Opinion: Better Angels

It’s a time of year for new systems in my groups, apparently, so one of mine has just tried out Better Angels. Supervillains guided and aided by (in our group’s case, increasingly exasperated) demons? Conceptually, this was definitely on our “heck, why not, sounds like fun” list. It wasn’t something I’d do for prolonged periods of time, but it was definitely good for a one-off, and the players playing both villains and other villains’ demons led to a meta-level that we usually only get in the out of character chat (while the system doesn’t really care what the demons are doing, we’re pretty sure ours were all getting drunk and taking bets on whose would get him/herself killed first).

The dice rolling takes some getting used to. As with some of the other systems I’ve played, the roll is based on getting sets of dice, and admittedly having clear terms for what the number of dice in the set versus the number on the dice means might make it easier to introduce a new player than Legends of the Wulin’s tens-digit, ones-digit approach to sets. On the other hand, we went through an entire session, and aside from its use in one power, nobody in the group except the owner of the book (I think) is entirely sure what the stat that comes from the numbers on the matching dice actually does.

As I noted earlier, the demon/villain element leads to some rather interesting shifts in dynamic. Each character is built and functionally played by two different people: the player, as the character, and another player, as the character’s demon, determined to the character to step over the line and leave him or herself open to being dragged to Hell soul-first. So you have some powers that can only be activated by the demon (most of which range from convenient to ridiculously useful), meaning the player has to play “Mother may I” with the demon’s player—in our group, this led not only to some interesting strategizing and very selective power use, but to some hilarious conversations (“You know, if you don’t use this power right now, I’m going to die and then you’ll never get my soul.” “What, and you think I wouldn’t be better off with someone at least a little less suicidal?”). Normally I don’t do well with blended cooperative play and PVP, but this one didn’t set off any of my usual objections, probably because of how amusing the vaguely PVP elements were. (That, and you can go a long way without using the demon-only powers—or I just didn’t get very interesting ones. More on this below.) The demon’s player also gets the final vote on the metagame rewards for acting cartoonishly evil, which probably helps with the carrot/stick balance on that part.

My system-collector friend pointed out that to him, it didn’t seem as polished as the designer’s usual. I’m inclined to agree, and very much hoping that the version we played was a draft. Some of the rules were a bit difficult to understand, the character sheet didn’t necessarily play well with the text (it took us about ten minutes to be absolutely sure of what “the Strategy above the “Tactic” actually meant), and there was at least one case of a power that was associated with one stat but mechanically dependent on a different one entirely; we operated on the assumption that it was a typo. The presentation, on the other hand, was highly entertaining, particularly the parenthetical comments scattered liberally through the explanations of any mechanics that would hold still long enough. (The explanation of the Cloven Feet demonic aspect, for instance, was witty enough to have us halt chargen long enough to share it with the group.) It could also do with more powers and more aspects; yes, there are rules for creating one’s own, but for a pickup game and/or for new players, it’s best to stick with what’s already there, and what’s already there is mostly variations on a small number of themes (three flavors of teleportation, various other things that mostly did or prevented damage, and a few other stock abilities that, while useful, didn’t seem terribly interesting, or did seem rather narrow in application—a problem, particularly in the long term, when you only get two of each and of those two can only actually choose one).

The system does suffer somewhat from the issue of mechanics that are absolutely dependent on certain stats. My group, for instance, approached the game from our usual “Only one of us has actually read it, the rest of us are following instructions” standpoint, and ended up managing to completely miss taking both the stats that would make us effective in combat and the ones that would give us access to the “Devilish Devices” mechanic. (For the record, if you are playing this game and expect to fight a lot, do not stint on Cowardice, Courageous, Cruel or Open/Sly, and if you want the devices, make sure someone puts some points into Knowledge and/or Generosity. They are useful.) GMs should also take warning—while this game doesn’t have hit points, per se, and all mechanics are functionally identical, its dependence on kicking bonuses around between stats and all the fascinating things characters can do to mess with each other means that a conflict involves a great deal of book-keeping.

Better Angels serves better as a pickup game than a long-term game; the advancement is both oddly accelerated by the cartoon villainy bonuses and somewhat limited by the nature of the stats, and it is very easy to have a villain on the cusp of being removed from play by his/her demon within the first session. On the other hand, the setup is easy, the presentation is almost as entertaining as the game itself (good for getting players to finish their background reading, if they have the materials), and while I wouldn’t recommend it in a public venue due to the combination of encouraged evil and real-world setting, it’s definitely good for an afternoon of entertainment.

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