Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review of "The Haunted City"

This August I had the opportunity to go to GenCon 50. Not just to attend, but also to run games for Fantasy Flight Games. It was a wonderful time and an amazing experience; "10/10 would do again" to use the phrase. With one exception, every session I ran was for Genesys, FFG's new generic rulebook based on their Narrative Dice system. It occurs to me that I never did any sort of post-GenCon commentary or review of the module, the system as presented, and my thoughts on it all.

The adventure is called "The Haunted City", and was written by one of the many "Tims" of FFG (Tim Cox if I remember correctly). The adventure is set within FFG's Runebound setting of Terrinoth. It involves a murder investigation that ends in Nerekhal, a fortified city with a sordid past of being a nexus of infernal power. There's a possibility of folks to play this module in the future, so for now I won't go into too many details about the plotline so as best not to spoil it.

First up are the characters; they're a motley bunch of named heroes from Runebound; Alys Raine, Syndrael, Leoric of the Book, Thaiden Mistpeak, Pathfinder Durik, and Ulma Grimstone. Experience-wise, these were some advanced characters; they had 190-210 XP in addition to their starting XP. This gave them a host of skill ranks, a bevy of Talents, and each of them had a Heroic Ability (something that's akin to Signature Abilities for those familiar with the Star Wars RPG, but not quite as powerful). Most of the characters were seemingly really fun to play, I didn't have anyone who came up to me afterwards with comments that their character felt lacking.

My only real criticism about the characters are that they had a huge amount of abilities and options to choose from. Since the system is still technically in closed Beta, it doesn't allow for anyone to really have any familiarity with the talents presented. I know that only one person ever used Thaiden's "Wraithbane" talent, preferring to use his crossbow in just about all situations. Several players mentioned that they forgot or didn't realize they had certain options, probably due to the wide variety of them. However, I can say that pretty much everyone did find the "intended combos" for each character; Alys is able to absolutely smash eveything with her Warhammer, and then layer on even more damage with her "Justice of the Citadel" talent.

Each character also has Strengths, Flaws, Desires, and Fears. The idea behind those mechanics are for situations where these qualities would be a benefit, they add Boost Dice to the roll. For situations where they would be a detriment, they add a Setback die to the roll. Since this was a new mechanic and concept even for me, I actually missed having that come into play more often. Also, unlike the Obligation/Duty/Morality mechanics in Star Wars, every character has 4 of these qualities to keep track of. It was a little daunting, and I probably missed several opportunities to influence the game with these abilities. Still, it was handy to have them, and just about every player of Durik was shying away from the truly supernatural threats and challenges in the module.

As I mentioned before, each character had a Heroic Ability, something new that looks a lot like Signature Abilities in Star Wars. The ability is spelled out with a few descriptors such as Name, Origin, Ability, Upgrades, and Effect. There also seems to be a tracking for Total Ability Points earned, and Ability Points available. Presumably, one will be able to earn Heroic Ability Points and spend them on a variety of effects. I really like Ulma's ability to simply activate (for 2 Story Points) and take an Incidental action to defeat an entire minion group within short range. Every group had her use this to great effect in the module. It basically lasts for 2 rounds, which seems appropriate.

One of the biggest questions before and after GenCon was how magic was going to work. Is it skill based? Do you buy spells like you do Force Powers in Star Wars? How are spells cast? How are they designed? Is there a list or something? The public got their first glimpse at Spells thanks to Alys and Leoric.

Spells are, in fact, skill based, with 5 different schools to chose from; Arcane, Divine, Primal, Runes, and Verse. We only got to see Arcane and Divine in play with this module. Alys was limited to one spell per encounter, while Leoric could toss spells all day long as long as his Strain holds out. Casing any spell costs 2 strain, which is a pretty good balance point to help reign in mages. Leoric's signature spell can hammer an opponent for 9 damage at medium range, and crit them for a +30 on the Critical Injury table for only 2 advantage; and he could do that every round. I did have one player nearly knock himself unconscious during one particularly nasty fight thanks to taking a lot of strain, so it works pretty well.

Each caster has a few spells to play with, with no real insight as to how spells are acquired (yet). The spell outlines the effect, and the difficulty to cast it. With the exception of Leoric's signature spell, each spell has a list of additional effects they can layer on to the spell at the cost of increasing the casting difficulty. Some spells can take additional targets, or increased range. I really like the way the Developers handled this, it makes the bigger flashier spells able to be cast at all levels, but you definitely want to be a skilled (or Intellectual) caster if you're going to increase the difficulty of the spell to 5 purple difficulty dice (a Formidable difficulty).

The last details that were included were updates to how Defense works. It used to be a complex chore to figure out if certain effects or qualities added to defense. In Genesys they simplify it to "granting Defense" or "adding to Defense". Some armor grants Defense, a new base line for other effects to add on top of. Cover also grants Defense, so it doesn't stack with armor. The Defensive weapon quality adds to defense, and there's no limitation on how many sources of Defensive you can benefit from. This meant that Syndrael became a true tank, able to get a Defense of 3 thanks to her Sword (Defensive 1) and her Large Shield (Defensive 2).

Aside from this, the rules played pretty much the same as Star Wars.

"The Haunted City" was a fun module to run, full of twists and turns and unique, well thought out characters for the heroes to interact with. It's a somewhat rail-roady adventure, but for a convention module that's supposed to fit into a 4-hour time slot, it's understandable and forgivable. Even so, if you're not careful the players could turn the adventure into a 5 or 6 hour adventure, which is great if FFG releases this for others to play in their own homes.

Sam Stewart and his team have made a winner here. I'm really looking forward to Genesys hitting the shelves, and finally being able to talk about all the things I can't talk about right now. Until then, we at least have these bits of insight into Genesys to gnaw on.

May the dice be with you.

Sam Stewart meeting his appreciative public


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  2. Where can I find a copy of the Character Sheet Template you used to generate these PC's? I like how the PC picture is on the main page.

    1. Ah, but I didn't create them. These are the ones from FFG directly. They made them with their in-house templates (their Star Wars character sheets have a similar set up)