Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A Look at Awaken and Designer Interview

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

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Trying to fight off  a Colossus.
Now and then I get an email about kickstarter projects and creators who are interested in talking to me about writing about the project or making a preview or some such. Most of the time I politely turn these requests down as I tend to only write about kickstarters that I'm actively backing myself. However, I had to make an exception for the last email I received.

It was from one of the guys behind a project called Awaken (already funded) which turned out to be a dark fantasy roleplaying game developed by a team in Croatia and based on Slavic and Mediterranean folklore. This immediately caught my eye as I'm always looking for stuff outside the bog standard Anglic/Nordic based fantasy rpgs we're so used to. Also, when is the last time you heard of an rpg from Croatia?! This deserved further investigation.

I talked further with Zoltan Lečei, a Games Collective member and co-creator of the game, and sat down to read through the campaign and the quick start rules that are available and I am really impressed! The system used is heavily influenced by the original rules of White Wolf's World of Darkness roleplaying games although switched to a D6 base and modernized a bit. The basics are not groundbreaking as such but there are some really neat things going on like the Picture rule that gives you bonus dice, or lets you succeed automatically if you describe what you're doing really well and it makes sense in the fiction. This is something I've seen before and I imagine a lot of groups has it as an unspoken house rule, but it's always nice when a game explicitly rewards active player participation!

The other very cool thing is how combat works. You gather up your pool of dice from your Attributes and Skills and then decide how many you want to use for offence and how many for defence. All participants in the combat do the same thing and then everything takes place at once! Yes, you of course do it in sequence to avoid utter chaos, but there is no iniatiative roll and by a simple system of cancelling dice on a 1-to-1 basis (offence vs defence) you can quickly suss out what happened and who killed who. While I have yet to try it out in practice it seems really simple yet dynamic as it allows a player fluidly decide how to use the abilities of his characters depending on circumstances.

The setting is far from the tired tropes of D&D and seem fresh yet slightly familiar at the same time. I guess the idea of playing as a special group of people with powers no mere mortals possess is not uncommon in rpgs, but combining it with a completely different folklore than what most of us are used to combines to create something new. Oh, and the art! Did I tell you about the art? Because if I didn't I really should have because it's gorgeous! I'll sprinkle some in this article, but please head over to the kickstarter page for more.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings. I conducted a short Q&A with Zoltan through email, just to get a better feel for the game, and I thought I'd share it with you here:

Fire Broadside: Zoltan, the game looks beautiful, with an interesting setting and some clever use of dice pools. How did the idea for Awaken come about?

Zoltan: We've created the game full of local, Slavic and Mediterranean folklore because we ourselves (and I'm talking foremost about the co-creators, Marko and me) are fascinated by those elements, even to the point of having a hard rock band with local ethno and folk elements! That's why we thought it was only natural to create a game inspired by our surroundings and present it to the world. 

Regarding the system; as you can probably notice, Mark Rein-Hagen's point distribution system was a huge influence on us. We consider it easy and inspired method of creating the diverse characters without bowing to the strict and rigid rules.

While we were playing in our gaming groups, we would often use the system in various settings, just for it's flexibility. And after we started working on the game, we decided to create a similar system that could be versatile enough to allow people to focus on the game, story and role playing, without rule mongering. To reinforce that, we've decided to include one of the "more common house rules" (to quote one reddit user) as a part of the system itself, a possibility of rewarding the player with extra dice and bonuses for his creativity during the actual play - we call it "the picture rule" 

And to speed up the in game conflicts and combat, we've decided to test out the potential of throwing the dice in the same time and simply "reading" the course of the situation from the results (when I put it that way it looks like we're fortunetellers :D ) after subtracting the negated dice from the equation. 

FB: Sounds good! Before we go further, I need to ask about the art direction! The game looks stunning with great art from a number of artists. This is one thing I love about European role playing games, or simply European games in general - they're often beautiful looking in way that many American games simply... aren't. Often (not always!) in rpg's from the US it's much more function over form where art feels like an afterthought with pictures haphazardly inserted into the book whereas in Europe graphical design is just as important as the background or the rules. The art for Awaken has a kind of otherwordly, slightly dreamy feel to it that I think goes great with the setting. How much of the art is influenced by the setting and how much is the setting influenced by the art?

Z: Hey, thanks for the kind words! Our lead artist, Kristina, is the main reason for that slightly dreamy feel you describe. She is really good when it comes to transferring the atmosphere of a certain event or giving a breath of life to characters. I really don't know what to answer regarding the influences. We just clicked somehow; whenever we imagine something and describe what we would want, she always gets it in the first try! Either we're really good in describing or she is telepathic. But it's probably that she's just a great artist :D
But to be honest, some of her works which weren't specifically designed for the game really inspired us for parts of the setting, so I could probably say that you can find the both situations here.

FB: The game system is, as you say, strongly influenced by WoD but it seems to me like that there is more to it. The Vasalli, with their different orders and gifts, almost feel like WoD characters in their own right.

Z: Well, you could say that we share the similarities with the WoD system and world building. Maybe the elegance of it influenced us more than we know. I understand that orders and gifts could look like something out of WoD books, but it somehow came naturally. Since we didn't want to limit players with various character classes, we decided to at least give the option of belonging to some organization. And gifts are just the alternative to standard magic.

FB: You've mentioned Call of Cthulhu as an inspiration for the parts of the game connected to your character's willpower and sanity. There's not really much about it in the quick start rules, so would you care to tell us a little bit about it here?

Z: Yes, the quick start edition wasn't dealing with sanity much, we wanted the adventure in it to be a little more epic and less horror kind of a story. The sanity of a character is reflected in „Virtues“ part of a character sheet (Luck, Courage and Will) and in „Corruption“ part. It's a neat mechanic which could be used for various situations; from sanity shattering situations and horror stories to the drawbacks of too much power.

FB: This might be connected to the question above - the use of gifts can have severe drawbacks to the character and there's the risk of corruption. Spontaneously this makes me think of games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Dragon Age where magic is inherantly dangerous to use. Or perhaps Werewolf where you run the risk of succumbing to the beast inside you. How does this come out in play?

Z: Yeah, it connects nicely. The Vasalli, as we imagined them, are the regular humans intensified; all the best what could be found in people and all the worst could potentially be found in one Vasall. Vasalli are stronger, tougher and smarter than average human. But they are also more susceptible to their desires and instinct. We imagined them as volatile characters which could be prime paragons of virtues that could turn into power corrupted beasts if they allow themselves too much. And that's the main reason behind the „corruption“ mechanics – as we know, power corrupts so we wanted to balance out the potentially great power which lies in Gifts with something equaly dangerous.

FB: The setting is arguably the most unique part of Awaken I think. It's just so refreshing to have a European fantasy setting that is not (semi) anglo-saxon or nordic in its makeup. Off the top of my head the only other setting with similar elements that I can think of is The Witcher. However, whereas The Witcher feels very down to earth (well, all being relative) and gritty, Awaken comes off as much more heroic, or perhaps extravagant. The art of course helps with this, but the rules and setting as well evoke much more of a dark high fantasy world that make me think of Elric of Melnibone. I'm not entirely sure where this rambling question is going, but I'd love to hear more about how the setting came about and what kind of "power level" (to use a very mundane turn of phrase) you envision for the characters.

Z: Ah, yes, the great Witcher series! Well, our setting was designed to be slightly more epic as you noticed. But we really didn't envision it to be too epic or high fantasy. Yes, there are various creatures in the woods and the darkness, but they aren't magical beasts; at least they aren't considered as such in the world of Awaken. On the other side, we have giant Colossi which were a pretty big deal once, and now are dying out. Then, you have the Vasalli of course. With all their gifts and plethora of abilities, they are somewhat epic, but still not in the high fantasy kind of way. We actually had some questions about the „power level“ of Awaken, and we feel that it could be played in different ways, all depending on the Narrator and players. But we prefer to play it (and the setting was mainly created that way) as a toned down fantasy; the wonders of the world and setting reflected mostly in the bizarre situations and character abilities.

FB: Moving back to the system for a bit. While it will be, for the most part, familiar to veteran roleplayers there are a couple of things that immediately stuck out to me. One was the Picture system, where if you describe something well enough the narrator gives you bonus dice, or even lets you succeed automatically! This is something I'm familiar with from Torchbearer/Mouse Guard and I think it's awesome! It's probably one of those things that many players kind of do anyway when they play, but having it in the rules make it much more of a tool for the players and generate better stories. You mentioned it growing from a house rule of yours, would you care to expand on that?

Z: It's just like you said! It's commonly used house rule, but we really did want to draw attention to the existence of it and emphasize that it's a good thing for developing role playing in the groups and sessions. And since we feel the game is pretty accessible to new players and game masters we wanted to incorporate it so people could get acquainted with that options even if that is their first encounter with tabletop gaming.

FB: The other really neat mechanic is how combat works. That everyone acts at once was interesting but what really got my whiskers twitching is that you generate your entire combat pool and then divide it between defence and offence. Something I haven't come across before. It's such a simple idea but through it mechanics that are often separate in other games are boiled down into one decision which I imagine will help both with speeding the game up and making it a lot more cinematic - depending on how many dice you use on what you can see exactly how your character is fighting. How did you come up with this combat system?

Z: Marko who is lead designer of mechanics was toying with various options. He really wanted to speed things up and to avoid the usual downtime during long combats. During one of mechanic testings, it just came to him that people could avoid all that and that we could emphasise the creativity and give freedom to narrators and players during the combat. Also; it's designed as a reflection of a real life combat; it's messy and dirty, there are no chess moves while fighting. Something goes wrong, something goes right, but nobody waits for the other to punch. Everything happens in the same time. That's why the rolling in the same time is used for the game. And the decision to split the pool between offense and defense is also natural; when in a fist fight, people usually know if they want to fight defensively or all out; so the split pools would mean various stances, openings, aggression, caution etc.

FB: Finally, to round off, what kind of future do you have in mind for Awaken? Lots of splatbooks covering the different factions, pre-written adventures and campaigns, sourcebooks for interesting places, monster manuals? What can we expect to see?

Z: There are some ideas what to do after the campaign, but we have to see the reactions after the product is finally released. Of course, the world is big, and there are some things we didn't put in the core rule book. And there are different perspectives on things happening in the setting of Awaken, so there is a lot of room for additional material, and there are a lot of ideas, but for now we want to put the core book out there and see where it leads us.

FB: It's great to hear about some of your thoughts on the design process. Thanks for joining me here at Fire Broadside, Zoltan!

Z: My pleasure!

So there you have it! As I said the game is already funded, but naturally more backers means more product lined up. Right now it's only three days left, so if you're the least intrigued about what you've read head on over and give it a further look!

Although I am not able to back the project at this time, I'm hoping to be able to have a look at it when the game is released to make proper review!

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