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Defiant Role Playing Game
Publisher: Game Machinery
by Björn L. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/31/2024 14:37:28

Party at the end of the world - a Mephisto review


The apocalypse is raging, but some of the powers involved have decided that they would rather enjoy life and the pleasures of a corporeal existence than contribute to the end of the world. These so-called Defiant defy the apocalypse by creating domains in individual cities that are spared the ravages of doom. Of course, the horrors of the end of the world are also trying to penetrate these domains, but the Defiant have found ways to block out these threats using apocalyptic seals. However, these seals, called Sephira, impose rules on the Defiant of the domain, forming the core of their hierarchical society that they now use to rule their cities. Meanwhile, humanity has no idea that the world outside is ending.

The Defiant are renegade Angels, rebellious Daevas, terrifying Leviathans, and escaped Infernals who, in an unusual alliance, are trying to put a stop to the apocalypse, at least locally. The angels were supposed to drive the apocalypse forward, but they have betrayed their mission because they have begun to enjoy their corporeal existence. The Daevas are the old gods who were banished to Earth and allied themselves with the angels. The titanic Leviathans existed before humanity and were supposed to bring great destruction, while the Infernals escaped hell when the walls of their prison crumbled with the onset of the end of the world. In a surprising alliance, these four groups have found a way to protect individual cities from chaos with the apocalyptic Sephira seals. However, the humans are unaware of the doom raging around them due to an effect called Carnival. However, the forces of the apocalypse are unwilling to let individual domains escape their fate, and so the so-called Horsemen are constantly trying to break through the Sephira's defenses to destroy these renegade regions.

If the background already sounds literally apocalyptic, the Defiant role-playing game differs from other dark or urban fantasy systems in many ways, be it through the background, the game mechanics, and, above all, the themes addressed in the game.

Anyone expecting Defiant to be a game in which powerful supernatural beings with epic powers battle against their truly apocalyptic opponents and thus fight against the end of the world will be surprised and probably disappointed. Those expecting lists of incredibly powerful abilities or deadly opponents will not find them here, either. And even though the apocalypse provides the background to the setting, it remains in the background. The idea of Defiant is less about fighting the apocalyptic forces and more about the player characters trying to enjoy their existence, getting caught up in intrigues and other problems, often of their own making.

Indeed, in a sense, the Defiant are the rich and beautiful, whose lives revolve around power, parties, and social interactions. The catch, however, is that the Defiant social order is complicated and divided into strict hierarchies. The so-called Royalty, the lords and ladies who rule over their courts of subordinates and courtiers, is the level at which the player characters play. This means that they are not only superior to humans, but also occupy a high position among the Defiant. However, there are other Defiant even ruling them. At the top of the hierarchy is the Hierophant, who is fused with the Sephira and is therefore the absolute ruler of the domain. Archons and Executors are subordinate to him, who take care of the day-to-day administration and ensure that the rules of the Sephira are adhered to. One level below them are the Princepses, who rule over provinces whose associated courts are run by the Royals — including the player characters.

The hierarchical society is shaped by the Sephira because, in order for the apocalyptic seals to hold and protect their domains from the forces of the apocalypse, rules set by the Sephira must be strictly adhered to — even if they can be strange, cruel, perverse or at least annoying from a human perspective. At the same time, the Defiant can never leave their cities because if they leave the protection of the Sephira behind, they will never be able to escape the apocalypse. So they have to do everything possible to keep the seals strong — and to make their existence trapped in their domains as comfortable as possible. There is no global conspiracy or organization, but each city is an individual microcosm and prison of the Defiant. However, unless the individual rules of the city's Sephira state otherwise, there is no general rule or principle that states that the Defiant must hide their true nature or abilities among mortals. 

Defiant offers four basic character concepts: Angels, Daevas, Leviathans and Infernals. The Angels are renegades who have turned their backs on their intended plan. They were perfect soldiers, but the sensuality of their physical existence has corrupted them. The Daevas are ancient deities of various pantheons who have been banished to Earth, and each has an affinity with their symbolic animal. The Leviathans are titanic monsters of destruction like dragons, but with the apocalypse, they first awoke in a kind of human larval stage. The Infernals were banished to hell for their sins, but they have now escaped this terrible prison. While there are four basic types of Defiant, these are further divided into so-called houses. Each Defiant type is presented with three different houses, each with their own rules and perspectives. For example, the Daevas of House Akhto are influenced by the Aztlan gods and have a rule that the rulership changes between day and night. The infernal bloodline of House Black expects its members to have a parallel human career, as they are former Infernals of Pain. Players take on the role of Lords and Ladies among the Defiant and thus run their own court. This means that players not only work out their own character, but also the court with courtiers and domain, each of which plays an important role in the game. 

The character creation itself works via cards that are distributed among the players, from which the players select cards to define their characters. There are Personal Theme Cards, House Cards, Marital Cards, Court Cards and Holding Cards. Players draw several origin-specific and generic Origin Cards, choose a House Card, and then draw Marital, Court and Holding Cards and choose from these. The origin-specific Origin Cards define the basic character type, i.e., Angel, Daeva, Leviathan or Infernal, with three variants for each type. The players then select characteristics from the card and receive questions, special rules and problems. Angels of the Ardent, for example, have a special connection to the Sephira, which shapes their questions and special rules. The questions represent special insights of the characters, which they can also use to shape scenes. For example, a Primordial Leviathan can ask what has the highest value in a scene — and the game master must answer the question. To achieve this, however, the player character must spend so-called Shards as a connection to the Sephira. The questions are less about the answers and more about bringing an aspect into play that drives the story forward and provides starting points for the players by defining certain elements the players are interested in. The other personal theme cards further differentiate the character. If a player chooses Wealth, for example, they get more special rules and questions such as “How can you buy the others?”. However, the player also has the problem that his wealth puts him in danger. The House Cards define an affiliation with a house, which binds the character to certain traditions. The Marital Cards define the character's spouse, the Court Cards the characteristics of his court and the Holding Cards important resources of his domain. Each card offers further decisions and possibilities.

There are no numerical game statistics for the characters, which is another special feature of the game mechanics. All character attributes are rather descriptive aspects. Any test, called a Challenge, starts with 3d6. Bonuses and penalties are calculated based on the character's characteristics, the opponent's weaknesses or advantages, additional help and weaknesses of the character. If a player achieves more bonuses than penalties, each bonus increases a die by one level from d6 to d8 to d10. Every 5 rolled is a success; every 1 means problems. Higher dice are, therefore, much more promising. Players can also use shards to get another d8. While 1 or 2 successes on the test are a success with a catch, 3 or even 4 successes are considerable achievements. The lower success levels have a price, the player is confronted with a decision or has a condition for the success. In addition to the Challenges, there are also Endeavors, which represent the characters' larger projects. For Endeavors, points are collected step by step with tests until the goal is reached (or missed) at some point. This means that the characters' larger projects are an integral part of the game. The rules describe in detail, using examples, when each system should be used. If a character wants to get rid of a bouncer, for example, he can simply throw him away — normal people have no chance here, so no test is necessary. If a character intends to make his domain known by staging one of his courtiers in a gladiator fight, this is a Challenge. The rules for Endeavor are used, e.g., to open a new, secret nightclub. 

However, other game concepts are more important than the dice mechanisms. Each character has a partner. As marriages are a political matter, a love relationship is the exception rather than the rule. Aspects such as a competing relationship, an inappropriate partnership, or someone without the experience to run a court lay the foundation for stories. The court itself is also chosen via the cards — perhaps it is a court with competing groups, perhaps the court is actually run by a deputy — each choice can bring advantages and disadvantages. What is certain, however, is that the choice will make the game interesting. The Marital and Court Cards therefore inevitably bring non-player characters and story hooks into play. 

In addition to these basic rules, the book is dedicated to the campaign structure, which is described schematically. Like a series, a campaign consists of seasons, while an episode requires 1-2 game sessions and should have two storylines. The game master is also introduced to concepts such as mirrors (characters that reflect the characteristics of the player characters) and the inevitable secrets. All these rule concepts are presented in a Basic and an Advanced variant. The Expert rules have been announced for an expansion. Depending on the variant chosen, the different concepts are more or less elaborated, which can also be reflected in the preparation time of the game sessions. 

To start the game, the book provides the Bridgewood Boulevard province as a setting, including characters, courts, intrigues, secrets, and starting points. Two elaborate scenarios provide an introduction and show typical stories for Defiant

The illustrations, created from modified stock photos and with a consistent style, emphasize what Defiant is all about. This is about playing superhuman characters who are the rich, beautiful and powerful of the city on the one hand, and tangled up in secrets, projects, and intrigue on the other. The fact that the illustration shows a lot of skin and lingerie underlines the focus of the game. 

With the courts of the player characters and their spouses alone, the setting provides dozens of starting points for stories that can simply develop through the player characters. Defiant could be described as an urban fantasy soap opera because sex, jealousy, revenge, and envy are at the heart of the game. In the examples, texts and images, the combat scenarios so typical of role-playing games hardly play a role, while the game is about seduction, parties (and the odd orgy) and seeing and being seen.

A practical feature for game master is that the electronic version of the rulebook comes with a whole arsenal of documents. In addition to the extensive rulebook, which is available twice in an additional form optimized for eBook readers, there are mini rulebooks and overview pages to keep an eye on the most important concepts or to give to the players. The disadvantage is that you may have to print out the cards for character generation. 

Defiant is a fascinating game, precisely because it takes a different approach to other role-playing games in many areas. Of course, concepts such as themes from the World of Darkness or aspects and mechanisms from Powered by the Apocalypse or Fate are also reflected here, but it is the consistent approach of focusing the game on interpersonal interactions and creating an urban fantasy soap opera with sex and intrigue that makes Defiant special. The court and partnerships give players more than just a single character to focus on, and with the ideas on the cards, they can be in for some interesting times. Defiant is not a game for every gaming group. If you want to level up your character, need defined skills and powers, and are hoping for battles with the apocalyptic Horsemen, you are in the wrong place. However, if you aim to rule over a court in a world of decadent Angels, Daevas, Leviathans and Infernals, let off steam in intrigues and personal projects, and focus on social interactions, you will find a fitting system here. And unsurprisingly, the game introduces standard safe-play mechanisms such as Lines and Veils and the X-Card and sees these as necessary game elements. 

Even though Defiant will need the right group of players to work, the authors have created a system and a game world here that breaks new and exciting ground. With the dice mechanism and the inevitable entanglements of your own court, Defiant has, in my opinion, enormous narrative potential (given the right players). The illustrations match the setting and convey a coherent style. The book presents its concepts in detail and takes a lot of time to teach the game master the necessary tricks. Only the structure of the book is not always ideal, in my opinion, as the background, rules, and gameplay sometimes mix too much — but the additional handouts help you understand the unusual concepts. 

So if you're looking for an urban fantasy soap about fallen angels, ancient deities, monstrous creatures, and escaped beings from hell whose existence revolves around parties and intrigue and who rule over a small court, you will find the right game here. In short, it's more about social interaction than combat or quests. And for those who are still unsure, Defiant Awakening is a free starter pack to take a closer look at the system and setting. Even though only Angels and Daeva are introduced here, this book provides a good first insight.

(Björn Lippold)

[5 of 5 Stars!]
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Defiant Role Playing Game
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