In the past, I have talked some about my discovery of Numenera. How with the first reading, I didn’t really understand what I held in my hands. It was only with time and play and immersing myself in both the design thought process (for the mechanics) and the narrative (for the setting) that I truly found myself in awe of the profound kind of storytelling that was possible with that game. Invisible Sun occurred much the same way. But with both of these, the first feeling was that sense of, “Even though I’m not sure I understand it, I’m looking at/holding something amazing. Something that is right up my alley.” This week’s review, Defiant by Katarzyna Kuczyńska & Marcin Kuczyński of Game Machinery is another one of those games.
Funded by Kickstarter on July 15, 2021, Defiant is a roleplaying game about the Apocalypse. In it, you play those who are standing up to the titanic forces trying to end the world and defending the humans and the small slices of civilization that have been saved through the use of mystical relics called Sephira. The game seems part World of Darkness, part Forged in the Dark, and part FATE with a very distinct adult flavoring to it. Be forewarned, there are adult themes throughout the game, though, explicit content is not required for this game.
Manufacturing & Production
As much as I would like to say I have physical productions in my hands like the world closer to Europe, I don’t. We are patiently awaiting both our standard copy and our collector’s edition. The pictures and feedback I have seen, however, are that the books are excellent in production. What I do have are the completed PDF files, both the layout that the printed book is derived from and the ‘reader-friendly’ (tablet, phone, computer) version. The latter is bookmarked and hyperlinked well and is easy to read. The font choice for both is excellent. The artwork is extremely evocative and shows its World of Darkness (particularly Vampire: the Masquerade) roots well despite being themed for the game that Defiant actually is.
Defiant, the Roleplaying Game falls very firmly into the narrative end of the mechanic-narrative spectrum on most issues. That is not to say that there are no dice mechanics – there are. Just that a large portion of the material presented seems to be there to support a more narrative style of storytelling and play. Dice rolls are “singular” and are called for less often than in many other games that I’ve played and run. In Defiant, the characters play one of four types of creatures that, for reasons of their own, are resisting the apocalypse.
The first, are angels. These are characters that have rejected the heavenly imperative to cleanse the world after receiving a taste of humanity’s emotions, pleasures, and even pains. Deciding that it was worth fighting for, they stood up to their brethren and former Master and fought on the side of the humans. It was not many of them and it was a losing cause. Angels, however, loved fighting for lost causes when they felt they were right. It was then that they discovered the Daeva. The Daeva were descendants of the gods and goddesses of this world. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse, and others. It was the Daeva who had access to the Sephira, powerful relics that could protect a specific geographic area. The Sephira were powered by the local devotion of those who knew about them. Each had its own needs, and so the Daeva and the Angels were given their new commandments and they followed them, feeding the Sephira and thus protecting pockets of the world.
Then came the Leviathans, great beasts from primordial old. Dragons and monsters. They had been saved for the destruction that would come about at the end. But there were those among them who, like the angels, wished for more. They too pledged loyalty to the Sephira. Finally came the demons. Locked away in Hell, they had been condemned to torture the souls of the damned, mostly against their will. Some, however, have found a way to escape during the chaos of the apocalypse. The lucky among those found their way to the sanctuaries of the Sephira. They too pledged their service, not wanting to go back.
Character creation in Defiant is something of a different proposition than any other game we’ve played. The creators have opted for a card mechanic that can be either random or player-chosen. The whole process involves choosing a series of cards that give background into who your character is as well as providing them with unique ways to interact with the game world via questions. They also describe how each Defiant character relates to their Court and their spouse considering that they are all “nobility” in the city in which they reside. Think of the spouse as similar to a “henchman” NPC that you might find in another game only with much more narrative clout and much bigger consequences for ignoring them than is typical for such a character.
The game is designed to be episodic. Much like Star Trek or the short-lived Vampire: the Masquerade Television show of 1996, Kindred: the Embraced, a series of episodes makes up a season that will generally have a semi-continuous story arc or story arcs. Such story arcs will focus on the defiant and their relationships with each other. Even with the apocalypse raging outside the protective aura of the Sephira, the Defiant still have personal agendas that come into conflict with one another. Power is still an incredibly powerful draw and coin, and even though money is not particularly an object of concern, there may be issues that cannot be solved by throwing money at them. While combat can occur in various situations, it is much more unlikely to be a focus in the story than other types of interactions. This is by design.
One of the other unique mechanics is the mechanic surrounding a currency known as Shards. Shards allow a character to either directly influence a dice roll (by changing the actual die used to cause a higher chance of success) or directly influence the narrative in a way that benefits them. These are regained through a narrative mechanic that differs by character type and is tied to the narrative of the world in interesting ways as opposed to “a long rest” or “the beginning of the next session”.
Defiant makes use of clock-like concepts that are also found in games like Ironsworn or that are Forged in the Dark to give some structure to longer-term goals the characters might have. Because the game is quite a bit different than many that are currently on the market, the book contains two chapters for the GM which are particularly helpful efforts on the side of the designers. One of the things they did in the chapter on preparing the game which I have never seen done before personally is that they tried to break down what you should prepare with how experienced you are at GMing Defiant. So as you get more proficient in running the game, they progressively show you how to add more complexity to your game, but for those that are just starting, they try not to overwhelm you.
The biggest critique I have after reading through the bulk of this book is not really anything to do with the game system. It’s also not something that is very easy to put into words. The book feels like it has everything it needs, but it doesn’t feel easy to find. I’m not entirely sure if this is because the designers are non-native English speakers or this is their first time organizing a TTRPG book or what. As I said, I don’t think there are any “rules gaps”, but it doesn’t seem like all the things needed to play are in one place. Like there’s too much jumping around to grasp a particular concept. (I said it was not going to be easy to put into words). I don’t know that anyone else is going to have that issue. It may not be an issue when I’m reading the physical copy. The fact that the electronic book is searchable helps immensely. But for me anyway, while the chapters felt like they flowed correctly, the content in them did not seem to flow with the same ease. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure how to fix that.
Defiant is a tabletop roleplaying game by Game Machinery out of Poland. A game in a unique setting that somehow feels similar to others like the World of Darkness line, Defiant is a game that both Joann and I have anticipated for a while. We are not disappointed. There are quite a few concepts in this game that are new to us and have challenged some of the ways we looked at game mechanics and game design. For that alone, the purchase was worth it. It will be interesting to find ways to try and play this game in the future with a group that we trust to dive into some of the more adult themes of the game. If games like Vampire: the Masquerade interest you or you are looking to explore a more adult-themed TTRPG, Defiant may be a game you would like to try. For more information on this style of gaming, we actually had a discussion with one of the creators from Game Machinery on Angel’s Citadel’s Lounge last month. Go check it out, and happy gaming!
- Josh Walles