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Posts Tagged ‘scion’

more Scion tidbits

I’m a bit proud of this idea from the game I’m running, so I wanted to share. It will make the most sense to those who already know the cosmological setup for White Wolf’s Scion system, but for everybody else, I can quote the nutshell description I gave when I posted about my concept for the game:

The underlying enemies in this scenario are the Titans, the parents of the gods themselves. They’re truly impersonal, elemental powers: the “body” of the Greater Titan of Fire, for example, is more or less equivalent to the D&D Elemental Plane of Fire. However, Greater Titans can manifest more concretely as avatars, which are god-like beings reflecting a particular aspect of their concept. Prometheus, for example, is an avatar of the Greater Titan of Fire; so is Kagu-tsuchi, but they embody different things. The Titans aren’t precisely evil, but they’re not friendly to the world, and their influence usually isn’t a good thing.

Got that? So, it mentions in the books that some of the Titans were never bound. Hundun because it’s the Greater Titan of Chaos and can’t be bound; Logos because the Greater Titan of the Word struck a deal with the gods. Etc.

I was trying to decide what to do with the Mississippi River, cosmologically speaking. I failed to turn up any useful info on how tribes along its length viewed the river — no deity names or anything — and I knew “Old Man River” was a relatively late concept, but at the same time it seemed necessary and appropriate to have some kind of unifying entity for use in the game.

What I settled on was this: that Iteru, the Great River, is a Greater Titan, and it, like Logos, struck a deal with the gods way back in Ye Old Mythic Times. Part of its body now serves as the Godrealm for the Pesedjet, the Egyptian gods. (In the game books, Iteru is the name of that realm, and it’s also the Egyptian name for the Nile.) Major rivers around the world are avatars of Iteru, and they individually formed contracts with the gods of early civilizations along their banks: the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Ganges in India, the Yellow River in China, etc. Old Man River is just a recent (from the viewpoint of game-time) name for the Titan avatar that is the Mississippi River, which hasn’t had a contract with any society since the decline of the Mississippian culture exemplified by Cahokia. But since this game is in part about the attempted land- and people-grab of a whole bunch of pantheons, you can bet they’re all courting Old Man River’s favor . . . .

Anyway, this is what happens when I let Archaeologist Brain out to play with Folklorist Brain. I come up with ways to mythologize and then translate into RPG terms the frequent pattern of early civilizations forming on the banks of rivers.

Next task: figure out what I’m doing with 1876 New Orleans.

why I love gaming

In the midst of summarizing tonight’s session to kurayami_hime, I typed the sentence “And then they went and burned down San Quentin Prison.”*

Gaming, my friends, lends itself to gonzo behavior I would never put into a novel. (Other writers might; I’m just not that sort.) Torching San Quentin ain’t no jet-ski down an elevator shaft, but it amused me anyway. Random destruction of public property for the win! Guess that historical preservation thing won’t be happening after all . . . .

*Before one of the players corrects me: the xiuhcoatl was the one that actually burned down the prison. But it was the PCs’ fault that happened, so.

Once upon a time in the West . . . .

I mentioned early this year that I was running a Scion game set on the American frontier. Well, it recently occurred to me that the players have gotten far enough into the story, and uncovered enough of the metaplot, that I can now divulge publicly what the game’s about.

To follow this, you need to know three things:

1) Scion is a game about playing the half-mortal children of gods in the modern world, starting out as “heroes” and ascending in power and fame to become demigods and (if you survive) eventually gods in their own right.

2) The underlying enemies in this scenario are the Titans, the parents of the gods themselves. They’re truly impersonal, elemental powers: the “body” of the Greater Titan of Fire, for example, is more or less equivalent to the D&D Elemental Plane of Fire. However, Greater Titans can manifest more concretely as avatars, which are god-like beings reflecting a particular aspect of their concept. Prometheus, for example, is an avatar of the Greater Titan of Fire; so is Kagu-tsuchi, but they embody different things. The Titans aren’t precisely evil, but they’re not friendly to the world, and their influence usually isn’t a good thing.

3) One of the Scion books included material for how you could do a WWII-era game. In this, they proposed that Columbia (of the U.S.), Britannia (of the U.K.), and Marianne (of France) were all sisters, daughters of Athena sent out as an experiment in governance. It also proposed a Yankee pantheon, made up largely of tall-tale figures (Paul Bunyan, John Henry, etc), headed by Columbia and Uncle Sam.

So here’s what I did with those three things . . . .

U.S. history, as seen through a mythological lens.

Mechanical difficulties

I haven’t run a lot of games. (In fact, I’ve run precisely two: Memento and the ongoing Once Upon a Time in the West, plus one almost completely rules-free LARP session.) In the case of Memento, going into that game, I had a large amount of familiarity with the LARP mechanics for Changeling (i.e. what sorts of things their powers did, though there were occasional points of massive discrepancy between the two sets of rules), and a similarly large amount of familiarity with basic World of Darkness tabletop mechanics (i.e. how combat and such worked, though certain Changeling-specific rules were new to me).

That isn’t the case with OTW, and man, is this an eye-opening experience.

With all due respect to certain readers of this journal who were involved in the design of Scion, there are some honking big holes in the mechanics, which I mostly find when we fall into them headfirst. For example, there’s a first-level Justice Boon which allows you to accuse somebody of a specific crime and know if they’re guilty or not. The rules specifically tell you that the roll isn’t contested by the suspect’s player. So, in theory, a brand-new Scion of Tyr could walk up to Loki and say, “Loki! You arranged for Baldur to be murdered!” And know immediately that Loki was guilty. Erm, no: I respectfully submit that a trickster god should not be so easily caught, unless he wants to be. Also, there are a truckload of Manipulation knacks that have no mechanic for resistance; you could just say to Loki, “Tell the truth!” and he would have to obey, at least briefly. This seems unbalanced to me.

But the interesting thing to me — and the point where I diverge from some of the attitudes I saw expressed on the Forge, back when I was reading their forums — is that I don’t think house-ruling is necessarily a sign of failure on the part of the game designer. I do think the examples I’ve just given are things that would have been better fixed before I got my hands on the book, but that isn’t true of everything. For example, I prefer to have Legend increases (which are kind of like level increases) happen at narratively appropriate points, rather than whenever a given player saves up enough XP to buy the next dot. Ergo, our house-rule is that I announce when the PCs all go up in Legend, and in return they don’t have to pay for it. That’s a personal choice, not necessarily a flaw in the original design.

Then there’s the stuff that isn’t broken, I just have to learn how to use it. Boy howdy, does it make a difference how familiar you are with a system before you start running it: things like “what difficulty should this roll be?” and “will this opponent be somebody the PCs can take down?” and so on are tricky enough when you’re trying to remember which of the eighteen different White Wolf dodge mechanics this system uses, and a good deal harder when you start throwing in system-specific powers that can really change the odds. Scion has a particularly brutal setup on that front, I think, because of the way epic attributes scale. I think the scaling is appropriate — we’re talking about characters on their way to becoming gods, after all — but it makes me remember that the one thing I like out of D&D mechanics is the nicely mathematical formulae for calculating challenge ratings.

And yet, I wouldn’t want to run D&D, because I find its rules too confining for the kind of game I want to run. (Or for that matter, play in: most of my D&D experience was in a game that was really just a Forgotten Realms game, a world for which D&D happened to be the system. We regularly threw the rules out the window, and got by on group consensus.) It all just hammers home to me that whatever some die-hard fans preach, there is no such thing as a perfect system: there are systems better or worse suited to what you want to do; there are systems you know well or poorly and navigate accordingly; there are systems with more or fewer obvious mechanical holes. Only that third aspect rests in the hands of the game designer.

And that’s why we don’t live in a world where every game runs on GURPS or d20 mods. But I admit, there are times when I think about how much easier my gaming life would be if I only had to know one system. 🙂

a better human being than I could ever hope to be

Another link I’ve had sitting around for a couple of weeks: Abd el-Kader and the Massacre of Damascus.

Read the whole thing. Yes, it’s long, and we live in an age of attention-deficit disorder, where any blog post longer than a few paragraphs threatens to trigger a tl;dr response. But you need to go through it to grasp the enormity of this man’s life: not just what Abd el-Kader accomplished in his fifteen years fighting the French (notice how many times he wrestled them into stalemates or surrenders or treaties?), but the incredible reversal of his image later on, while he was in France, and when he went to Damascus. It’s an amazing story.

I’m writing a novel set in 1884 London right now, and I’m running a game set in the 1875 American frontier, and I’m juggling a back-brain idea that would take place in a world a lot like our own nineteenth century but with differences, and coincidentally kniedzw is reading a biography of Sir Henry Rawlinson, who’s one of your crazy Victorian soldier-scholar-adventurers, and it really makes me want to know: what was it about the nineteenth century that spawned so many larger-than-life characters?

Some of it’s a matter of wealth and privilege. If you don’t have to work for a living, and you don’t particularly care what offenses you commit against your lessers, you can get away with much grander deeds than somebody constrained by budget and consideration. Some of it’s a colonial effect, as the collision of nations destabilized the world and created zones where individuals could make their own law. I think a portion, especially in the case of men like Rawlinson, was an invincible belief in the gospel of progress: there was nothing that they couldn’t do, and if somebody tried and failed and died, well, it was just a sign that you needed to try again harder.

That doesn’t explain Abd el-Kader to me, though. He probably counted as wealthy and privileged in the context of his own Algerian society, but not in comparison to the French, and part of what made his story awesome was that he did constrain himself not to harm those over whom he had power. He wasn’t a colonial adventurer, either, indoctrinated by the European belief in progress. He was just a leader and military genius with an unshakeable goodness of character that gradually won over even his enemies, who found himself in a position to save thousands of lives. And yet he hits that same button in my head, of people whose deeds loom so large in my head, I have a hard time imagining anyone following a similar path today.

Maybe it’s just the perspective of time. Maybe in a hundred years, people who seem ordinary to me today will have the same sheen of outrageousness. It doesn’t feel like it, though. Western history* has colorful characters at all stages, but it seems like there are more in the nineteenth century; and then the things we do today feel smaller, more hedged about by caution and limitation, less grand. In a hundred years, we’ll remember Bill Gates — but his autobiography won’t be stuffed with anecdotes about how as a boy he tried to summon the devil in an attempt to verify the existence of same**.

Possibly it’s better for society as a whole that we have changed (if indeed we have). But every time I come across another figure like Abd el-Kader, the narrative part of my brain lights up a bit with joy, and I wish current events could do that to me.

*My knowledge of non-Western history is intermittent enough that I don’t want to generalize about it.

**Unlike Charles Babbage.

the Wikipedia Limit

So I’m running this game, and it’s set in the 1875 frontier, which is not an area or time period I know very much about.

I have this knee-jerk reflex to research the hell out of it. Gee, I wonder where that came from? I’m having to actively remind myself this is a game, not a novel somebody’s paying me for, and so while research is okay, obsessive amounts of it are not. Thus I have instituted the Wikipedia Limit: I am allowed to read as many Wikipedia articles as I like in the course of doing game prep, but if figuring something out would require more in-depth reading, then I say “screw it” and just make something up.

There are exceptions to this rule. The major one is for Native American matters — religion especially — because Wikipedia’s coverage of those isn’t good. I’m also allowed to google phrases like “famous [fill in type] people” to get a list of names I will then look up on Wikipedia. But if I discover, as happened just a few minutes ago, that a person I want to include in the next session was arrested in 1875, but Wikipedia doesn’t say when in 1875, then I am allowed to decree it happened after this session’s events were over. Which I would never permit myself to do for the Onyx Court.

Thank god for Wikipedia, because it’s actually a really great resource for this kind of thing, offering me (in most cases) plenty of information for my purposes. But it’s funny, how hard it is to hold myself to that limit.

for the gamers reading this

If you’re a fan of White Wolf’s Scion game, I just discovered they’ve put out a new supplement, covering the Yazata, the Persian gods. So far it’s only a .pdf, though it looks like there are plans to do a print edition early next year.

What interests me about this is that, according to the place where I first saw it mentioned, the supplement is based on fan-created material. Scion‘s original books covered a wide range of polytheistic religions (Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Norse, Aztec/Mayan, Japanese, Voudoun, Celtic, Chinese, and Hindu), but there are still parts of the world they missed, and so there seems to be a small but energetic base of people designing additions to the system. (I’m using a fan-created supplement as the basis for my own handling of native North American religions; with my game set in the 19th-century frontier, I needed something to address that question.)

A quick glance at the original Yazata writeup, that I downloaded when I first began looking at fan supplements, shows there’s been a non-trivial amount of revision. For example, the pantheon-specific purview — which is probably the biggest hurdle for pantheon design — appears to have been completely replaced. Also, the new purview of Time has been renamed as Stars and changed on various points, though it still mostly has to do with the manipulation of time. So this tells me that White Wolf didn’t just grab the old pdf, typeset it to look like the rest of the books, and fling it out there; somebody, somewhere along the line, sat down and reworked things. I don’t know if that was the original designer, someone at White Wolf, or what, but they put some effort into it.

Which really pleases me. This is potentially the ideal way to handle Scion expansions, at least of the “pantheon module” sort: it’s a small enough addition that it doesn’t really justify putting out a big expensive hardcover book, but vital enough that it’s worth picking the good ones out of the mass of stuff on the internet and distributing them in an organized fashion.

Of course, one big concern is accuracy. I’ve been very pleased by the quality of the White Wolf-produced material; I’m enough of a mythology geek that I would have been put off by shoddy research, but everywhere I know the material, their work looks solid. (And this goes beyond the familiar grounds of Greek and Norse mythology. When the first book came out, my litmus test was to look at the Mesoamerican gods. They listed three alternate names for Quetzalcoatl, two of which I recognized, the third being something I’d never seen in my life. Which told me they’d done more research than I had, which was basically my minimum requirement for the game.) Is the fan-created Persian material accurate? I have no idea. I know that there are (at least) two Native American supplements out there, one of which calls the pantheon the “Anasazi” and boils the entire thing down to archetypes like “the Trickster” or “Mother Earth;” that is NOT the one I’m using. If you open the door to fan-created material, you may end up trusting that whoever wrote that supplement knows what they’re talking about, and you may be wrong. So I hope there’s still a degree of quality control happening on the White Wolf end, before they put their stamp of approval on something. The changes to the Yazata writeup make me hope that it’s so, even though I can’t judge them for myself.

I’m also a bit curious as to how White Wolf is handling rights and compensation, but that’s probably private information I’m not likely to get. If they’re paying a fair price and not exploiting their fans, though, this is potentially a very cool way to approach the question of expansion.

Admittedly, there *is* a downside.

Not counting a one-shot LARP, I’ve run two games in my life: Memento and the Scion game currently in progress.

The year I ran Memento was the year I did not write a novel.

If there’s a causal relation there, it goes in the direction of “no novel, ergo free time for a game.” I was in negotiations with my editor for what I would write next, and reluctant to commit to a spec project just to fill time, when odds were good that I’d have to drop it halfway through in order to do something contracted instead. The causality was not that running a game ate the energy which would have otherwise gone into a novel.

(And the negotiations ended up settling on Midnight Never Come anyway, which grew directly out of Memento. So.)

But it is true that I did not write a novel while running that game. This year is the first time I’ve tried to do both at once, and the result is . . . interesting.

I’ve been thinking for a while that I need to find a way to build some downtime into my noveling process. The usual way of things is that I work virtually every day for three or four months straight, and at the end of it I have a book. But that’s exhausting, and after two months or so I start getting really bitter about not having weekends or days off.

One idea I’ve toyed with is giving myself a break on Thursdays. That’s the day I run the game, and it turns out to be singularly difficult to get anything done then — especially since I have physical therapy appointments Thursday afternoons, too. So I spend part of my afternoon at PT, and the rest of it prepping for game; since I am not a morning writer, that leaves me with only the time after the session ends to do any work. Which requires a rather massive change of gears in my head: game and book may be only about nine years apart temporally speaking — 1875 and 1884, respectively — but one’s in the Western frontier and the other’s in London, and their vibes are VERY different. Last week I managed 733 words after game because I knew where the scene was going, but last night I did jack, because the scene needed chewing and my brain already had its mouth full.

I’ve built in enough margin of safety that I could afford to take Thursdays off and still finish the book on time. But it does eat a large portion of that margin of safety: if the book runs long, or I miss days for reasons of backtracking or being sick or whatever, I’ll still end up with some crunch time — though hopefully not as bad as it was for Ashes and Star. On the other hand, once PT is done, odds go up substantially that I’ll be able to do at least some writing during the day, so I can then give my brain over to Scion with a clear conscience. So I think what I’ll do is this.

Until PT is done, I have permission not to write on Thursdays. I should, however, try to make up that lost ground in subsequent days, if I can do so without too much trouble. After PT is done, I’ll try to write something every Thursday before game, even if it’s not the full quota; if I manage that, I’m not required to play catch-up afterward. Put that together with the more complicated background math (involving certain things that add to the word total of the book, but don’t get counted toward quota, etc), and this should work out.

But yeah. Unsurprisingly, running a game eats many of the same processing cycles in my brain that book-writing does. (Moreso than if I’m just playing in a game, by quite a bit.) I do believe I can do both — I will certainly try — but this is going to require some awareness and planning on my part.

Not sure how long I can keep this up . . . .

. . . but it’s good while it lasts. I’ve spent a couple of weeks now bouncing between more narrative projects than I would have thought possible: the Victorian book, a Sekrit Projekt I can’t talk about, “Mad Maudlin” (not done; so close), the revision of “Remembering Light,” and my Scion game. It’s been a pleasant surprise, how much I’ve been able to gear-shift from one to another, but I feel like I’m nearing my limit: the brain can only be flexible for so long. Fortunately, the Sekrit Projekt thing pretty much just needs one more push from me, so if I can knock that and “Remembering Light” off the list I might have enough brainpower for “Mad Maudlin,” and then I’ll be down to two, the Victorian book and the Scion game.

Which is good, because both need a little more attention than I’ve been able to give them. I do want to get moving on another short story once “Mad Maudlin” is done, but I think it’s going to be a new draft of “On the Feast of the Firewife,” which will take less brainpower than a full-blown new story. I’ve figure out what I want to do with it; now it just wants doing.