15 January 2008

Thoughts on "Reign"

REIGN, the RPG based on the One Roll Engine (ORE) by Greg Stolze, arrived through my door 10 days or so ago. I finished my readthrough last night. This is not a proper review - so don't be looking for examples - but a collection of some of the thoughts that struck me in the reading.

The short version is: I like it. Not all of it, but I like it. Yes it was expensive (not least because shipping a hardcover, A4-sized, 360+ page book from the States is pricey); yes there were a number of visible errors in the text - largely contained within page details when one rule referenced another; yes I haven't actually bothered with - nor intend to do so - the setting fluff that makes up a sizable chunk of the book. But Reign is written such that it so vividly stirs ideas that I found just perusing each section of rules was enough to throw up several or more ideas for scenes, sessions, characters or games. And that's with full knowledge that I am about as likely to use the default setting as I am to chop off my own right hand.

The longer version...

What drew me to Reign was that it was designed with the idea that the PCs are people of importance - as the tagline says, it is a "game of Lords and Leaders." This is something I not only desire, but almost demand, when I run games: people of consequence with responsibilities, duties and resources are just more interesting to me than those who have nothing, owe no-one anything, and have none counting on them. Along with this supposed focus came rules for organisations - or in Reign's terms, "Companies" - and how they interact.

This - and the whisper that the Company rules could be divorced from not just setting, but the ORE system too - is what persuaded me to shell out for it. Well, that and the massive amounts of chatter on RPGnet with almost everyone who had picked it up seeming to gush about it. But that just kept the title in my mind; it was the promise of rules for shady cults, law-enforcement agencies, private armies and the like that tipped the buying scales. And I'm sticking to that.

In the end though I think that the Company rules are probably a lot weaker that I had hoped for and probably not likely to see much use. Unless I run or play Reign itself; the rest of the game has some bad bits, but more than not is good, and some is great. Not that many games I've read have genuinely left me feeling "yes, I could run this, more or less as written." Reign did; while at the same time it left me cool (if not cold) as a portable system for introducing mechanically sound interactions for organizations in other games/systems. I'm not really sure why; the basics are simple, certainly easily divorced from ORE as claimed, and do a job of abstracting smaller scale organizations into a form where they can play off against each other. I think part of my reticence is that I feel the rules might work well for small scale Companies, but fall down a bit as the scale goes up. Or put another way, I'd be tempted to give small-scale companies much heftier stats than Reign does, because otherwise there's such low odds of them actually achieving anything that they seem almost worthless. But this cannot be the whole: if it were it is as, or perhaps even more, easily fixed by taking the Company rules outside of their parent, as by leaving them in place. Ah well; only with actual play can niggling suspicion or doubt be confirmed or denied. Onward to more positives.

Possibly the biggest selling point is character generation. It sounds a strange thing to say, but the Reign's implementation of the ORE random generation makes it quick, easy and above all fun to roll up characters. See for yourself, with Mapache's ORE Character Generator. If you don't get combinations that just beg to be given life and stories... well, I do! This method of random generation creates all equal in theory, but not really in practice; that said the tiny inequalities do not bother me, especially as I'm not generally a huge fan of mechanical advancement once games get underway. Importantly then, Reign characters can be built by point-buy so you have the option of designing that specialist you really want.

Which is good. Because if ever I play Reign, I want to design a specialist unarmed fighter/brawler. Why? Because it looks to me that the system gives good ways for such characters - useless in most RPGs - to actually be effective. The crunch in combat involves a number of moves that benefit unarmed characters, and those bearing weapons too of course, and combining them in various ways gives a degree of flexibility I have not (consciously) seen applied to unarmed characters before. (And no, I don't count the DnD monk as unarmed.) The damage potential is still low, at least on the face of it, but the dramatic and effective potential is a lot higher - especially when combined with a permissive GM, exotic or busy locations in which fight and/or the weight the rules (and less pertinently, but more interestingly setting fluff) give to non-lethal resolution.

The system itself is simple enough, though I would tend to agree with a friend of mine that it is a step too complicated for its own good at times. I like ORE's dicepool system, generating matches of different Widths (number of matching dice) and Heights (face value of a match), and the way the two interact so that Higher is not always better is a plus for me. However despite the fact that at heart ORE is quite simple, and despite the fact I like (both individually and in concert) the range of options that have been detailed as combat actions, I feel that (at face value) the hit location and damage system is cumbersome, restrictive and clunky. The same goes for healing; there's no healing magic as such (or if there was I missed it), and although the magic detailed is only setting-flavoured examples - some of them very nicely flavoured I must say, despite my disinterest in fluff - what is there will probably amount to a large percentage of what Reign players use. I like this lack, but in concert with how damage is dealt with it means any hurt suffered lasts a long while. However this is a minor quibble; I suspect it would be easy enough to re-abstract the hit locations and weapon damage into a form that suits me, my games and I better.

But as I alluded to in the short version, what really spoke to me when reading Reign is the way ideas leapt to mind as I read. This, I would say, is down to great writing more than the content; a less skilled author could have easily provided the same information in a way that was dry and unengaging. Oh, the content is there too, but on content alone there is, I think, less to differentiate Reign from other fantasy RPGs than some might claim. Its execution though... yeah. Reign is a book I could pick up if I was feeling short of ideas, knowing that a situation, plot or setting would rush from the page to my mind in double-quick time. Combine that with a plethora of thoughts and postulations arising from the random character generation process and for that alone I think the purchase was worth it.

But there was enough there to make me think I could run it, would run it, even if there are obstacles to overcome first, and other games ahead of it in line for the time being.