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Friday, 20 November 2015

Roleplaying Magic Items

The latest RPG from John Wick, the designer of Legend of the Five Rings and Houses of the Blooded, is WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha. This is an RPG in which the destinies and histories of great and powerful artefacts are told. It is a game in which valiant heroes wield great swords, ambitious men command the powers of ancient rings, mighty kings crown themselves with bejewelled coronets to control the fates of others, and potent mages brandish arcane staves to draw upon the forces of magic and manipulate creation itself… The obvious inspiration for WIELD then, is the One Ring from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or the sword Stormbringer in Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels. Yet in WIELD, the players do not roleplay these heroes, Frodo Baggins in the case of the One Ring or Elric in the case of Stormbringer, but rather they roleplay the artefacts themselves; and the heroes? For despite the power and the ambitions of these powerful artefacts, not a single one can apply its great abilities, for it takes a great ‘hero’—or ‘pawn’ as the Vatcha call them to wield the powers of a Vatcha, for they are but a means to an end to bring about the destinies of the ‘Vatcha’ or ‘wilful weapons’…

Actually, in WIELD, the players not only roleplay the Vatcha, they do play the heroes who wield them. Except that whilst a player roleplays a Vatcha, he does not roleplay the hero wielding that Vatcha, but roleplays a hero wielding another player’s Vacha! Now this reminiscent of another design by John Wick, the RPG Enemy Gods, in which each player took on the role of a hero during the Bronze Age whose destiny would be influenced by the gods—gods roleplayed by all of the players. Further, the idea behind WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha is also reminiscent of Bloodlust, the French sword and sorcery role-playing game originally published by Asmodée Éditions which is yet to see an English language translation. In that RPG, the players take on the roles of living god-weapons that fell from the stars and are wielded by mighty thewed warriors who hew across an ancient jungle continent that looks not unlike Antarctica. WIELD though, has no such setting and much like Enemy Gods—though it should be noted that Enemy Gods did include sample settings—its setting is implied, being an archetypal fantasy setting of some kind.

Funded via Kickstarter, WIELD has been brought to print with surprising speed in comparison with some Kickstarter projects. Unfortunately, this has meant that the book feels rough and incomplete in places. Had there been an editor involved then the reader might not have needed to make several obvious assumptions. Now this does not mean that WIELD is either incomprehensible or unplayable. It just feels rushed.

The set-up in WIELD is simple. Each player controls a Vatcha, a wilful weapon, which will grant its great powers to a hero, who will in return act as the Vatcha’s agent in bringing about the Vacha’s destiny because the Vacha cannot wield its own power—only a hero can. The hero who wields the Vatcha is not controlled by the same player, but the player sat next to him. Further, since a Vatcha must grant some of its power to its wielder there is plenty of potential for tension between Vatcha and hero and for storytelling as the last thing that a Vatcha wants to do is give its hero too much power and become subservient to him.

To create a Vatcha a player selects an item, which can be anything from a sword, boots, or a chair to a coin, item of luggage, or Police Box!* Each Vatcha has one, two, or three Dominions over which it has power, including elements like Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, or Creation, Destruction, Life, and so on. Every Vatcha has a goal, for example, ‘Become the true ruler of Kuritana’ or ‘Destroy the Dark Blade’, the latter another Vatcha. For every goal there are four steps that need to be defined. Then a history for the Vatcha is created by building connections with those of the other players. Penultimately, a player needs to decide how his Vatcha can be destroyed—this should be epic, but not impossible—and decide on a name.

*The latter two are simply included on the list. WIELD has nothing whatsoever to do with either the Discworld or Doctor Who, but their inclusion both suggests possibilities and hints at the relationships between Rincewind and the Luggage and the Doctor and the TARDIS.

Gauntlet of Life
Domains: Creation, Life, Light
Goal: Restore the Theocracy of the White God
Identify the Pietist of the White God
Bear witness to a miracle of the Pietist of the White God
Keep the Pietist of the White God alive against heresy
Proselytise the Piety of the White God
Connections: Singe, the Shotel of the Ashes (Helped rescue the Gauntlet from Foice the Sheer, Black Ice Demon); Lyre of the Bard Lord (Worn by the same wielder); The Ring of Fire (A previous wielder attempted to destroy the Gauntlet of Life); The Golden Veil of Houri (Co-operated together to hobble Menorenth the Bloody)
Means of Destruction: Worn by Black Ice Demon for a 100 years and then burnt in a hellforge

Then Fate—as the GM is known in WIELD—steps in and creates the Heroes that will wield the Vatcha. This includes the Hero’s name, Background (what the hero was doing before picking up the Vatcha), Destiny (what Fate had in mind for the hero before he picked up the Vatcha), personality traits, and any equipment. It is implied that Fate should create a deck of Heroes and assign them randomly and then assign a Vatcha a new one when the previous Hero dies. The dead Hero is shuffled back into the deck. Each time a Hero is draw and assigned to a Vatcha, the Hero acquires a new personality trait.

Verinor the Sailor
Destiny: Sail to the ends of the world and return
Personality Trait: Charming
Wounds: (1) (2) (3)
Equipment: Sword, coil of rope

Lastly, the Vatcha’s player assigns some of his powers to the Hero. These come from the Domains selected during the Vatcha’s creation. There is a limit to how many Powers a Vatcha can bestow; too few and the Hero cannot do great things, but too many and the Hero may wrest control of over all of the Vatcha’s powers and the Vatcha itself. A Vatcha has ten points of Control to assign and the more Powers he assigns, the more Control he loses… A quarter of WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha is devoted to listing the powers Domain by Domain.

It should be noted that like most storytelling roleplaying games, the only form of progression in WIELD is narrative based—there is no form of mechanical progression, such as Experience Points. Thus progression solely rests on the Goal of the Vatcha and the Destiny of one Hero after another.

To undertake an action, a player has to ‘take a chance’. This involves rolling two six-sided dice and adding the result to beat a target—‘Easy’ (no roll required), ‘Hard’ (six or more), ‘Heroic’ (twelve or more), ‘Epic’ (eighteen or more), and ‘Impossible’ (twenty-five or more). Bonus dice can be added to the pool for a Hero’s Background, for any of a Hero’s Personality Traits, if the action furthers his Destiny, and if any of his equipment is pertinent. Even if the player rolls the dice and fails to beat the target, he does not necessarily fail at the task. Rather, he succeeds with Complications, one for every target threshold missed.

For example, Verinor the Sailor is aboard his ship when it is caught in a ferocious storm and one of his passengers—who happens to be young and pretty—is swept overboard. He leaps to the rescue. Fate decides that this is a Epic action, setting the target at eighteen. Verinor’s player takes up two dice to which adds another die for his ‘Sailor’ Background and another for his equipment, the coil of rope. He rolls four dice, but only gets a result of fourteen, so fails the roll. This is enough to obtain a Heroic result, but not an Epic, so his player has to choose a Complication, which in this case is that the young passenger is betrothed to another man.

Alternatively, a Hero might offer a Fate a geis—or geas—so that he can automatically succeed at a challenge. This would require the Hero to undertake a particular action—or not, of course. A small geis might be not to look at another woman for a week, or a year for a large geis, or forever for a major geis. The exact terms of the geis is open to negotiation, but a geis cannot be offered if the Challenge is a conflict between the heroes. Breaking a geis allows Fate to force failures upon a Hero.

Combat is where WIELD gets odd. A Hero can either attack or defend—not both, or he can use a power. Each round Fate counts to five and if a Hero wants to attack, his player points to the intended target, holding out the number of fingers to indicate the amount of damage he wants to inflict. This can be against another Hero or Fate if fighting an NPC. Conversely, if a Hero wants to defend himself, his player holds a number of fingers against his chest to indicate how many wounds he wants his Hero to protect himself against. The number of fingers in either case corresponds to the five target levels—Easy, Hard, Heroic, Epic, and Impossible—that a Hero rolls against when taking a chance. If any Hero uses a Power, then it activates before any combat, but again the player needs to indicate the rank of the Power used using his fingers and with higher ranked Powers going before lower ranked Powers.

Apart from Powers taking effect first, combat is meant to be resolved simultaneously, but as a mechanic it feels rough and incomplete. It does not help that Fate also has to handle any NPCs, having to decide and note down what they are doing from turn to turn as this disrupts the physicality of the rest of the combat mechanic. Ultimately, this leaves WIELD too readily open to disagreement at the table and it will need Fate to have a very steady hand at the tiller if a game is not going awry…

Then is of course the tension at the heart of the game—that is, between a Hero and his Vatcha—or is it a Vatcha and his Hero?—and the players for each. A Hero is capable of free action, but his Vatcha is not, despite the Vatcha granting the Hero some of its Powers. There is of course, nothing to stop a Hero from doing what his Vatcha wants and if so, it is a simple matter of their respective players coming to an agreement. If a Hero does not want to do what a Vatcha wants, then the Vatcha can call for a Control Risk. This is an opposed roll, the winner deciding the course of an action.

Although WIELD includes guidelines for groups and monsters, and some notes for adjusting some of the game’s parameters, it feels rather light in terms of advice for the GM—or rather, Fate.  It also leaves Fate and his players to their own devices when it comes a setting, though the WIELD Companion does provide several, including a Cyberpunk setting and settings in both the Old West and Old Japan.

WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha is a game that almost does nothing except present challenges. The first is in the players having to portray two characters, one of which is not their own. Admittedly this will not present too much difficulty for anyone who has experience playing storytelling games, but having to differentiate between the two does not make it any easier—though it should be pointed out that solutions to this are discussed in the book. The second is overcoming the natural inclination for a player to make his current Hero his primary character, when in fact it is the Vatcha that is a player’s primary character. In fact, the Hero is the Vatcha’s tool (and Hit Points), not the other way around. The third challenge is set of rules that are underwritten, that feel rough and ready, and which are not helped by the slim advice for the GM or Fate. Lastly, WIELD leaves all of the challenge and effort of world building to Fate and his players—there is no advice in WIELD, no discussion of WIELD on other genres, and no example settings. Again neither will too much of a challenge to experienced players and players of storytelling games, but a page of advice devoted to each of the possible genres would have been reasonable inclusion.

Yet despite the challenges in WIELD, there is no denying that there is a gem of an idea at its heart and that gem is its greatest, and best, challenge, that of roleplaying two different characters with different agendas linked to separate players. It sets up tensions between the linked players that are rife with potential and playability. WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha is a great idea that is not as well supported or developed as it could have been.