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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Part Time Gods: A Game Review

When I read gaming books, I typically do a quick go-through first, reading the highlights and getting a general feel for the game's themes, direction and and concepts. Then, if it's interesting enough, I'll go through and read the game again in-depth, looking at details such as systems and setting details. This is how I approached the new game Part Time Gods by Eloy Lasanta.

And let me start off by saying I'm very impressed with PTG. I think it's a good sign when ideas for campaigns and material start coming to me while I'm reading, and that's what happened before I even finished reading through PTG the first time. There have been some games out there that were quite good, and were fun to read, but I walked away asking myself, "So... what do I do with this?" Gaming books can be well-written, but if I can't imagine actually playing it, or if I have to struggle to think of concepts for the game, that's a problem. One that I don't have for PTG.

The Premise: You were once a human being before receiving the Spark, the divine catalyst that transforms you from mortal into deity. Now as a god you're blessed (and also burdened) with the powers and responsibilities of a god. You possess a Dominion that describes your divine portfolio, what precisely you are a god of: The goddess of rain, the god of wolves, the god of honor, etc. Gods also possess powers called Entitlements, which may or may not relate to the god's bailiwick and are more generic than Dominion powers.

Theme: The central conflict in the game is the conflict between the person you were and the god you've become. Do you deny your divinity and try to live as a person? Or do you forsake your humanity in the pursuit of divine identity? Gods typically fall somewhere between these two extremes, with each individual god finding her "fit." The game is good at emphasizing this conflict in both the flavor text and the rules without pushing it too heavily.

Setting: The game is immediately accessible. This is an advantage of modern "realistic" games, where it's not necessary to learn and entirely new setting, even if the game puts a spin on what we accept as reality. So PTG has that going for it, letting us jump into the game's retelling of history through the lens of the gods. The writer offers a compelling origin story for the gods of myth and legend, which glosses over many of the mythologies themselves while still accounting for the gods themselves. While there's a lot of gold to mine in the individual faiths, this is probably the best (and safest) approach for an open setting like PTG. When you're dealing with competing creation myths for multiple cultures it can get confusing. Not that there's not potential in exploring that sort of thing, but PTG isn't that sort of game. The goal of the game is not to bog you down in details or pull you into existential questions about which religion is right and to what degree, but to establish the setting so you can start playing and tell your own myths. (And you can explore religion and related issues on your own accord, if you wish, as I'd be wont to do.)

Modern gods are organized into Theologies and pantheons. Theology is a broad overview of your beliefs and approach to divinity -- your "splat," in gamer parlance.

Theologies: The Theologies are:
  • Ascendants: Gods who look to become as powerful as the old gods. 
  • Cult of the Saints: Gods who believe themselves to be messengers from Heaven - they hear voices.
  • Drifting Kingdoms: Nomadic gods who build powerful domains, simply to leave them behind to build the next.
  • Masks of Jana: Gods who hide the existence of magic from the world, hoping not to lose themselves in the process.
  • Order of Meskhenet: Gods who look to the past for their power and survive through aristocratic-type families.
  • Phoenix Society: Gods who guide humanity to greatness through direct and intimate interaction.
  • Puck-Eaters: Gods who learn to draw power from chaos and ingesting the flesh of another.
  • Warlock’s Fate: Gods who seek the answers to the universe, but rely too heavily on their Relics.
I'd be hesitant to call the Theologies the weak point of the game, as that would suggest the writer did a poor job on them, and that's not what I'm trying to say. But I will say certain Theologies are the part of the game that I get the least. Some were quite well-done, and make sense to me; I can see how to fit a character into those Theologies easily. Others... eh, not so much. I feel a game's primary splats should be broad rather than narrow. You can get more specific with smaller and less central groups, but the main groups should be inclusive and be able to accommodate a wide variety of character concepts, while still having flavor and uniqueness.

And some Theologies are like this. But for other Theologies it's hard for me to create characters concepts for, or to understand the motivation of a god to join them. I think the Drifting Kingdoms is the one I get the least. I'm challenged to think of any god that it might fit the Theology, save Siddhartha (the Buddha) if you want to count him as a god -- an expression of the dangers of attachment and the desire to explore and learn. I don't get Wanderers' motivation to invest all this time and energy into establishing a territory, and then just leaving it. I can see a Theology based on imbuing places, sure, one focused on territory the same way the Warlock's Fate is focused on relics. It's the Wanderers' rootlessness I don't get. I mean, I can see an odd pantheon or two formed from Drifting Kingdoms gods doing this, seeking a new interpretation of their Theology's purpose... but an entire theology based on this idea? It doesn't gel for me.

The visceral Puck-Eaters are interesting, but they're another example of a conceptually narrow Theology when a general approach might have worked better. They're cannibalistic gods that devour people and Outsiders (divine monsters) for power. Which I think is a cool idea, if unsettling, recalling the heart-eating dark gods of Aztec myth. But I'd have preferred a more general "thieves of divinity" concept, which includes cannibals but could support similar characters that weren't. For example, a god that withers its foes as he steals their life force, or a "naughty vampire god" that drains power through blood, or a trickster ala Anansi the Spider that steals powers from his victims. I'd also have made gods vulnerable to these thieves' attentions as well, so that there's a certain element of danger and risk with associating with them. As it was, I feel in the stereotypes the other Theologies weren't quite horrified enough at the concept of Puck-Eaters, a little too accepting of their grotesque practices. Inclusion is good and all, and we don't want them to be so hated that they can't be viable characters in mixed pantheons... but cannibals that target human beings and Outsiders for power should be a nauseating concept for gods to that still are very human, and even to those that aren't.

With these exceptions, the Theologies are well done. My favorite is probably the Masks of Jana. They preserve the proper order of things and protect people from knowledge of the divine, yet at the same time they must gain worshipers; it's an interesting dichotomy. I might like to have seen a seeker or unaligned Theology as well, for gods that don't have the answers or a specific agenda but that are trying to understand the universe and where they fit in. Even if something so disorganized and without a unifying ethos couldn't really qualify as as a Theology, I'd have liked to see the idea of unaligned gods explored, as certainly some wouldn't want to join one.

That smaller and lesser-known Theologies exist was mentioned. This is something I'm very interested in exploring.

Pantheons: While theologies are broad groups with global presences, pantheons are local. These are alliances of gods that hold and maintain territory. Pantheons aren't necessarily Theology-specific, and in fact most pantheons seem to support a variety of them. It's analogous to the adventuring party. However, what's interesting about pantheons is they're more than just alliances of convenience or people that just hang out together. There's spiritual weight to pantheons, and pacts are formed.

I'll take a moment to describe a god's territory, as it's relevant to this issue. A god's territory begins taking on qualities and characteristics reflecting that deity; while the change is nothing drastic, it is noticeable, especially to other gods. And it seems largely out of the control of the god, instead being a natural consequence of the god dwelling there. A god of death's territory would have a slightly higher death rate than average, and perhaps the mood of that area is more somber; meanwhile a goddess of liquor (an actual signature character for the game!) would infuse her neighborhood with feelings of revelry, stupor and drunken brawls. The demesne of a god of crows would support a high population of corvids, and so on.

For pantheons, what you end up with is a mix of divine themes based on the gods that occupy the area. So for a territory defended by the above three gods, you'd have a party neighborhood that sees a higher incidence of death from drunk driving and sclerosis of the liver, with a morbid tendency for crows to gather. You have to take the good with the bad, here, and there's a sacred bond between the gods and the areas in which they live and with one other as they form the pantheon. Gods don't even have to like each other or hang out during off hours, but once the pantheon is formally founded their fates are all thrown in together and they have to cooperate.

I like this approach a lot. It gives a strong justification for gods to gather and work together, even if they don't have much in common. There's a lot of story potential with this sort of thing as well, as gods try to balance and manage the influence they have on their territories.

Mechanics: So far PTG's system is my favorite one out of the Third Eye Games lineup, and that's saying something. It runs with DGS Lite, a less rules-intensive version of the Dynamic Gaming System. It's very similar, though with some of the crunch taken out. While basic DGS is a great system, I tend to prefer simpler rules and less math, and DGS Lite fits that bill.

Easily my favorite part of the system is the rules for divine powers. Your Dominions determine in a broad sense what you can influence or control, while your Manifestations are specialized skills that describe how. A goddess of rain with the Beckon Manifestation can conjure rain from the sky, while she could manipulate how the rain falls and pools with Puppetry, or even see what's happening in a distant area where it's raining with Oracle. Meanwhile, a god of dogs with the same Manifestations could summon a canine companion to his side with Beckon, direct her actions with Puppetry, or use Oracle to see through the dog's eyes and detect where she is. And a fear god with those Manifestations fear-god could conjure fear from nothingness, influence how a fear manifests, or sense who is feeling fear in his vicinity. The possibilities are endless, especially when you consider how open-ended Dominions are, and it rewards player creativity. Yes, this means the Game Master has to make a lot on on-the-spot adjudications on what's allowed and how powers might work, but that's a feature to me and not a flaw. This is one of the best "magic systems" I've seen and I look forward to exploring it in-game.

Antagonists: One of my favorite parts of the book is the Antagonists chapter, which details the Outsiders -- entities invested with divine power that are not gods, sometimes enemies of them and other times allies. Rather than being a mini Monster Manual with dry stats, the chapter details how the Outsiders might exist on modern earth, along with their behaviors and motivations. This is a lot harder to do in realistic settings than in fantastical ones, but I think the author did a good job here. A lot of the "classic" mythical entities are covered, like Elves and Minotaurs and Unicorns, but a decent number of lesser-known entities from non-Western mythoi are detailed: The ghoulish Japanese Jikininki, the child-eating Manananggal from the Philippines, and the Tengu (one of my favorites).

Art: Art tends to be a secondary concern for me, it doesn't make or break a game -- I focus on thecontent underneath the dressing. But the artwork in the book is very good, so those of you that like visuals won't be disappointed. The art in the book trends toward the realistic rather than the epic, presenting the characters as people rather than toga-clad deities riding lightning bolts while smiting legions of demons. Not that there isn't art with epic overtones in the book -- such as the front cover -- but most of it gives us glimpses of the gods how they'd be in a modern setting. Which I think is a good thing, as it helps ground the game and give it context.

Also touched on (heh) are the Touched, people invested with divine power that aren't gods, but that can present strong opposition or serve as capable allies. Champions fulfill the archetype of divine heroes like Perseus, while Seers and Hags serve similar roles in the PTG setting as they did in Greek myth. No, Touched are not full gods and they lack Dominions and Entitlements, but this doesn't make them weak. To give you an idea, some are known as God-Killers, and they are called that for a reason...

Other Things: The sample/signature characters in the book are interesting, and not as stereotypical or strictly archetypal as you might expect. In other words, the writer didn't confuse Dominion with character concept, and didn't write the characters around the sort of powers they had. Each character has a backstory and a life as a person before the Spark, which is richly detailed. They give you a solid idea of how a character might be put together and how they can be roleplayed. The Storytelling chapter is also quite good, and offers useful advice even for those of us used to running games.

The editing could have been better, with a few word transpositions and extra apostrophes. (Funny enough, my name is in the editing credits. So this means I wasn't doing my job.) But the writing is solid and easy to understand. I can't think of any instances where a description was unclear or so vague I couldn't understand what the author was getting at.

The "feel" of the game is very, very good. The game doesn't take itself too seriously. Yes, there's serious subject matter in the book, such as cannibalism and addiction. But the tone imparts levity more than gravity, and isn't not bogged down in seriousness and melodrama. The book is easy to read as a consequence, and gives you the idea the game would be very fun to play.

In Closing: Part-Time Gods is a damn fine game, and one of my favorite games to date. Like I mentioned before, the ball was already rolling for campaign ideas, settings, characters, alternate Theologies and antagonists. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd easily give the game a 9.

(I want to go ahead and point out the author is a friend of mine. I was a PTG Kickstarter backer and I did a little editing work for the book. And I'm interested in doing some publishable work for this game in the future. But I wasn't part of the game's creative process, so all the things in the book are Eloy's ideas and not mine. I'm objective and critical enough that I'm willing to point out issues I had with the game -- and I did. I don't want anyone to worry there is a conflict of interest at work here, but I wanted to point out the relationship in the interest of fair disclosure.)