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So after being encouraged (and occasionally warned not to), I bought a copy of Scion: Hero. I’ve now finished reading it from cover to cover, and am going to give my honest impressions.
Cover: Yeah, I’m gonna review the cover. It’s a rather nice cover, pretty artwork.Not too flashy, quite atmospheric. The logo’s pretty nice.
Prologue: Okay, so one of the things that White Wolf tend to splurge on is the intro text story. Most books do one of these to set the mood, and the last WW book I bought (Demon: The Fallen) did this pretty nicely. Scion has the biggest intro text story I have ever seen. Forty pages.
Now, I don’t mind text story intros, but even I think that 40 pages is just flat-out too much to dedicate to one. The story itself isn’t bad, but it’s not great. It introduces the signature character pretty well, gives some atmosphere for the kind of thing you can expect… and should stop. Instead it goes on, and we end up with some utterly mundane guff involving dwarves. Read the first four pages or so of this if you want, and then safely skip the rest.
Intro: A fairly nice and short bit, with an interesting lexicon which would have been better if just incorporated into the explanation of what the game is about. Manages to avoid the more patronising ‘What is roleplaying’ and ‘What is a d20’ segments I’ve seen in some books.
Pantheons: Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. In Scion, you play as the child of one of the mythical gods. You take after your parents strongly, so this segment introduces you to who the gods are and tells you what you need to know. It’s a decent segment, and has six pantheons; Egyptian, Greek, Norse, Aztec, Japanese, and Voodoo. They give a signature character for each pantheon (they’re all pretty neat), and the most useful bit I found was that they have two bits of artwork for each pantheon; one showing the gods in their ancient mythical glory, and one showing what they look like today in human garb and so on.
The downsides? Some of the gods’ personalities are dumbed-down from the original mythology, but I’m sure that’d only annoy myth geeks like me. There’s a good number of gods from each pantheon, but no real concrete help for the GM on how to make his own.
My biggest concern is that some of these are hard sells. For instance, let’s say you’re puting together a group. You’re in a rush, so want to just use the signature characters, or want one Scion from each pantheon. Now, the ones that most people are going to want to play are Norse, or Egyptian. If you want to have a Voodoo one, it better be a scion of Baron Samedi, because nobody cares about the others. Greek and Aztec would be next on the ‘cool’ list, with the Japanese ones bringing up the end. Unless you, as the GM, can put a major spin on the ‘godly samurai’ twist, it’s going to be damn hard to coax a player who had his heart set on being Thor (which, let’s face it, everyone wants) to be a samurai.
Character Creation: The next two chapters take you through building your character. First it gives you the points and how to distribute them, very straightforward. Then it takes you over what each trait and skill means, explains Willpower (your basic drama points), Nature (rough description of how your character acts), Virtues (your characters’ moral code), and Legend (essentially what level you are, split into your basic ‘mana’ points). Some of the Virtues are a bit fluffy, some seem to be there only to help if the GM wants to railroad the character (urgh), but it’s a pretty simple system.
Knacks: This is your ‘feat’ type ability, different from the next chapter. Basically, when your character decides to buy extra might in a trait like strength, manipulation or wits, they can make it ‘epic’ and get super-might with this. These are physical non-magical abilities. It’s for characters that want to lift cars, detect lies, hear things from far away, and basically be heroic. I like this section. It’s clear, the Knacks are balanced well enough, everything’s useful and appropriate.
Boons: Oh dear. Headache time.
Okay, these are your magics. In order to use a spell (or ‘Boon’, because it’s a gift from the gods), you need an artifact or Relic, which your characters’ godly parents have to give them. Now, a Relic will give the character access to a Purview (basically, a field or branch of magic), which he can then access. So basically, a lot of games would involve recovering these items.
The Purviews are; Animal, Chaos, Darkness, Death, Earth, Fertility, Fire, Guardian, Health, Justice, Moon, Psychopomp (could be just called ‘Travel’ really), Sky, Sun, War and Water. You then have one Purview for each Pantheon, and a few generic ones that don’t add a whole lot. Now here’s the problem; half of these purviews are completely and utterly useless. Your characters are still relatively low-level, and the ones that are ‘useless’ here don’t actually become worthwhile until you hit Scion: Demigod. At Scion: Hero levels, you will never need to have a character who can use Guardian, Moon, Justice or Psychopomp. Until level 3, Death magic is about as much use as a chocolate teapot on a motorbike. And worst of all, they’re unbalanced; at level 2, Fertility allows you to remove vermin from a field, whilst level 2 Sky allows you to bloody well FLY!! “Oh, how’s the farming going, Scion Billy? Can’t stop now, I’m off to fly to Calcutta for a party!” Most useless of all has to be level 2 Death, which allows you to ‘euthanize’ someone who has next-to-no health left; basically, it’s a magical equivalent of a shovel to the back of the head. Did anyone even edit this chapter?
Rules: Okay, next up is the bit that tells you how to roll to do stuff. In great detail. If you want to know what dice to grab if your character wants to chat up an airplane steward while the plane’s in a nose-dive over the Pacific due to being shot down by a dragon, this bit’s for you. If you would rather just decide for yourself as you run the game, you can skip the majority of this chapter.
Combat: What a ruddy headache this segment was. Okay, first of all I need to be clear on something; the combat in this game is really simple. It’s a good combat system. Once you figure it out, that is! This chapter is so poorly laid-out and so poorly explained that it took me almost three days of reading and re-reading to figure out the basics. But once I got it down, bang; it was simple. It’s a good combat system, don’t get me wrong; it’s just very poorly explained.
So basically, the combat occurs over several turns or ‘ticks’. Each action slows you down for a while depending on how slow the action is; throwing something may mean you can act next turn, lifting up a car may mean you need to wait three or four. Also, your DV goes down while you do these….
Oh yes, the DV. Defense Values. This chapter spent almost half it’s time talking about these things before it actually got around to telling you what they are, and how to calculate them. That lets you avoid being hit; I’d personally mix it together with soak if it were me (like I do when I mod old World of Darkness stuff), but this works pretty nicely. You get two values; parry and dodge. Now, here’s another problem; you calculate these from your stats, but NOWHERE on the character sheet is there space for you to note them down! Nowhere at all! Did nobody think that having space to put important stuff like that down would, you know, be a good idea?
After two pages describing how to spend experience points, we have a part called Epic Storytelling, which basically tells you to read some mythology. It then gives you a very, very simple few pages on how to make your game actually worth playing (trade secrets like ‘make it cool’, but padded out to some five pages), before advising you to read some more myths and legends to help give you ideas. Good work guys, really good. Did it not occur to you that maybe people would buy this because they already have an interest in such things? Urgh. Best bit of advice I can suggest for making this chapter better; burn it with fire.
Fate: You know what? Don’t even read this chapter. Really. For a few pages, it waxes philosophical about ‘what is fate’, and then gives you two ideas. The first is that it can be an excuse for the GM to feed the characters quests, in the “Go and slay the dragon, it is your destiny” mould. The other is a genuinely weird little dice-roll the GM should take at appropriate times (I calculated the chance of passing it as being around 8.5%) which gives a character a human stalker for a day or so. Personal advice; scrap this entire concept, it adds nothing.
One of the ideas in the game is that, as they grow in power and legend, the characters attract human followers, and are called to go on quests. This chapter is an attempt to put that into dice-system, and it doesn’t work. The entire idea would come out better in genuine, normal role-play; and if done, I’m sure it would be awesome, because it’s a great idea. But system-ising it is NOT the way to implement it, and adds nothing to the game.
Finally we come to The Heroic Saga, a pre-written adventure all ready to go.
I have mixed feelings on this. It’s set for the signature characters, so because they’re included and are pretty neat characters anyway, this is a bunch of games that are ready to go. It’s just a shame they’re not all that great.
Actually, that’s not fair. They’re alright. A mixed bag, to say the least. The overall story goes over the three Scion books, which I’m not so keen on.
This bunch is set in Las Vegas, and has two very weak parts. One involves going into a cave to kill a monster, and another into a temple disguised as a wedding chapel to kill a monster. Because monsters need killing, obviously. Because they’re there. The second of these is at least a little more forceful; the gods ask you to go kill the beastie. In the first, you go because fate (aka, no reason at all) asks you to. Just… just no.
But like I said, it’s a mixed bag. There’s some nice ideas, and most of those are in the ‘solo quest’ parts. In these, your parent gods ask the characters, usually individually, to go and do them stuff. The missions are nicely varied, one per pantheon, and you could very easily work these together into a decent storyline. Also, the majority of them are based around roleplay and puzzle-solving, rather than kicking stuff, so bonus points there. Get a group together, run three of these missions, and they’re no longer ‘solo quests’, but an enjoyable team experience. Sorted!
Lastly, there’s the section on Antagonists, and FINALLY we get some brilliant hooks for storylines. While most of this is just stats (including some for another set of Scions to rival the main ones; boy, they’re really keen on those signature characters, eh?), they manage to mix together mythical beasties from all of the cultures into something that feels pretty unified. There’s plenty of things to squish like zombies, but the ones that really appealed to me are the medusa-spawn. Being White Wolf of course, some are just corny and dumb (don’t even mention The Horsemen to me, unless you want to see real tears), and while the illustrations are generally alright I have to wonder why the image for the Frost Giant was drawn with an impossibly bulging crotch. My only real complaint is that the ‘big’ mythical beasties like the minotaurs aren’t included; I want a minotaur rampaging through New York, dammit.
Index: They wrap up with this, and it’s just like any other index in a White Wolf book; useless.
Overall: Well, it’s just like I expected; it’s a game that still really appeals to me. I love the idea of throwing all these different cultural myths together in a modern setting, and it has plenty of space for the players to bring the cool in to play. The biggest problem is that the book is poorly laid-out, poorly explained, and in serious need of rewriting. But then, I cut my Roleplay teeth on White Wolf stuff back in the 90s, so I’m familiar with the old ‘fix it so that it works’ steps needed to make this a decent game.
First step would probably be to make the Boons actually relevant and balanced. A little tweaking on them would go a long way. Downplaying them by modifying the Relics would mean the characters use the Knacks more, which would aid balance a huge deal. Read the combat chapter very carefully to figure out just what the hell is going on. Write your DV somewhere nice and clear so you won’t lose it. Don’t expect anyone to want to play the samurai.
Reviewed by Marsten