With the new Faith core book soon to grace our tables, Burning Games has set its sights on an ambitious new project that explores the nature of religion, conquest, and prejudice in visceral and direct ways. Dragons Conquer America, set during the Spanish conquest of America, is set to begins its Kickstarter on November 2nd. To entice us further, Burning Games has released a free preview of its rules, as well as a starter adventure, The Coatli Stone. This is a responsible and appreciated decision, which shows how far they have come with the game and helps the audience make an informed decision before deciding whether to back the Kickstarter. While this version of the game is just a teaser of things to come, the showing we have already is very promising.
The concept is as unique as it is engaging. The world of Dragons Conquer America (or DCA), is our own, changed by the prevalence of dragons as mounts and military units, and a more tangible presence of religion due to faith-based magic. In a thoughtful twist, history took very different turns because of the presence of these flying warmachines: Richard the Lionheart succeeded in sacking the Holy City, instead of dying to a crossbow bolt while limping home. Joan of Arc was never burned at the stake, a task made significantly more difficult when a young lady is seated astride a massive firebreathing monstrosity.
But this story does not take place in Europe. Rather, Dragons Conquer America sets its sights on the shores of the new world, in darkened jungles where the Conquistadors in fact found a thriving, vibrant, and very hostile civilization. While MezoAmerican dragons are fewer, the coatls are vastly more fearsome beasts. This setting is a fascinating one; where games have been inspired by the Aztec Empire, DCA takes us directly into its conflicts, with all the horror and human indifference that they contained. Not at the hands of the natives, mind you, but the European explorers who came to claim their land. You will have to contend not only with enemy invaders, but the dangers of a hostile environment along the way.
The designers, Spanish themselves, admit outright that their cultural heritage was based in this conquest, and set out to face that reality directly. Not only do they challenge you to face and learn about this period of time, but through the mechanism of roleplay gives you the chance to fight against it, even against the Conquistadors if you so choose. The setting includes actual places, people, and events as well as fantastical dragons. So far it appears to be a well considered adaptation of a time period rife with tragedy. The preview makes certain to explain common misconceptions about the history, showing respect for the human suffering that fueled them. It also grounds you in a setting, which helps gives you more tools to plan your game with. My personal knowledge of this time period is limited, but they seem to be representing the history as accurately as I can discern.
The actions of players during pre-written adventures shape the development of this narrative, as Garden in Hell promised to. I have reservations to this approach: As we saw with Legend of the Five Rings, a player-driven story can lead to inconsistency, and shatter the setting into routine yet catastrophic events. On the other hand, the choices might be false and binary, having little power to really effect anything.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Dragons Conquer America is its focus on prejudices and personal philosophy. Prejudice is directly integrated into the system. Each character has prejudices which can be used against them if encountered during roleplay. You will use your Tolerance stat to resist acting on those Prejudices, which is an interesting inclusion. It brings to the forefront that acceptance of new ideas takes effort, and varies from person to person. When you create a character you will be challenged not only to consider what they have trouble accepting but how well they are at overcoming those inclinations.
Prejudice is a touchy subject, and one that some people will not be comfortable with. Dragons Conquer America asks you not only to face racism, religious intolerance, and homophobia in others, but from within. You don’t play heroes in this game. You play human beings, with hatreds that threaten to drive them down the wrong path. On the one hand, this will mean dealing with sensitive topics directly, pushing players out of their comfort zones as a regular aspect of play. On the other hand, including something like homophobia directly encourages GMs to diversify their cast of NPCs, and makes players try to grapple with the nature of bigotry more closely.
Can this really be accomplished with a few simple game mechanics? Should we really try? The answer to those questions will have to wait until I write my full review of the system, and have a more full chance to play it myself.
The system as a whole is an adaptation of the one used in Faith: the Sci-fi RPG. Resolution is card based, although you will only use cards 1-6 from each suit, as well as jokers. It is strange that they have eliminated so many cards from a standard deck, and I’m sure using one of your own will take a few minutes of removing cards to get started. I am sure the impetus for this change was math based, to keep the numbers more contained and predictable. If that is the case, it will overall help the game succeed.
The concept is simple enough: you have a hand of seven cards, which you redraw at the beginning of each scene. For each action you play a card and add your relevant attribute, or if none of your cards give you confidence you can take a chance by drawing from the top of the deck. Your skill level denotes how many cards you can play per action. You can discard jokers to add a negative condition to an enemy or remove one from yourself. If you are creative with encounters, which include far more than just combat, this will make them memorable and illustrative experiences. You can create advantages and disadvantages narratively, so playing with your encounters will be very important to succeed.
Knowledge is its own skill, regardless of the particular type. I foresee a problem similar to those from the old d20 days, where players wanting to make knowledgeable characters will have to throw points away at an area that may not be useful while being forced to ignore the necessary skills. Rather than a normal tradeoff one makes when designing a character, which is bounded by the balance of the game, this creates an open ended sinkhole of character points for anyone who wants to play a certain type of character. Apart from skills, characters have specialized Talents once skills reach a high enough rank as well as positive and negative personal traits, including the aforementioned prejudices.
Advantages and disadvantages are plus or minus 3 modifiers to your action. This makes them powerful, perhaps too much so. While 3 is the average on a 1-6 scale, it means these modifiers will have a major stake in success or failure. It will take a bit of playtesting to determine how wise a decision it is to make the number this high. Advantages come not only from jokers but abilities, spells, or environmental factors, so it will be very important to make sure they are properly balanced.
Successes currently require a degree of precision I am not sure that GMs will be able to measure on the fly. Succeeding by 1 grants a Pyrrhic success, meaning that it comes with a consequence. In order to create suitable difficulty levels, GMs will have to be able to predict about how well characters should be able to succeed at certain goals. Currently the only suggested difficulties are 0, 3, 6, 9, 12. I hope that that Burning Games has done the work on this front, because in game I will need to be able to create difficulty levels on the fly multiple times, and make sure they are appropriate at all times.
NPCs consist of a few simple numbers and abilities, which make the game extremely easy to run, whether in or out of combat. This is nice, because combat is where things get more confusing. Each character may take one action per round, and you can forfeit that action to react to another’s action, by my reading. However, you receive a disadvantage if you use the same action more than once per round, raising the question of where these extra actions come from. It may be that you can react more than once or that abilities grant multiple actions, but I have not found that out yet. You can not only fight NPCs but TSEs: time sensitive events. When you are pressed for time you enter into a new initiative mode, which forces you to take tasks seriously, giving GMs new ways to make exploration and roleplay exciting.
Initiative is now a static value, set by your rank in the initiative skill. I don’t care for this method, which makes initiative guaranteed every round based on those numbers, without regard to what action you are taking or any amount of random chance. It makes encounters less dynamic while producing a lopsided skill that only has one use, however powerful it is. Combats take some realism into account, granting bonuses or penalties based on your Discipline skill and how many combattants of each faction are one each side. This addition not only makes combat more visceral, enforcing the themes of horror and survival so core to this game, but reminds you that human beings have very real fears of their own, and might incentivize allowing surrender rather than massacring the opposition.
However, the health system throws a wrench into these gears. Wounded characters begin bleeding out, and if they are still bleeding by the end of combat, they die. The unfortunate effect of this is that characters will be forced to prolong combats to treat allies, thus making for more dangerous situations when they need stability, or forcing players to murder enemies who are trying to surrender to them.
The four suits now represent situations, rather than environments from Faith. Thus, suits now grant bonuses or penalties not according to where a character is, but what their goal is, whether it is social, exploration, combat, or divine in nature. I appreciate this concept, but the designers will have to be careful to delineate when a given suit triggers or risk giving players massive bonuses for vast areas of gameplay.
If you prefer, you can use dice instead, but this seems like a fruitless endeavor. To use dice instead of decks of cards, you will need five separate colors of dice, four for each suit and one for the jokers. You will need three of each of these, per player, with the hopes that they will not be distinguishable by touch so that you can draw them from a bag without knowing their color.. I have a figurative ton of dice, but this would be a tall order for me to put together, and I anticipate very few people using the dice option due to the difficulty of gathering the requisite materials.
The quality of this early release is already very high. Translation issues are fewer than they were in the original Faith release, but sadly persist. A few odd grammatical errors are easy to find, but the most glaring issue is the preview’s consistent reference to Christianity as Christianism. I truly hope Burning Games can find an English writer to proofread the final version before release. It is the art that truly makes Dragons Conquer America stand out. Much like Faith: the Sci-fi RPG, there is a dedicated care put into each and every person, environment, and creature. Simply put, these lavish depictions of Aztec society might be the best art in the business. All you need do is look through the pages of this PDF and you will instantly be sent into the wilds of the Aztec Empire, hear the clanking of Spanish armor, and smell the pyrrhic breath of dragons flying overhead. There is no overselling how beautiful and thematic these pieces are.
One major aspect of Dragons Conquer America is religion, ironically moreso than it was in Faith: the Scifi RPG. Characters can do rituals specific to their faith to gain either a single spirit point or a larger number known only to the GM, determined by drawing a card from the top of the deck. This makes faith, very appropriately, an unknowable and dangerous mystery that players must use at their peril, and constantly work to maintain. Spirit points are used to fuel miracles, again specific to each faith, and using more spirit points than you actually possess grants corruption, which pulls you closer to the darkness your religion hopes to dispel.
If you gain enough corruption, you invite a demon into yourself, which you may begin to feed. The longer you go without noticing, the more powerful it becomes, making you more irritable and indecent until it finally consumes you and bursts forth, fully formed into the world. I really love this, and the fact that players must constantly keep themselves vigilant against the darkness. Some people won’t like having this control taken away from them, but I think it works excellently for the theme. You are slowly sliding downwards in your sanity, and not knowing exactly where you are on that trajectory helps. Only by properly and diligently observing your faith can you hope to escape this fate. On its own, corruption can allow the GM to inhibit you at appropriate times. This does not spend the corruption points, I believe, which hopefully will suggest to players that something unnatural is wrong (or make unlucky ones begin to blame superstition needlessly).
At the moment, we only have access to Christian powers and rituals, but the book promises that we will see MesoAmerican and other religions in future releases. Many of these powers are taken directly from scripture, or the actual sacraments of the faith. Broken into Old and New testament, they feel every bit the Christian miracles that you would imagine. New Testament miracles allow you to expel demons and empower your allies, while Old Testament ones grant the ability to strengthen yourself or summon giant creatures. Whether these are actually balanced comes down to playtesting, and it is difficult to say so far.
Even lower level magic is incredibly powerful, especially in a game so based on struggling to survive in a harsh environment. Where lack of food and water are a genuine threat, a simple Christian miracle of creating bread could save the lives of an entire expedition. So far we can already see that this is proving to be a creative and well considered way to make players engage with faith. It also explains why in game people would turn to darker, more horrific magics: a faster road to power. Either way, faith takes work, and I look forward to seeing players engage with real world belief systems while simultaneously rocking their awesome magical abilities.
As for the adventure itself, the Coatli Stone is fairly basic, but gives you a good basing in the setting, from the perspective of the native MesoAmericans. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that the consequences are clearly geared towards a larger adventure in the future. For those of you who are curious, I encourage you to check out this free preview. The Kickstarter is going on now, so check it out or go to Burning Games directly for more information.