Sunday, October 11, 2009

RPGs I Like: Scion- Hero

RPG Items I Like: Scion: Hero

I use a little cheat here. As some know I ran a Scion campaign with a fairly complete arc and wrote up a postmortem of that campaign in an earlier post. I thought it would be good to take some of the comments I had on the Scion game and expand them into a longer, more focused review of the game. So a couple of the points here originally appeared in that session report in a modified form.

Scion's Premise
Scion's an unusual line for White Wolf. It isn't set in the World of Darkness and while it does use the mechanical base of Exalted (Second Edition) there's no direct connection. Instead there's a thematic connection in the idea of powerful mythic figures struggle against larger forces, but this time in a modern world. Scion's also a limited series release, there are only five books in the line and apparently no plans for any others. I like that Scion: Hero feels complete. While running my campaign, neither I nor my players felt a real need to go out and buy the later books (although at that point the Scion Companion wasn't out). There's a structure to the series with the first three books: Hero, Demigod, and God, each assuming a ramped up power level from the previous volume.

The premise sells the game pretty well-- characters are half-mortal children of the gods from various pantheons. They've been granted some of the powers and blessings of their divine parent and now must band together to fight against evil and especially the Titans, a generic term for creatures and beings dedicated to the destruction of the world and the downfall of the gods. The game provides nice sections for six different pantheons: Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Voodoo, Japanese, and- interestingly- Aztec. Selecting a parent determines with special abilities and powers will be easiest for the character to buy. The pantheon that parent god fits into also grants a unique set of powers and which virtues the character will have to choose from.

System and Characters
This is a modified version of the Storyteller dice pool system. It is pretty easy easy pick up, especially if you've played other dice pool games. I can't say how closely Scion mirrors the newer version of Exalted, though my understanding is that it is fairly close. Scion does add a couple of elements to the normal ST formula worth commenting on.

Willpower, unlike other ST games, can't be spent for an automatic success. Instead a character must spend a point of Willpower to channel a virtue appropriate to their action, which grants them a number of dice equal to the virtues rating. I like this and the association of different virtue sets with different pantheons helps characters feel different. Characters can buy Epic dots in attributes which grant them an automatic success when attempting an action based on that attribute. Epic attributes in turn grant Knacks which are special abilities like Self-Healing, Center of Attention, and Opening Gambit. Players really liked these abilities, although as the game progressed we started to see some overlap between players. At least at the start a group could have a nice independent mix of these.

Players can also purchase powers from Purviews associated with their divine parent (like Guardian, Earth, Darkness, Justice). These vary pretty greatly in utility. To use a purview power, characters must also have Relics associated with that purview. Players can purchase Relics as backgrounds, creating weapons, armor or other items and associating them with one or more of these Purviews. The game presents loose rules on relic creation and the GM ought to watch that pretty carefully as that system can be exploited. One of the important limitations on all of this is the expensive to purchase Legend rating. The maximum number of Epic Dots and the highest rank of Purview a character may is purchase is one less than their Legend Rank. The square of a person's Legend rank makes a temporary pool of points characters use to power Purviews and get rerolls. Legend's figured into a few other things, but it more often functions as a nice buffer and read on the party's relative power.

Scion's character building system works well. It does create a nice empowering feeling for the PCs. There's some funkiness with the calculations for Legend (as a fixed stat) and Legend (as an expendable resource. But that only got in the way a couple of times. The idea of Epic Attributes providing both an automatic success as well as a special ability worked well. Most players looked to those rather than the Purview abilities. Virtues use helped players players had to take a moment to justify why an action would be associated with a particular virtue- so that's a nice mechanic that reinforces focused play.

There are a couple of weaknesses in character creation. First, as a GM I'm not fond of bought pets or followers, which are two of the four possible birthrights characters can buy. They might fit for some games, but generally for the kind of starting group this game implies they seem problematic. And I don't like having to track those things in play YGMV. The Purview system, set of powers covering the aspects of the various gods, also comes up weak compared to other options. Buying into those associated with your divine parentage costs less. However those abilities seem significantly less potent and useful compared to the Knack system. A character gains a Knack when they buy a dot of an Epic Attribute. Given that the Epic Attributes themselves give benefits, you get more for your money. Most Purviews also require a long action for activation, reducing effectiveness in combat. Then there's the question of balance between the various Purviews. I don't usually need absolute balance, but I do want some parity. Some of the Purviews end up being useful, while many would rarely come up in a game. Even if they did, they ended up weak. I'm of the mind that if something is narrow in scope, you make it a little more potent to compensate. I need to look at those when I run this again and see if there's some small alterations I can make...or if that's even needed.

Other Ideas
Overall players come out feeling pretty potent and powerful, even starting out. That's refreshing given the intent and theme of the game. Even in our first scenes and combats with fresh characters the players found themselves juggling around their abilities and trying out new tricks, especially the various knacks. Scion: Hero establishes a particular power level and tone thematically and then the game actually backs that up.

That sense of the mythic feeds into one of my favorite concepts from the game, the idea of Fatebinding. Essentially when a Scion draws on the power of his Legend around mortals there's a chance of drawing those mortals into his his story, path or destiny. While the book provides some pretty specific mechanics on this, I think it functions better as a loose concept-- otherwise you run the risk of having to constantly check the number and make players really hesitant. As it was my players took seriously the idea of Fate-binding. In the campaign the party recognized that interacting with particular NPCs meant that over time they could become entangled with them. They always recognized the dangers in that, and if someone did get linked up, they made sure to take care of them rather than leaving them out to hang. The concept helps establish something new and different about the characters and supports the mythic tone of the game.

There's other good material presented here-- a decent section talking about how to sustain the idea of the children of the gods walking around on the earth. There's some discussion of what the power level does to the kind of campaign you have to run as well. The game includes stats for various monsters and enemy beings, including fairly full write ups for a rival band of Scions. There's also a fairly lengthy multi-session adventure included as a way to kick-starting a campaign or as a contest later in the PCs career. There's a lot to like here.

Problems With Combat
My one problem with the game came from the combat system and how it played out over time. Old Storyteller has a system for multiple actions that, while a nice idea, often broke down when PCs got to throwing around big dice pools. The Scion system uses some of the old ST dice mechanics but goes in another direction. As I understand it, the new Exalted 2e system uses the same approach. Scion maps initiative and action timing to a circular display with eight sections or wedges called Tics. Players make an "enter battle" roll. The character with the highest number of successes gets placed in Tic 1-- everyone else is placed relative to that based on successes. That does mean that there can be a fairly large number of Tics between the first and last person in the round-- that will be important later.

Each action a player takes has two costs-- a speed cost showing how many tics the action takes and a Defensive Value (DV) showing how much the number to hit them is reduced by. Players can combine two actions on an action but it costs more speed and DV. When a player takes their action, you move their marker on the chart an equal number of tics. When that tic comes up again, everyone in that wedge takes their action simultaneously. At first I really liked this system-- it had an interesting flexibility and made a significant difference in action choices. I bought a metal pizza pan, marked it up and used magnets with labels to track these things.

However after running several combats with the system several things become clear. First, Speed Kills. A character with a faster weapon will be in much, much better shape. They will have several more opportunities to act over the course of a combat, which is to be expected. But since you also reset your DV to normal when you take an action, it could be hard to wear them down to a manageable level. Second, other actions like activating Purviews and such cost more speed than attacks and knacks. That means that if you want to do those things, you're going to be waiting a bit before you get to go again. Third, while I liked the chart, it could get in the way-- and it was difficult to make up markers big enough to be visible to everyone and still have room to fit within each wedge.

Overall the system really showed its weaknesses when we did some really big combats. Players had to make choices between their more interesting abilities and simply going for a swack. The difference in speed costs usually made the latter a better choice. On my side of things we also had the problem of the rapidly rising Defensive Values. In this system, Defense wins-- and more abilities seem to support defensive options. To hit someone you have to beat their DV in successes on your attack roll. Generally that means you have to be throwing a little less than twice their DV in dice to have a decent shot (7+ for successes, 10's count as two successes). Most DVs sat at around 7-8. This meant ordinary characters didn't have a real chance of hitting the PCs unless they coordinated-- an action which cost them time an opportunities. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but their also usually supported by abilities that can take damage as well-- and since players have spent point on those, I want them to be used and matter as well. It took me a while to kind of work through those numbers and get comfortable with them and I suspect I'll have a better handle on them next time I run this.

I don't think my problem with the combat system is a game breaker. I am a little worried about what that's going to end up looking like at the higher power levels of Scion Demigod and Scion God. Overall I think this is a great game and one which players enjoyed-- both for the system and for the play more than I expected them to. Some people might shy away from it because it isn't an ongoing supported system, but I think that's to its advantage. What White Wolf has published for it supports the concept strongly and in a focused way. If you steer away from White Wolf products because of a perception of angsty goofiness, consider Scion. It combines thunderous abilities with a compelling modern setting-- potentially dark but not self-indulgently so. Here the players are, pretty clearly, the good guys.

You could easily run Scion with another system given the strength of the key idea. The systems presented (like knacks, birthrights, and purviews) would take some work to port over, but no more than the chrome of any other detail-oriented system. In a more narrative-based game it might be easier to build some parity between the kinds of powers, or that issue might matter less. I can see where Scions might make interesting adversaries in another kind of modern game, but they're pretty powerful and might overwhelm (depending on the game). If nothing else I think the concept and discussion of Fatebinding might be worth borrowing for another game. That's new and fits with the genre, but could work elsewhere.