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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!
Tags: draconity, fireborn, roleplaying
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