In other news, I'm buying RPGs again.
This is weird. The last time I bought games was Conpulsion, where I picked up Cold City, Star Wars: Saga Ed., and Monte Cook's World of Darkness. Actually, I'm lying to you. The real last time I bought a game was snagging the D&D 4e bundle on Amazon shortly after its release. But that was more a case of "It's 4e, and it looks like a version of D&D that I could really like." Fortunately, I was proved right. Even so, it wasn't really a whimsical purchase. To tell the truth, even with my Conpulsion purchases, I'd stopped buying games on a whim after both Mage: The Awakening (and some of the supplements) and The Shadow Project. I'd got quite a bit of burn without any real payoff. Couple that with having to read and digest a hell of a lot of Hunter-based material in no time flat and, yeah. I was only in the market for games I knew I'd like already. Even Aletheia, which would have been an impulse buy to shock me out of drugery was instead painstakingly researched before I parted with cash.
Now, though? Not so much. I wandered into the excellent Black Lion Games last Thursday, intending to have my roughly monthly poke-around without buying anything and taking up Hunter to everyone with a pair of ears who wasn't actively threatening to cut my tongue out. While there, my hyperactive pattern recognition faculties0 flashed up a title I'd seen recently: The Secret of Zir'an. Someone had posted a "Whatever happened to..." on RPG.net, and despite not knowing the first thing about it, I snapped it up. I'm glad I did. I snagged Solipsist that same day, a PDF of Houses of the Blooded on Friday morning, and Reign just came in the post today. I've fallen off my RPG-buying wagon.
The Game: The Secret of Zir'an
The Publisher: Paragon Games, published through White Wolf's ArtHaus imprint
Degree of Familiarity: Err... I read through it in four days and have run through a couple of sample scenes on paper.
Books Required: Just the corebook.
The Secret of Zir'an is a great game that really sold itself to me by its mechanical interesting bits: Speed spending like the Wits spend in Æternal Legends, skills defined on two axes, with differing implications for success, Origin rather than race defining starting stats, lifepath/package based character creation. That got me reading. The setting then grabbed my scrotum and refused to let go until I admitted just how utterly awesome and wonderful it is.
See, the general assumption behind most fantasy settings—all fantasy settings, whether romantic or high or salty—is the world. It's a world of swords and nobility and magic, where great kingdoms rule for hundreds of years and nothing's really changed in several thousand. That is, to be quite frank, a boring device wasted by writers without any real brains. Every setting is the 1200's with magic and swords and goblins and shit, stretched out over several thousand years of history. Bollocks to that. Where's the industrial revolution? The development of steam power? Revolutions that overthrow the nobility and that aren't themselves overthrown? Zir'an has all of these and more. If every generic fantasy setting is the 13th century with magic, Zir'an is the late 1920s with magic; a world divided into many warring nation-states with one apocalypse behind them and an aggressive fascist empire backed by magic looking to take over the world.
The world of Zir'an is crammed full of details and interesting locations and ideas. It's very overwhelming to start with, but the authors obviously recognise that: at the end of the character creation section is a whole range of suggestions and notes, including comparisons of each of the races to fantasy staples (humans, dwarves, beastmen, ogres, and elves) along with where they differ. The notes also include suggestions on the best Origins and packages for building archetypal characters. After a very dense introcution to the world, then the system, and then the character creation system it's nice to read a bit that steps back and frames everything presented so far.
Anyway. I don't have a concept to begin with. I should come up with one. I like the idea of a big bastard with a range of tricks up his sleeve, including the setting's big draw: Rune Magic. I want a giant engineer/mechanic type who ain't afraid of getting his hands dirty. For the purposes of this example, I'm creating a character at the Heroic tier. I note for later that I get +12 Primary stats, +4 Secondary stats, 75 CCPs, and a Finesse cap at Expert. This is the mid-tier, empowered action heroes who aren't yet at Exalted levels of power. It's a tier I'm familiar with.
1. Pick Character Race
I know what this one is going to be straight away. My character's going to be a Gogach, Zir'an's equivalent to ogres. Despite being the stereotypical dumb bruiser race, the Gogach have something going for them: their brains work on a fundamentally different way to other races, seeing the world as a chain of patterns and interleaved geometries which makes them excellent mechanics and Rune Mages. Ten minutes playing a strange "game"—actually a highly complex mathematical model into which they frame reality—gives them a +5 modifier to any roll regarding mathematics, geometry, and the like. This is the Gogach's special feature, their Racial Valdreyr, that I note down. I also note my possible Origins: Ballinor, the Fire Reaches, the Merchant Isles, or the Periphery; and if the character chooses one other than the Fire Reaches, he adjusts by +3 Mass, -2 Intelligence, -1 Acuity.
This bit actually highlights a few points: Valdreyr is a word we'll be seeing a lot more of. In-setting, it roughly translates to "That which marks a hero as a hero". As a system term, it refers to a system of catch-all Advantages and Disadvantages. Secondly, base stats come from the Origin, not Race. Race just modifies the basics. You might note that the modifiers don't affect Gogach from the Fire Reaches, that's because only Gogach come from the Fire Reaches; providing "average human" stats would be meaningless.
2. Pick Character Origin
Of all the places that a Gogach can come from, Ballinor is a good start. It's a land of battle-hardened miners and engineers, where everyone has to pitch in to survive and the mechanically adept are prized. This gives me Dorralinath as my native language—useful as a sort of technician's lingua fraca. Looks like I'm definitely playing the Chewie. I note that language down at Basic. My starting Stats, and their maxima, are Physique 4 (12), Mass 7 (15), Intelligence 2 (10), Acuity 3 (11). I do a bit of mental maths to work out the derived stat maxima, even though these won't enter play until the next step: Reaction 11, Speed 15, Perception 11, Shadow 14, and HTH 7.
I start with each Aptitude at 1, with one point to drop into Personal or Social. That one goes straight into Personal. I also note the Mechanical Affinity Valdreyr, a beginning Age of 16, and all the starting Skills. For the Occupation skill, I figure he was trained as a blacksmith. I have two points of Practice to distribute, one goes into Mechanics and one into Athletics.
Another couple of things highlighted: Origin gives another Valdreyr, and we get our first look at Skills and Aptitudes. Each Skill that a character's trained in has a Finesse Level of Basic, Advanced, Expert, or Elite. When faced with the need to make a skill check outside of a stressed situation, Finesse allows you to automatically succeed at any task with a Difficulty equal to or less than Finesse. Otherwise, you roll. In a stressed situation, you always roll, and that uses the Aptitude (a base level added to all skills) and Practice (skill-dependant bonuses). Rolling and getting 5 over the necessary threshold allows a range of effects, including helping an ally or allowing you to make the next check as if not stressed. "Stress", in these situations, is a formally defined term, which really helps.
Aptitude is a catch-all, the "default" skill level for all skills in that sphere. There's three Aptitudes (Knowledge, Personal, and Social). If you have to roll a Personal skill and you have training1 then you add your Personal Aptitude. Practice is a further bonus for individual skills on top of Aptitude.
3. Distribute Freebie Stats
First of all, I have twelve points to distribute in starting stats. I'm not entirely sure what human average is, but we'll get to that. I raise Intelligence by 6, Physique by 2, and Mass by 2, and Acuity by 2. That gives me Physique 6, Mass 9, Intelligence 8, and Acuity 5. Rock.
That directly translates into Reaction 6, Speed 2 (ouch), Perception 7, Shadow 7, and HTH 8. A high Mass burns when it comes to Speed (that's action currency), but makes up for it when it comes to health. I've got 4 points to blow increasing these stats. Reaction and Speed are what matters; in the end I blow everything on Speed 6.
4. Purchase Skill Packages
Skills are built up through Skill Packages, both location-linked (only available depending on Origin) and General (available to all). My first stop is Ballinoran Engineer for 15 CCPs. I add 2 years to my character's age, one Aptitude point (straight into Knowledge), and 6 points to the available skills. I put one into Connections: Rune Mage Society (raising it to A), one into Lore: Technology (raising to B), one into Mechanics (raising to A), one into Rune Magic (rasie to B), one into Awareness (A), and one into Science: Engineering (B).
Note that each Skill can normally only get one point per Package, and that point either buys a level of Finesse (B, A, Ex, or El) or a point of Practice (though you need at least B in the skill to begin with). Also note that each package takes a certain length of time to complete.
Next go-round. 18 points on Ballinoran Rune Mage. 2 Aptitudes, one into Knowledge and one into Social, because that sucks at present. Area Knowledge: Ballinor (A), Lore: Ancient History (B), Lore: Rune Magic (B), Rune Magic (A), Awareness (+1), Meditation (B), Conections: Rune Mage Society (Ex), Connections: Shadow Mages (B), and Intuit (B).
Another term in the Ballinoran universities (Ballinoran Rune Mage again). 18 points (51 spent). Aptitudes into Knowledge and Personal. Area Knowledge: Ballinor (+1), Lore: Ancient History (A), Lore: Rune Magic (A), Rune Magic (Ex), Awareness (+1), Meditation (A), Connections: Rune Mage Society (+1), Connections: Shadow Mages (A), and Intuit (+1).
He returned to the engineers of Ballinor with his newfound knowledge (not very inventive, but the only General packages that offer Rune Magic don't really fit with the archetype). One aptitude to Knowledge. Lore: Technology (+1), Mechanics (+1), Rune Magic (+1), Awareness (+1), Occupation: Blacksmith (A), Connections: Kraftwerk (B)
I total up the years spent on these packages: The character's 30 years old, just edging into Mature Adult territory. I didn't realise this would happen, so to ignore the effects assume that I raised Physique by 3 and Acuity by 1 back during Step 3. Then, all I have to do is record the +1 Shadow.
5. Spend Remaining CCPs
I've spent 66 CCPs. 9 to go. I could pick up some neat Battle Arts, but I've not really got the Skills for them. Maybe if I've got three points left I could grab something simple, but we'll see. To start with, the Rune Gift Valdreyr is a given—it halves the Mental Fatigue of all Rune Magic. Rockawesome. Rather than trying to roleplay the Gogach's lack of familiarity with representative language, I instead opt for the Monolingual negative Valdreyr: he can only speak Dorralinath. That gives me six points back. Eight points on Cussed means that he loses no Vitality from an attack that doesn't deal Lethal wounds. Wow. Finally, he remains bound to the code of the Ballinoran Rune Mages, including keeping their secrets to his death and never using his power to lash out unless his opponent has taken the first shot (-2). Finally, Natural Talent for Mechanics sets me back 3 (as I just remembered that all Battle Arts require at least Advanced rank in a combat skill).
Now's as good a time as any to finish off the details: Wounds first. 2 Head, 3 Arms, 5 Chest, 3 Abdomen, 4 Legs. An attack has to deal 5 damage to deal a Lethal Wound (and remember, if it deals less than that he doesn't lose Vitality either). Vitality is ((Phy/2)+5)*(Mass/2). Or 40. Which is quite high for a noncombat character.
6. Equipment and Resources
Equipment and known Runes. Coolness. The equipment system is really interesting: it's based off starting Connections rather than any exterior signs of wealth. With an Ex, an A, and a B, I can get one Very Rare, one Rare, and one Uncommon piece of kit (each one splits into two of the next-lower level). The Kraftwerk presented him with a set of tools engraved with his name and a precision timepiece (both Common, using the Uncommon slot from the Kraftwerk). The Shadow-Mages saw to it that even the Gogach can dress well (Formal Clothing), and gifted him with a ceremonial longsword more as a mark of respect for his achievements than any desire for him to use it (both Uncommon, adding to one Rare). The Rune-Mage Society granted him a Rune-writing kit (a holster for runing papers and his stylus) (U), a collection of books on rune lore by a fellow Gogach mage (U), and a suit of Ballinoran plate-mail that he survive long enough to explore the world and report back to them. The remaining stuff goes into a flying carpet, a Flight Talisman created at CC25. In other words, it's got 20 hours' flight at stupidly high speeds.
Finally, runes. A Rune Mage is worthless unless he knows some Runes. Each Finesse Level of Rune Magic is 3 Greater Runes or 6 Lesser. I decide to take 6 Greater and 6 Lesser. Of the greater, 4 come from the Domain of Arroy, 1 from the Domain of Drandlur, and 1 from the Domain of Va'an. I'll get to those in a minute. For Lesser Runes, I pick Mending, Parting, Preservation, Steel (all useful engineering runes), Bolt, and Shield (basic magical combat).
Greater Runes are divided into seven Domains, named for the recently-vanished Seven Gods. The important ones for me are Arroy (energy), Drandlur (life/nature), and Va'an (metamagic). As I took more than 3 runes of Arroy, I get another two free from that domain, giving me 6 total. First off, I take Heal from Drandlur's Domain, a powerful means of keeping workers going after manufacturing accidents. 14 Vitality healed at a pop with a very easy roll. From Va'an's Domain, I take Mask to provide broad-spectrum protection from magical attack. Finally, I turn to Arroy's Runes. Fire Sign and Lightning Strike provide some offensive ability as well as making him a power station and forge. Quench Flame, Flame Guard, and Electric Armour protect people and things from fire and electricity, whether magical or natural. Illusion is the first Rune he learned, something to foster his strange creativity.
Suma Rigs sounds like a good Gogach name, so that's what I'll go with.
0: Seriously. I'm getting close to Goddamn Batman levels.
1: I think. I'm not entirely sure of unskilled rolls, as I'm here at work.