If you follow my reviews, it’s probably fairly evident that I like modern urban fantasy, especially when it comes to the monster-hunting aspect of the genre. There is another aspect of modern urban fantasy that often seizes my imagination, as well, and that’s stories about how gods and demigods interact with modern life.
Today we’re going to take a look at the theme, viewed through the lens of a Powered by the Apocalypse game. We’re going to dive into Demigods.
I helped to crowdfund this game, and I have run this game in different phases of pre-release. I was not provided a preview copy of this game for review.
Created by Jason Mills
Cover and Interior Art by Minerva Fox
Character Art Amelia Vidal
Art Direction Adam West
Writing Jason Mills
Copy Editing & Developmental Editing Lauren McManamon
Layout Kurt Potts
Safety Tools Kate Bullock
Project Management Christopher Grey
Contributors Danielle DeLisle, Christopher Grey, Alastor Guzman, J. Holtham, Aabria Iyengar, Sam Saltiel, Pooja Sharma, Samantha Terry, Camdon Wright
This review is based on the PDF version of Demigods. The PDF is 189 pages long, including a credits page, a table of contents, a page of acknowledgments, and 10+ pages of artwork in an appendix, showcasing artwork that didn’t make it into the rules proper. Additionally, the PDF version comes with the playbooks, basic moves, and example scenarios all in their own PDFs.
The book itself is in a single-column layout, with gold and blue borders, and full-color interior art. The formatting is clear and easy to follow, and is one of the better-looking RPG books that I have seen. The artwork, which largely features the iconic characters representing the individual playbooks, is wonderful. The chapter breaks contain full-page black and gold artwork inspired by tarot cards.
On the Inside
The book is divided into the following sections:
- What is Demigods
- The World of Demigods
- How to Play
- Creation’s Forge
- Basic Moves
- The Playbooks
- The Herald
- Love Letters
- The Bestiary
The game takes place in the modern world, with only a few assumptions that inform the general gameplay, allowing individual tables to customize as they see fit. The gods need mortals to believe in them, not know they exist because mortal imagination is where magic comes from. Some gods or families of gods that have few modern followers are a little more likely to still be worshiped in the modern day.
Gods can’t stay on Earth for too long, or they start to warp reality around themselves, so they often have to work through demigods. Too many demigods in one place also start to warp reality, but the PCs have a special bond that allows them to work together without reality collapsing under the weight of their combined presence. The PCs will have a Spindle, a special place that drew all of them together, which is part of their ability to work together.
There are also two modern “pantheons” that have arisen from the (sometimes accidental) worship of mortals, the Science Pantheon, and the Religion of Media. The Science Patheon is composed of a number of gods that embody things like Physics or Chemistry, and who are chagrined that they exist at all, because their existence comes from the belief of humans that science works a certain way, rather than an understanding of actual scientific principles. Media is a monotheistic religion, but Media is served by Celebrants who are aspects of Media that can shift and change over time.
The crew of Demigods will generally have some gods that are nudging them towards making sure the world keeps working the way it should be working, and will likely have a deity that they may not be on particularly good terms with.
I’m going to go ahead and say here that I’ve been amused by the concept of the Science Pantheon from the first time I read these rules, and sadly, the concept that lots of people believe things about science that have nothing to do with actual scientific rigor has only gotten more evident.
Playing and Playbooks
In case you haven’t seen a Powered by the Apocalypse game before, only players roll dice in the game. When a player describes their character doing something that matches one of the moves described in the rules, the player will roll to see what happens. Players roll 2d6 + an attribute. Sometimes they will have Fate’s Favor (roll 3d6, take the best two), or Fate’s Disfavor (roll 3d6 and take the worst two):
- 6- (a significant complication happens)
- 7-9 (a partial success, or success with a complication)
- 10+ (a success without complications)
- 13+ (only unlocked by certain advancements–an exceptionally successful move)
Characters have gifts, items granted to them by divine patrons, which may just give them narrative permission to do certain things, or they may interact with other rules to provide a greater effect (like rolling with Fate’s Favor under certain circumstances, or adding or subtracting harm in combat). The playbooks available to the players include:
- The Arcane
- The Artisan
- The Celestial
- The Elemental
- The Muse
- The Reaper
- The Trickster
- The Verdant
- The Warrior
All of the playbooks also have a Death Move and an Ascendence Move. The Death Move is what the character can do to interact with the mortal world while they are dead, since they only die permanently if nobody “fixes” their condition before 28 days have passed. The Ascendence Move is a big narrative thing that they can declare, but once they do it three times, they have become fully divine, and leave the mortal plane (and play).
Threads are both a player currency for doing things like altering a scene, avoiding harm, or rolling with Fate’s Favor, and the currency you spend to buy advancements for your character. You can gain a thread whenever you roll doubles, and there are also four “once per session” triggers that can also grant a thread, which varies based on the playbook involved.
I have fully enjoyed games that use the same currency for advancement and for modifying aspects of the game in play, but I don’t think I have ever enjoyed those games because they use a dual-use currency. I always have a hard time feeling like the meta-choice between advancing a character and changing what happens in a scene isn’t an interesting choice for the story of the game and just kind of increases player stress.
Many aspects of the playbooks are discussed in terms of how the rules work surrounding those playbooks, but the playbooks do not appear in a generally usable form or template in the book. I know this is a tug-of-war in PbtA game design. They are freely available as downloads, so this isn’t an impediment to running the game, but since inclusion or exclusion has been the topic of discussion in the past, I wanted to mention it here.
The Herald and Running Games
One thing I really appreciate about Demigods is that it spends a good amount of its word count on discussions of safety. Not just general best practices, like lines and veils or active safety and calibration tools, but also addressing the care that needs to be taken when using elements of other cultures, religions, and the aspects of ancient folklore that involve things like the lack of consent by godly beings, as well as their abuse of authority.
In addition to presenting the familiar game facilitator’s elements in a PbtA game, in this case, the Herald’s Agenda (the philosophy of what the game should be doing), and the Herald’s Principals (how to go about reinforcing that philosophy), there are some additional tools. Some of these include:
- Love Letters
- Sample Spindles
- The Bestiary
Love letters are a custom move that shows that time passes and allows the player to make a meaningful choice about what happened in the interim. The sample spindles show some locations where the supernatural may have occurred, and where the PCs first met one another. The Bestiary has a list of example creatures, as well as guidelines for creating creatures that might be a physical threat to the PCs, including those that should only be handled with special actions rather than by tracking armor and harm.
The sample scenario not only provides a starting scenario for the group to use but also provides a general structure to serve as an example of how to format a scenario for the game. The example scenario involves a Celebrant of Media that suddenly removes all anonymity from the internet, as well as the daemons that serve her. The structure of the scenario goes like this:
- Herald Intro (the behinds the scenes reality of what caused the scenario)
- Relevant Pantheon (some notes on what gods are involved and why)
- Player Intro (what the players know about the scenario)
- Plot Hooks (why the players will want to get involved)
- Investigatey versus Fighty (elements of the scenario that can be resolved via physical confrontation versus elements that can be resolved with problem-solving and negotiation)
- Rewards (what the PCs get out of the situation once they resolve everything)
In addition to the example scenario in the book, there is a 59-page PDF with seven more scenarios, in addition to the scenario in the core rulebook.
Fate’s Favor Even beyond the PbtA implementation, I think it gets the basics of what you need in a game about modern demigods down, and serves as a solid template for what other games in the genre should be striving for.
I really like how this book looks, and I appreciate how it reads. It’s a very approachable way to address the genre of modern-day gods. The nine playbooks offer a good variety of deific archetypes, and I really like both the existence and the variety of the Death Moves. I appreciate the temptation presented by using the Ascendence moves as well, and it reinforced the genre tropes of trying to balance the godly and the mortal in a single life.
There isn’t much that doesn’t hold up well for me. The biggest thing that stands out is the dual purpose of threads as a currency in game and for advancement. I think overall they all lead to a better game, but there are a few places where it feels like the interaction of gifts and extra abilities granted by gifts when combined with different moves could get a little complicated.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I think if you are looking for something that is Powered by the Apocalypse, that is in the modern urban fantasy mold, Demigods offers you something distinct to play with. Even beyond the PbtA implementation, I think it gets the basics of what you need in a game about modern demigods down, and serves as a solid template for what other games in the genre should be striving for.
What are some of your favorite properties that deal with modern divinity? What does a game absolutely need to do in order to emulate those properties? We want to hear from you in the comments below!