Tuesday, April 10, 2012

In Review: Mystic Empyrean

 Enter Empyrean, a world of
your own imagination and design.
Recreate the world lost to the Aether
and shape it to your whim and will.
But take care-for even as you
remake the world, you
remake yourself.

When I first heard of Mystic Empyrean, it was from a discussion on Nobilis. Curious, I did some Googling, grabbed the demo, and ultimately bought the PDF and Hardbound Rulebook.

A unique approach to the tabletop, Mystic Empyrean reminds me of Microscope, with a healthy dose of Legend of Mana, Dark Cloud, and the late Professor MAR Barker's Perfected Game Rules added to taste.

So what does Mystic Empyrean bring to the table? Read on to find out!

First, let me address my dealings with the creator of the game, D. Brad Talton Jr.
I've spoken with Mr. Talton a handful of times through e-mail, and I've found him to be professional, courteous, and eager to help with questions that arose from reading the PDF version of Mystic Empyrean (it should be noted that for purposes of review, I will be using the hardbound version I received in the mail this morning.).

Hard bound with thick sturdy covers, Mystic Empyrean was striking, right out of the box. As seen in the cover art, the front cover is split into three panes, displaying five pieces of art, set behind what is revealed to be a visual representation of the game's resolution mechanic, the Balance.  This kind of cover appeals to me, it's eye catching without being gaudy, and it's the kind of thing that I'd be drawn to on a shelf.  The back cover (which at the time of this writing I forgot to snap a picture of, d'oh!) presents a single pane, split between three pieces of art. This is set behind a white, circular field bearing a bit of canonical fluff, and the pitch presented at the start of this review. All in all, A marks for external presentation, but we all know you never judge a book by it's cover, don't we?

Like a peanut M&M, Mystic Empyrean is as good on the inside as it is on the outside!

Inside, Mystic Empyrean remains a treat for the eyes. Each page is in full color (with the odd exception of pages required for play), and text is presented in a two column layout with a nice, strong font, this reviewer had no problem reading the text. My only quibble being that the sidebars are too close to the color of the background to easily stand out. A frame or change in sidebar fill would easily fix this problem.  The text is split into a table of contents,  eight chapters, and eight appendices (the last of which contains a glossary/index! A+ marks to you, sir.), with checklists and the aforementioned sidebars to aid readers in understanding.

Peppered throughout with art that ranges from gorgeous at its best, to good at its worst, I can only applaud Mr. Talton's choice of artist, one Katrina Lin.

Without a doubt, Mystic Empyrean  looks good, but how does she drive?

 Mystic Empyrean is a diceless game.

"So what?!" you might cry, "It's been done!"

To that I remind you it's rude to interrupt.   Task resolution in Mystic Empyrean revolves around the Balance. Each character has several elements that comprise their sheet (literal elements: Earth, air, Fire, Water, etc), and each element type is associated with a trait. To perform any action, the player draws from the balance (be it a deck of cards purchased from Level99 Games, a bag of tokens, or painting words on a bag of chickens and letting fly) and compares the card to their action. Depending on the elements' relation to each other, the player achieves one of four possible outcomes. These correlate to the GM tactics of "Yes and..., Yes but..., No but..., No and...".

In addition to this, Mystic Empyrean is GMless.  While this is a growing trend in forge games, Mystic empyrean approaches the position of shared authority in a manner more akin to older Tabletop Role Playing Games.  Each player will take a turn in running a scene, and in a single evening's play, there will be several scenes. This ensures each player has an investment in the world (something I'll cover in more depth in a minute), and from my experience, has developed a strong bond at the table, one that states "I trust you to take what I have created, and to weave an epic around it." I have no quibbles whatsoever with this approach, and, once again, can only applaud the design choice.

Now, about the world.  Players will work together to create the world, starting with realms that exist as islands of stability amidst the roiling chaos of  the Aether (I'm reminded of Ravenloft, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, and White Wolf's "Exalted" RPG). The goal of an average Mystic Empyrean campaign is to work within this realm, collecting crystals known as Cornerstones. Much like the orbs from Dark Cloud, Cornerstones contain locations, weapons, items, people. Things that drive back the Aether and help to reform the world that was. There are immediate mechanical benefits to be found in this, as well. Cornerstones can contain Realms (areas), Paradigms (game modifiers), and conceits (character modifiers).  No matter who unlocks the cornerstone, it appears that everyone wins.

Mystic Empyrean is truly an epic project, in presentation and in scope.  Originally funded through Kickstarter, this gem of an RPG deserves more attention than it is receiving. To this end, I'll be reviewing various tidbits from the game in greater depth throughout the coming weeks.


Fat Loot!

More of Katrina Lin's art!

When I received my copy of Mystic Empyrean, there were a few assorted goodies bundled with the book.  Firstmost was a set of three postcards. One advertises Mr. Talton's  RPG software The Dungeon Master's Toolkit, and RPG Cartographer. Both are available on the apple market. Any chance of seeing an android version in the future?  The second advertises Battle Con, a cardgame of sorts. Finally, the rules for "Legendary Dudes", a very lighthearted 'Fight for the golden donut' sort of affair where players  battle it out for the Orb of Ultimate Power!  Very beer and pretzels in feel, I'll be using this on slow nights at the table.

Finally, Mr. Talton included a packet of cards for Battle Con, including a sheet of punch-out tokens and what I can only assume is a figure marker in the style of cardboard figure flats.  While I am not a fan of card games, the art pops, and there is obviously a great deal of care put into the design of the project.  

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