It was years ago that I first ran into White Wolf’s Exalted. Having never been much of a fan of their “horror” games (the exceptions being Mage and Hunter), I had, however picked up Æon (prior to it being renamed Trinity after the whole Viacom/MTV lawsuit against White Wolf in 1997 – I still have the original special edition of that book before the stickers they sent retailers to “fix” the issue) and enjoyed some of the depth of setting concepts. When I first encountered Exalted, it felt very much like what I enjoyed about Æon except, like the former, I could never really get excited about the rule system. To me, the Storyteller system wanted to be a narrative game, but it still felt saddled with too many rules.
Fast forward to about a year and a half ago when I first joined the Cypher Unlimited Discord. There was a channel for Gods of the Fall and as I was poking around the server, I found my way in there. I didn’t really know anything about it at the time, but after looking at it on the Monte Cook site I placed it in my Wishlist for later determination (That’s something I often do – let purchases percolate for a while if I’m on the fence. I ended up buying Invisible Sun after over a year of that…). Eventually, I picked up the PDF. When I finally got around to reading it, I found, what in my mind, is a grittier, raw-er version of Exalted, which instantly appealed to me. I STILL have not actually played this game, but it’s pretty high on my to-do list when I get some breathing room.
One of the first non-Numenera samples of what has become “standard” Monte Cook Games layout, for whatever reason, the look of the product “feels” rougher. Not being a layout and design guy, I’m not exactly sure I could put my finger on why. The artwork is excellent, and very much evokes the feeling of powerful and expansive character influence that is the basis for the lore of the world. I enjoy the color scheme as well (and am a big fan of purple). But overall, something just feels like it doesn’t “gel” as well with this layout as it does with many of the later ones. Perhaps that is just personal aesthetic, however. The production quality of the book itself is, as usual, excellent, and it feels both sturdy and long-lasting. The map by Jared Blando is both an interesting style choice and evocative as well.
Part 1 of this sourcebook gives a fairly lengthy introduction to the world of Eleantar, where Gods of the Fall takes place, inclusive of many of the things you would expect to find in a typical fantasy worldbook for a tabletop roleplaying game (brief setting immersion of player characters, history, geography, magic overview, language, religion, etc…). The second chapter is a brief piece of fiction to add some flavor as you dive into the second part of the book, with details the setting.
Eleantar is, in point of fact, a remarkably grim and dark setting. The bulk of the world is a people without hope. And in place of hope, what has arisen is rampant human self-interest and cruelty. Corso in particular has a desperate, gritty feel to it as-described. It simply cries out for heroes as it is crushed under a corrupt and inhumane regime. Most of the time, when I read setting information in a roleplaying book, my interest is “abstract” or perhaps “third-person”. “This would be an interesting setting to play a character in.” Reading this setting, however, I wanted to be that hero. And I don’t often say things like that about a roleplaying setting. That is in my mind, very much a credit to Bruce Cordell’s ability to craft worlds that cause people to feel. It is one of the many reasons I enjoy his work.
With seventy pages of setting, covering both the Nightland, a foreboding, dangerous territory, and that under the sun, the Ruinscape and the Verge, Gods of the Fall spans a vast spectrum of cultures, lifestyles, and potential adventure types. Very much like other setting portions in other Monte Cook Games offerings (such as Numenera), there is just enough detail here to give you a feel for both a particular place and the differences between locations to get a GM started without being so descriptive as to feel encyclopedic in its cannon. There is plenty of room for a GM, even an avid worldbuilder, to breathe, and that, to me, is one of the hallmarks of good product now.
Part 3 dives into the rules of Gods of the Fall. Because it was written some time ago, the book refers to the original Cypher System Rulebook rules, rather than the Revised Cypher System Rulebook, although, you can and should use the latter. Chapter 9 discusses the unique concerns behind GMing player characters who are Deities (or perhaps, Deity in embryo). The character types follow in Chaper 10, and here Bruce has already used the type flavoring mechanic presented in the core rules to adjust the base types to fit the setting. While this is not only handy to save time, it is also a great example of one way to look at doing so for your own custom Cypher System games. It is, in fact, (along with Predation) the model we are using at Angel’s Citadel to build for Hope’s Horizon.
Chapter 11 contains two new Racial Descriptors, six new thematic Descriptors (that fit with the theme of Gods and Domains and morality), and a list of thematically appropriate Foci from the core Cypher Rulebook plus four new foci specifically for this setting. Chapter 12 discusses the unique rules for this setting: Dominion. As the PCs are Gods in Embryo, they take on aspects that they become deities of (much like Poseidon was Lord of the Sea or Zeus was the God of Lightning). These Dominions help to focus a PCs advancement and provide thematic plot potential as they increase in power through a variant of the optional Power Shifts rule (Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 292) called Divine Shifts that can replace a Tier ability after they meet that tier’s Obligation (Gods of the Fall, page 137 – 142). These are like permanent, free levels of Effort that are always active for different classes of activities in the game (such as attack rolls). Chapter 13 gives some setting-specific equipment that can, just as easily, be taken and dropped into a generic fantasy setting fairly easily.
Part 4 closes up with a Chapter 14 on Creatures and NPCs in typical Monte Cook Games bestiary fashion. Chapter 15 deals with Cyphers and Artifacts, here flavored as the shattered shards of the gods’ fallen realm. Chapter 16 finishes with an adventure in what is the shortened style of Numenera’s Weird Discoveries (which preceded Gods of the Fall) or Explorer’s Keys (which came after). Finally, at the back, there is a glossary of terms that are unique to the book as well as a brief timeline to bring a GM or player up to speed on what has happened in the history of the world up to now and when.
From the standpoint of an examination of book quality and product, aside from my earlier comment about the layout not seeming to “gel”, I really don’t have criticism to offer in the case of Gods of the Fall. Perhaps after playing it, that would be different, and if it is, I will be sure to come back and update this post with said critique. But for now, I would suggest that as a whole, this is an excellent product and both Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook Games should be exceptionally proud of what is there. The only thing I might add would be another adventure or two in the same style. While expecting an expansive adventure like many of those included in the core Numenera rulebooks might be too much to ask, another adventure or two in the “short” style would potentially offer GMs more angles to introduce players to this intriguing world.
Gods of the Fall by Bruce Cordell is an excellent example of the type of interesting setting that you can use the Cypher System rules to build. With excellent worldbuilding, supported by interesting and thematic rules customization, the kinds of PCs you can build feel unique to the setting and different from every other setting. As a blueprint then, the book is an excellent resource for GMs who wish to use Cypher to create their own fully realized setting but who may be uneasy or unsure of how to practically apply some of the customization levels available in the Cypher System for both characters and setting. As a setting, it offers a very unique feel, one that excites me. I cannot wait to bring Gods of the Fall to my table (virtual or otherwise) and begin exploring fallen Eleantar. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles