Friday, April 14, 2017

Tommy's Take on Arthur Lives! 2nd Edition

I do like Greek Myth, and  I like Arthurian Myth just as well. So it makes sense to end the week reviewing Arthur Lives! 2nd Edition as it closes in on the halfway mark of its Kickstarter.

TRUE CONFESSIONS: I was given the playtest draft of Arthur Lives! for review purposes, so I can't speak to art or layout, really. I have been the BAMF Podcast, which is ran by Fainting Goat Games' publisher Mike Lafferty, and Arthur Lives! author Jason Tondro ran my first session of D&D5e on Google Hangouts.

PERTINENT FACTS: Arthur Lives! is still on Kickstarter until May 2nd, and you can get the playtest draft for yourself right now by pledging $5 or more. To get the full release PDF, you have to go to $20, and you get the hardcover for $50. If it reaches Stretch Goals, new tiers will be added to get those with your PDF or Hardcover pledge.

The original version of this game was powered by True20, and is still available on RPGNow from Vigilance Press. This new version, as you likely gathered from the cover image, is powered by Fate Core, and you will need that rulebook, as well as Fate/Fudge dice in order to play the game. The Kickstarter is being ran by Hazard Games, and I don't presume to know precisely what the working relationship is there between Fainting Goat and Hazard.

So the premise of the setting is that we are in the here and now, when aspects of Arthurian characters begin to reincarnate...meaning that there may be multiple Merlins, multiple Arthurs, multiple Mordreds and so forth kicking around. So when you make your character, they have to be an incarnation of a character from Arthurian myth, even if it's a character that you created specifically, and not one of the major, named Arthurian characters. It's even possible to create your character without the link to the past revealed, and maybe figure that out during play. (Sometimes concepts sound great on paper and change wildly when you start playing.) All of this is accomplished in character creation when you name Aspects. You need the High Concept and Trouble, as well as a Path (several Paths are based off of legendary figures - Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Balin The Knight with Two Swords, Kay, Pellinor The Knight of the Questing Beast, Morgause, Gawaine, and Nimue and Nineve, both Ladies of the Lake - while the other four are more generic: Knights, Damosels, Magicians and Kings). The purpose of the paths are to help you define the various aspects appropriate to the original incarnation. The next four Aspects come from Past & Present Adventures, as well as Past & Present Connections (with the other players and their characters...unless you have decided you don't know your previous incarnation yet). Finally, gain an  Aspect related to your Nemesis. The rest of character generation follows Fate Core.

The Skills list is tweaked, expanded somewhat, mostly to provide a bit more granularity (like turning Shooting into Firearms and Archery). There are a few other changes, but they are all spelled out in handy bullet points. New Stunts are provided for all of the new Skills, as well as additional Stunts included with the Paths. New Extras can be purchased, such as Estates, Organizations and Companions.

The Magic chapter dives into Recognition, which is both that part where the characters realize they are reincarnations of Arthurian legends and when they recognize the aspects of the myths that have come into the modern world. This is provided two ways: Mechanically, for when success or failure are equally interesting, and Handwavey, for when you just wanna get on with it.

Of course, Arthurian myth is more than just people. Indeed, those legends have provided iconic items and locations that are every bit as recognized as the individuals. Those items and places can manifest as Echoes, from the well known (such as Excalibur, Camelot and The Round Table) to the less famous (Arthur's dog, Caball, or his shield Pridwen). Like with the reincarnations, there can be multiple Echoes as well, so an Arthur in London may have a Round Table, but an Arthur in Tulsa, Oklahoma may have one as well.

While this is powered by Fate Core, Arthur Lives! uses a three-skill magical divide similar to Dresden Files, in which spellcasters are governed by Occult (the specific knowledge of casting magic), Confidence (imposing your will on nature or other individuals) and Willpower (if Confidence is a cannon, Willpower is a precision laser). Over a dozen talents (kind of like schools of magic, as they are broken down further into appropriate spells) are included here, from Bindings and Divinations, to Necromancy, Healing and Travel spells. It's an interesting system in which spellcasters rarely fail...though they may succeed with repercussions...usually to themselves, but occasionally to the world around them.

The GMing chapter covers a LOT of ground, from the core setting conceit of the multiple incarnations to numerous ideas on how to tweak it (throw it into the future? How about, instead of Arthur Lives!, it's really just Arthur Now!? Other ideas include single incarnations, throwing the door open to the return of more historical/mythical creatures and characters, or eschewing supernatural elements altogether aside from the reincarnations). The author also goes into detail on how Joss Whedon impacted Arthur Lives! (including the "Season/Big Bad" format recommended in the GM guide), as well as a laundry list of plots that can be used.

Arthur Lives! is very clear that the world was once an astonishing and magical place, and that magic is seemingly diminished, leaving the reincarnations perhaps a tad confused when they regain the memories of their past lives and see the world as it is versus the world as it was. The GM gets a "behind the scenes" view that ties the Arthurian legends to Henry VII, Dracula, John Dee, Thomas Jefferson, Sir Francis Bacon, Hitler, The  Freemasons and more, right up to the modern age and the how and why of Arthur's (many) return(s). Heaven, Hell and the realm of Faerie are also discussed at length, with guidance on how to use them in your Arthur Lives! game.

The bestiary not only includes monsters like vampires, werewolves, dragons, angels, giants, trolls, elven knights and common animals, as well as "standard" NPCs like cops, mages and so on, but a number of named NPCs, including potentially rival incarnations. This is a sprawling bestiary with street level threats all the way up to world shaking adversaries. On top of that, the book openly encourages you to borrow from other Fate books, especially the Dresden Files RPG.

The book ends with a bibliography that is six pages long, unformatted, detailing books, websites, even other RPGs (such as The Grand Daddy of Arthurian RPGs: Pendragon).

It is worth noting that the playtest draft is 317 pages, so this thing is going to be sizable (the Kickstarter says 250 pages).

JUST MY OPINION:

  • The Conspiracy introduced in the book is meant to be "Season 1 Big Bad" material, but holy crap...you'll find that it is so sweeping and expansive that it should be a whole "series" goal, not a season. It's a good concept, don't get me wrong, but it's also not something I could see being thwarted in a single "season".
  • I love magic that has consequences. Next to random tables (which this book lacks), magic with consequences is one of my favorite things. I also loved the three-skill set-up for Dresden Files magic, so I'm glad to see all of that here.
  • The concept of the setting is great, and had ideas spinning in my head. Imagine a King incarnation who was now a drug kingpin, or the idea of two incarnations of the same legend working together...or at odds because each feels like the "real" one. The selection in the bestiar is similarly interesting with vampires and werewolves occupying space with demons and angels and dragons. There are a *lot* of story and enemy possibilities here. I love the story hook of a PC seeing the deaths of their fellow incarnations as a serial killer hunts them down, for instance.
  • The history section does a great job of name checking a lot of interesting historical figures, and the reason for why the incarnations are returning the way they are is brilliant and interesting. The major secrets are laid bare, from why magic existed in the first place to (mostly) why it's come back.
  • Not related to the book itself, but some of the preview art that's been released appears to be manipulations of photos, and I have to say I'm not a fan. The images I've seen have almost looked off putting to me. The traditional art I've seen has all looked good to great, though.
  • There are certainly implications that there is more to come after this book, but this book alone is certainly very encompassing, from the legendary Paths included, to the four archetypal paths, to the enemy selection running from street level up to world shaking, and all the detail on Heaven, Hell, Faerie and the huge selection of NPCs. If you have something like Dresden Files laying around to throw on top of it, you have plenty of material for years of gaming here. That said, I was a little surprised by a couple of key omissions, namely echoes of The Holy Grail and the Siege Perilous, especially since The Holy Grail is specifically name checked in the section on Echoes.
CONCLUSION: I would run this. This would have been perfect for my last (now disbanded) group, especially if they only knew the minimum needed to know going in. I can't say I wouldn't wind up going full kitchen sink by the end, but I'd run this. The book is pretty expansive and opens up what could have been a very specific concept into multiple directions as tastes dictate. I think Fate is probably a great choice for an existing system to tackle this, given its flexibility and narrative bent, with only minimal "massaging". It's hard to overstate just how deep this one book goes, from specific examples to tools that help you build new monsters/NPCs/PCs/Echoes and so on, and that's without the "Director's Cut" stretch goal behind funded yet.