Review of Mystic Empyrean

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

October 15, 2012


by: Peter Johansen


Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

A collaborative world-building game that will delight the creative. Everway meets Nobilis, Kingdom Hearts meets American Gods, Mystic Empyrean gives you just the right tools for any world you can imagine.

Peter Johansen has written 2 reviews, with average style of 4.50 and average substance of 4.00. The reviewer's previous review was of Battle Map.

This review has been read 2819 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Mystic Empyrean
Publisher: Level 99 Games
Line: The Balance: Mystic Empyrean
Author: D. Brad Talton Jr.
Category: RPG

Cost: $14.99
Pages: 228
Year: 2011

ISBN: 978-1-936920-03-7


Review of Mystic Empyrean


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The spiritual inheritor to Everway, Mystic Empyrean is, at its core, a shared world-building game. The characters are Eidolons, "ones who wear their souls as a skin". Together, they discover, or perhaps re-discover, a world that has been shattered by catastrophe.

 

Empyrean is available as a hardcover book for $59.99, PDF for $14.99, or an enhanced iPad app for $19.99. The iPad app contains the contents of the main book, along with an integrated Balance tool and searchable index. However, a comparison between the PDF and the iPad app revealed that the app was missing quite a few key explanations that are present in the PDF, so I cannot recommend it at this time. You will also need a Balance deck of some kind, more on that to come.

 

What's this all about?

Chapter 1 gives an overview of the world of Empyrean and its inhabitants in the broadest strokes possible. The Grand Cornerstone, the pivot point on which the entire world rests, has been shattered by a sudden surge of "anti-creation" force called Aether. The various splinters left behind each contain a portion of creation, either a new land, concept, or paradigm. The result is a fragmented world; small pockets of creation awaiting rebirth.

 

The player characters, called Eidolons, are forces of Anima, the essence of creation. The choices that they make and the way they act define them, in both their appearance and their abilities. What this means is that the way you play your character, they gain not only new cool powers, but it also changes their very appearance.

 

This chapter contains a few more general flavors of the major players in Empyrean, including the various factions that Eidolons belong to and the Great Spirits of Anima. There was just enough material here to give me an idea of what to expect, and I wanted to learn more. While it wasn’t immediately obvious what Eidolons do all day just from reading this chapter, there’s enough overview to give a general flavor of the game.

 

So, how do you play?

Chapter 2 describes the basics of how worldbuilding works, as well as the basics of Empyrean's unique resolution system, called the Balance. There are seven elements in the world: Fire, Light, Air, Electricity, Stone, Water, and Darkness. Any action that you would take is linked to these elements. To see if you succeed, you draw a card from the Balance deck. Simple, right?

 

Well, there's more. First of all, the contents of the Balance deck depend on what realm you're in. If you're in a realm with a lot of Fire energy, actions linked to Fire are more likely to succeed (aggression, force, anger, etc.) There are more Fire cards in the deck. There may also be Pure Anima and Aether cards in the deck, which are automatic success and failure cards, respectively. Depending on what you draw, you can get different degrees of success or failure. If you attempt a Fire action, such as swinging a sword, and pull a Light card, you have an Outside Success, since Light is one step away from Fire on the elements wheel. This is a "yes, but..." result. An Electricity card, which is two steps away from Fire on the wheel, is an Neutral Success, a "no, but..." result. The more points you have in an element, the more draws you get to make. So there is an element of risk and decision that makes things much more exciting, especially since an Aether stops your drawing cold with a Failure. ("No, and...")

 

Balance decks are for sale from Level 99 Games' web story for $12, or you can make your own if you have the resources. You'll need a total of nine different colors or suits, and seven of each color. If you don't like cards, glass beads or wooden cubes in a bag work fine, or you can just print your own Balance cards.

 

The last few pages of this chapter gives advice on how to make your worldbook, and the game thoughtfully includes template pages for you to copy. There are also a few words on creating a seed world, a jumping off point for the first adventure, a welcome addition to a game that is fundamentally about worldbuilding.

 

 

Chapter 3 is the character creation chapter. Once again, the game emphasizes "you are what you act". They way you play your character, as judged by your fellow players, changes his own personal Balance (which affects how many draws you get to make for each element), your powers, and your appearance. For example, if I play my Eidolon in a way that is Relentless, I get the trait called "Endless Knives", which is linked to that type of personality. This gives me another point of Fire, and my skin takes on a metallic sheen that can produce any type of metal weapons that I could want. Neat, huh?

 

The more you play up a personality, the more powerful that trait becomes. So as the trait gets stronger, I can make more weapons that last longer in other people's hands. There are eighty-eight total traits defined in the book, but it's easy to make your own. Living Mystic Empyrean, the website for the game's community, has plenty of other contributors.

 

Beyond the usual fluff of background and concept, the only other thing you need are creeds, the core beliefs that make up the Eidolon's morality. Fans of Burning Wheel will feel right at home here, as the game encourages you to challenge your creeds whenever possible. Putting creeds into play also makes conflicts much more deadly, as violating them can cause an Eidolon to become fractured, and his traits shaken up suddenly and unpleasantly.

 

 

Chapter 4 covers the basic exchange of making a scene as part of the story. The players ask and answer establishing questions in a round-robin style, until there enough detail for the characters to take action. The player who initially set the scene becomes the GM for the scene, and the other players attempt to resolve the scene, whether it is a conflict, puzzle, or social situation. The success or failure of the character's actions depends on draws from the Balance, and play continues until the GM decides that the scene is sufficiently resolved. The GM also gets to take an action on his turn, which is called Escalation. There really aren't many rules here, such as how many successes or failures it takes to "win" or "lose". People looking for stringently-defined rules here will be disappointed.

 

Eidolons can also spend some of the points from their own Balance to give themselves automatic success. This takes away that point from the character temporarily, and adds it to the Balance. It tips the scales, if you would, and gives the players some ability to mess with a realm's balance for a while.

 

 

Chapter 5 deals with cornerstones, and the realms they contain within them. This chapter deals mainly with the art of building new realms to explore. There are a plethora of lists of various terrain types, technologies, cultures, natural wonders, and other details to make things easier than just coming up with stuff off of the top of your heads. The book also gives you advice on how to populate your new realm with encounters, something that will definitely come in handy. Finally a total of 21 points are spent on the seven main elements to make the realm's Balance. A pacifistic realm may have very little Fire, but a militaristic one may have a lot. Extra Pure Anima or Aether cards can be added in to make things more interesting.

 

Cornerstones can hold other things besides realms. The players can also find Paradigms, which add new mechanics that affect the way Eidolons interact with the world. These new mechanics may include switching to a dice-based resolution, shifting around an Eidolon's personal Balance, or adding new technologies to all realms. The players can also discover Conceits, pieces of Old Empyrean that have been lost since the shattering. These are special advantages to make them stronger, such as adding a Pure Anima card to their Balances, or gaining the ability to alter the terrain. I found these to be a nice touch, nothing so powerful as to be unbalancing if not checked. It gives the players more power to change the game up to better suit their evolving needs, especially once their world grow beyond the first couple of realms.

 

How to Craft your game:

Would you believe we're not even halfway through the book yet? While we've established the ground rules for the game, the next fifteen pages discuss the intricacies of storytelling in Empyrean, and how to build a good foundation. The outlines of starting scenarios for the game, as well as tips to guide character development and encounter construction to make a better long-term plot. There are also other ways to run the game, such as setting the action before the destruction of the Grand Cornerstone, or making Eidolons summonable by certain people in the real world, if you'd rather dispense with the setting as presented in the book.

 

The book also includes a sample realm in great detail. Nitar, a steampunk city inhabited by several Eidolons and Eidolon-related factions, gives lots of opportunity for interaction in an Eidolon-based society. The mines below the city and the ruins Nitar is built upon give room for exploration and conflict. Included are several tables full of dungeon encounters for exploring the mines, steam vaults, and ruins below. It's a well-detailed example that shows you what is possible, though hopefully most realms don't need twenty-five pages worth of detail.

 

This is not to say that the realms you make need to be so top-heavy. When making a new realm, it's better to start with just a basic outline, and allow it to grow organically as you explore, adding things as you go along.

 

A long section on persona traits and their associated abilities comes next, followed by lists of magical items, blank planning sheets to copy, encounter generation tables, and materials created by Empyrean's kickstarter supporters.

 

The Verdict:

While a rotating GM-ship and an emphasis on collaboration and worldbuilding may not be everyone's cup of tea, Empyrean does a good job of giving you the tools you'll need to make your own realms as well as adventures to have in them. It presents something cool without excessively reinventing the wheel. The artwork was pleasing and the layout was readable. The main rules themselves don't take too long to comprehend, but since everyone will be wearing the GM hat at some point, as deeper understanding is advisable, which may make for a steeper learning curve. The innovative Balance mechanic was the best style selling point for me, but it may take a bit of experimentation to get used to both the mechanic and the style of play. 4 out of 5 for style.

 

Mystic Empyrean may help you scratch your itch for a multiverse exploration game in the style of Everway or Kingdom Hearts, or it may be what a Nobilis or crunch-weary Exalted player is looking for. Either way, the book does a good job of helping you on your way to discover new worlds and adventures. There's a surprising amount of content for a game based on creating your own world. Those who need that extra help will find it useful, and those who don't can easily disregard it. 5 out of 5 for substance.

 

 

 

 

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