This one’s a pretty interesting sequence of events. As the reader might know, I run this little indie roleplaying game web store with my brothers at the Arkenstone website, alongside selling our own publications. This is mostly a hobby thing in that it just about pays for itself and allows me to stock my own game library relatively cheaply. A part of the process in selling a lot of indie games is trying to find out about new ones; indie designers are often rotten marketers in that they don’t usually make much noise about their games, not even in places where one might imagine interested people to listen. Often enough finding new and interesting games is about actively following forums and listening to other people who like the same kind of games.
Anyway, much of what I order for our retail store is what I tend to call “Forge games”, by which I mean games that have been extensively analyzed and playtested, often before publication, by this large circle of rpg hobbyists centered on the Forge webforum. I could probably find many more interesting games by doing independent research as well, but practically speaking I don’t have the time or the inclination; it’s not my job after all, only a hobby. However, sometimes I do encounter a mystery game that isn’t very visible among the forgite indie subculture, which often enough means that it’s not visible at all; the internet is nowadays full of semi-secret roleplaying stuff I’m only too happy to check out when the opportunity presents itself.
With Forge games I often enough just read a lot of actual play reports or ask some questions from the designer of the game before committing to retailing the game, but when a mystery game comes up, I’d much rather ask the designer for a complimentary copy to see if the game is suitable for our retail store. “Suitable” here is not a code word for good, either: the sales of our store are mostly predicated on personal expertise and commitment to the product, so I hate getting stuck with a game I don’t personally like, even if it’s a quality product for what it is. It’s very important for me to be able to recommend a game for particular purposes or particular audience; the few times I’ve made the mistake of getting a traditional game for our inventory it’s taken me quite some time to sell it simply because our customer base can get their fix of traditional games cheaper and easier from the traditional outlets.
A smart reader probably guesses what I’m coming to with this extented prologue: I stumbled upon an intriguing indie roleplaying game called New Gods of Mankind and asked for a complimentary copy to see if the game would work for our Finnish audience. The designer, Richard Leon, was very courteous about it and promptly provided me with the requested pdf copy of not only the game, but also the GM’s guidebook. He also asked me if I might write a review of the game, apparently because the game hasn’t had a lot of publicity yet. Although I don’t usually do reviews, there’s no reason I couldn’t, and here we are now. After all, it’s not that much more work to share my conclusions with others now that I’ve read through the game to find out if I want to retail it. The reason I’m publishing my review here in my blog is that I’m not really an established reviewer in any other media, and here it doesn’t matter if I’m hopelessly mired in financial interests concerning roleplaying games (which is the reason for why I’m not allowed to review for roleplaying magazines here in Finland).
I Now Review With Enormous Clarity
The reason I got hooked enough to request a closer look at New Gods of Mankind was the advertised premise:
New Gods of Mankind is a roleplaying game where players take on the role of young deities who guide their tribes through the dangers of the world. It is an archaic age with the newer species of humanity struggling for survival beside six Elder Races and their ancient gods. The gods of the Elder races have a detailed history with the world and each other. Many wars have already been fought over people, land, and resources, and mankind and their new gods are infants by comparison.
Sounds pretty fun to me! To explain a bit further why I found this interesting, here are some ideas that the above provoked for me:
- I like romantic fiction that goes into the meaning of humanity; a game about the very first gods of humanity seems to me like it should have some powerful mojo in this regard. The players very much define what humanity means by their choices in creating a pantheon.
- The idea of cavemen being guided by their emerging, perhaps vague, primal but essentially human gods in a world where elder things walk the land sends chills down my spine. The potential for xenophobic horror, among other themes, is rather strong.
- The procedure of starting play by having the players come up with a pantheon of deities as their player characters seems really slick to me; a pantheon is a real-world concept (unlike, say, an adventurer band) with certain preconceptions, relationships and a natural division of labor, so there’s already an existing framework for what PCs should be doing.
Now, as will soon become evident, New Gods of Mankind isn’t exactly the game that I imagined it would be. The differences are actually rather striking: the game has lots of wargame elements, it seems mostly supportive of gamist play GNS-wise (ha ha, I can use bad words at my own blog all I want) and there’s an intricate D&D-like fantasy setting, too. So it’s not exactly the “primitive humans meet the Great Race” game I first imagined from the blurb. Oh, well.
By What Claim Are These Judgements Made
Before going deeper into critiquing the game, I should mention here that I haven’t actually played New Gods of Mankind, which pretty much makes this a read-only review. This doesn’t bother me, because it’s enough for my retail-based ambitions to know roughly what kind of game we have here; actually playing the game would add much to a review of how the game fulfills its purpose, but finding out what it tries to be and superficially seems to be can be done easily enough by simply reading it carefully. To this end I’ve read through most of the New God’s Handbook and Fate’s Handbook, the player’s and GM’s respective tomes. Around 300 pages in total, not a laughing matter. I might not have been very pedantic in exploring the setting portions in detail, but I’m sure Richard will correct me if I overlook something vital.
What It Is to Be a God
Now, what is New Gods of Mankind actually like? Here’s a quick run-down:
- It’s a fantasy game in the traditional model, drawing inspiration from post-Tolkienist fantasy literature and the literary tradition of fantasy roleplaying. It’s firmly rooted in nerd culture in that regard, and does not strive or pretend to be culturally relevant outside that context; understanding and appreciating the game’s setting and color is pretty much dependent on accepting the fantasy context that has little to do with real-world religion or anthropology (which, as I mentioned above, were in my mind a bit when coming to read the game). In other words, the God of the Covenant won’t be making an appearance while the salamanders, undines, giants and other golliwogs with their fantasy gods run wild.
- One would expect that the system of the game would follow the D&D standard at this point, but surprisingly enough, it’s quite different: the game uses a rather modern scaling die pool system with unlayered tripartite attributes. And it’s predominately conflict resolution, too! An important part of the system is the purely resource-based miracle creation subsystem that mostly resembles an unholy cross of Universalis and Mage. The faith points used to fuel miracles are a pretty abstract resource that “does anything” within a simple framework that creates miracles effect first; the feel is pretty cold and point-based at first glance, actually, but more about that below.
- The game’s creative impetus has a lot of war-gaming going on. There are even explicit boardgame rules for running god-empires akin to Dominions, and most of the concern of the game is of a strategic nature, really: how players can extend the worship of their gods and foil the plans of other gods comes up quite a lot. The feel I get is that the GM is supposed to challenge the players with various threats for their worshippers, which the gods are then duty-bound to protect, especially as their supply of the sweet faith-powerz is dependant on the worshippers.
At first I was quite dismayed at the game, really; the setting is awful by my standards in that it’s very common and uninspiring while also having lots of constraint in metaphysics and such; a big deal is made of celestial seasons, for example, which are metaphysical places wherein the gods make their homes. Each god then has a signature season within which he resides and so on. The gods also have a private club at the Celestial Garden in the center of the metaphysical universe, where Fate dwells. (Fate herself is the in-game personification of the GM, pretty much; the history section is pretty amusing in how faithfully it details the wars of men and gods, with the Fate intervening when the gods are in danger of destroying the sandbox that is the world.) Meanwhile mortals in the real world are divided into elementally themed races, each with the appropriately detailed homelands and cultures; regrettably it’s all pretty dull and colorless thematically, so much so that reading the setting parts at the beginning of the book is liable to cause a detrimental effect on motivation regarding the game.
Another thing I found annoying was the GMing advice at the beginning of the GM book… actually, the whole GM guide was pretty offensive to my sensibilities in many ways with its less-than relevant bestiary, lame setting history and introductions to the exhilarating cast of elder gods such as Rethan, Xethalchoate and Plthunlos. (The sample adventure is a positive exception, of which more below). The definition of the GM role in the game is presented as “part storyteller, part referee, part set designer, and part supporting cast”, which basically translates to a traditionally vague power-set that each group needs to interpret for themselves. I shouldn’t by rights be that annoyed at this, but it does necessitate each reader to draw his own conclusions about what is really the purpose of the game; regardless of the storytelling rhetoric, the rules-support I see is for challenge-based adventuring and a smattering of setting exploration (if the setting seems interesting, anyway), which should really come to the fore in the GM guide as well.
However, the setting and GM advice are not all there is to the New Gods, and while I was relatively dejected with the game after a quick run-through, I soon also noticed what the game is really about…
The Real Heart of the New Gods
Faith is the basic fuel resource of the gods: they can trade it, they can spend it, they can store it. Faith can be used to do basically anything the player can imagine, with some minor bonuses for the kind of god a given character is. This doesn’t exactly run over the normal conflict resolution system, though; even the gods will always have to roll the conflict check against mere mortals, even, unless they want to have the mortal go into conflict against a lightning bolt, instead. Or alternatively, they could just change themselves into such large-scale beings that the mortal suffers more penalties to their roll than they have die size to begin with, as long as they’re willing to spend the faith. The main limitations of godly miracles are that it’s always cheaper to enchant something that is already there, and that miracles of larger scale are more expensive than those of lower scale. Oh, and permanent miracles require annual faith refuelling, so no changing the laws of physics whichever way you want. But other than that stuff like resurrection, crafting souls out of thin air, working up tornados and so on, it’s all feasible. Feasible and effect-first, I might add: you only pay for the conflict effect you want to cause (more dice, better dice, higher scale), not for the description of the miracle.
Now, it took me a while to find the key reward mechanics from amongst the wargamey, traditional discourse of different conflict situations, but when I did find and understand what it meant, I was pretty much blown away: you see, while the characters normally gain Faith points from followers annually (1 mortal follower = 1 Faith point), which means that you want to preserve and improve your follower base and eradicate the other gods, you can also gain or lose extra Faith in any conflict where your followers know that your handiwork is involved. So if you give a magical weapon to a faithful follower, his success gains you Faith; but should he fail, then you’ll be losing Faith! Same for if you present yourself to your followers and meet their troubles head-on yourself – success means Faith awards, failure means loss. This is true for every conflict in the game, practically speaking. The amount of Faith you gain or lose depends on the Spirit attribute of any of your followers involved, as well as their number: save a city of 1,000 people and you gain more Faith than you would for saving one family.
I find that the above rule will probably drive the game pretty strongly: there is no other experience system in the game apart from increasing your flock of followers, so basically any conflicts you go into mostly have significance in manipulating your leverage (what kind of follow-up scenes the GM throws at you), gaining you new followers or gaining you Faith directly. Although I haven’t played the game, I feel pretty certain that most people would soon get hooked on Faith in this game… Which is good, really, because it seems like an interesting and constantly present reward system.
Thinking about it, I would probably like to have some special consequences for running out of Faith. It would also be nice if the Faith wasn’t all in one big pool of points, as the game seems like it might become a bit math-intensive with hundreds of points of Faith floating around. But speaking of the system in its basic form, it’s all very functional. Gods will have to protect their followers if they want to gain more Faith, but they also want to think carefully about what they let their followers know about, as distrust in the intentions or capabilities of the gods will soon turn Faith into Terror (an alternative miracle fuel reserved for evil gods and monsters) or disbelief; it’s all very machiavellian in that the players have to handle their followers as objects of their plotting. This might bother me in a thematic game, but here it’s acceptable when we remember that ultimately the gods and their people are one; gods might lie to their people in the short term, but in the longer term they are both on the same side!
Other Good Things
There are lots of other things that are good in the game when you get over the lame setting and GMing advice:
- Gods can use Terror, a twin resource to Faith; Terror is generated by terrified populace, and any miracles based on Terror generate more Terror, not more Faith. A character with more Terror than Faith becomes an insane Leviathan, which generally means that the character becomes an enemy to their followers rather than their benefactor. All very cool, as characters can initially benefit from terrorizing the enemies of their people, but ultimately it makes them less and less able to act in a constructive manner.
- The example adventure is really cool! It’s exactly the kind of challengeful gamist adventure I like nowadays: we have a solid situation with clear threats for the PC tribe of believers, and we have some suggestions for what the characters might do to resolve things, but there is no effort at railroading at all. What happens, happens, and the adventure has little in way of GM fiat. While the GMing advice is somewhat retarded (rather, traditional and perhaps not very well thought through in relation to how the designer himself really plays) in places, if the adventure reflects his play style, I’d be joining his campaign in a flash! There are werewolves looking for new hunting grounds in the adventure, a weak and pacifistic fellow human tribe and a crazy Leviathan in the adventure, and the writer really doesn’t seem to particularly care whether the players fight or negotiate, build alliances or conquer in the adventure. It’s great, and a perfect start for a campaign!
- The base conflict resolution system is explained in a somewhat convoluted manner, but it’s actually really slick and usable: all mortals have three abilities rated with different sized dice (gods only have these when they manifest to their followers, in which case they’re of course all perfect d12), so that when they go into conflict, you can just roll the dice and find out who rolled higher. Most conflicts will be between groups of characters, in which case the whole group rolls and you use the highest result. The number of successes, when necessary, is figured by finding how many dice the winner has over the loser’s best result, which is practically identical to Sorcerer (which has a dicing system I only have utmost respect for, mathematically speaking). There’s also a sweet system for scaling conflicts that is used for everything from penalizing off-scale activity to determining the costs of smaller and larger miracles. This way you can roll dice for a band of five heroes attacking a town of 5,000 people relatively easily and without needing to roll 5,000 dice for the town, for example.
The above points and some other stuff (like the boardgaming rules, which actually do a swell job at working as a campaign framework for the game) make me feel really conflicted about either condemning or praising the New Gods of Mankind with very strong words; it has some really cool stuff in it, the premise is great, the creator obviously roleplays excellently, and so on. Simultaneously I couldn’t imagine studying the setting of the game with its salamanders and gnomes in the kind of detail the game seems to expect; I’d definitely just toss the setting details and GMing advice when playing the game.
Well, I hope you liked my first foray into public game critique in a while. (As opposed to game review, which I do for our web store pretty often.) There’s been some discourse lately about rpg critique on the Finnish Roolipelaaja-forums where yours truly and other stubborn pests butt heads about the nature and theory of game reviewing, among other things. This particular critique doesn’t actually connect with that particular internet argument, but if the Finnish readership finds reflection along those lines useful, good for them.
As for retailing New Gods of Mankind… when I started writing this review I thought that Arkenstone shouldn’t, to tell the truth. Apart from the weaknesses I perceive above, the relentless supplement treadmill of “support” makes retailing the game financially more difficult than it should be by rights; as a rpg retailer I don’t particularly want to retail games with large range of supporting product that is difficult to sell but has to be available for serious aficionados. After working through the reward cycle of the game and reading the example adventure in detail I’m not so sure anymore, though; the game has lots of nearly useless fluff in it, but I could well imagine playing it with great success regardless. The situation presented is exciting and flexible, the creative agenda flows well once you figure out that the game is exactly like Agon in its purpose, and even the lame GMing advice and setting stuff can be ignored/adapted. For anybody willing to work with it, this is an entirely valid game! Not unlike Runeslayers, which is also an excellent traditional game with its share of inherited idiocy, and which I’ve played quite agreeably this winter. It would definitely be better at home in a traditional game store like Fantasiapelit than among our small and simple offerings, but if economic reasons make that unpractical, well, that’s life. I’ll have to see if Richard wants to sell us a couple of copies of the game the next time I’m arranging a retail package from the US. Even better, it’d be great if mainstream retailers had more of this kind of stuff available, preferably with sales-people who knew their stuff; I might myself spend more money at the FLGS if that were the case.