Monday, 25 August 2014

First Impressions: Fluxborn Part 3

I'm pressing on with this first impression. The few bit of game mechanics I saw were simple, but interesting. Sadly, this chapter is all about setting. Well, I've already been surprised once, I suppose it isn't too far fetched that this book has the capacity to surprise me again. Granted, the last surprise I had wasn't what I would call a good one. This chapter is about setting.

Chapter 2

We start off with Albion. This is a land of lush green hills, rainy weather, and other things that indicate this is a stand in for an idealized Medieval England. The people of this area have a rich seafaring tradition. Luckily, what lies off their coast is actually interesting. The High Seas are a body of water shaped like an ascending spiral. Waves from this sea crash against the high coastal mountains and huge iron walls, created by ancient dreamers. No one has been able to sail to the top of the sea, leaving a bit of mystery for players and GMs. This is more the kind of setting I was hoping for, a genuinely surreal location. Hopefully this isn't the only one included in the section on Albion. The capital city of Albion is called Eden. I almost skipped this section thanks to the overused name. While not as interesting as the High Sea, Eden has a cool core concept.

While I was in the middle of writing that last sentence, I realized that the names in this setting are pretty terrible. I can only imagine what their Cycpops! brainstorming sessions were like.
“We have an ocean that climbs into the skies, what do we call it?” asks one designer.
“The High Sea!” says another.
“That's just a bad pun, it isn't even that clever.” says the first designer.
“That's a great idea!” says the first designer.

Anyways, Eden is a city built on unstable ground thanks to all the water and swamps in England  Albion. The people of the City (I refuse to call it Eden.) build their city higher to negate the effects of the constant sinking, The lower levels get closer and closer to the not-Underdark as the city sinks, once again offering plot hooks for a GM. Interestingly, the city has two Kings, both ruling together. We don't get much detail. We learn their personalities, where the palace is, but nothing about why there are two Kings, how they rule, or anything that builds on this interesting tidbit of information. There is a prophecy that claims the City will sink and be forgotten which is the reason the citizens are building upwards. Interestingly, it is a forgone conclusion, the city will eventually fall. I'm not sure how I feel about that. Not the ultimately depressing end for the city, I'm cool with that. My issue is with how they presented the information, in the middle of describing how the city functions they tell you “Oh yeah, and it's eventually destroyed and turned into a hive of scum and villainy” right before going back into the layout of the city.

Sadly, the layout is where the interesting ends for now. Like another sinking city, there are few streets. Most people get around by the waterways, presumably by gondola. This city, doomed to sink into the swamp and falling slowly into a pit of evil is turned into not-Venice in a single paragraph. I just scrolled down to continue reading and, yes, they do get around by gondola. I'm skipping over a fishing village devoid of anything interesting and going on to the next big nautical disappointment. Get ready for it: skeletal pirates lead by a Captain Blackbrand. Yes, the bay of mists is home to the greatest evil of all, a stereotypical evil magic pirate. Granted, it's a pretty small pool to draw that stereotype from, but somehow, Fluxborn manages. Kudos Fluxborn, kudos.

Wait, I just noticed something. Captain Blackberry's ships raid coastal villages while sailing upside down in the clouds. Well, Captain, you've redeemed yourself somewhat by going full gonzo. Sadly, the same can't be said for Tortuga. That wasn't a general statement, there is a town in this book called Tortuga. Considering Albion is not-England, a Spanish name from a real town is jarring. More than that, it's flat out stupid. Again, the throw-away lines contain the most interesting material. The town is built on the back of a petrified turtle-leviathan (presumably just a big fucking turtle), attempting the justify the name. Sadly, our turtle friend is the only interesting thing about this pirate infested sleep aid.

We leave not-England and arrive at Olympia. I'm guessing this is going to be not-Greece, only time will tell. Olympia is a place of cold mountains and pine forests. Their people are skilled carpenters, and definitely not a stand in for the various Scandinavian nations. So I'll admit, I was wrong, the Olympians are not aping Greek culture, my bad. There is a pretty interesting idea here, some of the Olympian cities are said to be intricately carved so the resemble one giant house. We get to see one of those houses in this page's art, giving us a good idea of what that might look like. Promising, but again, just a single sentence containing an idea that should be given far greater significance. A few more evocative ideas are listed here. The roots of the pine trees reach down into the not-Underdark and rumours exist of icebergs glimpsed coming down through the clouds. The Olympians ride bears into battle against their enemies, an idea which gives an awesome mental image, but is pretty overdone at this point.

Thankfully, the house city idea is expanded with a location called The Great House. They build the city up, and the longer the areas have been around, the more refined they are. I assume they get a nice patina on the...well, the everything. The ruling family has claimed the lower, higher quality sections and forbids the lower classes from entering. The lower classes instead enter through zip lines. I can only wonder how grandma and grandpa manage to get back inside.

Skyberg, the mythical flying mountain and the source of the interesting rumours from before is also given a section here. I'm not sure if they decided to showcase their best ideas in the opening or they had less ideas for this section. This is the last entry in Olympia's description for a total of two locations compared to Albion's six. Only two of the ideas in Albion are really worth remembering, so this is really a case of quality versus quality and quantity. Skyberg appears at random and drops ladders and ropes that stretch impossibly long bring strange raiders with them. Mysterious raiders descending from the sky have been done before by Commodore Burberry in Albion. This is more original, barely.

Our third location is Elysium (and the Jade Isles). I'm not sure why these two locations are combined. With any luck there is a reason, I'm not holding out hope though. From the names I'm guessing this is not-Greece and not-China. I have been wrong before, so we'll see. Apparently these two regions have been at war or at least “bitter conflict” for the setting's entire history.

Elysium is a region of fertile landscapes with city states known for their walls and scientific advancement. But this place is totally not Greece guys. The mountains have what look like faces on their sides. It doesn't clarify if these occurred naturally or were constructed, both possibilities are equally interesting.

South of Elysium are a group of jungle-covered islands called the Jade Isles. The islands are symmetrical sections of green jade, as the region's name suggests. Surprisingly these are a collection of tribal societies ruled by a queen/warlord. There was a previous society on the Isles called Yomi which was ruled by an Emperor. The only listed location in the combined region is the ruins of the palace city. The ancient society was destroyed by a vague apocalypse that shattered the island into the archipelago it is in the setting proper.

The last region is Old Irkalla, an inexplicably purple desert. The art depicts it as a Saharan-type desert, but the text talks about cacti. I'm aware this is essentially a fantasy setting, so it isn't too egregious. When travellers die of exposure a large human-shaped cactus grows where they died according to the rumours which is an interesting idea. When this section gets down to locations of interest, it starts strong. The book introduces us to the Winding Stairs, a lost city in the desert. Not original, but it does it much better than the previously mentioned Yomi. This seems to be a trend, two similar ideas in adjacent sections and the second one is much more interesting than the first. This city, built by people so ancient they are forgotten is rumoured to move around the desert. Understanding the layout causes madness. Really, we're getting into some solid architectural horror tropes here. Giant mechanisms power the structure and cause the stairs that fill the massive structure to move in all directions.

The last section concerns factions of the world. Most are not really worth noting. A definite exception to that rule is the last of the smaller factions, The Abandoned. Sometimes human children put their dreaming self into an object. Normally these objects are non-sentient but a very specific set of circumstances can change that. If the child could produce a Fluxborn while dreaming and dies in their sleep, the dream self can continue to exist as a living toy. The idea of living toys is not in itself original, especially not when produced by a dead child, but this works. It's weird, edging on gonzo and is dark enough that it catches my attention. The concept of a child creating or infusing an object instead of creating a dreamer is interesting and opens the path for plot hooks. For instance, what is the effect of having one of these objects? Can adults create these? Honestly, these should have been one of the Fluxborn flavours. The name could use a little work, but otherwise, I like these!

Closing Thoughts

The chapter started off weak but built momentum. Most of the chapter wasn't particularly interesting, but there were large sections that stuck out, mostly positively. Not-England and not-Greece were the weakest sections in this chapter but there were a few genuinely good ideas that you could salvage from it. After the boondoggle that was the first chapter, I'm glad that I stuck in, this chapter ended up being more of what I was looking for from this game, which caught me off guard. Kudos Cycpops! unsarcastic kudos. Oh, I didn't mention much about the art this time. It was good, is about all I can say. Nothing in particular stood out. It didn't brilliantly evoke a scene that captured my attention, but it also didn't distract me from the content of the text. With the exception of the Hare from chapter one, all of the art in this book has actually been pretty outstanding. It has this sketchy quality (despite being painted, I'd guess digitally) that captures the essence of a dream state rather well.

On the other hand, my critique of the first chapter stands. There isn't a strong reason so far for the material in the first chapter to warrant it's own section. If the authors had put all of the setting material in this chapter, I wouldn't have batted an eye. Well, I might've enjoyed this chapter less, pushing me from tolerance to total dismissal. In hindsight, maybe it's best they kept chapter one seperate.
(Just kidding, it's remains a poor layout choice.)

The next chapter is about mechanics and is longer than the previous two chapters combined. I may have to break my post down into two or more parts. The silver lining of the first chapter was the brief taste of mechanics. Hopefully a whole chapter on them will be fun. If you had to appraise my attitude towards this project after this chapter I would go with cautiously optimistic. Mechanics are one of my favourite parts of a system and I usually enjoy delving into them.

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