#RPGaDAY 27: Amaranthine

Why publish a new edition of an RPG? Cynically, I might say “to milk the fans of more money”, but let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So why else do new editions of games get made? Sometimes having several thousand people play your game turns up problems that even diligent playtesting had missed. Sometimes you run out of copies and want to print more, and you figure this is a good opportunity to fix some problems, minor or major. Sometimes your game world has a storyline that has advanced and the old edition is no longer current. Sometimes the original was rushed or you can now afford better editing or art.

These are, to me, loosely what I would consider “bad”, or at least weak, reasons. Some are better than others, but they’re generally things that I wish would be fixed before the game was released in the first place, or they’re things that I don’t think merit a new edition. The problem with a new edition is that it fractures the player base if there are significant changes. If it’s just cosmetic, that’s fine, but if there are significant changes to setting or rules, then you run into the problem of people with different editions having trouble playing together. 

Then there is what I suspect is one of the reasons that people frequently want a “new edition”: because the old one is out of print. But in that case, why not just a reprint? There are a number of games no longer in print that I’d love to see once again easily available in hardcopy, but I don’t think there is/was anything wrong with the original. Castle Falkenstein, Underground, Primetime Adventures (which is currently in the process of being revised and reprinted), Aria, The Last Exodus, Advanced Marvel Super Heroes—the only thing wrong with any of these games is that they’re out of print. 

But the more interesting situation is when a game has real promise and fails to live up to it. Maybe the rules are horribly broken. Maybe it really needs an editor. Maybe there’s the sketch of a really interesting setting married to 200pp of rules, and what it really needs is to focus on that setting and strip the rules down so that it can shine. Or maybe they were so focused on the setting that the rules are junk. 

Jorune and Tékumel are two of the best settings ever put in an RPG, but the best either has ever had for rules is “ok”, and I’d love to see them really shine. SkyRealms of Jorune had the magic well represented, but the rest of the rules were an odd choice for a game about an alien world and the clash of the societies upon it. 

Immortal: the Invisible War is a game that probably is one of the most interesting games published in the ‘90s, with a setting that turns the “hidden history” concept into one of the more interesting worlds, with characters that are reborn primal forces. It has novel rules that are novel in a good way and reflect the setting. But it was a mess. A glossary stretched across the entire book that was necessary just to understand the book. Rules that weren’t so much explained as written down in random order. The art was bad photoshop. The setting was, to paraphrase one reviewer, seemingly explained with the assumption that the reader already knew the setting. All of this got in the way of what could’ve been the next World of Darkness (in a good way). Thankfully, it has had a new edition—two of them. Sadly, rather than salvage the original rules they’ve largely replaced them, and the setting, while better presented, is still not great. But it’s much improved, and, unfortunately, I think that the creators have demonstrated that they’re not capable of turning Immortal into as great of a game as it could be, so I’ll just have to chalk that one up as a lost cause. It will always be a flawed great game that will take considerable effort to release its greatness at your gaming table.

Amaranthine, on the other hand, I have great hope for. It has absolutely fascinating rules, with lots of really interesting bits. It also has a really clever premise, and the core conceit—people reincarnated into the same relationship patterns down through the ages—is reflected well in the rules in way that are both interesting and mechanically significant. The setting itself is more than just this conceit, however, and is reasonably well presented (though the first half of the book implies a world with about the weirdness of Highlander: the TV series, while the setting chapter then describes a world more akin to Werewolf: the Apocalypse, so that part could be cleared up). And I have other games by the creators which are very well done, so I have reason to believe that they could create a great game, especially with the bones of Amaranthine. 

But the actual execution is lacking. There are two key changes that should be made. First, rethink the use of color. There is slimer green brushscript text on black background for some of the sidebars. Any time there’s an enumeration of game bits—the maneuvers sections, lists of enchantments or spells—they alternate block color backgrounds in a way that is distracting, not informational—except for the one section where it’s informational.

Second, rethink the rules. This should be a game about relationships and fates, and there are awesome rules for both of those things. And then there are at least 3 more layers to the rules, including primary & secondary stats, plus dynamically-chosen combat stats; a really interesting and well-done set of combat mechanics; freeform skills with a really interesting trichotomy of categories for them; a whole pile of “maneuvers” that are well designed to fit in with a system that doesn’t have a set skill list; Humors that interact interestingly and do triple duty as stress tracks, hero points, and mechanical currency; a really novel dice mechanic that focuses on literary agency rather than character skill, and applies player-driven modifiers based on external circumstances rather than character capabilities (only the 2nd time I’ve seen that—and I created the 1st that I know of); multiple, stackable mechanisms for “escalating” a conflict, so that you can have very different mechanical focuses for your characters and still all have agency, and with a nice complications mechanism built into them all; and four separate, largely distinct, types of magic (and all characters have at least some magical ability). With the exception of the maneuvers, every one of these bits is at least good, and most of them are really cool, interesting, fun, and/or innovative. But there are just…so…many.

And the maneuvers, while an interesting concept, are bizarre in two ways:

most of them don’t use the dice mechanics at all, so you have this really novel (and fairly complex—think Dogs in the Vineyard) dice mechanic that, if you use the optional maneuvers system, you’ll almost never use

the specific selection of maneuvers seems very odd, missing really obvious things that have come up in every RPG I’ve played for the last 30 years, while providing quite a few oddly-specific options.

It explicitly says that these are exemplary maneuvers, not an exhaustive list, and you should only use the ones you want, and create new ones as needed. But there’s no formalized system for creating new ones that are equivalently effective/difficult. And when there isn’t a maneuver that applies and you “fall back” to rolling the dice, all of a sudden everything is completely different. To create a hypothetical analogy: imagine if you were playing D&D, and if your character has a skill you roll a d10 plus your stat modifier, and on a result of 10+ you succeed, on 7-9 you succeed with a cost, and on 6 or lower you fail; but if your character doesn’t have a skill, you instead roll as many d20s as your stat, and count how many of them are odds, and compare that number to the secret difficulty the GM has set for the task. 

The maneuvers, as written (with a few tweaks—but they really would be minor) plus a handful more, as the bulk of a system would be pretty cool. The dice mechanic as the core of a system, and maneuvers/feats/whatevers build on top of it, would be really neat. And each of them interacts with the Humours in a different way, so either one of them would fit in well with the Humours system. But all 3 together? It’s kinda a mess. 

Similarly, each magic system is cool, but all 4 together, each operating in a different way in terms of both story and mechanics? It’s a bit much.

What Amaranthine most reminds me of is my attempt to build a version of D&D where each class has its own cool thing. I basically mashed together Iron Heroes (everything but the magic), all the magic stuff and a couple more classes from Arcana Unearthed, plus several of the nontraditional spellcaster types from a couple other products, plus racial progressions a bit like Dawnforge, plus…well, you get the idea. For a game that the whole point is as a mechanical showcase, it just might be fun, and it lets each character potentially be unique. But when the system isn’t the whole point of the game—when there’s also a really cool premise and an interesting setting? The system overshadows the setting, the setting complicates the system, and the premise risks getting lost in the shuffle. 

I want to reiterate: every piece of this game (the premise, the setting, the character creation, all the various rules subsystems) is at least interesting, and many parts are clever—some might even have bits of genius. And many of them interact in synergistic ways. For the most part, I love how the relationship wheels interact with the rest of the mechanics. But the best part of the rules—the “facts” of the relationships—barely touch the rest of the rules. It feels like the creators put all their good ideas into the game, without considering whether they were right for this game. Even as is, I can recommend it, but I would love to see a seriously revised 2nd edition of this game, where they consider core of the game and tune the rules to focus on that. 

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