernals, the mysterious Getimian, and the steampunk Alchemicals. Each offers unique challenge, methods, and dangers. Further, each has a unique take on the setting. Sidereals are most often thought of as a mixture of spy stories with martial arts epics and legal thrillers, as an example. Each can do many things, but their powers and abilities all drive them in slightly different directions.
I have made mention of this, but it bears repeating: Exalted is a different beast from a lot of games. Most games have you focused on advancement. Don’t get me wrong: upward drive is a thing in Exalted, and the more powerful you get, the more the world bends to your will. But…that itself becomes the question and the main drive of the game.
You are powerful. No mortal can hope to challenge you. Even from the start, you are well beyond mortal kin. With the simple application of an excellency, you are scores above others. Supernal abilities, martial arts Mastery, and sorcery simply make that all the more distinct.
Exalted, then, becomes about the story the character will tell. The characters are powerful, larger than life, and, in the end, their actions will have greater consequences. Much as with Greek tragedy, the flaws of a character can (and likely will) lead to their downfall, and that fall may well take the world with them.
But…here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to. The Exalted are every bit capable of seeing the way out of things. They could, potentially, save the collapsing world and restore balance. Just as easily, they could tip the balance into the fire.
Some Closing Thoughts
Third Edition has done a lot of good for the Exalted franchise. The battle system is a lot cleaner, the various abilities are far more streamlined, the various types of exalts feel good, and the look and feel of the game is fantastic. If you’re an old fan of the game, I suggest picking it up. If you’re new, then it’s well worth a look.
At the time of publishing, I’m using an advanced preview for the book. Some errata and additional charms are soon to be out with the full release.