If you’re not familiar with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, it’s an epic dystopian fantasy series set in a world where ash drifts down from the sky. Warrior-sorcerers called Allomancers derive magical power from common metals, and a violent aristocracy maintains their rule on the backs of a brutalized peasant class. In other words, an exciting place that’s ripe for adventure! Thanks to the folks over at Crafty Games, there’s a roleplaying game for this setting, although they insist on calling it an “adventure game.”*
At last you can roll up your very own mistborn, performing extraordinary feats of daring and courage under the cover of night. Sanderson’s books provide plenty of inspiration, but how does the game hold up? Let’s find out!
The Core Die Mechanic Reinvents the Wheel
Instead of using an existing mechanic, Crafty Games’ designers created something entirely new for Mistborn.* You build a pool of d6s based on your character’s ability score, equipment, positive traits, etc. The goal is to roll a matching pair. If your pair is equal to or greater than the difficulty, you succeed at the task. The higher your pair, the better, except sixes. Sixes don’t help you succeed, they’re set aside to increase the degree by which you succeed or mitigate your failure.
The game is very concerned with degrees of success. Succeeding with a pair of fives is supposed to be much better than succeeding with a pair of twos. Sometimes this works. In combat, a higher degree of success means more damage. Other times, the GM is left staring at a bunch of sixes and struggling to come up with a way to make them meaningful.
This has the weird effect of making sixes something you often don’t want to roll. If all of your dice come up six, you’ve actually failed to achieve your goal. The game also sets a limit of ten dice on any roll,* which would make sense if it wasn’t so easy to get more than ten dice. With magic and other bonuses, characters will be over that limit as often as not, making me wonder why they didn’t set it higher.
While the dice matching system works, it’s got a steep learning curve. It’s different from any other system out there and takes a lot of getting used to. For all its uniqueness, the matching rules don’t work any better than a standard dice pool system. Players who aren’t invested in the Mistborn setting may think learning the game isn’t worth the effort.
Character Creation Is Simple and Fun
I have nothing but good things to say about Mistborn’s character generation rules. Each player answers a series of probing questions about their character, with their answers establishing important backstory details. At the same time, each question has a mechanical impact. You’ll never start the game with an amnesic loner, because the creation questions make you think about who the character is, not just what they can do.
Beyond your own character, the questions also establish how you work with the other characters, your “crew” as the game refers to them. As a group, you decide what your reputation is, what kinds of jobs you’ve pulled in the past, what your prefered methods are, and more. This is really helpful. It means everyone knows the game’s conceits from the very beginning. You won’t accidentally roll up a blood thirsty bruiser when the rest of the players are thinking political intrigue.*
Finally, character creation plants the seeds for major story arcs. You establish juicy tidbits like what your character’s greatest tragedy is and what they believe their destiny to be. The GM decides what their real destiny is.* This information provides excellent story fodder without drowning anyone in backstory.
Abilities Are Simple but Vague
Mistborn eschews the normal Attribute and Skill system in favor of only six core abilities. At first glance, this seems like a good thing. Simplicity is valuable, and many games suffer from too much granularity in their skills.* Unfortunately, despite having so few abilities, the rules are often unclear on which one to use.
Is getting someone to sign a contract Charm or Influence? Reading the rules it could be either one. Sneaking around could either be Physique or Wits, depending on the GM’s mood. “Convincing a skeptic” is listed as a Spirit roll, but it sounds like Charm.
This is a serious problem because players only have so many points to spend on their abilities. One might put a bunch of ranks in Charm, only to find out the GM thinks important negotiations should use Influence. It’s difficult to build a character when you don’t know what everything does. At the same time, several abilities are in danger of being too broad. Physique represents all things physical, which means it makes your character good at both ripping phone books in half and balancing on a tightrope. That kind of dissonance throws players out of the story as they try to understand what their character is capable of.
Vagueness aside, Spirit is just a difficult ability to use. Its two primary functions are getting a hint from the GM and altering the narrative so the character catches a lucky break. In the first case, it’s best practice to give your players hints when they need them. If they’re stuck and need help, you don’t want to risk them failing a roll to get it, because then the game just grinds to a halt. In the second case, the game lays out rules for altering what the GM has described so it can be more favorable to the character. Again, this is usually something I’d just give freely, provided it keeps the game running and isn’t unreasonable. If it’s unreasonable and/or damages the game, I don’t want my players being able to roll for it!
Combat Is Functional but Repetitive
Mistborn’s combat is simple and straightforward. Instead of complicated initiative and attacks per round, players choose their action and then roll to accomplish it. Unfortunately, it falls into the trap of being little more than a time sink with no meaningful choices. Players roll, and if that doesn’t end the fight, they roll again.
Simplifying combat is a worthy goal, but this is boring. The game does allow characters with high wits to know what an opponent is doing before choosing their own action, but it doesn’t matter because everything comes down to the number of dice you roll.
Weapons are also strangely unbalanced. There’s no reason not to go for the highest damage weapon, which means pretty soon your entire party will be wielding stone hammers. Catapults are also listed as a character weapon, but I assume that’s a mistake.
While there are many abilities that provide advantages in combat, the vast majority of them just translate into more bonus dice. The rules aren’t complex enough for any interesting tactics. This isn’t the worst combat system out there by far, but it’s disappointingly bland, especially considering how well written Sanderson’s fight scenes are.
Magic Is Complicated and Unbalanced
Mistborn prides itself on being rules light,* but that falls apart in the magic section. Most of the game is abstract and narrative, but magic is excruciatingly simulationist and detail-oriented. Not only does this clash with the rest of the book, but it’s a pain in the rear.
Some magical abilities are frustratingly difficult to use. Emotional soothing requires three separate rolls. First, a charm roll to detect what emotion the target is feeling. Second, a soothing roll to alter those emotions. Third, another charm roll to take advantage of the new emotion. That’s a lot of trouble to go to for a few bonus dice.
In fairness, translating one of Sanderson’s famously intricate magic systems into a roleplaying game will always be difficult. The best practice would have been to abstract the whole thing, but instead the designers went the other direction. For example, time in Mistborn is measured in scenes and beats. These units can represent whatever amount of time works best for the stories. This works until you get to magic durations, which are measured in minutes and seconds. That’s a headache waiting to happen. The most likely outcome is that GMs will simply not keep track of the different magic durations, which is supposed to be a major balancing factor.
In Mistborn the novel, magic doesn’t have to be balanced. In Mistborn the roleplaying game,* it should be. Instead, we have some abilities that are demonstrably better than others. Thugs* get major bonuses to all Physique rolls. That’s obviously very useful. Smokers* can shield themselves and others from having their magic spotted by a Seeker.* That’s only useful if there happens to be a Seeker around, and even when there is, it’s a passive ability. Thugs get to jump into the fray and wreck face, while smokers stand around hoping someone is trying to spot them.
If being a Smoker was cheaper than being a Thug, that would be fine, but they have the same cost. Similarly, Lurchers* are just worse versions of Coin Shots* Again, their abilities cost the same amount.
That all pales in comparison to Feruchemists. Characters with this ability store up magic charges in pieces of metal and then unleash it later. In the books, this gives them superhuman bursts of power that last only for a short time. In the game, it makes them like unto gods. For scale, most characters who are really good at something will roll between 8-10 dice. With Alomancy, it’s possible to get up to 12-14.* Feruchemists can reach up to 60 dice. You see the problem?
The balancing factor of their power’s limited duration doesn’t work, because it’s easy for a Feruchemist to store more charges than they’ll ever need. A GM would have to work really hard to exhaust a Feruchemist’s store, and at that point the player would be well within their rights to complain about unfair treatment. Even then, the rules for recharging a Feruchemist’s abilities between sessions are unbelievably generous. These powers are so game breaking, I’m amazed they made it through playtesting.
Gear Rules Are Insufficient
Mistborn takes a loose approach to gear. In addition to a few story-relevant props, characters are assumed to have whatever stuff they need to fulfill their concept. This system works great in games like Mouse Guard, where equipment provides little to no advantage. Unfortunately, Mistborn is not one of those games.
While tools like lockpicks are mostly flavor, weapons have a mechanical advantage, and some are better than others. Without different costs, there’s no reason to use a dueling cane when you could use a stone hammer.
A bigger problem is magic supplies. Allomantic powers are balanced by needing a steady supply of metal vials to burn, which means characters can run out. How many vials should a PC have? I don’t know, and the game gives no guidelines. Feruchemy is even worse. The more wearable metal a Feruchemist has, the more charges they can store. Letting one PC have a few more steel bracelets can damage your game beyond repair. If the designers weren’t willing to make a better gear system, they shouldn’t have attached such huge bonuses to equipment.
While Mistborn isn’t unplayable, it is plagued with problems. The balance issues with magic and gear, in particular, make it difficult. The character creation rules are a bright spot, but not enough on their own. If you’re a huge fan of Sanderson’s books, this system might work for you. It’s purpose-built for his setting and will save you the trouble of creating rules for his highly detailed magic system.* If you’re just looking for a good game, there are better ones out there.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.