Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mistborn Adventure Game - Read-through Review

Hello All! The holiday season is a busy time, but I wanted to take time to get a review out to all of you about my recent present to myself, the Mistborn Adventure Game. The review is based on a read-through of the book, though I hope to have a play-test review in the future to tell you about how the game plays in practice. For the uninitiated, this is the role-playing game based on the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. It's a good series and a compelling read focused on a dystopic fantasy world in which a dictator figure rules the serf caste and suppresses in part through and religion and in part through the nobility. It focuses on thieving crews completing daring schemes using magical metallurgic arts in a pre-Enlightenment world. Enough of that: on to the review!

Basically, the Mistborn Adventure Game is split
into three books: the first is setting fluff and core rules, the second is spell-casting, and the third is a GM's section.

Book one covers the meat of the game. The first two sub-chapters of this section consist of some excellent setting fluff and short stories that get you familiar with the world and the type of game this is as well as a handy glossary and pre-index/table of contents.

The third chapter covers the survey style character generation in the game, which is a bit reminiscent of Mouse Guard with short and to the point questions. Overall, chargen reminds me of the various incarnations of World of Darkness strongly in that the focus is clearly on background and in how it balances characters. Setting up your stats happens last in this section, which is telling.

Stats are broken down into Attributes, Influences, and Resiliences. Attributes let your character do things directly, using their own natural ability. Influences are the counterpoint to Attributes, they let you alter the world more indirect but powerful ways. The combination of these two are used to derive Resiliences. These are your ability to take knocks on the chin, and are reminiscent of burning wheel's disposition in conflicts. Each of these three have a physical, mental, and social stat. Characters can also have abilities in the Metallurgic arts (powers/spell-casting for those unfamiliar with Sanderson's books). Balance is achieved by assigning ability level, one strong, one average, and one weak, into Powers, Attributes and Influences. This tells you how many points you can assign to each area. This system allows for lots of player choice, and it addresses the problem often faced in a world where superpowers essentially exist and you want to play a Lois Lane and be just as useful.

Chapter Four covers advancement, which also reminds me a bit of Burning Wheel. Many of the ways to earn experience are based on fulfilling character goals, good role-playing, and turning points in the plot. It's a fairly straightforward point-buy system. The really major cool factor is the ability to Snap, which involves coming into your powers, a neat part of the books and something done nicely here.

The fifth chapter covers the basic mechanics of the game. Time is abstracted into beats, a relative speed based on the drama of situation at a given time; this is another good element adapted from more narrative-based games like HeroQuest. Doing things falls into a fairly standard trichotamy of a simple, contested, and combat type of actions, here called challenges, contests and conflicts. Taking a page from FATE, applicable descriptors grant you bonus dice as well as tools and an advantageous situation in the game (i.e. cover when being shot at with bows, a flock of noblewomen at your back at the ball, a shortage of grain when selling a bushel to a merchant).
The basic mechanic is straightforward, you gather dice up to 10, you roll a GM set difficulty (1-5) and you hunt for matches, the highest matching value is your result. Every 6 rolled or for each die above ten you could have gathered gets you what's called a nudge. The Result minus the difficulty is your margin of success. Negative results cause you to fail and earn story complications if appropriate. Each nudges then allows you to increase your margin of success by 1, or if you have 3 nudges lets you take another action for free.

The sixth chapter concerns conflicting actions (highest value wins) and dealing with helping/multiple sides in a contest. This is followed by the Conflicts chapter, which sets up a blanket system for attempts to damage someone else. You set the win and lose conditions of the conflict (I could see this stakes setting being a negotiation with the GM), you pick your starting dice pool, and identify your starting resilience. You then declare actions in the order of wits (the mental stat) then act in order of most action dice to least. As each person acts, those who have not acted may defend if appropriate (or have reserved dice for defense), taking dice out of their action pool. You can also change midstream by using fewer dice.

This results in an interesting fog of war sort of effect, where things can get chaotic fast. Nudges help you deal more damage here, as do successes beyond an opponents defense. The way damage is set up in this system is it encourages a rapier duel feel to conflicts where you pick at each other gradually, as taking a glut of damage can result in an injury (here called a burden) which has a long-term penalty you want to avoid. If you go for broke things end up brutal and nasty. Resilience can recover pretty quickly, but burdens, particularly bad ones, can last a long time and noticeably restrict your dice.

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 give more detail on physical, social and mental conflicts. There are clear descriptions of each kind of conflict, with examples and situational rules. In a move I heartily applaud, the situational rules are much more like examples of how a GM can resolve an action like X, than a bunch of rules bloat that obscures resolution.

Chapter 11 (am I the only one that finds this amusing for a chapter that covers money?) describes how to use standing. Basically you roll it like an attribute against a difficulty based on what you are trying to get, succeed and you get it, regardless you suffer a temporary point of damage. There are three standings, Resources is the physical, Influence the social, Spirit the mental. Of these three, spirit is by far the most intriguing as it is essentially a luck ability, which is basically an outlet for player narrative control. Overall, a nice and flexible resource system that addresses things like money without fretting over every jewel and boxing. A nice page taken from systems like Spirit of the Century and Burning Wheel.

Chapter 12 is entitled Children of the Contract - I actually don't want to spoil too much for people who haven't read the books, but this section covers the masters of disguise, Kandra. Kandra are cool. 'Nuff said.

Book Two covers magic in the game world, Scadrial. I'm going to use a light touch to avoid spoilers. When reading the Mistborn trilogy, the magic system was what told me the author had role-played before. Very balanced and structured with a clear points mechanic that was relatively simple. The rules for the RPG follow suit. It's a little crunchier than the other sections, but since its a centerpiece of the setting it gets some serious focus. Its a straightforward spend spell points for temporary benefits system with optional stunts to add some spice. Thankfully, this doesn't add a ridiculous amount of complexity to the game, and tends to work through or mimic the mechanics used to perform any action in the game.

Book Three covers how to run the game. It's a nice and concise GM's section which covers running a narrative-based game with a character-development focus. Old hat for me, with rules like "Say Yes," but its easy to read and clearly meant for a new GM. There are some nice sections on running a game that mimics the tone of the books, different types of campaigns you can run, and some nice worksheets that can help scaffold adventure writing and setting up character development twists.

The neat part here is the game gives a framework for having your players fill in the first couple of sections on goal setting and approaches, then the GM builds the adventure. I'm not sure if I'd use this as written personally, but it seems like a great tool for folks running their first RPG, or if you need some scaffolding to run things off the cuff as a GM. The reason I'd shy away from it personally, is that this almost forces a 'planning session', which I find can be really boring for some players. However, if this happens anyway in sessions you run, this focuses it a great deal. Regardless, I'm glad its in the book.
This is followed by a rogues gallery of characters from the novels, stats for common NPCs and foes, and an extremely well written section on making NPCs that match up to the threat you'd like them to pose.

The Squeeworthy
  • This book was clearly written with good input from Brandon Sanderson on his novels. The dialogue between the system designer (Alex Flagg, clearly a humble individual who deserves more credit than the cover might suggest), the team at Crafty games, and Sanderson is apparent, and makes for a far better game. This is how it should be done folks!
  • Brevity, brevity, brevity. Old Polonius had it right. There aren't a lot of wasted words here, and I don't have to labor for hours to understand a rule. The rules are to the point too, you learn the base mechanic and you have essentially the whole game, with minor permutations. Conflict plays the same when you're at the ball as when you are stabbing some poor Hazekiller in the eye. The Mistborn Adventure Game is based around storytelling and narrative, you need a simple to learn system which fades into the background to achieve that, something I think this system supports well. Very little rules-bloat and the magic system isn't tacked on or stupidly fiddly.
  • Good GM section with lots of advice for game masters who are just starting out, or folks who have slogged through enough Pathfinder and D&D 4E and want a different type of game to whet the palate. It gives structure and guidance where a lot of small press games would essentially say, 'well then you play it.'

The Quibbleworthy
  • Some parts of the conflict section, particularly working with extras, is a little unclear. It comes later in the GMs section and throughout the book, but you have to hunt a little. More broadly, the book tries to adopt a kind of story sequence, which leads to looking up rules becoming difficult. This is partially ameliorated by summary tables, but I think more summary would have helped more.
  • I'm still left a little concerned that your Joe Blow type (think Dockson) is going to get blown out of the water by even a misting. I think this is actually better in play, but to a player making a character there seems very little incentive to go this route. I contrast this with a system like refresh in the Dresden Files RPG, which balances power differentials with more luck and player control. This seems more like what you see in a game like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where your normals (White Hats) were never really quite on par with a Slayer, no matter how you cut it.
  • A minor but slightly irking point: the game book does a good job of not spoiling the second and third novels, but it is spoiler-ridden for the first book. I understand that this was necessary to make the game, but I think this should have been noted somewhere early on. Along these same lines, I worry that without reading the first book you'd have a hard time striking the right tone as a player, even if you read the intro story like a bible. Then again you are buying the Mistborn Adventure Game. You're probably far less likely to buy this, run it, or play it if you haven't read the novels.

I think overall the Mistborn Adventure Game fills an excellent space somewhere between rules light narrativist play and rules medium crunch. It has a definite structure that you can sink your teeth into, which I expect will keep the simple base mechanic from becoming stale and monotonous. It is also an excellent introductory game for new players, continuing a wonderful trend set by games like Mouse Guard. Two Survivor's Spears up.

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