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Sunday, November 3, 2019

First Look: Mere Gods by the Curious Chimeras

A warlike deva named Ballaladeva has declared the town of Greensand a traitor and enemy of heaven. In his prescient wisdom, he sends his lieutenant, a dreaded rakshasa magistrate known as Iruppunencu, to wield heaven's justice and bring the town to heel. It has been a year since, and Greensand is now in Irrupunencu's cruel grip.

The story starts as you return to your home of Greensand after years of being away.

Mere Gods is a story about coming home and finding it in ruins. It is produced by the Curious Chimeras as an introduction to The Three Paths RPG system, itself the basis of their upcoming Tales of Saintrest tabletop roleplaying game. I've been very excited about this release, so author Tan Shao Han sent me an early copy to get my first impressions. So how about it? Let's check it out!

But first, a disclaimer: Shao is a player in my current Dark Sun online game, and like me, he is a part of #RPGSEA. Naturally, tales and RPGs set in Southeast Asia are my jam, so I am positively disposed to liking this product. So basically this is not a review, but rather a list of things I am excited about from Mere Gods.

Cover for Mere Gods by the Curious Chimeras!

What is Inside?


Mere Gods is divided into three chapters. The first one, The Silence of Greensand, describes the plot at the start of the story. It talks about the motivations of both Balladeva and Iruppunencu, and introduces the sights, sounds, and characters of oppressed Greensand. I like how the assumption of the story is that the players are locals. They are champions of the town rather than foreign liberators, and any change they enact onto Greensand is free of any white-savior narrative that so many RPG scenarios fall into.

Notably, the author has avoided the use of local terms as much as possible. Natives of Greensand are called shore-walkers, and their gods are known as the lake-blessed. Greensand itself is an English sounding name for a town. It's an issue I have also come across as a local writer for a potentially international audience. Should we preserve authenticity by defaulting to local-sounding words, or do we avoid the othering of ourselves by defaulting to the closest English words? The author has chosen the latter, and the terms that he did keep (deva, rakshasa), are already words that are adjacent to RPGs.

Once the reader has been familiarized with the story in Chapter One, Chapter Two: The Three Paths delves into the mechanics of the game itself.

The Three Paths


Mere Gods is written with The Three Paths system, which is a blend of old-school fantasy RPGs and the narrative direction of more modern games. I quite like this approach: The language is decidedly old-school: If you want, you can completely ignore the rules in this book and run it with your favorite RPG system, and everything should still work as intended.

So why is it called The Three Paths? Well, the system itself comes in groups of three.

Mud, Bamboo, Flower


The randomness of The Three Paths, unlike many RPGs, is less concerned in whether a player succeeds on your action and is more concerned on the theme incorporated into their action. When a player wishes to take action to change the things around them, they roll dice (d6s) that will determine one of three themes:

  • Mud is the theme of fury and passion.
  • Bamboo is the theme of practicality and short-term gain.
  • Flower is the theme of compassion and wisdom.
The player must then incorporate the rolled theme into their narration of the action. 

The number of dice rolled will depend on circumstances, such as difficulty of the action or the use of Truths. This allows the player a degree of freedom in choosing the theme that they must incorporate into their narration.

Truth, Word, Integrity


Truths represent the character's beliefs, statements that talk about the character's past experiences and what they learned from them. Basically, if you can narrate how the Truth applies to the action being performed, then it adds dice to your roll. 

A character can have a number of Truths, but for them to matter, they need to have pledged to these truths in that moment of time. At any given day, they can only bear a number of Truths equal to their Word. Mortals typically have Word: 3, while spirits have Word: 2.

Finally, Integrity represents the amount of stress that a character can handle before they compromise their Truths. If they compromise your third Truth, the character risks dying. So in The Three Paths system, Integrity is the closest the game has to hit points. 

Since they are not made of physical, fleshy stuff, spirits typically have higher Integrity than mortals.

Mortal, Spirit, Chronicler


Another interesting aspect of The Three Paths system is that it recognizes three player roles, rather than two. Mortals play the role of characters as per usual, but Spirits allow you to play gods. But this is not the Western RPG conception of gods, with their 20+ HDs or absurdly high Challenge Ratings. Instead, you take on the role of mere gods (heh), guardians and familiars to mortals. 

This is perhaps my favorite part of this RPG: The D&D idea of a cleric and their spellcasting relationship with their god is a square peg to the round hole that is the SEAsian syncretic belief system. The gods of our old stories exist alongside their mortal counterparts, not above them. And besides, roleplaying as one of the mere gods is an exciting prospect.

Finally, the third player role is that of the Chronicler, which in essence is the gamemaster of other RPGs.

A Practical Miscellany


Chapter Three closes out Mere Gods by continuing its theme of threes. A Practical Miscellany is essentially Three Appendices.
  • Appendix A is a glossary of game terms and in-world terms that players may need to remember as they play.
  • Appendix B summarizes story elements that will be used in Mere Gods, including notes on the Adversaries, and some hazards.
  • Appendix C presents six pregenerated characters: Three mortals, and three spirits. My favorite thus far is The Grower of Sweet Songs, a mango tree god. Dibs on this if someone ever runs this for me.

Conclusion


If you're someone like me, who enjoys fantasy RPGs but wants to stay away from traditional Western settings and tropes, Mere Gods is an excellent adventure to get. In true #SwordDream / 2019 fashion, it appeals to TTRPG players of both the OSR and story game persuasions, and I think you can even run this in modern D&D if that's your jam. Shao's outlook and perceptions as a Southeast Asian shine through to his writing, and RPGSEA definitely has a fine addition to its fast-growing catalog. Get it!

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