Review of Part-Time Gods

Review Summary
Comped Playtest Review
Written Review

June 18, 2012


by: Fred Furtado


Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 3 (Average)

A game with an interesting premise and a simple system that suffer from an excessive focus on containing its kewl powerz

Fred Furtado has written 8 reviews, with average style of 3.38 and average substance of 4.12. The reviewer's previous review was of BASH!: Basic Action Super Heroes, Ultimate Edition.

This review has been read 4877 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Part-Time Gods
Publisher: Third Eye Games
Line: Dynamic Gaming System: Part-Time Gods
Author: Eloy Lasanta
Category: RPG

Cost: $13.49
Pages: 212
Year: 2011

SKU: 201
ISBN: 978-1-937013-14-1


Review of Part-Time Gods


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Foreword

I first found out about Part-Time Gods (henceforth, PTG) through this thread. Intrigued by the premise of a new “PCs are gods” RPG that seemed to fill a niche dedicated to less Earth-shattering deities, I contacted the author, Eloy Lasanta (aka First Oni), and got a complimentary copy to review.

This review is quite long, clocking at 4,632 words. If you rather jump through all this text, just go straight to the Conclusion.

Appearance

PTG is a 72.5 MB black and white (with a full-color cover) PDF with 212 pages. Text is displayed in the usual two-column format with an introduction, seven chapters, one appendix, and an index. The art is good, with most of the pieces conveying the setting’s theme. Melissa Gay is responsible for the cover and most of the interior art, including signature characters. However, my favorite piece is Mike Mumah’s on page 12. My least favorite is Nick Fair’s on page 81.

In my last review, I said that BASH UE had its share of typos and text-related mistakes, but PTG takes these to a new level. Reading the book I found those plus missing or contradicting information, terms from earlier versions of the text that escaped proofing and formatting errors.

Some of these were just funny, like ‘depravation’, on page 157. When I saw it, I thought “Oh, OK. This game is going to delve into more adult themes”, but then I read the entry and realized it was talking about deprivation -- lack of food and water. This error is repeated in the Ningyo’s write-up, on page 176.

Other mistakes confused me when I was trying to understand a specific rule or even find it, like the correct bonus damage for the different Strike maneuvers in combat. By the way, the Strike maneuvers are called Attack maneuvers in the signature character sheets.

Now, as I understand it, Eloy Lasanta was writing the book as the Kickstarter project that funded the game was going on. Maybe its success – it received over three times the goal of US$ 2,500 -- made him rush things and send the book to the printers before a more thorough check up could be performed. The book suffers a lot from it, but it’s nothing that a more focused proofing effort couldn’t fix for a new printing.

It’s a divine world

The first chapter deals with the setting. Basically, there were no gods when humans were just another animal species. This changed when a woman, Eve (also Pandora, Izanami etc.), entered a really deep cave and met the Source, the alleged origin of all that existed.

They became one and when Eve/Source returned, humans gained intelligence and a few individuals were granted divine power, becoming the first gods. One of these, Zeus, decided to cut the middleman, and together with the others gods, imprisoned the Source deep within the Earth.

Unfortunately, with the Source under lock and key, the gods’ power decreased to the point that they were no longer immortals. There were wars among the pantheons and against Outsiders, creatures made by the Source from animals, plants, elements or spirits. They possessed the same divine spark and their only mission was to kill the gods.

One day, mortals succeeded in killing a god – Zeus, nonetheless --, which led to a frenzy of deicide. The gods withdrew from the world or mixed with humans, but mainly left humankind to their own devices.

A new breed of gods appeared: regular people, who, by accident or design, received the divine spark and became responsible for a single aspect of the universe.

Then, June 13th, 2011 came around (the day the Kickstarter ended).

That day, those with a divine spark felt a quake in reality as the Source stirred and flooded the world with magic again. New gods appeared, as well as tons of Outsiders, and the general feeling is that there is a war brewing, a Coming Storm, as they call it.

That, in a nutshell, is the history of the setting. It’s pretty open in that Lasanta doesn’t focus on any individual pantheon, only referring to this and that specific god, like Zeus and Coyote, to move the story on. There’s also a clear main antagonist in the Source and the Outsiders.

I would have liked a few chronological benchmarks. Although we get mentions of hundreds and thousands years, sometimes it is difficult to follow the story without being able to compare it against history.

I was also expecting more info on the Abrahamic religions, at least in historical terms. I understand wanting to steer clear of any in-depth treatment of real world religions so as not to offend potential readers, but I feel Christianity, Judaism and Islamism are too big in the monotheistic scene not to get a longer mention in a game dedicated to polytheism.

The Abrahamic religions are not ignored – there’s a blurb in page 14 talking about angels, which in the game are considered gods, with one of the Theologies (secret societies that gather like-minded gods) claiming their members are successors of the angels, and another one whose members believe their powers come from God (or the Source).

Besides history, this first chapter also introduces other concepts to the reader, like how do you become a god, claim territory, and form pantheons, as well as outsiders, divine realms and staying human.

Gods do play dice

PTG uses the lite version of the Dynamic Game System (DGS), the engine employed in the other Third Eye Games RPGs: Apocalypse Prevention, Inc. and Wu Xing: The Ninja Crusade. DGS Lite uses only one die: d20.

Tasks are accomplished by rolling the d20 and adding your Attribute and skill levels (both can vary from 1-10) in order to match one of four levels of difficulty (10, 20, 30, 40). For every 5 points you beat the difficulty, you get a Boost, which is basically extra successes that can grant additional damage or targets on attacks, bonus information, reductions in time for completing tasks or just style when performing a maneuver.

Also, if you roll a natural 1 or 20, you get a Critical Failure or Success, respectively, meaning you fail even if with your bonuses are enough to succeed, in the first case, or succeed at any difficulty, even without the necessary bonus.

DGS Lite reminds me a lot of Unisystem and not just because both systems have classic and lite versions. DGS mechanics seem like a scaling up of Unisystem’s to accommodate the d20 instead of d10. Just to make things clear, I’m not implying that DGS is a copy of Unisystem. I’m just giving this information, because if you are familiar with Unisystem, DGS might have a greater appeal to you.

Playtest: Throughout the playtest, we noticed a whiff factor, i.e., it was difficult for the characters to beat difficulties of 20 or more. This was more significant with Manifestations, the divine powers. Even though these rolls get a bonus in the form of the PC’s Spark level (explained below), most of the really cool effects require 20+ difficulty. So even adding 11 to the d20 roll, characters were only making the check 55% of the time, at best.

Your mortal half

Character creation starts with the mortal part of the character. The first thing you choose is your PC’s occupation. These are mundane jobs and such, like academic, blue collar, celebrity etc. They give the character Bonus Points (BP), skill modifiers and Wealth levels.

They should also indicate how much free time your PC has to engage in divine shenanigans, but I don’t know how that’s supposed to work in a game. Again, it seems that enforcing these things might lead to excluding characters from the action.

It’s very easy to back-engineer the costs of the occupations so you can create your own. Using this system, I spotted some mistakes: the Emergency Services and Politician occupations should give one more BP, and Soldier should grant one less.

Bonds are people or places that help anchor the characters to their humanity. Each characters gets 6 points to distribute among their Bonds, which can range from 1 to 5. Each Bond must have a passion (approval, devotion, rebellion, etc.) associated with it.

Bonds can give the PC an extra xp, but their main advantage is providing a bonus equal to their rank to rolls that involve fulfilling their passion. Bonds can become weaker or even be lost due to mistakes in the relationship or damage to the Bond. In these cases, their rating decreases and the character gains a Failing (apathy, envy, self-destruction, etc.) against which the PC has to roll in appropriate circumstances.

There are six Attributes in PTG: Power (strength), Agility, Vigor (constitution), Intellect, Insight (perception and willpower) and Charm (charisma). They vary from 1 to 10, with the average person having 3 in all of them. Characters get 25 points to distribute among them on a 1:1 basis, except for levels 9 and 10, which cost 2 points each.

Skills also vary from 1 to 10. There 24 of them and the characters have 25 + Intellect points to distribute among them. At levels 5 and 10, the PC gets to choose a specialty that gives +2 to checks. They cover the usual fields, like acrobatics, melee, persuasion, etc. There are skills that help in resisting adverse effects: Discipline, Empathy and Fortitude.

Finally, you have Gifts & Drawbacks, the game’s advantages and disadvantages. They are divided into Cerebral, Physical, Social and Divine. Like in other games, Gifts cost BP and Drawbacks give the character extra BP that can be spent like the ones gained from Occupations. Divine Gifts/Drawbacks include things like sanctuaries, strange hungers, and bad luck, among others.

Relics, special artifacts infused with deific energy, deserve a special mention, because I think the system captures the essence of what a divine implement should be.

Relics come in five levels and the book has an example of each, but it also provides a system for creating your own Relics. Each point buys a level that can be a bonus to Manifestation, skill, damage or resistance; it can also function as a storage for divine energy; or be indestructible and summonable. Unique abilities have to be gauged by the GM, who then assigns a cost to them.

This parts ends with calculations of Health (how much damage a character can take), Movement and Stamina (how much fatigue you can resist). Stamina points also work as a sort of low-power Drama/Fate point, allowing a PC to increase his damage, pull off certain Maneuvers and soak damage, for example.

Playtest: As you can see, character creation is an involved process – I’m only halfway through describing it. I strongly recommend printing a copy of the Character Creation Steps guide on pages 105 and 106 for each player. It doesn’t hurt to print the List of Gifts & Drawbacks table on page 90 and the descriptions of the Entitlements (I had two copies plus the book) in pages 111-6.

My players were less than thrilled with character creation. They thought there were “too many little boxes to check”, what with having to decide about Occupations, Gifts, Drawbacks, Entitlements, Manifestations etc. That’s why they were unanimous in praising the Character Creation Steps guide as a way to clarify and speed up the process.

You are a god, sort of…

Before I go on to the divine part of character creation, let me talk about a few key concepts. All characters start the game with one level of Spark. It’s the source of the PCs’ deific nature, what makes them gods. It arrests their aging and allows them to come back from the dead.

Spark can be increased at character creation through a specific Gift. It can also decrease due to death – it costs you one level of Spark to come back from the dead. If you only had one, sorry, you are no longer a god. Spark, like Attributes, have a maximum value of 10, but the higher it goes, the hard it’s for the PC to remain human: your maximum number of Bond points is equal to 10 minus Spark. You also add its level to Manifestation rolls.

The character’s divine Spark also generates Spark points at a rate of 1:3. These points function as Drama/Fate points too, but are a little bit more powerful than Stamina ones. A Spark point can be used for things a Stamina one can’t, like adding bonuses to rolls related to divine powers. Spark points regenerate at a rate of Spark level x 2/day.

Playtest: I’m not a fan of having more than one type of metagame resource. It seems confusing to me and during the playtest I always had to check what each could do. Spark points aren’t really that more powerful than Stamina ones, so the distinction seems to make even less sense.

In game, Spark points proved not to be that useful due to the small bonuses they give. Also, they were an extremely limited resource. Most of the characters only had three of them, which were usually spent trying to improve their rolls or powering Entitlements, some of which charge a Spark point to be activated. As a result, the players would go through them pretty quick and would have to wait a day to get some back.

As I said above, Theologies are societies of like-minded gods. There are nine of them, each with their own outlook on what being a god means. There are the Ascendants, Cult of Saints, Drifting Kingdoms, Masks of Jana, Order of Meskhenet, Phoenix Society, Puck-Eaters and Warlock’s Fate.

They include divine supremacists, cannibal gods, alleged messengers of God, and human lovers, among others. Unlike World of Darkness games, there’s no ‘unaligned’ Theology that gathers those that don’t want to belong to any of the others – you have to choose one.

A Theology is a source of contacts and missions, if the GM wants, but it also has mechanical effects. It gives the character bonuses to Manifestations (the divine skills), a special gift (a minor power) and a drawback, a supernatural disadvantage.

The special gifts are ok. Some are based on Entitlements, specific powers a god has not necessarily related to their sphere of influence, others are BP to buy specific Gifts.

The drawbacks, however, seemed unbalanced. Compare The Cult of the Saints’ – having to do one thing the GM asks per session (you can roll to resist, but it’s tough) – with the Drifting Kingdoms’ – succeeding on a check every month (it’s also tough) or moving from where you live.

Suggestions for how to handle the latter are: the character visits a friend in another city or takes a vacation, for at least a day. The backstory of this Theology implies that this wanderlust was more intense than that, but if the GM enforces it, he’s taking the PC out of the game; if he doesn’t, than he’s shortchanging characters from other Theologies.

The Theology descriptions also include the opinions of each group on the others and the Coming Storm, as well as a signature character complete with story and sheet. Still, I didn’t get a good sense of how these different Theologies interact among themselves. The section on pantheons, later in the book, addresses it a bit.

After choosing a Theology, the player must choose a Dominion for the character, the aspect of reality the PC controls. It’s usually a noun or verb and can come from anything, but usually falls into one of these types: Bestial, Conceptual, Elemental, Emotional, Patrons, Tangible and Crossovers. Extra Dominions can be bought as Gifts.

Differences between similar-sounding Dominions, like the Dead and Death, would give control over distinct portions of the concept, so discussing what a player envisions as his sphere of influence is a good idea. The book includes roll modifiers to balance broad and specific dominions.

Entitlements are divine subpowers, things like astral projection, extra arms, healing hands and telepathy, among others. Each character starts with two, but can buy more with a Gift.

The last part of the divine character creation is choosing Manifestations, the skills related to manipulating a Dominion. There are eight of them: Aegis, Beckon, Journey, Minion, Puppetry, Oracle, Ruin and Shaping. They cover things like using you Dominion for defense, movement, summoning, manipulation and combat. I could see Shaping and Puppetry collapsed into one Manifestation, given that they have similar functions.

Each entry lists three common effects associated with that Manifestation. For example, Beckon lists Summon, Banish and Illusions. Each effect has a description and a list of what can be accomplished at each difficulty level. There’s no difficulty 40 listed, presumably, because at this level, anything is possible.

But these are not the only effects possible. The book suggests allowing freeform use of Manifestations: the player states what she wants and together with the GM, they decide what Manifestation is appropriate. I think that is the best approach, but I don’t see it in some of the effects description, which instead of giving more flexible values, have hard numbers, like the amount of mass in pounds that can be affected.

Each character has a +3, +2 and +1 to assign to Manifestations. It’s not six points; it’s three different levels. But it’s not a totally free choice – two of the Manifestations are already chosen by your Theology. So, if you are a Puck-Eater, for example, two of your Manifestations will be Ruin and Minion. The last one can be chosen from the other six options.

The book states that you cannot start the game with Manifestations greater than level 5, but that’s unnecessary, given that the best combination between the Theology bonus and the free levels is 5, and, according to page 90, you can only use BP to increase Attributes and skills, not Manifestations.

This is a big constraint on one of the main elements of the game. The lack of an unaligned Theology means you can’t really create a set of Manifestations that you like. You’ll have to decide between a Theology that you have affinity for or one that has the Manifestations you want. Even then, you won’t have them at a sufficiently advanced level.

This becomes more problematic because not all of a Manifestation’s effects work for all Dominions. To use two examples from the book (p. 123), a god of Death can’t summon death to him (Beckon) and a god of Truth can’t shapeshift into truth (Shaping). So a character may end up with a Manifestation that’s not all that useful for him, unless the GM can be more flexible and freeform than the rules as written.

Also, the whiff factor is at work here, as explained in the introduction to this review. A character with Spark 1, level 5 in a Manifestation plus a 5 in the Attribute (all common levels for starting characters) will only hit difficulty 20 (where the really outrageous effects start) 55% of the time.

You can use Spark, but that will probably help you in two or three rolls and then you’ll be out of it. There are situational modifiers that improve the roll: sacrificing your own blood, being in the appropriate environment, having a relic, etc. Those, however, may not be usable every time.

Playtest: Several times during the playtest, my players were frustrated with their incapability of performing their godly functions. Not only couldn’t they hit the difficulty for Manifestation effects most of the times, Entitlements were also less than useful for some of them.

For example, one of the players bought Astral Projection, which cost two slots (so you only start the game with one Entitlement). To activate it, you must spend a Spark point and roll Insight + Discipline + Spark to hit difficulty 20. He tried it three times during the game and only made it once.

At one point, their frustration was so intense, one of them joked the game should be called “full-time mortals”.

A pantheon of your own

The default assumption of the game is that the PCs are part of the same pantheon, which “rules” a city. This is accomplished by their territory. A god has a connection to the area in which he lives that grows progressively until it reaches another gods’ territory. If they decide to rule their domains together, they mix.

In a small town, having a single pantheon might work, but in big cities like New York, London or Rio de Janeiro (where I based my playtest) that might be stretching credibility (I know, it’s a game about gods, for crying out loud). What I mean is, I would have liked more information on handling multipantheon cities or what happens when wandering gods come into your town.

Also, since gods can sense other Spark-wielders within a 1-mile radius, I think it’s only natural that a pantheon should have at least a working knowledge of all the supernaturals in their territory. Although the book treats this beings as competition or potential threats, it stands to reason there must be some kind of “divine ecology” in a city. Not everybody with a Spark is a god and so shouldn’t automatically trigger a defense response from the PCs.

Playtest: At one point during the adventure, the characters wanted to have more information about their opposition and what they were seeking. More specifically, they wanted magically-obtainable information. None of them had appropriate contacts, but it seemed natural they would know where to find a Seer (a human who absorbed a fraction of a Spark and now has visions of the future). So I gave them a Knowledge roll to find one.

Clash of titans

Combat is pretty straight forward. The base mechanic is the same: Attribute + skill + d20 for attack, opposed by a similar roll for defense. If you hit, your damage is Base Damage + Maneuver damage + weapon damage.

Base Damage starts at zero. This confused me a lot, because although Base Damage is referenced often enough in the text, the book never flat out states this simple fact. So when I got to the combat section, I realized I had no idea what was the starting Base Damage of a character.

I flipped through a lot of pages, tried to back-engineer the value from the character sheets, devised a table that related attribute level to Base Damage, etc. After much head-scratching, I realized it was supposed to be zero. You can increase it by buying certain Gifts or Entitlements, like Body Builder and Colossal Size.

The Maneuver list is fairly complete and allows nice tactical options for combat. It includes variations on attack, special moves, reactions, grappling and set-ups. As I stated in the introduction, typos and incorrect information in this chapter can cause a certain confusion during play.

This section also includes rules for wealth, gear and vehicles.

Playtest: There were two combats during playtest. The first one had the entire cast against a single foe, Manolo (the minotaur), who held his own against the characters. I thought the combat dragged a bit, but at the time, I attributed that to the discrepancy in combat ability between Manolo (minotaurs are supposed to be tough) and the PCs, since not all the players invested in combat skills, because they were trying to be true to the “average people” concept of the game. The combat ended abruptly when one of the characters, growing restless with the stalemate, picked up a jackhammer and plunged it into Manolo’s chest, doing 8+ lethal damage and knocking him out.

The second combat had the characters facing a bunch of cultists (regular humans) armed with guns and knives. This battle dragged more than the first and I finally realized it had to do with damage. With Base Damage for most characters being zero and weapons like guns and knives having low damage ratings (3 and 1, respectively), fights become “chipping” contests, since a regular human can have a Health 12 – and that’s not counting Armor Rating (AR). Manolo, for example, had Health 30 and AR 2/1 (the first number is for non-lethal damage and the second one for lethal), which can turn a combat into a long affair.

The knockout rule -- taking 6 damage or half your total Health at one time calls for a Vigor + Fortitude test to remain conscious – can help with this, but it also depends on the average amount of damage the characters and their opponents are dishing out, as the first combat in my playtest showed.

Monsters and outsiders

The antagonists chapter is very good. It lists animals, mortals, Touched (those with Spark, but that aren’t gods, like the Seer), Outsiders, Pucks (gremlin-like agents of the Source), spirits and giants. They are presented in a condensed format that gives basic information, skills, combat stats, powers and payoff (the powers Puck-Eaters get from eating the creature).

No attributes are listed – skill and combat levels already include their value. So, if you need to know their level -- for example, for resisting a Manifestation --, you will have to eyeball it or back-engineer them from the skill ratings.

Like in other chapters, there are inconsistencies in the text. For example, average people is listed as having Health 8, Stamina 1 and Initiative +5, but according to the formulas given in the book, these should be 12, 3 and +6, respectively (assuming a 3 in all attributes).

The selection is quite good and I think you would be able to run a reasonably long campaign with only the creatures listed. I even got a Supernatural vibe from the entries, so you could even use this chapter as inspiration for other games, using DGS Lite or not.

The final chapter has GM advice and NPC gods: six of them described by blurbs and eight with full sheets. These are all based on contributors to the Kickstarter. I must say the fully-statted ones didn’t seem all that interesting, but the blurb ones were okay. Probably, because the latter were written by Lasanta and the former were just statted by him, based on the stories provided by the contributors, but I may be wrong on this.

Conclusion

PTG has an interesting premise, which is powered by a simple system that seems to perform its job competently enough, despite the whiff factor. However, there seems to be an excessive focus on containing the gods-related part of the game, as if allowing the characters to be a little more divine would detract from the gaming experience.

This can be extremely frustrating for the players; after all, the title of the game is Part-Time Gods. My players knew their characters would be regular mortals, but they thought that in their sphere of influence (Dominion), they would be far more competent and that’s not what happened.

In a way, it feels like you are playing supers in the real-world subgenre or even a Call of Cthulhu-type of game, where the PCs are normal humans who have access to low-level powers or spells that grant limited magical abilities. The book’s examples of part-time gods getting executed by mobsters or killed in car crashes only serves to reinforce the idea that these characters are not really that special.

According to Lasanta, he has no plans to publish supplements oriented toward higher power campaigns. His solution is to increase the points available at character creation, which can work. However, it would be nice to have some official guidance for this.

On the other hand, Lasanta’s actual play threads imply the game can be as quite cinematic, so this playtest experience might be due to the particularities of my group and I. Hopefully, this review will give you enough material to make up your own opinion.

STYLE: 3

SUBSTANCE: 3

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