Legends of Alyria
Author: Seth Ben-Ezra
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2003-03-21
At last, but still just almost.
Legends of Alyria has been in development by Seth Ben-Ezra, publisher of the game Junk, for a couple of years now. Enough is now available that the game can be picked up and played, but still a bit in pieces. Currently available are: several Dreaming Out Loud columns from Seth's stint at the Gaming Outpost as a design-journal writer, several recent short stories like Devil's Hour and Wearing the Mask, the adventure scenario Blood of Haven (PDF) which includes the most updated rules, and the older Quick-Start Rules. Those which are no longer directly available (e.g. the Gaming Outpost material) are available from Seth.
The setting is Seth's, inspired directly or indirectly by works such as Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, many of Jack Vance's works such as The Dying Earth, and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern. In this case, colonists of a hostile planet have long since lost all knowledge of their origins and live in such a way, and in such a place, that the story resembles surrealistic fantasy more than logistically nailed-down science fiction. The system, called Diverse Lunacy, is based on a design by The Scarlet Jester.
Harsh Publishing Observation
Fair warning: I am presenting some professional criticisms which are going to cut some folks close to the bone. They are based on the idea of presenting "game design journals" at RPG websites, such as RPG.net or the Gaming Outpost, specifically those by John Wick, Gareth-Michael Skarka, and Seth Ben-Ezra at the latter site. In a word, I recommend not participating in such a project.
My first reason concerns the creative process - not that it's somehow holy and private, but rather that communication with others can stifle or lock in certain concepts before their time. Ideas often twist and mutate, or projects get 80% done and then get cannibalized for another, more inspiring one. For example, the relationship-map concept I presented in The Sorcerer's Soul began as the core of a game called The Human Machine, once they were "gone" into Soul, there wasn't any reason to complete the Machine. I suggest that if you keep people updated on every step, early commitments get made that actually hamper the process.
The other reason is that it focuses way too much attention to the social status and website-buzz of being a Game Designer. I am very sympathetic to real-life demands of one's job, family, and crunchy hassles like moving. I'm also sympathetic to the vagaries of inspiration and personal creative pacing. However, I have noted that when these design-busters hit, the tendency is to let the game design slide in favor of posting to the Design Journal about how the design is being delayed. In other words, the snatches of free time that do appear get co-opted by the Journal rather than devoted to the design.
I think Seth has suffered from both of these negative outcomes of establishing a Game Designer web presence long before Legends of Alyria was ready for it, and in many ways, to the detriment of baking the game through actual play.
Alyria is Setting-based Narrativist design without quite enough Setting yet, or rather, what we need to get Setting actualized. Blood of Haven presents a great general introduction to the planet, but not enough for a place to play in for original scenarios. The Citadel material Seth presented for my game would be perfect (see link below).
So there's the basic idea: a storm-wracked plateau in a sea of terrifying mist, with bizarre mixes of cannibalized technology and low-tech societies. There's plenty of Color: mist ships, Aliens-like dragons with glowing green eyes, metal arches framing sprawling cities, and so on. Just a bit more to go: what does a city look like (monolithic stone blocks, or eery tapering spires)? What do clothes look like (bare breasts and kirtles, or brocade robes)? What kind of social niceties go on (shouts of acclaim, or murmurs of approval)? Give me a landscape like the old Star Trek did: a mural of a strange city against a misty, oddly-colored sky.
I suggest that a package including the Blood of Haven rules and setting, a little more system material (see below), the scenario design material from the Quick-Start rules, the short stories, and the Citadel material from the forums could be professionally illustrated for a nominal fee, and that it could be sold as a PDF for $10-12. Such a PDF would sell and play like gangbusters. I say this without reservation: Alyria is, or is almost realized as, the best science-flavored, slightly-surreal fantasy role-playing game I have ever seen.
First of all, wowsers. I love the Diverse Lunacy mechanic; it's original, low-search time, low-handling time, compelling, and colorful. It's a truly non-numeric Fortune mechanic. What you have is a Moon Die, a ten-sider with faces representing, in order, New Moon, Crescent Moon, Half Moon, Gibbous Moon, and Full Moon, as well as one face of the red Weeping Moon (the "big uh-uh" value). Great, you think, another gimmick to hide an imitation of Fudge ... keep reading.
A character is primarily composed of three sets of things.
Virtue: a single, generalized expression of the moral story role of a character. This value is not utilized in the resolution mechanics but rather sets some Currency issues for character construction and a couple other things.
Attributes: the core of the resolution system: how good you are at stuff, in three generalized categories. Attributes are graded in the traditional way, from New Moon being cruddy and Full Moon being awesome.
Traits: the modifiers of the conflict system: they're activated to modify the base conflict among Attributes. Traits are graded very differently from Attributes - they are more effective at the extremes (Full is good, New is evil), and no Trait may be rated as a Half Moon.
Note the possible diversity. One might have all Evil Traits, but a positive Virtue, for instance, or vice versa, or perhaps a mix of positive and negative Traits.
Role-players who are unused to Alyria have to pick up the following concepts quickly. (1) Virtue is not an Effectiveness value at all. (2) Traits are Effectiveness values, which are more effective the more extreme they are, i.e., they grade outward in two directions from the center. (3) Attributes are also are Effectiveness values; however, they are graded in the traditional way, from New (worst) to Full (best).
All conflicts (physical, social, etc) are handled the same way. Typically, a conflict will begin by identifying the Attributes being employed by the two opponents. Both roll a Moon die; the idea is to roll equal to or above one's opponent's Attribute value. If both succeed, the one rolling to beat the lower value succeeds marginally. (Side note: the Quick-Start rules also include some good rules and guidelines for how narration is conducted relative to rolls.)
Most conflicts are then modified by activating Traits, which is to say, replacing either your own Attribute value or your opponent's with either one of your Traits' values or one of your opponent's. Different opponents or problems permit the following options:
It all depends on just how you stack up against them, and what their traits are. One foe might have really nasty evil Traits, so your own mild evil Trait isn't going to be as effective, compared to exploiting their own, for example. As a general thing, mild Traits aren't worth too much in Alyria.
The crucial quantitative feature is that the spectrum is not graded in the Fudge sense - any two variables are only "higher" or "lower," not numerically stepped. In other words, a Gibbous Moon beats a Crescent Moon, but in no special way better than a Half Moon does. The gradings affect probabilities of success, but not degree of effect. When a Trait is activated to improve or decrease an Attribute, it simply replaces the value in question, rather than "increasing" or "decreasing" it in any 1-2-3 levels sort of way. (Oh yeah, Full and Weeping outcomes do have kind of a "crit" feel to them, but again, it's not a numerical thing.)
Oh yes, I forgot to mention: all of the above can be pre-empted and replaced by a Drama metagame-mechanic based on a Resource, if someone wants to resolve a conflict by spending either Inspiration or Corruption points. In the Quick-Start rules, one might even select minimal Traits, leaving a character either with base Attributes or I/C points for doing things in play. One of the characters in playtesting proved to be very fascinating and effective using this design, but apparently it's not being carried over into the new version as an option.
The Alyria system ensures that people will make use of the whole range of a character's scores, rather than merely hitting a problem with the same hammer over and over. We got a lot of mileage out of this diversity, and it wasn't a matter of ignoring effective tactics in favor of role-playing. It was a matter of the tactics aiding and abetting the role-playing, very much in the sense of Sorcerer, The Dying Earth, and Hero Wars.
Legends of Alyria sits very squarely in the same play-category as Hero Wars, Orkworld, The Riddle of Steel, and Sorcerer, forming, if you will, another "spot" in the constellation these games represent, with a strong dose of The Pool in terms of organizing who gets to narrate. Since this mode of play matches my most favored play-preferences, I admit to bias in stating that I love this game and would happily scratch and bite to encourage Seth to get it into saleable form.
One note about the Moon Dice used in the Diverse Lunacy system: they are also excellent in terms of pure Color. People love to check them out, to play with them, and to ask how they work. I had to beat and pummel folks away from pawing them in order to keep the Elmer's Glue pasted-on labels from coming off. They represent one of the few instances in which I recommend springing to manufacture custom dice for a role-playing game.
Legends of Alyria represents perhaps the first instance of game design that was explicitly informed by my original System Does Matter essay and my postings at the Gaming Outpost, 1999-2001 or so. As such, it's not too surprising that the game's design shows some parallels and influences from Sorcerer (especially The Sorcerer's Soul), InSpectres, and Hero Wars, all of which were being discussed heavily at at the time. I'm kind of frustrated that Alyria's tardiness means that newer games like Trollbabe, Le Mon Mouri, Otherkind, and Universalis (all of which show parallels or even direct influences from it) have come out before it does.
Does it succeed as such? Well, that's not going to be surprising either, and I may be guilty of a bias-tautology, but my answer is, Oh yeah. Alyria is one of the most powerful Narrativist systems I've ever seen, especially for Character and System. Its integration with Setting, Situation, and Color is coming along well. Kudos to the Jester and I look forward, as I have been, to Seth's next phase of presentation.
What Happened in Play
Wowsers continues with regard to the players. They latched onto the narration issues very quickly and easily, and any hitches with the system were based on coping with the separate three grading-scales for the same spectrum. The color and setting text that Seth provided for the Citadel was fully sufficient for us, and they liked the fantasy-Blade Runner combination. Check it out at Need information for my Alyria session.
The Quick-Start rules include yet another major contribution to role-playing design and play from this game, one which I think had a major influence on Universalis. Seth calls it a "storymap," which is to say, a diagram of all the characters involved in the situation at hand, with lines drawn to indicate relationships of all kinds and annotations to explain personal outlooks or goals regarding the situation. Blood of Haven presents an already-developed storymap for people simply to use, but the Quick-Start rules instead provide very complete, well-written, and usable guidelines for making them. I have three issues to discuss regarding storymaps.
The first issue is probably of little interest to anyone besides the author/owner of Adept Press, regarding the Alyrian storymap and the Adept relationship map (presented in The Sorcerer's Soul) methods of scenario preparation. Seth is, I think, laboring under a misapprehension that the relationship map method permits only kin and sexual relations to be important during play. A lot of people miss that the relationship map method ensures that such ties are present as elements of the scenario, but specifically in order to throw the doors wide open as to whether those ties will be preserved or broken.
Therefore, I think the distinction regarding kin/sex vs. social/ethical relationships is a non-issue. The Alyrian storymaps so far presented universally include one or more Adept relationship maps anyway, just developed further by adding more characters. Since this is nothing more nor less than what one is supposed to do with a relationship map anyway during character creation and early-sessions play, I see a lot less distinction between the basic concepts than Seth does.
The second issue is more important, in my view. The novel (and awesome) thing about an Alyria storymap is that it's built as a group project prior to play ... and player-characters are chosen from the map as a late step in the process. That's right. The five of us, say, start with the GM or maybe the group deciding on a very general Situation (mutant wolves are attacking an isolated town). We build a storymap, each contributing characters until there are (say) ten or twenty characters in it. We know how they're related, who showed up lately and who's always lived there, and much more. It probably includes the "bad guys" too. Then we pick player-characters from the map. A player might choose someone that he or she didn't contribute to the map at all. And only then, after that, do we establish the characters' actual mechanical scores. This is way different from the Adept relationship map and I think should be acknowledged as a highly influential feature of the game.
Clearly, this method requires some quick thinking on the GM's part, unless play is scheduled to take place at a later session. I could really have used some kind of summary sheet for NPCs, especially one that allowed me to scribble down attribute scores and traits and so on quickly. That would permit much faster prep into play.
Before addressing the third issue, I'll explain what we did. The group opted for a Web vs. law-enforcement scenario, with an attack on one of the city's Arches being the key event, and the main sub-plot being the conflict between two law-enforcement types (the old captain with some Web contacts and a special Keeper agent sent in to "get things done"). The player-characters ended up being the old captain and a Misbegotten Web member with some electrical-channel abilities. Interestingly, the latter player decided on the most evil value for the character's Virtue, fully acknowledging that the character was a villain, i.e., from the out-of-character point of view.
Link: Storymap 1
Link: Storymap 2
We got a solid short story out of a two-hour session without any problem, including some interesting NPC members of the storymap getting some air time. The players were very satisfied with the moral decisions that their characters made at the end of the run, and all of us instantly pegged another member of the storymap as the point of the "new triangle" created by the resolution to the "old triangle" that powered the first session. We especially liked the rule which permitted players to modify the storymap during play using I/C points.
As the story continued into more sessions through popular demand, we decided to keep the existing storymap and run the entire startup procedure again, adding characters to the map, whether tightly linked or loosely (i.e. in the vicinity), in another double round-robin. New players were involved this time too, so this process was a great way to bring them up to speed - and since they had something to do, they didn't just sit and endure a breathless but incoherent account of the first run, but listened with interest and asked lots of questions.
Now for the third issue about storymaps. I think the storymap method carries with it a definite risk of telling too much of the story via character creation and setup for play. You have the conflicts, often with a set of actions already established which brought them into existence. The characters often have their personal takes and priorities completely established, with little flexibility, so that all that remains to do is to butt heads or otherwise hit climax-point. Most of the characters have such strong "reasons to be there" that they are practically setting rather than protagonists. This is, I think, why Seth often finds that his games only last one session. Blood of Haven most definitely illustrates this problem. Most of the descriptions as well as the opener reads to me like stuff that should be established through decisions in play. This is actually why I like to distinguish relationship maps specifically as "core back-story," a component of scenario design, rather than the whole-magillah of scenario design, so that actual play can establish further relationships and connections, as well as set up novel decision-points rather than having them laid out in full already.
I recommend, therefore, that the next version of Alyria include the Quick-Start rules' version of the storymap method, emphasizing the group-creation elements rather than the "here, play this" element that seems to pervade Blood of Haven.
The main system-question that seems extant is, how many Traits can be called in, sequentially, during a single conflict/roll? Let's say my Attribute in a conflict is Gibbous Moon, and that I activate my Full Moon Trait "idealistic" to ramp up the value up to Full; my opponent activates my New Moon Trait "inexperienced" against me to cancel it. Are we done? No more Trait activation? Or do we keep going, potentially until the person with more Traits uses his or her last one? This is a very significant distinction, which will make a big difference for both short-term and long-term play. Apparently it's still getting hashed out (see Contemplated rules adjustments).
I recommend limiting conflicts to one Trait activation per character, which means, "activate, quitcher bitchin, and roll." The main reason is to force difficult personal choices into individualized conflicts (which is thematically consistent), and to emphasize that strategizing character-construction in Alyria works best, I think, from conflict to conflict rather than within each one.
Another issue that people seem to bring up a lot is the degree to which Misbegotten/Blessed rules are needed. These characters are basically mutants with powers, which raises tricky questions about add-on rules. We did fine just handling Blessed stuff as Color, just employing the existing resolution system, which apparently is how the finalized version of the game is being built.
I recommend that the moral and personality elements of Traits be emphasized very strongly in the text, for two reasons. The first is merely mechanics-based: players apparently have a hard time internalizing the differences among Traits, Attributes, and Virtue that I described above, specifically, that Virtue is not an Effectiveness value yet really does matter in the system. They opt for Virtues like "Agile," thinking in terms of point-based Advantages/Disadvantages systems in other games. In making up a doe-eyed, lost orphan village girl, one player insisted on giving her a Virtue of Crescent because she was small and weak; he just could not grasp that his mind-set only applied to Attributes.
More importantly, and including the previous point within it, the core of the text I'm thinking is most needed is that Good and Evil, in Alyria, need better clarification right up front. It's a very moral game; without some grasp of how any situation relates to (and especially challenges) the moral framework, it's unplayable. Unfortunately, the game text lacks concrete examples. This is the classic Alignment problem - in the AD&D rulebooks, we see tons of wordbrush about alignments' meanings, and absolutely no examples of how they might be applied or even look like'" during play itself. As it stands, the player is forced to make a character in the abstract and then rely on the GM to say how the character would react to it using his combination of Goodness or Evilness, and I think this state of affairs runs counter to every other feature of the game.
I am not talking about a fixed set of "good people act this way" behaviors that must be followed in an alignment-sense. Not at all. I'm basing all these comments on this idea: that the whole existence of Good and Evil as viable issues in a story tends to focus people's attention on how hard it is to parse them out in a specific situation - and that this difficulty should be a fruitful source of inspiration for the game's Premise.
To clarify: if you present a morally gray world, worthwhile protagonists are those people who manage to draw a Good/Evil line, even if it's only personal and even if the line is drawn in the sand (example: Pulp Fiction). If you present a morally stratified world, worthwhile protagonists are those people who discover or embody the breakdown of the distinction at the personal level (example: A Clockwork Orange).
Going back to the game we played, it was quite clear that people with strong personal morals are often the best at playing villains for maximal three-dimensional disturbance, and more maximum positive contribution to the story being created. Therefore, providing the setting and indeed the game as a whole with a valid basis for personal morality, I think that the best possible "gray" play can be facilitated. Or conversely, if the setting/game is infused with a much grayer, who-knows-who's-right moral content, then "solid answer" play can be facilitated.
Which way is best for Alyria? I don't really know, but I do think that once that gets established, the game will be among the finest around.