Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review: Mystic Empyrean

Mystic Empyrean is a role-playing game produced by Level 99 Games.  There is an iPad app, but I wasn't able to review that since I don't own an iPad.  It's available in hardcover and PDF as well, though I'm not really sure on the availability of the hardcover.  The game itself is fairly interesting, but you'll have to read the review if you want the dirty low-down on it.  There is a lot to absorb, and I'm only covering what I feel are the important points.  You can find the free demo rules at DriveThruStuff.

Overview

  • Publisher: Level 99 Games
  • Game Type: Role-Playing Game
  • Book Type: Core rulebook
  • Availability: Hardcover, PDF, iPad app.

Setting

Normally what would go here is an overview of the setting for a game.  Mystic Empyrean does not really have a setting, and that's deliberate.  Instead what it has is a framing device for a setting; an excuse for the players to devise their own setting.

The basic gist is this: the world was broken somehow and a negative force called the Aether filled in the gaps and killed a lot of the protagonist types (called eidolons by the game's terminology).  The world is locked away in things called cornerstones, fragments of a greater axis mundi called the Grand Cornerstone.  Eidolons are what the player characters are; they amount to demigods, all things considered.  There are also the nascent, which is pretty much the game's blanket term for sapient/sentient beings.  There are also the spirits, who are governed by one of the seven elements, and are pretty much the gods of the setting.

Did I mention that the setting is just a framework?  One of the glaring things, since the game assumes the players will engage in world-building and that you will need to find cornerstones to do this, is how you go about finding cornerstones.  I suppose that's deliberate given the gameplay.

System

The default mechanics revolve around a pool of cards corresponding to the setting's elements (another suggestion involves a bag of colored beads), called the World Balance.  Every action in the game is associated with a particular element, and you draw a card to determine the degree of success for an action.  The degree of success is determined by the relationship of the element you drew to the element of the action.  Fighting is associated with Fire, for example.  If you drew a Fire card, you get a perfect success, whereas if you drew the elements opposed to it (Water and Stone), you fail.  Drawing an Aether is an automatic failure, whereas drawing Anima is an automatic success.

The wrinkle is that the players can influence the chances of particular kinds of actions succeeding by spending from their personal Balance (their elemental make-up).  When an eidolon (player character) does this, a card of the appropriate element is put into the World Balance.  You do get it back after the session is over, but I don't think it's ever mentioned if the World Balance goes back to the default from session to session.  This may be another part of the world-building mechanics, however.

Characters

A player character, as mentioned before, is an eidolon, which are essentially demigods with the power to restore chunks of the world from cornerstones.  Characters manifest powers based on the personality traits they display, so careful thought about how you plan to portray the character is required.  The powers change based on how dominant the personality traits are as well.  Which leads us into...

... character advancement.  Here's where you can first see that you will need to find a group you can trust.  Character advancement happens by the group basically adding or increasing the rating of personality traits based on how the character was portrayed during the session.  You do get some choice in the matter, since you get to add/improve one yourself.  There are fortunately some limits and ways to deal with personality traits that get too overwhelming.

Gameplay

 Now I'm going to discuss why I kept mentioning world-building in previous sections.  The game is all about world-building, the game's author cites Legend of Mana as a major inspiration, after all.  Here is also where you can run into the most problems if you have a group that is seriously possessive of their creations.

There is not one game moderator who guides everything; players take turns running scenes.  All setting elements are 'owned' by whomever created it, including plot lines.  This is a very cool idea in theory, but in reality, play groups need to be really careful and cooperative with each other to make it work, because when a conflict arises about what is correct in terms of setting or narrative, the owner of the setting element in dispute is the final arbiter.  Yes, that's right, the players get to dictate the setting elements to other players.  There is an incredible amount of communication and trust required between the players to avoid the really obvious pitfall of denying the other players any agency (meaning the ability to effect change in the setting and plot).

The game spends a lot of time discussing how to do the world-building, suggesting a master binder to keep everything organized and in one place (a good idea, really).  It even provides some randomized tables to act as idea seeds, which is good because sometimes folks can get absolutely stuck for an idea.

Verdict

If you have an incredibly creative group that loves to collaborate and tell stories together, get this game;  It's light on actual rules and has a lot of room for exploring that creativity.  If your group needs a lot of structure, whether that structure is rules or a more defined setting, then this game isn't going to interest them.