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Legendary Lives Debrief

The Four R’s (Ross, Ron, Rod, and I) played through eighteen sessions of Legendary Lives, completing our run at the start of December. For background, this heroic fantasy rpg is one of the so-called Fantasy Heartbreakers that came out in the 1990s. There are still plenty corners of the game that I would love to explore, and that fact in itself is an indication of how good the game is. We could easily have played on for another eighteen sessions, but schedules and other commitments were weighing on us.  Though the game would richly reward more study, it is fair to say we put Legendary Lives through its paces and are in a good position to offer some measured judgments of its qualities. What follows are some notes I’ve put together in preparation for a debriefing session.

To begin, here are four of the game’s real strengths.

  • The rulebook is superb. Many rpg creators would benefit from studying the text of Legendary Lives as an example of clear, cogent writing. When you turn to a random page of the rules, the stylistic craft of Joe Williams and Kathleen Williams jumps out at you. The prose is consistently direct, engaging, and crystalline, without superfluous verbiage. The rules provide abundant concrete examples and advice, but all of this is measured and contained.

  • The resolution system shines both in concept and in play. Everything--magic use, combat, skill checks, exercises of abilities, etc.--involve a D100 roll which is then fed through an Action Results Table. The core mechanic is quite easy to get ahold of, and since all these resolutions are part of the same basic system, the players have no problem with it. At the same time, the system is quite nuanced: For resolutions, there are ten different levels of outcome ranging from Catastrophic to Awesome, and this prods the GM to add nuances and shades to the outcome. This results in some thoughtful and engaging roleplaying at the table. From a “history of rpg design” perspective, I’m curious about where Legendary Lives sits in terms of the multilevel resolution system. Are there other games of the era that offer this type of stepped system? 

  • The various skills, spells, and abilities are well considered. As we often noted at the table, this is a game that was thoroughly playtested, and the authors have packed the character sheet with abilities and skills that have been well considered and thoughtful. (More on that below.)

  • The character creation system is unique and rich. Initially, there seems to be a wild, cartoonish quality to the game. You have over 25 races, each of which has a list of specialties, racial abilities, and religion. You also have numerous tables that give you information about your family background, physical appearance, and lifelines. You then take this abundant information and try to work out a brief character history (including goals) that drives the play forward. The end result still has some fun, cartoonish tinges to it, but what strikes me is how the characters have complexity and vibrancy, which results in some committed play at the table.

Religion and Magic
In game terms, the effects or religion and magic are quite similar. Religious miracles (guidance, fortification, wonders, etc.) and spells carry supernatural effects which are flexibly molded by the players and GM. In fact, miracles have added utility because they are so plastic and because your supply of miracles gets replenished each day (the total number of Miracles being dependent on your character’s Devotion score). Casting spells comes with a cost that gets deducted from the spell score, and this makes the spells more difficult to cast and it limits the number of times you can use them. In the case of both spells and miracles, I like the creative room left for the player. Divination, for example, (which Grrrl used on multiple occasions) can be used to detect events, qualities, or features near and far, and there’s quite a bit you can do with the spell within those types of wide parameters. The system is nicely scalable in terms of the power of the spell: The wider or more forceful the effect, the more a spell costs and the more difficult it becomes to cast.

I had my character (Grrrl) to explore both miracles and magic. I achieved some notable effects (including a wild triptych of a vision towards the end of our run), though I could have taken even more advantage of these resources. At the same time, there is a danger that the game could take on a zaniness if characters were fully exploiting their miracles to the extent allowed by the rules. Our trio of adventurers kept the miracles in check, and this was in part because our characters took religion with a certain level of gravitas. Had we used our full allotment of miracles, the game could have swerved into a direction which would have made religious powers more mundane and flat. 

Epic Play
So much of Legendary Lives is set up to reward the long arch. Consider the following:

  • The character generation yields delightful complexity that can blossom over time. 

  • The rules subsections involving societies, religion, magic, and plants (!) invite continued exploration.

  • The world map and descriptions of the different races gives you the chance to develop some intricate social, cultural, and political networks.

  • The skill advancement system is steady but slow.

Curiously, Legendary Lives received much of its playtesting and popularity by being run in convention settings, which has left parts of the game underdeveloped. In other words, you have a game amply loaded with elements that say “long-term play,” but the rules don’t provide much in the way of advice or aid for campaigns moving into their second wind. My sense is that Ross (our GM) had some good techniques operating behind the curtain to make up for this gap, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from him about how he handled preparation. 

One idea that might be worth exploring: Have the players periodically revise the character stories to provide new goals and drives (along with introducing new NPCs and factions to deal with). The GM might even flashforward the game, taking the company to a different region and/or time period. 

I sensed that Ross had a load of ideas sizzling on the backburner, and we sometimes fumbled in the triggering of those elements. Part of my problem was the time between sessions (usually one week, but sometimes more): I’m an avid notetaker, but even with those notes, it was challenging to keep the various story strands in mind to spark actions in play. One of my notes to self: I’m going to be more active in the future and will put together postgame reports which will help to keep NPCs, events, and developments in better order (and to keep my memory banks firing more effectively). Ross was superb in keeping things open for the players, allowing them to determine what they wanted to do. I did wonder, however, if we could have telegraphed for him what we were wanting to do to help him with prep between sessions. For example, we let him know that we were inclined to attend the masquerade ball prior to that session, and I imagine that was useful for him in getting notes together. But on some weeks, we could have offered him more in the way of forecasting our upcoming moves--at least providing a sense of what our characters were mulling over in terms of the immediate future.

Combat and Skills
The combat system uses the same core mechanic as everything else in the game. There is a hit location aspect at play, and the head is the most vulnerable spot, which made us worried that fighting would be unforgiving. After the initial combat encounters, it because apparent that Legendary Lives is far more wicked on the Foes than it is the player character heroes. I enjoyed the fights in the game, and Grrrl was quite fun to play both in Wolf and in human forms. I also appreciated, however, that the game encouraged a mix of activities. We had some sessions that were combat oriented, others that were more explorative, and others focused on interpersonal negotiations and relationship building. Legendary Lives supports all those types of play, and its array of skills and abilities supports them all. To illustrate, skills are divided up into 12 ability categories. Four of those--Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, and Agility--involve skills that come in handy during combat. That leaves a robust 8 ability categories which involve skills involving a wide array of pursuits--Business, Repair, Caves, Preach, etc..

Some “skills” are odd (partly because some really aren’t skills at all), though in play we found them to be useful and intriguing. Some examples: 

  • Grrrl had low cunning, and thus was not prone to duplicity, lying, or disguises, and she also was mediocre in the Charm department. This made her Sincerity score low, so when put into situations where she was being truthful, she was usually not perceived as such. The regular Cassandra effect became a strong minor theme.

  • Sanity has an entire subsystem worked out for it, which caused for some intriguing curveballs in the fiction. 

  • Fate and Memory provide a mechanic for the gamemaster and players to determine whether a possible event becomes an actuality or to determine if knowledge is available. 

In Conclusion
When you say that something “holds up well,” there’s a backhanded insult implied. The unstated idea is that the something--whatever it is--shows the marks of age and defunctitude. The something is o.k. if you want a retro experience, but that there’s much better stuff out there. 

So I won’t say Legendary Lives “holds up well”: The game is so much better than that. It has always been a rock solid fantasy rpg, and it remains so. The game has much to teach current designers, and my sense is that new games would be better if they took some inspiration from what Legendary Lives does. LL would certainly elevate the writing craft of rpgs. We can debate some of the odd descriptions of races or point out the gaps the game leaves in terms of the long arch. But these small blemishes pale in comparison to all the game has to offer. If I had a chance to play Legendary Lives again, I’d jump at the opportunity. It is a uniquely satisfying and continually rewarding experience.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

It's in the same playlist as the session, but the direct link to it is here.

I discuss the game's curious mix of whimsy and depth, and I offer some specific criticisms regarding resolution, and how it relates to the difficulties with GMing that I think I've perceived.

LorenzoC's picture

The second part of the video persuaded me that the consequences and interactions of choice vs randomization during character creation (or GM prep) would be an interesting topic for a seminary or a lab. It's something that jumped at me while reading Circle of Hands and what you said here reinforced a few impressions I have - expecially about how randomization can be a tool to "force" (in the most positive manner) buy-in from players.

Ron Edwards's picture

That topic has been discussed here across several posts, focusing on sequences of randomization and choice, and I agree it would be a great Lab topic. I'll hunt down some links. (Please don't say anything about searchable or archival functions; that is a sore point at present.)

Legendary Lives is perhap the most extreme version of character creation randomization I've found, to the extent that one player called it "no-fault character creation," yet it manages to produce an extreme sense of ownership and creative investment, rather than a sense of being landed with a "whatever" that you neither want nor don't want.

In one of the discussions, I realized that Sorcerer features no randomization for character creation ... until you consider the Binding roll for one's starting demon.

The situation for build-only character creation offers a very interesting challenge, for how to make it not boring, and whether point-limitations serve as a meaningful or creative constraint.

However, I'm presenting these details here solely to whet people's appetites for a possible future Lab, not to drill into in detail. Let's keep this one focused on the Legendary Lives game.

In fact, I suggest that Christabelle's result was probably at the least coherent or automatically-motivated outcome I've seen for the game, and whether Rod agrees, or what he thinks about the outcome for purposes of play and how that went, is something I'd like to know more about.

A related point is that Grrrl's background, motivations, and goals were clearly aimed hard at potentially fatal confrontations with her mother and with her former slave-master. Both of those loomed up explicitly in play, and yet neither happened. I'm not saying they should have, but in both cases, the way they didn't happen depended on how rolls turned out and how their results became circumstances for what happened next. Arguably, for both, the rolls/results were too powerful, presenting a deviation away from or a complete block against them happening, respectively.

Rod_A's picture

I've tried out a reply in video form, here:

https://youtu.be/ZSJfDYCGFwI

(Defensive aside: yes, I know one doesn't say "batting 50%" -- I can even explain the infield fly rule, really, it's true!)

Ron Edwards's picture

Yay for video responses!

The conversation is definitely squeezed by Scylla and Charybdis. On the one side we can get swallowed by the idea that “come on, all that chargen lifepath shit is meaningless anyway, we’re here for the adventure that’s been prepped, so just get on with it, shut up about your stupid ‘psychology,’ and play already.” On the other we can get mangled by the idea that “this is your backstory, this is the obvious and fixed trajectory, and this is your obvious climactic showdown on the horizon, and both player and GM better stick to it, rolls and situational outcomes be damned.”

To honor the individual details of one’s rolls and choices during character creation and to commit to the interplay of decisions and rolled outcomes during play – that shouldn’t be hard. ... But without dismissing the games’ virtues, I think its gears fail to mesh in some combination of the following:

  • Item 1. If the character creation process doesn’t gel. As I’ve been a big booster of this game’s exact mechanism for a while, I also have to admit that it’s not guaranteed to “work” at this level, although all of us have seen it work very often. In this case, no one roll or decision-point clicked the other pieces into a framework, i.e., said to you which pieces were major and which were minor, which were connected and which were peripheral.
  • Item 2. If the rolled-and-played outcomes, early on, turn into character-establishing moments that result in a portrait that doesn’t prompt directions or inspiration. It’s possible to run with this until some moment and/or roll does snap together, which I think you managed with the “tough love” question you hit Shining Star with in the seventh session, but there can be a lot of scatter along the way.
  • Item 3. If the situation of play doesn’t offer an immediate, nigh-railroaded crisis to attend to, like a monster to fight or a problem to solve. This one is tricky because I’m not recommending it, but it’s also clearly what the authors of any of the available LL scenarios use as their habitual, even standardized methods of play. Ross clearly sought to avoid doing any such thing, but in your case, that prompted Christabelle to avoid “her” things that he made available (e.g. the Bleeding Hearts) rather than confront them.

No single one of these is make-or-break, and I don’t even think the implied “failure” of any of them is necessarily bad. Given the first item above, for instance, one could “find” the character through play during the first session or two, in the fashion that most of us do for most RPGs anyway. Or given low-yield in the first two items, one could fall back on “party role” in the context of the obvious, imminent threats and problems that are presented. Also, conversely, if the first and/or second item is solid (gel during creation, then identity/direction via early play), then #3 in full “fail” is a positive feature rather than a problem.

But with all three going on, it’s really hard either to “feel” what one’s character will do at an intuitive level, or to “know” what you’re supposed to do at a social play-the-game level. If you don’t mind me saying, it seemed to me that sometimes this vague or difficult situation for playing Christabelle understandably led to you to lose track of what was going on with various NPCs and situations, and when that happened, Christabelle was pushed further into a ditzy portrayal because she seemed confused.

I think Legendary Lives is pretty good, even superior, regarding the first item, although not ironclad, as perhaps no character-generation system can be expected to be ironclad. I think its resolution mechanic strays too far into the risk zone for the second item, and I think it’s wretchedly deficient regarding anything that even hints at founding/baseline concepts for the third. So if you hit a “hitch” in item one, the game as-a-process offers very little, if anything, to help you recover via the next two.

Rod_A's picture

Hey Ron, that seems like a solid analysis. No further thoughts for now, but I'll be paying attention to the discussion if it develops further.

robowist's picture

I’m enthused by the responses, and as an added bonus, Rod’s video comes with another piece of inspired artwork!

One of the challenges concerning narrative arcs:  The character creation process yields complex personal stories, but the pedigree of the game gets in the way. It’s as though Legendary Lives hit on this intriguing, rich mine for character creation, but didn’t entirely know how to deal with that innovation, so it retreated into the default “party adventure” mode that was part of fantasy role playing games, even though blazing in a new direction would have worked better. 

Both Rod and Ron are articulating this puzzle: In Legendary Lives, not only are you trying to figure out how the various lifelines fit together for your own character, but you are also worried about how that character is going to fit into the individual trajectories of the other characters and into the adventure. There are so many balls to juggle, and some of those are obviously going to have to drop (at least temporarily). Thus, it’s not at all surprising that Christabel’s small business aspirations would only be nascent at the start of the game: Having a business or any other rooted activity set up at the beginning would potentially disrupt the group cohesion . . . at least that is what a player would be concerned about. 

On the flip side of the coin, Grrrl’s backstory made it easy for me to move quickly off the blocks and to run with the Hydra’s teeth smuggling plot. It was fun to have Grrrl in the spotlight, but I was then worried as to whether this would prove satisfying for the other characters. Fortunately, some members of Shining Star’s family turned out to be connected with the black market operation, and one of the ironic benefits of Grrrl’s disastrous sanity roll early on is that it gave both Shining Star and Christabel some challenging problems to deal with. 

I’d highlight Ron’s comment about rolls interfering with the resolution of Grrl’s kickers involving her mother and her former slave master. There were a number of sessions when I set Grrrl on one path which I thought would result in a satisfying conclusion, but where a couple dice rolls caused the entire plan to veer off. These swerves with their resulting complications are now, in my mind, one of the appeals of the games. The system of Legendary Lives is designed to dish out a steady stream of slips and swerves. When I play the game again, I’ll be sure to warn any LL rookies to fasten their seat belts. 

Ron writes, “But without dismissing the games’ virtues, I think its gears fail to mesh in some combination of the following . . . No single one of these [gear-warping items] is make-or-break, and I don’t even think the implied ‘failure’ of any of them is necessarily bad.” I wonder if we might say that one of the strengths of Legendary Lives is a certain level of gear slippage. That is, Legendary Lives is daring you to maintain a level of integrity in your character’s story despite all the warpings and monkey wrenches that are thrown at you both during character creation and throughout the course of the game. As a player, you are wondering, “How can I weave all this together?” and just as you achieve some level of success, the game piles on additional, unexpected complications.

Ron Edwards's picture

This is weird because we’re actually conversing about the same thing across several locations, including this post, the one about Cold Soldier, and the patrons-only one at the Patreon.

Also, I really don’t like pulling out quotes and responding to them in isolation, so since I’m doing it now, check to make sure I’m not screwing up your reasoning as I go.

One of the challenges concerning narrative arcs:  The character creation process yields complex personal stories, but the pedigree of the game gets in the way. It’s as though Legendary Lives hit on this intriguing, rich mine for character creation, but didn’t entirely know how to deal with that innovation, so it retreated into the default “party adventure” mode that was part of fantasy role playing games, even though blazing in a new direction would have worked better. 

I agree with this, completely. But ...

... In Legendary Lives, not only are you trying to figure out how the various lifelines fit together for your own character, but you are also worried about how that character is going to fit into the individual trajectories of the other characters and into the adventure. There are so many balls to juggle, and some of those are obviously going to have to drop (at least temporarily). Thus, it’s not at all surprising that Christabel’s small business aspirations would only be nascent at the start of the game: Having a business or any other rooted activity set up at the beginning would potentially disrupt the group cohesion . . . at least that is what a player would be concerned about. 

You lost me on this part, entirely. “Worried?” “Fit in?” Add to that your other references to planning what would happen for your character, and I think we may (in this conversation) be taking entirely different views toward what a role-playing character is even for. By the end of the above quote, the hypothetical player you mention is practically a space alien to me.

As a spot-example, if character X were to have a small business, how would that in any way disrupt group cohesion, except insofar as group cohesion was mission-based, travel-based, or otherwise task-based? What is group cohesion, as you mean it here? Coordinated single-tracked action? I know this is widely assumed to be foundational to good play, but I think it’s been demonstrated conclusively that this isn’t true.

These swerves with their resulting complications are now, in my mind, one of the appeals of the games. The system of Legendary Lives is designed to dish out a steady stream of slips and swerves. When I play the game again, I’ll be sure to warn any LL rookies to fasten their seat belts. 

At first glance, I should agree fully. I favor decisive “no you don’t” rolled outcomes, and you’ve probably noticed that none of my designs feature take-backs or consensus “well just agree and call it a resolution” techniques. I am all about trusting the system and treating play as a wild ride, and I like what you’re saying about gear slippage and gear warping.

BUT ... I think we’re talking about something different from slips and swerves, and your talk of “destinations” is another space-alien tell for me. We addressed this a little in the screen debriefing conversation a couple of days ago, so let’s pick it up again once that’s posted.

Ron Edwards's picture

Here's the video! I've attached it to the "Legendary Lives conclusion" playlist, but this link goes there directly.

I think it's pretty good. A lot of it ties into issues of preparation, character identity, and emergent plot, but there's some extremely nuts-and-bolts system content about narration too.

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