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December 8th, 2009
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Fireborn: First Impressions - Character Creation
As I've mentioned several times in the last few weeks, I've talked my roleplaying group into starting up a campaign of Fireborn. It's a now out-of-print RPG in which the player characters are all reincarnated dragons. As you can imagine, as a dragon (and a gamer) myself, this is right up my alley; I'm sharing my experiences in an effort to help fellow gamers and/or dragons evaluate the system -- and, if they start a campaign themselves, to do so as smoothly as possible.

Before I start, I also need to strongly recommend the forums at fireborn.org, a fan site where a lot of third-party resources, downloads, and rule modifications are available. (You'll need to register to download files.)

Why Fireborn?

First of all: As surprising as it sounds, dragons are underrepresented in urban fantasy.

No, really. Name three books/series set in the modern/near-future era that have dragons as major protagonists. (TTU doesn't count, though I'm flattered you remembered.) And yes, if you're an old-school gamer, "Shadowrun" and "RIFTS" have dragons -- as shadowy, godlike background figures. Fireborn does genuinely appear to do something new and different: give players a chance to play as dragons.

Beyond this, though, Fireborn elegantly solves a few problems that most RPGs spend a lot of time struggling with:
  • All those crazy superpowers that most players never get to use because you only ever obtain them at high level? You get to play with them from the start, because the game regularly jumps into flashbacks to your fully-powered "Mythic Age" dragon form.

  • The pacing and participation problems that crop up when the players split up to accomplish different objectives? The tedious process of getting PCs who start out as total strangers to come up with in-game reasons to work together? Don't happen here, because all PCs have a built-in permanent telepathic link to each other.

Why not Fireborn?

That's the good news. The bad news is that Fireborn isn't for everyone. The casual gamer might be turned off by the difficulty of obtaining/printing the sourcebooks; the intricate actioncrafting required for combat; and the complexity of the recordkeeping, especially combat styles and "stances" (your current dice pools as you use your skills to shift your attributes). As with any new game, there are a lot of things to keep track of and a lot of information that somebody at the table needs to memorize.

It also doesn't help that the Player's Handbook (or "PHB", as they say in the biz) is full of inconsistencies and missing some crucial information. The publisher released a free 16-page PDF of errata and FAQs about the most confusing parts, and you will need to download it.

These problems can all be mitigated by a sufficiently dedicated GM. At least that's my theory, and I'm sticking to it. I'll let you know how it goes.


Character Creation

I assembled my core group of three players on Thursday, along with two Fireborn PHBs. (I also have a Gamemaster's Guide ["GMG"], but it is totally unused in character creation.)

A little bit about us: I'm going to run the game, and I've been both GMing and playing RPGs for literally two decades. (Feeling old now.) {A} is our group's other main GM, of long pedigree, and {S} is a longtime player with GM experience. {C} is relatively newer to gaming but still long in the tooth. Our previous, just-ended campaign was Mage: The Awakening.

My mental notes as we went through the process:

  • I'm glad I took the time to physically mark up my books with the errata. I would go so far as to call it a necessity. I had to call up the errata on my laptop since I didn't print it out beforehand; the things I had to cross-reference by hand in the errata (I didn't finish the job of book markup) ended up causing confusion and at least one mistake.
    • I also added in the point-buy fix for attribute generation from the Fireborn forums. It worked much better than the stock method would have, but the score/point distinction still confused {C}.


  • This REALLY wants to be a White Wolf ("WW") game. Aside from the surface gritty-urban-fantasy thing, the mechanics of rolling for success are almost identical, Edges are simply renamed Merits, and {A} mentioned the similarity of background/sire buys to Werewolf's breed/auspice/tribe. Seriously, just call it "Dragon: the Burninating" already.
    • This was actually good because the character mechanics were much more familiar to our group. I explained a number of core concepts by saying "It's like how Mage does X, but ..." Your mileage may vary if your players don't have prior WW experience.

    • Additional observation: The stock Fireborn game is is almost GURPS-like in terms of character lethality. Christ, only two of our scion characters can survive a single shot from a rifle. (I'm looking for a bit more of a cinematic game, so I'm seriously going to have to boost armor availability and healing access.) So let's call it "GURPS Dragon: The Burninating."


  • There's no mechanism for crits/botches. This is a surprising omission; it's a powerful way to inject unexpected fate into storytelling. Granted, the WW-style "roll a bucket of dice and count any die over a specified threshold as a success" method doesn't make it easy, but they could at least have tried.
  • Unlike WW, you can also encounter circumstances where success is literally impossible. The number of successes you can achieve is hard-capped by (2 * attribute) + (skill) + (automatic successes from your powers). (Your ability to spend karma for extra successes is already counted above.)
    • I added a house rule: Change the game's d6s (success: 4-6) into d10s (success: 7-0, reroll 0s as in WW). This results in a slight decrease in the overall success rate of rolls, but allows successes > dice, making "impossible" rolls into one-in-a-millions instead, and offering extra hooks with which to add crits or botches back in.


  • Things my experienced gamers still needed to have explained:
    • "What does Karma do?" (I was unprepared on this; shame on me. For starting characters it only lets you spend to buy free successes in die rolls; but later, it powers all your most awesome abilities.)
    • Which attributes ("aspects") do what. It's straightforward, but definitely a new concept.
    • How spellcasting works. (The fact that it requires both a skill and an edge is a bit tweaky, "number of starting spells" is only in errata, "dragons get casting options automatically" is only in errata.
    • Which skills do what. This would have been solved by more reading, but we spent a lot of time reading already.
    • The health chart. They "got it" quickly when the similarity to WW's was explained, but the Water -> Wound Dice correspondence still took several passes. (Also n.b.: The character sheet in the book is wrong as per the errata. You WILL want custom sheets from the Fireborn forums.)
    • *I* am still not clear on the "physical/mental" skill distinction. The character sheets put them in two clumps, but there are some physical skills in the mental section and vice versa. I'm taking the book's listings as gospel, but some skills are "Mental/Physical"; can you buy these with both mental and physical skill points, or is one of them "primary" like the book says?


  • The instant I explained that wizard classes are rare and hard because badly cast spells physically boil your brain, ALL of my players wanted to be mages. The same thing will happen to your players, because gamers are crazy. So do not walk into a Fireborn game without understanding the process of spellcasting well enough to be able to explain it.

  • Scion creation seemed to take forever, because everyone had to read the whole Edges chapter & large chunks of the book. Dragon went faster, even with non-mirrored, because it was so similar to what we'd already done. But, it added yet more reading. 1 PHB per person (or better access to it for me as GM) would have REALLY sped things up.
    • Of course, when I say "forever" I mean "relative to the five-step process that looked like it should have taken 15 minutes". (You really want forever, design a car in GURPS Vehicles.) In hindsight, it actually was comparable to -- probably even easier than -- a starting Mage character. There's just a new system effect here because nobody had done this before.
    • There are a lot of "character concept" questions we just totally glossed over. Are they necessary? We'll see. I prob. will insist on them for dragons, since it will help guide characters during flashbacks. I assume that scions, like most RPG characters, will find their personality during play - esp. since we're starting a new campaign with the characters just discovering they're dragons and kind of starting a new life.
    • When we start the adventure I'm going to do brood bidding (from Secrets of Fire). Yet more reading for me.


  • I want a London tube map. (Later added:) I want a version of the "Guide to London" in the GMG that doesn't have the plot spoilers, so I can pass it out to the players. There's also a guide to British slang in the "Secrets of Fire" (free downloads the publisher once released; available via fireborn.org), and all the players were chuffed to get it. (n.b.: The word "chuffed" is not actually included in that slang guide.)

  • Narrative skills are easy: Roll dice equal to aspect + skill. Combat? Crunchy. I have still been too intimidated to sit down and run a sample combat, though I've read and re-read the section and I feel like I grok it. I know this is going to bite me in the ass come gameplay time.
    • That "bite me in the ass" attack would be an "Eastern Small Dog Style" sequence of Roll + Ready + Jump + Bite Attack + Grab + Press, with a TH of 6 -- or higher depending on terrain THs -- and a Payoff of "Disadvantage (Mental): 3" [PR 3]. The sequence's damage is the usual Bite damage, probably 8(M), although the wound category it generates may be staged up or down depending on the size difference between combatants, and the Grab + Press results in a hold with an escape TH of 2, so to start my next action sequence I would have to make an Escape action (Fire + Quickness) or else take a 2-die penalty on that and all my subsequent actions.
    • See what I mean?


Summary

When we finished for the night, everyone was excited and looking forward to the start of the game. Some of that is the usual New Campaign Energy, but my group of experienced gamers really did pick the system up over the course of the evening, enough so to look forward to putting their characters through their paces.

Everyone agreed that the ability to design two distinct but linked characters -- your mythic dragon and your modern scion -- was both novel and cool. My gamers all elected to custom-design their dragons, and while I expected that to take up a significant amount of additional time, it was really quite streamlined. If any of us have to create further new characters, it should be a much quicker process, since the vast majority of the design time was in figuring out the options available. The various packages you mix and match for character creation mean that a few simple choices get you through the majority of the process. (And then comes picking fighting styles ...)

There are a few minmax-ey fiddly bits (buying a single 1-point edge, "Fluid Fighter," doubles your effectiveness with a knife? ORLY?), but with the errata applied, the rules generally make sense, and house rules should be able to bring the rest in line.

Anyway, it took about five hours to generate three characters, so we're starting the adventure next week. I'm running them through the official adventure module released for the game, titled "The Fire Within," with a few custom tune-ups added in to provide plot hooks for my continuing campaign. Tune in next time when I offer first impressions of gameplay!

Current Location: ~/brainstorm
Current Mood: nerdynerdy
Current Music: Great Big Sea, "Ordinary Day"
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From:terrana
Date:December 8th, 2009 10:59 am (UTC)
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Part of me wants to emigrate to the States just so I can sit in on this.
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From:baxil
Date:December 8th, 2009 05:51 pm (UTC)
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I know of at least one other friend of mine in the UK who has expressed interest in playing Fireborn, though I don't know where xe lives. British roleplayers! Roll call!

(Also, seriously, your icon is awesome.)
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From:terrana
Date:December 8th, 2009 05:53 pm (UTC)
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I stole the icon from crispygamer.com. Have a look if you have some free time at some point.
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From:baxil
Date:December 8th, 2009 06:02 pm (UTC)
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Oooh, CoW! I had forgotten about it completely. Truth be told, I'd seen it but never played.

I was excluding sword-and-sorcery games above, but AD&D's support at various times for dragon PCs is worth mentioning. CoW started the trend and is still the best example, but with 3rd Ed., there are inbuilt rules for playing virtually anything in the Monster Manual as a PC (assuming the rest of the party is at an appropriate level to handle your racial level adjustment), and 4th edition apparently includes some form of lizardmen as a default PC race, though I haven't yet read through it.

I don't remember CoW's human/dragon character distinction. Can't most or all dragons inherently shapeshift? I remember that D&D silvers are really good at it but not how everyone else does.
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From:soreth
Date:December 8th, 2009 06:13 pm (UTC)
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Have the boxed set for Council of Wyrms still. Golds/Silvers/Bronzes can shapeshift innately, others have to learn the spell and might have to wait a few hundred years or several levels to learn it, depending on their current age bracket/etc. As with a fair amount of CoW, they didn't provide more than the barest suggestion on what you might want to do with an idea. Very crunchy in some aspects, this set of rulebooks, but very very very vague in others.

Also, D&D 4th includes the 'Dragonborn' as a default PC race - think of them as wingless half-dragons without tails, and with a regular racial bloodline, not an endless succession of dragon/hominid pairings. Oh, and they used to have a giant empire and rule everybody.*



*It seems that nearly EVERYBODY in D&D 4th's default setting used to have a giant empire and rule everybody else...
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From:balinares
Date:December 8th, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC)
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I wonder, have I ever told you about Scales? It's a long discontinued RPG that also centers on dragons. One of the player is the grandchild of one of the 13 older dragons, and the other players form a Gestalt with the dragon, a magically bonded group. The other players are magical beings (just about anything you can think of), but don't know which at first, and start off as humans; it wakes in them little by little over a campaign based on their roleplayed behavior. The rules are kept purposefully simple and emphasis narration and self-discovery, which I find cool.

I own the main sourcebook, which I unearthed from a bargain bin ages ago, but haven't GM'ed it yet.
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From:baxil
Date:December 8th, 2009 06:05 pm (UTC)
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Oooh, awesome! No, I hadn't heard of it -- I'm not sure there's an English-language version, and the US is awfully provincial about foreign-language imports -- but it sounds like another worthy contender. If there's a translated version available somewhere I'd be interested to put it through its paces.
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From:balinares
Date:December 9th, 2009 10:22 am (UTC)
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Since the license went down in flames rapidly (poor marketing plus very poor published campaigns), even the French version of the additional sourcebooks that explained the secret backstory never got released, so I am not hopeful for an English version.

Then again, this is from the same company that made INS/MV, which I understand is one of the few French RPG that made it across the Atlantic, so who knows.

Then again, I understand that the American version was... somewhat modified, so perhaps it's not a very good example. :|

Ooh, now, speaking of dragons and RPG, maybe I should bring up Rêve de Dragon (Dragon Dream) as well, which Wikipedia claims was translated, so there's that. It's an interesting and a little peculiar game where dragons serve as metaphors for the game's players, and their collective dream is the RPG adventure, which is kind of awesome, when you think of it. :)
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From:zuki_san
Date:December 8th, 2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
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I'd absolutely love to hear more about this, as the game continues!

Fireborn was a game that immediately caught my eye when I heard of the premise, but the mechanics were a considerable turn-off in complexity and somewhat ham-handedly implemented novelty. Combat should go fast in my opinion, and have as little hemming and hawing over optimal choice of tactic and what dice are being rolled as possible.

On the other hand, I'm currently playing in an Anima: Beyond Fantasy game, which looks very complicated and headachey and especially time-consuming character creation, but the sessions fly past very enjoyably and the book is more readable than it seems, so long as you're not skimming. So I'm aware that a poorly-edited game in need of errata can still be fun with a good GM and players.

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From:baxil
Date:December 9th, 2009 01:16 am (UTC)
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The "crunchy combat" vs. "smooth combat" axis is definitely one of those Your Mileage May Vary situations.

One alternate perspective worth reading is this RPG.net review, which makes the point that Fireborn's combat offers built-in narration of just how your characters are making the attacks they want to make, and that it offers a more cinematic and yet still fluid fight. It doesn't have to be hard, if you're willing to do a little bit of precalculation and pick out a few move sequences your character plans to often use. If the GM is a quick thinker and knows what all the moves do, it can also be streamlined in a different way: you describe what your character's doing to attack, and the GM mentally creates the sequence and figures out the game effects based on your roll.
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From:keithsdragons
Date:December 8th, 2009 09:04 pm (UTC)
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Gotta love Shadowrun <3 There's a huge lore to explore for each of the big dragons, and we've played through a successful campaign around helping one of the dragon's sirelings escape. Fireborn sounds like a brilliant setting, and there are always options for simplifying combat mechanics for those who prefer a different play-style.

Looking forward to hearing more of your adventure!
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From:kaijugirl
Date:December 9th, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC)
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Sweet... I have had those books for years, but I'm not a dice gamer, and was never able to find anyone who was who was interested in trying them out. But they're very imaginatively inspiring story ideas. I'm looking forward to hearing more about how it goes :)
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From:krinndnz
Date:December 10th, 2009 04:34 am (UTC)
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Oooh, I hope you keep us posted about this. It sounds like it could go very interesting places.



Also, I too had a memory of the Council of Wyrms setting - I'm glad that there are people who actually know the setting.
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From:frameacloud
Date:December 10th, 2009 07:22 am (UTC)
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Yippee! I'm so looking forward to hearing about this game. :) Please do keep us posted on how the game carries on!
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From:kaijugirl
Date:December 14th, 2009 12:21 am (UTC)
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The only ones I can think of... series with Dragons as protagonists in urban fantasy...
The Dragon DelaSangre by Alan F. Troop and following series
and
Make Way for Dragons! by Thorarinn Gunnarsson and following series
um..
there was a series by Jan Siegel in which the second book, The Dragon Charmer, had a prominent Dragon character and focus on Dragons, but I don't think that really counts.
I was curious if you know others I don't know. I've written at least two novels with Dragons as main characters set in modern or near future times (not including my tomorrowlands novel) but I don't know if that counts either.
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From:gavinfox
Date:December 15th, 2009 07:44 pm (UTC)
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You replied to the wrong thread silly! :P
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From:kaijugirl
Date:December 15th, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC)
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Did I? Oh. I apologize.
I thought of another book series, though. 'Dragons in Our Midst' series by Bryan Davis centers on Dragon and half-Dragon characters in the modern world.
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From:gavinfox
Date:December 16th, 2009 04:11 am (UTC)
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Actually that was my bad. :eep:
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From:baxil
Date:December 16th, 2009 07:17 am (UTC)
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Thanks. Added!
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From:baxil
Date:December 16th, 2009 02:56 am (UTC)
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Actually, she wrote this the night before I posted the dragon book thread, but I did incorporate her suggestions.
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