Arcanotech School is Hard
With the premise and dice system out of the way, the best way to describe the Framewerk system is that it owes an awful lot to early-90s skill-based game design. If this game had come out alongside Fading Suns in 1997, it would have been only slightly behind the curve on design elements. However, it came out in 2008, where massively complex simulationist skill-based chargen had, I thought, largely been eliminated.
Character creation in this game has it all:
- Linear-cost point-buy attributes: you can min-max to get very high scores in the stats you’re likely to roll a lot and mediocre scores in dump stats (e.g., Strength just provides a minimal melee damage bonus so can be safely dropped for ranged characters)
- Agility as king: you want this attribute as high as you can afford
- Equally priced skills of widely varying utility: you could spend your points on Artist and Trivia or on Marksman and Dodge
- Derived Attributes: these are particularly noteworthy because you regularly have to average multiple traits only to compare them to a chart (i.e., you could have just added them and then looked at the chart)
- Cheats: that’s right, this game has Freebie Points, and you need them because they’re integral to having…
- Merits and Flaws: excuse me, Assets and Drawbacks… for everyone who missed the min-maxing potential of getting bonus character points for flaws you never expect to come up; note that even White Wolf dropped the freebie points for flaws concept in 2004
Alright, admittedly I’m being overly harsh and a lot of other recent games have a lot of those same features. But they usually don’t feature all of them. As noted, not even White Wolf features all of them anymore. In a lot of ways, character generation feels like someone making a few big house rules to kit bash Trinity or some other 90s White Wolf game into their desired genre.
But maybe you like this old school fiddly character generation method. It served us well for over a decade, after all. In that case, the character generation system only features two real flaws… but they’re glaring ones.
The first is that this game is actually three games with a unified character creation system:
- In the core game, you’re government-sponsored occult investigators. You run through arcologies and bureaucracies hunting monsters and conspiracies. It’s the classic Call of Cthulu or Delta Green tropes in the future setting. For this game, you’ll want to make an arcanotechnician, intelligence agent, occult scholar, or soldier.
- However, you might not just be government investigators, but actually mech pilots fighting on the front lines of the war in your D-Engine-powered mecha, possibly even in the organic hybrid Engels. For this game, you’ll want to make an Engel pilot or mecha pilot. You might also choose to make an arcanotechnician for this if the GM isn’t going to provide you an NPC to do the boring downtime work of fixing the mechs.
- Finally, you might just be playing as a member of the Eldritch Society, a heroic cult that operates outside of the government to track down shapeshifting infiltrators and destroy them using their interdimensional monster forms. They’re effectively a Lovecraftian take on Werewolf: the Apocalypse. If you play anything but a Tager (the shapeshifter character type) in this game, you’ll be woefully underpowered in combat.
If you try to create a hybrid of these games and let players take any character type they want, there’s going to be a substantial amount of sitting around. Mech combat takes a huge amount of time, so anyone that isn’t a mech pilot is going to spend large parts of sessions sitting out if those happen on screen. Tagers are grossly overpowered in human-scale combat, and will quickly outshine characters that thought they were combat characters in a non-mech game. Even the example scenarios in the back of the book assume that games will break down into one of the three types. But character generation doesn’t differentiate them in any way for players.
The second flaw harkens to the title of this section: there’s a very unbalanced amount of simulationism inherent in the skill lists. Specifically, to become an arcanotechnician or arcanotech engineer, you have to take a huge stack of prerequisite skills such as (regular) technician and earth sciences to high levels. And the prereqs don’t overlap much: if you want to be both a technician and an engineer (i.e., can both fix and build weird tech), you might barely have enough skill points to buy both skills at chargen. Note that both of these skills, and most of their prerequisites, are highly situational and mostly take realistic amounts of time, thus will only be useful in downtime in a typical game. So you could spend all your skill points to become an excellent engineer who is basically useless in a typical scenario, or just buy tons of combat and investigation skills and constantly be useful.
All told, there are around 50 skills in the core book, and experienced gamers are going to be able to very quickly identify and purchase the ones that are likely to matter in play, while less experienced players wind up with characters that are much less competent unless the GM is constantly looking for ways to apply their skills.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about this whole character creation system is that it would have clearly been D20 if it had come out just a couple of years earlier. The attributes map easily to D&D ability scores, the professions could easily become classes, and the skill list makes a lot more sense if there are classes with different in-class skills and available ranks to spend. Hell, there is even an extra playable race with minor stat differences from humans and combat skills are already kept distinct from the main skill list.
I’m really sad CthuluTech missed the D20 boom, because, besides making character creation work better, it would have drastically improved the combat system… which I’ll talk about next week.