Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tommy's Take on New Gods of Mankind New God's Handbook

The New Gods of Mankind New God's Handbook was sent to me by Dark Skull Games out of the blue last year and I kept wanting to really dig into it, but I discovered that I basically have no time to read books now if I'm not reviewing them, so here you go.

New Gods of Mankind is an RPG where you play a God. Not a human with the power of a God, or an otherwise overblown superhero, but a God - the deity with power over a people who worship you.

This review is of the PDF version, which is searchable, bookmarked and copy and paste enabled, and clocks in at 162 pages in black and white. The PDF is $9.95 at RPGnow, or available in a Print + PDF bundle through Indie Press Revolution.

AN INTRODUCTION TO GODHOOD

A pretty basic overview: Humanity is young and inhabits the world with the elder races and their Gods, while the players take the role of the Gods that are guiding humanity in the world. The game uses d4s, d6s, d8s, d10s and d12s.

We also get a glossary of important terms, both game terms and setting terms, as well as an *extensive* bibliography, from references to Greek myth to Elric to DC's Sandman to Apocalyto to the board game Risk: Godstorm to the video game Actraiser. Frankly, I was sad to see no reference to Populus, which is the first thing I think of with this type of game.

XIL'S GUIDE TO THE KNOWN WORLD

This is an in-character guide to the world at large. It is well organized and broken down by continent, from the Chief Intelligence Officer of a Salamander Army. The in-character voice isn't terribly distracting, but this section suffers a bit as there are notations like "Starting Area" (which the text notes have no divine presence in the area, which can be construed as an opening for the PC deities). Every entry also has bolded information including Prominent Seasons and Environmental Types such as Lush, Harsh and Uninhabitable with races in parenthesis such as Lush (Gnomes) or Harsh (Undine). Presumably this has an in-game impact, but it isn't explained in any way going into it. From an organizational standpoint, it's a small strike.

There are dozens of entries listed, covering a lot of ground, with important details and history on each region as well as basic descriptions of how the present races look in a given area.

LORE OF THE SPIRIT WORLD

While the previous chapter was all about the physical realm, now we get into the spiritual, where the Gods call home.

There are four Celestial Spheres, based on the seasons: Everwinter, Eternal Spring, Endless Summer and Perpetual Autumn, and each God picks one of those Spheres to become his home. In the Veil of Dreams, the Gods can implant thoughts and desires into the heads of their followers. The Fires of Creation are the remnants of the Creation of Everything, while The Abyss is the hellish void that exists where the Fires do not. The Well of Souls gives souls to the living, and those who die without a patron God return here to fuel a new body with a soul later.

The Celestial Gardens consist of seven gardens based off of emotions, where Fate (which is both an in-game force and the name for the GM), often roams to send the dead on their way. Each of the seven gardens has a unique feel to it, with the Tropical Garden of Adoration, Lust and Revulsion obviously different than the pine tree covered Frost Gardens of Joy, Pain and Sorrow.

The Spirit World is filled with three other, non-divine, types: Spirits, which are the souls of the dead...Demons, which are rogue spirits with the ability to break free from the Well of Souls and enter the Known World, and Leviathans which remind me more than a little of Lovecraftian horrors perhaps toned down a hair.

Spirits of notable and legendary beings can become Ancestral Spirits, removed from the cycle of rebirth, and some can even become Gods or Leviathans. Those who have been violently wronged can transform into Raging Souls, and they usually always wind up evil and corrupt, regardless of how justified their rage was initially.

This section also details how Spirits can become Gods, and how Gods and Spirits alike can become Leviathans. Lastly, the section discusses Fate and its Grapplers, special creatures that it sends to hunt rogue spirits as well as demons, and a lip service discussion of The Creator, the one that created even Fate, who remains mysterious and above the fray.

CHARACTER CREATION

Right off the bat we can see that character creation is going to be a bit different in this game than in most. Sure, you start off with concept (and if all the PCs are part of the same unified pantheon, you guys kinda need to hash out the roles in said pantheon), but from there it gets different. See, now you define your symbols, which your followers wear and use and so forth.

The next bit is selecting your Primary Domain and three Secondary Domains. Anyone who is a fan of mythology knows you can have a little fun with this, because there are all kinds of crazy examples of Gods who rule over two or more areas that don't seem to make a ton of sense on the surface. While you CAN affect things outside of your Domains, it is much easier to affect the stuff within them.

Miracles are divided into four types: Creation, Destruction, Transformation and Control, and you pick one to be In Harmony with, two to be In Balance with, and one to be In Opposition to.

Then you define your Followers (you start with 100), including name, location and even form of government. Every God gets 50 Belief (you gain more from followers), which are used to perform Miracles. You also define your Commandments, how your Followers are supposed to worship you, etc.

A number of d100 charts are provided to randomly select a title for your God, as well as their Domains. The chapter concludes with discussion of a number of topics, including multiple ways a God can be created, as well as Incarnation rules - when your God decides to manifest in a physical form in the Known World.

PLAYING THE GAME

All conflicts use a singular dice mechanic for resolution: Each side determines the appropriate dice pool, rolls it, the highest single die wins.

You set the Scale, which ranges from Individual to Continent, with four steps in between, and that helps determine the number of tokens each side gets. Example: If two armies of 5,000 soldiers apiece fight, that's Territory scale, which means that each token is equivalent to 1,000 people, so each side gets 5 tokens. If numbers are horribly imbalanced, there are penalties that come into play. The number of tokens determines the number of dice rolled, and the type of dice rolled is rated from d4 to d12, based on overall competence.

That's the basic mechanic, although differing unit types, one side being outnumbered, and other factors can adjust die types up and down, even into d4s with penalties and d12s with bonuses. The Gods also get to step in, unleashing Miracles that can tip the sides for their Followers. Once all such jockeying is complete, each rolls their pool and compares. If it's a situation in which one side can be diminished, then the number of dice that the winning side rolls above and beyond the highest die on the losing side reduces the losing side by that many tokens. This continues until the conflict is decided.

Winning sides gain Belief, losing sides lose Belief.

As for Miracles, they are a little faster and looser: Determine what you want to happen, then determine how it happens. Describe the Miracle, calculate the cost of the Miracle using the handy provided charts, then pay the amount of Belief in order to make it happen. However, rival deities can spend Belief to cast counter Miracles of their own.

Gods also have two others interesting resources available to them: They can empower individual Followers into becoming Heroes, as well as create Artifacts for their Followers to use.

You can also use Terror to fuel your Miracles, but this is a slippery slope that can turn you into a Leviathan, which means NPC territory.

Once a year, usually in your Holy Season, you perform maintenance, in which you collect Belief from your Followers. Without performing tasks that benefit your Followers, you will see smaller amounts of Belief...however, if you perform TOO many Miracles, you can make them overly dependent on your Miracles, and if you ever start to cut them off, well, except an angry support base...

Finally, there is a d100 Table of Yearly Events that each God can be forced to deal with. For instance, your Followers may begin to develop independence (in a good way): They take your assistance in stride, but don't becoming dependent. However, Famine may set in, causing a loss in your number of Followers, and so on.

NEW GODS OF MANKIND AS A STRATEGIC BOARD GAME

Having a hard time wrapping your head around the idea of playing a God in an RPG? How about in a board game, instead?

Here are a number of rules for making it into more of a board game, starting with dividing up the game map into hexes, splitting your followers into colored tokens (black = productive, white = nonproductive, red = military), each with their own tasks. Those bolded Territory descriptors from Chapter 2 now come into play, as the number of tokens that a race can have on a territory is determined by the suitability of the environment.

And yes, you can mix and match the board game and RPG rules if you so choose.

SAMPLE OF MIRACLES, CHARACTERS AND PLAY

As it says: Examples to show you what's what, complete with math breakdowns. 10 Miracles of each inclination are provided. Creation Miracles include Godseed (immaculate conception) and Rain-Bringer (great when your villages are burning). Transformation Miracles include Casting OFf Winter's Cloak (turning winter to spring) and Redoubt (turning raw materials into a fortification). Destruction Miracles include Blight (destroying crops over a day) and Eradication of the Blasphemous Shrine (kinda what it sounds like). Control includes Command the Beast (can be used to, say, save a Follower from a wild animal) and History Rewritten (this actually changes the memories of the target).

A five deity Pantheon is detailed, right down to Followers and Commandments for each, and then a sample play told in prose style, with a sidebar to the side tagged with footnotes throughout the prose, explaining the game mechanics.

It's a very helpful chapter that helps you break down some of the concepts from hypothetical into actual, with the Miracles and sample Pantheon being equally useful.

OTHER RACES OF THE KNOWN WORLD

While humanity is young, there are other races in the world, and this chapter provides a fairly extensive amount of detail on the four Elder Races, as well as four minor races.

Undines are a partially aquatic, and I say "partially" because they can wear different forms on land and sea.

Sylphs are small, winged creatures that rarely congregate and are constantly roaming across The Known World, seeking new curiosities.

Salamanders are fierce and war-like, and would be glad to force all other creatures to serve them.

Gnomes actually resemble the common fantasy depiction of dwarves more than a little bit, although they are literally made from stone.

Minor races include Forest Giants, of which there are merely a dozen remaining; Wood Nymphs (which somewhat resemble an extreme take on the stereotype of Wood Elves and include a "Dark" variant) and Jurelian Giants, who are the most freakish of the lot: Fur covered with three eyes and four arms.

A pretty comprehensive index rounds it out, as well as a three page character sheet (with character stuff, miracle stuff and campaign stuff, respectively).

THOUGHTS

First off, I love the concept. I am hard pressed to think of many RPGs in which you play an actual God, with mythological, Godlike powers, and not the somewhat neutered, "Gods Walk The Earth" kind of thing. So they get points right there, even if they did snub Populous.

I had a lot of difficulty getting past that first setting chapter, but it wasn't so much the writing as it was the filter I'm starting to develop for certain naming conventions (long time readers of this blog have seen me complain about it in the past). Places like Ar-Naluun, Hrace, Rhok-Nirith and so on just kinda crash together in my head. I'm not saying this is objectively bad, it's not...it's a personal thing of mine. The writing was very well done, I thought, through pretty much everything, although I did feel like the organization could have been tighter. Namely, there are a few places where it feels like a topic is discussed...the text moves on to a new topic...and then back to a prior topic.

One other gripe is that I would certainly have collected all of the various tables together, either in the back of the book or a standalone PDF document, for easy reference. The fact is, the calculations are big enough in most cases that you will wind up looking for tables, and a quick reference could have gone far. (It is worth noting that the printable Fate's Screen may well serve this function, but it is hard to tell from the product preview on RPGNow).

One major plus is that while there are currently three supplements available, there is more than enough information in this book to run the game without any other products needed.

New Gods of Mankind is very interesting Bronze Age fantasy game that only lightly plays on common fantasy RPG presumptions. I'm hard pressed to think of another game on the market quite like it, and it feels oddly less like a "powergame" than many RPGs of a lesser scope do. Great work by Dark Skull Studios, who are making a real effort at getting their name out there with a revised website and renewed convention appearances after an apparent hiatus from the gaming scene (their last commercial product was released in 2008, this book is almost for years old).