Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Roleplaying Magic Items II

If there was an issue with WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha, the latest design from John Wick, the designer of Legend of the Five Rings and Houses of the Blooded, it was that the RPG lacked an actual background or setting. WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha 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… Whilst this would appear to be inspired by 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 primarily roleplay the artefacts themselves; and the heroes? Well, they do roleplay the heroes, but heroes who are wielding artefacts played by other players. 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’…

Despite not having an actual setting, there is at least an implied genre in WIELDthat of the fantasy genre. This though was not enough and what both it and the lack of a setting meant was that WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha at least felt incomplete if it was not ‘actually’ incomplete. This issue is no longer a problem, as part of the successful Kickstarter campaign, John Wick also published the WIELD Companion. This supplement contains not only new fiction, but also a host of new Domains—aspects or elements from which a Vacha draws its powers, such as Air, Insight, and Shadow, as well as eight settings that take Vacha to medieval Japan, a London of Victoriana, way out West, and more. In the process it does Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Fantastic, encompassing a gamut of genres, in turn giving yet more Domains and the much needed settings that serve to showcase just what WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha can do.

Topping and tailing the WIELD Companion is a set of paired pieces of fiction. Aping the Swords & Sorcery genre this is a Conan-esque tales that nicely depicts the insidious influence of the Vatcha and their ambitions. The first mechanical element presented in the WIELD Companion are all of the Domains and their associated Powers from WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha. This may seem like a waste of space, but their reprint serves as a handy reference for Fate—as the GM is known in WIELD—and players alike. With this list out of the way, the supplement gets down to the first of the eight settings. This is ‘Dark Chrome’, a Cyberpunk setting in which cyberware have begun to suffer Glitches that are reputedly supposed to cause those it is installed in to go crazy and enough damage to level city blocks. As a result, the five major cyberware companies have formed the Cyberware Conventions to investigate and prevent further incidents. The truth is that these pieces of Glitched cyberware are actually Vatcha that have  become sentient. The Domains are designed around Acquisitions such as Hammer Hand or Double Barrel Laser, Athletics such as Cybernetic Strength, and so on. The other change is that each Wielder begins with all of the dice in any Control Risk, and for each item of Cyberware installed gives up these dice to the Vatcha. Written by Alan Venables, Ro Watts, and Gillian Fraser, this effectively reverses the control relationship between Vatcha and Wielder, but neatly models the effect of cyberware seen in other genre RPGs.

‘Old Japan’ is the second setting, one which will familiar to its author, Ben Woerner, the designer of the RPG, A World of Dew. In the world of Old Japan, the Kami have long helped mankind to survive and prosper, many also bonding permanently with parts of the world around them or manmade items. These are the Yorishiro, known for their spiritual purity and dedication to combating the Oni, the bonding between dark Kami and evil men. Although the Dark Tenno Lord, the First of the Oni, has been imprisoned, Old Japan continues to be plagued by Oni, and as one of the Yorishio, the player characters have sworn to guide mankind and defend him against the Oni. Each Yorishiro consists of a vessel—such as a tea cup, an item of jewellery, a pet, or even a walking castle or hut—and a Kami heritage, like Wind, Insects, Justice, or the Seven Fortunes. The number of Domains a Kami holds sway over depends on its age, one if a Summer Kami, two if an Autumn Kami, and three if a Winter Kami. There are fewer Domains to choose from than in standard WIELD and the geis—or geas—that can be placed upon a player by Fate varies according to the time of day. During the day, as Lady Sun, Fate will demand that a character help another, save a village, or go on a quest, whilst at night, as Lord Moon, Fate will demand that the hero stand aside and let something terrible happen, kill someone, or end the suffering of a great and injured kami beast lord. Where Lord Moon is cold and calculating, Lady Sun is compassionate and impulsive.

What ‘Old Japan’ does not detail is whether not there will ever be the need for a Control Risk between Yorishiro and wielder, but given the benevolent outlook of the Yorishiro, this seems unlikely. ‘Old Japan’ does feel like it moves WIELD away from its player to player confrontation and towards a traditional roleplaying game.

John Wick and Gillian Fraser’s ‘Old Smoke’ presents a setting in which rampant Victoriana crashes into the Victorian Age to make both the fiction and the history a reality… Aleister Crowley is the Wickedest Man in the World, Professor Moriarty the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Jack the Ripper a fiend hell-bent on performing an ancient blood ritual to make himself into a god, and Mycroft Holmes the greatest detective ever to sit in an armchair. Just as these facts are true, so is the feared existence of conspiracies and secret societies—the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign, and more—whose sole aim is the capture and control of the ‘synesthesiactical fineins’, as vatcha are known in the ‘Old Smoke’, and thus the powers they grant. All wielders are part of one of these conspiracies, whilst the domains granted by the vatcha are subtler and more insidious, including Control, Fear, Illusion, Necromancy, Sex, and Shadow amongst others. Membership of certain conspiracies does grant some protection, the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign against fear for example. ‘Old Smoke’ is a conspiratorial free-for-all that feels as if it is going to develop ultimately into a player versus player contest for dominance, whilst the darker nature of its Domains make it more of an adult game.

‘Princesses of Ellysial’ by Charlotte Bethel and Gillian Fraser is another Japanese setting, but one drawn from the ‘magical girl’ genre of manga or anime. Vatcha are an item of jewellery—a Princess, or a flower—a prince. A female wielder can only use the jewellery, a male wielder only the flower. The Domains—Beauty, Crystal, Friendship, Justice, Love, Mercy, Spirit, and Stardust—are inherently positive and can only be fully used when a wielder has transformed. This transformation is a theme, decided upon before play begins, and can be school uniforms, fantasy armour, sailor suits, and so on. Perhaps the most radical change in comparison to the default player versus player set-up in WIELD, is that in ‘Princesses of Ellysial’ the players are a team—in the setting described the team is combatting the Shadow Witch Uorusa. Like ‘Old Japan’, ‘Princesses of Ellysial’ is a more positive setting and it would be suitable for play with younger players.

Japan is again the inspiration for the fifth setting, ‘Sentient Frames’ by Alan Venable. Here the Vatcha are artificial intelligences that help Frame Pilots compete in Mecha Game matches. Unfortunately, as a Frame Pilot seeks to upgrade his Frame, he becomes increasingly addicted to the AI, forcing him into melancholia, anger, jealousy, and finally stability—the latter where AI has achieved ‘Bliss’ with the Pilot. The Domains in ‘Sentient Frames’ are enhancements to the Frame, such as Ballistic, Bots, Command, Force Fields, Melee, and so on. ‘Sentient Frames’ reverses the standard control structure of WIELD—a Vatcha gaining more control the more powers it grants to the wielder rather than giving it up. ‘Sentient Frames’ benefits from more background information and thus feels more developed than the other settings in the WIELD Companion.

Alan Venable and Gillian Fraser’s ‘The Big Dust’ throws down the Vatcha into the lawless, ruthless lands of the Wild West where they are firearms—derringers, pistols, revolver, and rifles; tools—such as saddles, shovels, stagecoaches, and so on; or trinkets—like hats, deputy badges, pocket watches, or poker chips. The Vatcha notably collect and absorb the Destinies of their wielders and if left unfulfilled will drive future wielders to complete them—even if this involves multiple destinies. They are also only wielded by the incomers to the Wild West—the Natives of the Big Dust will not wield or attack a wielder, although they do know how to destroy the Vatcha. ‘The Big Dust’ includes some excellent Domains, such as Gunslingin’, Preachin’, and Wranglin’, but as strongly thematic as it feels, it is underdeveloped and some advice on handling multiple destinies would not have been amiss.

The last and seventh setting in the WIELD Companion is ‘Whispering Shadows’ by Gillian Fraser in which the vatcha are spirits that have escaped to this side of the mirror to possess members of humanity and turn them into monsters. Whether Blood Spirits, Buried Spirits, Deep Spirits, and so on, their collective aim is to destroy the Guardian of the Sun or ‘the Warden’ who sends creatures to hunt down the vatcha spirits and in destroying them, seeks to restore the peace of the world. In ‘Whispering Shadows’ a vatcha’s Domains are determined by his Spirit type and a vatcha gains more rather than loses control by giving its powers away. Again, this is a darker setting for WIELD with more insidious powers—plus the fact that wielders exude an aura of fear. There is also the aspect that the vatcha are lying to their wielders, claiming that they are protecting humanity against the minions of ‘the Warden’. Yet again, it feels under-developed, there being no discussion of how the vatchas’ enemy can be destroyed and no suggestion as to his minions.

Rounding out the WIELD Companion is Mark Diaz Truman’s ‘Vatcha in Fate’, a guide to using vatcha in Evil Hat Games’ Fate Core. Two means are provided, one described as safe, the other not. The first method again casts the vatcha as the key player characters, each vatcha possessing Domains as well as Aspects tied to its Goal, Connections to the other player character vatcha, and lastly to its means of Destruction. Each vatcha has a single skill, Control, rolled to overcome its current wielder. Some agreement will need to be made to cover how each power from the Domains works in Fate Core as converting them all would require another book. The wielders also need to be created, but they are relatively weak, being mere pawns. Another advantage that the vatcha have over these pawns is that only they get Fate Points, but are restricted to spending them via their current wielder—change wielder and any excess Fate Points earned under the previous wielder are lost. The second method is in some ways more interesting—it adds vatcha to Fate Core as NPCs. The players create characters as they would normally and get to wield the vatcha, but the GM controls and plays each of the vatcha. The danger is that this sets up a potential ‘player versus GM’ situation in a game, but this does not mean that the situation is without potential.

Physically, the WIELD Companion is decently presented. Although there is no index, the list of contents at the front of the book makes up for it, especially when looking for a particular Domain or power. The supplement is very lightly illustrated, but the artwork is decent.

There are some excellent settings in the WIELD Companion and there is no denying that the supplement does solid job of showcasing the potential in the concept and mechanics presented in WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha. Unfortunately, some of the seven settings do feel under-developed and could have benefited with more background or more detail. Perhaps if one of these settings had been presented in the core rules, then there might have been space here for the extra material. Nevertheless, the WIELD Companion is worth reading for its development of the WIELD concept and the numerous new Domains that come with the seven settings—and some of the settings are good too.