Bizarrely this pandemic year robbed me of has been my ability to sit down and focus on reading ttrpg rulebooks. My anxiety spikes when I do that—a constant thinking about the other projects I could be working on and media I could be imbibing. To break that in the last couple of months I’ve made an active effort to center myself and work through the pile I have stacking up.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been working through some big ones Nibiru, Opera House, Dune, Against the Darkmaster. Most importantly I’ve started on Worlds Without Number, the massive fantasy-based parallel to Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number. And that got me to thinking about my favorite Crawford rpg: Godbound.
And made me want to run that again, like a lot. So I dug back through my notes and material. In there I found an Age of Ravens post from my second year on the Gauntlet—talking about hacking Scion to Godbound. Ironically I’m more likely to do this now given how much I dislike Scion 2e. Below I present the original piece, along with a few new thoughts at the end.
GODS & MONSTERS
I’ve always dug Scion’s premise—modern day children of gods fighting corruption and monsters. It has signature magic items, fate-binding, and cool powers that ramp that up. But I’ve never been happy with Scion as a system. I ran an extended campaign of it, but the “battle wheel,” dice pool fatigue, and tracking so many abilities & rules wore me down. I had fun, but felt like the system and I fought one another.
Later I tried a Fate adaption (pre-Fate Core). I borrowed from Strange Fate to manage scaling. It wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t that great. I went too literal with my conversion. I included everything rather than stepping back to think about changing the mechanics to make them smoother. If I re-wrote that hack I’d do it differently, armed with new game tech like DFAE’s mantles.
All of that was in my head as I played Godbound, a high-level OSR game from Kevin Crawford. In it, you’re fantasy character empowered by the divine bleed off from gods destroyed when humanity stormed heaven. Your world may vary. The bottom line is you roll a fairly standard OSR character and then pick from awesome and devastating powers (Alacrity, Night, Sword, etc). The rules scale your abilities—you do damage not in HP but Hit Dice. To represent your lethality, you get a free strike each round (called the Fray die) against lesser or equal level foes. Squads of minions will fall before you.
Godbound has an interesting sales pitch. You can go get it now, free and pretty complete. That version’s artless and lacks some of the advanced options from the full version, but it’s robust and playable. Seriously—if you’re at all intrigued by the concept or mechanics, you should go and pick it up. I ordered the full hardcover after one play—I dug it that much. The actual physical product’s gorgeous: great art, solid page design, and a ton of resources.
I’ve looked at several Kevin Crawford rpgs and dug all of them so. Each of the core books (Stars Without Number, Other Dust, etc) contains OSR-inspired rules, setting/campaign material, and some of the best random game generators. I talked about this in (an) earlier Silent Legions review. These books are amazing toolboxes. I especially love some Star Without Number supplements (like the alien ruins and espionage campaign ones). Other Dust has dynamite tools for any post-apocalyptic campaign. Godbound includes awesome tables for creating different kinds of fantasy courts, ruins, challenges, and foes. Great stuff.
In short a game worth picking up. There’s so much here. When I went to reskin Godbound to Scion, I ended up seriously cutting. Or maybe I should say I left things out—like the great Influence system. Since I knew I’d only be running two sessions I tried to keep things light.
You can see the Actual Play of these sessions here (Session One, Session Two)
I figured I could run Godbound as Scion with few rules changes, just trimming. I’d stick with basic systems and mechanics. Doing pre-gens would make the task easier. Secondary mechanics, like Dominion, Influence, and Worship, I’d leave out. To keep things grounded, I decided that while the characters would be second level (giving them a few more resources), I would limit their divine gifts. Usually at Level 2, PCs would have eight points to buy gifts. I gave them five. I thought that would help them absorb what they had. If I went back, I might even cut it down to 4 points.
Additionally to keep things simple, I gave each character just two unique Purviews (Words in GB). In Godbound you begin with three distinct areas. In Scion you can have a bunch, depending on your divine parent. Those gifts can be stat foci (divine its, manipulation, strength) or purviews (animal, fertility, prophecy). There’s also sorcery. Godbound has a parallel system for, but I left that out since it added complexity.
I knew I had four players and I wanted to give a broad range of pre-gens. I decided on eight, which is probably too many. I opted to give each pre-gen a choice of three divine parents, so the players could select a pantheon or concept they dug. That meant going through the list of all the gods from Scion to find overlaps. I also wanted to represent each pantheon a couple of times. All that took a spreadsheet to work out. It ate up a lot of time and was probably a dumb spend. I ended up with the following options; the first four are the ones the players picked for their characters.
ALACRITY & HEALTH
- Artemis (Greek, Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt)
- Dian Cecht (Celtic, God of Healing)
- Hachiman (Japanese, Lord of war, fishing nets, and fertile fields)
- Alacrity Base
- Health Base
- Faster Than Thought (Alacrity, Smite, Instant)
- All Directions as One (Alacrity, Constant)
- Merciful Gaze (Health, Action)
- Vital Furnace (Health, On Turn)
DECEPTION & NIGHT
- Tezcatlipoca (Aztec, God of Fate)
- Izanami (Japanese, The first woman and Queen of the Underworld)
- Hades (Greek, God of death and Lord of the Underworld)
- Night Base
- The Darkling Stairs (Night, Constant)
- A Familiar Face (Deception, Action)
- Impenetrable Deceit (Deception, Action)
- Knives of Night (Night, On Turn)
ENDURANCE & MIGHT
- Ares (Greek, God of War)
- Sun Wukong (Chinese, The Monkey King)
- Tyr (Norse, God of Victory)
- Endurance Base
- Might Base
- Defy the Iron (Endurance, Instant)
- Amaranth Vitality (Endurance, Constant)
- Fists of Black Iron (Might, Constant)
- Loosening God's Teeth (Might, Action)
LUCK & FIRE
- Shennong (Chinese, Second Sovereign)
- Loki (Norse, Trickster God)
- Shiva (Hindu, The Destroyer)
- Fire Base
- Luck Base
- Consuming Gaze (Fire, Action)
- Nimbus of Flame (Fire, On Turn)
- Salting Away the Luck (Luck, Instant)
- Spun Fortune (Luck, Instant)
- Unmarred Beneficence (Luck, Constant).
COMMAND & SWORD
- Guan Yu (Chinese, Current Jade Emperor)
- Isis (Egypt, Goddess of Magic)
- Parvati (Hindu,The Incarnation of Shakti or feminine energy).
- Command Base
- Sword Base
- Contempt of Distance (Sword, Constant)
- Know the Inner Truth (Command, On Turn)
- Shattering Hand (Sword, On Turn)
- A Thousand Loyal Troops (Command, Action)
EARTH & DEATH
- Izanami (Japanese,The First Woman and Queen of the Underworld)
- Osiris (Egypt, Lord of the Underworld)
- Baron Samedi (Voudon, God of Death)
- Death Base
- Earthwalker (Earth, On Turn)
- Mantle of Quietus (Death, Instant)
- Obduracy of Stone (Earth, Constant)
- Rebellion of the Soil (Earth, Action)
- Scythe Hand (Death, On Turn)
KNOWLEDGE & SKY
- Frigg (Norse, Queen of the Gods)
- Quetzalcotl (Aztec, God of Beauty and Art)
- Susano-O (Japanese, Lord of Storms and Sea)
- Sky Base
- Disclose the Flaw (Knowledge, Instant)
- Sapphire Wings (Sky, On Turn)
- Stormsword (Sky, On Turn)
- The Best Course (Knowledge, Action)
PASSION & SUN
- Apollo (Greek, God of the Sun and Art)
- Atum-Re (Egyptian, God of the Sun)
- Baldur (Norse, God of Light, Beauty, Love and Happiness)
- Sun Base
- Body of Burning Light (Sun, On Turn)
- Follow the Threads (Passion, Action)
- Snuff the Heart's Candle (Passion, Action)
- Sunstrike (Sun, Smite, Action)
In Scion, each pantheon has a unique purview representing its approach or special purpose. That meant that the choice of parent could affect a character’s gifts. They’re important flavor so I adapted them. Four of these purviews have gifts that are new to or modified from Godbound:
- Arete (Greek): Commit Effort for Scene. You gain an “Escalation Die” for yourself. Each round after this you gain a cumulative +1 to your attack rolls (up to a +6). This goes away at the end of the conflict.
- Itztli (Aztec): Once per day you may roll 1d12 damage on yourself to immediately regain Effort committed for the scene or day.
- Cheval (Voudon): Commit Effort. You can communicate from afar with any person whose location you know to within a mile. You can borrow their senses if they permit it. Persons who have spent at least a week in your presence or have been Fate-Bound can be reached wherever they are.
- Tsukumo-Gami (Japanese): Commit Effort for Scene. You can communicate with an inanimate object, seeing and perceiving everything it has witnessed at a certain time of your choice. The spirits of these objects do not think as humans, but they can perfectly relay all the sounds and sights that took place in their presence. You must specify a particular time to focus on, however.
For the others, I simply used existing Godbound gifts. For Enech (Celtic) I used Deceiver’s Unblinking Eye from the Deception word. For Taiyi (Chinese) I used A Second Spring from Fertility. Heku (Egyptian) I used Heart of the Lion from Passion. For Samsara (Hindu) I used Nine Lives from Luck. Finally, for Jotunblut (Norse) I used Link of Unity from Beast.
TEN GENERAL THOUGHTS
ORIGINAL FLAVOR: My experience with Godbound isn’t just these two sessions. I played in two online games and (I ran) it f2f for our Sunday night group. We’d just wrapped a year+ Middle Earth game with our Action Cards homebrew. It’s a striking shift to move from that limited scale to epic actions. And I haven’t yet introduced the concept of Dominion and Influence, ways in which the PCs can spend to change the world. They’ve hit level three so I’ll introduce that next time.
OVERSIGHT: In those sessions, I spotted a couple places where players get lost. First—Effort. That’s the energy the Godbound use to fuel their gifts. It takes a bit to understand that unless a gift says to commit energy for a certain period (a scene, a day), you regain that Effort after using it. It’s a limit on how many things you can have going rather than a mana system. Second, most Godbound Words have a default benefit which players can miss. Third, players sometimes disbelieve what the powers can do. They’re deliberately powerful, but they’re also a sledgehammer when sometimes you need a scalpel. Show them the awesome.
BRING THE BOOM: On the flip side—as a GM you may be shocked at how potent the Godbound powers are. Remember that just gives you license to throw more awesome shit at them. The book has some conversion guidelines for existing monsters and foes. I’ve dug out all my ld Monster Manuals and bestiaries to look at what I can unleash.
IT'S A MIRACLE: Make sure to spell out the mechanics for Miracles, improvised divine powers. They open up choices and push players to commit effort for the day. I like those kinds of resource-drain options. It’s easy to overlook these mechanics in the book.
HOLY SHEET: For the Scion game, ran online with Roll20 and Hangouts. I’m still having audio/video issues with Roll20, despite being a fully paid high level subscriber. I have to use alternate tools for that. There’s a Godbound character sheet—however be warned that it calculates and rolls some things incorrectly. You’ll want to check that if you opt to use it.
NEW GOD CITY: I ran the game in Las Vegas. The core Scion: Hero book has an adventure set there, but I’ve always ignored it. I have a gimmick that the gods can’t go to Vegas because of all the chaos of fate and chance there. They have to send in Scions and other supernatural agents to do their work. It means that Vegas has been a gathering ground for all kinds of forces trying to evade divine attention. I really love that backdrop for this. I might not dig Vegas in person, but it’s probably my favorite modern campaign city. Other folks loooove New Orleans, I dig Vegas.
SUCCESS? Does Godbound work for Scion? Yes and no. It did a good job in the constrained version I put forward. But I did trimmed and refocused. Doing a full scale conversion would be a ton of work. I’m not sure how you’d handle some of the most cool elements (merits and fatebinding for example). Scion itself has a weird power creep. You’re potent, but still kind of low-powered in the Hero range. Godbound bundles together abilities that individually would be equivalent of Scion’s gifts and knacks. But there’s a jump in power and complexity when you move to Scion’s Demi-God and God level. I think that’s probably closer to Godbound.
OR NOT? But Hero’s what I’m most interested in. Empowered characters, armed with strange powers, but still vulnerable and connected to the mortal world. Get too powerful and those things start to matter less. So the Godbound reskin I did wouldn’t—in the long run—create the campaign I want to run. It might work for people wanting a more potent campaign. I had a great time with the sessions, but the power scale wasn’t too high.
MORE STUFF: That being said, my reskin is a rough, quick patch job. Kevin Crawford’s provided an insane amount of additional material at the back of the Godbound book covering different campaigns: mortals, martial arts, Exalted-style themed PCs, fantastic war machines, cybernetics. But I haven’t really sat down to explore those since I’ve been more worried about getting the base game under my belt. I suspect if I go through there I’ll find ways to rescale Godbound to the level I’m looking for.
MORE ROOM: One thing I do want to mention about the online sessions if you watch them. At the end of session two we do a short assessment of the game. Jump there if you want to know the players’ reactions. In looking back, I realize I made a big mistake with the final fight. In it, the group assists a member caught by a bunch of Titan-empowered baddies. This takes place in the basement of an abandoned medical clinic. I absolutely should have blown that fight open and widened the terrain. As it is they fought in a large room and at the top of a staircase. An epic fight like this needs space and elaborate sets. I could have had the floor collapse into an underground cavern. More smartly, the powers being throw around should have destroyed the ceiling. Then they could have fought inside the whole of the abandoned clinic—with walls being smashed, movement, verticality, improvised weapons, and so on. Missed opportunity. I thought too small screen.
Godbound’s fantastic fun. It’s more than a little niche—you have to want to explore potent characters and high level play. For that it does a great job. It’s well-written, has great artwork, and delivers great campaign tools. Even if you’re not usually a trad or OSR player, it’s worth checking out if that concept grabs you. If you want to hack something like Exalted, Scion, or even Rifts, you’ll find ideas you can use. I backed the Scion Kickstarter, so I’m curious about what that brings to the table and if it’s more or less adaptable.
I should mention the Godbound core book contains a fully-realized fantasy setting. While you can use the rules for generic fantasy (as we’re doing f2f), there’s a whole world presented. Crawford provides strong sketches and ideas rather than over-elaborating the material. He’s released a region sourcebook for that, Ancalia, about a country overrun by undead. More interesting to me, he’s released two “modules”: Ten Buried Blades & The Storms of Yizhao. These offer great sandbox plots, but more importantly they’re some of the best Wuxia adventures I’ve ever read. Their backdrop’s a riff on Imperial China and they feel like ‘80s-‘90s high fantasy martial arts films (Storm Riders, The Bride with White Hair, The Duel).
THOUGHTS A COUPLE OF YEARS DOWN THE ROAD
I still really dig Godbound. Since I wrote this Crawford has added a whole range of new Domians with The Lexicon of the Throne supplement. They open up the world in cool ways—including the addition of material for modern or science-fantasy games. It remains probably my favorite OSR game; I dug immensely the sessions I ran last year on the Gauntlet.
I have a few additional thoughts about Godbound
1. One of the things about it I love is that is doesn’t even consider fantasy races. That’s not a factor in the setting or material. It feels like you could easily add in some of those elements, but they’d just exist in the fiction rather than mechanically supported. That’s a relief given the problematic treatment of race in a couple of the Big Book RPGs I’ve been reading through (racial essentialism, stat penalties for INT & WIS, etc).
2. If you’re going to run this you need to decide how you want to handle mind-controlling gifts and powers. Some of these things are more than simple Suggestion. They’re legit mind control and mind rape. In particular the ones which affect passions and lusts are problematic. Check your safety tools, assess your Lines & Veils, and have a discussion with your players in session one (or beforehand) about how you plan to handle that.
3. There are moments of terrible frustrations in the fights. The players have taken on the role of godlings, rising powers in the world, but they can go through an entire combat just wiffing. Sure they have a lot of tools and gifts at their disposal for offset that, but there’s a decent chance in each fight you’re going to have some players who effectively do nothing.
If I run this again, I’m going to borrow the Escalation Die tech from 13th Age. Basically each round after the first the players gain a cumulative +1 to their To Hit rolls (up to a limit of +6). It means 13th Age builds its fights and monsters to be super challenging at the start, forcing players to fall back on resources. But then they can get their feet under them. I’d either offer this as a Gift or just have it as a feature—but if I use it, I’d also increase the foe’s potency by 10-20%. As an added bonus you can have monstrous abilities which key off the Escalation Die for affects or benefits.