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Mistborn Adventure Game Review
Posted By Megan On February 22, 2012 @ 10:35 am In Reviews,RPGs | No Comments
This mighty tome, over 500 pages long, contains everything that you need to start adventuring in the world conjoured up by author Brandon Sanderson… who has not only allowed the use of his setting, he’s written fiction especially for the game, has added comments throughout, and was even involved in the playtesting!
First up, the treat of an original short story set in the Mistborn world called The Elventh Metal. It tells of a small group of malcontents, seeking revenge, seeking change, and introduces a world rich and strange – metals that burn within and confer power, swirling mists, ash that falls from the sky, twisted exotic buildings. And so the strangeness, the richness of this setting is revealed: allomancy. Familiar if you know the novels on which this game is based yet brought magnificently into prominence whether or not you have read them – by utilising mystic powers different metals can be used to bring about a range of spell-like effects. Learn the tricks of their use, or perish miserably!
Appetites whetted, on to the Introduction. This describes a world like ours, yet gone horribly astray. An Industrial Revolution where progress is lost amid the smoke and the rise of fascist governance, where the options are stark: conform, die… or rebel. Will your crew, your colleagues in the struggle to make this world one worth living in, succeed or fail?
So, to Book 1: Mistborn Adventure Game, which contains all that a player needs to create a character ready to inhabit this world of Scarial, to become a Hero fighting the Final Empire. It begins with the usual ‘Getting Started’ explaining what this role-playing thing is all about, interestingly written with the assumption that the non-role-playing reader knows what a computer game is, and contrasting an RPG with a computer game; and then goes on to tell experienced role-players how this is a rules-light game that focusses on plotline and narrative storytelling… and there’s a note from Brandon Sanderson about what sort of game system he wanted for playing in his world! Good to see the author of the original inspiration so involved. On to the terminology, the GM is the Narrator, players play Heroes (after all, we’re always the hero of our own adventures!) who band together to form a Crew… and the game mechanic is based on a handfull of D6s.
For people who want to dive straight in, there are directions on how to make a quick start with the critical bits the Narrator ought to read and sample characters and even a downloadable free adventure (in the Primer)… or the bits to read to create characters and adventures of your own. More terminology (a glossary of terms used in the game), and thence to Chapter 3: Building Heroes. The imaginative narrative part and the game mechanics part are designed to work hand-in-hand so you don’t end up scrabbling for a rule that lets you do what you want or twisting your concept to fit the mechanics. We begin with an explanation of what the stuff on the character sheet means, then an outline of the narrative process the group should use to create their Crew of Heroes, and only then do we get to the mechanical bits. Don’t come to the game having read the rules and created a character, do it together. Standings, Powers, Traits and more are used to describe how each member of the Crew operates, what he can contribute to the group and how he affects the world around him. The starting point, though, is the Crew itself. No place for loners, the Crew needs a reason to band together – a target for their schemes. It is a distinct slant inherent in the game system, defining the broad role everyone will play on Scarial: that of opposition to the ruling powers. Just how you go about providing that opposition (and why, and with what objectives) is what will make each Crew and Hero distinct and unique. Good examples and commentary abound. The core concept is that the Crew is not the average bunch of fantasy adventurers who meet in a bar and go off to bash monsters and steal their stuff, but a group with a reason to be together. Structured questions about Crew and Heroes alike aid the group in building the group in a sustainable way… and providing plenty for the wiley Narrator to weave into future plots as well!
As you work through the character creation process, one thing that impresses is how balance is maintained. Now, someone coming to this game with a good knowledge of the novels might think that the ‘best’ character to play might be a Mistborn… but the mechanics of character creation are so designed that character strengths and weaknesses are balanced out so that if you are powerful in one aspect, you won’t be as powerful elsewhere. This is done by allocating ‘weak’ or ‘average’ or ‘strong’ to Powers, Attributes and Standings… each must be different. So if you are a normal person with weak (indeed, maybe absent) Powers, you might be strong in either your Attributes (physical characteristics) or your Standings (resources, luck, etc.). These are then developed further within those restraints. Neat! Yet although this may seem mechanical, the majority of character creation is driven by narrative, by answering questions, rather than mere selections and point-allocation. It’s not a quick process but will reward the amount of thought and inventiveness involved by empowering the whole group to create well-rounded and motivated characters complete with a lot of background already developed, embedded into the setting. Next, Chapter 4 explains how to improve your character over time, it’s put next to character creation as that’s logical, but the suggestion is to skip ahead to the rules of play or jump straight into a game and come back when you need it. However, this section can also be used when you want to start a game with more experienced characters.
Characters ready for play, Chapter 5: Game Basics explains the underlying mechanics to make them come to life. It starts off with information appropriate to someone new to role-playing, a clear explanation of what goes on around a game table. It’s a bit basic for the experienced role-player, and at times more artificial than many will be accustomed to, but it gives a framework that everyone can agree upon. It can get long-winded in places, taking several paragraphs, for instance, to explain that you get the dice out when the outcome of what you are doing can affect you or the plotline… but with increased explanation there is no room for doubt. Success or failure is determined by rolling a handfull of D6s, the number of dice in your ‘dice pool’ depends on what you are attempting, and which characteristics – be they Powers, Attributes, Standings, etc. – you can bring to bear. Apposite items can help too, while adverse circumstances may reduce the number of dice. Once you have worked out how many dice to roll, the Narrator declares a difficulty of 1-5, this is the target against which you roll. That’s where it gets a bit complicated, as your result is the number shown by two or more dice (if you get two different doubles, choose the result). If your result equals or beats the difficulty, you succeed. There’s more complex stuff as well, to enable you to see how well you did (or how badly you failed). It sounds hard, but it is the kind of mechanic that comes with practice and familiarity, rather than one that is intuitive from the outset. The key, though, is in the narrative created by player and Narrator to describe in vivid detail the outcome of the attempted action.
Chapter 6: Contests expands on this, explaining what happens when an attempted action is opposed. Contests are separated out from Conflicts (dealt with in Chapter 7), where the intention of the opponents is to actually do harm to each other – a Contest can be as obvious as a foot race or an attempt to pick a pocket or sneak around without being noticed, while a Conflict is an out-and-out brawl, or at least a opposition which has the potential to damage – as there are opportunities (and rules) for social and mental conficts as well as for actual fights. The mechanics are very structured, with a process that is the same whatever sort of conflict is taking place – it is just the end result, the ‘damage’ suffered by the loser, that differs. At first it seems complex, but the uniformity of structure means that once you and your players have grasped it, play will be slick – and there are plenty of examples provided to enable you to get your heads around it all. Whilst like in many game systems, Conflicts proceed on a round-by-round basis, this mechanic includes more detailed formal setting-up beforehand, framing the scene, which gives scope for players and Narrator alike to influence the overall conflict as a whole. Once into the round-by-round action, what you are doing determines how many dice you get to roll. There is still scope however to influnce the course of action by well-chosen narrative description of both actions and results – for example, describing the wound you intend to inflict – during the round-by-round element of conflict resolution. The style you wish to adopt, and whether you prefer to mix it in with the mechanistic elements, is up to the group to decide. Overall, it’s a flexible and powerful system that enables the group to focus on whatever they think is important yet providing a mechanical basis for glossing over the rest.
Next, Chapter 11: Changing the World discusses the use of Standing as a means of influencing not just the people you deal with but the community as a whole. It provides a systematic way of modelling how characters can rise from humble origins to become influential and important members of society. It’s more than that, though, it also is a mechanism for enabling each character to use what advantages they have to gain resources, nurture allies and benefactors… the sort of things most games leave to GM fiat alone, here is presented a system whereby players can roll dice to determine if they manage to gain that favour as well as playing out the request through conversation. For some overkill, but an elegant concept none-the-less. As the system distinguishes between ‘extras’ and more important characters in the game world, it’s a useful mechanic for example when you want to bribe someone – a simple die roll challenge will suffice for bribing an extra, while you will need to role-play cutting a deal with a more significant NPC. There is some interesting equipment to acquire as well, should your Resources run to it. Actual money has been abstracted out on the grounds that most of the fictional characters are not the sort of folk who count every coin (unless intending to hurl them at someone!) and so such accountancy is not necessary for game characters either.
The final chapter in this section, Chapter 12: Children of the Contract, looks at the particular challenges of playing a kandra character. Little known outside their own society, these shapeshifters have a unique culture and outlook which can make them fascinating to play. Disciplined, adhering to a Contract or code of behaviour that governs their dealings with everyone else, their natural form is a heap of gloop: to take on human (or indeed any other) form they need to provide themselves with bones… yet are not allowed to kill to obtain them.
Book 2: The Treatise Metallurgic follows, describing in exquisite detail the operation of the unique metal-based magic system of the setting. There are three strands: Allomancy (whose practicioners consume and ‘burn’ metals to create their effects), Feruchemy (where the effect you want is pre-loaded into metal, and released when required) and Hemalurgy (where metal spikes transfer the effect into a recipient by sticking the spike into them!). The first chapter, Magic of the Final Empire, explains not just this but also how magic pervades the whole world. Allomany and Feruchemy are inherited gifts: your bloodline either has the potential to develop the ability or it does not. Hemalurgy may be learned. In all cases, the metal used determines the sort of effects that you can bring about.
Each strand of metal magic is examined in the following chapters. The detail is comprehensive, yet well worth a delve even if you do not intend to practice that particular form of metallurgic art yourself. You may find yourself fascinated by this logical system that operates according to a set of consistent in-game laws, never mind a coherent set of game mechanics, and it is integral to what makes this game unique, rather than yet another fantasy ruleset. Next come chapters devoted to the different metals and the effects that skilled users can create with them. Incredible detail that enables interested players to not only have their characters create these effects, but discuss them in a scholarly academic manner should they so wish. Interestingly, the metals and powers go beyond those described in the source novels… as readers know, new metals were discovered during the course of the stories, so it is likely that others are out there waiting to be discovered. It is open to the Narrator to determine what metals have been found at the time in which his game is set, of course, which may or may not be linked to events in the books.
Book 3: Always Another Secret is intended for the Narrator as the first chapter, Behind the Curtain, suggests. Scadrial is a world in which there always is another secret around the corner, and this is the key to making it an exciting adventure setting. Material herein is designed to equip the Narrator to run the game effectively, whether he is an experienced GM or new to refereeing. It does, however, contain material that gives away some of the plot of the novels… and which could be ‘spoilers’ for a game as well. A group which has already selected its Narrator should let him decide whether or not the other players may read this section. It begins by explaining the role of the Narrator, highlighting the collaborative nature of role-playing games and how the idea is for everyone to have fun in the shared alternate reality they create together.
Next, Chapter 2: Narrating Stories, begins a series of chapters looking at all aspects of running this game. This one is about crafting that shared story that Narrator and players are creating together, and includes tricks to help make the world come alive for everyone through descriptions. Remember, also, that just as the heroes in the novels are larger-than-life characters whose actions have the potential to be world-changing, so should the characters in your game… and the challenges that they face need to be appropriate too. There’s also useful advice on the particular challenges, pitfalls and opportunities inherent in running a game based on published novels, ones which all participants may have read. You can weave your action around things that happen in the novels – or choose a part of Scadrial that the stories have never reached, letting events in the novels fade into the background. There are as many questions as answers, questions designed to spawn your ideas and help you bring them alive. Step-by-step adventure building sequences show you how to use those ideas to create vivid and memorable adventures that involve the players because they are constructed around their characters.
One of the unique things about this game is the way in which it is designed to encourage true collaboration, shared planning of plot as well as shared telling of the story. This is exemplified in the methodology presented for formalising and expediting the creation of a scheme and a plan of action for accomplishing that scheme, involving characters and Narrator in a structured process that leaves everyone clear about what’s going on… and yet gives the Narrator plenty of scope for more ‘classical’ adventure construction based on what the characters want to do.
The next chapter looks at actually running the game: blending storyline and mechanics and collaboration into a seamless whole. Much will be of value whatever you are running, but vital if it’s the Mistborn Adventure Game of course. Secrets being so important in this game, this setting, the next chapter is devoted to them and how to use them to effect. Much of this is of general application, well worth a read whatever system you prefer to run. Other powerful plot-drivers can be destiny and tragedy, the topics of the following chapter. A structured process for planning and manipulating all of these is provided: some may find it mechanical but it makes for a good framework and ensures nothing gets forgotten, as well as linking such pivotal influences directly into the game mechanics.
Next, the main characters of the novels are presented as game characters – at several stages in their careers, and with notes on how you might involve them. These are followed by copious material to aid you in developing your ‘supporting cast’ – from a Rogues’ Gallery of common encounters to notes on how to create your own memorable NPCs from scratch.
Thus equipped you are ready for all that Scadrial has to offer. It’s a fascinating game system, at times overly artificial and mechanical, but based around the powerful concept of advancing the shared story by means of conversation both in and out of character, with game mechanics honed to support the process to good effect. A challenge to get to grips with, but well worth the effort!
Review by Megan Robertson
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