Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Shades of Divinity Review

Probably the best way to introduce you to the obscure fallen angels game Shades of Divinity is to give you two lines from the blurb.

"This game is like nothing else available to live-action fans. All other systems simply fall short by comparison."

That's a pretty big claim, but it does make the reader hope that the game fails spectacularly just so that you can jeer at the self-importance of that statement. Thankfully, such schadenfreude doesn't go unrewarded.

In short, Shades of Nightfall is a poor game. It has a few passable if underdeveloped ideas, a terrible core system, far too much focus on funky powers, and amateurish production values (particularly in the editing). It's a White Wolf clone that has fallen well short of the mark and was, as far as I can tell, the last work for the game designer.

Considering the fact that it is a pretty bad gamebook, it would be nasty to simply sit here and pick it apart just because I can. There's no real point in doing that apart from being cruelly entertaining, and I don't think it would be right to make mockery of someone's failure at this stage of my life.

So why am I going to review it?

Because for all of its many, many flaws Shades of Divinity also includes one of the most brilliant, inspired and frankly genius elements I've ever had the pleasure of encountering in a roleplaying game. I've never seen anything as original and unique as that one element and I believe that it could be developed into something that could change the way we look at our roleplaying toolbox.

But you have to wade through a lot of shit to get to it, so it's only fair to give the game the blasting it deserves first. After all, this game does claim that all other systems fall short by comparison...

Really not a White Wolf book...
Shades of Divinity by Patrick Ellison is the second game in the Covenmaster line after Shades of Nightfall (which was about vampires). Two more games (witches and ghosts) were planned but seemingly never eventuated.

I never read or played Shades of Nightfall, but a few of my friends did and they were scathing when not simply dismissive. The best online review I've found is by fantasy author Scott Lynch and can be found here. Most of his criticisms of that game easily apply here as well.

The first thing that strikes you about Shades of Divinity is how desperately it tries to emulate White Wolf. Released in 1996 at the height of WW's popularity, it seems that the author resented that company's work whilst leeching inspiration from it without apology. The game company is called Silver Shadows Publishing and its logo is a masquerade mask. The blurb claims to be the official ruleset of the Silver Shadows Gothic Horror Society and "ShadowCons worldwide". The game itself claims to be "an alternative live action roleplaying system" set in "opposition to the gross commercialisation of roleplaying games" where you play tortured supernaturals in the world of Dark Reality. Even the layout of the colophon follows the White Wolf model even down to the little anecdotal nicknames they used for their Special Thanks section.

Mind you, you could do a lot worse than follow White Wolf's lead. WW raised the bar for rpg publishing standards and their artistic focus motivated many others in the industry to do likewise, but simply copying their style is blatantly unoriginal and downright pathetic. It wouldn't be so bad if there weren't continual criticisms of WW thinly disguised throughout the text.

If Ellison were to have developed his own style rather than ape another's, he probably wouldn't show how he so obviously fails in comparison. It's a harsh statement, but sadly very fair.

I should also mention that the artwork has merit, though it's unlikely to interest a more established publisher.

Angels and the world of Dark Reality..............
In the introduction the author leaves us in suspense by ending a paragraph with fourteen full stops. I've done the same to the heading of this section. Looks pretty silly, eh? It isn't the only glaring syntax concern.

But I promised I'd be kind, so I'll drop it.

Shades of Divinity is a game about playing fallen angels (the Fallen) in the world of Dark Reality (just like our own world but darker and so much better than the world of another popular modern supernatural game line that it doesn't resemble at all). The Fallen sort of took a neutral stance during the war in Heaven and were cast to Earth with no memories rather than be damned to Hell. True angels and demons alike despise the Fallen as they try to regain their memories and their angel powers whilst protecting the innocent members of humanity.

The concept is adequately presented and has a couple of interesting ideas, though the morality discussions are simplistic at best and potentially offensive to some ("virginity acts as a sort of default innocence" indeed). I like how the Fallen must obey their divine mandate to act in the defense of humanity, that their tears have healing properties, and how they can use crystals to placate mortals. That's pretty cool stuff.

But there's so little of it. A few broad strokes, a couple of factions, an idea or two and we're off to the land of funky powers.

But before that we need a system. So we'd better get one out of the way.

System (and lack thereof)
There's two basic conflict resolution systems in the Covenmaster system. The first is to compare your power against another player's power. This is effectively an XP measuring contest. Simply, you have your maximum power (how much XP you've spent on your character) and your current power (equal to your max minus whatever you've spent or lost so far). You can spend power to use your angel abilities or have them removed from you as damage. Once you are reduced to no power you die or go into a coma or something. You're out anyway. I can't remember and can't be bothered looking it up.

The other method of conflict resolution consists of several variations on the theme of guessing what number between 1 and 10 the GM picked and trying to get as close as possible.

It should be noted that there are no benefits or disadvantages based on your character. You don't get skills or flaws or advantages or talents or anything. There's nothing to make your character a good driver or be skilled in mountaineering or have mafia contacts or anything like that. So the task-based mechanic is based purely on luck and nothing else.

There is a decent character development model where you write three words; one on how your character sees the world, another on how he sees himself, and another on how others see him (male pronouns are used). It's a reasonable idea and can be used anywhere. I'm glad it was included.

But that's enough of that! We have to get to the powers! Powers, powers, powers!

"Choose from over 370 different powers"
About half of the book is dedicated to angel powers. This is what the author spent most of his time on and he's obviously very proud of it. The only real way to differentiate your character in Shades of Divinity (apart from pesky roleplaying) is by your selection of angel powers. And there's a lot to choose from.

But I haven't bothered with them. It's pretty clear that the powers exist for a Player vs Player environment where your clever use of hoopy angel funkiness can be pitted against the build of another Fallen (or vampire, or witch or whatever). I've briefly leafed through them but the core principle doesn't interest me. I'll admit that certain PvP live action players I know would probably thrive in an environment like this, but even they would turn their noses up at Covenmaster.

After the multitude of powers comes a little more world information, but only a little. There's a section discussing angels, demons and the other supernaturals followed by a couple of pages on damage. Then there's a chapter on the Oubliette, which is basically a tacked-on section trying to wedge Wraith-esque Harrowings into the game. And finally, when you're totally over it, there's just one more chapter before it rounds off with a glossary, index and character sheets.

And it's that chapter that I've fallen in love with.

Saving Grace
The final chapter of this book is titled "Sinskrit" and I probably would have gotten rid of this book years ago if it weren't for this one section.

I'll try to do it justice.

Effectively, the Fallen communicate with each other in letters consisting of coded messages hidden inside poetry. Different types of messages use different codes and formats. Many examples are given and it is suggested that angels spend a lot of time working on these encryptions.

I'll give you an example from the book.

Consider the following symbol:

This symbol is called "Nun" and the Fallen use it to mark safe houses. But it is also a key to be used in Sinskrit messages, such as the following example.

Watcher of God for
whom no other can
slight, you hold me
in your judge's hand
let your judgement strike.

As you can see, knowing the encryption key gives you a hidden message ("once you see me, hit me") and the rest of the text gives it flavour.

There are ten different "Nezrix" keys given with seven different forms explained to use them. It's a brilliant idea and introduces a fascinating mix of code-breaking and poetry into roleplaying.

This is what this game should be about. Ditch the idea of giving people explosive powers and waiting for the powderkeg to go off and instead make it a game about poetry and arcane symbolism.

Hell, it'd make a great game about wizards. Between sessions the players could write up spells following a set of poetic laws and they meet up to share knowledge and add to their arcane collection of enchantments. Brilliant!

It would make a great addition to fantasy larp. If spells had to be written on scrolls following certain laws, then a wizard's most powerful tools would be pen, ink and parchment. And of course their spellbook containing whatever spell keys they've managed to get so far. Especially interesting if spell scrolls are destroyed once used, and if you can copy notes from a fallen mage's spellbook...

This whole idea adds a writer's flair to game design combined with a mathematician's love of pattern and I adore it.

Shades of Divinity is a long forgotten relic of the mid-nineties when a bunch of hopeful game designers looked at White Wolf and said "We can do that, too!" and promptly failed. It isn't the worst game I've ever seen but it's definitely in the bottom half.

However, that Sinskrit idea is pure genius and deserves to be explored further. It inspires me and motivates me to steal it to use elsewhere. I feel guilty about that, but it really is too good to waste. And I give full credit to Mr Patrick Ellison for creating it (as far as I can tell it is his creation).

But steal it I shall, and I encourage you to do likewise. For Ellison has blatantly taken inspiration from other sources to create his game and it's only fitting that his forgotten contribution to gaming should be used in the same way.

After all, isn't imitation the greatest form of flattery? And if all other systems fall short of this one, shouldn't we at least mine it for treasure?

Style 2
Substance 1 (but a special mention for the Sinskrit which I put at 4.5)

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