GHR: Scales

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

Published in January 1994 by INS/MV publisher Siroz (who later changed their name to Asmodee Editions) and written by the legendary designer Croc, Scales is an urban fantasy game with a contemporary setting that feels very much like it was inspired by Nephilim, the World of Darkness, and older French initiatic games like Hurlements.

One of the major differences between contemporary English-language RPGs and French RPGs from the 1990’s, is that contemporary RPGs tend to come with far more aggressive guidance when it comes to telling people how to run games.

While some contemporary games are more focused than others, it is reasonable to expect a game produced in the 2020s to (at the very least) describe what you should expect from a typical game session. Revisiting the games of my youth, I am struck by how little space was devoted to telling people how to play the games they had just purchased. More often than not, what you got when you bought a new French RPG in the 1990s was a few pages of lore telling you about the setting and then a couple of hundred pages of rules. While some games shipped with starting adventures that set the tone for the campaigns that were supposed to follow, quite often these starting adventures would only appear in Casus Belli, a French-language RPG magazine that was available from every newspaper stand and kiosk in the French-speaking world and so served as a real focal point for communal discussion despite the absence of anything resembling a White Dwarf-style opinion column.

What this meant in practice is that the experience of playing a game would vary enormously depending upon who was running it. Even setting aside variations in pacing, tone, or emphasis, games could sometimes change genres based upon their GM. While this may seem perverse and alien to RPG players in 2020, it is worth remembering that a) this laissez-faire attitude also held sway over early editions of D&D and that b) games produced in the early 1990s were Chronologically closer to first edition D&D than contemporary games are to third edition D&D. Universally clear rules and guidance on how to run a particular RPG are very much a 21st Century phenomenon and, I would argue, were largely unheard of until the release of Vampire: The Masquerade.

I mentioned this lack of guidance in my pieces on both Malefices and INS/MV as looking back at those games made me realise how little support GMs used to receive but reading the rulebook for Croc’s urban fantasy game Scales really brought this idea home as while I did play this game back in the day, the game I played bore almost no resemblance at all to the game laid out in the core rulebook.

Though cosmetically similar to our late 20th Century Earth, the setting for Scales is actually a version of Earth where magic is real. Magical energy being a valuable commodity, ancient Earth attracted the attention of a pair of alien reptiles who landed on Earth and immediately began fucking the dinosaurs, producing off-spring known as Dragons. Innately skilled at manipulating magical energy, the Dragons absorbed so much magic that Earth’s native magical species began to turn mundane. Eventually, Earth’s ambient magic levels became so depleted that magic only became apparent in the creative spark that humans put into their art. With magic much harder to come by, the Dragons went to sleep until awakened by the first nuclear explosions in the 1940s. Fifty years later and the children of the original alien visitors have formed clan-like political structures allowing them to manipulate human affairs and compete with each other whilst trying to drain the Earth of its remaining magical energy.

At this point, the similarities between Scales and 90s urban fantasy games like Nephilim and the World of Darkness should be pretty obvious. Indeed, one of the funnier things about the Scales core rulebook is that it is full of Tim Bradstreet-style black and white drawings of humans in alternative-style clothing. Given the similarity between Scales and these more successful games, you could be forgiven for assuming that this was just Croc and Siroz jumping on an already dangerously over-loaded bandwagon but Scales would not be a Croc game if it didn’t contain at least one sensational but disastrously under-developed idea and what differentiates Scales from its contemporaries was its approach to party structure.

The connection between Scales and Hurlements is that Scales was an initiatic game in so far as it a) expected different players to have different amounts of information about the game and b) it provided a roadmap allowing un-initiated players to gradually learn more about not only the setting but also their own characters. The way this worked in practice is that the GM would select one player to assume the role of a Dragon. The Dragon would not only understand the nature of the game-world they were also significantly more powerful than the other characters in terms of their skills, their stats, and their magical abilities.

The in-game justification for this was that the accumulation of magical energy required a magical object known as a gestalt and that gestalts could not be operated alone and so Dragons went out into the world and recruited the descendants of Earth’s native magical species and ‘awakened’ them to their true nature. This is where my memories of the game start to depart violently from the game as-written.

One of the more interesting things about Hurlements was that players were not even allowed to see their own character sheets until they had progressed a bit and learned a few things about the world. In practice this meant that most Hurlements campaigns started out with players knowing nothing other than their characters’ names and what kind of creature they could turn into. Hurlements also suggested that characters should be named after their players, thereby floating the possibility that people might in fact be playing medieval versions of themselves.

When I played Scales, I was encouraged to not only name my character after myself but also to create a character based on a (somewhat idealised) version of my real-life skills. As a player, I entered the game completely unaware of the setting and the party was made up of gamified versions of my real-world gaming group. In the first session, we broke into the local art museum and stole a statue, along the way we learned the existence of both magic and Dragons. Within a couple of sessions we had worked out that one member of the group seemed a lot more powerful than the rest of us and we also worked out that we were all bound to each other through the statue we had stolen. Then the shit hit the fan.

As written, Scales gives players complete free-reign when it comes to creating characters. The idea is that people create their characters, then get a feel for them through play and, based upon what the characters are like; the GM has a flick through the list of magical species in the core rulebook and assigns one to each of the character. For example, if your character is of Greek extraction and is known for being dissolute, violent, and/or particularly horny then the GM might decide that he was a centaur. Similarly, if your character is of Japanese ancestry and is chaotic and fond of sick jokes, then the GM might decide that he was a Tengu. Each magical creature had a unique power and learning more about your magical heritage meant you’d acquire additional skills both magical and mundane.

There are a few problems with this system and the way that my GM handled the assignment of magical species only served to make them worse. Having read and re-read the core rules a couple of times, there is a good deal of ambiguity as to how the process of self-discovery is supposed to work in practice. One interpretation of the rules has it that the GM assigns a magical species and the player then researches said species and expands into that archetype in return for magical powers. The problem with this interpretation is that it basically tells players how to level up their character and if your character concept is not a perfect match for the archetypes in the book then you wind up having to compromise your character concept in order to level up. Another interpretation of the rules is that the GM and the player work together to select a magical species and so the player retains a degree of agency whilst allowing their character concept to merge with one of the species archetypes described in the rules. The problem with this interpretation is that it basically ditches the initiation and self-discovery and replaces it with having the players select what amounts to a prestige class.

The problem with my experience with the game is that the GM used species selection as a means of cracking jokes about the players based upon really uncharitable readings of both their appearance and character traits. Having a species assigned to you not only felt like a significant loss of agency, it also felt a lot like you were being dunked on. I remember the GM laughing and saying that we were all taking it too seriously because he was talking about our characters rather than us but given that we were encouraged to view our characters as in-game versions of ourselves, it’s kind of hard not to be insulted when the GM’s best mate is a silver Dragon and you’re a bloody gnome or a ghoul. Neither for the first nor the last time, an intriguing game concept was obliterated by the inability of teenagers to act in a mature and considered fashion.

 While the broad strokes of Scales’ setting obviously owed a lot to the World of Darkness games, it’s interesting to note that Croc seemed to riff on some of the core concepts of Nephilim. For example, in Nephilim, each character starts play with the stasis object that contains them whenever they are separated from a human host and the magical nature of the object means that it can store magical energy that can be used to augment the characters’ natural abilities. One group I played with completely failed to notice this aspect of play but another group realised the potential and so every session had the characters trying to find places to charge up their stasis objects, thereby giving the players some motivation to actively explore the world. Scales plays with this idea by having the characters all share a single gestalt, thereby making management of the gestalt a site for group-discussion and negotiation as well as a basis for exploring the world. Though famously rooted in Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system, Nephilim augmented BRP’s very simplistic experience point system with metamorphosis points, which you gained by role-playing the elemental make-up of your character. For example, if you played a fire-based Nephilim, you might take it upon yourself to develop an interest in volcanos or a taste for spicy food and this would give you additional metamorphosis points that would bring the physical appearance of the host in line with the physical traits of the magical creature inhabiting their body.  While Nephilim dealt with transformation by creating a parallel experience system, Scales tried to integrate the two systems by having players lean into the magical side of their characters on a mechanical as well as performative level. Having read and re-read the transformation rules a couple of times now, I think that Croc either struggled to pull this off or failed to explain his thinking with sufficient clarity but, as ever with his games, the basic concept is really intriguing.

Another area in where Scales failed to provide much in the way of guidance was what the characters were actually supposed to be doing. The game is pretty clear that the day-to-day motivation for adventuring is self-discovery and the acquisition of magical energy but beyond that, the game is rather unclear when it comes to the broader narrative strokes of a Scales campaign. According to the lore, elder Dragons are alien parasites who are in the business of sucking the Earth dry of magical resources but the game offers neither a justification for why this behaviour might be good or why it should be opposed. Reading between the lines, I think the intention was to present the setting as was and to leave it up to the players whether they were going to aid or resist the draconic clans but there is no real guidance for either forms of play. In fairness, this is an accusation that could also be levelled at games like Vampire the Masquerade in that while the game drones on and on about politics and scheming, it’s not exactly great when it comes to outlining stakes or providing any kind of basis for making informed judgements about the world. Back in the day, I attended a few Vampire LARPs and every single one I intended felt like a Goth high school where different cliques squabbled for status and the fact that Scales outlines the various groups but none of the in-world politics results in a very similar vibe.

Scales was one of the less successful games produced by Siroz/Asmodee and while it did receive a number of supplements, the fact that Siroz was first bought out by Jeux Descartes and then shut-down entirely in the mid-2000s meant that official support for the game was brought to an official close. However, rather than simply allowing the game to disappear down the cultural memory hole, the owners of the Scales IP put out a PDF including all of the secrets and ideas they were planning to introduce in future supplements and this PDF inspired the creation of a surprisingly vibrant online Scales community that produced their own line of supplements in line with that final roadmap. While this community appears to now be largely defunct, its existence means that most of the Scales books can still be found online along with vast amounts of fan-made material including adventures, sourcebooks, and campaigns.

In some ways, Scales’ online un-death is a bit of a puzzler as the game was never all that successful in its day and the core rulebook is a nightmare of under-developed setting details constrained by a tedious system that is described in ways that are somehow both long-winded and hand-wavy. However, look beyond the fact that Scales is really not a very good game and you’ll find some genuinely thought-provoking ideas as well as an attempt to resurrect and update one of French roleplaying’s most unique and under-appreciated design trends; that of initiatic play.

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