The Independents: Mistborn Adventure Game

The immortal Lord Ruler reigns over a land of ash, where it is a daily struggle simply to keep crops growing. Nobles play games of intrigue and lead lives of luxury while an entire peasant/slave caste known as the skaa toil away with no rewards other than enough food to survive and maybe fewer beatings. Every night the land is cloaked in mists, and the skaa whisper of monsters and demons and people who can use metals to perform magic. Among all this are the crews, those who go beyond their station and beyond the Lord Ruler’s laws to try and accomplish their goals. One way or another, the outlaw crews fight back against the world that seeks to oppress them. This is the world of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novel series, and this is the setting of the Mistborn Adventure Game from Crafty Games!

The Mistborn Adventure Game is something new for The Independents, a game based not in a world created by the publisher or by the GM and players, but a game set in a pre-existing setting from another source. In this particular instance the name gives it away: the game is set on the same world as Brandon Sanderson’s quite popular Mistborn series of novels which as of this writing number six plus a smattering of short stories and other fiction. And as with those novels, the basic core book of the game starts off with the same situation: the immortal god-king known as the Lord Ruler, who supposedly saved the world a thousand years ago, now rules over a post-apocalyptic and oppressive realm, and our heroes have to rise up from the criminal underworld.

There’s a lot to catch your attention with the MAG, both inside its pages and concerning its existence as part of a larger franchise. Fortunately, while I was reading the game over I was able to get in touch with Alex Flagg, Crafty Games’ resident expert on the game, and asked him a few questions over Skype.

So, how exactly do you go from novel to roleplaying game?

According to Alex, back in 2007 a co-worker was on his case to read the works of a relatively new author, saying that it might make for a good game world. Alex eventually, in his own words, caved and read about the first 40 pages of Mistborn: The Final Empire before coming to the conclusion that this could work. Sanderson happened to be on tour for the second Mistborn novel, Well of Ascension, in Alex’s hometown of Portland, Oregon. Alex got in touch, Sanderson was immediately enthusiastic about the idea, and one meeting over burgers later the process had been started. By the time the paperwork was signed Sanderson had been chosen to finish the Wheel of Time series, so by Alex’s estimation it took about three years of research, back-and-forth, and catching up on the rest of the then-existing Mistborn series before the Mistborn Adventure Game was about ready.

I was curious about how having Sanderson available influenced the creation of the game, and Alex elaborated that Sanderson not being as “engaged” with other commitments back then probably ended up helping. The author had done some research on what Crafty Games was doing at the time, which was mostly d20 work, and didn’t think that sort of system would really fit. When asked what sort of system he preferred, Sanderson professed an enjoyment of the West End Games d6 version of Star Wars, something Alex kept in mind going forward.

In the end Sanderson wasn’t dictating much, but Alex said that a large part of their discussions was how the Game “could contribute back to the canon . . . expand on what Mistborn is.” They were able to cover some areas that Sanderson had to gloss over for the sake of plot, such as detailed examinations of the Skaa and Terris peoples (both of which eventually got a supplemental book for the Game). Crafty was even able to contribute to the magic systems, something Sanderson is known to specialize in, by filling in the blanks on a few metal-based abilities. Overall, Alex said that one of the challenges was looking at the canon and both bending rules to make something work in a game and seeing how to expand beyond the pages of the novels. When a rough draft was turned over mid-2011 Sanderson was so excited he asked if he could write liner notes, an offer Alex jumped at, and the MAG is peppered with sidebars written by Sanderson. The core book even starts with a short story, The Eleventh Metal, which was first written for the game!

Alright, so that tells the story of how the game came into being. Let’s talk about the game itself. As stated above, player characters form a crew of outlaws from various walks of life. Putting together the crew is actually one of the first steps: what are you, as a group, after? Who are you targeting in order to attain your goals? What is your primary method for doing so? The example crew in the book, for instance, are after Revenge against the Nobles that have oppressed most of them, and use Theft as their foremost tool in achieving that Revenge.

Actual gameplay is relatively straightforward. For any given task, a player character will roll either an Attribute (physical capabilities), a Standing (less tangible things like resources and contacts), or a Power’s Rating (magic, in one form or another). The numerical value is converted into an equal number of six-sided dice, which are then rolled as a pool. Unlike some dice-pool-based games, however, you are not attempting to see how many dice pass a certain threshold. Rather, you are attempting to form the highest possible pairing. For instance if one were to roll 4d6 and get 1 – 3 – 3 -5 the result would be a 3. This number is put up against either a number 1-5 that is determined by the Narrator or an opponent’s own result. If rolling against a Narrator-set difficulty a tie or better means success, while in a contest between two rolling parties the participant with the highest set wins. Interestingly, 6s do not count. Rather, every 6 is converted into a ‘Nudge’ which can be used to improve the degree of a success or mitigate the consequences and complications of failure. A dice pool can never go below 2 dice or above 10 dice; ratings, powers, or complications that would cause them to go lower or higher worsen the outcome or add Nudges respectively.

When I asked Alex about why they went with this unique sort of system rather than a more familiar one, his first response was “Math”! Specifically, the math of who the potential audience for the game was going to be. About the time that the MAG was going to come out, Sanderson was busy wrapping up the Wheel of Time series, which naturally pushed his other works like Mistborn further into the spotlight and would help get the word out about a new game. Just going off of how many people would be reading Sanderson’s work all of a sudden and considering the likely percentage of them who would be gamers, Alex explained, gave Crafty Games a rough idea of a quite large potential audience.

With such a potentially broad clientele, that meant that the Mistborn Adventure Game needed to be relatively easy to pick up and play. With the amount of dice involved in the pools strictly limited (no buckets of d10s here, looking at you Exalted) and with the difficulty levels only going from 1-5, the range of what’s going on is relatively small for a roleplaying game and comparatively easy to understand. Alex also told me that there was a ‘literal rocket scientist’ who crunched the numbers for probability, the results of which where included in one of the books. They found that once someone started having a pool of 6, further increases started to make less of a difference. It became a system that encouraged diversifying your character and not, as Alex put it, “being in your wheelhouse.”

The relatively-numbers-light system also helps the game focus on the narrative aspect, particularly through its Traits system. While talking about it Alex drew a deliberate comparison to Fate and its Aspects. While building a character a player is asked a series of questions about their character’s past, appearance, personality, specialty in the crew, and so on. The answers to these questions become Traits. For instance, an example character in the book has among their Traits “Thief”, “Always have a plan”, and “Witty repartee”. For every Trait that can be seen as relevant to a given dice pool, you can add another die,

Overall, Alex said that a lot of these choices had to do with wanting to have competent characters from the get-go. We discussed a few different games, Pathfinder being the one most mentioned, that have much higher caps on things like Attributes and dice pools and the like. There’s a huge difference between a Level 1 and a Level 20 version of the same character, and Alex addressed a few ways that might cause problems for a narrative game like Mistborn. On the one hand, the Level 1 character probably can’t do many of the cool things you want it to do, which means technically for a while you’re not playing the character you want to. “Why do we bar entry into the thing you actually want to do with your time?” Alex reasoned. On the other side of the coin, as a character in a larger-scaled game levels up, they might be found wandering away from the original idea, perhaps in the name of optimization as they have to deal with larger threats. Alex stressed the importance of a character remaining recognizably the character you started with.

Of course this does expose a facet of the game that some may take issue with. Since the MAG lacks the depth of advancement that some games have, Alex said that it probably isn’t the kind of game where you’re playing with the same characters and campaign for three to four years. There’s only so far you can improve in any given thing. Advancements, the game’s XP equivalent, also come comparatively slowly and allow for incremental improvements. As a result the Mistborn Adventure Game is more suited to groups that are used to shorter campaigns, and Alex outright said it makes an excellent second game for a group that does have a long-runner going.

When it comes to magic, Crafty Games approached it in much the same way that Sanderson did, at least when it came to level of detail. The Metallic Arts, as the magic of the setting is referred to, are quite well codified in the books, and that carries over here. There’s Allomancy, which allows people to ‘burn’ metals that they’ve consumed to do all sorts of things, such as tamper with emotions, hurl metal objects about, and improve their strength and senses. Allomancers are further divided into Mistings, who can only burn a single kind of metal and thus only access one type of power, and the titular Mistborn who can burn all of them. There are Feruchemists, who instead of burning metals use them to store attributes such as strength, memory, and so on, weakening themselves for a time so that they can greatly enhance themselves when needed. There are the mysterious kandra, shapeshifters able to use the bones of the dead to take on their appearance. And there’s the dark art of Hemalurgy, which is not available at character creation and certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. All of these magics are explained in detail, down to every last type of usable metal and what they can accomplish.

With all that magic around I was a little concerned for the characters who won’t have any at all. A Mistborn in the books can go on a rampage with something as simple as a metallic paperweight, so how do you balance that? Alex’s first response was an interesting one. “The important thing about any Mistborn character is about playing what you want to play . . . player agency is the most important thing.” So while balance is certainly not unimportant to the game makers, it isn’t the be-all-end-all. That being said, there are a number of solid mechanical choices that help maintain balance. Character creation involves a ‘strengths’ system that Alex said was actually inspired by old Shadowrun editions (which, now that i think about it, also sounds pretty familiar from the most recent edition). A player has to assign Weak, Average, and Strong to Attributes, Standings, and Powers. In order to gain the powers of a Mistborn or a Feruchemist a player needs to assign Strong to Powers, meaning that they only have Average and Weak to assign to Attributes and Standings. Mistings and Kandra require an Average Powers, while Weak Powers grant no magical ability at all but do grant an additional two Traits.

The biggest balance factor, then, would be having to make trade-offs. Another is that improving Powers takes a larger number of Advancements, so a character with no Powers is going to able to improve a little faster. But there’s also the fact that the characters with Strong Powers are a little bit like a jack-of-all-trades, able to do a lot of useful things but not excelling like a Misting. Alex pointed out that a starting Thug, the type of Misting that burns pewter to gain strength, “will probably beat a Mistborn to death if they’re not smart.” And in general Alex refers to the MAG as a ‘low supers’ game. Yes, there’s magic and monsters and terribly scary things, but there’s also quite a bit of Ocean’s 11 to it. Your characters aren’t (usually) going to be slugging it out in the streets, but rather focusing on the next big score.

My final question for Alex was how someone might recruit players who had never read the novels before. He paused for a moment to think it over before saying that the game “was designed for people who aren’t familiar with the books but who like RPGs.” About half of MAG players, he wagered, came from reading the books, but the other half were often drawn in by the reputation of Crafty Games and it contributors. There is also the fact that the core book starts off with a pretty good introduction to the world, explaining all the basics (Sanderson’s interludes seem to help, here). Wrapping up his response and our chat, Alex said “You don’t need to know the world, and it can actually be kind of freeing to play with people who only knows the basics,”  and that Narrators who’d read at least Mistborn: The Final Empire were often seen to be “gleefully springing things on the players.” Like a certain character from the books often said, there’s always another secret to find.

The Mistborn Adventure Game is available in both PDF and softcover forms. It also has a number of supplements at this point, including the Skaa and Terris-centric books mentioned above, as well as an Alloy of Law expansion that allows for games taking place during the Wax and Wayne sequel series. A second Alloy of Law-era book is currently in development. On a related note Crafty Games also recently successfully Kickstarted Mistborn: House War, a board game taking place within the setting. Information on all of these and more can be found on the Crafty Games site. You can find Alex on Twitter, and I’d like to thank both Alex for talking with me and for Crafty Games’ Ed Healy for putting me in touch!

Looking for a game that’s easy to pick up, where you start off competent and get to focus on the narrative of your character? In the market for a dark setting where spirit, determination, and sticking by your crew can help you cast a little light? Always wanted to engage in fantasy heists with long odds and unique and interesting magic systems? Heck, just a fan of Mistborn and want to play in that world? Then grab your metal vials and give the Mistborn Adventure Game a try!

Originally posted 12/2/16 on the Mad Adventurers Society!

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