[Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about

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Ron Edwards:
Hi there,

I've written about Legendary Lives in both Fantasy Heartbreakers and More Fantasy Heartbreakers, and as time went on since those essays were placed, I finally got around to prepping and playing a bit with this game. I'm very late in posting about it, mainly because I'd hoped we'd be able to play it for a while. As it turned out, our game was scuttled by not one but two of the group members each having his third child.

I want to talk about the essays first, because Legendary Lives helps to clarify them and also I'll be amending one claim I made about that game in them. One reason it's a good one to start with is that it's arguably the single strongest of the bunch - in fact, a genuinely excellent game.

Why is it a heartbreaker, then? Doesn't that mean "sucks, or mostly"? The answer is no. If I could hammer an iron thought-spike through the head of anyone reading my stuff on the internet, it wouldn't have anything to do with the Big Model or GNS. It'd be, "The fantasy heartbreaker games were the 1990s revolution that died in the womb. Play them, recognize and get past whatever was uncritically retained/recapitulated in them, and learn from what they are."

Regarding the definition, I can only point to my extensive clarification that opens the second essay, which includes nothing about how good the game is, or how much good there is relative to how much bad. I don't think I ever used the phrase "nugget of gold in a pile of shit," which seems to be the current paraphrase, and which in my opinion is both insulting and inaccurate as a blanket definition. (Granted, that phrase does describe a couple of heartbreakers, but which ones is probably a personal call.)

Legendary Lives is a heartbreaker because of its reliance on D&D fantasy for its foundational content and the nigh-inevitable economic consequences. That doesn't change the fact that it's a tremendous game, far at the top end of games that I think of in that category (and better than most games published right now in the independent scene), and as such breaks my heart even more than the others do.

The good news is that it's available for free at the author's website: Legendary Lives. I also recommend looking up all the Williams' games there, especially Khaotic. I have some views on his depiction of his company's publishing history and Legendary Lives in particular, but that's probably for another thread.

I missed the boat in the second essay, too, when I was critiquing the way religion was typically presented in the heartbreakers; LL is the exception in this case, not because its treatment of religion is profound or historically plausible (for those, see Fading Suns, any Glorantha material, and Center Space), but because it's uniquely fun, relevant, and playable and remarkably integrated with every other aspect of the fiction and rules.

My first setup for a game of Legendary Lives dates back to almost three years ago, with Tim Koppang, Tim Alexander, and Christ Weill, but my first play was a quick run with Ralph Mazza. The game with the three guys got steamrolled by kids being born in two of the relevant households, and I haven't been able to get back to it until a rather solid evening session at Forge Midwest last weekend.

Basic mechanics
You can pick a character race or roll for it. Each character race has a series of fixed numbers for the many attributes, to which you add the result of a 1d6 roll for a final value. So there's a little, but not much differentiation within each race. The values, fortunately, are used directly in play in a simple way: to use a skill, use the number associated with its attribute; if you don't have the skill, use half that number for most things. Resolution itself is based on a percentage roll, with the number in question setting the various ranges associated with qualitative result levels from Catastrophic to Awesome. It's a lot like the Marvel Super Heroes system, actually. A lot of the time, you roll vs. a set success level, and the relevant value is the amount of columns you make it or miss it by.

But that's not the meat of character creation, which is very nearly all roll-driven ("no fault character creation" as Chis called it). After getting your attribute values, you roll for a few physical basics like height and build (qualitatively described), and your family background which establishes your initial funds and a couple skills. Then you choose a Type, subject to minimum Attribute scores. A Type is very much like character class, with the interesting clarification that this is your character's personal zone in life, regardless of actual in-game profession. That's kind of cool, because it corresponds perfectly and only to "level 2" in my breakdown of character class in The class issue. Since that level is both crucial and the easiest one to get confused about, I think Williams was exceptional in defining Type as he did.

OK, Type gets you more skills, some useful values-based guidelines for play, and crucially, a Devotion value. More on this soon, but you should know that all characters can call for Miracles based on this score. You now know you have a Netherman Knight or a Draconian Conjurer or whatever. You can now round out your skills, and in many games, this is where play would begin. Well, it goes on a bit more; you now roll for Eye Color, Hair Color, Hair Style, what the character Values, whom he or she Idolizes, what he or she Treasures, a Distinctive Feature, and two Personality Traits. You can alter the results a little to suit your concept so far, or even reject them to pick one, but you can't just start by picking them. And in most games with this sort of thing, now you'd begin ... but ha ha, you are playing Legendary lives, and the treat is just beginning.

First, you roll on the Religion table to find out how your character relates to his or her species religion(s). In some cases this is very complex and others quite simple, but the point is that you can be "heretic" or "fanatic" or whatever no matter what the religion is, or how complex ... and most interestingly, regardless of your personal Devotion score. You then roll five times on the lifepath (called Lifelines) table, and as with the Cyberpunk and previous lifepath systems, some of the results have sub-tables. When you’re done, you put the five events in order as you see fit to make a character back-story.

And before you scoff and say, "I've seen all this before," I don't think you've seen it done this well. In Legendary Lives, you get a combination of events which usually problematize and/or explain every single thing about your character's race, religion, personal socioeconomic class, emotional life, personal flair and style, and Type. I don't think I've ever seen a roll-driven character creation system which always yields a unique, perfectly functional, and interesting character. Note that the only times you don't roll are (1) optionally choosing a race rather than rolling it, (2) choosing a Type, and (3) optionally rejecting a roll about the various observable character features.

He made up a Firbolg knight, whom we promptly dropped into a cemetery to fight a ghoul. Combat is an interesting sub-routine to the general roll table (the ART as it’s called in the rules), adding Hit Location, Armor Defense, and a return to quantitative effects on the hit location. But the interesting things are how they’re ordered in terms of real-people action; how character actions are ordered, which seems a bit loose but works well in practice; and how foes’ bad-assedness is quantified.

1. When a foe attacks, the GM rolls Hit Location first. That allows me to say, “The ghoul strikes directly for your chest with its claws!” I do not roll. You roll your armor defense for that location, which has a rating like a skill. If you beat the qualitative descriptor column for the ghoul’s claws (Good, Passable, whatever), then the armor stopped it. Otherwise we do a couple more things (based on how much you missed it) to arrive at a qualitative descriptor for the injury your chest suffers.

2. Character actions are ordered quite loosely. Basically, the GM choreographs, and then uses “common sense” to say who goes first. When it’s ambiguous, use a quick Quickness contest, but this is tricky because foes have no listed Quickness. So my understanding is that you do that only when player-character action ordering is under question, and the foes’ ordering is simply under GM control. That’s a bit too much work for me sometimes if I have to come up with it whole cloth in the middle of a fight. As long as you play with a lot of scene-description, and allow for skill checks by players in order to validate their character concepts (i.e. familiarity with this kind of terrain could factor into one’s defense rolls), then it works well.

3. Foes have a few important things listed, such as how good their attacks are as mentioned above, but the main thing is a simple list of the qualitative descriptors of the outcomes of rolls. A foe might have: Passable, Good, Good, Excellent, Awesome. What this means is that your attacks have to hit one of those results to hurt it. If you roll Passable, check off the Passable. But what you really want is to get higher results, because you check off all the ones below it too. So with the list I just wrote, the foe can be taken out with one Awesome shot. It shouldn’t surprise you that the list for a dragon is four or five Awesomes, and that’s it.

Ralph and I were both surprised by how logically and cinematically the fight went. The knight killed the ghoul, but it was close and exciting. At one point the ghoul slammed him down on his back with a strike to his chest, and then gnawed on his leg, but when the knight got his bearings, he beheaded it cleanly. There’s a nice mix of action without much damage, scary bits with damage, and occasional cool moves. This is hard to do with percentile dice systems.

OK, next post is about the first try at an ongoing game.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards:
The guys: Tim K, Tim A, Chris
I had to twist their fucking arms to get them to play a fantasy heartbreaker with an extensive character creation system. In fact, I had to say, “Look, make up your characters, and then if you say you don’t want to, we won’t play.”

We ended up with Lisster the Draconian Demonologist, who illustrated (as also seen in the Forge Midwest game) how significant it is to have an overweight character; Yaali the Hillman Scout, who was a whole Njal’s Saga of feuding and torment all by himself (note that Tim K refused to use the recommended Hillman name list like Jeb and Joe-Bob); and Emil the Gypsy Spiritualist, who to my surprise gave me a whole cool dead NPC Entomolian to play all the time as his spirit guide.

I hardly know where to start in describing these characters, but effectively, all three were on the run, there were mothers and girlfriends and daughters and lost fathers and problematic friends all over the place, and each character could easily have been a central villain in any more standard fantasy gaming scenario. I was particularly happy with each character’s back-story relative to religion, including a persecuted minority-faith (Yaali), a dismissive personal split (Lisster), and a nostalgic longing (Emil).

And that’s what hit me between the eyes in prepping. Whoa – all this fucking awesome Color deeply integrated with Character, a relatively clear if rather simple Setting … and somehow, no Situation at all. That’s a Big Model hiccup right there.

So how does the GM prep for play? Does he plan an adventure, complete with steps and a planned climax, for characters to be dropped into? That’s pretty much advised in the text, and there are some practical points for doing so, without ever really saying it outright. Or does he comb the extensive back-stories and associated NPCs for a situation which arises from the characters’ pasts? Rather than have all the characters’ Color turn into only Color (the “Village People go on an adventure” effect, especially prevalent in playing Everway), I opted for the latter. Obviously, given Colorful Character and Colorful Setting, excellent Situation is possible. But constructing it was wholly from the ground up, and genuine work!

This is exactly what got me eventually to post about Color-first character creation in Endeavor; that thread was steamrolled by the bith of my third child, but some day or year, I will follow up on it. Vincent’s already been doing so at Anyway, which is excellent. It’s also cool that Clinton independently used an LL character for that thread, too, and I’d like to know more about the experiences he and others have had with the game.

Fortunately, there was a shared element from the characters themselves: death and more death. Yaali worshipped the Hillman death-god and his Religion roll said his personal worship was persecuted, so that translated into some Setting stuff going on. Death is easily mapped to demonic stuff, so that was a cue for Lisster, and the whole Gypsy spirit thing is pretty much necromancy anyway, so that works. Plus, Emil was raised by hill folk, and hill folk territory borders on Entomolian territory too. So at least they were all plausibly there, if not a group. I was able to reach for a couple good monsters, the zombies and this thing which traps souls, as the basic foes of the scenario.

The first session brought Lisster and Yaali together with the latter basically working for the former, going to a powerful death-shrine and running into a variety of Hillmen drama about religion. They got to fight zombies. I found there were some tricky things about playing friend NPCs, especially because they are so common. The only rules recourse is basically to use them like Allies in Hero Wars – you describe their actions and get a “bump” in your roll results, with no rolls for them.

The second session brought a bit of solo time for Tim A, playing Emil. There was perhaps too much fun with the Sanity and madness rules, which are pretty devastating. Emil was basically stone crazy by the end of the session. The spirit guide rules are really cool.

Chris noted a couple of things about running down one's Spell Points ... it ties right into the improvement system by making Catastrophic results more likely as time goes by and hence checks for possible improvement of that magic skill. So late in an adventure, magic-slingers may well be generating catastrophic results left and right (always fun for the GM) and beefing up those skills.

Sadly, that was it for the game. I have carefully preserved the notes and sheets for some unknown day in which we'll pick it up again. Next post, I talk about playing at Forge Midwest and, um, well, Jews and Arabs. But it wasn't my fault this time!

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards:
Forge Midwest! me, Ben, Larry, and Willow
These guys actually rolled for the races, although I encouraged Larry to re-roll the first Viking result. Larry had Gootch the Brownie Assassin (forgetful and serious; unhappy with Luck-based religion). Ben had Ra'ed bin-Akbar the Nomad Demonologist (innovative and spendthrift, if I remember correctly; fanatic about Islam Nirin but with a low Devotion score). Willow got Ctine the Serpentine (morose and gullible; committed to a political group which gave her thief training plus generally religious).

I think character creation worked its usual magic, but I want the others to post about what they think.

Now is the time for the Racism R Us discussion. I want to distinguish between the descriptive text and how it manifests in play. So, textually, and a bit provisionally because I haven’t done this with a fine-tooth comb yet, I can break the character races into groups.

1. What looks like unadorned fantasy but isn't, because it’s sort of like a snapshot of white American society. The dwarves are wage-slave laborers with their upper-class exploiters, and whether the “Be productive! Work is happiness!” slogans on their factory walls are lampooning capitalism or socialism is, I think, answered by “both.” There are various elves which are effectively the whole range of ins-vs.-outs American political parties, even including the National Security Council and a kind of rogue/usurper CIA.

It’s notable that the Elven Empire is the social center of the setting, with a light but rather hard-hitting history; the Draconic Empire is isolated and dwindling, and the Easterling and Nomad Empires are largely off the map such that characters from there are supposed to be travelling to the game setting. Also, all the human races/cultures are fully marginal, socially, culturally, and economically.

There’s also an underclass in this category, including the Hobs (orcs, and more about these later), Ratlings (thieves), and Goblins (skulking troublemakers). I'd love to play a full-on game with many players, using only these races

And also, the fascinating detail of Elfins, who are nominally half-elves but highly specified to be more human-like, in fact – modern humans, in full, including wholly modern names. I think these are the gamer "You Are Here" characters. We speculated that Williams' convention play might well include Elfin characters who just happen to have the names of their own players.

2. Astonishingly pointed ethnic stereotypes. They include the Nomads, who are orientalist Arabs to a T, more-or-less as construed by Crusaders and early-20th-cent. Brits; the snake-people Serpentines, who are the early 20th-cent. Jews (Chris read the relevant stuff and went, "Ssssshalom!"); Brownies, who are particularly cute and potentially menacing Irish as construed by the English; Easterlings, written especially to make Ben moan and gnash his teeth as the ultimate pan-Asians; and in this category as well, the Hobs, absolutely unmistakable as American black people as construed by white culture in, say, 1940. Three of which were represented in this very game, as it unexpectedly turned out. The very extremity is jaw-dropping, but there’s a punchline that I’ll talk about later in the post. (Also, for reference, see my comments about fantasy races and ethnic issues in [RuneQuest: Slayers] Skulls, blood, other body fluids and the embedded links.)

It’s 100% clear that the current Nomad Empire, which is mainly “off the map,” is the former home of the Serpentines. Did I mention that the Serpentines are mercantile masters who secretly control most of the commerce in the various cities, working through front organizations?

Somewhat along the same lines, there are also light-genre humans: Vikings (from Erik the Viking), Corsairs (Errol Flynn pirates), Gypsies (more spiritual than thieving, but still thieving), Hillfolk (hillbillies), Foresters (same hillbillies, different terrain), and Barbarians (straight from the Conan movies).

Oh yeah, and there a few interesting exceptions: the Bushmen and the Nethermen (rather accurate Neanderthals), both of whom are depicted with considerable dignity.

3. And finally the few outliers who don’t really fit into the setting well, or at least not as stereotypically-fitting participants: the very interesting and powerful Draconians, the bland but reasonably playable Wolflings, the almost-entirely bland Entomolians, and the very bland and annoying Avians. I’d recommend throwing all of them out … but then you look at the Draconians and only an idiot wouldn’t want to play one someday, so I can’t toss any group out on the basis of this ethno-stereotype variable.

Ben nailed it: the very pointedness of the stereotyping is not finished content, but essential setup for problematizing the stereotype with your specific play. And if you happen to end up with a basically stereotype-confirmatory character (rare but possible), then he or she becomes a foil for everyone else’s messiness.

situation: putting it together – this time, I actually planned to do a more text-based adventure prep and simply decree “you’re a party,” but as it happened, the Color-Setting thing kicked in so hard for the characters, that we could not imagine playing anything but a dramatic, open-ended interplay based on their back-stories. In more detail, when Ben and Larry had made their characters, we'd pretty much decided on a "party" context with the Brownie being the Nomad’s slave/pet, but Willow's character was riddled with too much direct conflict to shoehorn into that, so we said she and the Demonologist knew each other but weren't a team.

Well, now I had to do some thinking. We had the back-stories, we had the player goals (which I asked be very specific tasks), we had the place (Baye in Brownie Country), and we had a couple of details like the circus and a Serpentine Alley. The NPCs and goals included:

- Ra’ed’s derelict friend and dead girlfriend enemy, who I decided was kind of a combination Phantom and Vampire from the foe list: his goal was to kill the girlfriend again, which Ben apparently forgot all about once his character got blue balls from their not-quite-done sex scene. Ra’ed turned out to be a chubby, bald-on-top with flowing black hair demonologist who worked in the circus, disgruntled with his family and with a bad romantic triangle in his past concerning sex with both a man and a woman.

- Gootch’s debts and returned girlfriend (Hootchie Koo): his goal was to earn her forgiveness, which was an easy GM call considering he’s an assassin. The target was Seth, described below.

- Ctine’s Zionist political group with thief training: her goal was basically an assigned mission, to hijack a Brownie mechanical superweapon. Her boss was Asp, whom we all kept calling "Seth" and I swear it was by accident every time. Willow’s whole scenario hook was that she approached Ra’ed to swindle him into using his magic to help her, even though the whole point of her political group was to ravage a Nomad village (formerly a Serpentine village).

Play is tough on GM! Or rather, on the GM I am now, as this stuff used to be a main concern for me but is now too draining relative to where I’d prefer to put my efforts. I had to move things along all the time, with rolls being a good baseline but also with NPC activity. The real signals are found in rolled Catastrophes and Awesomes, which are in fact reasonably frequent. If this is what you mean "good GMing" (and it is a skill, constant and genuine Participationism leadership), then the game knocks it out of the park.

The main thing was the interaction between Ctine and Ra’ed using the Sincerity and Lying skills.
Fun twist is Gootch successfully killing Asp (gunch! Stabbed right through the eye), and how no one quite understood that he did it, and him not knowing that Asp was central to what the other two characters were doing it until too late.

I guess it sort of turned into the plot of Pulp Fiction, if one of the characters had killed Marcellus Wallace through a series of interesting misunderstandings.

Gootch realized what a pickle he’d created and ran off with his girlfriend and Ra’ed’s money. Ra’ed bound Asp’s spirit into the machine (hilariously, using Gootch’s knife without knowing Asp was ultimately his employer for this very job), then was killed by the vampire chick and the now-vampire ex-boyfriend (shouldn’t have played such a lone hand, Ra’ed!). That particular outcome wasn’t the certainty that this summary implies, but Ra’ed got hosed when the boy vampire delivered a critical to his head. Ctine did successfully steal the machine and ride it to battle and out of the story, but she also mistakeny co-opted it under her control, so her interactions with the spirit of the probably-very-resentful Asp and the machine o’destruction are left to theoretical later play.

Sadly, we all forgot about Miracles, which would have been especially interesting in the vampire scenes. The Miracle rules are universal in mechanics and effects, which I think is a nifty concept given the diversity of religions, although you’re supposed to stick to the given religion’s Color for narration purposes.

Best, Ron
all the edits were to add boldface to the headings - RE

David Berg:
The whole "tons of material for inspiration, no ready-to-go situations" thing definitely sounds familiar.  And that familiarity's centered in early '90s publications for me too -- AD&D2, Marvel Superheroes, Rifts, Cyberpunk2020, Shadowrun, Vampire, and Werewolf, mainly.

Part of the fun of GMing these games, for me, was getting to take all that inspiration and create situations.  It was fun!  Whether that's an awesome thing these games helped me do, or a gross oversight of theirs that I bailed them out on, I couldn't say.

Things tended to work out when I pitched the game to people after I'd already decided what it was going to be about.  But on those occasions when someone else had already read the book and formed their own impressions, there was a lot of gap to bridge.

Ron, I enjoyed reading about the Legendary Lives characters and setting and factions and color, but I was stunned by what you chose to do with it at Forge Midwest!  Here I was getting all pumped for perspective clash in the pressure cooker of a group mission (a la my Werewolf game that we had those long threads about), and you guys did this maze of ordinary personal growth, color grab bag of spirit/machine/vampirism, solo bits, and killing each other?  I mean, that sounds fun, but after reading everything that led up to it, it caught me completely by surprise.

Perhaps that's one of the big risks of Fantasy Heartbreakers?  If you don't bring your own "get on the same page" skills, no one agrees on what play's supposed to be like?


P.S. I love that qualitative "hit points" list for enemies.  Sounds like it would enable you to really customize the color and experience of fighting different foes.

Ron Edwards:
Hi Dave,

I GMed as you describe for decades. I was really, really good at it. Here are some of my thoughts after all that time.

1. The more my desire for us to produce "a good story" was developed in this fashion, the less the other people's similar desires found ways to get integrated into play, aside from pre-game programmed setup. The ideal player for such a GM is acquiescent, thespian, and not particularly assertive regarding what his or her character actually wants and does. The worst possible player is someone like him or her, artistically speaking.

2. It was work that over time, did not pay off creatively. The effort "worked" insofar as my prep was so good (in this sense) that everything turned out like it should, including the subroutine bits that had been included as "well, this bit can go one way or the other without causing problems." It also worked insofar as I ran regular player polls to keep abreast of what everyone else liked and wanted to follow up on. The net effect of "working" like this is simply wearing-out, especially after several repetitions of upping the scale of the conflicts without seeing much difference in what they were like as a fun activity.

3. I hate missions. I dislike mission-based stories, generally. I don't see them as pressure cookers, but as an uninteresting venue for characters to posture at one another (Snikt! Hey, Wolverine, sheathe your claws! ... kill me now). When there's a mission in a story, and I like the story, one of the primary features I've noted is that the mission has largely been abandoned or utterly subverted by a fairly early point in the goings-on.

Now, all that said, I actually did intend for our Legendary Lives game to be pretty straightforward in terms of a few allied characters in a tight situation. When Ben and Larry made up their characters, I simply said, OK, we have a sinister foreign demonologist, and a native assassin, and the latter as a race relish being slaves as long as they get well-treated. Fine, Larry, your guy is Ben's guy pet. But when Willow came along and the luck o'the dice provided a Serpentine right here with our Nomad ... and then it turns out that she's totally a member of Irgun this political organization with criminal and violent tendencies ... well, we decided that the two knew one another, but that it would be stupid for them to be a bunch of drinking buddies and fellow "adventurers."

Your summary of our game is incorrect in one key point: no player-character killed another, nor attacked or threatened another, at any point. Asp was an NPC. This wasn't Blood Opera, and the various possible conflicts of interest that arose could well have turned in different directions in play, depending on how certain rolls, deceptions, and decisions went.

Best, Ron


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