Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Scion is a Bad Game

Warning: this will be a big ugly rant...

After 8 months of fighting with the system, I've come to the conclusion that Scion is a bad game. The setting's great, the concepts are fun, but the game portions of it suck.

At first, I thought this was just because I like my RPG mechanics a bit more streamlined and elegant. During combat, I'd prefer one roll per attack, for example, not a minimum of two rolls plus the activation of 4 or more powers. The existence of things like DV and Soak indicated that the designers were taking efforts towards trying to reduce the die-rolling and mid-game math. So, thinking it had only the over-complication flaws of a game like D&D, I committed myself to running Scion, figuring I'd get over the learning curve and it'd all start flowing well.

Instead, what I should have been doing is stripping out the setting elements I like and applying them to a different mechanical base. Don't get me wrong, I have no plans of axing my campaign. We've toughed with it this far, and I intend to carry it through till they are Gods and most of the Titans have been dealt with (or the PCs die trying). But I likely won't ever run another Scion campaign, at least not without largescale mechanical modification. To such an extent that it wouldn't even be Scion anymore. It'd be Fate or Amber wearing a Scion costume.

D&D is not a bad game. It's way more complicated than I prefer, but it's good at what it does. Once you grasp the main rules, you'll be fine as long as you avoid a few of the clunky remnants (that will be fixed in 4th anyway, like grapple) and think tactically. Sure, the rules can be tough (and they sometimes get in the way of roleplaying) but once you know the rules well, D&D accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Scion is a whole other ball of wax. The combat system fails.

Characters NEED Epic Dex, or else they die (and never kill any of the bad guys), and quickly. At some point, the players figure this out, and then even the social/mental-based PCs start taking Epic Dex. In our experience, this then resulted in the players discovering how damn cheap and effective the first couple dots of Epics are. Within a few sessions, everyone had the 1st and 2nd dot of all 9 Epics. I'd have liked to say "No" on some of those. But I can't say "for the past 10 sessions, your character has been the brute force and avoided talking - he can't buy Epic Charisma now." I do, it'd be unfair to that character, since I let the PC whose concept is "Prosecuting Attorney" buy Epic Dex. And as I said, if I don't let her buy Dex, she'll die in round one of combat.

Once she started raising that Epic Dex, though, another long-term flaw of the game became obvious. There's this thing referred to on the forums as "The Primacy of Defense". The phrase doesn't occur in the books at all, it's just forum-speak. It alludes to the fact that the rules are set up to make the majority of attacks miss, and the majority of hits fail to do any damage.

In D&D, the fighter hits the typical foe more than half the time. Other characters might miss a lot, but when they do hit they at least know that the action has an impact. Every time you hit, the enemies hitpoints decrease. Two equal characters (twins or mirror reflections) chop each other to bits over time, and so the combat system at least works.

In Scion, two twins or reflections just fight eternally. No one ever wins. You have a less than 50% chance to hit yourself, and even when you do, you have a less than 50% chance to do even one point of damage (unless your attack does Aggravated damage). At God level, characters can have over 50 health levels. Closely matched characters could literally take 200 attacks to kill each other.

While that beautifully captures the saga of the gods, it would be a terrible bore to play through.

To hit, your attack pool is Dex+Skill+Weapon+EpicDex. At Hero level, that's 4 to 12 dice (17 with accuracy-based Relic weapon) plus 0 to 4 auto successes. That averages 2 successes at the low end, to an average roll of 10 or 12 (depending on whether or not they have said Relic) for best Hero-level character. Your DV is ([Dex+Skill+Legend]/2)+Epic Dex, or ([Dex+Skill+Weapon]/2)+Epic Dex. So, at Hero level it ranges from 3 (or 5) to 11 (or 13, if you have a defensive relic). There's plenty of other modifiers that can figure in, but in general, the powers and situations that boost your attacks are only about as common and powerful as those that boost your defense. As a result, every character has a slightly less than 50% chance of being able to hit themselves. (And that's not counting Untouchable Opponent - without a houserule that single-most-important knack renders about a 1% chance of hitting your twin.)

You roll giant handfuls of dice with steep bellcurves that make every roll predictable, and can spend a Legend point to reroll if there is a fluke. If their DV is more than just a few points above your average roll, you'll never hit.

Even if you do hit, the chance of you doing damage is minimal. There's this thing called soak. Let's look at unarmed attacks first. Damage is 1+Strength+EpicStr. If it's a "heavy attack" it jumps up by 3 more dice, but is slower and less likely to hit. You add to that dice equal to any extra successes above the number needed to hit on the attack - but against your twin that's maybe a die or two. So, at the weak end of Hero, a punch does 2 or 3 dice, and at the very pinnacle of hero it's 8 dice + 4 successes. Bashing soak is Stamina+EpicStamina, so a character with Stamina equal to your Strength has bashing soak at most a couple points below your punching damage. Thing is, soak isn't dice. It's a static value, subtracted from damage. So the big Hero's heavy attack rolls 8+4, averaging 8 levels of bashing. But his soak is also 8, meaning the typical attack does zero damage.

Weapons, of course, spike that up a bit. With a big honkin' axe, the PC might do 12 lethal. Lethal soak is a bit lower, so the character in question probably has lethal soak of 6. Now we're lookin' at 6 damage getting through, which is almost enough for a one-hit-kill. But of course, there's a catch. We allowed the attacker a weapon, but didn't give the defender armor. Putting the best Relic weapon against the best Relic armor generates around 15 lethal vs a lethal soak of 16. Mundane axe vs mundane armor is 12 vs 11, so you have to hit half a dozen times to kill.

Conveniently, you don't fight your doppleganger very often. Not every NPC will have Stamina equal to your Strength, either. But some will have more. Dex determines both how well you attack and how well you dodge. So a character who you can hit easily also can't hit you, and one who can hit you fairly often is probably immune to your attacks. Doesn't that suck?

Epic Attributes make this even worse. As the characters go up in power, the gaps between them get wider because the damn auto-successes raise at a rate that's technically neither geometric nor exponential nor even fibonaccian, but any of those terms catches the spirit of it. The more you specialize, the better it pays off. Which is where the whole "must have Epic Dex or die" motif came in. A social/mental PC, trailing just two dots of Dex behind the combat-monkey of the group, gets hit nearly twice as often and takes 50% more damage per attack. An extra level of Epic doesn't mean a little more damage, it means a huge spike in effectiveness. Rarely are you just a little outclassed - instead every battle is either a lop-sided foregone conclusion or a very painful and slow war of attrition.

I don't know which is more embarrassing - the fact that WWP published a game with such fundamental flaws, or the fact that I'm subjecting myself and my play group to it.

In order to make Scion fun, you have to either ditch combat entirely, or make every battle stupidly one-sided. And since it's a very cinematic game about godly ass-whupin', ditching combat isn't truly an option. Which means you have to accept that the players will win every damn fight, or occassionally get slaughtered without a reprieve.

Luckily, the game designers had the foresight to create a world in which combat is not the right thematic/in-character answer to the Titans. Had they failed to do that, the game would be utterly, totally broken at the God level. But even with that, you just might feel that you wasted most of those XP you spent on combat-related things in the early stages of the campaign. That's unfortunate.

7 comments:

SiderisAnon said...

I wholeheartedly agree on your rant about Scion. Great world, unworkable system. (And this is coming from a diehard D&D fan, whose used to clunky systems.)

Btw, TH's Scion game has ended. EP is now introducing us to Exalted. I'll let you know if it players better that Scion. (It does NOT have the same power curve and does not have Epics.)

Josh said...

I've linked to your site a couple times in relation to some of the other things you have writen about Scion but never commented before.

I can't say I disagree with you... but then I am just starting my game. I sort of feel that Fate needs to step in a lot which can feel odd for some people "Hmmm... the big beefy monster attacked the tank AGAIN?!" but I also feel its necessary.

I had a lot of problems with the power level of Exalted after a very short amount of time and while D and D starts off okay it gets kind of silly around level 12 where the players die simply because they didn't go first.

Feel free to check out some of the crap I've written and comment if feel like it. http://games-blog.pairodicegames.com/

Josh

r_b_bergstrom said...

I've linked to your site a couple times in relation to some of the other things you have writen about Scion but never commented before.

Good to meet you. Please, feel free to comment on anything that strikes your fancy. I'll follow the link you provided, and go check out your site, too.


while D and D starts off okay it gets kind of silly around level 12 where the players die simply because they didn't go first.

You are correct that D&D hits some issues eventually. I didn't mean to give the impression that D&D is without flaws.

That's actually part of why I ran Scion despite spotting a few warning signs - I assumed the problems I was predicting were along the lines of what D&D has.

One-hit-kills and save-or-die affects are annoying. High level D&D has a lot of them. But high level D&D has something else that Scion lacks... Resurrection.

Bringing a character back from the dead in Scion is a lot more complicated than it is in D&D. To make them equivalent, you'd have to make Raise Dead into a spell that couldn't be cast until you'd reached level 20. (Or, in Scion, cut down the one-month quest on the Book of the Dead to just an xp payment, and make them purchasable in any major city.) Doing either would, however, erode some of the feel of either game.

Josh said...

I have to admit I have always had a problem with Resurrection but perhaps I have just never found a way to handle it well. There may be a way to make it feel like a big deal even if it is happening kind of often but most of the time it just felt silly as players were draging themselves back to the temple to get a "rez" again.

In my game I had also removed much of the penalty for getting a rez because the more fragile characters had to much potential for falling behind level wise. I had made it cost more gold and no XP as I recal. This unfortunatly took away a lot of the risk but since a lot of times players exploded simply because they rolled a bit too low on a 20 sided die it kind of felt necessary.

James said...

I agree with a lot of the points, but figured I should point out a few things that were missed.

When attacking your clone, you should be hitting every time. This is because fighting a foe as powerful as yourself is one of those occassions where you have to go balls to the wall and start dumping virtue channels and Legendary Deeds left and right. Assuming other things are equal (which they rarely are), that should give your the oomph you need to get past your own defenses, unless you're seriously min-maxed.

Or using Untouchable Opponent.

I also disagree that there are as many ways to increase your defense as there are to increase your attack. There are (not including UO) 25% more offensive boons and knacks than there are defensive ones (51 vs. 39). And some of those offensive ones are insane (all the Agg dealers, Helpful Spirit, etc.). There are also a lot more ways to lower your opponent's defense without using a power, although the most powerful ones (coordinated attacks and outnumbering) aren't available in a clone vs. clone matchup.

But, to end on a more positive note (or at least a more agreeable one): you're definitely right about how easy it is to have lopsided combats. It's also pretty easy to have every combat be balanced, but then you wind up with similar foes wearing different skins, which gets old fast.

I'll be trying to counteract this with interesting combat scenarios. Luckily Scion's setting and antagonists oozes cool from every pore.

r_b_bergstrom said...

Hello and welcome! I just noticed the latest comments here. I'd like to rebutt them:

The main fault in the Scion combat system is DV. DVs average 0.5xLegend higher than average attack rolls.

This is a real issue, one that has crept up again and again in my campaign in the past year. And I've read several other GMs at the forum complain in a similar vein.

You said:When attacking your clone, you should be hitting every time. This is because fighting a foe as powerful as yourself is one of those occassions where you have to go balls to the wall and start dumping virtue channels and Legendary Deeds left and right.

Well, since your DV will be several points above your average attack roll, so you'll need Deeds and Channels, as you said.

Channels, however, are unreliable, and come in limited quantities per story.

Deeds come in limited quantities as well.

But you know what doesn't have a limit? Defensive Do-Overs.

Virtues typically get you 2-3 successes. Defensive Do-Overs score the same range, but do so consistently (never zapped by a bad die roll), for 1 legend instead of a willpower, and without limit.

There are (not including UO) 25% more offensive boons and knacks than there are defensive ones (51 vs. 39).

I'm not sure that number is meaningful.

While there are more offensive powers, that's not the same as more powers that boost attack rolls. Hitting the foe is the most important part of the puzzle.

DVs where it's at. Most attack powers boost damage, not accuracy.

And some of those offensive ones are insane (all the Agg dealers, Helpful Spirit, etc.).

The Agg dealers are countered by Divine Damage Conversion. That one defensive knack shuts down 3 or 4 offensive knacks.

Helpful spirit can boost armor just as easily as it can boost a weapon.

So there's more attack powers than defensive powers, but each defensive power neutralizes more than one offensive power. They even out. Which brings us back to the DV and Soak equations at the heart of the system, which favor defense heavily.


There are also a lot more ways to lower your opponent's defense without using a power, although the most powerful ones (coordinated attacks and outnumbering) aren't available in a clone vs. clone matchup.

And again, there's a single knack that cancels all that: Monkey In The Middle.

James McMurray said...

I don't have a book handy, so I can't be sure which it is, but Monkey in the Middle doesn't stop either Coordinated Attacks or being outnumbered 5-to-1.