Sins the RPG: Thoughts on a First Read Through


#1

Sins was an impulse buy at the FLGS. I’d never heard of it before. But a flick through the book, a read of the ‘An Overview of the Game’ section (pages 4-5), a World of Darkness kind of vibe (PCs are ‘zombies’ who have recovered their humanity but occasionally relapse), and their list of influences (e.g. 28 Days Later, Mad Max 2, and H.P. Lovecraft) sold it to me. Especially the Overview of the Game bit. Laws should be passed to force every RPG to have one of these.
Reading the rulebook though… that was a weird experience. I kept vacillating between Woohoo this rocks! and Meh. For instance…
Sins rulebook: Because of a (sort of) zombie apocalypse, humanity had to become nomadic to survive. If you stayed put you died.
Me: Wow! That’s innovative. Woohoo this rocks!
Sins rulebook: But that was back in the past. People have built towns and cities again.
Me: Oh. Meh.

I don’t think I’ve read an RPG which had me changing my mind several times in the course of one rulebook about whether I wanted to run it or not. Part of that is because now I’ve read it, I’m no longer sure I’d want to play it. And wanting to play is what usually motivates me to create NPC characters and think of stories to run.
Part of not wanting to play is the Creeds – sort of the equivalent of picking a Clan in Vampire, or Tribe in Werewolf. In Sins there are only 5 of these, which is quite limited. And then the 5 are:
The Mask – the flighty, unreliable ones. Supposedly this is because they have put their past lives behind them, and made a new one. But not a permanent new one. They are supposed to continually want ‘to move on’. Quite frankly I’ve read the 2 pages of text about them several times and I still don’t actually get what the hell a Mask is supposed to be or how you are supposed to play one. The suggested concepts don’t help much: actor, assassin, John Doe, psychotic criminal, sly seductress, wandering warrior, reclusive scholar. What have Dame Judi Dench, the Kray Twins and Alan Turing got in common??? Meanwhile, The Mask’s favoured magic/psychic power is Song of Brood, which is about controlling the zombie hordes and getting them to do your killing for you. So no clues there as to what a Mask is.
The Mirror – the ‘Knowledge is Power’ guys who want to learn the secrets of the world. Okay so I get this creed, even though I’m slightly boggled by the inclusion of ‘sociopathic serial killer’ as one of the concepts, to go along with occult investigator, mad scientist, etc. (It’s important to distinguish sociopathic serial killers from fluffy and heart-warming serial killers). Playable, but it is not the sort of concept I usually pick as first choice. Their favoured magic/psychic power is Song of Will which is a bit of a mish-mash. Everything from detecting what psychic powers are being used in the area, to boosting your reaction speed, to messing with people’s minds, to asking the GM for clues.
The Sword – they see conflict as the driving force of human existence and achievement. Perceived need for violence. Refusal to stand aside from an argument. Seriously? The writers have sections of the book saying powergaming is bad and giving tips on how to deal with it, but they put THIS in as a core concept? It may as well have ‘Murderhobo’ scrawled across it in eight foot tall letters of fire. The one redeeming feature of this Creed is that they say folk with a military background are usually not drawn to the Sword – it is mostly people who felt powerless in life and now want their Rewenge. So there could be some interesting roleplay for this Creed… or a whole bunch of plot-destroying asshattery with a liberal slathering of ‘my guy’ syndrome. Their favoured magic/psychic power is Song of Flesh which is about warping your own or other people’s bodies. Mostly it is dealing out extra damage, healing damage and boosting your stats, but you can also change your appearance or make golems out of your flesh.
The Tower – they want to impose order and be in control. Known for stubbornness, including dogged devotion to a lost cause. The concepts mostly make sense: wandering sheriff, town leader, cult leader, lawyer, etc. Not quite sure how artist or mechanic fit this better than the other Creeds, but whatever. So like the Mirror this is playable, if not exactly leaping out at me as something I instantly want to roll a character for. Their favoured magic/psychic power is Song of Bone which is largely about dealing out extra damage and growing yourself armour.
The Veil… Or Party On Dude. It says their goal is to experience life, live, learn and grow. But bet you a tenner than the player from my Monday group that rushes to this is the one who always wants to play a narcissistic hedonist. This appears to be the plot-avoiding Creed, though this may be just my aversion to certain regular players arsing about. “Yeah I know we’re supposed to be the Magnificent Seven saving the village from the zombie hordes, but I’m not done organising the rock festival yet…” (That player will also be drawn like a moth to a flame to the ‘get magic points back from convincing NPCs to create great works of art’ game mechanic, but will pout if he’s not allowed to spend an equal amount of time making great works of art himself). The favoured magic/psychic power of the Veil is Song of Blood which is supposedly about healing, but most of the abilities are stuff like causing horrendous pain in combat, taking over opponents’ bodies to making them your puppet, and spreading plagues. Not much room for the Hippocratic oath in there.

So of the 5, there’s one I don’t get, two I view (with GM hat on) as likely to trash any plot more subtle than “kill the zombie horde”, and two which are okay but don’t exactly leap out as options I’m raring to roll up a character for.
On top of this Creed each character has Motivations, which are what drives character development. They have a foundation element to them: Pride, Charity, Fear, Love and so on. Then each PC will have specific goals related to those foundations. Those seem fine to me, and swing me back to the Woohoo this rocks state of mind.
Then each PC has a Hollow – an inner demon which wants you to turn to the dark side of the force. One of the aspects I’m twitchy about is that this Hollow will occasionally take over the character, and therefore the player hands them over to the GM to run. Not sure about this. I hate other people taking control of my character. I guess they want the GM to do it because they don’t trust players to frak up their own characters’ lives, aims and loved ones when the ‘demon’ gets out of control.
The Hollows a PC can choose from are:
The Monster – greatest joy is murder. Nothing sates them but violence. Challenge greater opponents for the thrill of it. Their favoured magic/psychic power is Song of Flesh.
The Tyrant – vain and selfish. Desire to see every living thing bow in supplication to the PC. Can use subtle tactics and misinformation. Their favoured magic/psychic power is Song of Bone.
The Defiler – abandon all morality in pursuit of experience. Rather than carnage, it leaves broken and ruined individuals with shattered hopes and dreams in its wake. Their favoured magic/psychic power is Song of Blood.
The Deceiver – desire knowledge over all else, will lie and murder to get it, will kill other people who know the same arcane stuff they do so they alone possess the lore. Their favoured magic/psychic power is Song of Will.
The Traitor – cowardly and treacherous. Puts personal survival and crushing other people underfoot to gain personal power above all else. Likes devouring other Nemissaries (what the PCs are). Their favoured magic/psychic power is Song of Brood.
So these kind of make sense, and there are combinations designed to be horribly likely to take over and cause huge problems: Sword + Monster, Tower + Tyrant, Veil + Defiler, Mirror + Deceiver. I guess that makes Mask + Traitor the other combo, but not sure that helps me figure out what a Mask is. A bit cowardly and a smidgen interested in cannibalism and soul devouring???
Anyway the Hollow and fighting against it is one of the bits which I regard as cool, and makes me want to run it. However, I’m not sure how my players would feel about me taking over their characters as the Hollow gains control. Since I hate having my character controlled by other people, me wanting to run this is a bit hypocritical! :slight_smile:

The game also has political factions the PCs can be part of (Throne, Architects, Circle, Keepers, and bad guy faction the Harbingers). But it then sort of forgets about them for 300 pages. They don’t get a mention in character gen. They only really pop up again in the context of what they think of the NPC factions in the Eastern USA. That’s a pity because I find the Factions much more interesting than the Creeds, especially The Circle and The Architects. The politicking between all the USA NPC factions was one of the most interesting bits of the setting.
Any Creed can be part of any faction, or of none at all. The Keepers have a lot in common with The Mirror, and the Thrones have a lot in common with The Tower. According to the rules, The Mask and the Sword are supposed to fit best with The Circle and The Veil mostly join The Architects or The Keepers.
I can see why they don’t force a PC to pick a faction – since everyone already has a Creed and a bunch of Motivations which are probably in conflict, everyone picking different factions would create Ye Olde RPG problem of “So WHY exactly am I hanging out with these guys?”

The magic/psychic powers (Songs) seem really, really skewed towards combat. Most of them are about dealing damage, avoiding damage, regenerating damage, boosting your stats, or regaining the points needed to fuel all these other powers. I was disappointed by this as I’d been hoping for something a bit more like Werewolf: you are a combat monster, but your gifts might be about much more varied stuff such as picking locks, talking to animals or mucking about with the weather.

A big bugbear for me is that the game designers are hiding what’s actually going on in the game from everyone, including the GM. That’s annoying on so many levels. The Shards (sentient crystals from space) are supposed to give out cryptic advice and prophecies to the PCs. It’s easy for me to make facts cryptic. It’s damn hard to make coherent and themed ‘cryptic oracles’ if I don’t know what the hell the the truth is. I guess they expect GMs to only make cryptic versions of ‘go over there and save that village from the monster of the week’???
Then, right near the end of the book, they spring a reveal, and then tell you precisely nothing practical about it.
Non-spoilery analogy: So we’ve told you all this stuff about Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, and we’ve mentioned werewolves and ghost wolves and robotic wolves. Now we’re going to reveal that the Big Bad Wolf is actually a dragon in disguise. But we’re not going to tell you anything fekking useful about what that means or how you should use that in your games. Why not make some stuff up and buy a lottery ticket at the same time? Then see which has the greater probability of happening: a million pound lottery win or the stuff you made up being exactly the same as the game world progression.
Seriously, Sins guys – if I run a campaign and make stuff up for it and then your future products contradict what I invented, I’m not going to buy them. I’ll have too much invested in my version by that point. Put the secret factions the PCs may not find out about for years in the core rules. Put the important paradigm shifting stuff in the core rules. Put the ‘truth’ that only the GM knows IN THE CORE RULES. Or publish a damn GM book simultaneously with the core rules. ‘Coming soon’ doesn’t hack it.

The background is weird too. It’s almost like they wrote a Walking Dead background where everyone has all the assault rifles and grenades they can eat, then rushed past the ‘everyone is nomadic’ part of their world-building with their fingers in their ears going la-la-la. Because they insist that a century after the fall of civilisation folk are still manufacturing assault rifles, grenade launchers, flechette rounds, etc. Whittling them out of firewood, perhaps?
I can invent my way past some of this with nanotechnology & 3D printers which some community has rediscovered (future mankind built high-tech things such as a space elevator before civilisation fell over), but buggered if I know where they get the raw materials or how they generate the electricity to power all the steel & aluminium foundries, oil refineries and chemical factories and other infrastructure you actually need to make stuff like the tyres and engine for your Mad Max motorcycle, the explosives for your rocket propelled grenade or the kevlar for your ballistic vest.
The game also states there are 1 to 2 billion people left in the world. I’m guessing from this, that they – like the designers of other post-apocalypse games such as Twilight 2013 or Wraeththu – are either bright eyed and bushy tailed young innocents, or just not interested in history. Those games all think that reducing a population of 7 billion to 1 billion puts humanity on the brink of extinction. However, I’m old enough to remember when the news headlines were full of shock and horror that the population had reached 4 billion, and how overpopulated the Earth was. And I’m aware that when Julius Caesar was making plans to invade Britain the whole population of our planet was only about 150 million. No-one regards the Roman era as humanity within a hair’s breadth of dying out.
There are a whole bunch of players I could not run this for without them saying “Wait, what?” every 10 minutes. Mainly the ones who are interested in economics or military history, who like playing engineers or who are gun bunnies. I could hand-wave and say “psychic powers make it possible”, but then I’d have to contradict the setting stuff about humans not having those powers and think of ways to stop the engineers and gun bunnies stampeding off to learn how to magically manufacture field artillery or a tank! (Seriously, some of the people I run games for want to know the physics of how Bags of Holding work!)

So in summary… there is a lot to like about Sins. There is cool stuff to love all to bits. But there is also stuff which annoys me or just makes me go Meh. And several things which trigger my damage control instincts as a GM. For instance, if there were 10 Creeds, I’d ban The Sword in a flash, as too likely to encourage asshattery and murderhobos. However that’s not really an option when there are only five of them.
Will I ever run this? I don’t know. I think I want the internet to fill up with actual play sessions to read/listen to, and some spoilers about The Truth of the setting, before I decide whether to invest substantial amounts of time and energy in Sins.


The explicit campaign premise: "X who do Y in a world where W"
#2

Never been much of a WoD fan (though I played in a Werewolf game for a while), but I think I see your point: there are some jolly interesting ideas here.

Could you expand on this? One of the Things I Always Say, at least in recent years, is that any game or campaign frame should have a straightforward statement of what it’s about, generally in the form “you are X who do Y”.

(goes out to remind the neighbours that I’m a quiet bloke who keeps to himself)

That’s pretty much out of Wraith isn’t it? And do you lose out if your Creed and Hollow have the same favoured power, or do you get a double bonus?

'Cos there’s, like, zombies outside? (To be fair that seems to be the point of Romero’s zombie films in particular, at least as I read them: everything would be fine if people just stayed calm and did sensible things, but force a bunch of strangers into a small space and they’ll be at each other’s throats even without having been bitten.)

Argh. Yes. +1 to your point: (and this is something that comes up in the next podcast) you the RPG publisher aren’t going to produce adventures faster than I can run them, unless you’re TSRWotCHasbro, so I’m going to have to write my own stuff. Unless that’s just going to be bashing the zombie of the week, I need to know how the setting works.

I think one could argue that 1-2 billion isn’t enough to sustain the current technological base (per Wikipedia that’s the historical population in 1804-1927), and that the base they can sustain may depend on readily-extracted resources that have already been extracted so they may fall further. You can’t run say a modern coal or iron ore mine without a very long tail of supply chain. In Reign of Steel, my favourite post-apocalyptic setting, the total surviving human population is about 200 million, and in my canon the smarter people realise that even if they somehow win the war against the robots they’re going to need something like the robots in order to multiply human effectiveness and stay alive afterwards.

Linkything:


#3

Could you expand on this? One of the Things I Always Say, at least in recent years, is that any game or campaign frame should have a straightforward statement of what it’s about, generally in the form “you are X who do Y”.

The back of the book only has the ‘poetic’ version of what you do in the game: Will you redeem mankind’s Sins, or draw us forever into darkness? etc etc. Evocative, but not much actual information content. So they have very sensibly produced a 2 page guide to the game world right at the start of the book. That is broken down into these sections:

  • A Dying World - informs you its post-apocalypse, gives a few details and tells you one of the themes is the re-emergence of civilisation.

  • A Monstrous Enemy - describes the zombies and how they differ from run-of-the-mill brain-eating movie zombies. Namely groups of them can form a hive mind, and thus become intelligent.

  • Forgotten Horrors - the reason modern military superpowers were overwhelmed by mere zombies is because there were also a bunch of creatures “with almost godlike powers” who went around smiting armies and killing world leaders. They then all mysteriously disappeared. (Not sure why they are called Forgotten - everyone seems to know they existed).

  • Dark Heroes - what the PCs are (ex-zombies called Nemissaries), their powers, their dark side.

  • The Judges - the Shards - mysterious alien crystals that fell to Earth and may have started the whole zombie apocalypse OR could be salvation since they repel zombies. They give out cryptic advice. For a zombie to become a Nemissary it’s past (human) deeds must be judged by a Shard.

  • Great Conspiracies - there is factional politics going on amongst the humans and Nemissaries.

  • Hope & Despair - the themes of the game.

  • A Word to Parents - a prominent sidebar pointing out this is not a game for kids.

That’s pretty much out of Wraith isn’t it? And do you lose out if your Creed and Hollow have the same favoured power, or do you get a double bonus?

I’ve only played one session of Wraith and it was so long ago I can recall zero about how the characters worked. In Sins if both your preferred Songs are the same one, you get the Iron Soul ability free as compensation. That lets you reduce ‘dark force’ points taken in some circumstances. I have no idea if that’s balanced.

'Cos there’s, like, zombies outside? (To be fair that seems to be the point of Romero’s zombie films in particular, at least as I read them: everything would be fine if people just stayed calm and did sensible things, but force a bunch of strangers into a small space and they’ll be at each other’s throats even without having been bitten.)

If the PCs were the very human cast of a Romero zombie movie, then yeah, they have no choice. But as the PCs as described (and obviously I haven’t played it yet to check the power levels) are the cast of Avengers Assemble, then they can bugger off and find a more like-minded bunch of superheroes.

As I said, it’s an ongoing problem in RPGs where there are conflicting factions, be that D&D alignments or Vampire clans. And that’s before someone starts behaving like a sociopath or an arsehole! :grinning:


#4

Aha, thanks. My gold standard for game world introductions is the one in Changing Times by @Phil_Masters, a one-page summary of the important things in Transhuman Space – and it’s in the free preview PDF.

http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-transhuman-space-changing-times


#5

A significant number of my campaigns do not begin with such a statement. It’s very common for them to have a “you are X,” but in more than one of them, the “Y” is chosen by the players in the pre-session. That was true, for example, of House of the Rising Sun (supernatural horror; Call of Cthulhu), Oak and Ash and Thorn (modern fantasy; GURPS), Hong Kong Shadows (modern fantasy; Mage: The Ascension), Gods and Monsters (covert supers; FUDGE), Manse (historical fantasy; Big Eyes Small Mouth), Worminghall (historical fantasy; GURPS), and Tapestry (anthropological fantasy; GURPS). In my current Mage campaign I actually started out by asking the players to choose whether to play Traditions or Technocaracy. . . .

For me, there is “you are X who do Y,” there is “you are X who are in unusual situation Z,” and there is “you are in world W—who are you and what do you do?” Any of those can be the premise for a campaign, and any of them can attract me to a game, though I tend to favor the first and third.


#6

The reason I like to lock it down – and indeed, it may happen while the group is discussing some of the details of the game I’m going to run – is (a) to serve as a guide to character generation, and (b) so that when the game starts we can get into things quickly rather than having a long discussion. Given that I usually run GURPS, it’s very easy to build a useless character if you get a wrong idea of what you’re going to need to be good at, and that’s something we mostly do separately before the game-proper starts.


#7

Both of those functions seem valid. But I find that it works well to have those discussions at the pre-session, when all the players are sitting down as a group for the first time. Then we have a month, or perhaps longer, before the start of actual play, during which we work on getting the character designs into shape.

I have to say that I often enough come up with ideas for campaigns in a game that depart significantly from the suggested “who do Y” for that game. Two of my Wraith ideas, for example, were wraiths haunting the ruins of a city in a postapocalyptic world, and wraith superheroes, , , , I don’t see any obvious ways to do that with Sins, but then the idea of zombies totally fails to engage my imagination.


#8

“X who do Y” may be something the players decide in Session 0, but it really does need to be decided. I have enough trouble getting sessions up and running when they have a clear goal; I can’t imagine how utterly chaotic and tangential things would get if the players had to figure out what their characters were doing.

Bill, depending on what about Wraith superheroes tickles your fancy, Greg Stolze’s Better Angels might do the trick. The conceit is that supervillains are actually demon-possessed mortals, and the demons are run by another player much like the Shadows in Wraith. It’s got some very hippie-indie-game mechanics, though, like your stats being based on moral approaches and also acting as your damage tracks. Plus it’s One Roll Engine, which might be a selling point or might be a warning flag.


The explicit campaign premise: "X who do Y in a world where W"
#9

Perhaps we ought to move discussion of “X who do Y in world W” to its own thread, not to derail the discussion of Sins the RPG. I made one:


#10

Is One Roll Engine the system for Godlike? I ran a campaign of Godlike, and the system struck me as too broken to ever use again for any game whatever. Part of this was the strange way some of the powers were described, but the basic dice mechanic gave a probability distribution I found too crude for interesting play.


#11

I’m afraid so. I’ve never played Godlike, but I’ve read it all, because I like WWII RPGs, and the whole thing seems kind of crude. It has some interesting ideas, but it could be done so much better without any unreasonable effort.


#12

I ran a campaign using Godlike, inspired by Ken Hite’s scenario of Muslim superheroes fighting off the First Crusade; the premise that the “godlike” could disregard the laws of physics seemed like a good fit. Then we ran into statements like invisible people not being able to see (for reasons H.G. Wells mentioned in a letter about The Invisible Man and chose to handwave in writing it) or intangible people not being able to breathe while walking through walls, which seemed hard to reconcile with “laws of physics? what laws of physics?” Those were minor points, though. What bothered us worse was the dice roll mechanics, which gave 50% success with a pool of four dice, very high odds of failure with fewer (not worth buying the skill to get the small chance), and very high odds of success with more (no sense of interesting risk); the pattern of odds was really sharply focused, in a way that for our taste made play less interesting.

So I guess I have to count that as a reason not to look at Better Angels.