30 August 2014

Epyllion: Drake Edition

Epyllion, by Marissa Kelly of Magpie Games, is a game of draconic friendship and adventure in a mythic setting of looming darkness.

Before I get started, it is important to mention this is the "Drake edition" of this game. It is a preview (ashcan) of the game and explicitly incomplete.

This is a new entry to the games which are "Powered by the Apocalypse" (I prefer to think of it as the Apocalypse Engine in no small part because it is less of a mouthful), including most notably Apocalypse World (which started it all) and MonsterheartsIf you are familiar with these games, Epyllion is going to look familiar. Though it takes things in new directions to tell an entirely different kind of story.

The basic premise of Epyllion has the players portraying a clutch of young dragons. The setting, Dragonia, is highly stratified based on age. Elder dragons sit at the top and deal with politics and running things, while younger dragons are sent out (quests) to complete tasks (adventures) for them. In the background, there was The First War Against the Darkness in which dragons eked out a victory against the corrupting Darkness at significant cost. The good news is the Darkness has been driven away forever and will no longer bother dragons.

Of course, the bad news is this is not actually true and the PCs are naturally going to be at the forefront of discovering this, bring the news to unbelieving elder dragons who refuse to admit they were wrong in the face of ever mounting evidence. Only after a great and selfless sacrifice will the elders realize their folly and allow for the dragons to finally mount an effective defense against the Darkness, but it may already be too late...

At least, this is how it all plays out in my head. As with all things, you mileage may vary.

This strays from the traditional Apocalypse Engine setup in a few ways. First, there is more structure and clearer expectations as to what exactly the PCs are doing and why. The second, and most important, is while Epyllion can get a little dark, it is inherently hopeful. Everything involves the PCs working towards a greater goal and not just causing a big terrible mess.

To go along with this, Epyllion borrows the idea of Strings from Monsterhearts, but changes the tone. This is clear since they are called Friendship Gems. Instead of being held over others, they are used to power the dragons' magic of the moon and stave of the corrupting influence of the Darkness. They aren't a price, but something you want to freely exchange with each other. They can be used to hinder others, but I would consider this to be a rare occurrence rather than the standard use given the tone of the game.

Another item borrowed from Monsterhearts is the Shadowself. This is the dark, self-centered reflection of the dragon's role within the clutch. While it seems to be played straight, there is an interesting nuance which shows a great deal of the expectations placed on the players. Specifically, the self-centered aspect. In a vacuum, the Shadowself may seem not so bad.

For example, the Warrior believes they must defeat the Darkness all alone, no one else is strong enough to help them. For each playbook, the character relies only on themselves and this is stated to be a bad thing. The theme is clear: you need your friends. In fact, the only way to rid yourself of this is through intervention by your friends.

Epyllion is different in how it approaches character growth (or, how it says it does - this is an incomplete game as of now). It is designed to be long term with characters aging and gaining the associated influence and power. It won't be long before you are bossing around younger dragons (there's a Move for that). The mechanics for death also play into this part of the game and in an interesting way.

Since this game goes in dark places, death is a real thing. However, it does not have to be a permanent thing. The work of some dragons (*cough*PCs*cough*) isn't finished when they die and the moons return them to life to finish what they have started. This process forces the dragon to mature and they automatically advance to the next age, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It means you have the benefits of being older, but you will never get to take the advances you missed before your death. It is the price of being forced to grow up too quickly. This is clever to me: death is a thing, but it isn't permanent, however there is a cost - your innocence. 

While the back of the book indicates it is for ages 12+, this feels like a game which can be appropriate for younger audiences with an adult running it for them. A grim My Little Pony.

There is a lot to like about this game and I am looking forward to it. However, there are some pieces which are missing and if you aren't familiar with Apocalypse Engine games it may be confusing due to an assumed familiarity.

The name of the historical conflict, The First War Against the Darkness, bothers me (perhaps irrationally). It implies there was a Second War Against the Darkness, but there was just the one. Which means it should be The War Against the Darkness; World War I was The Great War right up until there was a sequel.

This isn't the only issue, however I do not want this review to end will all of the negative items to what is explicitly an unfinished work. This looks like a lot of fun for a variety of people who want different things from a game. I have every intention of putting together a game with what is available and taking it for a spin. Whenever it becomes available, I plan to be one of the first people in line to pick up to final version.

EDIT: Based on feedback and requests, below is a discussion of the mechanics in the draft. 

The stats used in Epyllion (and the rough Apocalypse World analog) are Charm (Hot), Courage (Cool), Cunning (Sharp), and Heart (Hard). There is no Weird equivalent and the most interesting change is Heart, which may be surprising until the overarching themes become apparent: this is about fighting to protect your friends and home.

Here are the basic and peripheral moves presented in Epyllion: Examine an Object, Study Another Dragon, Battle the Darkness, Stand Up to an Older Dragon, Convince a Dragon of Your Age or Younger to Do What You Want, Act Despite Danger, Call Upon the Magic of the Moons, Help or Hinder, Nest in the Wild, Keep a Look Out, and Lead Others Against the Darkness. 

The rolling dice section indicates 7-9 makes the story more complicated or interesting. While this is generally true, it isn't always true. Also, many of the moves are considerably more passive than in Apocalypse World or Monsterhearts. For example, gaining information in Apocalypse World (through Read a Sitch or Read a Person) immediately makes the situation or interaction "charged". This goes into the lighter tone of the game overall; not everything is about to go terrible at any moment. Just like the only "forceful" options are against the Darkness - taking things from your friends and allies is not something you can do.

There are two different moves based around getting what you want in a social situation. Each is used depending on the age of the target relative to you. This makes the importance of the social order in Dragonia right in your face. The good news about bending the younger generations to your will is three of the four stats (sorry Courage) can be used, depending on your tactics. If you prey on the interests, Charm; duty and obligation is Heart; while trickery is Cunning.

Call Upon the Magic of the Moons is a bug, squishy ball. This move requires Friendship Gems to be spent, the number (up to 3) is your bonus on the roll. The effects you can conjure depend on the moon you are calling upon and the result allows you to choose what goes right. What ever doesn't go right is probably going to go wrong. Access to the moons changes as you age - each age bracket forever cuts off your connection to one of the moons, with some increased power to call on them (?). The last part isn't entirely clear, which is fine for where the game is currently at in development.

Keep a Look Out fills a strange place. It is only used during Nest in the Wild, but isn't a requirement. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a specific downside to not using this move, though it could be interpreted as an invitation to screw with the players. This isn't explicit from a player side and how it is supposed to be used needs more clarification. What it does specifically: If using the move and something approaches your encampment, on a hit it is a friend. 10+, the bring you things. Those things could be information and supplies, or they could be news of danger or a call to action. 7-9, they're pursued by danger or need your help. On a miss, the DM (Dragon Master) gets to do their thing, as per usual. Based on those results, there isn't necessarily a strong reason to use this move - it basically invites trouble without providing any specific help. 

Lead Others Against the Darkness is a clever way to resolve a larger conflict without getting too bogged down in the details. It allows the players to define the terms of their "victory" and decide the associated costs. There is also a strong incentive for everyone to work together; bonuses to this roll are scarce and it is one of them.

A change from how Apocalypse Engine games traditionally work is in earning experience. Generally, two stats will be highlighted and when they are used, the character marks XP. In Epyllion, everyone earns XP when the roll a 6. I'm interpreting this as a  bittersweet reward for almost succeeding, meaning your final result is a 6, rather than the numbers on the dice totalling 6 (in which you could succeed and earn XP).

The playbooks presented in the Drake edition are the Academic, the Crafter, the Daredevil, the Nature Adept, the Seer, and the Warrior. Each has two stats which start with a +1 and one with a -1, players get to add +1 to one of the stats. This setup is most similar to Monsterhearts, though with an additional +1 hiding in there. Each of the four stat is represented at least once as the low stat, though the good stats only exist in two combinations: Charm and Cunning, or Courage and Heart. To be honest, this is a little disappointing because it cuts down on the variety and is exactly what would be expected and creates a dichotomy of physical versus non-physical characters.

Beyond this, each of the playbooks has one stat which is featured in every playbook specific move which has a roll. The Academic and Crafter only use Cunning, the Daredevil, Nature Adept, and Warrior only use Courage, and the Seer only uses Charm. Interestingly, the Warrior is the only playbook which doesn't get a bonus to the listed stat (they get Heart), though they only have the one move with an associated roll.

Not all of the moves are quite created equal. For example, the Warrior starts with True Warrior which allows them to return a Friendship Gem at the beginning of each session to improve their Battle the Darkness move. This is problematic because it requires you to sacrifice a resource on the hopes you may use a move, which is also the least likely move to be used in a session.

Each of the playbooks also has two Houses listed. I haven't brought these up previously, but there are six Houses, each with their own themes. After each House is a task, e.g.: Defend someone weaker than you (the Warrior, Tessith, the House of Diamond). Earlier in the book it is indicated performing this task helps fight off the hold of the Darkness over you. While it isn't explicit, this probably means it eliminates a Condition on your Shadow Track. This is something which can stand to be more explicit.

There is a brief discussion regarding showing cruelty and evil which is not the result of corruption. Typically this is a good tactic - there are entirely mundane forms of darkness in the world. However, the way in which corruption manifests itself, it seems like it would be impossible to distinguish between such casual cruelty and true corruption. This is an idea which needs more textual support to distinguish it from corruption and expand on the concepts and themes surrounding corruption.

To reiterate, this is just the draft which was put out there and I do not want to end on a note of criticism for an unfinished game. There are a number of innovative ideas and different takes on what feels like a classic system at this point. I am very optimistic of what the final product will look like and plan on lending my support.