I follow a predictable theme where I tend to be just a wee bit attracted to urban fantasy related games and media. When a friend of mine invited me to play in a game of Scion, it didn’t take too much for me to pick up the big bundle of PDFs and dive into the game. I made a character that was the scion of Hel, who I envisioned as a cross between House and Dexter. He was a forensic pathologist, with a magic scalpel and the ability to summon his dead father for advice.
As it turned out, making my character really good at his job and giving him a flavorful gift from his mother meant that he wasn’t particularly good at anything to do with combat, other than jabbing someone with the scalpel once in a while, and eventually, my poor character was eaten by one of Fenrir’s overgrown pups. I also found out that Vancouver, where I said my character was from (a joke based on where many television series are filmed) has very, very few actual murders, meaning my character was also probably very bored for most of his career.
Anyway, about the time my character was being digested, the Kickstarter for Scion 2nd Edition came along, and my curiosity got the best of me. I’ve been waiting to dig in for a while now. I have to admit, part of me is wondering if my character would have to make the same hard choices about skills versus combat ability in the new edition.
The Book of Origins
This review is based on both the physical and PDF version of Scion: Origins. The book is 180 pages long, with a one-page character sheet, no index, and a Table of Contents.
The book is very attractive. Some of the artwork has been reused from the previous edition, but what makes it a little harder to pinpoint is that many of the same iconic characters are depicted, with some of them appearing in new artwork.
If you have seen any other Onyx Path books, there is certainly a similar style to the formatting, with “typeset” style headers and double column layout.
The book opens, even before the Table of Contents, with a piece of fiction by Kieron Gillen, who may have written just a few pieces of fiction dealing with urban fantasy and modern gods in the past. To flash forward a bit, this piece of fiction is a stand-alone piece, but there is an ongoing narrative that appears between the chapters. This ongoing story follows a scion from their day to day life up to the moment of their visitation (meeting with their divine parent, after which the character would move up to the rules in the next volume, Scion Hero).
The introduction explains the concept behind Scion, that the player characters are mortal children of gods (or others touched by divine power), who eventually gain an increasing amount of supernatural power, and become embroiled in more and more supernatural conflicts as their powers grow. Origin, specifically, details characters that have learned they have supernatural powers, but haven’t yet been visited by their divine parent or an agent of the supernatural power that has touched them.
In addition to a primer on roleplaying games (or storytelling games), the introduction mentions the themes and moods that should be present in a game of Scion. The primary pantheons that will be detailed are summarized, and inspirational material, ranging from novels, comics, and television, are also cited. There are even a few recommendations for non-fiction books on mythology. The introduction ends with a lexicon defining various terms used later in the book.
I appreciate a game that lists the themes and moods that they hope to include in the game up front, as well as some example media that the game has drawn from, because this helps to set expectations. It gives you an idea of why something might have been added, as well as giving you a measure to use for comparing if the mechanics are doing what you want them to do, and what they are intended to do.
Chapter One: The World
Chapter One details the setting of the game, and it takes up the next 32 pages of the book, so it isn’t a light treatment. In broad strokes, the chapter covers a wide range of topics.
Primordials are beings that very much are the embodiment of a given primal force. They don’t have much of a personality. They just kind of exist. Titans are one step down from Primordials. They don’t have much of a personality either, but they are self-aware, and what personality traits they have are dictated by an obsessive devotion to their portfolio. Gods have broader portfolios than Titans, and are more fully realized personalities. Part of this is because they have interacted with mortal worshipers, and the more mortals interacted with them, the more the mortals believed that the gods had to have some similar traits to mortals. The downside to this is that, if the gods spend too much time with mortals, those mortals start to define other elements of the gods. So the gods need human belief just enough to keep them as more fully developed personalities, but not enough that mortals can radically redefine them with their faith.
The World looks much like our own, but the pantheons included in the book never stopped being worshipped, they just lost a little bit of ground as more modern religions came into being. The supernatural isn’t so much a hidden world, as an obscured one. Everyone might know one person who has genuinely seen the supernatural at play, and every once in a while, a rampaging monster from folklore may make the news, but the vast majority of people haven’t seen anything literally magical their whole lives. They make due with cars and computers and email just like we do now.
There are supernatural “otherworlds,” known as Terra Incognito, and there are various ways to access these places, including the Axis Mundi, transition points between worlds where one can travel between the two by performing a specific set of trials.
Several cities in The World are outlined, with sections detailing the Terra Incognito and Axis Mundi that exist near that city, as well as what pantheons are most influential there, and where they might be connected to other cities in the world.
While most of the details about gods deal with the pantheons mentioned in the introduction, there are a few references to “new” divinities that have arisen in the intervening years from antiquity to the present. Columbia, the goddess of America is an example, and she is mentioned as having multiple potentially conflicting manifestations, as she is still settling on a core identity because of the beliefs of mortals and their relationship to her and their culture.
This section gives a whole lot of flavor on what The World should feel like, but doesn’t nail down a lot of absolutes. It establishes a few different conflicts (pantheon versus pantheon, god versus god, new god versus young god, gods versus titans), but because of the time and effort put into it, the conflict with titans feels like the default narrative well to draw from. The references to Columbia are interesting, as I remember her mainly from a supplement to the original edition of Scion, along with various national pantheons that arose specifically around World War II, with these gods being an optional expansion in the original material. Neither Columbia nor any other “younger” deity appears in the summary of gods at the end of the book, so her only reference is in this section.
The Storypath System
On its surface, the resolution mechanic for Scion resembles other Onyx Path games, in that it uses d10 dice pools, counts numbers of successes, and derives the dice pool from adding the number of dots a character has in two different sections of the character sheet together.
The difference in this case is that successes are used to purchase effects. Simple success is one thing you can purchase, but there may be other elements present on a given test that are worth purchasing as well. For example, there might be complications that are present, so that if you simply succeed, you have to deal with the complications if you don’t spend successes to mitigate the complications. There may be benefits that you may be able to gain, in addition to a simple success. Any given test might have enough extra elements going on to make deciding on what complications you want to buy down or what additional benefits you want to purchase an important decision.
Additionally, scale might be at play. Scale adds an enhancement for each level difference between the parties involved in a test, and enhancements are successes that are only added to your total if the initial roll is already a success. So a giant may have a hard time striking your human scion, but if they connect, they will have an easier time applying extra damage.
Whenever a character fails, they may gain momentum, a group resource that can be spent to activate special abilities, add dice to a die pool, or to add an interval to the round. Failing on something where you have a specialty grants you extra momentum. Failing and botching a roll (rolling a 1 on one of the dice in addition to gaining no successes) grants an additional momentum, and allows the Storyguide to add a new complication to the scene.
All of this sounds very simple, but the explanations for this get a little convoluted, to the point that I felt like I was missing something. For example, when explaining a test, the Storyguide is instructed to choose an arena for the test, from Physical, Mental, or Social. Since a roll is based on Skill plus Attribute, my assumption is that stating the arena limits the attribute to those under the given header (for example, Intellect, Cunning, and Resolve are under Mental). But the way the actual section is written, it almost sounds like the arena itself has a number of dots, rather than the attributes under them. Further confusing this is that the player chooses an approach, from Force, Finesse, or Resilience, which corresponds to which row a given attribute appears on the character sheet.
All of the test examples cut straight to the chase–the test is X, the character is doing Y to resolve it, so they add this skill to this attribute to get their pool. I can understand stating the Arena to narrow attributes, but the approach seems to be something that only really comes in to play when picking a favored approach for the number of available dots in character creation. It’s a matter of a fairly simple resolution mechanic that feels a little over explained and gives the impression of more complexity that is actually in evidence. That said, there is the option of attempting to spend successes to achieve unrelated goals on the same action (like entering a code with one hand and firing a gun with another), which requires you to roll with the least advantageous pool, and approach may be a useful tool for adjudicating just what the difference between those approaches may be.
The book also details three modes of play, Action-Adventure, Procedural, and Intrigue. This is important for two reasons–not only does it establish the expected cycles of play, but with the addition of stunts and complications, these frameworks give examples of how to use those rules in the context of these narrative frameworks. One particular aspect of the Intrigue section that I liked involved Bonds. Characters can create bonds with characters when they spend a scene creating or reinforcing a bond, which allows them to roll a pool of dice that creates a reserve of successes that can be used whenever the character’s bond is relevant to what is going on.
Creating a pool of successes to spend helps to address situations where a player wants to know how much they can do on their turn, and adding complications and enhancements are nice, built in ways to make tests more interesting by reinforcing them with narrative weight. I really like the idea of awarding the players a resource that they can utilize that builds from failed rolls, because it gives them more of a choice to lean on that resource when the resolution of a test is particularly pivotal. I just feel like some of the more straightforward details got lost in the explanations.
Chapter Three: Character Creation
The character creation chapter starts with five example characters, from multiple pantheons, as well as multiple real-world backgrounds. There are three male characters, and two female characters, and with that number of characters, I wish we had maybe seen a non-binary character in the mix as well. The character sheets don’t include a section for gender or pronouns, so their genders are all expressed by reading their backstories and finding the pronouns used there.
Characters pick a concept, an origin, role, and pantheon path, a favored approach, and a calling. The process of making these choices gives the character the number of dots they have available in skills and attributes, and will also let them know where they can pick their Knacks from (special abilities that are often subtle or overt supernatural powers). There is also a derived pool from Defense, and the number of boxes a character can check at each level of harm is determined by attributes.
There isn’t a bullet-pointed summary of character creation in the chapter, and I would have really appreciated that. In order to make sure I understood the instructions, I defaulted to checking the sample characters. In addition to the lack of summary, the character sheets can be a little confusing.
Characters have three Storypaths, which influence their starting skills, and can also be invoked, not unlike aspects in Fate. A Storypath can be invoked once per session without much trouble, but invoking it more than that may cause the character to generate ill-will or be forced to complete a long-term goal dedicated to repairing the good will of their contacts.
An element of advancement that I like is that XP is earned by setting, then achieving, short- or long-term goals. In addition to short- or long-term goals, the group as a whole can also set up group goals for them to work towards. While the rules mention that you can have up to five goals active at any given time, the character sheets only show short, long, and group goals as options.
The advancement section mentions Birthrights and Legend, neither of which are available to Origin characters, since they have not yet been visited by their divine parent. While these rules are mentioned briefly (but not defined), it is clear that this is a section of the rules that will be addressed in supplements.
Going back to my introduction, the ability to assign dots to skills and attributes feels less fiddly than in the previous incarnation of Scion, and it feels easier to make someone competent in their “mortal pursuits” without shorting them too much in survivability, I just wish there had been a better summary of character creation and a little clearer organization of the character sheet. I am glad they provided the sample characters, but I’m not sure sample characters should be doing the heavy lifting for clarification.
Chapter Four: Combat
The previous edition of Scion had a “shot clock” style initiative, where the action you choose to take would add a number to your score, moving you up on the clock, and meaning that taking some actions meant that some opponents might act more than once before you, if you took a particularly time-intensive action, and they took relatively quick actions.
In second edition, characters roll initiative, and then create slots for themselves and their allies, that can be used by anyone they are allied with. This method is very similar to the initiative system used by Fantasy Flight’s Genesys games.
When making combat rolls, characters spend their successes to buy stunts in combat. The simplest stunt is the inflict damage stunt, which costs a number of successes equal to a character’s armor. Inflicting a second instance of damage costs more successes to inflict a critical. Characters can spend defensive successes to dive out of range or to make themselves harder to hit.
Weapons and armor have special tags to define them. Weapons don’t specifically have damage ratings, but they may have tags that give the weapon enhancements or allow them to ignore cover. Armor tags can make the armor soft or hard. Soft armor increases the number of successes needed to successfully attack an opponent, while hard armor gives them more injury boxes to check.
In a trend I’m starting to see in more games, characters have the option to concede a fight, getting taken out without taking all of the various steps of injury in between, and keeping the character from potentially getting killed. This will take the character out of the scene, and may leave them in a bad position at the end of the scene, but it also adds momentum to the pool.
There are also rules to handle recovering injuries, first aid, disease, and poison. There aren’t rules for starting gear, just a note that most mundane gear only has three points worth of tags. This isn’t a change from 1st edition Scion, where only supernatural gear required a character to spend character options.
Chapter Five: Storyguiding
There is a lot of material in this chapter on researching myths, following the hero’s journey, alternating between multiple heroes in the spotlight, and how to reinforce the tone specifically for an Origin level game, where gods don’t show up directly, and there are more omens and signs than overt communication and miracles.
This section also contains what the text refers to as the Plot Engine, a series of steps to work through to generate appropriately themed campaign ideas.
At the very beginning of the chapter there is what has become a standard in facilitator advice, the tacit permission to ignore or modify rules, and in this section, there is also the advice to make sure that everyone at the table is comfortable and happy with the content of the game. While I appreciate this inclusion, it is a pretty light treatment on the broader topic of safety.
In various other chapters, the text spells out that the old gods don’t want to change their ideas as they move into the modern era, so they often hold antiquated and problematic opinions about acceptable actions, forms of worship, and the worth of human life, and that this can serve as a point of conflict for scions. Given that this is spelled out as a potential theme of campaigns, I think a better discussion of how much of this content to include, and how to do so would have been a good idea. In addition to the light touch on general safety, there isn’t really any discussion of active ongoing table safety, such as using safety tools during play.
Chapter Six: Antagonists
Antagonists in the game are assembled by giving them ranks in a primary pool, a secondary pool, a desperation pool, a health, defense, and initiative rating, then adding in qualities (modifiers to the above ratings), and flairs (special abilities that activate under certain circumstances).
In addition to outlining how antagonists are built, this section also details Tension, the resource that the Storyguide has which is similar to Momentum for players. Tension can be used to boost defenses, have an opponent take an extra turn, or to trigger certain types of flairs.
While I don’t want to spend too much time on the various pre-built antagonists that are included in the chapter, for some reason, I really appreciate that in The World, Men in Black aren’t aliens or government agents–they work for the Titans, probing for information on the gods and how to weaken the prisons where various Titans are held.
I have definitely become a fan of opponents in games that don’t require the same amount of rigor to create as player characters, and I like the a + b and maybe c approach to this creation. I’m also a fan of facilitator resources that can be spent, so I appreciate the Tension mechanics as well.
Appendix I, II, and III
The three appendices to the book deal with Supernatural Paths, Pantheons, and changes to the game between 1st edition Scion to 2nd edition Scion.
The Supernatural Paths are beings that might eventually end up ascending in power, but aren’t the literal children of the gods. The examples given include:
- Saints (strong believers in a given pantheon or religion)
- Kitsune (long lived shape changing foxes)
- Satyr (the exact mythological creature you would assume)
- Therianthrope (were creatures)
- Wolf-Warrior (berserkers)
- Cu Sith (self-aware fey canines)
There are also rules for modifying these paths to make them fit a variety of supernatural archetypes, such as using Wolf-Warriors to model Amazons.
The pantheons summarized in the book include the following:
- Tuatha De Danan
There isn’t a lot of information given on each of them, but there is a list of skills, gods, callings, and purviews to facilitate character creation for scions of each of the pantheons.
The section on explaining the changes from 1st to 2nd edition is very brief and there are lots of fine details not addressed, but reading through it actually makes a few of the 2nd edition rules clearer even if you don’t have a frame of reference from 1st edition.
Heaven Sent The rules are well suited to improvisational gaming within a defined space, and for many gamers, that is the creative sweet spot.
I enjoy that the setting isn’t so much a hidden world as it is an obscured world. I really enjoy the idea of being able to spend successes to achieve multiple goals when you take action. I am a big fan of spendable resources in game, and I really enjoy the flow of Momentum to the players. Making adversarial characters a modular building process is something I am on board with, and I am a huge fan of advancement being tied in part to story elements written by the player characters.
No Legend Quite Yet
There are places where it really feels like this book wants you to speed through the Origin level of play to get at the “real” starting point of Scion: Hero, even though I think there is a lot of value to getting comfortable with the starting level of play. There are some fairly simple concepts that are expressed in ways that seem more complicated than necessary, and the character sheet design implies that the rules may work in ways that they actually don’t. Given that this tier of play is closer to “mortal” level, I think more guidelines on starting equipment may have been useful (since characters aren’t receiving magical gifts from their parents yet). While I think all modern games need to discuss safety on some level, given some of the themes and topics brought up in this game, there really needed to be more space devoted to the topic.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
Scion: Origin is an imaginative game that will feel very comfortable to people that want open-ended stories, but want a little bit more support than a rules-light game would give them. The rules are well suited to improvisational gaming within a defined space, and for many gamers, that is the creative sweet spot. I really like what I have seen of the Storypath system, I just feel that to grasp it, it made me work a little harder than was needed.
How often have your games revolved around the plans of the gods? Do you prefer to have gods included in your game as story elements, vague notions, or active, ever-present characters? What are your favorite games for achieving your preference? We would love to hear about it in the comments below! We’ll look forward to hearing from you.