30 July 2013

Kickstarter: Mechanika - Empires of Blood and Steam

After the Kickstarter project Mechanika: Empires of Blood and Steam by Xaos Publishing relaunched, I expressed some interest in the setting and system to the team after they sent me a thank you message for backing. That was their first mistake. What began with that innocuous and polite gratitude, stretched into a long series of e-mails containing a barrage of questions and ended with a phone interview of the author. Thanks to Josh Sutten and M.P. Yorty; scholars and gentlemen, both of you.

The system is like a distant cousin of Fate and there are some similar trappings, but it is not Fate. The basic system is Skill/Attribute + 4dF, with a range of skills and attributes. Destiny Points (also referred to as Fate Points) are the meta-game currency of Mechanika, used for re-rolls, scene editing and character improvement. They are gained through role-playing, particularly the Concept, Higher Self and Lower Self. 

Also included are Perks and Flaws. Among these are the most interesting system elements in Mechanika: the Supernatural Perks. Among you will find things such as Preserved (a homage to Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator), but also access to the Supernatural Traits, including engineering and magic.

Engineering is a steampunk staple and the creation system is key for any game with a claim to the genre. What Mechanika offers seems to be promising by all early indications. These devices, referred to as "machina", belong to one of seven invention Houses, each with a specialty. Alchemy takes cues from Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and classical alchemy in altering substances - including living things. Clockwork machina are complex and delicate, personal in size and some of the "classic" effects. Electric machina tend towards conventional power to super-science applications that would make Tesla proud (who is featured in the setting), such as intangibility and teleportation. Explosives seems pretty straight forward, but there are some unconventional effects such as a explosion that repairs everything in the radius. Firearms features machina that range from the conventional to bullets that shoot bullets. Resemble ventures into the field of steampunk body modification, using mechanical and biological parts. Steamworks machina are heavy iron with boilers - these are by far the largest machina.

To actually create a machina, you choose the Houses your functions will be selected from and the chassis it will have. The chassis will determine some limitations about the machina (e.g., an exo-skeleton can have more functions than a watch). After that, based on the Houses you have access to other functions can be added. An Engineering roll will determine how powerful any function can be, and you will purchase them with your Flux rating. It all seems very straight-forward and intriguing.

The other major system of interest is magic. There are 12 different schools of magic that can be learned, each with five tiers of effects. What is fun about the system is the spell chaining. You are free to combine any of the effects that you have access to, creating a potentially more powerful (or useful) effect as the end result. An example provided was combining the "minor quakes" effect with the "jets of flame" effect to cause a mild earthquake with bursts of flame from the ground. There are three different types of magic-user: magi are traditional wizards, while warlocks use blood and life force to power their effects and wyrds make pacts with other entities and use talismans.

As interesting as machina and magic are, it is the setting which has caught my attention the most. It isn't uncommon to see a game incorporate H.P. Lovecraft's works, who, despite his many failings, has influenced (colored, if you will) our views of horror. Mechanika takes many of the elements that he introduced and then interprets them in new ways. If nothing else, the seeds that the setting presents are fascinating. To fully explain, a bit of history regarding the setting of Mechanika.

A thousands of years ago, the Old Ones arrived on Earth in their Nautiluses; crashing into the landscape. They quickly spread over the world, claiming it as a new prize and base in their Great War, spread across time and space beyond comprehension. They began shaping the world and its people with their Black Technology, powered by "Flux". Some Old Ones subjugated populaces, while others worked from the shadows. The means didn't matter, because their influence changed and corrupted all that it touched.

It didn't take long for their eternal enemies who pursue them relentlessly, the Fae, to arrive and continue the Great War on Earth. They were hardly the benevolent rescuers that humanity (or what it had become) was hoping for. They seemed like a better alternative to the Old Ones (and possibly were). Their methods were different, perhaps more palatable, though they were no less ruthless in their goals. The Fae showed no remorse about doing whatever they deemed necessary to drive out the Old Ones.

It was the Fae that used and introduced magic to the world - their special abilities powered by the same mysterious source as the Old One's Black Technology: Flux. To the uninitiated, these seem like completely different sets of principles, but in truth they are simply different methodologies for manipulating the same primal energies. Both of these are based on the cosmic horrors of Lovecraft and can often have terrible consequences for those that use them.

After the Fae arrived, they began to drive the Old Ones back. Their victories were never without a cost. Much of what we know as Alaska and western Canada is now known as the Grey Wastes after the Fae used an alien metorite as weapon of mass destruction (a homage to "The Colour Out of Space") on retreating Old Ones. It is now a land of colorless, brittle flora and strange mutations. 

These cosmic entities battled for centuries, but a thousand years ago came an event known as the Great Exodus. After the Old Ones were sufficiently halted, most of both factions left the Earth, presumably to carry on the Great War on some other planet, dimension, time, or corner of a strange universe.

It is through the magic and Black Tech that was left behind by the Fae and Old Ones, not to mention the biological horrors that still reside to fight a war that their masters have abandoned, that humanity has learned to mimic their manipulation of Flux. They do this without any real understanding of the principles, more like children trying to follow in the footsteps of gods. Success in these fields has been remarkable, but horrifying as well in consequences.

Not all the Fae or Old Ones left, and more may remain, sleeping and hidden. (As an aside, there is a sick part of me that views the plight of the Old Ones that remain as a reflection of Left Behind, where they are going through the Tribulation against the hordes of humanity.) These entities may be worshiped as gods, or exert their influence in subtle ways to incomprehensible ends. Regardless, the world they left behind is not one that we would immediately recognize as our own.

The Mediterranean was long ago blocked off and drained by the Black Dam, a massive structure of Black Tech that produces an incredibly amount of energy previously used by its Old One creators. Now it is controlled by the Empire of Atlantica, an Old One-centric nation with a great deal of Black Tech within the new Mediterranean basin.

That is not the only change wrought to the landscape as Egypt is now a lush jungle with a vast inland sea. The US has been divided into three distinct geographic areas by the collapse of the Mississippi River, forming a huge chasm with waterfalls on either side. Within the southeastern United States is the Black Spire, constructed by the Old Ones to reanimate the dead as a workforce and army. Now it a critical part of the nation known as the Sovereignty.

In the northeast can be found the Empire of America, founded when George Washington took the crown and established his reign. Americans are known for the unshakable discipline and strong military heritage. Their borders have since expanded against the other empires in North America with their military machine, constantly seeking new ways to incorporate magic and machina in their relentless advance.

Across Albion and Ireland exists the powerful Celtic Empire. It was founded on the ideals and laws of King Arthur and his round table and maintains its presence through its mystical forces. these include magisters, warlocks and magical items. As well, the fae creatures that reside within its borders and will not hesitate at the opportunity to spill blood.

Within eastern Europe, the Eclipse Empire can be found. It is hidden beneath toxic clouds of ash and smoke, virtually uninhabitable to all but the hideous creations of Dracula's legions. It is now ruled under the iron fist of Vlad Tepes, a Romanian lord that gained control over his homeland and beyond by devouring the Old One, Nyarlathotep. Those few that actually live within this blighted realm do so with respirators, underground homes and a very healthy fear of everything.

26 July 2013

Feng Shui and Fireborn

Are there any games for you that after you encountered them, the way you looked at games in general had changed? Where they showed you a new perspective and it simply resonated? That is what Feng Shui did to me. I played it well over a decade ago and it was my first real encounter with a game that really tried to make things feel cinematic - really cinematic - and empowered players to build on the scene. 

I recently concluded a Feng Shui mini-series and I must confess: it is still one of my favorite games. The system is very fast, incredibly simple to pick up, and can produce some suspense like few others. You know that feeling when you drop box cars? Yeah, that's the one. The initiative has been replicated in various ways over the years, but the shot clock is still classic and visceral like few others.

Most of the players in this game had never encountered it before and it took them a little while to grasp it. This game is different than others, it operates on different assumptions. Once you've done something ridiculously stupid/awesome in Feng Shui, it's hard to not want to bring that into other games. Well, that is if Feng Shui is for you in the first place (I firmly believe that not everything is for everyone, nor should it be).

This is by no means to say Feng Shui is without problems. It has them in a big way. I could run down a big list of all my personal gripes with it and how I have gone about trying to fix them, but that would be long and not what I'm after with this. If that is something you would like to see, drop a comment and let me know. The fact is that I love it, warts and all. Normally I'm not a fan of classes/archetypes, but they work in Feng Shui. They direct your attention away from carefully constructing the supreme badass back to the action. If you want to play that character, it's pretty simple and even encouraged - just find the character with the biggest combat skill. They aren't hiding from you.

Now, one of the things that I both like and don't is the setting for Feng Shui. I will typically run this game as a straight contemporary action game and slowly add in supernatural elements, maybe bringing in the Secret War, maybe not. It lends itself extremely well to running episodes in whatever crazy setting you want, not bothering with events in-between sessions, and even handles time travel in a way that doesn't make you go cross-eyed. The problem is that's just not how I plan things. Good news - it's incredibly easy to scrub that from the game and cook up whatever else you want.

Which brings me to Fireborn. Here we have a game that has the most amazing premise ever - you play a dragon that has been reborn into a human. Um, YES. More of that. Throughout play you will relive events from your past lives in the mythic age that probably have significance to what is playing out in the contemporary setting as magic returns to the world. Oh yeah, in those past lives you are a dragon - not just a human with the soul of a dragon, but a straight up dragon. Suffice it to say, you are pretty awesome.

The system to this game is interesting. I cannot bring myself to say good. It's interesting. There are some very neat things that it does, such as fighting styles and the ability to build the actions you want to take from various moves. The Active D6 element, where you move your dice pools around, is also neat. But man, is it complicated. If everyone at the table doesn't get this on a pretty fundamental level, play is going to slow to a crawl. It certainly doesn't help that the rules have significant errata and could use better explaining in the first place.

But you get to play a freaking dragon. So, there's still that. A lot to like in this game, a lot more to be frustrated about.

Where this is going should be pretty obvious at this point. One of the players in my recent Feng Shui mini-series figured it out. Drop Fireborn into Feng Shui. I've done it a couple of times now, and man does it work. Feng Shui gives Fireborn the mechanics to really be what it wants to be. The mechanics of Feng Shui on the GM side are about as easy as you could ask for to build whatever you need.

With the system of Feng Shui and premise of Fireborn, the resulting game is awesome. The players were excited by the end of it. The actual mechanics of fitting the supernatural powers of Fireborn into Feng Shui are already there in the form of Creature Power and Transformed Animal Schticks. Since you play the Dragons in Feng Shui, the game is asking for it, right? I do mean premise instead of setting for Fireborn. I don't use all of the default assumptions (for example that it is set in London - I don't know London and my players like to use guns... a lot) because that's just the person that I am.

I ran Fireborn with the mostly default setting (I cannot help myself, okay?) once. The weakest part in the end happened to be that I just was not familiar enough with London to be comfortable. Even if I was more familiar that the rest of the players and they were more than willing to go along with anything just for the ride (seriously, that was an amazing group, I don't know what I would give to bring you all back together), I wasn't content with running things as I normally would be. They didn't seem to notice, or were cutting me slack, but I did and that is what counts.

The recent mini-series itself was run as the prelude to what could be a much longer game; it essentially put the setting into motion. When it fits and is possible, I often like to put those events in the player's hands. To give them ownership of all the terrible things that just happened. It makes the subsequent plots where they go to fix it feel more natural. It also gives them a stake in what happens, which is important. Cleaning up someone else's mess isn't quite as satisfying as cleaning up your own mess.

A side effect of that is there are less NPCs running around that have critical information, but only respond in cryptic answers. Sometimes that's the game, but those are more "let's resolve this big mystery" games. Feng Shui isn't that game. It's "let's go punch the mystery in the face until candy comes out!" The players pretty much killed everyone, especially Dr. Lucky, and released a Pandora's Box of crazy onto the world. There were some deep themes about the price of revenge, to what length will you go to be reunited with your family, the cost of power and immortality, they were probably justified in throwing her off the force, and how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop - but mostly they crashed helicopters into things, ran a SWAT team over, and destroyed the part of the city in a chase that went horribly right.

If you haven't played Feng Shui, do yourself a favor and look into it. It is a great game by an amazing author, Robin D. Laws. Fireborn is also worth looking into if you dig on the idea of playing a dragon.

23 July 2013

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Creature 02 - Delaris Earth Q'wril

This is the second Anatomy of a Creature in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.

When creating new creatures, my general preference is to take a pre-existing creature and create a new variety of it, rather than crafting something brand new. While I'm not normally a major proponent of verisimilitude in my game, this is one area that I like it. It shows how creatures have adapted to various areas, been changed by the Scourge, or even possibly purpose bred. Also, it is a nod to the old video game RPGs where you would encounter the same enemies with a different name and palette swap throughout your adventure. This is another example of that. The fact that I made some fun trophies has nothing to do with this creature's existence.

Earth q'wril have spread over Barsaive and are generally regarded as a non-threatening nuisance. Those in the Delaris Mountains are a different story entirely. They are significantly larger than their brethren, roughly on par with a medium-sized dog, with a thicker hide and calcification over their vital areas. Additionally, their social structure is more complex and will move and act together much like a school of fish, or a swarm of insects.

They still feed on the roots of vegetation, but are also known to supplement their diet with protein. To accomplish this, they work as a group to lay traps for larger prey by burrowing a pit just beneath the surface. After their prey falls in, they may launch attacks through the walls, or simply bury their quarry and allow them to suffocate.

Despite their apparent ferocity, when threatened they will quickly retreat. It is unpredictable how they will act next, at times leaving their meal alone, others continuing to harass it until it is in a suitably weakened state. If given no alternative, they will fight to the death, particularly to protect their young, but in general prefer to retreat.

Their favored target is the cave crab, which their beaks allow to easily penetrate the shell. While uniquely capable of hunting cave crabs, and eager to do so, they are only willing to consume the flesh as a last resort. This has led to speculation among dwarf scholars that the Delaris earth q'wril was an abandoned (or not) project by a great dragon to aid them in hunting their favorite meal. 

DEX: 8   STR: 6   TOU: 6   PER: 6   WIL: 7   CHA: 6

Initiative: 8
Actions:  1
Attack (4): 12
Bite (5): 11 (see text)

Physical Defense: 11
Spell Defense: 7
Social Defense: 9
Physical Armor: 8
Mystic Armor: 3

Death: 56
Unconsciousness: 48
Wound Threshold: 10
Recovery Tests: 3
Knockdown: 8
Movement: 7/6*
* The second value is the creatures burrowing Movement Rate

Powers: Durability (3), Locate Target (6) 12, Silent Walk (2) 10, Surprise Strike (3) 14

Loot: Triangular beak worth 25 silver pieces (worth Legend Points)

Legend Award: Fourth Circle

Rules: All standard earth q'wril rules apply (refer to Gamemaster's Guide, pg. 167).

19 July 2013

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 27 - Elementalist Part 2, Talents

This is part two of the twenty-sixth Anatomy of a Discipline in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.


The Elementalist can be viewed as something of an anomaly within the spellcasting Disciplines. Their interest is not in abstract concepts or ephemeral constructs, but in very discrete things. They work with the building blocks of the world and that is reflected in how they approach everything.

Whenever one of these adepts encounters a problem (really, anything), they break it down into the base components - Elementalists like to see what they are dealing with. Everything stems from the five elements and revealing that composition will reveal the true nature of anything. While some enigmas may resist such specific categorization, it is an approach that can be applied to anything these magicians encounter; to solve a mystery, you establish the fundamentals and from there the truth will be revealed.

This tendency causes Elementalists to be known as very honest and forthright. To be less polite: rude and tactless. They do not necessarily have time or a care for pleasantries and formalities, they would much rather get to the heart of any issue than carefully step around it. Such a pragmatic nature can be efficient, but also potentially result in enemies and troubles for their friends who must smooth over any problems caused by these spellcasters.

At the center of this Discipline is the concept of balance. All of the elements must exist in balance, or things begin to go wrong. Take a rain storm, for example. The over abundance of water causes the surrounding area to be flooded until such a time that balance between the elements can be restored. A more extreme example is Death's Sea - fire and earth with no water or wood in sight. It is a truly inhospitable place with an apt Name.

Orichalcum is the ultimate expression of this philosophy and the physical representation of the power and importance it has. For this reason, it is not uncommon to find an Elementalist engaging in truly strange behavior that only they can understand. Bargaining with and nurturing the elements in an area to support that balance. Other adepts are unlikely to understand, but that is the weary burden these adepts must bear as the only ones to truly understand the underpinnings of the world.

Despite the importance of balance, it is not uncommon for an Elementalist to have an affinity to a particular element, often along racial lines. Elves favor wood, as obsidimen favor earth, orks favor fire, t'skrang water and windlings air. These are not requirements, simply tendencies based on cultural preferences. So long as no element is neglected, balance can still be maintained - it is not an absolute, but a shifting balance so long as the scales do not tip too far in one direction.

When creating an Elementalist, consider what their favored element(s) may be. This will shape their outlook to a certain extent and how they interact with the world, particularly their interactions with elementals. How you interact with elementals is often personal, though traditions and rituals may be passed down from master to student. What teachings were passed down during your initiation? How were you shaped and how do you differ from the Elementalist that initiated you? 

Discipline Violations

These are best employed not as a stick, but as a chance for the player to take a deeper look at what it means to follow their Discipline. The greatest danger facing an Elementalist is that of elemental imbalance, both externally and internally. Allowing it to transpire in the world around them without an effort to maintain the balance can present a problem, though it should always be within reason. The aforementioned rain storm will likely correct on its own as the other elementals work to maintain that balance, and Death's Sea is not something that can be simply corrected. Where the action lies is in discovering that the effects of the rain storm remain and intervention is required. These efforts may distract from the Group's other goals, depending on the scope of work required.

Internal imbalance is more insidious. It comes from neglecting an element, or less frequently heavily favoring a particular element. All of the elements must be represented despite preferences - it isn't just about you, it is about the world. This isn't just about casting spells, but in dealing with an aiding elementals as well. It is all a delicate balancing act which other Disciplines can never fully comprehend.


Technically, there are specialists for each element. I say technically since they are so very terrible that I don't actually use them in my game and would recommend any player considering that option to stay away. Stay very far away. You get a +2 bonus to everything that involves that particular element (including Talents), but a -2 penalty to everything that involves every other element. This is not a good trade, particularly given that one of the biggest mechanical strengths that a spellcaster brings to any Group is their flexibility. Let's just pretend that this section doesn't exist.


Talent Options: Arcane Mutterings, Haggle, Read/Write Language, Speak Language, Spell Matrix

First Circle
Discipline Talents: Air Speaking, Karma Ritual, Read/Write Magic, Spellcasting, Spell Matrix, Thread Weaving [Elementalism]

Talent Options: Astral Sight, Item History, Parry, Spell Matrix (2), Tracking, Wind Catcher

Second Circle
Discipline Talents: Durability (4/3), Fire Heal

Third Circle
Discipline Talent: Elemental Tongues

Fourth Circle
Discipline Talent: Elemental Hold

Talent Options: Detect Trap, Enhanced Matrix (2), Item History, Gliding Stride, Spot Armor Flaw, Steel Thought, Willforce, Wood Skin

Fifth Circle
Discipline Talent: Summon [Elemental Spirits]

Sixth Circle
Discipline Talent: Cold Purify

Seventh Circle
Discipline Talent: Earth Skin

Eighth Circle
Discipline Talent: Temperature

It really doesn't come as much of a surprise that beyond the spellcasting requirements, most of the Elementalist Talents focus on elementals in some way. The primary Discipline Talent line (including Elemental Tongues and Elemental Hold) culminates with Summon [Elemental Spirits], which is an incredibly versatile Talent. Though it can also be somewhat tricky at times and benefits significantly from collaboration with the GM.

Their other Discipline Talents are either defensive in nature (Fire Heal and Earth Skin) or, not to put too fine a point on it, a little terrible (Air Speaking) or somewhat strange (Cold Purify) and almost poorly thought out (Temperature).

Fire Heal is a dicey, if powerful, Talent that makes Elementalists one of the most durable spellcasters (particularly if combined with Wood Skin) and Earth Skin is simply very, very good. Fire Heal is going to help pay for Earth Skin and Wood Skin.

Cold Purify appears pretty late in the game and is useful in the right circumstance. Outside of that (someone getting poisoned), it's useless. The requirements seem exacting (access to ice, snow, or cold water), but luckily the Journeyman ability makes it so you only need water. The Talent is pretty brutal, requiring a Wound - if you ingested the poison, this is going to hurt.

It doesn't take long for Temperature to turn into a strange game with arguments about radiative heat transfer, or what happens to people at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. I am often seriously tempted to excise it just to remove those problems (probably replacing it with Wood Skin).

All of that said, like all spellcasters, most of their dedication is to getting the most out of their spells. It can be very easy to forget about the Talents you have at your disposal when you are looking at your spell list. Particularly with how many of those Talents are directly involved in casting spells.

I would like to write about how there are some good Initiate Talent Options; which isn't to say that there aren't, it's just that the actual pick here is almost guaranteed. Since things open up at Novice, I will carry through with the effort and give a rundown:
  • Arcane Mutterings - Given the situational limitations and Karma cost associated with this Talent, give it a pass. Talent Options are going to be tight as it is, this one just makes difficult decisions easier.
  • Haggle - In all seriousness, you have better Talent Options to take.
  • Read/Write Language - If you have a slot open with nothing else that looks good, this is a perfectly fine choice. Otherwise, the skill works well.
  • Speak Language - See Read/Write Language above.
  • Spell Matrix - This one. You are going to want this one here. You might be okay with just two for a long time, but you are going to need at least two Matrices and it's a long time to Fifth Circle.
Novice tier is when all spellcasters have the most latitude with their Talent Options. Not much, just some:
  • Astral Sight - This should be your very first selection. It is an absolute must for any spellcaster. The exception is if you are a windling.
  • Item HistoryIf no one else in the Group has this Talent, someone needs to have it. That may be you. Even if someone else does have Item History, it doesn't hurt to have another character using it as well. It's pretty unfortunate to lose a week of work due to a poor roll, but those are the breaks.
  • Parry - I'm still not a fan of active defense Talent Options and while this provides a bonus, it requires the use of a hand. Which may be required for casting some spells.
  • Spell Matrix (2) - While you may not want both of these, you will probably want one. Each of these gives you another option, and that is powerful.
  • Tracking - An interesting choice that may be worth considering if no one has taken it and you have an open Talent Option.
  • Wind Catcher - This Talent is just fun. You will probably end up doing some stupid things with it, but they will be fun stupid things. If you have an open selection, this would be my first pick (barring your Group lacking a crucial Talent like Item History). If you're a windling, it probably isn't going to be worth taking.
Fifth Circle, when you first get to Journeyman, is going to have the most agonizing choice you may ever have to make - especially when looking at Talent Options. Which do you get first, Enhanced Matrix or Willforce?
  • Detect Trap - This is another Talent that you can safely pass on. There has got to be someone better suited for the task of messing with traps than the spellcaster/healer. This includes the Sky Raider and Warrior who do not have access to this Talent.
  • Enhanced Matrix (2) - Odds are reasonable you will want both of these. After all, you want to cast Winds of Deflection without Weaving a Thread, right? I bet you thought I was going to say [Element] Spear or some other damaging spell. Honestly, you have better things to cast and Ice Mace and Chain is still better; also has no Threads.
  • Gliding Stride - I'm going to come right out and say this is one of the actual choices you have at this tier. This is the fun, but maybe impractical choice. If you are a windling, this is.. sub-par.
  • Spot Armor Flaw - Here is a weird thing, this Talent is actually very good for a Spellcaster. If you have found yourself casting a lot of damage spells, which may become more common with an Enhanced Matrix, this is a good addition to your Talents. You will want to improve it regularly and the Karma cost is a little steep, but you may not be casting damage spells every round. 
  • Steel Thought - There are so many good Talent Options available and the fact this isn't a Discipline Talent (along with your already very good Spell Defense), there is probably something better to take instead.
  • Willforce - Take this. It supercharges your spells and is arguably the most powerful Talent in the game for its sheer versatility (barring Versatility, of course). The biggest dilemma is do you get Willforce or Enhanced Matrix first? Willforce pretty much always wins.
  • Wood Skin - One of the other useful Talents from this tier. Though it costs Karma, with a sufficient Rank it will practically last all day and improve your poor Unconciousness and Death Ratings. This is the most utilitarian of your Talent Options and worth seriously considering.

The Elementalist spell list is good for a number of things, and none of them are dealing damage. They have rare access to healing magic, good defensive spells, battlefield control and buffs for allies, some excellent utility spells for outside of combat, but their combat spells that just deal damage are not good. Just keep that in mind - if you are playing an Elementalist, try to find spells for combat that do something other than just deal damage (luckily there is a Third Circle spell with no Threads that does exactly that - Ice Mace and Chain).

As above, once you can get beyond that (which may be conceptually difficult as it is more than a slight paradigm shift from other popular fantasy games), they have a lot to offer. There are not that many spells you cannot find some use for. If you are into community building and involving yourself in the world, this is a Discipline that can really empower that type of gaming through Purify Earth, Plant Feast and Nutritious Earth. 


Elves, humans and windlings tend to bring the most (mechanically) to an Elementalist (as well as my house-ruled dwarfs). Elves have a bonus to Perception and Willpower, by far and away the two most important attributes. Humans have Versatility; they can be good at anything. Windlings get a bonus to Perception, increased physical defense, flight, Astral Sight and their penalties to strength and size are pretty much meaningless. What I'm saying here is that windlings are amazing Elementalists.

What the other Namegivers have to offer isn't of much use to an Elementalist. Dwarfs get a bonus to Strength. Orks get the same, but also a penalty to Willpower. The benefits that both obsidimen and trolls get (increased size, Strength) are of little use to an Elementalist, and each get a penalty to Perception. T'skrang don't have any penalties, but their bonuses aren't extremely helpful and an Elementalist has no real need for Tail Combat.

While these can be effective Elementalists (these differences start to become less meaningful as you advance in Circle), it is important to be well informed about your decision. This pretty much goes for everything.


Equipment for spellcasters is of minimal concern compared to all other Disciplines. On the plus side, there are no restrictions on what armor you can wear - an espagra scale cloak on top of other armor is always in style.

16 July 2013

Kickstarter: Part 14 - New Projects!

This is the fourteenth part in an ongoing series about crowdfunding. Overview and Index.

The projects in this update have been moving pretty slowly as a whole (with one notable exception). A number have high expectations, particularly for creators that don't have successful projects under their belt. That can be important to consider given some of the negative press that has been going around in the RPG circles regarding projects that have been very poorly handled. It seems to me making potential backers a little more careful with the funds.

It is something that I touched on previously and shows that the niche is growing and will be maturing. The desire for accountability from backers is increasing and the understanding of how much add-ons can hurt the bottom line and schedule from those running the project is growing. The signs of a growing community from those that have successfully run projects are offering their advice to others, wanting to make the platform better for everyone.

Their motives may not be entirely altruistic, as the greater trust that the concept has, the more people it can bring into the fold. Advice on how to deal with shipping (especially international) is the most sought-after, and with good reason. The costs and time associated with it are far beyond what you may estimate. Unsurprisingly, the skills that a project manager brings to the table aren't present in most Kickstarter projects - but they are definitely something that can bring long-term value to a Kickstarter "brand". At times I wonder if there will eventually be a service that will run your Kickstarter (project management, advertising, etc.) for you for a cut of what it brings in.

Finally, I missed a project between updates: Becoming, a story game where one player is a Hero, and the others are Fates try to take everything from them. It was funded on 06Jul2013.

New Projects

Reality A

Closes: 17Jul2013
Funded: No

An event caused the contemporary world to fundamentally change, developing magic, psionics, changing into human/animal hybrids, fantastic technology, or becoming cold and resistant to the new changes. On the whole, it sounds light-hearted and fun, though is very unlikely to make it's goal at this point.


Closes: 30Jul2013
Funded: No

Mark Rein*Hagen of World of Darkness fame has returned with I AM ZOMBIE, a game where you play a zombie (they refer to themselves as Toxics) that is trying to make their way on the periphery of society while being hunted by secretive groups. It has a distinctly retro, grindhouse, rock-n-roll feel and takes a unique approach to playing a zombie, similar to what White Wolf did with other supernatural monsters. They are given powers, a society, personality and conflicts. While not funded yet, it isn't in bad shape for making the goal. Definitely worth checking out.


Closes: 01Aug2013
Funded: No

This project presents a system that can be used for a variety of post-apocalyptic scenarios. The scenarios that have been created as examples include: economic collapse, alien invasion, robot uprising, zombie outbreak, nuclear winter and viral epidemic. While versatile, the examples of the system (indicated to be very rough drafts) show quite a bit of complexity, somewhat reminiscent of the 80's. Probably not quite as intense as The Morrow Project.

Closes: 02Aug2013
Funded: No

Do you like Neon Genesis Evangelion? That is the primary source of inspiration for this project, complete with the religious iconography (the robots all look like fallen angels, humans are referred to as saints, etc). The mechanics are straight forward - you roll attribute dice, keep the highest, then add the relevant skill. You have a pool of points that you can spend to improve that roll after the fact called "Ego". Your motivations, Hope, Despair and Relationships, all drive the Ego mechanic, potentially leading to gains and losses as they are brought into play. Another mechanic is Id, which reflects the nature of the robot (saint). Once it reaches a certain point (more than your Ego), the saint can take control and start wrecking things. Basically, it really is a rules light, character driven approach to NGE. If that sounds appealing, then this will likely be up your alley.


Closes: 04Aug2013
Funded: No

A new steampunk game using a class and percentile system. The setting takes a somewhat unique direction and is primarily based around exploration (which is generally associated more with pulp) and derives inspiration from Jules Verne, HG Wells and (of course) HP Lovecraft. Though details are sparse, the premise seems to be that an exploration/colonization expedition to uncharted territories (Antarctica?) goes wrong. Given that these themes aren't normally seen in the steampunk genre, I'm curious to see what they do with them.

Shadows of Esteren - Book 2: Travels

Closes: 11Aug2013
Funded: Yes!

This is the third Shadows of Esteren book to hit Kickstarter and I'm starting to think that they're conspiring against me. Both of the previous projects have been wildly successful, punctual and of fantastic quality. There are pledge levels and add-ons that allow you to get any and all of the previous rewards if you missed out on something limited edition. There is a reason this project was fully funded in under two hours. As for the book itself, it is something of a location guide, detailing more places within the setting, as well as giving some example scenarios and characters and mechanics for travel. Oh yeah, and monsters. There are other physical rewards that you can get to go along with it, such as a box to keep all of your previous (and future) loose rewards, various game aids and a journal. Even if you missed out on the previous projects, now is a great time to get started and pick things up at a discount.

Mechanika: Empires of Blood and Steam

Closes: 13Aug2013
Funded: No

Okay, this is a relaunch of a project that appeared a year ago. Things have changed for the better this time; if nothing else than in the way the project is being presented. This is going to be a little brief because I will be doing a significantly more thorough look at the project next week.

Mechanika is a steampunk game, using what I would describe as a riff on the Fate system. There are two system pieces that catch my eye. One is the magic system, which encourages stringing together various discrete magical effects to create a much more impressive/powerful display. It seems somewhat inspired by Mage, where there broad categories of magic (e.g. earth, fire, etc.), levels of power and then effects at each level. This can only be a good thing. The other piece is the device (referred to as "machina") creation system, which is a pre-requisite to any good steampunk game. It has various disciplines (called "houses") and you can combine effects from those to create your device.

What is most interesting is the setting, which takes some heavy inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft and then builds around that. The origin of the steampunk technology is from the old ones and magic the product of mortal association with their eternal nemeses, the fae. Mechnika does new things with some old classics, and creates an interesting world to explore. Keep an eye out for my review that goes into more depth regarding this game.

12 July 2013

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 27 - Elementalist Part 1, Spells

This is part one of the twenty-seventh Anatomy of a Discipline in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.


The heart of what a spellcaster brings to any Group is their spells. They determine most of the play style and focus for a given Discipline, but also can represent a significant task to wade through and weighing the various options. The goal of this post is to analyze the spell selections in the first five Circles and give some idea of how those options may inform the emphasis of the Discipline, play style, as well the relative use of a particular spell. The reason this will only address the first five Circles is that you get to pick spells at those Circles - starting at Sixth Circle, you are on your own and it is largely in your GM's hands.

Depending on the Optional Rules used in your game, how you address picking up new spells will change. If spells can be purchased and do not cost Legend Points, there is little reason to not learn everything you can get your fingers on. If they do cost Legend Points, you may want to be more selective of what you include in your grimoire.

First Circle

Air Armor: An excellent support spell for a considerable period of time. With no Threads, +3 Physical Armor for the combatants in your Group will always be a welcome addition,

Crunch Climb: There are going to be a lot of these spells; small, but useful bonuses to a specific task. They are all useful to have around. This one is for climbing and a First Circle spell that has some longevity to it.

Earth Blend: You can blend in with your surroundings (assuming you are standing on earth or stone, which is a reasonable assumption), but you cannot move. With no Threads, it can be useful for evading pursuit, but it's biggest strength is probably in setting up an ambush.

Earth Darts: While this is a poor combat spell by any stretch of the imagination (1 Thread for WIL+6/Physical damage and poor range?), it is going to be the best damage spell you get until Third Circle. I sincerely hope you didn't want to be doing direct damage as an Elementalist.

Flameweapon: 2 Threads is a lot, but +d6 damage for the (effective) duration of the combat can be a big deal. This is a strategic choice, particularly since it means three characters can have Air Armor in the same time. I wouldn't be concerned about the Strain from exploding dice; it's worth it. The setup time on this may be tricky, however.

Heat Food: Take. This. Spell. It boosts the effectiveness of Recovery Tests and you will wonder how you would have survived without it. Elementalists can commit many sins of poor decisions with spell selection, but as long as you have this spell, your Group will probably forgive you. 

Moonglow: It creates light for a few minutes. Not bad, also not exciting at all.

Plant Talk: For a First Circle spell, this has the potential to be incredibly useful. Anything that can gather information is almost always going to be a winner in the long run. There is little reason to not take this spell.

Purify Earth: This spell is more about making friends and making the world better. It is worth taking if you find it.

Purify Water: Actually more practical than Purify Earth - this can potentially solve issues with not having access to clean water. You just have to have access to the water in the first place. It may be gross, but when desperate, you can always recycle. 

Resist Cold: Unless you know about it in advance and keep this in a Matrix (it has a duration only in minutes), this spell isn't going to be very practical. 

Resist Fire: The same as Resist Cold.

Second Circle

Air Mattress: +2 to your first Recovery Test in the morning? While not quite as incredible as Heat Food, every Group is going to want this spell.

Billowing Cloak: If your Group engages in social interaction on any basis, this spell is a must have. It is probably my favorite from this Circle - it is really that good.

Boil Water: It boils water. Quickly. There are certainly uses for this, but I have no idea why this is a Second Circle spell. While it can be used in combat, it is a six round investment to get the maximum damage; five to get even something reasonable out of it.

Detect Elementalism Magic: Wizards are able to just Detect Magic and this spell rarely sees much play. Since Astral Sight is a popular (even vital) Talent Option for Elementalists, when Detect Elementalism Magic is applicable and Astral Sight is not is something of a grey to non-existent area.

Flame Strike: Just like Earth Darts with two differences: 0 Threads and you have to have access to an open flame. It is probably worth picking up if you get a chance (and don't have to spend Legend Points), but I wouldn't hang my hat on this one over the buff and control spells Elementalists have access to.

Gills: Breathe underwater? Yeah, this is going to be useful at some point.

Hunter's Sense: There is going to be some quest, at some point, when you are looking for a particular creature. You are going to want this spell for that. Otherwise, it is unlikely to come up.

Ice Spear: While it has a longer range than Earth Darts, this spell is terrible.

Icy Surface: In contrast, this spell can create a nice control effect to make an escape, enact a trap, or simply pummel foes with attacks. Windlings and Archers love this spell to death.

Path Home: You will always be able to find your way back to camp, which can be useful when exploring strange (and often horrifying) new places. If you're going to the Servos and your GM is a little nasty, this may be good back-up to prevent getting too terribly lost.

Shield Willow: If there is someone in your Group with a shield, this is another good spell to have around to help them. If you have a moment to prepare, this will improve their defenses a little. Every little bit counts. It seems like it should require a wooden shield to work, but doesn't say anything. 

Slow Metal Weapon: A reasonable way to reduce damage from a single threatening opponent with a metal weapon. Think of this as a "boss fight" spell; it isn't likely to see regular use, which cuts down its overall value. For a combat spell to really earn its keep, it should be sitting in a Matrix for that moment when you absolutely need it.

Small Slayer: Only useful if you can get access to someone that you fully intend on assassinating in a moment of vulnerability and don't want to directly do the deed yourself. 

Sterilize Object: It is like the Purify Earth and Water spells from First Circle, but for objects. Overall, probably less useful - right up until your GM has some object you absolutely must interact with that is covered in poison. Still, not likely to come up often (or at all). 

Stick Together: Awesome for "detaining persons of interest". There are likely other uses for it as well, but that is generally how it gets used. Oh, that and sticking someone to the floor and then finishing them off from range. It's not pretty, but effective. 

Third Circle

Behind Eye: Useful if you can prepare for a fight and know that being Blindsided is going to be an issue. The 2 Threads make actually employing it once combat has begun a less tempting proposition. While there is nothing wrong here, there isn't a whole lot to recommend this niche spell.

Dispel Elementalism Magic: Similar to Detect Elemetalism Magic above, but likely to see significantly more use. Definitely a useful spell to have in your arsenal, but not the must have for this Circle.

Fingers of Wind: I like this spell. It is almost certainly going to be useful (possibly even for the most hardcore kaer-crawling Group in Parlainth) at some point. If you get the chance, pick it up. It may not be your first pick for this Circle, but it should easily make your list.

Fuel Flame: The implications provided for this spell are in combat (making a fire more damaging), but I have seen this spell most commonly used for its utility of making a fire burn hotter and faster. It makes setting homes on fire significantly more efficient.

Grounding: Very specific in application - you really have to know that you will be fighting something with electricity based attacks ahead of time, or that causes a lot of Knockdown (also, this spell ends if you are Knocked Down - you have been warned). With 2 Threads, it is most useful ahead of time (it has a duration in minutes), but not so much once combat has been engaged. 

Ice Mace and Chain: Here is the best damaging combat spell in the Elementalist's list. 0 Threads and WIL+5/Physical damage (which is actually pretty decent). The big selling point, however, is that a target struck is Harried unless one of the damage dice explodes. This is very good, since you either get a good damage roll, or inflict a status that the rest of your Group can take advantage of (there is no downside here). 

Lightning Bolt: The implication from this spell is that metal armor doesn't protect against it, but it doesn't come right out and say that. If that is the case, this is a reasonable upgrade to Earth Darts (1 less damage, but the opportunity to ignore armor). Though I still prefer Ice Mace and Chain.

Plant Feast: Never worry about rations again as long as there is some flora alive in your area. This is worth taking, if nothing else than to remove the need for that bookkeeping ever again.

Porter: Semi-sentient humanoid piles of dirt to carry your stuff with a duration in days. This will probably be useful at some point, though this Circle has some better spells if access is an issue.

Puddle Deep: The requirement of a puddle limits the usefulness of this spell. The Effect Test is also rough until you get Willforce. This really works best when setting a trap rather than on the fly, since you can create your own puddle.

Repair: Given that the effect isn't permanent, this is useful, just not incredibly useful. It will fix broken things for a few months.

Rust: This can be a powerful debuff, though is most useful in protracted combats against few, powerful opponents with metal equipment. Which may be a somewhat uncommon setup for most some games. The Thread requirement limits how much of an impact it can have and the math will often come up with a different option working out best. Overall, Slow Metal Weapon is a better choice to reduce damage.

Sky Lattice: Without a doubt, this is a neat spell. It may never come up, or it may absolutely save your bacon. Hard to say, but you may as well if you can get access to it. Truly a utility spell.

Smoke Cloud: Very similar to the Nethermancer spell, Ethereal Darkness, with all of the attendant problems. Though, it requires a source of fire at least the size of a torch. This one can be safely skipped.

Snuff: Neat, but nothing to write home about. It is useful to putting out fires, but with two Threads, it isn't as effective at this as you may hope.

Sunlight: Natural sunlight is created emanating from the Elementalist. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of anything in Earthdawn that is negatively impacted by sunlight. 

Thrive: If you are patient, you can do some pretty impressive things with this spell. Not terribly powerful, but it can be fun and potentially earn some goodwill through your travels. 

Throne of Air: If you can prepare for combat, you will probably want to cast this on yourself. It gives you a very good Avoid Blow effect and limited flight. There is a lot to like here. 

Winds of Deflection: Similar to Throne of Air, though with a worse duration and one less Thread (also a slightly worse Effect Step). It doesn't cost Strain, however. With an Enhanced Matrix, this is really quite useful to have around since it can be thrown up immediately.

Fourth Circle

Air Blast: Another example of the control an Elementalist can bring to combat. This presents a difficult Knockdown Test and can grant some significant advantages to the rest of your Group if deployed before melee combat begins.

Blizzard Sphere: More an area denial spell more than an overtly offensive spell. If you can trap opponents inside, it is brutal, but with 2 Threads a little on the time consuming side. Not a bad selection, but definitely better used to deny a small piece territory on the battlefield than create an elaborate trap to deal a bunch of damage.

[Element] Spear: This is better than Earth Darts in every way, but not much better. Twice the range, one more damage. If you are still using Earth Darts, this might be worth it. When you get an Enhanced Matrix, it becomes much better, but still not a great combat spell for Fourth Circle. Also, get Air Spear. Beyond aesthetics, there is absolutely no reason to get anything else. I am inclined to treat this as one spell, not five, because there is no difference between them.

Falcon's Cloak: Somewhere between useful and dangerous is this spell. You are a bird and can cast spells, but only those that don't require speaking or moving. That may be a more limited list than you think (or a larger list than you think - where I'm going with this is I don't actually know what you're thinking). 

Fire Whip: Even with a three yard reach, this spell just isn't very good. If you can make melee attacks, you probably have access to something better than this. If you can't, there is absolutely nothing to get from this spell. 

Great Sticky Vines: If you find yourself with a need to incapacitate your foes, then this is a superb option. Possibly one of the best available.

Lighten Load: A utility spell that could be pretty useful in the right circumstances and worth picking up if the opportunity arises. 

Lightning Shield: Is there a character in your Group that uses a shield? If so, do them a huge favor and get this spell. This is a great buff for anyone with a shield (especially Sky Raiders).

Lightning Step: The requirements for this spell are steep and the Weaving Difficulty is pretty high. It seems neat, but this is not going to be easy to make effective use of. 

Liquid Arrow: Here is something even better than [Element] Spear for damage output with the same Threads, though you must have access to handfuls of water. That can be a thing. The Weaving Difficulty isn't a walk in the park at 10, so putting this in an Enhanced Matrix is advised not just so it can be cast every round. The water requirement may significantly cut down on the value.

Lodestone's Touch: Something of a mixed bag with insane an Insane Weaving Difficulty (13!) and 2 Threads. The range is very short as well, making the bonuses from missile weapons difficult to really take advantage of. Honestly, there isn't much here to like.

Root Trap: Similar to Great Stick Vines, though with no Threads, worse range and a worse Effect Step. It also requires a nearby tree. In all, it isn't quite as good (mostly because of the requirement of a tree nearby). No Threads can be awfully tempting at times.

Shield of Warping: This spell only works against wooden weapons, which limits it right into the realm of not terribly useful. It's so specific (though does include spears and pole-arms) that it is hard to come up with a reason to have this on hand all the time, which is really what you need your combat spells to be. 

Spirits of Death's Sea: If any of your Group have an exceptional Toughness (or are willing to take Step 4 damage), this can be a good way to boost their resistance to fear effects. 

Suffocating Paste: Even at 2 Threads, this is a pretty effective way to remove a target from combat for a time. From there, they can easily be captured or finished off as they deal with the penalties and damage. 

Uneven Ground: The use of this spell is going to depend entirely on how your GM wants to interpret it. The Effect lists it as "enemy character", while the description says "any character". The latter reading makes more sense from the context, but... you never know. If it is the former, this is pretty amazing and well worth having. If they latter, you should just pass on it. There are better things to do with your actions.

Weapon Back: For whatever reason, this spell is one of those defining moments between an adept and their weapon. When they realize that it is more than just a tool. I like those moments a lot. It's also useful, so that's a plus.

Fifth Circle

Balloons of Mist: A utility spell that is just asking for creative uses from players. If you get access to this spell, you will probably want to select it. Though it is unlikely to be the first choice from this Circle. 

Earth Staff: Neat, but unless you have a very good Melee Weapons Talent, this is ultimately useless. If you do have the investment, this may be useful for you - particularly if you fear having your gear taken away.

Fireball: By far the classic magical damage spell and easily one of the most efficient of that type for the Elementalist at 1 Thread (which means you can lob one every round with an Enhanced Matrix) for WIL+8/Physical damage with a fine range. However, the area of effect is significant and your friends may take offense, also it requires a source of fire to be present. This may be an issue. It will be pretty valuable in any conflict that has large waves of enemies engaging over time, otherwise it is going to be rather difficult to pull of successfully. While in other games it may be the gold standard, here it may not be worth your time. 

Inflame Self: I... just don't. This is not a good spell. It's not even a bad spell. It is a terrible spell. Unless there is some critical element I am missing, there is no reason for any Elementalist to ever know this spell, let alone pass it along as anything other than a cruel joke. Though a Journeyman Elementalist really should know better. 

Ironwood: While not incredibly useful for improving armor and weapons (it seems), it is great for impromptu fortifications. Odds are good that will be useful at some point. 

Metal Scream: An effective control spell by any measure, particularly since it seems to work against only your opponents (which always makes any area effect spell better). There do have to be carrying metal objects, so this may be of dubious value against non-Namegivers. Though the effect? It makes me cringe just thinking about it. Like running a fork down sheet metal. Terrible.

Metal Wings: This spell is just bad ass. Giant metal wings that let you fly? Yes please! The duration isn't spectacular (Rank+20 minutes), but you can cast it on other people. They will thank you for that, because they will have freaking awesome metal wings to fly around on.

Nutritious Earth: This isn't likely to be a game changer (though could be very important to any Questors of Jaspree or Garlen), but it has some fun flavor and can likely earn some serious good will from Namegivers around Barsaive. I like this spell a lot, but you will probably know if it will be useful for you or not. Also, consider using it with Thrive.

Resist Poison: Always good to have up when exploring the wilderness or kaers. Additional protection against poison with a duration in hours is always welcome to an adept.

Shattering Stone: Essentially an area of effect Earth Darts, though you need to have fist-sized rocks lying around. Not bad, but there are better options to be had.

Stone Cage: Honestly? I prefer Stick Together, which seems to be more versatile and lasts longer. There may be uses for this spell that Stick Together cannot do, but I can't think of any right now (Stone Cage has a longer range).