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Kismet's Review of Defiant by Game Machinery

 

Defiant CoverOriginal Cover of Defiant

Some Disclaimers

Key Takeaways

Defiant is a modern supernatural soap opera, and yes that can be a good thing.

I backed the Kickstarter and took over editing it.

I haven't run it yet, but I aim to.

What It Is and What It Isn't

First things first: Defiant isn't a high-fantasy game in a medieval setting. It's a modern urban fantasy soap opera, and before you give up on this review, check this out: I mean that in the best ways, and you might already be more into "that kind of game" than you think. If you figure there's no way soap operas could be good for a roleplaying game, keep reading. Defiant is concerned with players feeling powerful, keeping stories fresh, and building scenes with exciting tension, whether they're combat-oriented or not. What gamer isn't interested in these things?

The next thing you should know is that Defiant has its own system (based on 3d6) and develops its own setting. Some have heard it's an urban fantasy game with angels and demons and dismissed it as a World of Darkness knock-off, but from the ground up, Defiant is quite different. (Believe me, I've spent nearly 30 years with the various editions of WoD; if it were just a knock-off, I'd know it and say so.) The creators are open about the games that have influenced them most, but they weren't just copying others. I'm glad to report that Defiant creates its own mythology, character types, and experience.

My Involvement

You should know I've already gotten more involved with Defiant than I originally bargained for. I backed Game Machinery's Kickstarter for an updated core book. When the original version was released for review, I was determined to read the whole thing. But I'm also an English professor in Real LifeTM, so I began compulsively editing grammatical concerns as I went through it. Overall, the writing was good, but there were patterns of error that weren't that difficult to fix. I asked the creators if extended edits were welcome because I didn't want to seem discouraging. They know more than one language well, which isn't something I can boast. Marcin was quite friendly in response. He eventually offered me an editing credit, special status on their Discord server, and a copy of the limited edition rulebook as gifts, which I grateful accepted. I didn't ask for payment; I wanted to help a small gaming company and have a project for my spare time. I didn't get to fix every possible thing, but overall, the text is clear and orderly.

That being said, I haven't prepared or run a Defiant game yet. I've read the entire book more than once, and there's a base setting provided, but so far, I haven't had the time or energy to pull a game together. I've promised myself that I'll do so, and I really want to. That means this review is based on impressions and not actual played experiences. Whenever I finally get to run it, I'll update this overview, because nothing teaches you what a game is really like better than active experience.

I wasn't paid or asked to write a review, let alone an extended one, but I'm doing it because I like what I've read. I also want to let folks know what they're in for because it won't appeal to every taste, but it could be just what some gamers are looking for.

The Kickstarter Campaign

Key takeaways

Game Machinery published the core book in 2020, then ran a Kickstarter to improve it.

They've made good progress and kept up solid communication.

I'd never heard of Defiant before I stumbled across a Kickstarter for it in mid-2021. The game was originally released on DriveThruRPG in 2020 as a PDF-only core book. I thought it was cool that they altered royalty-free art to fit their aesthetic and supernatural types (I once ran my own Patreon and tried that, but was never much good at it). The two creators wanted to revise the book's layout, art, and text and have it printed, so they created a Kickstarter. Having followed a number of small game companies, I knew that the costs weren't small, so a running Kickstarter made a lot of sense. As a gamer, I was impressed by their dedication: they released their flagship product during a hellish year and were dedicated to improving it in just about every way.

As rewards, they offered extras like a screen-friendly edition, a limited edition, and PDF gaming aids . For stretch goals, they offered pieces of new content, but not too many. One of the creators, Kate (Katarzyna Kuczyńska), was a game designer on the first two Witcher games. Martin (Marcin Kuczyński) was a host on a Polish podcast. It was their first Kickstarter but they'd already shown they could deliver a hefty core book, so I joined in. The campaign was a success and there's been steady progress. As of February 2022, one of the stretch goal segments (Birthright) has been released to backers and on DriveThruRPG, along with the updated version of the core book, which has been sent to the printers. They've been responsive on Discord and enthusiastic and professional the whole time.

Characters

Key Takeaways

Characters start out gorgeous and powerful.

They're royal supernaturals who saved pockets of Earth from the ongoing Apocalypse.

Characters are mostly randomly generated, with some choices thrown in.

Sex and romance are part of the blend, but not graphic.

The main point is to find out who your character is.

The mechanics can be simple, if you want that.

One of the distinguishing features of Defiant is that the creators know exactly what they want to produce. They've carefully considered the reasons for their choices, and they aren't shy about telling you what they intend and why. One cornerstone of their philosophy is that players want to play powerful characters, so why not let them do that from the start? The PCs should be above the norm and able to focus on what really interests them. Have you ever noticed on soap operas that doctors and lawyers never seem to work, unless it's important for the story? Defiant embraces that principle, and I think there's some real merit to it. There are times when gamers want to struggle through everything, and times when they want to be badasses. Defiant is a good choice when you're in the latter mode.

What makes the Defiant so special? First, they're supernatural beings (Angels, Infernals, relatives of old gods called Daeva, and monsters known as Leviathans) who refused to destroy the world during the end of times. Working together, they managed to create pockets of safety from the rest of the Apocalypse (cities called Domains). They've reincarnated into mostly mortal bodies to keep their Domains safe and partake of earthly pleasures. Mortals are flimsy compared to the lowest Defiant, and player characters are a step above the rest: they're all Royals with a great deal of power over their own Courts. Like soap opera characters, they're all beautiful and strong, with some wealth and responsibilities thrown in.

The Experience

The creators are clear about this: the main point of Defiant characters isn't to level up cool powers or hoard magical loot, it's to discover who they are. They forgot most of their wartime lives so they could enjoy the fruits of the labors. They suggest that groups use a randomized method for character creation. Several types of cards (such as personal theme and court cards) are printed out. For each type, cards are shuffled and players make choices based on the hands they're dealt (or are asked to choose from what's presented). From that point, players choose traits or define their current situation on the cards' directions. (A GM with a single player is encouraged to let that player choose all of their options, but that's an exception, not the norm.)

While player characters don't have to be newly awakened, there's a lot they probably don't know a lot about who they are, how they feel, and what they want. This is a feature, not a bug. The challenge is to build not just your character's fortunes but also their identity based on your early choices and reactions to the game's events. Depending on the traits you choose, you could end up being surprised often by the directions you take. Along the way, you'll probably pay more attention to your character's beliefs, choices, and goals. This sound pretty abstract right now, but it seems like it will come out during play because of how everything is designed.

Some Caveats for Players

There are a few problems gamers may have with Defiant characters. First, all Royals are married and will likely stay that way. The basic assumption is that your character will already be married to a lower-standing Defiant NPC. Since these marriages are often arranged by others, one of the challenges is trying to govern your realm with - or despite - this person and your mutual feelings. They won't take center stage every session, but it's dangerous to ignore one's spouse. They don't have as much power, but they can cause trouble the PC will be forced to deal with. But here's the thing: romance and offspring are entirely optional. Marriages can end up as purely platonic relationships. And the book has a section which discusses many different kinds of marital relationships, if you want guidance. Either way, this relationship is meant to be ongoing, nuanced, and interesting, not a burden or embarrassment.

Some gamers might be uncomfortable with the references to sex and romance in the book. Although they're not graphic or constant, seduction, sexual activity, naughty desires, hints of kink - these aspects don't need mechanics but they're present. They motivate characters and are used in examples. Some artwork and examples show gay relationships, though most represent male-female pairings. There are gender-inclusive titles (you can be called Lord, Lady, or Liege, for instance). This doesn't mean your characters have to stay in bed all session, like soap opera characters do during certain episodes. You can use as much or as little reference to romance as you want. The game encourages the use of line and veil cards whenever anyone has a problem with something that comes up in the game; it just won't be easy to ignore these things when using the book.

Players might also balk at having to rule a Court. Not all players want that kind of responsibility; some just want to handle one character's concerns and don't care for leadership or politics. This aspect is a bit more difficult to get around because the game presumes you'll have your own Court and want to influence it. But there's a system for running Court scenes that can make it easier to handle. The GM can help guide your focus by asking only a couple of thought-provoking questions. The GM could have you simply roll a Court Challenge and see how things shake out, or they might ask you to play through a short scene. Either way, in a group game, only so much time is going to be spent on Court business, and you could tell your GM that you're not interested in playing out your own Court scenes. With any luck, though, your GM will introduce NPCs and intrigues that catch your interest.

Because character creation is relatively simple, without much math (since traits are descriptive rather than numeric), this system could be a great way for new GMs and players to start a game quickly. Players upgrade their base dice pool of 3d6 based on how many of their Traits apply to their approach when it comes time to roll dice for a challenge. At most, you can end up with 3d10, so it seems like the base mechanic will be easy once you get used to it. GM call for challenges when real risks involved; otherwise, the characters might already have what it takes to succeed. If you want a more mechanical experience, call for more challenges; if not, one challenge can resolve multiple actions taken to achieve a stated goal. There's also a section with guidance for common situations - again, a boon for new players and GMs, and those new to Defiant.

Setting

Key Takeaways

Only the local environment matters.

There's no real info about the rest of the world or practical concerns.

You're not playing to stop the Apocalypse; you're playing to enjoy the moment.

Defiant has a stubbornly local focus. The remaining safe havens can't contact each other, so each is its own island. There's a mystical effect that leads mortals to believe everything is normal, the rest of the world exists as it used to, and the forces of the Apocalypse don't exist, it's called the Carnival because just a ruse. There is no world stage to worry about anymore; there are no global organizations or politics. You're locked in with locals you'd best learn to live with. If you make it beyond the boundary of the Domain, you're dead. But inside the Domain, as long as the mystic seals known as Sephirot are charged, there are blue skies, fun times, and plentiful supplies.

Despite the ongoing Apocalypse, this isn't a game about saving the world; in fact, the setting actively resists that type of story. Characters may have to push back incursions of Apocalypse agents and creatures from time to time, but that's as far as it goes. There's no support for marshalling forces to roll out in hopes of ending the destruction. It's heavily implied that hopes of winning the war are largely over. There's no knowing how long it will take for the Apocalypse to destroy the rest of the planet or if that will have any effect on the protected Domains. There's no starting year given; only recent local history really matters. It's party time at the end of history, so you might as well make the best of it.

Everyday practical concerns are largely ignored, which may irk GMs who enjoy those details. In Defiant, the Carnival effect is never well defined, and that's entirely on purpose. How do the local mortals keep getting enough food if there's no farmland left? The local Sephira provides it somehow. Maybe pallets show up in trucks that never really leave the area. What happens when mortals supposedly travel for work? Maybe they turn right around and head home, with everyone believing they were gone for a while. The book doesn't say because, as with soap operas, none of these things matter as long as the group doesn't care about them. If it becomes an issue, the GM can make a ruling or the group can decide to together.

The GM Side of The Equation

Key Takeaways

There are basic and advanced rules presented for GMs (not players).

It's assumed that GMs will do some prep, even if it's brief.

Episodes are organized into certain phases.

Successes are more than pass/fail.

The game is more player-driven.

Defiant is divided up into episodes (individual game sessions) and seasons (a number of sessions following a main arc). There are three levels of game mastery planned, but only two are covered in the main book. The basic level is just that: less detailed choices for the GM to make about a session, NPC, or story arc; advanced options are more detailed and take more time to prep. You can start with basic rules until you get the hang of things and incorporate advanced options whenever you wish; they're not mutually exclusive. This means that if you're swamped one week, you can fall back on what's simple and easy to remember, but if you start to get bored or have more time on your hands, you can use more advanced rules to challenge yourself.

Some Caveats for GMs

While the creators acknowledge that GMs can and will improvise certain things, the book assumes that the GM will do some prep at a few points in a season and not try to improvise everything. Given how structured things in Defiant can be, some prep will probably help. This could rub some GMs the wrong way, for a number of reasons. They may hate prep or not have much time to devote to it. But the creators lay out all the steps for different processes, give plenty of examples, and provide a lot of advice. There are also shortcuts, such as using basic methods instead of advanced ones. What you make will be creative without being math-heavy, and you'll have a lot of support as you go. If you're a new GM, looking to develop particular skills, and don't mind some structure, this could be a great system for you.

The creators present a structure for episodes: a prologue phase (summarizing the last session), a personal affairs stage (covering what the PCs did during the downtime since the last episode), a Court challenges phase (figuring out what's been up at each PC's Court), the first thread of story (where the characters get together to deal with an aspect of plot), some personal challenges (downtime after the first thread), the second thread of the story, and then an epilogue. You can split these phases between two episodes, if need be. A season takes between 5-8 episodes, during which the plot slowly emerges while the PCs are doing their own things. GMs are encouraged to ask questions and build from answers the players give. Players have opportunities to undertake projects they want to invest in (and there's an Endeavors system to see if they succeed at longer projects, which is nice).

When a character undertakes a challenge and rolls dice, only zero successes results in a complete failure (and some added complications). From there, the game offers degrees of success, leading up to getting what you wanted and then some. If you're using the advanced rules, you can offer players different choices based on what they rolled. There are reminders for GMs not to make players feel like their characters totally failed if they got a success. There are also reminders for GMs not to go against how players see their characters. The creators encourage GMs to let players shine when given the chance, and that can make them want to keep showing up at the table.

There are step-by-step instructions on how to craft engaging NPCs and story threads. The GM should create and present story threads, but players don't have to pursue them (there will be some consequences if they don't intervene, though). Player characters have special rules that allow players to shift scenes in certain ways; this gives players an active hand in developing the story. Players help keep track of things like the extended Endeavors system, and at any point during a session, the GM is encouraged to ask the players for help with making decisions if they feel stuck. These specifications might feel constraining to GMs who've been running a long time and have their own ways of doing things. They might also bother players who want to stick to their characters and leave matters of plot to the GM. The creators directly state that if you want to have the experience they intended, you should try to stick to their structures. I figure, there's no harm in giving it a real try, and you might learn things you can use in other games.

In the End, For Now

The book includes a sample Domain, complete with a good number of NPCs, some important locations, and two story arcs. One thing the authors do very well is provide clear examples of everything, not just for comprehension but for future reference. They also do well in reminding gamers that GMs don't have to shoulder so much on their own. Players can be creative, provide perspective, and offer encouragement. Although some groups won't need the safety rules (line and veil cards), other groups can benefit from them, especially when people don't know each other well yet. The book is easy to navigate, and the screen-friendly version has good bookmarks. All in all, I'm looking forward to seeing it in print and trying out its processes. It's nice that there are digital reference guides for players and new material to look forward to.

Because I don't know about anyone else, but I could certainly use some supernatural drama that has nothing to do with the real world right about now.

 

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