Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: WOD The God Machine Rules Update

The God Machine Rules Update
by Dave Brookshaw, David A Hill Jr., Danielle Lauzon, Matthew McFarland, John Newman, John Snead, Stew Wilson, Filamena Young, Eric Zawadzki.
World of Darkness
Rating: ★★★★★

It has been quite some time since the World of Darkness excited me to this degree.  Admittedly, I had mixed feeling with the new line.  Some, like Changeling the Lost and Promethean the Created are incredibly well-written games that inspire and impress.   Some of the other releases were not as notable for me.    It was nice to see The Onyx Path now embracing one of the most thought-provoking concepts introduced in the main book now being given a much more fleshed out treatment:  The God Machine.

With it, however, was the need to revise some of the rules in the game system.  This review will focus on the free Rules Update that was released.  A review of the Chronicle book will follow at a later date.

So Rule Changes?
Yes.  The pdf is pretty much an update to the new World of Darkness rule set.  While some games would have a whole new edition and number requiring books to be repurchased, here, the rules are introduced and allow for the playing groups to shift to them when they are ready.  A lot of things are adjusted, and I will try to share my comments on them here without spoiling them all.   But this was a free release of 104 pages worth of cool stuff, and that definitely is an awesome thing. 

The pdf's page corners match those of The God Machine Chronicle book still, which might confuse some readers.  But I like it since it means those using this or the other pdf can refer to the same page easily.

But I will say the rules are a welcome sight.  Many of them polish things which felt odd before.  While the Storyteller System is still far from true narrativist supporting games where players have much more narrative control, the new rules do a lot to help in the development of drama, the encouragement of mood and are a step in the right direction.

The Cover and Artwork
The cover is the same as that of The God Machine Chronicle book.  Which is understandable given the rules were actually part of that book and just released for free as a second pdf.    Inside, the art pieces are exceptional (although I will admit to finding the chained woman in page 213 a bit... odd).  

I must admit to being impressed that the artwork avoids the trope of looking like something from the movie, The Matrix.  I do wish there were a bit more gear/machine elements shown in some of the pieces to make them clearly relate to this release and not seem "vanilla World of Darkness."

So the Changes?
I'll try to tackle all of them without sounding like I'm retyping the free book.  But yes, I highly recommend you guys get it at drivethrurpg whether or not you plan to use it anytime soon.  The ideas presented within are worth a look.
For Character Creation, they've removed the two dot cost to the fifth dot for anything, which is a step in the right direction.  I never understood the need for that rule, to be frank.    Specialties now work better, removing that weird +1 to +3 ranking they used to have.  Instead they are areas of expertise in a Skill, and multiple specialties can apply to a single roll.  Ironically, these were both house rules I've applied a long time ago in my other games.

Aspirations is one of the new additions to the game, which represent goals which the character has for herself and function as an in-system way for players to tell the Storyteller what expectations or goals the player hopes to achieve within the session.  Oddly, the book clearly gives an example of using them to benefit from NOT making use of things on your sheet, which I feel was contrary to the spirit of the idea.  I also found it odd that changing it requires Storyteller approval when I felt it might have worked better as something the players had the freedom to change at the start of every session.  

Vice and Virtues take a huge shift in the game, with them less being based on the seven Deadly Sins and now sort of being pseudo-Aspects focused on personality traits.  It was interesting how the book reminds players to avoid traits that describe Attributes, Advantanges or Skills and even stress these should not be linked to Integrity.  Recovering based on your Vice no longer requires you to act detrimental to your character's well-being.  Instead it merely shows you indulging in your more selfish or short-term sense of fulfillment.  I found it odd still that they'd limit recovery of Willpower through the Virtue to twice per chapter/game session.  It feels like a step to avoid abusing it, but at the same time does sort of tell players to limit acting virtuously.

Morality takes a huge shift with it being approached now as Integrity, a measure of how one copes with Breaking Points in one's life.  Instead of having a list of sins that one checks against, the rolls on Integrity are based on whether or not an event violates the character's moral code, experiences or witnesses something that can traumatize or scar his psyche whether it is something supernatural or intensely horrifying.  Players now create a list of breaking points based on the key questions in the book, but the players are reminded that this list is not a strict list and serve merely as a guide for the Storyteller.  There is some concern how the lower your Integrity is, the more likely you are to suffer from breaking points since it kind of goes against the idea that someone who's been going through horrible things should start to get numb to them.  But maybe it works better long term in practice?

Experience Points have been replaced with a new system which I feel nicely feels more natural and appropriate   In the new system, certain actions, the resolution of Conditions, and choices can lead to the earning of Beats.  Beats are defined as "a unit of drama" and for some gamers, this might remind them of Savage World's Bennies, or Houses of the Blooded's Style Points.  By taking actions that add to the drama of the game (such as accepting a Dramatic Failure instead of just a failure, taking damage that leaves you in a critical state, exceptional roleplaying, or resolving a Condition you happen to be in) you gain a Beat.  Every five Beats earned you gain an Experience.  And through these Experiences, you can advance your character's stats.  Yes, you still always gain one Beat at the end of every game session.

The number of Experiences required to increase stuff is still similar to the old Experience point chart, but only if you remove the past multiplier.  So instead of having to gather and spend around 10 Experience points to increase a skill from four to five, now you merely need two Experiences in total since the cost is the same whether it is the first, or the fifth dot.  I like how this simplifies things, since it does make character growth feel more present compared to before.  And while some might worry about balance issues, I've always felt that while this can be abused by unscrupulous gamers (any rules can be) for those who wanted a system that allowed characters to show growth even if the game was set within a single week of game time,  this works nicely.

I like the optional rule of Group Beats which has all the Beats gathered into a pot and these are distributed evenly at the end of the game.  Rather than make it feel like a contest between players to earn Beats, this rule makes it feel more communal and cooperative.

Merits are given a huge overhaul, with many of the fighting styles given a while new look.  I'm happy to see they've formally made rules about the "sanctity of merits" which means if you lose a merit (say a retainer or a mentor), you can reallocate those dots to reflect how you react to the loss (such as allocating them to get a safe house or training yourself in a new way to defend yourself.)  They've also formally allowed one to cash in Merits for Experiences if they reach a point where they prove useless or have run their course (like a Contact who no longer is someone the player needs to be in touch with).

Professional Training is one of the cool new Merits, with each rating giving the player bonus advantages that better reflect their chosen professional role in the game.  For example, a lawyer with Professional Training at one would have two free Contacts related to law.  While another lawyer with Professional level at three would have the two Contacts, 9-again on Asset skills (which likely would be Politics and Persuasion)  and a third Asset skill, as well as two Specialties within those skills, making him a much more effective Lawyer than the first one.  Fighting Merits are now a category of their own, and they add interesting new options given the fact combat too has been given an overhaul.

Conditions are another new thing in the rules, which in its most basic essence are a consequence and reward mechanic added to the World of Darkness system.  Conditions are gained in many ways, be it due to Integrity Breaking Points, or events in combat (these, however, are called Tilts).  Typically, achieving an Exceptional Success in a roll gives the character a Condition which tends to have a positive effect, while certain negative experiences and moments can garner negative Conditions.  Resolving them earns the character a Beat.  For example, you might try to research about ghosts and score an Exceptional Success in your research roll.  This can give you the Condition: Informed.  Later, in a scene where you try to roll in relation to your knowledge of ghosts, if you fail, you can then "resolve" the Informed Condition to make it a success, or if you succeed, boost it into an Exceptional Success.  In simpler terms, since you researched so well, you're being "informed" increases your likelihood of being knowledgeable of the subject matter in a later scene.  And this gives you a  Beat.  Its an interesting system and sounds elegant to use, but so far in my attempts to use it has been a bit unwieldy to keep track of.  I feel, however, this is one of those things that gets easier to keep track of given time and frequent use.

The list of Conditions is pretty nice, with stuff such as Addicted, Bonded, Disabled, Informed, Inspired, Shaken, Spooked and my favorite, Swooning.  The Environmental Tilts are a bit strange, however, but I guess its a fast quick and dirty way to represent certain environmental twists during the battle (such as floods or heavy rain).

Soul Loss is a tricky matter.  It seems to be a system to allow players to have characters who have lost their souls one way or another. I would presume this was in the updated rules because The God Machine Chronicles relies on this as one of the major events or kinds of Conditions characters can suffer from in the game.

The Extended Actions rules are okay.  They added rules for Near Misses, which I feel was sort of complicating something which I felt the Storyteller could have very easily just ruled on the fly based on how gritty their game was.   

Social Maneuvering is the "new" social combat rules with players now having a clearer rule set on how to convince other characters with the stats having a bigger role than before.  I liked the approach of Doors, which represented the target's resistance to coercion and attempts to sway them from their preferences.  The use of Doors removed the strange "will power eating aspect of social combat" which existed in the Exalted rules approach.  Doors are the number of times you must succeed in social rolls in relation to a goal you've set, and these successful rolls must be in separate scenes.  So for example if you were in prison and were trying to convince the guard to smuggle you in an illegal object, you might need to open two Doors, which means two separate scenes where you broach the subject and succeed in your rolls.  The number of Doors increase if the desired actions go against their Virtue or Aspirations but get lower if you toy with their Vice.  The system nicely covers for bribes as well, and should serve as a great way to handle player to player social maneuverings when one player might want to convince a second to do something and have their stats help reflect how convincing he gets.

Combat gets some nice new twists with the game now acknowledging that some scenes might have combat, but shouldn't be treated as full fledged combat.  The system calls for the player to declare their intent (which reminds me of John Wick's Houses!) and make the contested roll to see if it happens.  This is an even quicker and smoother way to handle all those scenes with the hero beating up the mooks for the montage moments where the actual fight is not life threatening but added drama.  

Defense has been modified, and in many ways this has been one of the greater sources of debate online.  Athletics now adds to one's base Defense rating, which for some seems like making one Skill too "powerful" than others.  Although there are Merits to allow you to add instead your Brawl or other related combat skill, the added boost to defense is balanced in part by the change of making Damage Ratings in weapons as automatic levels of damage instead of extra dice in attack rolls.  So that 4L pistol now does not add anything to your Dexterity + Firearms roll to hit, but when it does, it deals at least 4L damage plus any successes you scored.   This pretty much suggests all combat is very deadly, and while missing might happen a bit more frequently ("just like in dramatic movies") it does show that once someone is hit, things go south VERY quickly.    Dodging, which used to be just doubling one's Defense rating, now has become double the rating, then roll the dice and the successes rolled are SUBTRACTED from the attacker's successes.  

Weapons were adjusted to reflect the new lethality of the system, with weapons now also having Initiative modifiers (usually a penalty) for these weapons.    Targeting Specific Locations now is connected to the Combat Tilts, so shooting someone in the arm has a clearer system to how it impairs the target.  But like before, the focus of hit locations is to generate these effects, and not to kill the target "better".  

Armor reduces the successes of damage that get through, rather than the successes of the hitting roll, which is nice.  And of course, Armor Piercing gets a nice write-up on how it works against Armor and against Cover.  All in all, the rules sound very well thought of and nicely work with the new systems they've devised for the game.  Practically everything except bare hand to hand combat has become lethal now, and I agree they should be.  I've always liked that explanation in the forums about how being hit by a baseball bat is not something you can shrug off as not having ever happened an hour later.

Then you have a large portion of the rules on Ephemeral Beings.  Interesting they list Ghosts, Spirits and Angels here.  So yes, this clearly does make one see the revision is intended directly to support The God Machine Chronicles and not merely a generic update.  Many of the descriptions remind me much of how Spirits were approached in Exalted.  Ghosts feed on Essence and have Anchors which allow them to remain among the living.  Angels of the God Machine are described as being dormant and resting in the world, and once awakened are very single-minded in their goals.  They are described to be subtle and specialized and can remain unnoticed even when fully manifested.  Here these spirits are given Ranks, and the Ranks quickly determine Trait Limits, the number of Attribute dots to allocate, Maximum Essence and the number of Numina powers it possesses.   Ranks also determine how much memories a Ghost can retain.   Many Conditions are used to represent the stages on influence a ghost has towards a human host, with some becoming prerequisites to others in the degrees of how much control can be achieved.  Add to this the concept of Resonant as a Condition, to reflect that something has now fallen within the sphere of influence of a spirit.   They actually include a flowchart to help explain it better.

Of course, you can't have new spirit rules without new Numina and I will have to give bonus points for the ones here.  The ideas in the Numina provided just made me smile so much and as my partner puts it, "Sounds like someone's a fan of Doctor Who."  I mean, Aggressive Meme?  I love it!

And finally you have the Equipment lists and Services.  Pretty comprehensive list, with some key entries that made me smile.  I liked how they even specified stuff as Mental Equipment (stuff that grant bonuses to Mental Skills), Physical and Social Equipment and its amusing how they incorporated a Services list in this area to represent when Allies and other social merits deliver certain benefits.  Your contact tells you of a Black market surgeon to help take those bullets out of your friend's arm?  That's a three dice bonus to the medicine roll.  Of course, Supernatural Equipment gets a spot too, with everything from EMF detectors to Salt, which while fun to see here, I feel were not that necessary to list out so much.  Maybe this part could have just been a chapter on how to "create" our own representation of such things, as well as rules on how to assign values to them.  There's a Making Custom Tools section which spans a very short paragraph which I feel could have been more expansively written to be in line with the tool kit vision of the nWOD books.

The Bygones then follow, which are objects with strange magical or supernatural effects tied to them.  They nicely intriguing in their own way, and are undeniable plot seeds for games to be developed around.

So it is just rules?
Nope!   There's a few fiction pieces, and they're all (of course) set in The God Machine Chronicles setting, so expect nice juicy ideas and hints of what to expect in there.  

For a free PDF, this offers great new approaches to the World of Darkness Storyteller system, and in some ways, tries to step closer towards being more friendly towards letting players gain some level of storytelling freedom (at least in the sense of Aspirations, Vice and Virtue, Breaking Points and Beats).

Rating Breakdown:
Concept: I like many of the rules changes.  I do wish though some will keep from blowing up the way the number of Martial Arts Charms in Exalted did.  The Conditions concept is cool, and echoes the use of Aspects in FATE and Houses of the Blooded, but the way they exist til resolved is a nice mechanic.  It did, however, feel wrong when the Spirit rules added a whole new set of Conditions to keep track of.  What's next, a single PDF with all the Conditions in one place?  Then again, that actually WOULD be useful.
Crunch: Many systems sound like they were trying to make them simpler, but also added a new layer of mechanics into the scene.  So it kinda is harder to say if the changes overall reduced the crunch or added to it.  Many of the rules do, however, make sense for me and are welcome changes.
Layout: I understand this is a free update of the rules system which was portions of a different book separated into a free resource, but would it have really hurt the people behind this to ADD AN INDEX?  As a rules update document, I would have loved to have an easier way to navigate the thing.  Thankfully there is a fully functional bookmark system.  But that does not remove or replace the need for an alphabetical index one can peruse.
My favorite part: Beats.  Loving the beats.  Really loving the beats.
What I wish was better: An index.  Really.  But otherwise, I am a happy gamer!

Update yourself to the new mechanics of the World of Darkness today.
Available now at Drive Thru RPG.
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