Today I have a review of a game called Sins. This new RPG is only just premiering on Kickstarter but there is still plenty to learn about it over on their Facebook page. First Falling Leaf Design was kind enough to give Untamed Dice a review copy of the game to try out before the project went live. You can listen to the first episode of that tomorrow, but I have plenty to discuss about Sins so let’s get started.
Sins mixes the post-apocalypse with a large portion of monsters, anti-heroes, and Lovecraftian terror to get a truly unique body horror of a game. It is set in a dying world that has been ravaged by god-like aliens, disease, its own take on zombies (the Brood), nuclear fallout, and other strange beings. Magic abounds in the form of a manipulation of the Broodsong, something not truly music but more of a pervasive feeling. Those who can “hear” the song are our heroes, but they are not the hopeful adventurers we know from other games. Instead they are strange and grim folk, most as much anti-hero as hero. These unliving things were once potential brood but underwent a ritual to save their humanity. Of course this leaves them with inner demons, a powerful connection to the Broodsong, and amazing supernatural abilities but also a susceptibility to the sources of their power.
The story of Sins is incredibly in depth and complex with a full and detailed history. How the world got to where it is, is woven through a what if scenario of god-like beings playing judge, jury, and executioner. As each event from that unfolds the world changes over time. The Brood are the result of uncontrolled zombies now that Reapers are hiding. Nuclear weapons have scarred the land in an effort to reduce Brood numbers. People seek out the strange shards that fell from the sky, in hopes of getting the resources or knowledge to make life better. Sins is the kind of fully realized world that I love to see when looking at a new setting or system. It also sits at a peak of events which has lead to the knife’s edge of disaster. The world can clearly take little more, but is also in a position to become something again.
I see a lot of story-telling and lore-exploring potential in Sins. The game hands over heap after heap of information. Factions, locations, events, creatures, powers. There is so much there, but still so much to cover. If I have one complaint about the story of Sins is that the book includes almost too much lore. The problem with a single comprehensive rule book is squeezing in as much as possible, in the most efficient way possible. I’ll get more into that later, though, because really that is the only problem I had with the lore: cross referencing different aspects of it. The reason for this is a good one, however. The lore is integrated into the mechanics of the game. One does not exist without the other. You might say that this is true to games like D&D but you don’t have to play in Faerun, Greyhawk, or Ebberon when you are playing D&D. If you are playing Sins you are playing in the Sins world.
I want to start with the awesome bits of mechanics that I love about Sins. First is the fact that nemessaries (what most heroes will probably be) are so powerful. They are supposed to be powerful and it makes characters feel heroic in the grim and deadly world they will be playing in. As a nemessary your wounds will allow you to adventure for long periods of time even when you have been hurt. You are able to use powers that make up the bulk of the body horror aspect of Sins. Powers that link your blood to others, explode bones from within yourself, and warp your flesh as you see fit. Sins is not for the faint of heart. The powers come from different songs, or categories of powers, and each one is an arietta. These arietta can do astounding things and allow you to customize the play style of your character to a large degree, whether you want to be a healer, face for the group, tank, or damage dealing psycho.
Another part of the mechanics inherent to Sins and your character are Creeds and Spite. A Creed is your philosophy, your life’s path, and your personality archetype all in one. I love this. It helps you choose a character type based on how you want to role play as much as how you want to mechanically play. I have found many times that role play can lead to having a character built mechanically unlike how they act or mechanics leading a player to force themselves away from certain personality traits. Creeds help you choose both and give you a number of examples that fit within the Creed to help. Spite is a mechanic based on your hollow, an inner demon that seeks to make you just like it. It gives you power but it is also a path to joining the Brood. It helps balance your creed giving you the dark side of your character and helping flesh it out a bit more, while also allowing better access to another song.
As much as I love all this, Sins is burdened by a level of mechanical complexity I find unnecessary. I will grant, much of what makes the game slow and difficult to learn is the complexity and everything being new. Speed would, of course, come with time. Still there are certain aspects I need to mention. First of all Fate is an awesome mechanic. Like the Wild Die of Savage Worlds, Fate allows you one extra dice simply for being a hero. The problem I have is that Creed replaces fate for nemessaries. Why? Why not just have Creed all around and get rid of Fate? The easy answer is that the story that drives these mechanics rules out that scenario. Honestly, that aspect is a bit of a pet peeve more than anything. A second pet peeve I have is Focus. I like the idea of Focus. It is a resource you can draw on to put the extra effort into important rolls. I just wish it didn’t sit in front of motivations. I would love to see Focus and Motivations more cleanly meshed together. Rather than leveraging motivations AFTER using focus, I would love to see focus be the resource from which motivations are leveraged. There is not mechanical problem with focus and motivations, and motivations are always a good mechanic, but I think there could be more finesse or streamlining.
OK now to get to the only thing that I didn’t enjoy about Sins. This involved the main backbone of the game mechanically: the dice pool. In Sins there are three tiers to every rolled event: the pool, the skill, and the difficulty. Now, the mechanic is elegant from a certain angle, I will give Sins credit for that. Doing it this way allows you to mix things up with skills and what attributes you might leverage with them. The dice pool is determined by an attribute plus bonuses like fate/creed. Then your target number that equates to success is determined by how high the called-for skill is. Now this took D&D five editions to build into the rules, but Sins has it built into the very mechanics. Difficulty is, of course, how many successes you need. With all that you can easily write out attribute/skill (#) for any role and know what needs to happen. This whole picture is where things become too complex for me. Too many things are foreground for my taste. Each of those three aspects of a check must be determined, though perhaps difficulty can be predetermined. Instead of having a dice pool, growing and shrinking with what is happening, to change likelihood of success you have the target number changing based on skill level. One check you need 3s and the next you need 6s. But, then again, you also can have the dice pool shrink or grow, because things like arietta might add to the pool rather than changing the target number.
This isn’t broken. On the contrary, it allows for a lot to happen. It is complex though, and time at the table could be slowed by rolls. Speeding up rolls is something I have found wanting more and more over the years. The simple answer for Sins is to get used to how it works. Know that this is how it works. Personally, I would toy with the idea of a static target number and skills adding dice to your roll instead. The stats on that might be a little off, but it would allow for a smoother experience in my opinion. Still, the design is solid and works to do exactly what the designers (I believe) wanted to do: allow for diverse methods of skill use and complexity of skill resolution. Assuming the Hope engine (as they call it) doesn’t slow you down or you love the crunchy number bending happening here, than it truly is a solid mechanical system that you will probably love.
Book Design & Layout
First off I have to say I am in love with the art style. It is all black and white (in the review copy anyway) and reminds me of a gritty comic book, but that is exactly what the Sins world feels like to me. The page layout is fantastic, featuring heavily on red blood patterns that give the right vibe without getting in the way. Side bars are clear and useful. Not only that, they are marked by one of three symbols which the books uses to denote whether they are referencing plot, rules, or commentary. All in all I really like the style of this book, and the special Kickstarter hardcover version is awesome.
The layout of the book is fairly well done too. The beginning explains what Sins is like and about. It warns you about the games contents and intended audience. It suggests movies, television, and literature that fit in with the Sins world. From Dracula to The Thing, if you find you don’t like the suggestions you will probably find you don’t like Sins. Included here, of course, are also the basics of role playing. What is it, what do you need for Sins, etc. Finally, before getting to the table of contents we also get a glossary. While I generally think these should be at the end of the book, having one either way is a great and needed reference. Especially in a new world with unique things.
I went into this review thinking I would talk about poor chapter layout, but have since had a change of heart. The chapter layout is not bad. Just looking back at the table of contents and what is in them reveals to me why they made the choices they made. One chapter leads into another and so on. No, instead I come back to the feeling of the game being over burdened. The developers and writers worked very hard to break this down and present everything well. Side bars include page references and explanations, things are grouped together appropriately, recaps and reiterations are made, and there is plenty of stuff to work with. The complex rules mean a complex learning experience, however, and the book is written with a context of assumptions. The main assumption is that you have fully read, understand, and remember everything before the current section. Now this may sound like an obvious assumption but it could be done away with to an extent, or at least in text page cross references could be better provided. It is not a matter of finding where these things are talked about but how there interactions work and where they are discussed. When one mechanic leads directly to another I want to be able to quickly reference that one as well.
Part of me wants to ramble about the difficulty of going through this book as poor layout that can be improved, but even as I type it I look back at the book. It is not poor layout. No it is the virtue of a game build from the ground up. It is a complex system intertwined with a complex lore. There are no shortcuts here and this is not intended to be a simpler system. I realize some of my own mistakes that made me think that way. Still, I don’t denounce my feelings. The layout and presentation of rules and their interactions could be improved, but that does not make them bad. This game has a lot of crunch, I just prefer a little less. My suggestion is do what a good DM should do anyway and keep a list of page numbers you NEED. As a note, I also would love to see what is on the DMs Screen for quick reference.
Sins is a fantastic new RPG. It has a complex and elegant rules system that allows for things complex systems of old didn’t. It does this by building it into the system and entwining the mechanics with the lore of the world. Sins takes the idea of a gritty post-apocalypse and gives it a terror-filled covering of body horror and gore. There are no sunshine and rainbows here, but the walking dead heroes are still doing what they can to give the world hope. I would love to see an adversary guide with more depth to what lurks out there and expect a lot of good lore-based supplements from First Falling Leaf. If this style game is what your looking for be prepared for some learning, because once you do there is a lot of fun to be had. While I don’t think this is the game for my group, it is definitely worth checking out and it is great to see them succeeding in their Kickstarter. The cost of the game is between $13 and $51 with options from PDF to hardcover. The pricing is good and while $51 seems like a lot it is relative to most games and is a special cover!
And for those who want a number: strong 4 out of 5!