New and Cool: RPG Countdown

The other day I persued a private board where some other designers/writers sometimes hang, and I learned about a new podcast from the mavins who brought us the delicious Atomic Array. The podcast is called RPG Countdown, and its great. You can download it on RPG Now, direct from RPG Countdown , or on itunes.

What I wanted to share though, is a window into the zany mind of Rone Barton, co-creator of RPG Countdown and infamous for his Atomic Array rants.

Here's how I learned about the Countdown:

Post subject: Re: RPG Countdown is in effect
Sun Feb 15, 2009 3:36 am
Thank you for reading my fine print.
I posted this over at the RPG Countdown thread I started over at Paizo:Okay, as this thread has no readers I feel safe posting my innermost thoughts here....
"Dear diary, this morning was just like any other Saturday morning. As usual, my mother left one of her bras slung over the shower rod and I walked around with it on my head, imitating a varsity wrestler in the mirror as cartoons blasted in the background. I suppose the fact that I'm too old to get carded makes that a little weirder than it sounds..."
"But that's not the craziest thing! RPG Countdown, our two-episode old gaming podcast, briefly unseated the Dungeons & Dragons podcast tonight from the top position on the iTunes 'other games category'. I mean seriously... how did that happen? Apple's algorithms be trippin'."
"Anyway diary, except for that nosy salesman I had to hogtie in the basement and those four trips to Home Depot, today was a perfect day."

This guy always cracks me up! Check out RPG Countdown, its a great cliff notes to RPGs latest and greatest.


Scion Companion Part Three: Celestial Bureaucracy

Book: Scion Part Three: Celestial Bureaucracy
Length/Type: 50 pgs., PDF (to be included in future hard cover)
System: Storyteller
Author(s): Dean Shomshak
Publisher: White Wolf
Licensor/Endorser: n/a

(5 0f 5 rudii)

As I said in a previous review, Scion is a game I drool over. I didn’t mention I’ve also got a Chinese mythology thing, so when I saw Celestial Bureaucracy, I jumped on it. The book did not disappoint.

Let’s lay this out a little: the Companion supplements to White Wolf’s Scion game, among other things, detail specific pantheons. These are the details that really let Storytellers (GMs) and players bust out the deep myth, deeply enhancing character creation and play. The book is historically accurate, stylistically engaging, and rich with material to enhance your Scion game.

Here are the numbers: 12 new gods with 11 purviews, 5 new birthrights, 5 detailed relics, 2 ready to play scions, delving into the nature of the pantheon, explication of the underlying cosmology, 5 enemies with which to plague your players, details on Hundun – the titan particularly antagonistic to the Chinese pantheon, 2 titanspawn, and more. It’s a lot packed into 50 pages. My only quibble: the book almost attempts too much in too few pages. I’d love for it to have been longer. It’s a quibble.

More: I found the book’s take on Chinese mythology delightful. They ramify the Celestial Bureaucracy through modern history, as called for by the games founding premises, matching imaginary motions within the Pantheon to real world historical moments with sly humor. Here’s one of my favorite passages, speaking to the falling out between the Chinese pantheon and the Japanese (the Amatsukami) during World War II.

World War Two, however, gravely damaged relations between the Celestial Bureaucracy and the Amatsukami. When Japan invaded China, the Celestial Bureaucracy lost millions of mortal worshippers. The Jade Emperor of the time sent Amaterasu a beautifully calligraphed, elegantly phrased demand that she exercise her ancestral prerogatives over her descendant, the mortal Emperor Hirohito, and order him to withdraw his troops from the Middle Kingdom. Whatever Amaterasu thought of the mortal war, she did not like being ordered about like a misbehaving child. She sent back a beautifully calligraphed refusal, involving some elegantly phrased suggestions of what the Jade Emperor could do with the Celestial Bureaucracy. Matters went downhill from there.

Or this little gem:

The shen [Chinese pantheon gods] also claim pride of place as the first pantheon to teach civilization to humanity. The boast is slightly tautologous, in that many shen deny that anyone outside China has ever been civilized.

This latter passage perfectly captures the classical Han outlook on the world. To top it off, there’s also an almost Kafkian undercurrent running through the rendering of the Celestial Bureaucracy; for example, allowing Scions to become Scions, not of a specific god or goddess, but of the Bureaucracy as a whole – by filling out the paperwork and receiving a caseworker.

Nonetheless, neither the humor nor the modern echoes undercut the sheer brilliance the author and developer exercise in encapsulating the world of Chinese mythology and rendering it down to the playable.

In Scion Companion Part Three: Celestial Bureaucracy, the White Wolf team succeeds again in overcoming a barrier inherent to modern fantasy RPGs. They seamlessly insert their cosmology into the playable world, which problematically and ineluctably echoes the real world. For example, the author takes the Chinese diaspora – the fact that millions of Chinese living in distant lands, like America – marry it to the Celestial Bureaucracy, and creates a conflict within the Pantheon. Should the Chinese gods pay attention to the world’s Chinatowns?

The answer that some gods say ‘yes’ and others ‘no’ opens the gaming throttle to the max by presenting an elegant rationale for the limited appearance of Chinese gods and demons within nearly every major city in the world, as nearly every major city holds a Chinatown. Playing this question out as a conflict within the pantheon only creates yet more opportunity for adventure; for example, minor gods on one or the other side of this issue might rationalize allying with titanspawn to their eventual dismay.

If gritty yet epic urban fantasy dosed on mythopoetic religious crack is your thing, then White Wolf has done it again! First they seduced me into picking up Scion: Hero. Now I can’t live without the Companions. 5 Rudii to you Scion. Damn you to hell for draining my wallet White Wolf; or, in other words, thanks!

Want to learn more about Scion? Read on...

Drop by RPG Now to pick up your copy today!

The Rudis Review: Scion Hero

Book: Scion: Hero
Length/Type: 338 pgs., PDF and hard cover
System: Storyteller
Author(s): Justin Achilli, Alan Alexander, Carl Bowen, Bill Bridges, John Chambers, Michael Lee, Peter Schaefer, James Stewart and Andrew Watt
Publisher: White Wolf
Licensor/Endorser: n/a

(5 0f 5 rudii)

Ok people, this one makes me drool. For my money, few modern fantasy RPGs seem geared to delivering the juice that draws me to authors of modern fantasy fiction. Authors like Briggs, DeLint, Gaiman, or Butcher, for example. Scion does.

Here’s the deal. Gamers play the sons and daughters – the Scions – of the gods of any one of six pantheons: Norse, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Japanese, Voodoo or Aztec. That’s a decent cultural cross-section that leaves very few people behind; but where shines the real genius of Scion is in its world building. The Scion conceptual structure works. The game rests on a meticulously thought out cosmology and history, that liberates – not shackles – play.

To summarize: long ago the gods signed a pact to stop interfering with the various “tribes” of humanity, as that inevitably brought the gods themselves into conflict. Something like signing the treaty of Versailles to end WWI. Non-interference pact aside, the gods still slipped down to the world for an occasional vacation where, let’s be straight here, they got laid. Due to the no-meddle pact, their half-human, half-divine children live out their lives, never recognizing the divine spark within. All well and good until the Titans – the original, chaotic destructive force and nasty parents of the gods – break out of their millennia old prison.

As Munin says in the core book’s inevitable RPG introductory fiction: “It’s what has happened. The Titans have escaped their eons old prison at last to wage war against the Gods once more.”

This leaves the Gods so busy fighting a war, they really can’t show up on earth too often. Perfect. Gods tromping around tend to trump anything a player could do, and if the Titans are fighting gods, they shouldn’t be fighting me. So who are the villains? The gods aren’t the only ones who spawn. As the intro fiction also tells us:

“But the titanspawn,” Hugin said, “those guys are terrible. They’re working to free any Titans who are still trapped here, and they’ll kill anybody they can’t use to spite the hated Gods. Given half the chance, they’d wreck the World and destroy everybody on it just because this is where the Gods’ children are.”…“What you do,” Hugin said, “is gather up a Band of Scions like yourself and start hunting the titanspawn down one nest at a time. Most titanspawn don’t try to overtly manipulate the regular people around them, but if you scratch the surface in places where something weird’s going on, you’ll almost always find them causing trouble. When you do, you’ll be glad for the help.

Excellent. We have terrible supernatural agents looking to undo the world, which, we are informed, would weaken the gods in their war if accomplished. It’s like WWII, and we Scions get to fight on the African front, the “soft underbelly” which, if lost, will sway the main conflict. Awesome. Gods and Titans. World threatening deitic spawned enemies – part Cthulu, part chaos, all evil – to smite with my Sig 40. A good reason for why the gods don’t intervene all the time themselves, and good reasons for episodic play. I always love it when a reason to come back to the table for the next adventure is built into the world. The next nefarious titanspawn move! Maybe with a Benedict Arnold god involved? Tasty!

It gets better. Remember that Titan prison? Well it served as sort of a connective hub for all the underworlds of all the pantheons. When the Titans broke loose, they also shattered the barrier between the living and the dead. We get ghosts too! From your grandpa to Achilles! And to go with it, a damn good reason why we have such imminent ghosts now, but not before.

Character building is rich. Players may eventually gain access to the epic relics of living, real-world myth: slices of mjolnir, Sleipnir’s get, the Book of Thoth, or the Golden Fleece for example. Intense. Everyone has at least one birthright weapons or equipment passed to them from their divine parent, and a moment of divine revelation – when the Scion learned of her heritage – to go with it. We get boons, powers directly from the gods and goddesses; also, other powers borne of the divine spark but not dependent on gods or goddesses, which allow players to retain independence from their parent or pantheon. Finally, attributes and more grant gamers a rich palette with which to customize their characters and insure individuality.

One of the games core concepts strikes me as unique, original and creatively stimulating. Scion introduces an interesting mechanical spin on Fate. Every Scion has a legend. The more famous you become (the bigger your legend) the more Fate takes an interest in you.This manifests in two ways: first, people and things become bound up with you – boon companions who never fail or nemeses who never fade, for example; and second, spectacular, difficult, and dire events start to dog your every step. The more your legend grows the more Fate feeds you new challenges for your hungry legend. A veritable cyclone of increasing disaster in the offing. It’s enough to make a would-be hero Scion adopt a secret identity – or refuse to act the hero.

From a design perspective, this is another win! A built in game mechanic for why Scions shouldn’t just make themselves President of the World. A damn good reason for keeping things as low key as possible, well weft into the fabric of both the game concept and the mechanics. Nicely done, White Wolf designers!

Which brings up a point for those who’ve never played the White Wolf Storyteller system before. While many aspects of the system make instant sense to any experienced gamer, Scion does not run on a typical D&D-out-of-the-box kind of system. White Wolf’s Storyteller system definitely falls into a more narrative camp.

If you know from narrative gaming, then your review is done! What are you waiting for? Go out and buy Scion Hero! It’s juicy, powerfully envisioned, well thought out, tasty to behold, and delivers a modern fantasy RPG well-suited to gaming a whole campaign’s worth of adventures.
For everyone else, I want to try summarizing what I mean by “falling into a more narrative camp”. This way, if you pick up Scion expecting something more like D&D, you won’t be put off when it’s different. By way of elucidation, I’m going to paraphrase someone else’s explanation. It’s a good one, I think, and worth repeating.

Imagine there’s a bomb about to go off in a building, and the adventuring party is all the way across town. It’s rush hour. You’re the GM (assuming your game has such a beastie). How do you determine whether the group gets to the bomb before it blows? At least three methods immediately present themselves: roll the dice, calculate the feasibility, or decide what works best for the story unfolding at your table.

Some games, you roll dice: higher than 1-3, you made it; 4-6 you didn’t.

Some games suggest you calculate: the car goes 50 mph, but rush hour traffic means half that speed. If only you hadn’t crashed the helicopter. Ah well. Let’s see…your hotel is three hours away, and the bomb has a 1 hour timer. Sorry, you don’t make it. but you do see this massive explosion and half the city is on fire – what do you do?

And finally, in some games, your table decides on what would be the most story fun: how about we arrive at the locked doors of the building with three minutes to spare? And so you do.

Scion’s system encourages resolving the situation in something like the latter fashion. For some gamers, this may take a little getting used to. For example, here’s a tidbit of system discussion from Scion-Hero.

In short: Roll dice when the outcome should matter and be interesting either way
a player rolls. Storytellers and players should work together to achieve this
That’s not the kind of game everyone is used to playing, and it might take your table a bit of time and practice to get the hang of it; but my experience at the table with Scion is – boy is the investment worth it!