30 September 2014

World of Dew

World of Dew, by Ben Woener of Woener's WunderWerks, is a game of noir samurai drama based on Blood and Honor.

I think this is the first time I have ever done a foreword to a review and I make no promises it will be the last. This particular review has been incredibly difficult to write and is still behind schedule. In no small part, this is because it has been difficult to strike the right tone. Here is the heart of the matter: I really like this game. It adapts an existing system in a clever way which explores a sub-genre which is frequently discussed, but nothing to date has done particularly well. Here's the but: But, this game is not for everyone. I don't even know if this game is for me.

The following review will get into why this is in more detail, but there are some fundamental gameplay assumptions many may struggle with. The most basic is it is in the players' hands to generally solve all of their problems and make the world a wonderful place. If the players are invested in solving problems, cutting the Gordian knot, emerging victorious, this probably isn't going to be the game for them. This can be worked around, but it will always be a mismatch of what the system does well and how it is being used. What it does is give players the tools to make everything messy and terrible in ways of their own choosing. It is an expectation of the game, as presented in every example of play, players will consistently make these choices. They will make things harder for themselves; they will use the advantages they have gained to create bleak drama of difficult choices where they may not win.

This is the world of Akira Kurosawa. One where the protagonists aren't necessarily heroes, but they are probably the best the world is going to get. Every story starts out raining and things only get dirtier and more complicated from there. In many ways, this is a instance where the meeting of two genres is a great way to examine each in a new light. The importance of honor and what it means takes a new light when viewed through the lens of the noir genre.

The system, which traces its lineage through Houses of the Blooded and Fate, is a fantastic vehicle for this kind of story. A brief description of the system for those who are unfamiliar: There are six attributes which govern all actions, one of which is a character's weakness and has a 0. Dice pools are built from an attribute and bonuses from other sources, such as appropriate traits (from the character, opponent's, the scene, etc.), reputations, sword schools, etc. Characters can voluntarily make life more difficult by wagering some of their dice, which will not be rolled, in exchange for narrative control at the conclusion of the action. The winner gets to narrate the immediate outcome and keeps all of their wagers. The loser keeps half of their wagers. Those involved use wagers to add additional details to the outcome of the action.

Wagers form the heart of the system and how players are given control of the story. Depending on the kind of action and governing attribute, events and the setting can directed by the players. For example, Wisdom wagers are used to establish facts of the setting. This allows players who enjoy world-building to emphasize the attributes which give the most opportunities for this, while players who are not as interested can instead be more action-oriented.

Only the narrator has the power to change an established fact of the setting. Throughout the course of play, whenever characters spend Honor or Ninjo points (similar to Fate points), they are handed over the narrator. Each point can be spent to change a fact which has been previously established. This mechanic, which is very clever in my opinion, explicitly means the protagonists can never truly be certain of the world around them. No matter how much they think they know, they never actually know everything. As in all things, it is generally better to save these twists for the right moment.

The city in the noir genre is a living, breathing entity as any character and is a part of creating the campaign. In a setup similar to the Dresden Files Role-Playing Game (which is actually called out), everyone will work together to create their specific setting, populating it with themes, locations, threats, organizations and their faces, and people not necessarily associated with an organization. Each player is given some points to spend on these things, which helps to give the endeavor a little more direction and structure. Based on past experiences with DFRPG, this is a good thing. In no small part because it gives a place to start and an indication when you are done.

World of Dew's default setting is during the Tokugawa shogunate at either the beginning, when things were a mess because the traditional social order was being dismantled to establish a power base, or at the end, when the traditional order was being dismantled to adapt to the changing world. Either of these are excellent eras to set a game, each offering something different, and the book goes into reasonable depth discussing why to choose each of them.

There is also a complete, but concise, look at religion within the setting. This is a very complex topic which can be difficult to approach from a Western mindset, particularly how seemingly disparate belief systems all co-exist and fulfill different needs. Along with this is a discussion of supernatural elements and how best to use them within the genre and to remain true to the setting on which this is based. Along with Kuro, this is one of my favorite discussions on the topic in an RPG (they approach this from very different directions).

As appropriate to any game in this setting, there is a discussion about etiquette and how to handle it, a topic with is going to be important in establishing the shared authenticity of the setting. It is a well-written distillation of the basic premise of etiquette within the portrayed society, but the contrast it provides to contemporary culture misses the mark a little (in my opinion) when it could have instead provided an excellent example. Specifically, the discussion is regarding the concept of makoto. The text goes into differences between Eastern and Western heroes, and what are seen as virtues for each of these characters. The former value harmony within society above all else, while the latter value individuality (this is the very condensed version) and how these reflect the values of each society.

This is all true, however where this could have been improved (in my opinion) is by using the disparity between the perceived value (individuality) and the displayed value (harmony) in our society as an example which is fitting to the noir genre. Anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy knows there is a stated culture of standing up and speaking the truth, however the functional culture is one where you must work behind the scenes and compromise to accomplish things. The concept of compromise is important and can have a deeper implication in a genre which explores the struggle between doing what is right versus what you want. What compromises are you willing to make and at what point have you managed to compromise away everything you have held dear? Again, this is just me, but there is less of a functional difference between the East and the West once you look beyond the latter's rhetoric.

Combat within this game is exceptionally brutal, particularly if guns are involved. It is easy to become injured and healing can take a very long time. With a gun, death is the default unless an Honor point is spent (the rarest of resources). To begin, a the conflict is between two people, the aggressor and the target. During this first round, they are the only two characters rolling. Following that, it can open up to anyone and it gets very chaotic. In all, this is works well within the genre where violence is seen as a last resort by the protagonists - it is dangerous. When a gun is drawn, things have just gotten real and people are going to start dying.

There is an example in the combat section which does not sit well with me, particularly because it carries the weight of expectation with it. It starts with one character (Hokusai) shooting another (Garuda) with a gun. He wins the contest and chooses to miss with his privilege. Garuda declares he shoots Hokusai, who in turn spends an Honor point to not die from this. Hokusai then spends a wager to shoot Garuda. This is followed by Garuda spending a wager to turn his pistol on Hokusai's companion and kill him if Hokusai doesn't do anything. Hokusai spends a wager to jump in front of the bullet and save his companion's life.

Why don't I like this example of play? There are a few reasons. First it shows a series of choices which I don't know many players who would actually make: opting to miss, spending a valuable resource potentially unnecessarily, then effectively countermanding the initial decision, and ending up wasting the Honor point. The second reasons, which doesn't sit well at all with me, is it brings in a character who wasn't allowed to participate in the conflict and shows they can be killed by a decision which they have no control over. As a player and a GM, I do not like this. As well, if you get into any fight with a gun, as long as the other character rolls at least a 10, there is a good chance both character will die. There may be a lesson here about living by the sword and dying by the sword, but this seems problematic at the very least. The good news is this can be easily solved by consent from the group as to how to handle these situations. I'm simply not a fan of killing a character by fiat - as much as this game is about giving a player agency, this act removes it entirely.

As I said in the foreword, this is not necessarily a game for everyone and I don't want to leave this review on these down notes, because this game doesn't deserve to be solely judged by the two small things I take issue with when the rest of it is quite good. One of those things is a conceptual nitpick and the second something which falls into some good ground rules to establish for any group playing this game (or any game): boundaries.

This is an excellent entry into the noir genre and highly recommended for anyone who is interested in gaming in the world of Akira Kurosawa. There are a number of clever mechanics and ways to get players invested in a in-depth and different setting. For the right group, this will provide an amazing experience in shared storytelling, particularly for those groups who don't want to go fully into a cooperative storytelling game.