Monday, June 20, 2016

Introducing Gods of the Fall

Gods of the Fall
Chapter 1: Welcome to the Afterworld

The first chapter of Gods of the Fall goes a long way to introducing both the game itself and the setting.  The chapter is 12 pages long, minus 7 half-page spreads, leaving 8.5 pages of text to introduce the concepts of nascently-divine PCs and the setting.  Per usual, the margins are annotated with references to other pages in the book when new concepts are introduced.  When a mechanic from the Cypher System core book is referenced, it’s also annotated with a special symbol, harkening back to locations for more information.  These margin notes also give pronunciation guides for some of the new terms, which is wonderful for really jumping into the setting.  Overall, I like this chapter as an introduction for players and for the GM. 

The first page starts with a great note that this book is an expansion to the Cypher System rules and that it requires the core book to play.  I like this development and hope that the physical book covers this as well.  When Green Ronin released their Titansgrave setting, they placed a notice on the book’s back cover that the Fantasy AGE core book would be required.  I’m working this review off of a PDF, so I don’t have the back cover of Gods of the Fall.  But, I hope that Monte Cook has done something similar.

One neat idea that the book discusses is starting the game with the players believing they are just normal PCs and working in the dominion/divinity elements later.  While the information from this section could be used for a game where the PCs know they’ll be developing into deities, even this chapter would have to be hidden from players to do so.  That said, this is a great start for introducing players into the system—while still leaving them wanting more.

Most importantly, by the end of this section, we’ve got the most important information for playing: the Gods are dead, their overworld crashed into the kingdom that was the center of civilization, there have been 42 years of chaos/trouble since the accident, there are new nascent gods who have varying levels of acceptance, the new gods may or may not be a thing but most people know some type of change is happening as recorded in some prophecies, and there’s a group that exists to frustrate the return of divinity to the setting.  This is clear, interesting, and puts the reader on notice that a lot is going on AND that the basic themes can be reduced to a page or less.

Back and Forth Organization

The first chapter presents a lot of information, but it’s organized in a somewhat confusing manner.  The first two sections in the chapter “PC Divinity” and “Darkness of the Afterworld” really act more as introductions to more involved sections on playing in the world and what the setting is like.  While I understand the temptation to inform the reader that the book will discuss these two concepts, I’d like to have seen these sections subsumed into the later sections.  There’s really great information in these sections and splitting it off from the later, more in-depth sections means that it will be more difficult to find some of these pieces of information later on.

Player Character-Focused Information

This is where we learn how the Cypher System mechanics will interact with this specific fleshing out of the system’s generic rules.  Obviously, the main conceit here is that the PCs have (or will acquire) the ability to grow into true divine beings.  This will manifest through a character to take an ability beyond the normal descriptor, focus, and type: the dominion.  We learn that these creatures have a nimbus, an aura that surrounds them.  Someone’s nimbus is always visible to other creatures with a nimbus and can be manifested to others at will.  This reminds me of how the TV show Grimm treats its wessen—most people can’t see them unless the wessen is manifesting its supernatural abilities or the person observing the wessen is a Grimm. 

We also learn that there is magic separate from the gods.  That magic existed before the gods’ fall, though the gods’ power kept them from exercising their powers to claim dominion over the world.  We learn that cyphers are portions of the gods’ former floating realm or items that fell with it.  We also learn that artifacts fit more into the magic system.  Finally, we learn about the Seven Prophecies, seven suggested routes that can be used to help focus a gods-driven campaign.

 Setting Information

The technology is described so evocatively as being similar to the Renaissance, but a Renaissance not based on the values of humanism.  This is incredibly evocative, even before Gods of the Fall transitions into discussing exactly what this means.  Human life has basically become commoditized unless an individual can defend themselves from enslavement, etc.  This means gritty, dangerous stories.  Aside from a tiny educated class, most people are either dredges or outright slaves.  Now we’ve got a world ready for a revolt!

The first chapter also presents the basics of the setting: what the world looks like and how people live.  There are five major geographical elements in the setting:

  • ·      The Nightland: The most developed portion of the setting information (in this section), the Nightland is the heart of civilization since the gods’ realm crashed into and destroyed civilization’s former cradle.  The Nightland exists in a state of eternal shadow, since a new moon appeared at the moment of the Fall and rotates between the earth and the sun to keep this region eternally in shadow.  (Don’t worry, they thought about how crops get grown!)  The Nightland is ruled by a dragon empress and divine power is outlawed; which is enforced by her Order of Reconciliation.  The Nightland is a great place for urban adventures with a lot of intrigue.
  • ·      Ruinscape: The Ruinscape is where the gods’ realm fell.  There’s a new sea created at the crash site.  The crash also exposed many ruins, some of which might actually pre-date the recently-fallen gods.  Most exploration-style adventures will occur here.  Another fun design decision is that most people living in civilized areas won’t even believe that some of the creatures in the Ruinscape even exist.  One of my favorite parts of The Wheel of Time involves an encounter in the southlands, far from where the monsters are located.  The travelers are telling tales of monsters of the north and an innkeeper says that those tales were as big lies as tales of snow.  This was great worldbuilding and it’s great that in Gods of the Fall most people DON’T believe in some of these crazy things.
  • ·      The Verge: The area was never really developed, even before the fall.  It gives GMs a nice place to run wilderness adventures.
  • ·      Nod: Nod is the moon that appeared when the gods’ home fell.  It also appears to fill a role akin to the Dreamlands in H.P. Lovecraft’s writing.  Depending on how this concept is further developed, could be extremely interesting.  Nod also gives a strong campaign element that isn’t necessarily related to the reclamation of the divine.
  • ·      Afterlife: Nobody knows where or what this is, but we all know that it’s not working the way it’s supposed to.  Although this is denoted as a location, I like it more as a place the PCs never have to visit but instead deal with emanations from.

We learn a little bit about the history.  Gods of the Fall has made what I consider to be a fantastic design decision here.  The gods’ old realm fell 42 years ago.  The age before that was over 32,000 years long.  That means that there’s very little history for players to absorb.  Only the last 42 years (and how they’ve changed things vis-à-vis the previous 32K years) matter.  42 years ago, the gods’ realm fell from heaven.  There was lots of war and chaos.  Seven years later, the dragon empress had solidified her rule over the Nightland.  Since then, we’ve had a tense stability, but certainly not peace.  Done!

Gods of the Fall considers how most people deal with religion based upon their age.  Those who can remember a time before the fall are angry.  Those who can’t just can’t comprehend what a world ruled by a pantheon of gods was like.  This appears to draw a lot on the old Dragonlance setting, particularly the War of the Twins book that takes place shortly after the gods in that setting destroyed the world and abandoned it.  Whereas Dragonlance took 300 years to consider the reengagement with religion, Good of the Fall is using only 42.  Of course, Gods of the Fall is also introducing new gods, which is a huge departure from the Dragonlance setting—one that makes it more interesting, to me at least. 

Regardless of how people might feel about the old gods and accepting the new, people are wary of buying into them and this just feels right!  A good touch: formerly elaborate funeral rites have been replaced by quick internments, because no one is really sure what happens after death—if anything at all.  We’re told that old temples and religious sites have been repurposed into “chapterhouses,” dedicated to contemplation, but not a lot about how they fit into the setting.  Since the core of Gods of the Fall is about engaging with the divine after your first conception of the divine has been destroyed, I want to know about how people have changed their former places of worship.  Surely, a large number were destroyed and now function as modern ruins.  This seems like a great place to set an introductory adventure, in fact.

Overall, this chapter provides a strong introduction to the setting and the game itself.  I’ve glossed over a few areas, such as languages and two other playable races: treen and sleen.  Interestingly, there’s also another sentient group, the nefar, who are called out as specifically not being appropriate for PCs.  The chapter also introduces the Delirium, similar to the Iron Wind in Numenera.  The Delirium spits of curses and is all sorts of crazy.  Basically, the first chapter of Gods of the Fall takes what’s a very non-traditional setting and makes it accessible to the player and the GM.  While I’ve nit-picked a little bit about the chapter’s organization, overall I found it incredibly useful for bringing the setting to life.  Ultimately, by using its (linked) margin annotations, the book allows the reader to gain good background on areas when they want to learn them.  After one chapter, I’m excited to learn more in-depth information.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Review Rises from the Ashes

Pelgrane Press's February 13th Age Monthly release is all about the phoenix and has some interesting ways to make the birds unique in use in your game.  Here are a few highlights of how phoenixes are different in the Dragon Empire...

  • Phoenixes can't speak, but are intelligent and communicate non-verbally;
  • Phoenixes aren't any smarter than most PC races;
  • Phoenixes place a premium on loyalty above all else;
  • Some phoenixes might go insane after too many self-immolations;
  • Phoenixes' duties may call them to the land, but they're far more interested in the Overworld in the sky
That said, let's investigate the 10-page monthly release, not quite ten months after it's been released...There's a title page, a credits/OGL page, an intro page, a page listing phoenixes' connections to the icons, 2.5 pages of stats for various types of phoenixes, .75 pages of phoenix-related items, .75 pages of phoenix-related adventure hooks, and two interior pages of art.  Since I can't reproduce the art, I'll just say that it's on par with the title page and, if you want to feature phoenixes or their eggs in your campaign, you'll likely draw inspiration from it and show it to your players.

Phoenixes 101

I recently reread Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum, which features a phoenix, also adapting the bird in some interesting ways.  Pratchett chose that the phoenixes should look like some other bird, until they needed to burst into flame and become phoenixes.  After doing their duty, they'd return to the form of the other bird.  And, the other bird form would be the first bird the newly-hatched phoenix saw, whether it was a deadly hawk or a doddering dodo.  Anyone fancy a flamingo-cum-phoenix?

Phoenix Iconography
One thing that the supplement goes on about is that phoenixes and dragons just don't get along.  Not that either party really seems to care, but each knows that it's the most beautiful and why would you be paying attention to anything else.  This surface-level "oh everything's fine; those guys are great" turning into active conflict could be a lot of fun to roleplay out.  In general, I was pleased with the way Ash Law & Rob Heinsoo connected phoenixes to the icons, but here are a few thoughts:
  • Crusader: Instead of having no phoenixes associated with the Crusader ever, give the Crusader some method to bring them under his wing, so to speak.  Depending on the PCs' loyalties, they're either questing to get the Crusader the keys to a new cadre of aerial shock troops or to keep the phoenixes free.
  • Lich King: These ideas are fantastic.  I've never drawn the connections between the phoenix's rebirth and the concept of undeath.  The idea that they could be combined in interesting ways is one of the coolest things this supplement raises.
  • Prince of Shadows: Given the value placed on loyalty in the criminal underworld, I was hoping for a little more here.  There's a suggestion that it could happen, but nothing concrete.  On the other hand, flaming birds mixed with folks who operate in the shadows...could draw a lot of attention.  Maybe these phoenixes are better as con-birds?

Monster Stats

The supplement presents stats for four monsters:
  • Flamebird Phoenix, Double-strength 3rd level wrecker [elemental], a youngish phoenix;
  • Resurgent Phoenix, Large 5th level leader [elemental], an older phoenix, usually dedicated to serving a cause or a person;
  • Void Phoenix, Large 8th level spoiler [elemental], a phoenix that's drawn all its heat into itself--for whatever nefarious reasons the GM might choose; and
  • Solar Phoenix, Large 12th level caster [elemental], the largest and most powerful of the phoenixes
The progression between stats is nice.  However, two really interesting details.  First of all, the void phoenix works with negative energy, rather than in fire (though it retains some fire aspects from the phoenix "archetype.")  This is a really neat concept on a lot of different levels.  Secondly, for all phoenixes is the Reborn in X ability -- essentially, when the phoenix takes a critical hit or drops to 0 hit points, you roll a d20 and various results from total rebirth to instant immolation, to simple flight occurs.  There are suggestions about when/if a phoenix might return looking for the party.  This is a really, really cool way to inject some random awesomeness into the story.

Magic Items
The supplement has three magic items.  First, the Phoenix Tears potion, which is basically an amped-up healing potion.  Secondly, the Phoenix Cloak is presented, though without a quirk.  Here's my suggestion.

Phoenix Cloak
Quirk: Paranoid that friends aren't actually friends at all

The supplement also talks about phoenix eggs, which it suggests are best handled as artifacts.  aka, They should be awesome, the should be difficult, and they should have basically undefined effects and limits.  The supplement also states that there's in-world debate as to whether phoenix eggs exist at all.  So...maybe they don't!

Hooked on a Feelin'...High on Believin'...That You're a Phoenix

Finally, there are adventure hooks.  Without giving spoilers, there are several interesting ideas in here useful as inspiration for one-shots all the way up to campaign seeds.  The Dark Omens seed is one of the more interesting and intricate campaign seeds I've seen in awhile.  The Return of the Phoenix King could be nice for a fun turnaround on a usual night of adventure.  Finally, The Crown of Phoenix Claws could easily be run as a high intrigue scenario where even the good Icons have grown suspicious of the PCs.  Who do the PCs turn to when no one is safe?  How hard does the GM laugh when the PC tries to use a 5 on an Icon roll in this scenario???


This is a GREAT supplement!  I want to use it immediately.  Get it.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Breath of God Review

Monte Cook Games has released their newest Cypher System setting, Gods of the Fall, (preview only; full release June 22).  As a Kickstarter backer, I had early access to the book.  But, rather than read through the entire 192-page setting book, I thought that it would be fun to learn about what Gods of the Fall has to offer through the accompanying short fiction released along with it, 18 page-long Breath of God by Bruce Cordell (also lead author and designer on the Gods of the Fall setting).  I’ll try and avoid spoilers with the caveats that things that are obvious will not be considered spoilers.  For instance, since Gods of the Fall is about players assuming the roles of nascent (or possibly reborn, or etc.) gods, it seems likely that a character in the story—most likely the main character—will be a nascent god.

Real Fiction; Not Just Setting Intro

Breath of God introduces us to the Gods of the Fall setting through the eyes of Sabien, who appears to have acquired some sort of divine spark.  As a short piece of fiction, Breath of God works well.  There’s are multiple, interesting, interwoven conflicts; good main character development; and a solution to the conflict that doesn’t seem contrived.  Cordell does an especially good job creating two internal conflicts in the main character.  The main character is conflicted about the price paid for his divinity as well as what acquiring divine spark means for how he should approach his own future.  What’s especially interesting is how those internal conflicts interact with the two external conflicts to create a surprise ending. 

All the while, Cordell sprinkles in setting details from the Gods of the Fall setting.  It’s a lot like the world building in the first chapter of a novel, except all the questions can’t be answered in a mere 18 pages.  The setting elements are built in to the external conflicts in such as a way that both the story and some of the basics of the campaign setting—like we have some bad guys called Reconciliators who have some sort of relationship to the Empress of the eternally dark Nightlands and who hunt gods—are introduced with a minimum of confusion.  There are lots of conflicts that players can explore in their own home games.  Most importantly for longer term campaigns, we have a lot of mysteries that are set up that will need solving. 

Interesting Elements Both Mundane and Fantastic

Finally, Cordell does a great job personalizing the world.  He does this both by highlighting real world elements that make his setting unique, such as traveling by elephant rather than by horse-drawn carriage.  That’s neat and I want to know more.  He also seamlessly slips in useful details without disjointing the reader.  Stars are a form of currency; scholars (of some sort) are referred to as ‘Padi’s.  Locations are mentioned, sometimes only to underscore that they are far away and exotic.

World-building mysteries are also set out, making the setting more interesting.  What are nimbuses?  Why do they surround some people and objects but not others?  Why can only some people see them?  What are bibliomancers?  Especially since traditional RPGs assume that wizards are spellcasters that derive their power through the study of magic books, what’s the difference here?

One of the few drawbacks I see is the piece's length.  I love a good piece of fiction for my players to learn something about the game and/or the setting.  18 pages (even in large print type) is a little much, especially if they are going to be getting maps, other setting info, and character creation materials.  I'd love to see ANY RPG publisher create player-friendly introductions to their settings that are two pages or shorter.  

I Like It!

Ultimately, I was a fan.  Of course, since I was also a Kickstarter backer, I was pretty much hoping to like this.  I’m intrigued and look forward to looking into the mechanics about how Gods of the Fall is realized through the cypher system.  I look forward to learning more about the conflicts, and what it’s like to play a nascently-deific character.  The story’s job was to introduce the setting while keeping the reader interested.  It did so admirably.  I was also impressed by Cordell’s ability to move beyond typical tie-in fiction and create a real personal conflict that could have existed (and been interesting) in any story.  I recommend taking a read through this either for your own enjoyment or as a way to whet your appetite for getting into Gods of the Fall for your next Cypher System game.