Scarred Lands Player’s Guide – Role-playing Game Review
 

Scarred Lands Player’s Guide

Role-playing Game Review

 
Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #5: Fifth Seven to Fall
 

Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #5

Fifth Six to Fall

 
Paternus: Rise of Gods – Hardbacks Kickstarter – Ends Today!
 

Paternus: Rise of Gods

Hardbacks Kickstarter - Ends Today!

 

Scion RPG 2nd Edition Review – Part One – Scion: Origin

Scion (cover)Scion is an urban fantasy roleplaying game (RPG) of a very particular sort and one that’s likely to appeal to fans of fantasy fiction. It’s not about secretive societies of seductive vampires and passionate werewolves lurking in the shadows. (Though you could use it for that, at a stretch.) It’s about the children of the gods carving their legends into the modern World.

Yes, that’s World with a capital ‘W’. Scion explicitly does not take place on Earth. It takes place in ‘The World’, which is what Earth would be like if gods were real and took an obvious hand in mortal affairs.

“Which gods?” you might ask.

All of them.

If you can think of a pantheon or a mythology or an aspect of folklore, then either it definitely exists in Scion or it could do if you wanted it to. Not just the Greek, Egyptian and Norse pantheons, which most Westerners learn about in school, but also the Loa of Voodoo, the Chinese Celestial Bureaucracy, Japanese Kami, the Orisha gods of the Yoruba, the Manitou and more.

All of the other beings in these mythologies are also present: skinwalkers, kitsune (hurray! Kitsune are the best!), satyrs, maenads, nemean beasts, valkyries and everything you ever read about that wasn’t real. Even beings that have never been explicitly worshipped could arise as gods in this world. Columbia for example—the female personification of the USA who was supplanted by Lady Liberty.

American Gods (cover)If you like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, then Scion is about as close as an RPG gets to it. (With the possible exception of City of Mist and Part Time Gods of Fate, but we’re not looking at them today.) It could certainly be used to run a campaign based around the war between the old gods of mythology and mysticism and the new gods of technology and modernity.

A key difference between Scion and most urban fantasy is the fact that the mythical aspects of reality are completely out in the open. Corporations explicitly brand themselves to attract the patronage of certain deities, gossip magazines follow the love affairs of gods and their descendants, amazons work as military contractors and centaurs live on mountains in Greece.

Gods are a bit like celebrities in Scion. You might know an awful lot about them, you might idolise them and you might dream of meeting one. But most people don’t really expect to bump into someone famous during their daily lives. (The difference being that Beyoncé can’t bless you with supernatural wealth and George Clooney can’t send a flood to destroy your town.)

Anyway. You probably won’t run into Thor at the supermarket. But you’re a little more likely to bump into one of his children. Such people are called Scions—extraordinary mortals who might one day ascend to godhood themselves if they’re willing to give up enough of their humanity. They aren’t necessarily the blood descendants of particular gods—some are chosen to be imbued with special powers and others are created out of nothingness to be a vessel of a particular god’s power.

Scion is broken down into Tiers that represent the power levels Scions can achieve: Origin, Hero, Demi-God and God. Broadly speaking, the higher your power level the more tied you are into your own myths and legends and the more out of touch you become with the mortal world, as divine conflicts draw you into Higher or Lower realms of existence.

Each Tier will be getting its own 2nd Edition book if it hasn’t already. This two-part review is concerned only with Origin and Hero. We will look at Origin for now and tackle Hero next month.

Scion: Origin

The protagonists of Scion: Origin are the children (in one sense or another) of gods but have yet to be officially welcomed into the divinity club. Most Scions at this level don’t even realise they’re special, beyond possessing an unfair amount of natural talent. Some very definitely do know what’s going on as they’ve been trained from birth to fulfil a particular role.

At this point Scions are like action heroes or the protagonists of an over-the-top drama series. They tend to be manifestly better than those around them in at least one way, but their abilities aren’t obviously supernatural.

  • The young martial artist who can take down far more experienced practitioners without breaking a sweat.
  • The medic who can patch up a soldier in the field so well he barely notices the injury anymore.
  • The guy everyone falls in love with at a glance.

Once a god (usually but not necessarily their divine parent or patron) visits an Origin level Scion they become a Hero level Scion and can start throwing around some proper divine power.

Scion: Origin (cover)Scion: Origin serves as an introduction to the world of Scion as well as a starting rulebook for the whole of Scion 2nd Edition. The other books expand on it rather than acting as complete games in their own right. Let’s go through what this book has to offer.

I really liked “Apple”, the opening story of Scion: Origin. It references and remixes Greek mythology nicely, modernises it in a clever way and really captures the sense of someone who is extraordinary, but still mortal. It’s snappily written too, my compliments to Kieron Gillen for lines such as, ‘The business suit was simple, a picture frame on her Mona Lisa.’

The other story in the book, written by Lauren Roy, is called “Eileen Bran” and draws on Irish mythology including the Dagda, Caithe Sidhe and the Morrigan. Eileen is a knowledge-wielding super-librarian who solves her problems with storybook logic. I loved her. She’s also gay and it’s great to see a game-line put an LGBTQ character front and centre. This kind of representation is par for the course for Onyx Path and I salute them for that.

The book offers lots of cool, pulpy and evocative art. Particularly the guy who’s shooting a zombie man-goat while it tries to rip his nipples off with its filthy talons.

The worldbuilding in this book is pretty good too. The World humans live in is a sort of interdimensional crossroads between the various underworlds and heavens and so on. It’s simultaneously the product of every creation myth there ever was. All the stories are true, even the ones that directly contradict each other.

Gods live in lands of symbolism and myth, typifying certain concepts and aspects of realities. But they’re not the greatest powers of this cosmology.

The first beings were the Primordials. Their children, for lack of a better word, are the Titans. (Yep, the roots of this game are very much in Greek mythology.) Titans embody natural forces and without them it’s possible the World would cease to exist. But the Titans really don’t care about humans. They’re not necessarily evil in the usual sense. They just don’t understand. The volcano doesn’t cry over the cities its eruption destroys and a Titan cannot comprehend the pain and fear of mortals.

The gods do care about humans, for the most part. They might be extremely unpleasant to certain mortals or groups, but as a rule they want the World to keep on spinning. So, they fought the Titans in wars called Titanomachies and now keep them imprisoned in the deepest and darkest parts of reality. Unfortunately, the Titans are stirring in their prisons. They have their own children and cults and these minions work to free their monstrous parents.

The nature of the gods can be altered by Fate, which in turn, is affected by the beliefs of humanity. Much like in American Gods, a god’s nature may change over time, in response to the beliefs of mortals. It can also change very suddenly and dramatically if a god goes around manifesting on the mortal plane, chucking miracles about and generally drawing the attention of the masses. This handily circumvents awkward questions like, “Shouldn’t this god or pantheon know the answer to e.g. whether Baldr was always a god of rebirth or if he was rewritten by Christian commentators into a Christ-like figure?” Or, “So who exactly was Medjed?” Even the gods may have forgotten such details and anyway what was once true might not be true anymore.

Let’s take Bragi, the Norse god of poetry. Imagine that he manifests in the USA so that he can hunt down a titanspawn who’s hiding in a college campus. Along the way he notices some students having a rap battle and can’t resist taking part just to prove that he is the best at words. He wins of course.

But someone films the battle and uploads it to Twitter. It goes viral.

Millions of people see Bragi spitting sick rhymes and their collective belief changes him into the god of rap. He becomes popular amongst gangsta rappers in particular because the Viking lifestyle of fighting, looting and bragging (as they see it), appeals to them.

An enforcer for a powerful street gang starts invoking Bragi and laying down a couple of lines of rap just before he kills his targets. He says he wants to blow their minds with something beautiful before he blasts their brains out.

This catches on. Now Bragi is the god of gangstas and is becoming the god of beautiful murder. Odin, Freya and Hel are getting twitchy because there really isn’t room for yet another Norse death god and Bragi’s too busy trying to get the dwarves to make him a gun powered by poetry to notice.

And all of this could have been avoided if Bragi had just sent a Scion or other supernatural creature to do the work for him.

There’s a huge amount of story potential from this set up. I liked the way the writers dive head on into the conflicts between ancient mores and modern morality. What does it mean for a modern Scion to interact with gods who believe the bodies of mortals are theirs for the taking, to ravish or devour as they please?

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was a series of eleven short descriptions of places in The World. Places like Kyoto, Mexico City and Reykjavik. All of which have been reimagined with a mythic character to them.

  • Athens is a proud city guarded by living stone statues but is rarely free of its patron god’s meddling.
  • Boston Harbour contains an entrance to Tir Na Nog.
  • Manitoulin Island in Ontario is home to a giant serpent that has just woken from a long slumber. Local merfolk plead with anyone who’ll listen for help in slaying the beast.
  • Memphis still stands in Egypt, a prosperous and modern city. Next to it is the tomb city of Saqqara where a complex bureaucracy fields and passes on messages to the interred dead.
  • A priest in the Wudang Mountains in China has achieved such perfect clarity that he has stopped time in the cave where he lives. He’s also tamed a huge swarm of bees. You know, as you do.

Beyond the cities, The World is filled with strange places and portals to other realms: The land of the ice giants, lost Camelot where Arthur once ruled and may do so again, and Libertalia—the sea-god worshipping republic of pirates that has survived since the Age of Sail. Again, this offers huge potential for all sorts of adventures.

The character creation system for Scion is fairly long, but also fairly easy to follow, particularly if you’re used to building characters in a story-focused system like FATE. For example:

You pick three Paths that define your character. These are broad descriptions of things like their upbringing, formative experiences, profession or calling as well as their supernatural or mundane affiliations. Rank these Paths as primary, secondary and tertiary. Choose three thematically appropriate Skills for each Path. The primary path grants three dots each to the selected Skills, the secondary grants two and the tertiary grants one. Later on, you get a few more Skill points to spend customising your character.

Paths can also be invoked to justify getting access to places, resources and contacts or even manipulating Fate in your favour e.g. “My character is a Peerless Hunter so she anticipated that the monster would flee this way and left a snare to trap it.”

As well as Paths you pick a couple of Knacks. These are very specific low-level powers, talents and gimmicks that often don’t appear to be specifically supernatural e.g. the ability to treat someone’s wounds without needing a proper first aid kit or bandages.

If you don’t fancy playing an actual Scion or would like to tie your Scion in to a particular type of mythical being, then Origin offers you the Supernatural paths. Which means you can play as a Saint, a Satyr, an Amazon, a different kind of Amazon that isn’t actually an Amazon, a therianthrope (werewolves etc), a Kitsune (yay!), or even a Cu Sidhe (a fairy dog). I don’t know why they threw this bit in but I really like it and now I want to write a story about a modern-day Amazon fighting crime with her pet/best friend who is a fairy dog and also the goodest boy, yes he is.

This book was my first proper exposure to the Storypath RPG system. It’s an elegant and muscular ruleset based around a single core mechanic: take an Attribute and add its value to the value of an appropriate Skill, roll as many ten-sided dice as that total and count how many of them rolled an 8 or higher. Any dice which do roll an 8 or higher are counted as Successes. Successes can be spent to achieve a task but also to avoid (‘buy off’), any Complications. E.g. you could use one Success to smash your way through a French window and spend another to avoid getting any cuts from the shattering glass. Harder tasks require more Successes to achieve. There’s more to it than that but once you’ve got the hang of this principle, you’re halfway to understanding the game.

Scion adds a system called momentum to this core setup. Momentum is generated during the course of play in various different ways, but usually by a player failing a dice roll. Momentum can be used to power certain Knacks or to bend Fate in the character’s favour.

In general, the game encourages you to have the player characters fail forward and not to let the game stall or become boring. Poor rolls while investigating a murder might mean a particular lead turns out to be a dead end. But then something else should give the player characters a break e.g. an accomplice to the killer gets spooked by the investigators and lets slip some piece of information that creates a new angle on the case.

Scions can only really be stopped by death (though I’m sure the game could cope with some post-life adventures through various Underworlds too). And only a threat of the same Tier or higher should ever kill a Scion.

The combat system itself is just an outgrowth of the core mechanic, which I always appreciate. Generate your dice pool and roll to attack, the target rolls to defend and if you score more Successes than they do and have more Successes leftover than they have points of armour then you hit them and cause an injury. Extra Successes beyond that don’t translate directly into extra damage but can be used to purchase stunts like eye gouges or grapple breaks or critical hits. The defender can spend their Successes on things like diving for cover as well as just soaking up damage.

Lions

I like how the combat system focuses on taking injuries rather than losing Hit Points or Health Levels. Your character might get a black eye, cracked ribs or a gashed leg, which will slow or weaken them in different ways. This makes combat feel more visceral than the classic D&D model, heightening the cinematic feel which Scion is designed to create.

You get all the combat stunts you’d expect and it’d be easy enough to improvise your own if need be. There’s even rules for grappling and (D&D players take note) they’re quite straightforward and easy to understand.

Interestingly, you use a different Attribute for ranged attacks depending on how far away the target is. I can kind of see the sense in that and it allows clever players to take advantage of an enemy’s strengths and weaknesses a little more. E.g. if your enemy is deadly with a pistol because of their agility and reflexes you can snipe at them from a distance. At that range your careful precision is more important than their speed.

Overall, it’d probably take new players little while to get used to this combat system, but I think it should allow for quite flexible and dramatic battles.

I also love the optional rule for ‘quick and dirty combat’. For low-level threats you can just use a single roll to determine the action if you want, letting you get straight to the point, then move on to more important or interesting events. Did you beat the crap out of those street thugs? Of course you did.

There’s a pretty streamlined set of rules for creating bad guys as well. It focuses more on the look and feel of opponents than fiddling around with stats. Basically, they’re good at something, okay at something else and bad at all other things. I liked how you can use this system to throw antagonists together with just a handful of abilities. Though you can tweak your bad guys with strengths and weaknesses if you want. I’m not sure if this approach would work long term. But if your players get bored then you can always move them up to the next Tier.

The Storyguiding session gives you the usual GMing advice. What definitely comes across is this game has a very modern and progressive ethos. Everyone should be having fun, the GM should be rooting for the player characters and play must stop if anyone feels uncomfortable. All fair enough.

The more unique points raised in this chapter focus on the mythical nature of storytelling in The World. You’re encouraged to infuse myths into the comparatively mundane stories your Origin characters will be navigating. E.g. instead of performing 12 Labours you need to perform community service to help you with your anger management issues (love it). Characters can be aware of this sort of thing—tropes like The Rule of Threes have real power in The World and it’s possible for characters to recognise and exploit them.

You’re also told to make everything dramatic e.g. you turned down a man’s advances so now his mission in life is to tear down everything you love! Also, ensure if a Scion refuses a call to adventure then the adventure will just keep calling them—so you refused to pick up the mysterious little jade statue you saw in an antiques shop? Never mind. Your kooky aunt saw it too and bought it for you as a present! Oh, you thanked her then threw it away? Well you just crashed your car into a rubbish truck and guess what came flying through your windshield?

Scion Origin (banner)

The book also provides information on a bunch of different gods your Scion could be descended from. I was really looking forward to learning about the diverse group of pantheons that the book is based around. A whole heap of gods I know nothing about, just waiting to be discovered! So, it was a bit jarring to discover that all Scion: Origin contains on this subject is a list of the names of the gods. Every god gets a title, a selection of three character paths their Scions can pick from and a brief list of their divine purviews. Many of the titles are absolutely tantalising. For example:

  • Guanshiyin Who Perceives the Sounds of the World
  • Tezcatlipoca the Smoking Mirror
  • Xipe Topec Our Lord the Flayed One
  • Chang’e the Immortal in the Moon

What does all that mean? It sounds fascinating. But you’re going to have to disappear down an internet rabbit-hole, do some serious academic research or go out and buy Scion: Hero if you want to know more.

I can kind of understand this design choice. Onyx Path wouldn’t have wanted to repeat the Pantheon information in each book. And Origin level Scions aren’t supposed to be running around dealing with gods. Origin level Scions are just about qualified to take down small organised-crime operations and perhaps the occasional disgruntled faun. But you’ve still got to choose a god to be your character’s ‘parent’ so a one or two sentence backstory for each god would have been nice, even if that would have added a sizeable amount to the page count. If I’d bought this book on its own just to try the system and setting out, then I’d have been sorely disappointed to find so little information about gods in a book about the children of gods.

Hero (cover)If you want to use this book as it is intended then I would suggest buying Scion: Hero as well, even if you’re planning to play at the Origin level for the foreseeable future. Scion: Hero has a huuuge amount of information on the different gods.

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of things you could use this book for. Run a spy thriller, a police procedural or a noir adventure. Recreate the bombastic worlds of Bollywood or your favourite pulpy drama. Personally, I’d be tempted to use Origin to run a game set in Riverdale, its overdramatic tone, reliance on symbolism and backstory and larger-than-life characters would suit the world of the series perfectly. And being Origin Tier Scions would explain how a bunch of teenagers could have become variously successful businesswomen, cage-fighters, super-sleuths, gang-leaders and vigilantes.

I do recommend Scion: Origin. It presents a huge range of possibilities and a system that’s adaptable enough to make them happen. It’s got a fun high action feel to it and lets you build a badass character of almost any sort you can imagine.

Onyx Pathcast (logo)As usual I’ll end with a couple of shout outs. I first learned about Scion: Origin from listening to the Onyx Pathcast (which I have mentioned before on this site). This podcast is definitely worth listening to if you like Onyx Path or RPGs in general and particularly if you are hoping to work in the industry.

The second shout out is to Caffeinated Conquests—a video channel on Twitch and YouTube. They post RPG Let’s Plays among other content, some of which covers adult topics. Their short series of Scion: Origin Let’s Plays was absolutely hilarious and really showcased how cool these pre-divine Scions can be.

That’s all folks. Look out for part two of this review next month!

I received a free digital copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Share

3 Comments

  1. Your review made me buy the book from my favorite hobby store…
    I should receive it today or saturday and hope that I could use this Book for a “Almighty Jonhsons” kind of campaign (If you don’t know that Series [from new-zealand], I recommend watching it ASAP 😀 – It had a run on SyFy a few years ago)

    • Avatar Richard Marpole says:

      Awesome! I hope you have a great time with it.
      Yes I love the Almighty Johnsons and am actually going to namedrop the series in my review of Scion: Hero. It was definitely a series I had in my mind, alongside American Gods, when I was thinking about adapting settings into this game.
      The gods and goddesses in TAJ are a little more powerful than Origin Scions, (though way less competent), and nowhere near as powerful as Hero Scions.
      The Fatebinding rules in Hero cover interactions between gods and mortals but could be easily adapted to cover the eternally repeating relationships between gods in TAJ. The relationship between Ty and Eva is textbook Fatebinding.
      Sticking with Origin, I reckon if you upped the power of the Knacks a little and toned down the skills and stats of the player characters you could recreate TAJ pretty well. Some Knacks would fit with established characters like Mike but you’d want to make some knacks of your own to fit the series.
      Please let us know here or on Twitter what you thought of the book once you’ve read it.

      • I’ve created and started to play a “TAJ”-styled campaign, back in the days, but with another system named “cheap tales”, a variation of Barbarians of Lemuria.
        I centered the campaign in my home town, in a run down suburbs, and the characters were from a family of Egyptian immigrants – and they were from the egyptian Pantheon.
        It was fun, and I might bring back that campaign one day. Scion:origins seems to be a good place to start.

Leave a Comment