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

Sunday 14 October 2012

Between States II

Five hundred years ago Eschaton occurred. As asteroids fell to Earth, the sky boiled. Their impact cracked the Earth open, causing earthquakes to ripple and volcanoes to boil over. Fires raged and both poisonous gases and dust were thrown up into the sky. The planet’s ecosystem was wrecked and human civilisation shattered, Europe being hit the worst. Worse was to come through; an ice age descended upon the survivors and they would have to struggle against an altered climate that would radically shift the balance of power. As the climates of Europe and South Africa cooled, so did that of central Africa and when combined with the rains blown in from the Atlantic, the Sahara bloomed and the peoples of Africa, underwent a renaissance as they threw off the yoke of Europe. In the years to come they would swarm across the soupy Mediterranean to plunder the belly of Europe for technology, trade, and slaves.

In the five centuries since Eschaton, seven Cultures and thirteen Cults have arisen to dominate the new world. Directing Africa’s revenge on Europe are the Neolibyans, ultra-capitalists that divide the known world into trade regions and drive hard bargains, and are known for their ostentatious spending and charity. If the Neolibyans are Africa’s heart, then her claws are Scourgers, mercenaries in the pay of the Neolibyans, ferocious soldiers armed with multi-thonged whips who protect Neolibyan trade trips and raid Europe for slaves. The Anubians are the continent’s spirit and heart, shaman that see themselves as humanity’s guardians.

The Cults of Europe resist these African incursions as best they can, but rarely with any unity, though their interests do on occasion coincide. The Anabaptists seek to purify through fire the Earth of the taint of an ancient deity they call the Demiurge and see as the destroyer of the world and the root of all evil. The Apocalyptiks are Europe’s gypsies, promising pleasures through gambling, prostitution, fortune telling, and the drug “Burn,” but often seen as bringing addiction instead. The Ashen are descended from those that took refuge underground before Eschaton, pale creatures biding their time until they can rule the world again. The masked Chroniclers are obsessed with finding and hoarding the knowledge lost in the Eschaton with the aim of restoring civilisation. Standing at the crossroads are Hellvetics, the most efficient and capable military force in Europe, which honourably maintains its neutrality by charging a toll to cross its territory to European and African alike. The Jehammedans are fanatics wanting to dominate Eastern Europe and bring their faith to all. The Marshals dispense a forceful if grim peace in central Europe based on a strict code of laws. Scrappers are not so much a Cult, but a way of life for individuals who delve into the ruins of Europe in search of lost artefacts, ready to sell to the highest bidder. The Spitalians are a militant medical caste, dedicated to burning out the poisoned lands, and batt­ling the spore fields and their mutant armies with fungicides and fire. Living between all of these Cults are the Tribals, small clans each with their own beliefs and ways of life.

The seven Cultures of the new world include Africa, Balkhan, Borca, Franka, Hybrispania, Pollen, and Purgare. Africa is a united Culture of three Cults, though threatened by strange bloodthirsty mutant plants called psychovors that swallow the land and alter it forever. Balkhan is wild country, its people untamed and passionate, permanently divided unless threatened by others, most recently from Purgare in the West and by the Jehammedans from the East. Borca sits across most of Europe south of the ice, but is divided by the Reaper’s Blow, the colossal fault smashed open by asteroid impact. To the West of the fault, the peoples are obsessed with finding traces of their ancestors, whilst to the East, they are mostly nomads driving herds of oxen unconcerned with the past. The people of Franka are rebuilding after the Neolibyans have plundered their relics and their old capital, Paris, was lost to hordes of insects and renamed Parasite. Hybrispania is also divided, but by war rather than by a fault. The natives have been fighting a guerilla war for years against the invaders from Africa while Jehammedan pilgrims try to convert the natives. Pollen is a land of nomads, driving armoured caravans from one fertile patch of ground to the next, hoping to harvest a crop before the ground spoils into rotted wasteland overnight. Lastly, claimed by the Anabaptists, Purgare is divided along its spine, the western side poisoned ruins, whilst to the East they battle with the Balkhani for the rich soils between their lands.

The effects of Eschaton are longer lasting though. In Europe and Africa, the impact craters are the source of a Foulness that grows and spews out Spores that mutate flora, fauna, and humanity’s children. Initially appearing normal, these children grow distant from their families as their newfound ‘demonic’ abilities also grow. Known as ‘psychonauts,’ by adolescence these children are often abandoned by their families and flee into the wilderness, there to hide and scavenge until they find others of their kind. There are five great craters, known collectively as the Earth Chakra, each spewing a different type of Foulness that mutates the psychonauts in different ways.

This is the setting for Degenesis: Primal Punk Roleplaying, an RPG published by Posthuman StudiosLLC, best known for the award winning Eclipse Phase RPG. It is an RPG of primeval savagery and wild abandon set in an epic post-apocalyptic survival drama, though one that suggests at an approaching singularity, although whether that singularity is devolutionary or evolutionary in nature, is yet to be determined by the few that are aware of the threat and have examined it in any detail. The publication of Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition by Posthuman Studios marks the game’s first appearance in English, for Degenesis originally appeared a decade ago in 2001 in Germany, published by Sighpress. It joins what are merely a handful of German RPGs to appear in English language versions, the most well-known being Engel, published by the Sword & Sorcery Studio, and The Dark Eye, published by FanPro. Less well known, but more recent is Western City, a GM-less RPG published by Redbrick. The game’s origins and history have a marked effect on Degenesis, but I will come to those effects after looking more closely at the game.

Character creation involves selecting a Culture, a Concept, and a Cult. The Culture must be one of the seven given in the setting, which then determines the choice of Cults available. For example, someone of the Purgare Culture can choose from the Anabaptist, Apocalyptik, Hellevetic, Scrapper, Spitalian, or Tribal Cults. The Concept suggests the situation under which a character grows up – Compulsion, Decay, Lust, Madness, Pain, Peace, Quarantine, and Wealth. Every character begins with the same values for his attributes, but to raise one, he must lower another. He will receive bonuses to the attributes from the selected Culture and Concept, but not Cult. At each stage a character also receives a few points to spend on skills, and although these can be assigned to any skill, only those skills listed under the selected Culture, Concept, and Cult can be raised by more than a single point. In addition, a character must also select a Principle from those listed for the selected Culture, Concept, and Cult. These provide no mechanical benefit, nor are they defined within the rules as they are simple roleplaying hooks, although they are briefly discussed. Lastly each character checks to see where he or she stands within their selected Cults. For example, a Hellvetic with Firearms (3) is a Private, First Class, and is equipped with twenty rounds and 500 Chronicreds, while an Anubian with Domination (2), Empathy (1), and Faith (4) is regarded as a Guide of the Dead.

Our sample character is a NeoLibyan Writer, ambitious yet unable to win a bid for one of the annually auctioned trade missions. With Accounting (2) and Writing (2), the sample character qualifies as a Writer, and has a 1000 Dinar, but if he had Accounting (3) and Negotiation (3), he would qualify as a Trader and possess 10000 Dinar. Every NeoLibyan owns an Accounting Journal. He has been hired to work as a geographer and negotiator for his first trip to Europe.

Name: Dumisani
Culture: Africa
Concept: Wealth
Cult: Neolibyan

Cultural Principle: Bonds of Kinship
Concept Principle: Obsessed with Status
Cult Principle: Good Samaritan

Skills: AGI 5 + Unarmed Combat 1 (AV 6); BOD 4 + Mobility 1 (AV 5); CHA 7 + Etiquette 2 (AV 9); CHA 7 + Negotiation 5 (AV 12); INT 6 + Accounting 2 (AV 8); INT 6 + Geography 2 (AV 8); INT 6 + Language (Borcan) 1 (AV 7); INT 6 + Language (Purgar) 1 (AV 7); INT 6 + Survival 1 (AV 7); INT 6 + Writing 2 (AV 8); PSY 5 + Perception 1 (AV 6); PSY 5 + Self Mastery 1 (AV 6)
Flesh Wounds: Head 1; Torso 2; Legs 1
Trauma Wounds: 5
Vitality: 4

Overall character generation is quick and easy, and the three steps of Culture, Concept, and Cult do lead to characters that fit the setting. The result though does not lead to characters that are necessarily competent, especially if a character is created as a generalist. This quickly comes to light in the game’s mechanics, called the CatharSys. To undertake an action, a character must roll two ten-sided dice, aiming to roll over the Difficulty value, but under the character’s Action Value for that skill or action. Difficulty values range from Easy (4) and Tricky (6) to Nearly Impossible (14) and Miraculous (16), whilst the Action Value is a combination of the relevant Attribute and Skill. A character with an Action Value of eight or more is seen as Experienced, whilst an Expert would have an Action Value of thirteen or more. For example, Dumisani is in Purgare and encountered a Scrapper who has artefacts to sell. He does not know what the artefacts are – he does not have the Artefact Lore skill, but he thinks that they might valuable and attempts to negotiate a deal. The GM sets the Difficulty at Hard (6) because Dumisani has no idea as to the actual value. Setting this against his Negotiation AV of 12, the player must roll 2d10 and roll over the Difficulty (6), but under the AV (12), which with a range of 7 to 12, gives him a 30% chance of success. Roll over the AV and he fails, roll under the Difficulty and he also fails, but can roll again if the GM allows, though this will be at a higher Difficulty. If he rolls doubles (4, 4; 5, 5; 6, 6) and succeeds, then the result is a Critical Success, but fail and roll doubles, and that is a Critical Failure.

The example is for a character that is at least Experienced in one of the skills for his Cult. Outside of this skill and the character’s chances of success at even Easy Difficulty are severely curtailed. With this lowered chance of success comes the greater chance of failure and thus Critical Failure. It is almost as if the CatharSys is setting the characters up for failure. This is only exacerbated in combat. The sample character is geared towards interaction and not combat, but with that focus comes an incompetency when it comes to combat and an inability to withstand any wounds taken in a fight. This is because in order to improve a character’s capability to withstand even the most minimum of damage, points have to put into the Toughness skill, and that takes away from what the character is supposed to be good at. Given that combat can be deadly once weapons are brought to bear, characters can either be barely competent – and arguably not even then – at their Cult skills and useless at everything else, or take skills to enhance their capability and survivability in combat and lose their supposed competency. Whether characters are underskilled or the Difficulty values are too high – a 4-point (20%) penalty for even an Easy task – and the CatharSys just sets up to fail. Which given the relative simplicity of the CatharSys, is just so disappointing.

Physically, the Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition is a 376-page perfect bound book (also available as a hardback) done in greyscale throughout. It is done in black and white and greyscale throughout, profusely illustrated by Marko Djurdjević to great effect. The book is densely written with chapters interspersed with pieces of setting fiction and verse. The background is explored in some depth with some two hundred pages devoted to the setting and background before the reader reaches the mechanics, combat, and character generation of the CatharSys are even mentioned. Beyond the rules themselves, the GM is given the expected bestiary and selection of foes, an equipment section, details about the psychonauts, a discussion of some of the setting’s secrets and history, plus a short scenario.

The density of the Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition is something of an impediment to the reader. There is almost too much to read and understand before the reader begins to grasp a feel and an understanding of the setting, as if the game is written to be read by an inhabitant of 2585 rather than one of 2012. This is not helped by either the writing, which often feels flat, or the lack of any frame of reference, so that the reader is often left wondering what is going on. It is only much later in the book that it becomes clear where the places described earlier actually are.

Degenesis is a distinctly European RPG. Indeed there is almost no mention at all of what happened to anywhere apart from Europe and Africa during the Eschaton and beyond. It also shows in the artwork, which has a high degree of flesh on show. The setting has an earthy feel, a grubbiness not found in many American designed RPGs. For a game with as dense a setting and a setting as rife with secrets, it is daunting to know where to start. The included scenario helps, but the wealth of player character Cults and Cultures is another issue as many of them are openly antagonistic towards one another, and getting them to work together is likely to prove a problem during play.

Upon first tackling the Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition, the setting and book had the feel of a classic White Wolf RPG, especially in its organisation of the thirteen Cults and the seven Cultures. The extensive use of in-game fiction and verse also contributed to that feeling. Yet the effect of that feeling is that Degenesis is an old game, not a new one. For as much as the game felt similar to a White Wolf RPG, it was as equally reminiscent of another German RPG, Engel. Which is not surprising, since the English version of Engel was published by an imprint of White Wolf, but the settings are different. Engel is a post-apocalyptic millenarian RPG, part of a rash of similar RPGs that appeared before and after the year 2000, while Degenesis is also post-apocalyptic, it focuses more on horror and near transhuman themes. That said, both games date from the same period, the original Degenesis - ein Stern wird fallen appearing in 2001, followed by second edition in 2004 along with supplements.

It is rare for an RPG to be translated from another language into English, so it is good to see Posthuman Studios publish the Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition. Yet the translation fails to overcome the game’s handicaps – the density of the setting, the openly antagonistic character options, the flatness of the writing, and worst of all, the inherent incompetency of player characters built into the CatharSys, which devalues player agency in the game and exacerbates the grim nature of the setting. It is the setting though, that saves the game. It is rich, it is detailed, and it deserves to be explored. From that point of view, Degenesis is worth examining at the very least.

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