Saturday, March 12, 2016

Review & Actual Play: Godbound – A Game of Divine Heroes (Part 1)

Currently on Kickstarter (and doing quite well, if I may add), Godbound: A Game of Divine Heroes is the new roleplaying game by Kevin Crawford, owner of Sine Nomine Publishing, a one-man company that brought us awesome OSR games like Stars Without Numbers, Other Dust and Scarlet Heroes.

“What's OSR?” you ask. OSR stands for Old School Revival, a trend of games that base their core engine on earlier iterations of D&D rules. It's well beyond the scope of this review to talk about OSR, but there is plenty of information available if you search for it. Suffice to say, Kevin's games take the classic D&D engine and give it a fantastic spin. His games definitely don't disappoint, even if you are not an OSR fan.

I've split this post in two parts: a review of the book (Kevin made the several iterations of the draft rules available to the public), followed by an actual play of the first session of our demo game.


I want to start this review by saying I genuinely love this game. I haven't been so hooked and in love with an RPG in a long while, probably not since I played Exalted 1st Edition for the first time a little over 10 years ago.

The setting goes like this: over a thousand years ago, mortals stormed the halls of Heaven in search for the One God, battling the Angelic Host along the way, so that they may know the truths of the universe. That didn't end up well, though, since the Throne was empty. Furious, mortals looted the Celestial Engines to build their own divinities, the Made Gods, according to each people's philosophies and dogma. It wouldn’t be long before Made Gods clash in the blattlefield, with each conflict tearing the fabric of the universe a little more. In the end, the Last War produced the Shattering, a cosmic cataclysm that broke and scattered the world into many Realms, each one floating alone among the Uncreated Night. Meanwhile, the Angels were forced to withdraw to Hell, a safe heaven from where they could plot to destroy the world in order to recreate it anew.

With the Made Gods dead or weakened, and the Celestial Engines at the blink of collapse, hope was all but lost. But then, the divine energy contained in Heaven's dead Made Gods poured into the world below, gifting ordinary men and women with divine might. These are the Godbound. Whether the world is to be saved or doomed, it's their fate to carve its ultimate destiny.

Like I said before, the core engine is recognizable to anyone who has played classic D&D before. You have six attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma) rated 1 to 18 to measure how good you are on a particular field. If you need to make a check to see if you succeed or fail, you roll a 20-sided die. High is good, low is bad. The usual stuff.

What sets Godbound apart? For once, no skills. Instead, players have Facts, which work in a lot of ways similar to Fate's Aspects. If you have a Fact applicable to a non-combat die roll, you add a +4 bonus to the roll. Quick, simple, and customizable to each PC's backstory and deeds. Players may also use Facts to get a general idea of a character's resources, and it's possible to gain stuff like Lesser Magic (wizardry used by mortals) or a Divine Artifact in lieu of the +4 bonus. You start with three Facts, gaining a new Fact with each experience Level you reach.

Of course, that alone wouldn't make for unstoppable demigods, so we have Words, the spheres of divine might that tell us what a Godbound can do. Some Words are Fire, Beasts, Command, Passion, Sword, and many more. Each character starts with three Words, although it's possible to bind to more as they level up. Just be bonding with a Word, characters get access to some related perks or Attribute increments. For example, anyone who bonds with Fire will be immune to flames, while someone who bonds with Might will automatically have Strength 19.

Once a hero’s Words are chosen, the player selects Gifts among those Words, powers his character will always have available (some are constant, while others must be activated by the Godbound). In addition, Godbound may invoke Miracles from their Words, either to emulate Gifts they didn't buy or to create their own effects (of course, doing so costs more than having purchased the right Gift for the job). That way, Godbound have both fixed powers and free-form magic they can access in times of need.

Some Gifts and powers are free to use, but most require the character to commit Effort in order to activate them for as long as the power is on. One the Godbound no longer needs the power active, he may instantly reclaim his spent Effort (for example, if a Gift enhances an attack, the Godbound can reclaim the Effort as soon as the attack is resolved). The strongest powers require the hero to leave Effort committed even after its effects have ended, either for the remainder of the scene or the whole day. A Level 1 character starts with Effort 2, and increases this score by one each time they Level up. It's incredible how much you can achieve even at first level with just two points, making bookkeeping quite easy.

How does this all play in game? Awesomely. Combat is fast and furious, with lesser enemies possessing no treat to a pantheon unless in very large numbers (luckily, Godbound has fantastic Mob rules). All Godbound have a Fray Die (1d8 by default). Every turn, regardless of their action, they get to roll their Fray Die to represent minor miracles that inflict damage on lesser foes. That way, Godbound can dispatch larger number of lesser enemies quite fast.

On top of everything else, the book itself is incredibly helpful for the GM, full of advice and techniques to design epic adventures for your players. Even if you don't like OSR, and even if the quite streamlined and polished rules in this book are not to your taste, the book is so full of rules and tips that can be easily converted to other game systems that it's worth buying it just for that anyway.

My favorite subsystem in the book is Influence and Dominion. As they gain Levels, characters increase their Influence pool, which they can commit (just like Effort) to alter the world around them off-screen based on his Words. For as long as the Influence remains committed, their divine powers sustain the change, only returning to its original state if he withdraws the points or an external force interferes. For example, let's say a Godbound finds an isolated island village that is constantly raid by pirates. He has to travel to a far place to deal with the tentacled abomination the pirates have for a deity. He fears the village is not safe until his return, so he works on a plan to defend them while he's away. Working for a few days, he crafts a metal-men army, imbuing them with life with the Artifice Word. For as long as the Influence remains committed on the task, the army will be upkeep and functional. If he ever withdraws it, though, they will start to fall apart and malfunction.

If a Godbound wants to make one of this changes permanent, he has to spend Dominion. Once he has done so, the change is permanent and he no longer is required to commit Influence to upkeep the change. Once spent, Dominion points are lost, and the character needs to earn more (usually from receiving worship, performing heroic deeds or looting Celestal Shards). Following the previous example, the Artifice Godbound could spend dominion to make his metal army a permanent addition to the village, ensuring that even after he has long gone they will still protect the village.

Conclusion: if you like what you've heard, I sincerely encourage you to take a look at the draft (backers get instant access to it, although the author has given us permission to share the link to the folder freely) and I dare you not to feel the need to pledge on this awesome Kickstarter afterward.

Actual Play

Last week I gathered a few friends to play a Godbound demo game. I made several pregenerated characters for them to choose from (available from the Downloads section).

They chose Decimus (a former soldier and slave; bound to the Words of Earth, Endurance and Might), Harun Sadar (a free spirited merchant and ship captain; bound to the Words of Passion, Sun and Wealth), and Jade (scion of a wealthy family on the run, turned rogue and thief; bound to the Words of Alacrity, Deception and Night).

Our adventure begins with Harun and Decimus traveling aboard the former's ship near The Thousand Gods (a jungle peninsula filled with many cults and secrets). They soon find out they are not alone, for Jade comes out of the shadows to introduce herself. She has been following them for a while, since she knows they are similar to her.

The chat is abruptly interrupted by a sailor. When the group goes out of the captain's chambers to see what's going on, a pyre of smoke dominates the horizon near the coast. Without a second thought, Decimus lets his divine power flow in a thunderous ten-miles long jump. A few thousand yards away, he can see a defenseless village attacked. He makes another quick jump to go back to the ship (with a very swift landing that makes a hole on the ship's deck, oops). Without a word, he picks up Harun and Jade, then jumps again toward the coast.

Back to the village (picture a pre-Hispanic mesoamerican village), they run toward it to see it in flames, with several dead bodies scattered across the ground, and many more still-alive villagers trapped in cages. Over a hundred tribal warriors are herding the remaining survivors into cages, when Decimus explodes in rage and attacks. Harun and Jade followed. They are faced by over a hundred warriors (Large Mob), two giant feathered reptile-like frying creatures (Minor Misbegottens), and the warrior's leader (Minor Hero with no special powers save for rallying his men). The fight probably lasted three or four rounds before all foes where dead, with the heroes barely damaged at all.

When they open the cages, the villagers are terrified of what they just saw. Harun steps forwards, using his powers to calm the villagers and befriend their leader, an elderly man by the name Imari. He explains the small village is called Quetzal, and that it's not the first time those warriors attack a nearvy village. They come from the Eternal City of Zyanya, an evil place ruled by a woman named Painalli, High Priestess of Ilhuitemoc, He Who Descends from the Sky. Every year, warriors from the city raid local villages searching for sacrifices to their god, in a bloody ceremony that lasts for days. So far they've always been protected by their own deity, Ohtonqui the Wise-Walker. But now he seems to have vanished, deaf to his follower's pleas for help.

Once they hear the story, the heroes vow to help the villagers to stop Painalli once and for all. They spend the next few days on several things:

* Decimus used an Earth Miracle to create a stone wall around the village.
* Harun works to give the villagers hope and courage, investing Influence to enhance them with the Sun Word (he made them into 2HD warriors for as long as he kept the Influence committed).
*Jade used her powers to quickly travel to Zyanya, fast moving from shadow to shadow, covering a dozen miles in a few seconds. She used her powers to remain imperceptible to the inhabitants, exploring the place as much as she could.
* Decimus used a Might Miracle to pick up Harun's ship and relocate it inside the village's walls (this made us all laugh).

With everything set, the group departs to the Eternal City. They arrive at dawn, just to see that atop the tall pyramidal temple a woman (Painalli, no doubt) is about to start a row of human sacrifice. With no second thoughts, Decimus picks Harun and makes a huge jump, while Jade enters a tree's shadow to exit atop the temple.

Painalli becomes furious, commanding her warriors to kill the intruders. On this encounter, the pantheon had to face Painalli (Lesser Eldritch with the Beast Word), her two bodyguards (Veteran Warriors), the several dozen tribal warriors that make Painalli's personal retinue (Small Mob), and all the temple's guards running toward the top of the pyramid as fast as they could (Large Mob in HD, but fights as Small Mob due to the narrow stairway that leads to the pyramid's top).

This fight was hard, mainly due to the player's having terrible rolls (it happens to the best of us), and Painalli's quasi-divine powers. On several occasions they had to invoke defensive Miracles to avoid death from one of Painalli's attacks. They managed to kill both mobs and Painalli's bodyguards after some intense rounds, leaving all three of them to deal with her. Painalli then stroke a lethal blow to Harun (in Godbound, when you reach 0hp you are unconscious, not dead; an NPC needs to attack you when helpless to kill you). Harun's player then invoked Divine Fury (a cool rule that allows, one each Level, for the Godbound to get up with half his Hit Points and bonus Effort for a few rounds before being rendered helpless), using all his remaining Effort to deal damage to Painalli. Then, striking simultaneously, Decimus and Jade managed to kill Painalli with their last strengths.

When the heroes were about to address the crowd around the temple, the sky goes dark, cracking with thunder. A furious whirlwind formed in the stormy clods, a portal from which Ilhuitemoc descended, a towering 100 feet dragon with crystal feathers furiously roaring and exhaling lightning. With no strengths left to fight and many wounds sustained, the pantheon is forced to retreat from the confrontation… for now.



Matías Nicolás Caruso said...

Second part is up:

MPA2000 said...

"For once, no skills"

Uhm, they are Gods. What game has ever shown Gods needed to have skills?