Arena Review: Scion

In Brief

Scion is a game with a peculiar and fun history, as well as an ambitious and engaging story. In most Roleplaying games you start off as a pretty average person (often with some small extras that other people can’t do) and you try to work your way up to larger-than-life, chatting-with-the-gods hero status. In Scion you start at that point and increase in power until you become a god yourself.

Your character is the offspring of one of the gods from any of the real-world mythologies. The little bit of divine power you inherit gives you the ability to act above-and-beyond a normal human which you use to defeat monsters, save towns, cure cancer, etc. Do this well enough and you join the ranks of the gods themselves.

Genre: Epic divine heroes
System: Revised Storyteller System (same as Exalted)
Potential Library: Moderate (3 main books, 4 supplements, 3 SAS scenarios)
Publisher: White Wolf

The main conflict in the game is between the gods and the titans, terms borrowed from Greek legend but applied to all mythologies. In the dawn of time the titans were in power but were such evil bastards that the gods rose up and threw them out of existence. This isn’t so permanent for a primeval hunger, however, and the titans have been biding their time in the spaces outside the universe, only to return recently with a vengeance and a desire to unmake the world. As if this wasn’t enough, there are threats from rival pantheons, corrupted gods, legendary beasts, and even human ambition to contend with. Sound exhausting? It is, but then again you have superhuman stamina so you can probably take it.

The original line of Scion products came out in 2007 and the latest (the Yazata supplement for the Persian pantheon) came out in 2010. A month ago I would have said that this game was finished with maybe some adventures in the future but news has trickled through the White Wolf forums that the splinter company Onyx Path (which has resurrected the classic World of Darkness lines like Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse) might be coming out with a second edition. Time will tell but in the meantime there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.

Best Products

While I wouldn’t turn people away from any of the Scion products, there are slightly more published than you want to buy all in one go.  If you want to put out just a small investment to start, I recommend the following books for your beginning library.

Scion: Hero: This game has three core books in order of advancement: Hero, Demigod, and God. If you want to play out the full arc of a character’s advancement to godhood, you’ll need all three. However, since the other two build on the basic mechanics outlined in Hero, if you’re going to just get one then get this one. The life of a Hero Scion is that of a “human-plus.” They are the children of divine beings and as such they can do things no human could ever dream of. Very few things they do are pure magic, they mostly do mundane things in incredible ways.

A son of Zeus, for example, might jump so high he soars through the clouds but he can’t fly in the strictest sense. Which brings us to the pantheons which form the core of all three books’ options: the Aesir (Norse), the Atzlánti (Aztec), the Amatsukami (Japanese), the Dodekatheon (Greco-Roman), the Loa (Voodoo), and the Pesedjet (Egyptian). You pick one of these pantheons as your patron, then one of the gods from it as a parent, and then choose from their menu of abilities.

Scion: Companion: Even before you go after the high-powered options in Demigod and God, I recommend looking over the expanded material in Companion. For one thing there are three new pantheons: the Tuatha Dé Danaan (Irish), the Celestial Bureaucracy (Chinese), and the Devas (Indian). These include information for new Scions, powers, other worlds, and creatures for the new pantheons as well as tie-ins to the core six.

Additionally, there suggested information for some of the trickier parts of the game, making ones own pantheon, starting above the Hero level, creating semi-divine companions, etc. One of the most interesting parts, though, is the setting for World War II set as the mortal expression of a divine coup d’êtat by the former-emperor-now-god Calligula. This book has so much additional content for your campaign that you might not need the advanced core books for a bit.

Scion: Ragnarok: There is a continuing campaign in the core books (telling the story of the titans return and a renewed war) but if you’re looking for something epic and intense, then Ragnarok is your book. The story covers, quite simply, the end of the world. Not “the PCs have to do this or the world will end!” or “things keep getting worse until the characters complete this task.” The world actually is goes through a cataclysm as part of this campaign arc and society threatens to collapse and die, with the PCs working hard to figure out how much and where.

Ragnarok is a legend from Norse mythology, liberally adapted but still strongly thematic, so the campaign is intended for mainly Norse Scions. Some additional gods are given for parents, as well as new items and powers, but you’ll want most of your party to be descended from the Aesir. With gods like Thor, Odin, and Loki, though, that’s not much of a restriction…

In addition to these official products, I recommend Storytellers and players check out John’s Scion Resourcesat gothambynight.com. In addition to providing handy and professional-looking summaries of all the official gods and powers from the books, this site has a ton of excellent House Rules material including new pantheons, new mythological connections between gods, new powers, and a great summary of gods from the French-only Écran du Conteur supplement.

Weaknesses

The system for this game is a little quirky (one reason I’m really excited for a second edition) and combat can get a little frustrating. Because Scions (and the titan creatures they fight) have godly abilities to “soak” damage they take (effectively negating it) to match the large combat pools that their divine power creates sometimes fights can turn into slugfests where no one can land a blow for several rounds. While combat tends to be a lot faster than a tactics-heavy game like D&D 4e, players and DMs of that game can probably sympathize with the combat grind issue.

Fortunately, the same simple improvement for 4e can also be extended to Scion: reduce enemies’ defenses and soak abilities and increase their damage. Maybe the Hydra can only soak half as much as the rules say it can, but it doles out double damage because of Storyteller fiat. The difference, of course, is that in D&D it seems like the fights go on forever while in Scion it feels like they literally might when no one is doing anything. This makes new Storytellers feel a little uneasy sometimes but that’s why Zeus gave us gamer forums.

The second weakness of the game is sort of a backfiring of its strengths: an epic storyline is a tough thing to do. Storytellers have their work cut out for them to make the story feel legendary, though that’s not to say “serious” or “dignified” unless that’s what your group wants (just ask Hanuman, Loki, or Dionysus). You want your heroes to feel like the children of gods doing important works which make a difference, so finding a lost kitten might not cut it.

Of course, there are plenty of stories from mythologies that have heroes doing seemingly-unimportant works because the gods say so, such as Hercules Twelve Labors, Cúchulainn taking over for a watchdog, etc. Still, you’ll want a background that is suitably epic and that means it’s harder to rush together a story about some thieves guild that’s stealing a diamond or some such, and anyone who has DMed knows there are weeks when you just can’t help it.

 

Verdict

I flicked through this game several times before I gave it a shot and now I’m wondering why it took so long. It’s not a perfect system and it takes more massaging than I’d like to have exciting combat encounters, but the giddy thrill of playing an honest-to-god god is hard to pass up. Even in games like Werewolf or Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, where you’re playing a member of a privileged minority with an important lineage, you don’t start off on your first mission with the weight of the world on your shoulders as you do with Scion. It may be childish and superficial, but when you say things like “Thor invites you to his hall for a beer and wants you to retrieve a golden helm for him,” it makes those messenger tasks from some mayor in the back-end of Icewind Dale seem like chump change.