Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: Gods of the Fall

I am a little late to the game but I want to offer a review of Gods of the Fall -- the newest setting for the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games.  This will not be a section-by-section review of the book.  Kassil Roshah did an excellent job of that with his blog series.  Instead, I want to review the book overall and add in some thoughts from an actual play experience.

It is worth starting with my orientation coming in to the game.  I was not enthused about the game but bought into the Worlds of the Cypher System kickstarter to see what I could pillage from the settings for The Strange (my main game within the system).  Boy was I wrong.  Upon reading Gods of the Fall, I quickly fell in love with the setting.

The starting point of any experience with an RPG book is, of course, the art and layout.  The book continues the MCG streak of superb art.  Despite including contributions from many artists, the book feels like a unified whole. The art quickly establishes the tone of the game: epic, mythological tales.  Powerful, immense (and diverse!) characters war across the land as they grow into the godly powers.  Exotic landscapes provide a vivid background and a novel series of challenges.

Digging into the text itself is what completely sold me on the setting, of course.  Gods of the Fall is emphatically not a standard or kitchen sink fantasy setting.  The standard fantasy races are present (maybe... sort of...) but not major elements of the setting.   Instead we get a couple of new races and a series of locations unlike anything I have read before.  The full reviews provide a more comprehensive list of the locations but I particularly liked the delvers on the fringes of Ruinscape and the city of aspiring undead.

What comes across most clearly is the tone of the game.  This is not a "zero-to-hero" setting wherein relatively fragile characters grow to great heights.  Very few recent RPGs include the rat hunting phase (really more of an video game trope, anyway) but many games have a relatively steady power curve along 10 to 20 levels.  Notably, more recent systems (unbound by strong legacies of power curves) have tended to have fewer levels and work with shorter campaign arcs.  Gods of the Fall takes this even farther with a steep power curve between tier 1 and tier 2 and a shallow curve between tiers 2 and 6.

The power curve creates a very specific experience with the game.  After a (brief -- even skippable) period of proto-godhood, the characters quickly become powerful beings capable of incredible acts.  They can start to do what would otherwise be impossible pretty early in their experience.  As a result, the characters feel mythic.

The key for developing campaigns for Gods of the Fall will be to create stories that match the mythic tone of the characters.  One can stomp out a slaver company -- to be sure.  However, a truly epic feat would be to stomp out slavery.

My recent play experience with the game reinforces the importance of matching this tone through the story.  Marc Plourde's playtest of a potentially upcoming adventure for the CypherCaster (don't worry, no spoilers here) illustrated the sort of mythic storytelling the system supports.  We had a group of godlings traveling the lands brought in to solve a problem that was plaguing an entire town -- even the very earth of the surrounding area.  The scale immediately seemed big.  The sense was of a labor of Hercules rather than an event that happened to a random adventuring party.  This is exactly the sense that the game encourages.

One of the mechanical elements that supports this tone is the use of specific "prophecies" to guide campaign design and to structure the labors godlings must complete to advance towards full godhood.  The labors of Hercules are the better frame of reference than classic DnD modules, etc.  Gods of the Fall can tell stories of vanquishing singular entities plaguing the lands -- maybe for generations -- or accomplishing the seemingly impossible.   The prophecies provide some inspiration for the track of accomplishments that would build towards the capstone achievements (like ending all slavery, repairing the afterworld, even repairing the land itself).

The one concern that I have with the setting emerged from the actual play experience.  The characters are supposed to represent aspirants to specific domains -- like gods of healing, light, fire, death, etc.  This provides for a lot of fun in character design.  However, it seems to encourage people to specialize a bit much.  This may have been a peculiar experience (just one party) but the players wanted to design their characters to fit their domain so completely that the characters ended up being inconveniently focused.  Some characters were absolute defensive beasts or marvels of social interaction.  Half the party, though, had little to do when combat started.   Others were combat beasts that could reliably dole out incredible amounts of damage.  Similarly, some had little to contribute to social encounters.  The pursuit of a coherent domain had limited the range of powers and abilities that players had selected for their characters.

This is a problem that can be addressed with guided character design or broad scenario design.  I would encourage my players to develop characters with at least one ability in each of the following areas:  combat, social interaction, knowledge/investigation.  Of course, not all will have something specific to contribute to all specific encounters.  However, all would have something within each class of encounters.

With Gods of the Fall, it may be even more important than in other settings (though I think it is important in all of them) to provide an array of important encounter types.  If every key (or culminating) encounter is combat, the players who focused their characters on social interaction are going to be frustrated.  If a character is all damage output, they are going to spend many social or investigation encounters kicking the ground waiting for something else to happen.

This balance across encounter types can occur within a specific encounter or across encounters within a session.  One can have three encounters; one of each type.  Alternatively, one can work out ways for each type of character to contribute to each encounter in diverse ways.  A social character can distract a monster or rally the community to provide assistance. An investigative character may look for a particular weak point or strategy to which the creature is vulnerable.  A combat-based character can use her combat achievements as assets in social encounters.  Just make sure all of the characters can contribute to most (preferably all) encounters in a manner that fits their domain.  This will likely be a tricky component of adventure design for Gods of the Fall moving forward.

Now I am in quite a tough position.  I am deeply invested (mostly emotionally - but not entirely :) ) in The Strange as my setting of choice.  Gods of the Fall makes me think I may want to mix this game in more than I had expected -- even investing some time in developing material for it as I have for The Strange in the CypherCaster.

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