Monday, July 22, 2019

Legendary Lives With Heartstrings Attached

Many of the ideas that I’ve developed here are drawn from the post-game conversations of the Legendary Lives actual play group. So Ron, Rod, and Ross deserve much credit. These reflections would not be nearly as insightful or plentiful without their contributions.

I’ve spent my Tuesday afternoons during the summer playing Legendary Lives, a fantasy roleplaying game developed in the early 90s. The game lives on at the Haunted Attic website and you can pick up a hard copy at Lulu. Legendary Lives was identified as a fantasy heartbreaker in Ron Edwards’ famous essay. It fits the categorization, but ironically, it is an outlier in that group . . . which makes it the most heartbreaking of the bunch. 

In three of the four “fantasy heartbreaker” categories outlined by Edwards, Legendary Lives doesn’t quite fit. It DOES demonstrate some critical perspective on game design (though sometimes that perspective is not sharply focused). It DOES contain some knowledge of actual fantasy (especially folk tales and mythology). And it DOES have some innovative mechanics (more on that below). 

So it’s truly, deeply heartbreaking that it didn’t have the ability to be a commercial success. Edwards’ fourth criteria fits like a gauntlet. Go to the gallery at Haunted Attic for some tidbits about the jagged economic and promotional road the game travelled down. Let me add one more side irony here: Edwards’ essays on fantasy heartbreakers have been widely misunderstood, debated, and attacked, but his arguments and his deep love for these games have helped save them from lapsing forever into obscurity.

So let me bear my heart on my sleeve and share some love for this game.

Mechanical Magnificence
Legendary Lives, for the most part, uses a single, elegant D100 percentile roll to resolve challenges and conflicts. This system, with small adjustments, applies to combat, magic, skills, attribute checks, and so forth. The game is “semi-diceless,” and is possibly the first RPG to put virtually all rolls in the hands of the players.

Moreover, despite the fact that there is basically a single mechanical engine for the game, it has great flexibility and nuance. When you roll, it is seldom a simple pass/fail result, but the outcome can take one of 10 different shades from Catastrophic to Awesome. It takes little time to understand the basic principle and that makes the mechanic quick to use. But the system also allows for some fine-grained interpretation of results.

Character Chemistry
There’s a direct, engaging, and multi-faceted character creation system, which gives you abilities, skills, family background, character type, race, lifeline (background), religion, etc. During our game, this was all done by rolling dice and consulting random tables (though you can choose many of the details if you wish to according to the rules).  At the end, we looked at what we had and wrote up brief.character histories. This was a quick process which resulted in rich, dynamic characters all around.

Writing and Design Clarity
In an age where some games look nice but are written poorly, it is nice to have a game like Legendary Lives. The writing is strong, clear, and on the mark. Careful attention was paid to the editing of the explanations, and it’s also clear that the skill list, the description of resolutions, and the explanations of play were carefully worked through after extensive iterations and play testing. This is one solidly built game system.

Foe Folio and Skills: This Is Not a Hack and Slash World
In Legendary Lives, there can be monsters, but the operative term it uses is FOES, and the rules emphasize that most of them are smart and open to non-violent interaction. When looking through the foe list, you are struck by the way that many encounters can involve more nuance than a straight frontal assault. I’d also note that most of the skills are not aiming at violence or combat. Yes, there can be blood, but Legendary Lives invites a variety of approaches to dealing with the Foes, and it points out that some “Foes” could in fact be friends. (Foe is really just the name for a GM-controlled character, so perhaps not always the most apposite term.)

I could go on, but to make this short: This is a great game at its core. If someone said they were interested in fantasy rpg design, I’d highly recommend that they read this book. And if someone was in the mood to play a “new” rpg that would not disappoint, I would send them to Legendary Lives in a heartbeat.

If you need a full-color coffee table book for your rpg, this one won’t work, but if you are interested in some brilliant, smart play at the table, this is a book that will keep you coming back for more. Not only is the game fun, but it produces story lines that are complex, deep, and satisfying.

So now to some quibbles and ideas for improvements:

Character Races
There is quite a mix here. 26 of them! The term “race” is antiquated, especially when you consider the humans in the bunch. Hill Folks, Easterlings, Corsairs, Bush People, Gypsies, Nomads, etc.--these all count as different races. Today, a different term such as kindred or nationality would be better.

There are stereotypes aplenty, which become especially jarring with those human “races.” Hill Folk seems to be people from rural Appalachia, Nomads are Arabs, etc., and some of the descriptions could be more sensitive. The suggested names give you a sense of this. For example, it suggests names like Mu Tan and Chi for Easterling characters, and Hill Folk get names like Daisy and Clementine.

Revising the race section to update it might be difficult. But there is much that I like about the races as they are written.

Each race has a special ability that have rich possibilities in play. Bush People, for example, have Animal Vision which allow them to see through the senses of a target animal.

I love some of the more bizarre races. I’m currently playing a Wolfling, which is a shape-changer that can take wolf form. And I’d love to take an Entomolian for a spin: These are giant human-sized insects who have a hive mind . . . and they are a designated character race!

My heart also loves the number of races: The variety gives the game a special flavor.

But there are down sides. In particular, if you have a party comprised of vastly different races, then it’s challenging to find the common ground that would give them a reason to work together. And the world of Legendary Lives doesn’t entirely hang together. You look at the map and it’s almost like a theme park with all these different lands you can visit, each of which will have its own cartoonish group of characters. The close of the book discusses the history of the Seelie court, but the game then seems to be unclear about exactly how much it wants to invest in the setting.

Deepening the Story
Despite the superficially cartoon-like elements, we have steadily carved out a curiously compelling story about broken people coming to grips with their tragic pasts and their fractured families. When I reread Legendary Lives, my sense is that the game is sitting at a crossroads in terms of how the GM should manage the game in order to allow the character stories to develop and unfold.

At points, the rules say things like “An adventure is a story, told by the referee, in which the players participate” (3).

But then in other places, it says things like, “During the play, you’ll have to create encounters on the fly, allowing your plot to change as needed. The best events will twist the plot in a new and unexpected direction” (176).

One of the key strengths of Legendary Lives is that it is opening the door to a truly open-ended form of play that is more heavily driven by the characters’ choices and the outcomes of the skill and attribute checks (and those checks come fast and furious!). My sense is that the writers of the game (Joe and Kathleen Williams) were making their way to a new approach and a new way of running a roleplaying game, but that the current style (i.e. the style of the 1990s fantasy rpg) was creating interference. So the door is opening, but it never gets fully pushed inward.

You can see this in the adventures that they published (and are available at Haunted Attic). On the one hand, they are more bare bones than what you might imagine to be a traditional scenario or module, but at the same time, they sometimes have elements of pre-plotting in evidence. Our group noted that this type of thing may be a result of the fact that the game made appearances at convention. So some of this conflict between old and new may be a result of the fact that some of the rules are written with a one-shot in mind, while others are thinking of more long term play.

Another sign of this interference problem: The game has you roll up 5 different lifelines, which give you glimpses of your character’s back story. But the rules are largely silent about what to do with these lifelines apart from the various mechanical and resource benefits they afford. Similarly, the game asks you to write out character goals and says you MIGHT write up a character story, but it doesn’t give the GM any advice about what to do with these elements.

Here’s what I’d suggest (and what we’ve largely done in our own game): If you are the GM, go through a character generation session. At the close, tell the players to send you a character story (perhaps giving a strict word limit to avoid anyone from gushing) along with a list of character goals. Make these two things mandatory, and tell them to send them to you at least a few days before the next game session.  Make sure that there are some small connections and overlaps between characters. Maybe have pairs of characters think of one goal that they share. The GM should then use those character stories and goals to help design the first adventure or opening encounters on the following week.

This aspect of the game really needs more fleshing out than my brief suggestion here. But if this were accomplished--that is, if there was a more completely articulated procedure for working from the goals and lifelines into the initial adventure--the game would shift into an even higher gear. In our game Ross has accomplished much of what I’m suggesting here, but much of that is a result of his own instincts as a GM as opposed to specific guidance from the game.

Miscellaneous Quibbles and Questions
I like the flexibility of the magic system and the way it is tied into the core mechanic. But, as Ron has pointed out, the power of miracles is such that some of the spells seem less special. All characters can ask for a certain number of miracles each session, and many of these miracles cover the same territory as dedicated spells. We haven’t explored spells much in our game, so I can’t really give anything approaching a good evaluation. This, however, is our initial impression.

Sincerity is an odd “skill.” I understand why the game would feel a need to include it, but Sincerity is nested under Charm alongside Bargain, Entertain, Interrogate, and Preach. Charm and Cunning are different attributes, but so many of the Charm attributes suggest careful attention to appearance, so it’s not entirely logical that Sincerity would be part of that grouping. 

Intuition and Fate (especially Intuition) are also curious skills. In many cases where an Intuition roll is used, I would instead simply decide as a GM whether or not to give information to the player. Fate is more complicated, but it’s description in the rule book could use some added explanation.

Final Consideration
The real heartbreaker is that many people who would enjoy and be enriched by this game have not experienced it. It has a trove of rich surprises waiting inside, and if you lean into the character lifelines and goals, some poignant and exciting stories will unfurl. I have dreams of a revised Legendary Lives: My optimistic heart believes that, if someone troubled to update the game and to add some GM advice, we would end up with a game creating new legends.

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