I read an interesting comment on the Club Slack this week (read to the end, there’s an announcement) about our ongoing Godbound game. It was along the lines of “I didn’t expect this play out of that game,” in response to a little play report thread I started. I poked at that comment a little. The underlying assumption, I think, was that Godbound is juvenile empowerment fantasy. Many of us in storygamerland have pigeonholed D&D that way, yeah? Therefore more power = more empowerment fantasy.
If Godbound had turned out to be that – epic-level D&D with an adventuring party going on bigger dungeon crawls and taking on bigger monsters – I don’t think we’d have made it to the end of our first “chapter” this week. Our past six (seven?) sessions have not played out anything like that.
I’m going to try and figure out how much of that is the system, the fruitful void it sketches out, and my own sensibilities.
What Even is Epic Level D&D?
When I really interrogated that question, I realized I have no idea what “epic level D&D” is.
The last time I played any kind of name-brand Dungeons & Dragons in earnest was a Third Edition game run by a friend. I hated it the whole time, largely due to insurmountable aesthetic mismatches between me, the DM, the other players, and D&D3E itself. I could not engage with the game in good faith. My own gamer-y draw toward the relentless advancement grind kept me from engaging with the game’s fiction and storyline. I mean, as a game, 3E is very nifty. Lots of fun interlocking abilities and feats and powers and, well, all the reasons I’ve poured a thousand hours into Grim Dawn, Torchlight(s), Diablo and so on.
If I remember correctly, that game didn’t make it past 7th or so level. Not so epic.
I ran 13th Age here for a few sessions as well, with a flat level-per-session progression just so we could dig into the cool mechanical nuggets. That one lasted 4 sessions.
Other than that? I’ve played in a few OSR con games. Super low-level (the funnel in the case of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and I think 3rd in Hot Springs Island just to scale with everyone else). I had no sense at all that leveling was very exciting in those games. Numbers go up and up.
So: At least in my own understanding of the game, I’ve never played “epic level D&D” as an adult. When I was 10 and had nothing but time, sure: level 20 AD&D all summer long. We speed-ran Temple of Elemental Evil because, well, we were unemployed teenagers.
You could play Godbound in that mode. And because it’s an OSR-style game, its mechanical bits are meant to be dropped into other games. I suppose it would be possible to take your B/X Essentials or Labyrinth Lord or Dungeon Crawl Classics character and drop Words of Creation on them. And then go on adventures. It seems to me like that’d be boring as hell, unless you were super into big sprawling god-fights with kaiju-scale monsters.
Between the Lines
Godbound prompts conversations via play that D&D and its descendants just don’t. This is a combination of setting assumptions, holding environment, and the rules themselves. My own tastes and experience have influenced this as well, of course.
Players engage with the game as a sandbox: that is, go where you want but don’t expect what you find to be calibrated to what you can handle. The sand is already there. On the GM side, it’s more sand painting than sandbox: there’s just no way to fill the box with all the sand at once. The game requires the players announce their plans for the next session – it’s a rule! — and that’s interesting. Not only does it ease up my prep needs, it also allows campaign context to build from prep to prep. And that means I can connect the procedurally generated dots in a more meaningful way.
This came home last night, the final episode of our first chapter/season/whatever. Half the pantheon had leveled up to 4, or is sitting on the cusp of spending enough Dominion to get to 4. I followed the “prep only what they’re committed to doing” rule quite carefully, right? So every time I sat down to prep, one or two really suggestive tidbits would arise from the procedurals. Eventually, because our brains are pattern-making machines, connections started suggesting themselves. This would not have happened if I was required to build out, you know, a whole continent of material in preparation for the whims of the players.
The core rulebook procedurals also interact with other suggestive tidbits in the Ancalia: the Broken Towers setting book I’m using. After narrowing down our setting to the outskirts of a particular city that was already somewhat built out with hooks, any prep I did after that would naturally accrete to those hooks. I mean, you could just blindly churn out content in situ, and damn the dots. That seems like squandering a good tool.
Back to the end of our chapter! So anyway, we now have a moderately powerful pantheon of four demigods. They ended this chapter discovering the fact that Godbound is actually a game about the multiverse: Night Roads leading to other shards of reality, ultimately Heaven and Hell, and you have to go out there to do the really big stuff back here.
The pantheon ended the session by uncovering what they suspect is the cause (and cure!) to the zombie horde disease that has devastated Ancalia: the governor of this city had petitioned powers beyond this world for protection of his people…and then disappeared into the Uncreated Void. It’s a terrific cliffhanger, very exciting, and it does several things at once. The timing for these revelations was also prompted by their desire to perform “impossible” miracles. Impossibilities require celestial shards as well as a quest. Guess where those shards are? Not here in the world, but out there on the Night Roads.
The organic evolution of the campaign is so smart and emergent that I put it on par with the campaign built into Mutant: Year Zero. It’s very similar, to my mind, but relies on pushes and pulls and nudges from other parts of the game. In MYZ, ark crises drive the characters out into the Zone, where enough die rolls and map wandering will eventually make them bump into campaign triggers (particular artifacts, NPC groups, and locations). Once the players have enough of the campaign triggers collected, they can move on to the endgame. In Godbound, the natural progression of their power leads them to grow their cults (which requires map exploration), seek out celestial shards (which forces them onto the Night Roads), and change the setting in impossible ways (which requires they go on multiverse-spanning quests). The players advance their understanding and scope of play at about the same speed as I’m learning how to accommodate them.
Because of the underlying tie-in to cults, worship, and values that Godbound characters have by default, everything is driven by sociology: providing protective, valuable Features and dealing with the Problems every Faction faces. What do you actually care about? Are your people still important to you? They might not be! But if you are receiving worship, you’re also gaining gifts of Apotheosis, all of which are stealth GM tools to further hook the characters into their followers. As of level 4, they can hear the prayers of their followers. That, of course, means they’re kept apprised of their followers’ problems. The characters could go off on a wild adventure and leave the setting but if they want to keep advancing, they need to keep protecting their Dominion income from existential threats.
The Faction Game
I’ve already written about how (lonely) fun the Faction turn is in Godbound, and what a good campaign-generating tool it is. This is another place where more dots – suggestive fictional content – get generated, but not all at once, so things make more and more sense as the game goes on. Later dots provide new context to previous dots.
I ran faction turns two sessions ago. Darned near everything I generated got used, and goosed the characters into action, and got the players thinking hard about what really matters to them. Because Dominion is how they advance and how they have direct agency on the setting, there’s also a strong pull to let the clock run so everyone gets their monthly dose. We decided everyone got their next dose of Dominion at the end of the session last night, and that means I get to do another round of Faction turns. Both Dominion and Faction turns are hooked into the passage of time so that’s a neat, emergent quality: the more Dominion the players are willing to wait for, the more challenges their Factions attract.
Another valuable thing about the interaction of Factions, Dominion-spending and Facts is that the only game asset that is permanently and mechanically affected by creating new Facts is Factions. Nowhere else does the GM track miraculous setting changes. I mean, yeah, Dominion spends on “the setting” become part of the setting, but that’s just kind of neutral ground, set dressing that might impact fictional positioning. My players, at least, don’t like spending Dominion unless “their people” get something out of it. Hence virtually all Dominion spends are either to address capital-P Problems or creating capital-F Features on the various Factions. It’s one more nudge that keeps the game community-centered, rather than self-centered empowerment fantasy. The power to create a city isn’t nearly as impactful as the power to create a city to house your people.
The Pantheon: Godbound’s Best Kept Secret
I regularly say you can’t read a game and understand how it actually works. I know folks disagree with great stridency (reminder to myself: stay off Twitter). Those people are wrong. I’m sure they have read a game and got a good idea, but no preconceived notion survives contact with players.
When I first read Godbound, I was dismayed by the lack of mechanical punch behind the Pantheon. In a Forged in the Dark type game, you just know a Pantheon would have a bunch of shared benefits the players would have to decide what to buy. Or, I dunno, a PbtA game might have moves or a Hx type economy keyed into the Pantheon. Who knows? In any case, there’s hardly anything like that in Godbound that directly references the Pantheon. A few gifts is all you’ll find on a word search.
What becomes apparent via actual play is that the Pantheon is central to the game in two unobvious (to me) ways:
- Characters will pool their Dominion to achieve major goals, especially if they have complementary Words needed to get a thing done. Our demigod of Protection/Dance/Knowledge worked with the demigoddess of Sun/Fertility/Cities to Dominion up a well-stocked self-sustaining fortress with fertile farmland and a competent staff drawn from their hometown tasked with protecting, well, everyone. That was only possible because the Pantheon came together to make it happen.
- Character vs Character conflict is handled this way, according to the RAW: players work out what they think should happen, and if they can’t they ask the GM for a ruling. Because there is no authoritative mechanical resolution for the players to use, they ultimately must decide if the characters will work together or not. Eventually an interpersonal split can become so deep that the pantheon collapses. And then the game is over. Godbound is about pantheons, not god-wars. Because the game collapses absent its Pantheon, there’s constant real-world social pressure to make things work out, too. Players who want or need a tool to face off against another player will find no comfort in this game. It’s a fast-fail system, and thank goodness because a dysfunctional bunch of surly passive-aggressive players is misery.
That Kind of Play, This Kind of Game
So there you have it: community-based, values-driven gaming that emerges from a skeleton of rules typically used for party-based, achievement-based gaming. Certainly some of that comes from me: I care more about people than parties; real values are more interesting to me than make-believe achievements. And, sure, there’s some lack of introspection on the part of my players about the values they’re putting on display. That makes it all the more revealing and interesting.
The interaction of Godbound’s mechanisms and social arrangements at the table come together, for me, in a more satisfying way when I play toward these things than if I used the rules to serve up “epic level D&D” play. The way straight-from-the-book Godbound procedures frames challenges (Problems always arise from Features, there are consequences for disrupting political structures, the demands you make of your followers), characters can’t just murder their way out of most of them – and if they do, there are further consequences. There is the occasional monstrous threat, sure, and working them out is traddy problem-solving fun. But in the end, it’s not about the monsters. And I’m not sure it’d really be much fun if it were.
What does play look like when you can make all the treasure you could ever spend, you can fabricate a stronghold and armies of retainers in the first session, and “broken” ceases to mean anything when applied to character abilities?
We’re taking a short break this summer while vacation schedules work themselves out. Then we’re on to the next big chapter in the story of our Pantheon. If they can figure out how to stick together.
And about the Slack…
A reminder: if you want to participate in the Indie Game Reading Club Slack, you need to send me your email address. We’re at 192 members as of mid-June. At 200 members, I’m going to switch to a Patreon model and grandfather everyone in for a few months. Decide for yourself if my work and the community are worth a buck a month.