Saturday, September 24, 2016

Why Do I Know About Reviews? Cypher System: Gods of the Fall

Monte Cook is pretty much as close to rock star status that RPG designers get. Within the gaming community, he's a pretty well known entity. He was on the cutting edge of PDF sales for RPG products, and he was on the cutting edge of using Kickstarter to get a new game company off the ground. For a company that was largely founded on Monte's reputation, Monte Cook Games has put out some of the slickest, most attractive, well laid out products in the gaming industry.



The Cypher History

The first Cypher System game to come out was Numenera, a post apocalyptic setting with a twist, in that it's so far into the future that there are super science remnants all over the landscape, and humanity shouldn't still be around, but they are, a million years after they should have disappeared. This was followed up with The Strange, a setting where characters can travel to alternate realities based on humanity's collective concept of fictional places, like a fantasy world based on MMOs, or a cyber-/bio-punkish world, or even just Camelot or 221B Baker Street.

Eventually, Monte Cook Games put out a Cypher System Rulebook that was just the core system from Numenera and The Strange, but with some optional rules and a lot of advice on how to use the framework to run various types of games.



Full disclaimer: I really like the core rules of Cypher System. I wouldn't call them exactly rules lite, because there can be a lot of interactions between the moving parts of the game. However, the core mechanic on which it is all based is very simple to comprehend. That core mechanic may sound a lot like the d20 system upon which D&D is based, but it is implemented very differently. For example, characters rarely get bonuses to their rolls. Instead, things like training and proper tools lower the difficulty, so that the d20 roll is the pretty much all you are looking at for resolution.

In the Beginning




In February of 2016, Monte Cook Games did a Kickstarter for Worlds of the Cypher System, a project that would generate several RPG settings based on the Cypher System Rulebook. In many ways, it sounded like a proof of concept. "Here is how we can do a fantasy setting, here is how we can do a supers setting," and so on.

Gods of the Fall is the fantasy setting that came out of the Kickstarter. The premise of the setting is that the players are portraying mortals who have recently found out that they possess a spark of the divine. They will slowly grow into one of the gods of the setting. The twist is that the previous gods literally fell when their divine domain crashed into the world.

Essentially, the wrong people are now in charge of the world. Evil is rampant, half the continent is covered in eternal night, and the beasts that used to guard the underworld are now roaming the countryside devouring souls. Oh, and the bodily remains of the old gods are now howling monstrosities that show up and destroy people carrying too many shards of the old version of heaven.

This is a really cool, really compelling concept. So does the book live up to its divine aspirations? Let's find out.



Golden Idols

As far as appearance goes, the Gods of the Fall book is a beautiful RPG rulebook. It has evocative artwork, attractive formatting, very nice paper, and a seriously good looking map of the setting. The artwork leans towards a more toned down, realistic version of the kind of fantasy characters you might see in something like World of Warcraft, with exceptionally ornamented armor and glowing weapons and items all about them. It fits with the idea of mortal adventurers in a fantasy setting on the verge of becoming gods. The book clocks in at 192 pages.

Part One

The first chapter covers what the game concept is, what the setting is like, how characters in the setting would view the world, and has a number of call backs to the Cypher System Rulebook, which is necessary to play the game. As with most of Monte Cook-related RPG material, the sidebars do a pretty good job of referring characters to other places in this book or the core rules where pertinent information can be found.

The opening of the book does a good job of getting you in the right mindset to see what the setting will be about, and if there is a negative, it's that the chapter goes from the meta-game concept of what the game should be like, to the in-game concept of how characters view the world, and it covers a whole lot of ground, so it almost feels like multiple sections that got pushed together as preamble.

Part One also contains Chapter Two, a very short fiction piece from the setting. It's not bad, but I'm just not a fan of too much fiction on a setting book. I think that I, personally, read overviews of a setting and how it should run differently than I read short stories, and it's hard for me to shift gears while reading a rulebook. This also compounds the odd grouping at the beginning of this book, because Chapter Two is two pages long, and is followed by Part Two, Chapter Three.



Part Two

This part of the book delves into the setting itself, describing the various lands of the setting, the mysterious second moon, and the place that was once the resting place for souls after the death. The book creates a fantasy setting that isn't overly derivative of any one other setting, while still drawing on a few fantasy tropes. It also does a good job of portraying the world as being dark and grim, but not so devoid of hope that the players are likely to give up on the idea of saving the place, which can be a fine line to walk.

For clarity's sake, I would have liked the "this is what the world is like and how people see it" sections of Part One to have shown up as the beginning of this section, giving the meta-analysis of what the setting is like and how it should run it's own space in the front of the book. Your personal preference may vary.

This is also one of the first places in the book where one of my gripes about the book comes into play. I'll elaborate later, but I'll give you a hint: it  has to do with naming conventions.



Part Three

Part Three of the book deals with characters. Specifically, it goes into details about what optional rules this setting uses from the Cypher System Rulebook, changes to the character types found in the book, and new options in addition to what is found in that book.

There is an extra step added to characters from this setting, beyond the normal Cypher System character creation. Normally characters are created by adding options that are essentially "this character is a (adjective)(noun) who (verbs)," but this setting adds, "God of (Dominion)," adding more of the burgeoning godly aspect to the character.

In addition to regular Cypher System progression, characters are expected to fulfill bits of prophesy and to perform godly trials in order to be eligible to purchase certain character abilities. In many cases, this is simply a matter of framing a "normal" adventure in light of the prophesy in question, or pointing out when the PC overcame a major obstacle, but framing the tasks in this manner definitely helps to play up the "working our way up to godhood" theme.

Two of the new descriptors are for races found in this setting, essentially snake people and blind giants, but the rest are, like most aspects of the Cypher System rules, pretty interchangeable with other settings and games that use the core rules.

This section was probably one of the most evocative in the book for me. Reading about the progression of PCs towards godhood, fulfilling prophesy, performing trials, and choosing symbols, made me want to apply this thought process to other fantasy settings where PCs could rise up to become gods.



Part Four

This section is the GM's Toolbox, where creatures, NPCs, cyphers, artifacts, and a sample adventure can be found.

I'll be honest, I wasn't overly impressed with the selection of potential adversaries native to the setting. While there is a list of adversaries from the core rulebook that can be used as well, this section could have been a great place to highlight what is special about this particular setting, and instead, we get some general bad guy knights and slavers, and some creatures that bump up against my naming convention issues that previously nagged at me.

The new cyphers and artifacts all play with the rules most used in the setting, and have names that evoke fallen gods and godly mantles. They are all solid and useful for the setting. However, a little more detail on those names might not have been a bad thing to get readers more invested in the history of the setting.

And then there is the adventure.

I'm not a fan. Without giving anything away, it goes something like this:


  • Adventures are gathered and told they are special
  • Stuff happens that they have to deal with, reactively, wave after wave
  • After all the waves are done, they are told they are really, really special


Honestly, if this is the framing device you are going to use to introduce to the PCs that they are larval godlings, it would almost be better to have all of it happen in their backstory, to tell them that X happened when they were all summoned together, ask them what they did while it was going on, and then move on to an adventure with a bit more structure and weight to it.

What's In a Name

First, the elephant in the room:  Monte Cook games has a lot of hype surrounding it that gives it an aura of pushing boundaries and doing things no one else has done before. The reality is that they make good, quality products that push some boundaries, but stay pretty firmly on the edge of mainstream RPG product development for the current era. There is always a little bit of a feeling that a product may be trying too hard to be special, instead of just being the solid product that it is, and in this book, that shows in the naming conventions.

The introduction makes it fairly well known that they didn't want this book to be "standard" fantasy. I think they succeeded, but the names they flavor the setting with are intentionally a bait in switch in a few places. It's one thing for dragons to be feathered and not actually like treasure, if you want to swerve expectations. It's another to say really powerful, evil sorcerers are called dragons, and there is no historical reference to traditional dragons in the setting. That's just what you call an evil sorcerer. Likewise, there are Krakens, a mountain range. Mountains. Named after a huge sea creature from our world's myths. The term Elf refers to the type of hallucination caused by spores from fungal creatures. No mention if people see fey creatures in these visions, or if there is any kind of mythology related to fey creatures that just happens to not be true. Elf and fairy relate to fungal creatures. That's it. Oh, and Seraphs are basically iron robots that served the gods. Honestly, that would wouldn't bother me, because it's tangentially related, except for the rest of this stuff.

What makes it worse is that things like Gorgons, Orcs, Giants, Vampires, and Rakshasas, to name a few, are pretty much what you would expect them to be. It's almost like there was a dart board with a bunch of fantasy creature's names on it, and whatever ones they hit with the darts, they decided to use for something completely unrelated to the origin of the name.

There is a lot of implied depth that could have come from mentioning that, for example, greedy sorcerers used to be cursed to turn into dragons, but now that the gods are fallen, they aren't punished in that manner any more, and that's the origin of the name. There could have been some ancient legend of creatures that lived between worlds that liked to mess with mortal minds and play games with them that first created the fungal creatures. There could have been some weird burrowing, tentacled land krakens that the mountains were named for. While you could introduce all of these things into your game that you are running, none of it is even touched on in the text. There is just the name, and a quick aside that if you had a previous notion of what that name meant, you were wrong.

Ungodly?

Beyond the naming conventions, which may just be a thing that bothers me, the book suffers a bit from leaving too many things blank, and not explaining where other things fit. The section one/section two transition is a little sloppy, and the adversaries and sample adventure could have been much stronger.

Additionally, for a setting concerned with being different that what came before it, it relies on previous ages where mysterious things happened that the PCs may discover, which echos Numenera perhaps a bit too much. There is also an odd disconnect with a setting so concerned with philosophy and high concepts, but creatures like orcs and goblins are pretty much the cannon fodder evil minions that they are in other settings. Finally, there is the oddity of one of the levels of the underworld in the setting having dragons, demons, and devils, despite other sections of the book saying those things, in their traditional forms, do not exist in the setting. Except in this one layer of the underworld.

Now, between the naming conventions and the explanation of why those things exist there and not elsewhere, I'm sure some people will say, "that's for the GM to figure out in play," and I guess that's valid, but those "mysteries" are so far removed from the theme of mortals becoming the new gods and performing trials and gaining followers, I wonder why they even pop up.

Ascendant 

I may seem like I don't like this book. That's not true at all. I think I may have been harder on it due to the fact that I love the game system and this particular concept so much, and I like most of what is presented about the setting. I'd love to run a game using this set of rules. The good definitely outweighs the bad in this case, but at the same time, this wasn't the killer app to show off how to do a "fantasy setting like no other" that it may have seemed.

*** (out of five)


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