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Games of Divinity
Publisher: White Wolf
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/25/2017 15:25:17

Much like Scavenger Sons, Games of Divinity was one of the books that really defined how Exalted was different than other games. It's not just that it had a vibrant spiritual ecology, though that was a major part of it--it's true that animism has always been missing from D&D other than incorporeal undead, but plenty of games like Glorantha or, indeed, other White Wolf games like Mage: the Ascension had a vibrant spirit world. It's that the spirit world was so petty.

Back when the Primordials ruled and dinosaurs walked the earth, Creation was run by the Celestial Bureaucracy in which everyone had their place and performed their function or else. After the Primordial War, the gods gave over rule of Creation to the Exalted and some them relaxed into playing the titular Games of Divinity, but everything still worked. Then the Solar Exalted were overthrown and things have steadily gotten worse. Many of the gods now require bribes to perform their duties, or can be bribed to favor certain groups or oppose others. The censors who used to regulate the Celestial Bureaucracy are mostly jaded and corrupt themselves, with those censors who still uphold their office thought of as naive and overly idealistic by their fellow gods. In some places like Great Forks or Whitewall, gods even openly rule over mortals in a violation of all principles of divine behavior, and yet no censure comes from the Celestial Incarna. They are too busy playing the Games of Divinity in the Jade Pleasure Dome. There's no transcendence here, only power.

This setup is a bit depressing, but it reinforces one of Exalted's central themes--power without restraint always goes wrong. Once the most powerful gods were free to control their destinies, they went into the Jade Pleasure Dome and spent all day playing the Games. Once the rest of the gods were no longer restrained by the Exalted, they abandoned every duty they could get away with. And of course, the Solar Exalted's excesses brought the First Age down in ruin. In each case, trying to solve the problem with violence just ended up making things worse in the long wrong. Violence is easy but lessens the world, so will your character try for a better solution?

Elementals are less thematic, but provide a good background to the world. They naturally arise from ambient Essence and are naturally material, so they're a great catch-all category for weird one-off monsters and inhabitants of hidden valleys that show in sword and sorcery fiction. Some of them are intelligent and some are basically supernatural animals, and some of them set up supernatural spirit courts in imitation of the gods. These courts are full of byzantine rules and elaborate pomp and ceremony, because that's what being important involves, and even in the absence of duties the courts continue because bureaucracy has its own inertia.

I was a bit surprised to see that a lot of the trends fans decried in later Exalted had their start here rather than later on. The most blatant was the unimportance of Dragon-Blooded to the spiritual order:

Today, many gods see the Dragon-Blooded as nothing more than a more dangerous and longer-lived form of mortal

which later contributed to a fan conception that only Solar-equivalents were "real" Exalts and Dragon-Blooded might as well not even be in the game, but there's also the pointless elemental spirit courts and divine disdain for elementals. With all the praise for Games of Divinity--and it is a good book--this was unexpected and a bit unwelcome.

All of that was forgotten when I got to the Demons chapter, though. I've heard Malfeas described as the best hell in gaming, and I'm willing to endorse that. The twisted body of one of the fallen Primordials, enclosed by another Primordial, and with all of his siblings entrapped within. While the gods are just people with power and tend to have mortal viewpoints, the Primordials are worlds unto themselves. Each of them has many forms, which they can adopt simultaneously, and it's possible for Malfeas the man to stand in a square of Malfeas the city and dance in the light of the mad green sun, Ligier, his fetich soul. The Primordials are too large for one soul to contain them, and each of them is its own spiritual ecology--they have multiple souls, each of which has seven souls of their own, and each of which has spawned entire races of children, creations, and servants.

The demons are more interesting than the gods, honestly. From Makarios, the Sigil's Dreamer, who turns the dreams of mortals into fine trade goods; to Zsofika, the Kite Flute, who chooses a target of her hunt after being summoned, always moving just slightly faster than them, and will only do her summoner's bidding after her prey is dead; to Gervasin, the Grieving Lord, a spear that binds to his wielder and drives them to death and beyond, but has fallen in love and now finds little joy in life. And these are just the demons of the second circle, the citizens of the Demon City, not the greater demons of whom they form the component souls. There's enough to form a game around each demon's plots all on its own.

Also, there's a mention of the Infernal Exalted who are owned "body and soul" by the yozis. If only they had stayed that way.

In several of the most popular RPGs, gods and demons are just around to worship and gain superpowers from or to fill out the higher-tier enemy rosters. In Exalted, they're people. Weird people, who have magical powers and weird quirks--but then again, that's true of the Exalted too. I wasn't a big fan of the comics in the Exalted 2e corebook, but I did love the tone set by the opening comic, where the Solars fight the local river god after he's flooding the river only to learn that the flooding is because he's sad that the maidens who traditionally came and sang to him haven't been showing up because of local bandits. That's a deity that provides immediate game possibilities, and this book is full of those kind of interactions.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Games of Divinity
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Book of Nod
Publisher: White Wolf
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 10/26/2016 22:17:57

One of the reasons I prefer Vampire: the Masquerade to Vampire: The Requiem is the mythology. Millenarianism is pretty passé now, and I bet for a lot of people the word would make them think of another damn thinkpiece about how Millenials are ruining everything their parents built--though come to think of it, that's actually pretty apropos for Cainite history--but it was in the air in the 90s, whether religious or secular. The Book of Nod, with its tales of ancient past drawing directly from Biblical myth and its warnings of Gehenna, drew on that zeitgeist in exactly the way necessary to reach directly into my brain and poke the parts that wanted his RPGs to be infused with profound meaning, before I had even heard the words "trenchcoats and katanas."

This is the first totally fluff book I ever bought for any RPG, and the only totally fluff book I've actually gotten some use out of. The longest-running Vampire character I played was a Noddist who quoted extensively from the Chronicle of Secrets, and I've had Noddist characters in a couple of the games I've run. I even worked in a few of the signs of Gehenna into the longer game I ran while I was at university, not because it had any greater meaning for the game's plot, but just to provide the illusion of a wider world.

At its worst, the Jyhad and the manipulations of the Methuselahs made Vampire players feel like nothing they did mattered, and that they had entered into a power structure where they would always be at the bottom of the totem pole and it was completely impossible to ever advance. But at its best, it provided a sense of mystery to Vampire games. Beyond the nightly politics and the struggle for survival, there was a worry that something else was out there. That the blood gods slept beneath the earth, and one day they would rise and cast down the cities of men. The survivors would gather in the last city, called Gehenna, and the children of Caine would reign over an empire of blood.

See, I can't even talk about it without my writing style changing.

Though I totally bought into the Caine mythology when I was younger, the best part about the The Book of Nod is that it's all conjecture. The intro explains that Aristotle de Laurent assembled the translation from fragments all around the world, including some that he only saw for moments or in part, and has translated them into English himself. He believes the Caine and Abel source for vampires, but his adopted childe Beckett interprets the myth as a tale of conflict between a tribe of herders, the "Tribe of Abel," and a tribe of agriculturalists, the "Tribe of Caine." And this is perfectly reasonable. There's no one the PCs are likely to talk to who remembers Caine or the First or Second Cities.

Even in the course of the mythology there is plenty of place for GM interpretation. Who was Lillith? Who was the Crone? Is the Second Generation really destroyed? Did any members of the Third Generation get written out of the histories? Revelations of the Dark Mother and The Erciyes Fragments take some of these concepts and run with them, adding extra ambiguity to the real source of the Curse of Cain.

Some of the poetry is kind of silly, as can be expected when game designers write a book that's supposed to be a mythic chronicle. There are moments I really like, though. Most of those are in the Chronicle of Secrets, the third section about the coming of Gehenna, which have a wonderfully apocalyptic tone:

And you will know these last times by the Time of Thin Blood, which will mark vampires that cannot Beget, you will know them by the Clanless, who will come to rule you will know them by the Wild Ones, who will hunt us even in the strongest city you will know them by the awakening of some of the eldest, the Crone will awaken and consume all you will know these times, for a black hand will rise up and choke all those who oppose it and those who eat heart's blood will flourish and the Kindred will crowd each to his own, and vitae will be as rare as diamonds

But there are bits scattered throughout that are great. Like the proverb "Let not the priest, poet, or peasant see you feed. Not one of them will leave it be."

I loved it enough that I bought the collector's edition of Vampire: the Masquerade: Redemption at least partially because it came with a hardcover copy of the Book of Nod with a ribbon bookmark and silver page edging. The game was not nearly as good as I was hoping it would be, but I still have that book.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Book of Nod
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Time of Thin Blood
Publisher: White Wolf
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 10/26/2016 22:15:40

A storytelling game of spirit nukes and blood god wrestling smackdowns.

I'm going to talk about the Week of Nightmares first, because that's the part of Time of Thin Blood that everyone remembers. The Ravnos Antediluvian awakens from its slumber, lured by the spilled blood of Methuselahs who were themselves awakened from the deaths of lesser vampires, and goes on a rampage. Three 鬼人 bodhisattvas travel to India to fight it, the psychic backlash from a being with Auspex 10 and Chimerstry 10 causes dreams and nightmares to become reality all over the world, and eventually the Technocracy declares Code Ragnarok and nukes the battle site from orbit. As it dies, the Antediluvian pushes all its rage and hunger into his descendants, causing all Ravnos in the world to go into cannibalistic frenzies, and when it fades three days later less than ten percent of them are still alive.

It's pretty silly. Sure, we all know, deep in our heart of hearts, that shadow tentacles throwing cars and power metal playing over montages of sunglasses-wearing vampires killing each other is why we like Vampire: the Masquerade, but there is an unspoken line beyond which things just become too ridiculous and the Week of Nightmares crosses it. At least, the version of it in this book does, because the reader gets the full scope of the events and without the mystery it comes across as, well, blood god wrestling smackdowns. I'm not sure it's even possible to say "spirit nuke" in a serious conversation.

I do have positive feelings toward the Week of Nightmares, though, because I ran a game in university where one of the PCs was a Ravnos, so I used it there. Her powers went out of control, she had weird dreams of a tiger, a dragon, and a crane fighting a demon, and eventually she went into frenzy, all against the background of the Sabbat invasion of Philadelphia. The players didn't know that there was anything sinister going on, other than the one offhand reference I made to seeing a typhoon in Bangladesh on the evening news, and you can bet I never used the phrase "spirit nukes." These kind of world-changing events can provide great material for STs to use on the ground while keeping the mystery intact. They can also be pointless and stupid. Sure, the Ravnos as a clan are shockingly offensive if you think about them for even a moment--Roma vampires who literally need to steal (or kill, or do drugs, or whatever) and have that hoary folklore-derived powerset of D&D illusions--but I bet Ravnos players weren't happy with the STs who killed off their characters after this book came out.

Now on to the actual topic. Time of Thin Blood is about the highest generations of vampires where the Curse of Caine runs weak. Around half of 14th-Generation vampires don't have strong enough blood to Embrace, but half do, and then the 15th Generation is the final limit. Except, not entirely, because the curse is so weak that not all biological processes are stopped by becoming a vampire, and some 15th-Generation vampires can even have children.

That theme of stasis is what the book keeps coming back to. Vampirism holds its victims unchanging through the ages, both physically and, in some ways, mentally and spiritually. But this doesn't happen to the youngest Cainites. Not only can they sometimes have children, they can create new Disciplines with casual ease, something even the most powerful Methuselahs find nearly impossible. Their very existence is shaking up the Jyhad as some of them have the power of prophecy. Centuries-long schemes can be unraveled by a seer showing up and blurting out something that they don't realize should be kept secret.

All of this provides a great take on a usual vampire game. It's a good entry point for people who don't know the setting, because most thin-blooded don't get any kind of education into vampire politics and only know what an ordinary person knows plus, "Now I need to drink blood and can't go out during the day." It's the classic outsider introduction technique and it can work really well as a way to bring people into the setting, as long as the ST doesn't go overboard on shoving the lack of power the thin-blooded possess in their faces.

Next to the Week of Nightmares, the beginning of the book is the most memorable part. It's done up as an in-world scientific report by one Dr. Netchurch investigating the powers and weaknesses of the thin-blooded, and ends up documenting several thin-bloods who made their own Disciplines, anomalous instances of beard or nail growth following extreme blood expenditure such as after healing wounds or physical exertion, visions of import to his own history, the possibility of dhampir births, and finally empirically proves the existence of the blood point--or "Vitae Efficiency Unit," as the good doctor dubs it. This was the most interesting to reread, because I remembered the Week of Nightmares but I didn't remember this report, and Dr. Netchurch the Only Sane Malkavian is one of my favorite canon characters.

And I guess that's the only major problem with Time of Thin Blood. It's a really good book about how to play characters with one foot in vampire society and one foot outside, sometimes with one foot in their mortal lives, and how to deal with the changes that the existence of vampires who can have children and see the secrets of their elders with casual ease brings to the Kindred. But whenever anyone talks about the book, blood god wrestling smackdowns is what gets brought up, and it's a shame to reduce it to that. There's a lot that's good here for even the most personal-horror-focused game



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Time of Thin Blood
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Scavenger Sons
Publisher: White Wolf
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 10/12/2016 21:10:32

Scavenger Sons is basically the foundation of Exalted, or at least it was until third edition came out. The beginning of the book explains that the countries and places covered inside aren't a random sample, but are biased in favor of "less-civilized" areas and places where the Realm doesn't cover. In other words, places that it's more likely that the Solar Exalted would be from. First edition spent some time filling these places in, and then second edition, by editorial directive, almost never spent any time on places that hadn't been covered already in the line. The first time Exalted got a large number of new locations covered after this book was in Masters of Jade, over a decade later.

As I read, I noticed how much it was obvious that the map of Creation had been expanded in the middle of working on the line. All those national relationships in the Exalted corebook that make no sense because of the distances involved were first on display here. Sijan getting food from Nexus even though it's hundreds of miles away. The Halta vs. Linowan war. The Coral Archipelago being described as near the western shore of the Realm where near means "two thousand miles of open ocean." Greyfalls being a Realm tributary even though it's a year round-trip. A trade war between Paragon and Gem, which are separated by over a thousand miles of trackless desert.

As problems go, that is a large one, but it's nearly the only one the book has. People on the internet tend to say that the draw of Exalted is its setting, and other than the final chapter, this book is entirely setting. There are six chapters of it, one each for the four cardinal directions, one for the Scavenger Lands, and one for the city of Nexus, which is clearly being set up as the kind of anarchic area where the rule of law runs thin and thus adventurers--or Exalted--can find a place without having to deal with the heavy hand of the authorities.

The best parts are the ways that the book tries to make Creation's cultures realistic, or realistic reflecting a world of active spirits, supernatural beings, and pervasive magic. Like Skullstone, the capital city of Onyx and part of a shadowland ruled by the Bodhisattva Anointed by Dark Water. You might think that would be an unattractive place to live, but immigration is high because the walking dead do most of the work, and in a iron-age society, having almost all manual labor done by animated corpses who do not feel fatigue or pain and is a huge draw. Meanwhile the city of Great Forks is a slave economy, with slaves outnumbering citizens 2-to-1, but slaves are often kept drugged with a leaf that causes memory loss and euphoria, so they chew it, work all day, and "wake up" at the end of the day. Or going slightly more further afield, the way that the city of Whitewall made a treaty with the nearby fair folk and dead so that they can't enter the city without invitation and can't attack anyone on the road. As such, the city has a huge population because of all the farmers, miners, and workers who can't live outside the walls, and the buildings inside are all stark and devoid of ornamentation, since everyone spends all their time indoors to avoid both the cold and any monsters who manage to get into the city. And the similar treaty in Halta, where the Haltans live in the trees, the fair folk live on the ground, and anyone who ends up on the ground is fair game to them.

Or how in Nexus, there are several tombs of the Solar Anathema. One of these burns white-hot, enough to carbonize flesh with a single touch, and as humans do, the people of Nexus have found a way to use this--they covered it in bricks and built an iron foundry around it to have an eternal, free source of heat. I like that depiction of the magical and the mundane side-by-side.

There's a lot in this book that I forgot over the years, like how Greyfalls is ruled by the Nuri, who fled Wyld barbarians and were an oppressed minority until the Realm showed up and put them in charge, as has been the tactic of colonial powers for time out of mind. Or the gambling house in the Coral Archipelago with First Age artifacts that allow the betting of intangible concepts, so rich, elderly merchants will bet vast sums of money against the youth of a beggar boy. Or the frozen fog in the north, blown in from the Wyld, that can freeze someone solid in moments.

I could really just keep listing bits I liked for a while, but in the interests of space I'll move on.

Even after all that, one of my favorite parts of the book is the end section on the fair folk. I can appreciate that Exalted: The Fair Folk is a well-written, mechanically-tight work, but I never liked "Rakshastan" or the idea of the faerie as creatures of dreams rather than creatures who needed dreams to live. In Scavenger Sons, the fair folk take on shape flavored by he element strong in the part of Creation where they entered from the Wyld, and so their powers are elemental- and mentally-based. There's a description of what would become shaping combat, but no emphasis or rules for it. Basically, I don't like what happened to fair folk when they became playable, and I really don't like the idea that fair folk are living stories who know they're in an RPG and are just trolling everyone else for the lulz because I think it does almost irreparable harm to the themes of the game. The faerie as beings of pure chaos who take on shape because they have to to survive the relentless erosion of Creation, rather than because it's part of some story they're telling themselves? I'm there for that.

Even now, Scavenger Sons is probably the best setting book for Exalted. It does in one book what it took second edition five books to do, with more of a feeling of mystery and a more interesting world. Even if you're playing 2e, use this for background



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Scavenger Sons
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Sengoku: Revised Edition
Publisher: Gold Rush Games
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 07/08/2016 12:33:48

I've owned this game for a very long time--at least a decade, I think--but until now I've never read it cover to cover. Part of that is just because of how incredibly dense the text is. Most people, even if they're familiar with Japan, aren't going to know all that much about the Sengoku period, which differs from the modern idea of Japanese history in a number of ways. Part of that is because, as with most purely historical games, it can be really hard to find an audience that wants to immerse themselves in another period where we mostly do know how people behaved and there can be a nagging feeling that you're playing "wrong" if you don't use the right forms of address for the daimyo's wife or if you fail to bow when meeting a superior on the road, or whatever, so I concentrated my reading on games that were more likely to see play. But having read though it all, I'm glad I did, even if I never run it as written. I can absolutely see why Sengoku gets so much praised lavished on it.

Setting I don't know of any stronger way to put this--Sengoku's setting is Sengoku Japan, to the extent that you could probably use this book to study for a test at a college-level class on Japanese history. There are hundreds of pages of incredibly in-depth setting information on essentially everything you could ever possibly want to know about life during the Sengoku era. Lists of the provinces and major cities of the time. Descriptions of daily life, food, and clothing. Titles and forms of address. Religious rituals. Extremely detailed lists of armor and weapons. A Japanese calendar and list of month names for extra immersion. Tables of random names and name elements. Honestly, even if you hate the system, the book is worth buying for anyone who wants to run a game set in historical Japan, because while there are rules sprinkled in here and there, most of the fluff is just fluff and can be lifted wholesale for use with another system.

In service of that fluff and setting the proper mood, every page has a quote from a historical Japanese figure below it. A lot of them are from the Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, but there are a handful of other often-quoted figures as well. Something like:

...those who keep death always before their eyes are strong and healthy while young, and as they take care of their health and are moderate in drinking and avoid the paths of women, being abstemious and moderate in all things, they remain free from disease and live a long and healthy life. —Daidoji Yuzan

does a lot more to help set the mood than a dry description of the samurai mindset would.

There's a lot of effort given to point out the differences between the popular conception of historical Japan and the reality, too. For example, ramen, sushi, tenpura, sukiyaki, melonpan, and nearly all of the other famous modern Japanese dishes didn't exist at that time, being invented during the Edo period or even later. Wooden floors were more common than tatami, which was used in audience chambers or important rooms, but not all throughout the house. Christianity, and Christian missionaries, were a weak but growing force in Japanese politics, and the tension between Christian and non-Christian daimyo was a real force.

The focus is mostly on historical Japan, but there is a bestiary with a lot of creatures from Japanese mythology for people who want to have a more fantastic game. There's also a section on magic, but in keeping with the historical feel it's all presented as prayers--"magic" is the result of the kami or the Buddhas acting on behalf of those who ask their aid, not like the typical fantasy view of a sorcerer.

There's a lifepath system for making characters, and I mention it here instead of in the System section below because it's entirely fluff. It has a lot of events to help develop each character's story, like having their entire family commit seppuku in disgrace or being disowned by their lord and forced to become a ronin.

Finally, there's an extensive bibliography with dozens of books and probably over a hundred films, and a full glossary of all the terms used in the book. It's easy to see exactly why the information here is so dense if that's the research that Anthony J. Bryant did to write it.

System Sengoku uses the Fuzion system, which I knew almost nothing about other than the name. And that runs into the main problem with Sengoku--its organization is awful.

Concepts are constantly introduced before they're defined or explained. I was reading about bonuses and penalties to rolls before I knew what the character attributes were, or indeed how rolls were determined, since the basic mechanic of 3d6 + stat + skill vs. a target number or another character's roll isn't defined until over halfway through the book. The weapons and armor section is before the combat rules. In the fluff section, when it's talking about duels I learn that backing down from a duel costs "2K honor," and I start wondering if Honor is tracked in the thousands so that even small infractions cost points, and maybe bowing at a 50 degree angle instead of a 55 degree angle to the daimyo costs 15 honor. This obviously is not the case, but I had no way of knowing that until later.

There are three given power levels for games: Historical, Chanbara, and Anime. The only difference is the limit on character traits at character generation and how many points beginning characters have to make their characters, however, and some brief guidelines about what kind of traits or level of magic is appropriate for each tier.

Since Sengoku is mostly about ordinary people, a lot of character differentiation is based on skills. Oh sure, there are secret arts and Ki powers and magic, but those are relatively rare, even if ordinary people can spend Ki in much the same way that Luck or Fate points work in other games. Instead, there are an enormous amount of skills, including such luminaries as Go and Falconry and Cosmetics and Lacquering. I mean, I understand that aesthetic appreciation is incredibly important if you're a member of the Japanese Imperial Court aristocracy, but how often is a PC going to roll Silkworm Raising during the game? That's the kind of skill that you take because it's part of your background and then it never gets rolled, but there's no actual differentiation and everything is placed on a level playing field.

There's a huge list of advantages and disadvantages, which are modified by severity, frequency, and importance to the story. For example, Cowardice isn't really a problem for the commoners, but for a samurai it's crippling. This does involve a lot of calculation, including multiplication and division, and while it's all done before game, it seems like it would make character creation pretty complicated. Not to mention that the disadvantages are all of the "get points up front and it's up to the GM to bring them up during play" type, which is almost always worse than the kind that it's the player's job to bring up during play, just because there are more players than GMs, so if the players are incentivized to play up their own disadvantages it takes a load off the GM's back.

Combat, by default, is incredibly deadly. Weapons do an average of 2d6 to 4d6 damage, plus more for the wielder's strength, and the average person can take 15 damage before dying. Armor is absolutely necessary to survive more than one combat. On the one hand, this does model the various "two samurai face each other, both draw and strike, one dies" moments in Japanese media, but it means that PCs will have a rough time in combat without a lot of underhanded strategy, which is incredibly dishonorable for samurai, or a lot of luck.

The special powers list is relatively short and no real guidelines are given for making new ones. Okuden (secret arts) is the longest, and includes stuff like jumping long distances, throwing multiple shuriken with a single hand, parrying by grabbing a sword with the palms as it's descending, and so on. Ki arts has telekinesis, mystical armor, and making someone's senses less acute. Magic is mostly blessings and curses, though there are some overtly supernatural prayers like transforming into smoke for the mountain-dwelling shugenja hermits who are a bit more sorcerer-like. The neat thing about magic is that not every tradition can use every prayer. Shinto priest, who suffer religious pollution from contact with death or blood, can't cure wounds or diseases, for example, and Buddhists priests can't affect the natural world to nearly the degree that others can.

Sengoku as a game system has its problems, and maybe they wouldn't have stood out to me as much if I had been more familiar with Fuzion. The organizational issues would remain no matter what system was being used. The fluff is incredible, though, and it's more than enough reason to read it, especially if you have any interest in Japanese history or want to set a game in ancient Japan. And how many games would have

GMs should discourage players from wanton acts of seppuku.

written in them? Honestly, that kind of attention to important setting immersion should be rewarded, don't you think?



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[5 of 5 Stars!]
Sengoku: Revised Edition
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Scroll of Fallen Races
Publisher: White Wolf
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/20/2016 15:46:36

I remember the original teases for this book, back when it was originally going to be called "Scroll of the Lesser Races." Wow, am I glad they didn't go with that title. Beyond the obvious implications, Exalted 2e has enough problems with overtones that only a few hundred people are important to the setting and how important they are can be determined by what color they glow if someone jumps them in an alley.

Scroll of the Fallen Races is divided into two parts, one for the Mountain Folk and one for the Dragon Kings. Both of these sections pretty much just recapitulate the information in first edition products--Exalted: The Fair Folk and The Exalted Players Guide, respectively--but update the mechanics for second edition and expand a bit on the things we already knew in the way that most of the second edition books do. For the Mountain Folk, this mostly involves making their society even more cutthroat and backstabbing and giving even more of the credit to Autochthon for inventing everything everywhere ever. Life for the Artisans is a seething pit of vipers with constantly shifting alliances and power plays and life for the Workers and Warriors is a nightmare dystopia, but it's "okay" because they're nearly living machines anyway, so who cares what happens to them? The Artisans certainly don't.

The rule of stupid distances is still is effect--Lutar, a Mountain Folk city-state between Mount Metagalpa and Great Forks, is described as conducting trade with and sending troops to help the Haltans, thousands of miles away--but for intra-Mountain Folk relations it actually makes sense because they have functional long-distance communications and travel technologies. The Mountain Folk are probably the only civilization in Creation where this kind of scale makes sense, and I wish that I could think it was planned instead of just being a consequence of not wanting to fill in the empty places in the map.

Most of the section is devoted to artifacts, character creation, and Charms after the first twenty pages, and while the artifacts include plenty of obvious modern technology with the serial numbers filed off like magical grenades, that doesn't bother me here. The Mountain Folk were put in as Exalted's version of dwarves--explicitly, see The Making of Exalted--so having them be superlative-but-mechanistic crafters fits in just fine. My problem with Wonders of the Lost Age is that it tried to make this everyone's paradigm, to the overall detriment of the setting, not with anyone at all using magitech. And if anyone's going to use it, dwarves are a good candidate.

The Charms are mostly utilitarian, as befits the somewhat focused nature of the Mountain Folk, though the Charms that replicate some aspects of sorcery (summoning elementals and countermagic) are conceptually the most interesting. Otherwise Worker Charms are boring, Warrior Charms are great for killing people but literally nothing else, and Artisan Charms are mostly manipulating Essence with a side order of crafting. Only the Enlightened Charms really have anything beyond a somewhat narrow focus, because that's where all the social and interaction stuff goes. Fortunately, these are accessible to everyone, since in a Mountain Folk game the PCs are all likely to be Enlightened. I doubt many people want to play "Boring 9-5 manual labor: the RPG."

There is one huge oversight I have to mention. For all the talk about the Endless War and how the struggle against hostile underground monsters and civilizations defines Mountain Folk civilization, the book doesn't give you any stats for anything to fight. That's a pretty big oversight and one that makes it hard to run any kind of Mountain Folk game involving their greatest threat without a lot of work on the storyteller's part.

While I'm a fan of the first edition corebook's explanation that the Mountain Folk are just Fair Folk who entered Creation at the Elemental Pole of Earth and took on some of its stability thereby, that ship has long since sailed. What's here is a serviceable if boring portrayal, but there's not much that actually makes me want to play a Mountain Folk or run a Mountain Folk game.

The Dragon King section is better, and is helped by spending slightly more time on Dragon King culture and psychology and by greatly expanding the scope of Dragon King locations. Originally they were all in Rathess until the Exalted Players Guide added the Pterok, Mosok, and Anklok breeds, but even there it was implied that Rathess had almost all the surviving Dragon Kings and the other three breeds were mostly afterthoughts. Scroll of the Fallen Races expands on these locations, like Mouth Eledath in the southwest, where the Dragon Kings have advanced far enough to begin trade with the Mountain Folk (in 1e they had just attained sapience within the last decade), or Scale Crest Island, where intelligent Mosok rule over human barbarian tribes on the coast and intelligent Anklok do the same from the island's interior. This is great and it's an important addition to the game, since it provides plenty of possibility to interact with Dragon Kings as more than monstrous manual entries.

As with the Mountain Folk section, most of the chapter is taken up with superpowers, but unlike the Mountain Folk the Dragon Kings don't derive their powers from Charms. They get them from stratified progressions of techniques called the Ten Paths of Prehuman Mastery. Each Path is themed to an element and has some particular focus; for example, the Clear Air Path is about perception and the Flickering Fire Path is about speed and motion. Unique to the 2e presentation of the Dragon Kings, there are also five Dark Paths themed around the five elements of the Underworld.

This is also a holdover from first edition, but I like it because it reveals that Charms are not the universal way to organize supernatural powers. It makes me wonder if the other Primordial-created races like the alaun or the scathach had their own non-Charm-based powersets and how they were organized. This is somewhat tarnished by the Fair Folk using Charms even through they come from the madness outside Creation, but it still makes me curious.

The storyteller advice correctly points out that the Dragon Kings have very similar themes to Solars--devotees of the Unconquered Sun who have been gone from the world for ages and who most of Creation thinks are monsters, who are driven by ancient memories--but points out that Dragon Kings have a much harder time proving their good intentions than Solars because they do look like monsters and there's no way around that other than disguising themselves. Dragon Kings have to contend with a world that they once ruled that has now grown strange and nearly forgotten them, when it doesn't remember them as horrible monsters. Okay, maybe it's closer than "very similar." But the Dragon Kings have no chance of ever regaining their power due to diminished numbers, so games about them are focused more on what they can do with their diminished capabilities in the Age of Sorrows.

Overall, the second section is much more interesting than the first, because even though the Dragon Kings are thematically similar to the Solars, they have enough breadth of concept and location that there are many more stories to tell about them than about the Mountain Folk. Plus, dwarves are cool, but they're just not as cool as magic dinosaur people. The prize goes to the second half of the book, but I still like the whole thing for showing two of Creation's nonhuman cultures in (some) depth. I only wish there were more interesting nonhuman races to show.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Scroll of Fallen Races
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Shards of the Exalted Dream
Publisher: Onyx Path Publishing
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/20/2016 15:44:42

I remember reading the forum threads on this book when it first came out, and the excitement ended up nearly at a fever pitch. At the time I didn't really give it that much thought since I had fallen out of love with Exalted, but when my interest in the game rekindled, this was one of the first supplements I picked up. And I'm really glad I did, because it's fantastic. From the cover, you can tell what kind of book it'll be. The cover has a picture of the Scarlet Empress, but in multiple guises: as a martial artist, or a starfighter pilot, or a scientist, all of which get play in the setting material. The cover half-sold me on the book already, even without the enthusiasm I've seen for it elsewhere.

Shards of the Exalted Dream is divided into five major parts, which I'll deal with individually.

--Gunstar Autochthonia-- There's a quote I found on the internet from one of the authors that sums up this setting in a nutshell:

"Alright, so Battlestar Autochthonia is sorted." "You know we can't actually call it that, right?" "Gunstar Autochthonia." "That works."

The Exalted were created by the gods. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.

...which failed, and so they all piled into Autochthon and fled into the void. Here, Creation is not a flat disc surrounded by an endless sea of chaos. It's a spiral of star systems, rising to the eternal palace of Theion the Universe Emperor at its height and descending to Black Non, where the Neverborn fitfully sleep and existence ends. It is there that the Exalted scheme to return, once their task of modifiying Autochthon into the perfect weapon--the Gunstar--is complete and their might is unassailable. Here the Solars rule, the Dragon-Blooded serve as voidfighter pilots with Sidereal coordination and oversight, and the Lunars hunt gremlins and Primordial infiltrators in the Reaches of Autochthon's body.

A lot of this setting would be more interesting to me if I had read Compass Autochthonia--I have no idea who the Viator of Nullspace is, for instance--but there's still plenty to love. It has a clear source of conflict, a clear game goal, a reason for the PCs to all work together, and plenty of interesting things to do. If they're Solars, perhaps they're working to find Gaia and Luna, who fled the Spiral by their own means when the war was lost. If they're Sidereals, maybe they're working with the Gunstar pilot Raanei, who thinks the war is suicide and just wants to find a place to settle down, far from the Primordials, where humanity can live in peace. If they're Lunars, maybe they accompany survey teams to worlds that Autochthon happens on and need to "pacify" the local population so the Gunstar can strip-mine the planet for raw materials.

I also like how it's space travel but with Exalted technology. Space combat takes place with voidfighters, but personal combat is still swords and bows. The authors took the magitech emphasis of Wonders of the Lost Age and found a way to make it fit perfectly. A Dragon-Blooded voidfighter chronicle would be a ton of fun, I think.

The chapter ends with Theion Charms, which are probably distinct from Malfeas Charms, but since I haven't read the Infernals book it doesn't mean anything to me.

And I have to admit, I like the idea that when She Who Lives in Her Name launched her counterattack against Creation at the end of the Primordial War, this is what it used to be like and why the end is such a tragedy. She was forced to destroy the very concept of Creation that was as perfect as she could wish it to be--a collection of spheres with fire at their hearts, endlessly revolving in the void.

--Heaven's Reach-- This is Exalted space opera. The "Exalted" began as a supersoldier project and became something more transhumanist as humanity's understanding of technology increased, the Yozi are vast intelligences created through stellar engineering who rebelled against their creators, the Fair Folk are dark matter entities called the Shrieking Hordes who pile out of damaged parts of space-time to attack shipping.

This setting has cars and guns and is pretty much our world in the (far, far) future, with thousands of worlds and easy space travel, aliens, blasters, giant trading conglomerates, and all the other trappings of space opera. The Central Empire is ruled by Heaven's Son, a Lunar who killed his Solar mate centuries ago and has ruled unchallenged since then. Out beyond the empire is the Frontier, and the distinction functions a lot like the Core vs. Rim in Firefly, including the contrast of light repression but safety vs. freedom.

One neat thing that's part of the setting is the Grand Celestial Mountain, which is an extradimensional supercomputer network that all worlds that were part of the ancient empire are connected to. It's a physical place that you can go to, so "hacking" here involves finding a portal to the Grand Celestial Mountain, walking in, physically fighting off the guardian "spirits," picking up the data, and walking out. It handily avoids the decker problem and provides a way for any character type to interact with computer tasks, which is very important in any kind of future game.

On the other hand, the starship stats make no sense because the speeds are still in miles per hour and the weapon ranges are in yards. I'm pretty sure that Mount Mostath-class battlecruiser is going to be worthless because no other ship is going to get within the 100-yard range of its superweapon.

Before I bought the book this setting was the one that stuck out the most to me, but now that I've read through all of them it's actually the least interesting. I think that's because it doesn't do that much that's different or exciting with its premise. "Exalted + Space Opera" sums it up, and physical hacking isn't really enough to save it.

--Burn Legend-- This isn't really an alternate setting at all. It's more like the old Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game, with an Exalted gloss on a setting designed for martial artists to beat each other up using ancient techniques learned from contemplating the wild or from secret masters. It rips out almost all of the Exalted system, replacing it with a simplified version of attributes and with Techniques, where each combatant picks a technique and they are all revealed simultaneously, some Techniques hard-counter others, then damage is rolled. The techniques are mostly what you'd expect, and include Shōryūken ("Burning Corona Strike") and Hadōken ("Heavenly Storm"), plus a bunch of other fighting game standards.

Noncombat functions are all abstracted away and handled by Backgrounds. If someone wants to overawe someone else with their reputation, roll Fame. If they want to acquire a new weapon, roll Resources. I did like the comment in the Fame Background that it could refer to "the special forces soldier who saved the President from terrorists." The Exalted definitely are bad enough dudes.

This seems like a cool idea, but it's not really Exalted except in the "coat of paint" sense, and I'm not sure why it's in here.

--Modern-- This is basically the World of Darkness crossed with Exalted. It takes place in Creation, but one where technology has progressed to the point of cars and computers and aircraft, with the military having day-after-tomorrow level tech like vehicle-mounted railguns and a moon colony in progress. The Dragon-Blooded are elemental supersoldiers created to fight the threat of spirits that still exist on the edges of Creation and at the Pole of Earth, and the three world powers of Meruvia, Union of Eastern States, and An-Teng fight proxy wars among their spheres of influence. Most people think of spirits as inimical to humanity, and follow the teachings of the Immaculate Church and its founder, St. Cecilia. Magic works, but is mostly not used. Why have a thaumaturge chant for hours to send a message 50 miles when you can just text them on your cell phone, and why pay a weather-witch to predict tomorrow's weather when meteorologists do it every day?

But it's all a lie! The world is actually ruled by the Infernal Exalted, traitor Solars who went over to the Yozi when they attacked the gods. Spirits have been a constant danger to humanity because they're the resistance against Infernal rule, and the Dragon-Blooded are actually made by infusing people with part of the Essence of the imprisoned Elemental Dragons. "St. Cecilia" is actually Cecelyne, the Endless Desert. Magic is weak because the Infernals sealed off most other worlds in order to cement their dominion, but now that the Abyssals they set to pacify the Underworld have broken the seal and the Sidereals have released the Solar shards they were guarding as part of a strategy to free the world of its masters, it's coming back.

This was my favorite setting. I think mostly because I love hidden truths and secret masters, but also just that modern technology in a fantasy world is so rarely done that it sticks out a lot, in the same way that Gunstar Autochthonia's starfighters + swords does. I can easily see starting with a team of Dragon-Blooded special forces and fighting spirits before learning that they're basically working for the Illuminati and having to decide what to do with it. Or even playing mortals--this is the only setting in Shards of the Exalted Dream that makes that appealing. Definitely the high point of the book.

--Appendix-- This is where all the new Charms and firearms and systems go. They're mostly pretty good, and about what you'd expect. Standouts include the Solar Charm that makes gunshots so loud that enemies run away, or the Lunar Charm that lets them touch a vehicle and imprint another vehicle with its traits, so they can ram their bicycle into a wall and the wall acts like a semi hit it. The Sidereals don't have to worry about carrying weapons because they can just point their finger at someone and yell "BANG!" and they have a Charm that lets them pull up next to someone, yell "There's no time to explain! Get in!" and then have the person comply. Sidereals always get the most interesting Charms.

The chase rules are pretty interesting, being as they are based on abstract "legs" rather than having to compare speeds on a tick-by-tick basis. Then on top of that, drivers have to avoid accumulating Hazard so they don't crash into objects, blow out tires, or otherwise suffer mishaps. It does look like a lot of rolling, but it's pretty good for anything involving an extended roll, and comparing drivers to each other means it doesn't suffer the "roll until something interesting happens" problem that crafting often suffers from.

There's also alternate systems for Sidereal astrology and Abyssal Resonance, but I'm not qualified to judge them.

This book is amazing. Ideas fair leaped off the page at every turn, and it opens up Exalted in a way that no other book in 2e that I know of really has. People have been hacking Exalted into other settings since it first came out--I still have a space opera version in a Word doc from 2002 I found in the internet somewhere--and I'm glad to see that when an official book finally came out, it's of this quality. I'd recommend this to anyone who's starting to fall out of love with Exalted or who wants to try something different. There's a wide enough variety that you'll almost certainly find something you can use.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Shards of the Exalted Dream
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Spheres of Power
Publisher: Drop Dead Studios
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/27/2015 20:00:03

One of the aspects of D&D I've never really liked, and part of the reason I drifted away from the game for almost a decade, is the magic system. You can't really talk about "realism" in magical systems without sounding like a pretentious idiot, so about the best justification I can offer is that it didn't match the expectations I had developed from reading The Wheel of Time and Darkover and The Dark is Rising, and all the ways I found to fix it either increased the disparity between casters and martial characters--spell points being the most obvious example--or required a ton of work, like rewriting all the spell lists.

Well, I'm sure that Spheres of Power required a ton of work, but I didn't have to do it. And it provides a completely new magic system that turns D&D's magic from "lighting candles to literally doing anything" to one that requires casters to focus on a few specific areas.

Gone is the arcane/divine split. Gone are long lists of spells. Instead, there are twenty spheres, each of which has about twenty talents to modify them. A wizard with the Destruction sphere can throw blasts of concussive force at nearby enemies, and can take talents to allow them to throw lightning or fire, hit enemies further away, or create explosions. One with the Warp sphere can teleport nearby, and can take talents to teleport further, teleport enemies, or cross dimensional barriers. And so on with Alteration, Creation, Detection, Life, Mind, Nature, Telekinesis, and all the other spheres. Access is controlled by spell points, which most--but not all--talents require and almost no base sphere abilities do. And spell points are relatively limited. A 20th level Incanter, the most magic-focused class, won't have more than a couple dozen.

This is great. One of the major problems with D&D magic is that wizards can do their job and everyone else's job as well, and the solution to the problem has always been to force them to pick an area of competence, but previous attempts rarely went far enough. And the at-will sphere abilities means that low-level wizards don't have to cast their couple spells and then pull out the crossbow for the rest of the day. You can have pyromancers and diviners and necromancers and shadowbinders and demonologists and all the literary kinds of more focused wizards without requiring custom spell lists and without requiring a player to deliberately limit themselves for the sake of the concept.

I don't usually like effects-based magic systems as much as I do exception-based ones, because saying, "I cast Melf's Minute Meteors!" is much more interesting than saying, "I use Destruction and spend a spell point for the frost blast talent." However, Spheres of Power includes several subsystems to allow for the best of both worlds. The Ritual system is a way to import existing D&D spells into the new framework, so the game can still have spells that the existing spheres can't easily replicate like animal messenger. The Spellcraft system lets wizards combine sphere effects to create unique powers only they know, two examples of which are a Destruction/Mind combo that freezes the targets with ice and slows their thoughts as well; and a Nature/Protection combo that coats the targets in vines that provide armor and grapple their enemies. Finally, the Incantations system is ported over as well. There's an embarrassment of riches.

There are new classes, which seem to work well but are hampered by uninspiring names. The Incanter is the one with the most spheres, the Thaumaturge is one that focuses on demoniac powers, and the Armorist creates a personalized set of weapons and armor, basically like a magical girl. I guess it's because archmage, warlock, and soulknife were already taken. Fey Adept and Shifter aren't so bad, but are still a bit uninspired. That's the disadvantage of coming in a bit late, though.

There's a section on adapting the magic system to the world, with a system of boons and penalties available to create magical traditions that can only use certain parts of spheres--lycanthropic wizards who can only use Alteration on themselves, for example--require staves or gems to use magic, need gestures and words of power like traditional D&D wizards, suffer Constitution or hit point damage to use spells, can't use certain spheres at all, and so on. The example given is a world where all magic is performed by elemental martial artists who control their powers through katas, which probably sounds familiar to you.

There's a few example worlds and organizations implementing the rules, but each world is only a little over a page. There's essentially no fluff at all except for those worlds and a few chapter fiction pieces, but really the book is packed full already and there's no reason to make it longer.

Without exaggeration, Spheres of Power is exactly what I'm looking for in a magic system for D&D and is probably the first book I've read in over a decade that made me seriously consider running a D&D game. If LFQW is getting you down, or if enormous spell lists are becoming unmanageable, or if you're sick of having to account for Scry and Fry when planning anything above 10th level encounters, check it out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Spheres of Power
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The Books of Sorcery, Vol. III - Oadenol's Codex
Publisher: White Wolf
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/19/2015 19:50:30

The biggest problem with Oadenol's Codex is that it was published at the wrong time. As I mentioned in my Wonders of the Lost Age review, publishing that book first set the tone of the Exalted line toward robots and sentai teams and airships and the best forms of magic being indistinguishable from technology. It would have been a lot better to publish Oadenol's Codex first, since it's more than half-full of material that mortals can accomplish and would thus set a better baseline of expectations for Exalted. I'd much rather have had later material written assuming a world of priests putting up prayer strips to ward off hungry ghosts and rites sung to bring in the crops and architects spending half their lives building precisely-calibrated mansions to contain the updwelling of Essence from a dragon line and cautious expeditions into the Wyld to retrieve powerful ingredients. Then assume the Exalted get to break the rules, the same way the Exalted corebook has rules for bleeding and infection and fatigue and months-long convalescence after battle and gives the Exalted a way to ignore all of that.

There are four main parts of the book, and three of them are easily accessible to mortals. My favorite part is definitely the thaumaturgy section, which has rituals from alchemical mixes to controlling to weather to calling up the dead or demons to breeding better animals. There's also a note that thaumaturgy draws on the underlying processes used by the gods to maintain Creation, which I think is a great baseline. Really interesting worlds can be created out of assuming that natural processes aren't simply bound by real-world physics, as Glorantha has spent decades demonstrating. The example, of the little god of a hunk of clay performing the Mudra of Isolate Stability when entering the furnance in response to the fire god's Song of Ardent Unity, thus producing a brick, is a bit silly, though. It's like how the least god proliferation leads to gods being by far the most common form of life in Creation, since every blade of grass and grain of sand has one.

The rules for thaumaturgy are not quite as good. It's Attribute + Ability vs Difficulty like everything else, but the Ability is almost always Occult and often other Abilities are more obvious. For example, Alchemy requires Craft (Water) to know the formulae, but even though Craft (Water) is the skill for making potions and liquids of all kinds, it's not rolled. Geomancy doesn't require Craft (Earth). Enchanting doesn't require any Craft at all. Spirit-Beckoning uses Occult even though the skill for prayers is Performance and most of the individual rituals override the base and say they're rolled with Charisma + Performance. The way thaumaturgy is written up with how fundamental it is to Creation's functioning, it should have been just been an extension of mundane skill, but instead it's halfway between that and being its own thing and suffers a bit for it.

The manse and artifact construction rules are pretty good, with some great examples of demesnes, manses, and all the non-technological artifacts that were missing from Wonders of the Lost Age. There's also an important note that artifacts should do something special and not just provide mundane bonuses--a hammer that adds +2 to Craft (Fire) rolls is just a very well-made hammer. The major problem I have with these rules is that the tech fetishism of Exalted 2e comes to the fore again in the terminology of features that can be built into Manses. Names like "Central Control" "Self-Destruct Sequence" or "Network Node" just perpetuate the idea that sufficiently advanced magic is technological without room for other paradigms.

Also, that focus led to a fluff/rules split. Having a Repair rating or requirement for Maintenance means that the artifact-maker or manse-builder gains extra points toward giving powers to their construction...but that means that the imperishable wonders of the First Age Solars, which work flawlessly for millennia with no care, should be less powerful than the Shogunate wonders made by the Dragon-Blooded. And since that goes against all the themes of the game, it seems like a bad design decision.

There was a throw-away line in the thaumaturgy chapter that I liked: "The reptiles suffered tremendously during the war, with whole nations exterminated; yet, they might have recovered if they had kept the gods' favor."

That makes me wonder what Creation would have been like in that case. If the Unconquered Sun had kept his Dragon King form, and the Dragon Kings had kept the Mandate of Heaven, what would have happened to the Exalted? Would they have been second-class citizens in a world of subjugated humans? Would they have risen up again and overthrown the gods? There's a lot of great stories there.

There's a chapter in the end about magical flora and fauna of Creation, but I think it suffers a bit by being mostly conversions from first edition. We've seen ink monkeys and heart wasps and ironwood before, and while getting their second edition stats is nice, it would have been nicer to see something new.

Other than the flaws relating to drawing on Wonders of the Lost Age for its background, Oadenol's Codex is a great book. With its focus on a lower-level of the Exalted world, it builds a foundation for Creation that I really like with only a few missteps.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Books of Sorcery, Vol. III - Oadenol's Codex
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Masters of Jade
Publisher: White Wolf
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/19/2015 19:48:19

This was the last book published before the announcement of third edition, and I think it deserves at least a whole star for being the book that does the most to expand the scope of the world since...well, since Scavenger Sons. One of the problems with Exalted as a whole is that the setting was laid out early and very few new locations were introduced, which meant that the existing locations ended up with connections that make no sense for how far they are from each other. Like how I complained in my review of the Exalted corebook that the Linowan have an ocean presence despite being a thousand miles from the sea, or the way that the Realm has a base in Greyfalls even though it's a year round-trip.

One of the problems is the way that there were rarely any locations placed in between the existing ones in order to actually demonstrate the distances involved, and Masters of Jade fixes that pretty handily. Zebremani; the tomb-cities of Dazra of Irivande, ruled by the nemessary ghosts of their former inhabitants possessing their former bodies; the Empire of the Three Devil Princes, ruled by mysterious shapeshifters; Coindelving, the silver foundry-mill in the frozen North; the behemoth-island Grand Amanuta; the Thaumatarchy of Tessen-O; the Scorpion Empire... Reading those names gives me the same feeling as when I was reading the Exalted 1e corebook with its descriptions of mysterious cities, crumbling empires, teeming wilderness, and desolate wasteland, and even though that's not really what the book was about it's probably my favorite part of it.

What Masters of Jade is actually about is the Guild, the largest trading organization in Creation and one famous for being primarily mortal-run in a world where the supernatural is an ongoing and constant concern. I admit, I've never particularly liked the Guild for the same reason that I don't like the countries with implausibly large territories or trading relationships across hundreds of miles of trackless wasteland--it makes the world feel smaller when there's a single organization that runs nearly all international trade. The book actually does a lot to help rehabilitate the Guild in my eyes by making the case the the Guild's size is essential to its function. Individual Guild factors can be subverted and their interests taken over, but that's just one small area, and if the new owner still makes a profit it doesn't really matter. What really worries the Guild is the prospect of large-scale subversion, and their size and cell structure makes taking over the entirety of the organization a Herculean undertaking.

But not impossible, now that the Solars have returned.

Where Manacle And Coin was more of a lower-level view of a day-to-day Guild business, Masters of Jade deals mostly with the high level and the actions of the Guild as a whole. There's a section about how the Guild's power base is built on slavery, both because manpower is one of the few things in great supply in the Age of Sorrows and because slaves provide the only things of value that the Guild can trade with the fair folk, the powers of Hell, or the dead. Though the Guild is very careful on the last of those, because they actually have competition there--the Timeless Order of Manacle and Coin, the Guild of the Underworld. Or, taking account their respective pedigrees, it'd be more accurate to say that the Guild is the Timeless Order of Creation.

I really like the Timeless Order section, because it deals with the reality of the Underworld. Those with unfinished business become ghosts when they die, and Guild merchants are probably especially likely to become ghosts due to their obvious greed, without which they would not be successful Guild merchants. But the Guild's wealth is built on slavery and drugs, and they work thousands or tens of thousands in the fields to death every year to keep their markets supplied. Any member of the Guild who becomes a ghost is likely to face quite a few extremely angry ghosts with knives when they arrive in the Underworld--and this also serves the Guild's purposes, because it motivates its merchants to become extremely rich so they can finance lavish funerals and arrive in the Underworld with enough resources to obtain membership in the Timeless Order or other protection. Every Guild member lives in mortal terror of dying a pauper.

There's also an explanation for how the Guild manages to compete against supernatural threats, and it also comes down to its size. Against spirits, it relies on blackmail: agree to our policies and receive rich sacrifices, work against us and be starved of worship. Against Exalts, it relies on information: Exalts still have human concerns, after all, and if the Guild can find out what they want and put the Exalt in their debt, is if far better to have the Princes of the Earth work with you out of their own free will than to try to buy them. And if both of those fail, well, most Exalts have mortals they care about, and if the Guild can find that out as well, there's always the knife in the dark.

The book ends with a system called the Creation-Ruling Mandate, which sounds worse but plays better than the Mandate of Heaven from the Exalted Storytellers Companion. The Mandate of Heaven isn't necessarily flawed, but it's overcomplicated for all but the most focused nation-building games and has a ton of actions with names like Tiger Confounds Bear Legislation that are impossible to remember without memorizing them all. The Creation-Ruling Mandate abstracts out most of the attributes and changes the action names to simple ones like "Destroy Asset," which are less flavorful but much easier to use in play. The main drawback is that there are no example organizations provided and no example of play, so it's a bit difficult to figure out how the actions interact.

I remember liking Manacle and Coin and I wasn't sure how I would feel about Masters of Jade, but it managed to win me over. As someone who tuned out of Exalted 2e relatively early in the line, I wish there had been more books like this early on. They might have maintained my interest.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Masters of Jade
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Blue Rose - The Roleplaying Game of Romantic Fantasy (True20)
Publisher: Green Ronin
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/08/2015 14:39:39

Blue Rose is subtitled "The Roleplaying Game of Romantic Fantasy." What's romantic fantasy, you ask, and how is it distinct enough from regular fantasy to have its own name? Well, I could easily answer that with "Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series" and be more than half right, but there are a few more specific commonalities: magic is an innate force that comes from within, tolerance and acceptance of differences are definite virtues, there's a focus on relationships and social contexts instead of tomb-delving and monster-slaying, the villains are frequently either the intolerant or simply the morally monstrous, the world is usually populated by intelligent talking (or psychic) animals and animal-people instead of the standard elves/dwarves/orcs, and community and belonging being depicted as inherently important.

All those are the kind of things I could get behind. I have read almost all of the Valdemar books, after all.

--Setting--

Okay, let me get this out of the way--Blue Rose is pretty much Valdemar as an RPG. The main country of Aldis is Valdemar, with its HeraldsSovereign's Finest traveling the country and righting wrongs, the CompanionsRhy-horses, KyreeRhy-wolves, and other intelligent animals, and the ruler chosen by divine fiat; Jarzon is Karse, including the theocracy in a harsh land that covets the neighboring country's rich lands, the priests burning people who exhibit "unnatural" powers, and the refugees who live just inside Aldis's borders but who are insular and suspicious of Aldis's tolerance for gay people or outre displays of magic; Kern is Hardorn, including the constant invasions of their neighbors, the use of mind-controlledzombified peasants as shock troops in battles, and the rule by a power-mad wizard king; and Rezea is the Shin'a'in, though admittedly here the resemblance is pretty small and mostly about how both the Shin'a'in and the Rezeans are kind of inspired by Native American plains tribes, with some additional Mongol inspiration in the Rezeans' case.

The history is one of the standard fantasy setting backgrounds. In the past was the Old Kingdom, where everyone lived in harmony, magic provided a high quality of life and easy transportation, humanity lived in harmony with the Rhydan (intelligent psychic animals), vatazin, and sea-folk, and everything was totally awesome. At least, it was until unscrupulous adepts delved too much in the mysteries of Sorcery, were corrupted by the power, and overthrew the Old Kingdom with their armies of summoned darkfiends and magically-twisted shadowspawn. These sorcerer-kings instituted a reign of terror and blood, wiping out the vatazin, persecuting the Rhydan, and wasting thousands of lives in petty wars against each other or experiments into the darker aspects of magic. This continued until the remaining rhydan hooked up with some rebels and managed to overthrow most of the sorcerer-kings (except the king of Kern) and re-established their own kingdoms, listed above. What happened to the rest of the world is unknown, and while long-distance communication still exists, long-range travel does not.

One of things I really like are the deities. It's the relatively fantasy-standard idea of elder gods who are more associated with natural processes and younger gods who are more associated with human ideals, but there are several things I really like about this particular implementation. For one thing, even their existance is in doubt. They might answer prayers, they might be behind the Golden Hart that chooses Aldis's ruler, but they might not. There's no proof either way, and that allows for a lot more plausible religious tension than, say, the Forgotten Realms.

For another, the gods actually have relationships. Some of them are married (or dating, or whatever applies to deities) to each other, which shows up all the time in real-world mythology but rarely in fantasy RPG backgrounds. The divine relationships are also where the in-universe terms for gay and straight people--caria daunen and cepia luath, respectively--come from.

(I'm not sure I'd ever use those terms in an actual game, because there's always a tension between immersion from using game-based language and sounding pretentious and silly, but I like that they're there.)

I've seen complaints that Aldis is unrealistically benign, but I think the background supports its ability to be a place people from the real world might actually want to live. For one thing, they can replicate a lot of modern technology using magic, so santitation, communication, psychological care, criminology, and other fields aren't really medieval in mindset, even if the means they use to get there are different--telepaths or telegraphs, you can still send long-distance messages. For another, the background establishes that the ruler may be divinely chosen for their benevolence and purity of heart, and the nobility is an examination-based mandarinate where part of the examination is determining that the candidate is genuinely dedicated to working for the good of Aldis at the moment of the exam (thus leaving the possibility of corruption later). Despite those, there's still veniality, there's still corruption, two rulers have had to be removed due to evil or insanity, people are still poor, etc. There are plenty of opportunities for adventure even if the setting isn't very suited for the typical D&D game of rootless murderhobos, and the assumption that the characters are going to be members of the Sovereign's Finest, with the attendant duties and perks, gives plenty of opportunity to go around righting wrongs.

It's basically fantasy Scandinavia with magic. And honestly, it's more nuanced than the Valdemar novels, so there's that.

--System--

Blue Rose's system is essentially a stripped-down version of D20, and it was actually pulled out and repackaged in a settingless version called True20 for people who liked the mechanics but didn't like or were indifferent to the setting.

Most of the system is pretty much the same as d20 with small or cosmetic tweaks. For example, ability scores are just rated by their bonus (-5 to +5) instead of the raw score, which is honestly a change that they should have done in d20 anyway. Instead of tracking individual coinage, Blue Rose abstracts it all away into a Wealth score that is rolled to acquire new equipment. There's still skill checks, being flat-footed, DCs, rolling 20-sided dice, an action economy (full-round, move, standard, free), savings throws, and most of the other familiar elements of d20. The biggest changes are in the classes, damage and healing, and in the magic system, so I'll deal with each of those in turn.

Rather than the ever-expanding plethora of d20's classes and prestige classes, Blue Rose has only three classes: Warriors, Experts, and Adepts. This is still somewhat problematic--Experts' focus as the class that uses a lot of skills isn't really a good focus in a more skill-based system like d20, and there's no mechanism for Warriors getting multiple attacks beyond feats like Whirlwind Attack--but it's much more open than d20 is. There's also options to dip, like a Warrior taking Wild Talent and being a latent psychic, or an Expert picking up a couple levels of Warrior to represent training in formal dueling.

Attacks and so on are calculated normally, but an entirely new mechanic is used for damage: the Toughness Save. Damage is always 15 plus the appropriate ability score bonus plus the weapon damage, and is opposed by a rolled Toughness Save. Failing the save by variable amounts causes different effects, up to and including jumping straight to bleeding out on the ground for failing by 15+. Lower-level injuries also stack up, so a Wounded character who is Wounded again becomes Disabled. Even the smallest injuries also cause penalties to later Toughness Saves, so everyone will run out of luck eventually.

This is great. It completely undercuts the standard farmer to ubermensch trajectory that D&D characters usually undergo, which is good, because one-man armies work against the communitarian themes of romantic fantasy. It also makes sure that the threats do not need to scale much. A knife in the dark is always dangerous and an enemy army is always a threat, even for high-level characters.

The magic system, called arcana, is entirely feat-based, and as such it is much less unwieldy, less prone to abuse, and impossible to make a CoDzilla. Learning to use one of the six types of magic takes a feat, every two new magic powers takes another feat, and every character gets the same number of feats, so while Adepts probably will be a bit more powerful than Warriors or Experts just by virtue of having supernatural powers, they're unlikely to be able to comepletely outclass them in every possible way because they'll always have weaknesses and blind spots.

Also, magic is fatigue-based instead of Vancian. This is personal preference, but I really don't like Vancian magic and would prefer basically any alternative. Adepts can cast all day long if they're lucky, but three failed Fatigue Checks will knock them out if they don't rest. There are also options to push powers to higher levels in exchange for taking more fatigue. Any power that lets the Adept Take 20 almost always adds 20 to the Fatigue Check, which will almost certainly cause them to fail.

Sorcery--Shadow-aligned arcana--is where the problems with the arcana system come out in force, though. Alignment has never made sense in D&D, and Blue Rose is no exception. Sorcery seems to be similar to the Dark Side of the Force, with a specific note that it comes from negative emotions and a Corruption mechanic in place for its use.

For example, summoning darkfiends is Sorcery, as is erasing someone's memories, or assaulting them with your mind. All makes sense, right? The problem comes in when using Flesh Shaping to alter a transgender person's sex with their permission is Sorcery even though it's entirely beneficial, and the text even calls out this very example in an earlier chapter as something for which the benefit might be worth the cost, so it's not an error (though the actual description does say that such uses may be able to avoid a Corruption check). Furthermore, magically influencing people to do things isn't Sorcery unless it's, "used to cause deliberate harm," but setting someone on fire with your brain or freezing them solid is never Sorcery even though it always causes deliberate harm. Reading someone's inner thoughts is always Sorcery even if you're doing it in a multiple murder trial to determine the accused's guilt.

The main principle seems to be that Sorcery is based on evil intent, except when it's not, which doesn't say...well, anything about anything, really. Whether something is Sorcery or not seems pretty arbitrary to me, except that greater priority is placed on the sanctity or one's mind than one's body, which would be cold comfort to people drowned by adepts using Water Shaping. At least the newly-deceased can be confident that they weren't killed by vile Sorcery.

Other than that minor quibble, I really liked Blue Rose. It's good to see a version of D&D that's both thematically and mechanically focused on social connections, promoting modern values, and finding non-violent solutions to problems when possible, and even if the system is still a bit too d20ish for my liking, it's much more palatable to me with the changes they've made. I may never run this as written, but reading it gave me a ton of ideas for other things.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Blue Rose - The Roleplaying Game of Romantic Fantasy (True20)
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Hyperborean Mice
Publisher: Kiz and Jenn Press
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 12/11/2014 22:38:08

Summary: It's Conan crossed with Redwall.

Hyperborean Mice is a game of swords and sorcery, with all the trappings and tropes that entails. It has an ancient, crumbling empire only a generation or so from disintegration or unlikely renewal, inbred fueding nobility, dirty peasants, barbarians at the borders, dark cults of forbidden gods, ancient ruins of a dead civilization, horrific monsters in the wilds, mysterious places, and adventure. All of it as performed by talking mice and rats.

It sounds odd, but anyone who has read Redwall or its sequels knows that it's entirely possible to take the premise of talking animals completely straight and still make a compelling and somewhat grim story out of it, and Hyperborean Mice does that elegantly. While reading it, I was never taken out of the mood or stopped and thought "wait, these are mice." As the book says, the rules and setting could work just as easily with humans with minimal tweaking.

As it is, everything works. Owls are dragons, shrews are orcs or goblins, undead shrews are ravenous zombies, weasels are ogres, hawks are the horrific terror of the unexplored wild--the animal kingdom provides plenty of horrible threats and dangers for heroes who are the size of a mouse. The dark gods are even based on mousy dangers--Hartaung is the god of winter and the attendant danger of starvation, Skzentic is the god of disease and filth, and Daolotch is the god of death and the afterlife. Various other essentially deified predators fill out the ranks of the banned cults, like Hoorooru, the Father of Owls.

The rules themselves are pretty easy. All tasks are 2d6 + stat + skill, beat a set difficulty, and there are plenty of abilities and magical powers (mostly based on psychic powers--controlling emotions, moving things with your mind, pyrokinesis, speaking mind to mind, that sort of thing) to fill out the Cool Stuff sections on the character sheet. It manages to find a good balancing point between simplicity and plenty of options without going too far in either direction.

All in all, it's well worth your time and money.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Hyperborean Mice
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Golden Sky Stories
Publisher: Star Line Publishing
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 11/15/2014 15:48:57

This is definitely the cutest RPG I've ever read.

I've had Golden Sky Stories--夕焼け小焼け (yuuyake koyake, "sunset") in the original, which is the name of a song that plays over town speakers in Japan at the end of the day--for a long while. I kickstarted it a year and a half ago and got the final version six months ago, and have barely looked at it since then. It turns out that was a mistake, because this might be my favorite non-traditional RPG ever.

When I say traditional there, I'm not talking about the trad vs. indie RPG divide, but rather about its focus. Golden Sky Stories is about playing henge (変化, "shapeshifter"), animals that can turn into humans. Or partially into humans, since it's often easier for them if they leave their tails and ears showing. They live in a small town in the Japanese countryside, and they help people with their problems. Not major problems, like murders or political strife, but small things. Two children who've had a falling out. A lost kitten. Someone who's moving away and is scared to say goodbye. That kind of thing. It's slice of life media, the game.

The description of the kind of town that a game should take place in really stuck out to me, because I lived in a small town in the mountains of Hiroshima Prefecture for three years that would have been perfect for this. So when I read:

--"Only a single rail line passes through it. A two-car train comes every hour, and no more. In front of the station are a row of shops not seen anywhere else. Many of the roads around the town are narrow, too small for cars to pass. Some of them are mere dirt paths, used by cats and rabbits more than people. You can see open fields here and there. The rice paddies outnumber the houses. If you look into the distance, you'll see only mountains and trees. Narrow rivers flow from mountains, from ponds, gathering into one big river. The water flows in, the water flows away."

...my main thought was that that's actually more connected than Kitahiroshima was, because we didn't have a train line. Twenty thousand people spread out over fifty square miles of wooded mountains, where the children went to school on a raised path through the rice fields, the parents worked in the local stores or in the aluminum plant, and the grandparents farmed rice and tended traditional shops. The kind of place where I could easily believe there were henge out there, at twilight when the sun went down behind the mountains.

Mechanically, the game is quite simple. Each character chooses a henge type, from rabbits to birds to foxes, and gains powers based on Japanese associations with that animal, in addition to being able to take Weaknesses to gain extra powers. For example, birds can create wind, foxes can have a shrine dedicated to them, and rabbits can make mochi. Each henge has four attributes that determine how they interact with the world. Adult is for being serious and using technology, Child is for emotional connections, Animal is for senses or using the abilities of one's animal form, and Henge is for supernatural power. The attribute is compared to a difficulty, and if high enough, whatever you're doing is successful. No dice are used.

To make up for low attributes, there are three spendable currencies that increase their values for single checks. Two of these are derived from Connections, representing ties to other people, places, or supernatural beings. Connections have various types, like Rivalry, Like, Admirae, and so on, and each henge is connected to the other henge and the town itself. The Connections then become Wonder, which represents supernatural power used to fuel the henge's mystical abilities and is drawn from Connections from the henge to others, and Feelings, which are used to increase attributes for checks and is drawn from Connections to the henge from others. The third is Dreams, which are awarded by players to each other or to the narrator (or from the narrator to players) when they do things that are cute, heartwarming, clever, or funny. Unlike the other two, Dreams are used to increase Connections, not directly on powers or attributes.

In a great bit of mechanical convergence, humans don't have Wonder, they can only use Feelings to increase their tests, which means that they can't do things on their own. They need others to reach out to them to give them the strength to carry on, which ties perfectly into the themes of the game.

There's a lot of discussion about the kinds of games that Golden Sky Stories is designed for, and the example of play is about two children who are close friends, but were made fun of for holding hands on the way home from school, and the tanuki Riko and cat Kuromu's attempt to reconcile them. As it points out, for the majority of people, violence plays very little part in their daily problem solving, especially in the various small difficulties that arise in life. The basic structure for a game is:

--"Someone is troubled by something."

There's rarely a dark lord that we can quest to slay when we've had a falling out with our friends, but it can certainly seem as bad when it's our problem.

I'm usually a very mechanics-focused, crunchy RPG kind of guy, so I expected that I'd like the background of Golden Sky Stories but not be interested in playing it. The main reason I kickstarted it was interest in Japanese cultural products and nostalgia from having lived in Japan. Now that I've read it, though, I really want to play. Heartwarming slice of life is probably my favorite genre of anime, and I love the way this game is focused on evoking that kind of feeling. This is a great addition to RPG shelf.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Golden Sky Stories
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Exalted Second Edition
Publisher: White Wolf
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/25/2014 20:12:52

"Before the world was bent but after the Great Contagion, there was a civilization built in the image of the First Age. It sought to emulate the splendor of the bygone Golden Age, but it was in all ways less. It was a time of sorcery and heroism, of fabulous wonders and treacherous betrayals. Ruled by a decadent empire, it slipped inch by inch into barbarism and darkness, until one last cataclysm blotted it out forever. Yet, in its sunset, it was a splended thing, and glorious were the deeds of the Exalted." -Exalted 1e Core

Exalted is one of my favorite games of all time. I ran a first edition game for five years, plus an additional year of random fiction extras and discussions about where the game might have gone, and I'd dare say that almost everything I learned about running an RPG I learned over the course of that game. I bought Exalted 2e when it came out, but after a discussion with my group we decided not to convert over and so I skimmed the book, and never really sat down to read it cover to cover until now. I'll try not to do too much comparison with 1e as I write, but with the context above it'll be hard. But, what comparison I'm going to do I'll get out of the way in the beginning here:

--I really don't like the art. 2e's art has a few great pieces--the picture of the hiker seeing Mount Mostath in the distance on page 51, for example--but generally I was lukewarm on it, and a lot of it I actively disliked. It didn't seem as thematically or stylistically unified as 1e did. --I prefer the writing style of 1e. 2e has the benefit of a lot more setting material to draw on, but that also means it goes into much more detail and feels more like a technical manual and less like weird fiction. 1e's sense of wonder was due to most of the setting not being fleshed out yet, but it definitely got my imagination working more. --The chapter comics do a decent job of setting the tone, especially the very first one with the river god, but I prefer the chapter fiction from 1e. --While I think the concept is fine, I hate the word "Magitech."

That out of the way, let's dive in.

===Setting===

Exalted takes place in Creation, bordered by the swirling chaos of the Wyld on all edges and anchored by the Elemental Poles. To the west is the Elemental Pole of Water and a vast sea broken up by occasional islands until the sea and sky merge into one. To the south is the Elemental Pole of Fire and balmy coastal cities that give way to trackless sands and broken ground until in the far southern reaches the ground is too hot to walk on and the very air bursts into flame. To the east is the Elemental Pole of Wood, where fertile plains turn to dense forests whose trees grow taller and taller until the ground falls always and it's nothing but vast trunks going up and down into the misty green. To the north is the Elemental Pole of Air, from the temperate cities on the coast of the Inner Sea to the icy wastes of the north criss-crossed by tribes of nomads and haunted by the dead until it all becomes a vast sheet of ice. And in the center is the Blessed Isle, the stronghold of the Realm, the greatest empire in the world, and towering over the Realm is the Imperial Mountain, the Elemental Pole of Earth.

The assumed heroes of the game are the Exalted, empowered by the gods to fight the ancient Primordials and rule Creation. The Solars--the assumed protagonists of this book--were the greatest, until their hubris led to debauchery and chaos and they were overthrown, hunted down, and slain in incarnation after incarnation. Their enemies are the Dragon-blooded, elementally-empowered Princes of the Earth who rule the Realm and brand the Solars as Anathema. There are also the protean Lunars, the manipulative Sidereals, and the sinister Abyssals, among other, stranger beings. Like the Fair Folk who lurk in the Wyld beyond Creation and feed on human souls, or the spirits of the dead who watch over their ancestors, or the myriad of gods who govern every principle and location in Creation, from the concept of justice or the movement of the moon to the local god of an individual river or arrangement of boulders.

I am an unabashed lover of Creation. I could write pages and pages of setting description about the various areas of the setting and the people that live there, but in the interests of not turning this review into a book in its own right, I'll leave it at that.

It is a great setting, though. It's huge enough that it's possible to have wide diversity in cultures and physical geography without even accounting for the mutating effects of the Wyld, but the parts that are detailed are far-flung enough that it's easy to drop in your own kingdoms and civilizations in almost any place on the map. There are some places where the writers seem to forget this, though, like when they talk about how the Linowan, who are several thousand miles from the ocean, and would have to go several thousand more miles out of their way to get there by river, have a sea presence. I get that it's only a couple inches on the map, but each of those inches is a thousand miles. Creation is big.

There are also points where it gets a bit tedious. It's true that the Realm is the greatest power in the world and the Dragon-blooded are extremely important to the setting, but I'm not sure that we needed all that info about the inner workings of the Realm in this book. The assumed default is that the players will play Solars, and since repeated mention is made of how Solars who Exalt on the Blessed Isle almost never live very long, it probably would have been better to put that wordcount into describing the places where the characters will be spending their time.

The assumed tone of the game is Bronze Age epic crossed with high-powered wuxia film, with a greater or lesser proportion of either depending on the location chosen and the preferences of the players. I've noticed that the Bronze Age part tends to get lost in a lot of the online discussion, but the book does provide support for it through the setting. For example, the bestiary is filled with prehistoric creatures like dinosaurs or megafauna. On the wuxia side, the main staple crop of most places isn't maize, it's rice. Minor things, sure, but it does a lot to set the mood if the characters are fighting giant insects and velociraptors and getting jumped by ninjas in tea houses instead of fighting goblins and getting jumped by bandits in taverns.

Though you can do those too, if you want. Creation is large. It contains multitudes.

===System===

If you've played any of the other Storyteller games, you know the basic way the system works. A bunch of attributes, a bunch of abilities, add them together to get a dice pool, and try to beat a target number. A 7 or more is a success, and a 10 is two successes. Characters have Willpower that they can spend to increase their odds of success and Health Levels that stand between them and death. All that's the same.

There are some major differences between this and the various other Storyteller games, though, mostly relating to combat. For one, combat doesn't involve initiative and going around the table in turns. Instead, it's tick-based--each action a character can perform, including doing nothing, takes a certain number of "ticks" and reduces your ability to defend yourself by a certain amount until those ticks have gone by and you can act again. Similarly, defenses are no longer rolled out. Instead, everyone has a Defense Value that's automatically applied against incoming attacks. Damage and soak are still both rolled out, though, and damage is successes from the attack plus the weapon damage as is typical for Storytelling games. In addition, characters can move on every tick, which seems like it would help prevent the problem of people tuning out when it's not their turn, since they can block enemies, jockey for position, and so on even while they're waiting for their next action to come up. It does seem a little complicated, but I know there are fan-created accessories called Battlewheels to keep track of combatants' ticks-to-next-action, DV penalties, and so on.

Then, having created this elegant system, they created "flurries," a type of action that let people take multiple actions on the same tick, which seems like it gets rid of the whole point of having a timing-based system.

Combat is brutal, with rules for wounds becoming infected, bleeding to death, taking permanently crippling and disfiguring injuries, getting thrown to the floor or through walls, having armor and weapons smashed, and then the Exalted get to ignore almost all of those because they're just that awesome.

Each character has virtues as well: Compassion, Conviction, Temperance, and Valor. These have more of a mechanical effect in play, because a character has to fail a roll in order to go against any virtue rated 3 or higher. Failing a Valor roll to run from battle, for example, or failing a Compassion roll to execute a prisoner, or failing a Conviction roll to change their plan if ambiguous evidence of its failure comes through. It's not entirely a disadvantage, though, since characters can spend Willpower through a virtue to get bonus dice to appropriate rolls.

The main thing that makes the Exalted awesome is their Charms, and Solar Charms take up the single largest chunk of space in the book. Every ability, from Melee to Bureaucracy to Ride, has an array of special effects that can be invoked, letting Solars throw people across a football field, jump over mountains, raise a mob with a rousing speech, walk through walls, keep a ship from capsizing, survive a blow from a mammoth, or any number of other powers. There's a system of keywords for the Charms, like Obvious, meaning that it always causes some kind of physical manifestation that makes it easy to spot, or Emotion, meaning it affects the target's feelings. There's also sorcery, which lets the Exalted summon demons, teleport in the blink of an eye, part vast seas, or call down an acid rain that annihilates everything within its area of effect.

Two additional subsystems that weren't in Exalted 1e are the mass combat system and the social combat system. The mass combat system is a bit strange, because armies are modeled as essentially another piece of equipment that modifies the stats of the commander. It's a reasonable abstraction, but when mixed with the Charm and sorcery system it leads to weird effects. Some Charms have notes of how their usage change in mass combat, and some don't. Death of Obsidian Butterflies summons hundreds of razor-sharp butterflies and should carve a swath through any mortal army, but has no stats for mass combat. Adamant Skin Technique, which lets the Exalt stop all damage from an attack on them, can be used to block massed arrow fire because the army is an addition to the Exalt's stats. It does say that the GM should use their judgement, but I can see a lot of things that would get odd.

The social combat system is tick-based like physical combat, and involves making arguments and then either making a counterargument (social "parry") or stubbornly refusing to listen (social "dodge"), plus other actions. It also allows the recipient to spend a Willpower point to just say no and block the argument there, but the problems come in when supernatural persuasion is taken into account. Many supernatural powers require more than one Willpower to resist, and sometimes it has a periodic resistance cost. Furthermore, the book says: "Never forget that characters can flee the presence of individuals attempting to engage them in social combat or attack them in an attempt to cut short the conversation." Now admittedly, if someone can rewrite my beliefs then stabbing them in the face is a legitimate response for them trying to do so, but the image this conjures, of people running screaming from itinerant preachers or stabbing merchants who try to sell them goods they don't want to buy, is really odd.

The point of this is to affect the target's Intimacies and Motivation, which are a mechanical representation of their beliefs. They don't have much of a mechanical hook into the system, but they provide a basis for determining how characters are played.

There are some sloppy parts, though. The Fair Folk are supernaturally charming and can beguile the unwitting into believing in and accepting them, but there's no tie in with the social combat system. Buck-ogres have a note that they can "split their dice pools," even though that's a relic of the old Storyteller system and has been replaced by flurries. The aforementioned lack of interaction between large-scale battle sorcery and the system to handle large-scale battles. The listing of languages in NPC writeups has languages that aren't listed anywhere in the languages PCs can take, like Sijanese or River Valley.

And I won't even mention the errata. I have both the hardcopy and the PDF, and overlaid the errata as comments on the PDF, and some pages have up to a dozen comments on them. It's probably the most extensively-errataed RPG I've ever seen.

Exalted 1e has given me more fun than any RPG I own and I have a lot of love for the franchise because of that, but while this book does bring a lot of that to mind and even kindles it again in its own right, there are just too many small niggling things that bother me for me to give it five stars. A lot of that has to do with the system, though, not the setting. Creation is one of the most compelling fantasy worlds I'm familiar with, and I'd say Exalted is worth reading just for that.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Exalted Second Edition
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Monster Island
Publisher: Design Mechanism
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/08/2014 19:09:21

I thought the new edition of Runequest was fantastic, but if it did have a flaw, it's that it was entirely a toolkit with no setting included other than the Meeros sidebars designed to explain the various systems of the game. Well, Monster Island is entirely a setting book, and it more than lives up to the high expectations Runequest set.

The capsule description can be pretty obviously drawn from the book's title. The setting is a lot like King Kong's Skull Island, being a tangled, overgrown volcanic jungle island crawling with dinosaurs and weird monsters, but also draws a lot from Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborean stories. The island used to be part of a larger continent and the mountain peaks were the sacred Mount Yoormiphazreth where the gods dwelt, until Man Grew Proud, the gods descended to earth for a cage match, the mountain blew up, and everything went to hell, destroying the ancient sorcerous civilization that built the giant causeways that crisscross the island and the Smoking Mirror portals to other worlds that they used to bring in creatures for their amusement or for magical experiments.

The Smoking Mirrors are an especially nice touch, because it provides a great rationale for why the island is crawling will all kinds of incredibly and improbably dangerous flora and fauna that aren't related in any way to each other. Explorers can conceivably find just about anything in the jungles or mountain peaks or seas, and to that end, Monster Island has almost 100 pages of animals, plants, spirits, and weird things to fill out the island. A lot of them are drawn from East Asian or Oceanic mythology, like the Aswang, Manananggal, Nanaue, Rokurokubi, and Tikbalang, but there's plenty of other creatures in there too. The Trifronds, or the allosaurs, with a note that the natives call them "gwangi," or the vorslurp, plus dozens and dozens of others. Even if you aren't interested at all in a new setting, the book is absolutely worth the price for the monsters alone.

There's also a brief section about what sword and sorcery is--focus on human characters with the non-humans being definitely inhuman, the odd and sinister nature of magic, mostly human opponents and occasional weird monsters instead of whole other species--and how to run a sandbox setting, include random encounter charts suited for Monster Island. There's also tweaks to the way Magic Points are recovered such that most of them either come from specific places of power or from the sacrifice of living creatures.

The remainder of the book is about the three cultures of the island--the lizardmen savages, the serpentmen High Folk, and the human colonists.

The lizardmen are divided into stone-age tribes named after their gods--who are also kaiju--with names like the Ghidori, the Gamari, the Gyaosi, or the Kumongi. The tribes live in particular territories, which they don't leave because their tribal shamans perform the rituals that keep the gods asleep beneath the earth to prevent another battle royale between them. Instead, they engage in ritualized warfare to keep their numbers low, but don't wipe each other out because that would wake one of the sleeping gods. Also, they tattoo their deeds on their skins, pass messages through the jungle with giant drum relays, and have a strict division of labor where the young fight or hunt and anyone who lives long enough becomes a shaman.

The High Folk are divided into three cities which spend a lot of their time scheming against each other, but they never manage to gain a hand up over each other because they're also too busy scheming against the colonists and the savages to actually succeed. Also, they're too busy stabbing each other in the back and hoarding sorcerous knowledge for themselves to really actually get much done. Certainly not enough to replicate the great feats of the past.

The humans live in the ruins of one city on the far end of the island. The basic assumption is that it's a trading colony with people from many different lands, but nothing is ever detailed so it's equally possible for them to be shipwrecked sailors or castaways who came through the Smoking Mirrors and banded together for survival. The colony is ruled by a governor, but a lot of the power is held by the various cults of different gods brought from overseas. The gods are pretty explicitly hideous Lovecraftian (well, actually Clark-Ashtonian) entities, and include Thasaidon, Atlach-Nacha, Tsathoggua, and Ubbo-Sathla.

This is a really good example of how to use the Runequest rules to create cultures and implement the magic rules. The humans have Theism, the High Folk have Sorcery--with changed spell names to fit the setting. Hide Life becomes Ensconce Vitality, Regenerate becomes Meliorate Maltreatment, Smother becomes Antagonistic Asphyxiation, and so on--and the savages have Animism.

There's also a list of various locations around the islands, like the ancient causeways walked by the ghosts of old warriors, a city build on the underside of a giant carved lizard head, the tomb of a pre-cataclysmic sorcerer, a nest of birdmen from beyond the Smoking Mirrors who worship the ancient power armor their ancestors wore when they first came through, an abandoned mine filled with radioactive gold, a tower with a bound storm demon that lashes the eastern coast of the island with storms, and so on. They're great, especially the bird men with power armor. I admit, I'm a sucker for science fantasy, and lost high-technology is a good sword and sorcery trope.

The whole book drips with ideas, and even if you don't like the actual setting, you'll find plenty in here to use for inspiration. The locations and the monsters alone make it worth reading. After Runequest and this, I'm pretty much in the camp of buying anything Design Mechanism puts out sight unseen.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Monster Island
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