18th of December: Terminal X


Please do not leave emotional baggage unattended at any time.

Author/Designer: Hal Mangold

From: Bundle of Hillfolk

I heard about Drama System, by Robin D. Laws, and decided to get this bundle, which included the Hillfolk implementation of the system (the primary implementation), along with several other “pitches” for the game. And since I’ve just flown in to Denver International Airport (DIA), I decided to go with the one that takes place there: Terminal X.

The premise of Terminal X is this: DIA is not just another soulless airport. It is a magically charged place, a botched ritual to harness magical energies. That’s why so many weird and unfortunate things happened during its construction (and they really did). Now the airport serves as a gateway, not only to the South-Eastern United States, but also to the world beyond through the otherworldly Terminal X. This means that loads of people “in the know” travel to DIA to transfer through Terminal X to magical destinations beyond this world.

This whole mess is overseen by the Gatekeepers, a cabal of mystics who have divided up the airport, and are exploiting the energy of the many people travelling through the airport. They on their part are opposed by the Movers, a group of adepts who get their energy from travelling, and who want to exploit the energies from Terminal X.

The document is only seven pages, and details the basic premise, ideas for characters and some possible ideas for issues, conflicts and themes to explore through play. The character ideas fall in three ranges, either regular people who have run into the mystical happenings by chance, mystically enlightened people trying to use the energies of the airport, or members of the Gatekeepers who run the place. The characters in the document are nameless ideas for characters, rather than actual characters, and it’s up to the group to flesh them out. The document is designed for Drama System, but through the very systems-light approach of Drama System, there is no actual system specific in the text, and it could easily be adapted for another system.

My impression: This is in many ways a fun little setup for a game. I do feel like it is a little generic, and I would want to spice it up a bit before actually running a game in it – though that can happen in character generation.

Ironically, from what I know of Drama System, I’m not sure it’s that good a fit for that system. Drama System seems best for people who have a close relationship with each other, while Terminal X features a more scattered group, each doing their own thing.

On the other hand, it seems like a good basis for a number of other games. The one that first springs to mind is Unknown Armies, using the three types of characters as ideas for the three power-levels in Unknown Armies (and you could actually combine it with Break Today to include a game of Mak Attax’ers in the Scotsman’s Steakhouse franchise in the airport).

Another good adaptation would be Mage: the Awakening, using the airport as an access point to beyond – the traditions perhaps represented by Native American Dreamspeakers, Sons of Ether aircraft engineers and Virtual Adepts running computer systems, or the Technocracy using it to ship out resources.

Finally, there might be a GUMSHOE game hidden in here in one of the occult mystery variations, like Trail of Cthulhu, Nights Black Agents, Esoterrorists or Fear Itself. This requires a substantially larger amount of work in order to adapt it, but it could be a fun campaign, centred around trying to figure out what is up with DIA. For Esoterrorists, the Gatekeepers and the Movers would obviously be turned into cabals of Esoterrorists.

How would I use this: I think this might be a fun starting point for a game of Unknown Armies. I think UA benefits from having some structure to it, and this could be a fun basis.

17th of December: The Esoterrorists


Protect reality from human fear

Author/Designer: Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

From: The Esoterrorists Bundle

GUMSHOE really became famous with the publication of Trail of Cthulhu, but Esoterrorists was the first game to feature these rules. That was my reason for picking up this bundle: I was curious to find out what Esoterroists was all about.

The premise of Esoterrorists is this: supernatural phenomena exist. Wherever and whenever humanity becomes sufficiently unsettled and frightened, and they start to doubt reality, the Membrane separating this world from the world outside – dramatically called the Outer Dark – starts to thin, and beings from outside can communicate, and can even be summoned into our world. And of course a bunch of people have decided that doing just that would be a great plan of action. These people are called the Esoterrorists, and they are a very disparate group of people who have the common goal of weakening reality, so the Outer Dark Entities (or ODE’s) can get through).

If that was the end of the story, the prospects for humanity would be grim. Luckily, a number of people know about this and are trying to stop the esoterrorists. These people are members of a global, semi-official conspiracy called the Ordo Veritatis (OV). The OV is backed by several world governments, and many of their agents are law enforcement officers, crime scene technicians or similar for most of their lives, but ready to spring into service as OD agents whenever they are called.

The game comes with a very particular structure for a game – even more structured than its little brother, Ashen Stars, has. Agents are called, meet up with each other in one place, then meet up with “Mr. or Mrs. Verity” (a generic cover name for a briefer) for their mission briefing. Then they go out, investigate, and neutralise anything they find. Then, before they leave, they conduct the “Veil-Out” – cleaning up the mess, removing evidence and disseminating a cover story for what happened. The last bit is important, because rumours of the truth would weaken the Membrane.

Characters in this game are experienced and capable investigators, who have training from somewhere. That is reflected in character creation. Each character has two kinds of abilities (like in other GUMSHOE games): investigative abilities and general abilities. Investigative abilities deal with investigating – not just things like Evidence Collection and Forensic Accounting (yes, that is an ability), but also things like Impersonate and Intimidation that might not usually be considered as belonging to that kind of category. These abilities are not rolled – instead, you always get clues you have the right skills to get, and can spend points for better effects.. General abilities, on the other hand, are rolled, and deal with things like fighting, stealing things and being prepared.

The antagonists fall in two categories: Esoterrorists, and ODE. Esoterrorists are people who are dealing with ODE and trying to break down reality. They are usually organised in cults, and there is a system for classifying both cults and members, to help you better detail them. ODE, on the other hand, are supernatural beings, inhabiting some form of biological, but strange, body. These are described with stats for what they do and how to fight them, and often also a drawing.

The last half or so is an in-depth look at an example of an alternative kind of scenario for the game, called Duty Station: instead of being assembled to deal with one specific issue after another all over the place, this cell of OV has been stationed in a particular city, and will be trying to weed out the Esoterrorists hiding in the community. This section includes several fully fledged NPC’s. Also, while the book is peppered with little story seeds, this part has a whole scenario ready to go.

My impression: I’m a bit ambivalent about this game. On one hand, it looks like a good setup for a really classic, straightforward supernatural investigation game. On the other hand, the game seems rather bland, particularly compared to many similar games.

The game doesn’t really put the player characters in focus. Instead they are mostly just competent proxies for the players. There are no drives, player arcs or similar features in this game (as opposed to Ashen Stars, and also Trail of Cthulhu). Just characters and their abilities. This meshes well with many investigative games I played as a kid, where the story was the important thing, and the investigators were pretty flat.

On the other hand, I think I might prefer having player characters with built in conflicts and personal goals that I can play with in the game. Particularly in a campaign game, where we’ll be hanging out with the characters for a long time.

The scenario structure is also a little stiff for my taste. It meshes well with the premise for the game, with the very structured police-like agency of the OV, and it’s also a good help for quickly getting a game off the ground. On the other hand, it seems the different cases would feel disjointed, and I’m not sure whether a campaign would feel at all like a coherent story.

The Duty Station setup seems more likely to accommodate a cohesive story. Not only will we be dealing with many of the same NPC’s over and over, and to some extent the same enemies, the player characters will be living in the community of these NPC’s, so anythings that happens will hit much closer to home.

On the other hand, I do quite like the way the game introduces the antagonists. The human antagonists are presented as real humans, and asks the GM to consider the history and motivations of the NPCs. In many of these kinds of supernatural investigation games, there is a tendency to skim over the reasons for the evil foe being evil. It’s good to have a game encouraging the GM to make their antagonists into whole and believable characters.

The ODE’s are also well designed. They are weird creatures, but have a distinctly unique feel, different from Cthulhoid horrors or other “creatures from beyond” that would help Esoterrorists stand feel different than other, similar games.

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure this game is for me. I don’t have enough interest in police procedure, and I would prefer characters with a bit more flesh to them.

How would I use this: I could see myself using this game for one-shot investigation games, particularly if I ever went back to teaching adolescents. I could also be persuaded to run a short campaign of Duty Station – I could see it as a great basis for a game that is part Twin Peaks, part X-Files and part undercover police drama.

Other than that, I might lift the Esoterrorist creation chapter in a Cthulhoid game, when creating the cults that are summoning the horrors from beyond.

16th of December: Break Today


You want fries with your enlightenment?

Author/Designer: Greg Stoltze with Chad Underkoffler

From: The Unknown Armies Bundle

I remember being very fascinated with Unknown Armies. It was a modern, urban horror/mystery game with a very different feel than the World of Darkness. It has a very weird and slightly tounge-in-cheek feel to the rather straight and sombre WoD. And I remember that one of the aspects of the game I thought was really neat was the organisation Mak Attack – a secret cabal, spreading enlightenment by loading up burger meals at the world’s largest fast food franchise with magical energies. Well, lo and behold – here’s a whole book, just about them.

The book first describes the cabal, including write-ups (fictional biographies and stats) of many of the movers and shakers. It has some tips for running campaigns with Mak player characters, including some scenario-seeds to use in Mak campaigns. The book also includes new rituals as well as new types of magick and new types of archetypes for the players to play. This includes the Plutophage, who gets power by consuming money or expensive items, and the Anagram Gematrist, who works magic by making anagrams.

The book contains a fair bit of fiction, portraying the main players of Mak Attax, and a number of rather disturbing images. In between chapters are often emails or similar, sent between members of Mak Attax.

My impression: I like Break Today – it gives a very nice intro into the organisation of Mak Attax, and provides an example of what the world of Unknown Armies should feel like. The book has a lot of details about specific people in the UA world. This means the GM runs the risk of turning the player characters into extras in the story of these movers and shakers in the Mak Attax world. On the other hand, it gives a good impression of the feel of the world of UA, and some neat resources to help you make the world of Mak Attax come alive.

A great thing about using Mak Attax is that it gives some more purpose and structure to Unknown Armies. One of my problems with the setting is that I find myself wondering what the goal is for the characters. With Mak Attax, that becomes much more obvious. Not only in that they share the common goal of Mak Attax – it also becomes much easier to develop individual goals that can mesh or conflict with those goals. It provides a great basis for a game where players are each others’ greatest allies – most of the time. At least until one of them has an opportunity to further their own goals, to the possible detriment of the others in her crew.

The book has pretty good guides to starting a campaign based on a crew of Attax’ers. There is a lot of background information on Mak crews, and some advice for creating a crew that will play together. I also like the story seeds included. They vary a fair deal, providing stories for many different kinds of games, and all of them seem interesting. They’re not too detailed, but give a good basis for turning it into actual play.

On the other hand, I lack guides on creating a cohesive campaign based on Mak Attax. The book suggests stringing the story seeds together into a campaign, but that is not really what I’m after. I would like some hints on creating a campaign with an overarching plot and some good story development. That is mostly absent from the book.

Break Today is a great resource for a game of Unknown Armies, particularly if the premise of using the world’s largest – and probably most controversial – fast food chain as a vehicle for enlightenment strikes you as a fun concept to develop. It could also be a great resource for creating NPCs for a campaign not featuring a crew of Attax’ers.

How would I use this: If I ever get around to playing some UA, I might very well use this as the basis for such a campaign. My problem with that is that this probably benefits from running at least a short campaign, and running a long game of UA is not first on my list. I like many things about the game, but I think it’s old school enough that I would grow frustrated with it pretty quickly. Still, with the right group…

15th of December: Bulldogs


Tempt your Fate in action packed space adventures!

Author/Designer: Brennan Taylor and Brian Engard

From: Bundle of Fate

Fate has gone through a lot of development, from the main breakthrough with Spirit of the Century to the current wave of games using Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. Bulldogs! lies in the middle of that evolution, coming out after the success of SotC, but before the birth of Core and Accelerated.

Bulldogs is a space opera game, taking place in The Frontier Zone between two competing empires. Big interstellar corporations are among the movers and shakers in this region, and the players are employed by such a corporation, manning a Class D freighter carrying cargo around the frontier and encountering all sorts of mayhem.

When starting a new campaign, the players and the GM create the ship and the captain together, assigning aspects to them and talking about the basis for the crew. The book stresses that the GM should have no more say in this than the other players. It also recommends that the captain be controlled by the GM, and not be a player character. Then each player will create their own characters, choosing a species from the list or making one up, devising aspects and assigning skills and stunts. Stunts work much like they do in Atomic Robo: The book comes with examples of stunts, but the idea is that you should design your own stunts.

The book is neatly laid out, with clear headings and a logical structure. As a nice little touch, each chapter has an associated picture, and a circular cutting from that picture is in the top corner of every even page of that chapter.

My impression: In many ways, Bulldogs! seems to be a mix of Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo. Just like Ashen Stars, you are travelling around your section of space, solving problems and having adventures. It also features a similarly varied set of alien species. But the tone is much lighter than in Ashen Stars, and more like Atomic Robo – the same ridiculous attitude and silly hijincks. The alien species would also be more at home in the zanier world of Atomic Robo than in Ashen Stars: one is a race of mad, trigger happy teddy bears, for crying out loud! Many of the others are anthropomorphic animals of different kinds, like a race of big cats, a race of humanised snakes and a race of a-sexual, cloning slugs. I suppose this goes with the more gung-ho, action oriented kind of space opera featured in this game.

Where Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo both have a very firm description of what you will be doing, Bulldogs! has only some vague indications. You will be delivering goods, often of a dangerous and unstable kind. And then? Well, then action happens, of some unspecified kind. Th game does indicate that it might be a good idea to involve players’ aspects in the creation of scenarios, but that is about it. There is no recommended structure for a scenario, and no outline for how you should put a campaign together. This is somewhat disappointing, not least because the players’ immediate circumstance – as something akin to galactic FedEx’ers – doesn’t naturally lead to great games.

To be frank, I was somewhat surprised when I saw what the basic premise for the campaign was. You are hauling stuff, which is a trade that is most successful when you just land, unload and take off again. Not what you’ll want to be doing every Wednesday night for some excitement. Now if you were freelance haulers, you’d be negotiating contracts and sometimes ending up with a deal going south. But no, you are corporate wage-slaves, getting your assignments from HQ. Granted, you are going to be transporting dangerous and volatile cargoes, but that also seems to have a limited novelty factor.

At the back of the book are some alternative suggestions for campaigns that sound more interesting. You can be a mercenary crew, explorers, an espionage crew or perhaps even pirates! I am left to wonder, though, why none of these were chosen as the basic model for a campaign, or maybe just written into the chapter as equal ideas. All of these seem to more readily afford a varied series of exciting adventures.

As stated before, the captain is supposed to be an npc. This doesn’t seem an obvious choice to me either. The game states that in this way, the captain can be an adversarial force who can help create problems for the players. Fair enough. But it also means taking a fair deal of agency away from the players. Unless the first part of the campaign involved getting rid of or sidelining the captain, I think I would prefer to have a player assume the role of captain. That way, it will be a player having to deal with HQ, making unpopular decisions and taking the spotlight during a tense dogfight. And I’m not worried about one player nominally having authority over the others – a bit of PvP can mean hours of fun play that the GM doesn’t have to initiate.

I like the universe of Bulldogs! and the tone of the game seems fun and very appealing. Having the players and the GM make the space ship together as part of character creation is a great idea, as it makes the ship a unifying part of the party, and implies a conversation about the kind of game the group wants to play. I could easily imagine Firefly as a prototype of a campaign of Bulldogs! where the ship is like an extra character in the party.

Unfortunately, the game seems unfinished, or at the very least, unpolished. To my mind, no modern roleplaying game is complete without some form of instructions in making the kind of scenarios and campaigns it wants you to play. This game provides mostly alludes to the kinds of situations that could arise, without really telling me how to put it together. The whole GM-section of the book is 9 pages out of 170, with several going to general moment-to-moment advice on running a game of Fate – much of which is practically identical to advice from the superb GM-section in Spirit of the Century – and two pages being the alternative campaign ideas. “Adventure Design” is barely half a page of vague advice. A pity they didn’t adapt some of Spirit’s excellent advice on creating adventures.

I do have faith in my abilities to create an interesting campaign of Bulldogs! But with so many cool and interesting games beckoning, I’m likely to skip it for a game that provides me with more structure to create a good basis for fun and engaging games.

How would I use this: If I ever wanted a fun game of rogue operators in space, in the vein of Firefly, I might very well look to Bulldogs! (I might even think this game would better emulate that series than the actual Firefly roleplaying game). I’ve said this a lot throughout this advent calendar., but it might also be a good game for young roleplayers with an experienced GM.

14th of December: The Clay That Woke


Play Minotaurs caught between the city and the jungle.

Author/Designer: Paul Czege

From: The Indie Cornucopia +3

The Clay That Woke caused a bit of a stir in RPG-circles when it came out. It had a successful Kickstarter, and in a time where pdf’s are becoming more and more prevalent, it delivered a fancy book with 90 tokens to be used with its resolution mechanic, the Crater of Lots. All this made me very curious, so of course I wanted to take a look at it.

The Clay That Woke is a game about minotaurs living and working as an servant class in a once-great society. The minotaurs adhere to a strict honour code called the Silence, detailing what a minotaur should and should not do. A minotaur who breaks Silence too much will be seized by uncontrollable urges and run out into the jungle until he has regained his composure.

And so, the game changes between life in the civilisation of humans, and strange encounters in the jungle. In human society, they live among the humans and are party to the turmoil of human society, while in the jungle, they encounter weird creatures and terrible dangers.

Whenever a player minotaur encounters a sufficiently loaded situation, they will draw from the Crater of Lots – krater meaning a large bowl used to mix wine and water in ancient Greek society. First, the GM will load the crater with a number of tokens, representing the challenge faced by the player. Then the player, and other players present in the situation, may add tokens to the crater from their own supply. Finally, the player will draw four tokens from the crater and then consult a menu of options to determine what the draw means.

The book is structured rather unusually, in that sections of rules or instructions for the players and GM alternate with sections of fiction that gives an insight into the society and mindset of the game world, as well as the kind of story the game wants you to play. In order to help you find your way around the document, the table of contents is structured more like an index, or maybe a reference guide, telling you where in the document to go look for details on this or that aspect of the rules or the game world.

My impression: So. Let’s get this out of the way. The text of this game annoys me mightily. The alteration between fiction and game text is not in itself bad, but that, combined with the vague and oblique way the game text is written, means I never really felt certain what the game wanted me to do. I don’t really know when to draw from the crater, I certainly don’t what the significance of a certain token in the crater is, and I have no really idea of what the players will be doing in the game.

There are many aspects of the game that intrigue me. The world seems fascinating, the minotaurs are an interesting concept for player characters – particularly with the duality of servility in the cities and ferocity and strangeness in the jungle – and the Crater of Lots is a novel resolution mechanic that has a lot of potential for providing fuel for the story.

As such, there is a part of me that aches to try the game, to see if the gold I can see gleaming in there comes out in play, or will turn out to be nothing much at all. But the game does not help me reach that point. It teases and obfuscates, and seems to assume that I will glean the meaning behind the words.

The main motor of the game seems to be the economy of the tokens and drawing from the Crater of Lots. But I’ll be honest – I don’t really have a feel for how the tokens should flow. You regain your life token when the jungle comes for you in the civilised world or when the civilised world comes for you in the jungle – what does that mean? How does it look in play? It seems an important part of the game economy, yet it is explained in not even two lines of text!

The same is the case with the instructions for the gamemaster’s prep. Czege tells you to prepare a number of things before play, but only gives oblique instructions on how to do so. You need to create “life and employment circumstances” for the players in your group – but what goes into such circumstances? What is a good starting point for a minotaur? I must also make situations for the Jungle excursions – but what makes a good encounter in the jungle?

Czege remarks in a post on the Kickstarter for the game that he wrote the game this way deliberately, in order to entice people, to make them want to play the game. That is a noble sentiment. And I would agree – making people excited about a game is definitely one of the goals when writing a roleplaying game.

But Czege also says that it is not important that a roleplaying game book is written as a good procedural text. And this is where I most certainly disagree. Once a text has drawn me in, it needs to take me by the hand and help me make the game come alive. The game needs to help me find the kind of play the creator envisioned – or, failing that, at least one my group will enjoy. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World is an example of a game that achieves both: every page oozes the post apocalyptic mood the game wants to portray. But at the same time, it is one of the most accessible texts I’ve ever encountered in roleplaying.

It’s not easiest game to run, mind you. Apocalypse World is a challenge to run, but an enjoyable one. I keep finding myself leafing through the tome, picking out advice and finding new aspects to bring into the game.

And that is where The Clay That Woke seems to fail: its challenge is not in running the game, but in accessing it, and finding out how to get it to the table in the first place. And no matter how enticing it is, there is a limit of how much you can frustrate someone before they give up and go play something easier instead.

How would I use this: I could probably cobble something together and run this game if I poured the time and energy into it, sifting through the book and filtering out the elements needed to make the game work. But for the moment at least, I’ve been turned off by the writing style and deliberate obliqueness of the text. As such, I’m unlikely to run the game any time soon. I’d be perfectly happy to participate in someone else’s game, because I’m still curious to see if this works, though.

13th of December: Ashen Stars


Freelance Justice among the fading stars

Author/Designer: Robin D. Laws

From: The Bundle of GUMSHOE

Today I’m looking at Ashen Stars from the Bundle of GUMSHOE, a bundle that contains this game, the police procedural Mutant City Blues, and Ken Writes About Stuff and See Page XX, two series of articles by GUMSHOE designers, Robin D. Laws and Kenneth Hite. It was a toss-up between this and Mutant City Blues, but in the end, I decided to go with Space Opera over police procedural with super mutants. Ken Writes about Stuff and See Page XX was interesting as well, but I’m more interested in the cohesive systems, not least because I have yet to play any GUMSHOE.

GUMSHOE (for those who don’t know) is a system designed by Robin D. Laws to facilitate good investigative roleplaying. In GUMSHOE, a character will never have to roll to find important clues. If you have the right skills, you will find the relevant clues. This system has been implemented in a number of different ways. First in Laws’ Esoterrorists game, a game of occult investigation, and most famously in Kenneth Hite’s revamp of Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu.

Ashen Stars takes GUMSHOE to the stars, with a space opera setting reminiscent of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Firefly. The game is deliberately set after the end of the galactic utopia, in a time of restoration after a great calamity. Ten years ago, a great war against a terrible enemy came to a close, and now the Combine of all the planets is licking its wounds and trying to rebuild.

This means that there is not enough resources to maintain control and safety in all the areas once under firm central control – notably the Bleed, the outer edge of the settled universe. Enter the Lasers – freelance lawmen and problem solvers. They travel in small groups from planet to planet, being hired to come solve crimes and deal with problems.

The role a character fulfils within a crew is used as a jumping off point for character creation. You have a Warpside role – like Pilot, Communications or systems – and a Groundside role – like Cultural, Operations and Survey. Each package will give you certain skills. You also get to pick out some skills on your own.

Of course, this being proper space opera, you also have to select your species, choosing from seven different options, including humans and the Cybes – humans who have been so heavily modified by cybernetics and genetics that they have turned into another species. The races are quite different, both in abilities and in their outlook and culture. The outlook is reflected mechanically in the drives available to each race. Drives are expressions of what drives each character, and each race apart from humans has a list of appropriate drives including one or more that only they can take.

Each player will also make a “personal arc” for their character. A personal goal centres around a special goal that the player wishes to accomplish, then adds details about what he wants to achieve. In this way, the players will each have something that can engage that player and throw spotlight on his character, just as each of them will be contributing something to the structure of the campaign.

Speaking of the campaign, the book gives a good overview of the main political realities of the Bleed. Then it provides the tools to create worlds, fraught with problems for the PC’s to deal with. The world creation guide is a very easy-to-follow process, where each step allows you to create interesting problems, and worlds to go with them. The game also has rules for creating and structuring the cases that the players will encounter in a given session. Again, the game provides a very well structured and easy-to-grasp guide.

It does seem that there is a certain overlap between creating worlds with problems and creating cases, and I am not entirely sure where the difference lies. In one, you create a world with a problem the players need to solve, in the other, you create a case for them to solve. The chapter on creating scenes gives a lot more detail, as it’s the chapter to actually tell you how to run the game.

My impression: I am actually quite impressed with this game. It looks like a very interesting and engaged take on an investigative game. It also sounds like it has a good spin on space opera, sufficiently in line with genre conventions to engage the fans, while different enough to feel different.

The alien races are more than just stats and outside description; instead, the descriptions are written from the point of view of each race, and gives a good introduction to how the races think, feel and act. This gives a lot of good input into playing members of each species.

The crew assignments seem like a good way to give players a leg-up into building characters, and also help ensure that the group has everything they need when the game starts. It also helps define the characters’ relationships to each other, without pegging them too much.

Finally, I really like the drive and personal arc. Drive gives you a good indication of what the character cares about, while the personal arc allows you to build a story into the game that is about something you care about, and something that is about you.

The chapters for the Game Moderator are also quite good. The rules for making worlds and cases help the GM make good stories that evoke the feel of the game, and make sure that there is enough interest for the players to engage with. The chapter on running the game also includes loads of good general advice on being a good GM, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to a relatively new GM, as long as they know something about Space Opera and investigation.

I have an idea for a Space Opera game using the Apocalypse Engine rattling around in my brain, which was par of why I wanted to look at this game here. But after reading it, I’m wondering if I might not want to take this game out for a spin sometime. It is also reminding me a lot of Star*Drive, and making me itch to take a look at that again.

How would I use this: If I ever wanted to host a game of investigation in space, I might definitely look here. Like I mentioned above, I have an old love for Alternity’s Star*Drive, but this is probably more accessible and less clunky mechanically. I might also well decide to use it if I ever teach adolescents about roleplaying – this is very accessible in both mechanics and theme, and so it might well be a good way to introduce them to investigation.

11th of December: Designers and Dragons

Designers and Dragons 2000s

The history of ten years of roleplaying history in one handy volume.

Author/Designer: Shannon Appelcline

From: Designers, Dragons and more

Designers & Dragons is a series of books on the history of roleplaying. Each book focuses on a decade, from the ‘70es to the ‘00s, and takes a look at the trends, companies and designers that were prominent in that time. I took a brief look at the ‘00s one, as that is when I’ve mostly been active, and because I’m most interested in some of the things happening in the Indie scene from the early ‘00s onwards.

The book is divided into eight parts, each focusing on a particular trend. A couple focus on D20 games, a couple focus on indie games and a couple focus on other trends in roleplaying. Each part contains chapters dealing with one of the publishing companies prominent within that part of the hobby.

For each company, the book gives a chronological overview of what happened to that company. The book goes into a good amount of detail, and also describes the important characteristics and innovations of prominent games in the company’s line.

Here and there, the book includes fact boxes, detailing minor developments or tangents to the main topic of that section. For instance, the section on D. Vincent Baker’s Lumpley Games includes an aside about Night Sky Games, which is run by Baker’s wife, Meguey Baker.

At the end of each chapter is a box of suggestions on what to read next, divided into related aspects from the same book, related aspects from other books, and related people present in other chapters of this or other books.

My impression: I will start off by saying that I did not read through all 458 pages of this book before making this review. I don’t think I ever would, either: there are some sections that just don’t interest me. For instance, I have never had any interest in Pathfinder, and I have no reason to read the section about the development of that brand.

On the other hand, the development of the Indie scene is a scattered and confused affair, and I am excited about the prospects of a tome giving a more-or-less coherent overview of that narrative. I am really impressed with the level of detail the author goes into, and I will look forward to when I’m able to spend more time delving into it in a bit further.

Having said that, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the “company” approach. Going through each company in turn transforms the history of the hobby into a number of more-or-lesss connected narratives about this or that person doing this or that at a given time. I would have liked a more coherent narrative. I would also have liked a look that focused a bit more on things outside of the publishing world. What about conventions, for instance – how did they change? What about the roleplaying media? Both aspects are mentioned here or there, but a run-through of the environment of the games’ creation could have been useful.

All in all, this is monumental work, and a very interesting one – if nothing else, then because it (to my knowledge) is the only work looking at the whole history of roleplaying. It’s for geeks, who have an understanding of the hobby as it is to day, but for those geeks, there is loads of interesting stuff here.

How would I use this: This is the kind of book that is interesting as background knowledge, while having almost no impact on the games you actually play. I want to read more, particularly about the development of Indie games, but also the development of GUMSHOE and the White Wolf line of games. Besides, it is fascinating to delve into the genealogy and legacy of many of the games that are at the centre of the hobby today.

10th of December: Puppetland


Oh, that wicked Mr. Punch!

Author/Designer: John Scott Tynes

From: The Indie Initiative Bundle

I heard about Puppetland game way, way back, when I first started looking into Indie Games. But alas, it was out of print, and I wasn’t into buying games in pdf.

Flash forward a great many years, and suddenly it popped up in a bundle. So of course I had to get that bundle, so that I could figure out what all the fuss was about.

In Puppetland, you play puppets in a land of puppets. The land was created by the Maker, the human who created all of the puppets, in order to keep all of the puppets safe. But the evil Punch killed the Maker, and took over as ruler of Puppetland.

Now Punch’s former lover, Judy, leads a resistance movement against Punch, while most of the puppets live in fear of the tyrant and his cruel minions. The players will play puppets in this world, trying to overthrow Punch and revive the Maker, so that all will be right again.

The game is a fair bit different than many other early Indie games. This may well be because it originated before the Indie movement really took of; apparently, the first draft of the game was created all the way back in 1995.

The rules of the game are deceptively simple. There are three:

The First Rule: A “tale” or session of the game lasts precisely one hour of real time. After that time, the game will end, and the Puppets will find themselves back in their bed again the next morning. Even if they died during the previous tale. During the hour the game lasts, you can narrate a far longer span of time in the fiction, simply by saying what amount of time elapses.

The Second Rule: When you sit down at the table playing Puppetland, what you say, your puppet says. Including “I reach for the rock to hit the Nutcracker with”. As such, all puppets will be continuously narrating their own actions: “I shall take this rock and hit that mean nutcracker over the head with it”. If someone must break character, they have to stand up from their chair – and ideally go over to the GM to whisper into his ear.

The Third Rule: Everything must be presented as if this was a story being told. This rule is mostly for the GM: The GM should always speak in the past tense, as if narrating a storybook. “The rock hit the nutcracker straight in the back of the head. ‘Crack’ said the nutcrackers head. Then he slowly fell forward and landed on the floor”. Of course, it also goes for the players, who should talk like characters in a storybook. That means that profanity is no good, while the morality of everything that happens is black and white: the good are good, and do nothing evil, while the bad guys are evil through and through.

Characters are created by selecting the kind of puppet (finger, hand, shadow or marionette), giving it a name, writing down what it is and what it can and cannot do, and drawing a picture of the puppet on the character sheet.

The overarching plot of the game is pretty well set – overthrow Punch and revive the Maker – but the individual tales could be anything: overcoming Punch’s minions, getting secret information, saving someone from Punch’s wrath or maybe interfering with Punch’s nefarious doings.

There is no system for combat, except what the GM deems a feasible outcome – bearing in mind that good should be able to carry the day in the end. Death is not usually final – at first. The 16th time a character dies, however, it will be for good.

My impression: Wow. This is a fascinating and disquieting game to read. The immediate impression is very cute and quaint – but when you dive into it, there is a really ugly side to this game. The minions of Punch – his boys are nasty creatures created from the flesh of the maker (!), and you can expect puppets to be tortured and murdered throughout the game for such heinous crimes as being unhappy.

The world of the puppets is described in just enough detail to make it both realistic and absurd. For instance, the puppets have to eat, which means sitting around, pretending to eat. Otherwise, they will grow hungry. The game is full of these quaint little details that give me a really good impression of the feel I’d want the game to have.

The rules… are weird, but I find them strangely charming. Even if they don’t give “proper” resolution mechanics of any kind, they steer the conversation, and give some general guidelines to provide the kind of story it wants. Dice or cards would get in the way, I think, particularly since there’s a limit on the time the game is allowed to take. Including a time limit is not only an unusual thing, I think it would be necessary in a game like this – it’s hard to maintain the kind of focus required to only speak in character for very long, but an hour should be fine. It also helps set the scope of each tale to roughly what could be covered in an evening’s bedtime story reading.

Speaking of that, the game has a conflict between silly children’s story and visceral horror. Where the tone ends up in any given group would depend a lot on the individual GM, and I expect the game to grow darker as the sessions go. I do not think of this as a children’s game, however.

Puppetland is not a game for everyone, but with the right crowd, I think this game could really shine. If you have someone who can relish both the humour and silliness of the puppets and the darker stuff underneath, you could tell some really interesting stories. Incidentally, I think this game has more players in common with Itras By than with Atomic Robo – it has some of the same surreal vibe and communal storytelling that Itras By also has, but not nearly as much action as Atomic Robo.

How would I use this: I would like to try this game out for a few sessions. I don’t think I would want to spend many evenings playing this game – but with hour-long sessions, you could squeeze one into an evening before a board game, or something of that kind.

It’s also a game I think I could play with new players who have a bit of an acting, storytelling or literary bent. Someone who might not want to roll loads of dice, but who can get behind the peculiar acting inherent in this game.

9th of December: Atomic Robo


Save the world with Action Science!

Author/Designer:Mike Olson et- at.

From: Bundle of Fate +3

Today, I’m taking a look at the Atomic Robo RPG from the Bundle of Fate +3. This was a difficult one to choose from – I was tempted to go with Baroque Space Opera instead, and Unwritten: Adventures in the Ages of Myst beckoned as well. But I’ve heard some interesting things about Atomic Robo, and so I decided to go with this instead. And by pure coincidence, this turned out to be a fun-house mirror image of Itras By from yesterday.

Atomic Robo is based on a series of comic books about the atomic robot, Atomic Robo. Robo was created by Nicola Tesla, and since his creator’s death, he has been in charge of a company building on all the super-science secretly invented by Tesla. And so today, Robo leads a band of Action Scientists going out to battle nefarious conspiracies trying to take over the world.

(What is an Action Scientist, you ask? The book has a good example to explain it: Imagine an archaologist, carefully excavating some site, or maybe dating potsherds in the lab. Now think of Indiana Jones, going on adventures, dodging traps and discovering mystical artefacts in remote locations. Action Scientists are to science what Indy is to archaeology.)

The Atomic Robo roleplaying game is built on the Fate system, with a few special quirks of its own. As in other Fate games, a character consists of a number of skills, some stunts and some aspects. Atomic Robo organises the skills in “Modes”, gathering a set of skills to do with the same type of actions. Each character has three modes at different levels (one Good, one Fair and one Average), choosing from the four Standard Modes (Action, Banter, Science or Intrigue) or creating or adopting a ready-made “Weird Mode”. Weird Modes are skill sets that are tailored to a concept beyond the generic Action Scientist mould of the gamer. Example Weird Modes include Robot, Dinosaur and Reporter (cause reporters are weird, man).

Stunts are ways your character can bend the rules of the game. The game recommends building stunts on the fly, and provides a list of sample benefits a stunt can provide, like a bonus to a roll or an exception to a rule. Weird Modes often provide mega-stunts that provide benefits beyond those of a regular stunt, but a mega-stunt also comes with drawbacks to counterbalance.

Finally, each character will have five aspects: one concept aspect (like “I am the atomic robot” or “Ape professor”), one aspect for each of the three modes, and finally an “Omega Aspect,” giving the character a direction or a goal. The concept aspect should be created before the game starts, but the other can be created during play. Each aspect gives you one Fate Point that allows you to influence the game. You gain more in different ways, including when you surrender a fight or when your aspects complicate things for you.

The GM version of this is the Budget and the Reserve. For each scene, the GM receives a certain budget of points to spend on making lives difficult for our heroes. When an NPC aspect is compelled, the GM gets a point into his “reserve”, to bring to bear in a dramatically appropriate scene.

Throughout the book, bits of the comic is used to illustrate aspects of the game. So when explaining the use of Compels, it shows a scene from the comic where Atomic Robo is compelled. This visualises the mechanics, and gives the book a lot of colour and interest.

My impression: This is in many ways the opposite of Itras By. Where Itras By allowed for a wide range of stories and characters, but did not really give enough guidance for how to do so, Atomic Robo gives a lot of guidance and step-by-step instructions on how to use the system, but it seems a bit narrow in the kinds of stories and characters you can play.

This may well be because the game is supposed to be a beginner’s introduction to Fate. The game seems tailored to helping both players and game masters get into the game as quickly as possible. For the players, there’s a quick and easy way to build characters that allows you to begin within twenty minutes. Saving the creation of advances, aspects and stunts for during the play allows the players to create mechanical elements for when they need it, and hopefully have a good sense of who each character is, and what they need to work. There is also a more in-depth mode of character generation, for when you want something a bit different.

For the GM, there are random “plot generators”, loads of useful advice (both generic and specific to Atomic Robo), plus the financial aspects of the Budget and the Pool. I think this might help inexperienced GMs to understand the game better. On the other hand, I think I might be annoyed at the restrictions inherent in the very mechanical way this is built.

The game has a very particular kind of story in mind, and has a couple of neat little sub-systems to assist that. First of all, the Brainstorm. This allows the players to come up with a hypothesis for something in the game – which is then true! It’s potentially a fun tool to putting some Science! into the game, and making players help give the world flavour.

Second of all, Tesladyne, the company the characters work for, has skills, and can be developed by the players. This is a great way of giving some cohesion to the game, and making everyone feel like part of something bigger

All in all, I like the game. In some ways, it feels a little like a modern version of Spirit of the Century, and I think it does a good job of capturing a certain kind of science fiction story. Also, it’s a very easy and accessible version of Fate, and I wouldn’t hesitate to hand this to an inexperienced GM, knowing the budgeting system and the other structures in the game would help them make a good game. Similarly, building characters with modes makes it very easy to create solid characters, without spending hours poring over lists of skills and stunts. Creating things on the fly means I could help players by saying “What do you want to achieve right now”, and then creating an aspect or Stunt in the moment.

On the other hand, it lacks some of the charm of something like Spirit of the Century. The more firm structure is also more rigid, and I suspect I might get frustrated with the ways the game wants me to run things. Also, I’m not sure I like the GM budget – while it’s a good way of helping new GMs make a balanced game for the players, I think I prefer fudging things when playing a relatively traditional game like Atomic Robo.

How would I use this: I would play Atomic Robo with a group of newbies, to introduce them to Fate, particularly if I ever teach adolescents again. I might also try taking it out for a spin if I ever wanted a one- or two-off game of enjoyable action to play with more adult players. On the other hand, I don’t think this would ever replace Spirit of the Century as my game of choice for silly, pulpy adventure fun.

8th of December: Itras By

08 GiaeverGudmundsen-ItrasBy

Wonderous adventures in the surreal city.

Author/Designer: Ole Peder Giæver & Martin Bull Gudmundsen

From: The Indie Sprimg Festival Bundle

I believe I first really heard about Itras By (Itra’s City) back in 2010, when Niels Ladefoged Rasmussen and Anne Vinkel (of recent The Good Roleplayer Must Die fame) wrote a scenario for Fastaval called The Boy and the City, which was set in Itras By. Also, I know one of the authors, Ole Peder, so I was curious to look at the game he’s made.

Itras By is inspired by the surrealism movement of the early 20th century. It takes place in Itras City, a wondrous place of (literally) bull headed people, vanishing streets and anarchists smoking cigars made from flakes of the sky. It’s a city of beauty and humour, but also of strife and tragedy.

The game presents you with a very open frame for creating your characters. You can be anything or anyone you want, from a beggar in the street to something akin to a god. Before you create your characters, though, the game tells you to talk with the group and come up with a concept for the characters, and for the campaigns. Are you a club of revolutionaries, the crew of a ship embarking upon a voyage, maybe bored rich youths out for adventure – or just a group of neighbours living in the same house?

Each character is made up, first, of a concept. This is similar to many other games, but even more important, as the rules place so few limitations on your character. You will then write a background, “dramatic qualities” (aspects that you will be able to bring to bear in dramatically loaded situations) “intrigue magnets” (that the GM will use to create plots you are interested in) and supporting characters connected to your character.

Resolution is done by drawing from a special deck of cards, giving results such as: “Yes, but… The character succeeds, but there’s a tiny detail that doesn’t go quite as planned.” Or: “No, but… The character fails, but another positive thing happens instead, unrelated to what she was aiming for.” It is then up to the GM and the players to interpret the card in the situation.

The game starts off with a long setting chapter, and finishes with several sample scenarios and sample campaigns, to give you a feel for how the game works. The prose of the book is very literary, quite poetic and a tad dreamy. The whole book is liberally sprinkled with some nice drawings of some of the weird creatures and places in the book.

My impression: The book of Itras By is a beautiful thing to behold. I’d almost wish I had a physical copy, just to be able to take it out and look at. It could almost serve as a coffee table book. The art style is very appealing, and helps underline the feeling of the book exceedingly well. Meanwhile, the layout of the book is pleasing, and also supports the mood of the book.

The setting, meanwhile, is equally wonderful. I am the kind of person who has bought many a role-playing book, not with any intention to ever use it for play, but simply to read the descriptions of the setting. The setting of Itras By is like that. Each section is wonderful, and filled with great ideas and inspiration. I would love to delve further into the setting.

Which brings me to the weak point of the book: the part where you actually sit down to play with the game. This whole part seems very vague, and doesn’t really give the reader the tools to create a good game of Itras By. To be fair, this is probably at least in part because they want to give the players as much freedom as possible to create the game they want in the setting.

On the other hand, when the game tells me to come up with a concept for a character, it gives me just one short paragraph to do this. Now, in a game like Vampire, that would be fine – the game has already given me several constraints to work within, like the clans of the game and the city the game is set in. But in Itras By, anything goes. That means that a lot more work goes into figuring out who and what you want to be. This doesn’t just go for character concepts – creating a campaign concept is left very vague as well.

The problems continue when we get into Dramatic Qualities. These are the only “crunchy,” mechanical bits of your character. But the game gives very little direction as to what you’re going for here. Anything can be a Dramatic Quality – or not, depending. Depending on what? On what you feel like! Well, how many do I get? Oh, as many as you like, but between one and four is a good number.

And then, once we have our characters and get into the actual play portion of the game, the vagueness continues. The whole chapter on playing the game is mostly filled with general roleplaying advice, like how to get into character and not to try to prevent interesting things from happening to your character. All of it is great advice, and I might well give those pages to anyone playing any kind of roleplaying game – not least traditional games like Vampire or Unknown Armies. But it doesn’t really tell me how playing Itras By is different from any of those other games. The game does put a lot of emphasis on improvisation, which is not commonly found in other traditional games. On the other hand, it’s still not really something special about Itras By.

The resolution mechanic is probably the most innovative thing about Itras By, in all its simplicity. The resolution cards are simple and easy to use, but it seems like they give a lot of fodder to the story. It’s a really clever way of introducing very nuanced input to the story, without just going into different degrees of success. A “Yes, and…” result is radically different from a “Yes, but…”, and gives the players and GM some good cues for how to adapt it to the story. It also focuses on the story-based, improvisational nature of the game.

The game also comes with some “Chance Cards,” allowing you to introduce some randomness into the game. These look interesting, though I’m a little worried they might not always be beneficial to the game. I’d have to see them in play to pass judgement – it’s certainly an interesting concept, and if the group can handle them, I think it could be a great boon for a game.

From the above you might conclude that I dislike Itras By. That is not the case. I’m intrigued by the game, and I can see the possibilities for some great games in this city, using these rules. But I would have liked some more guidance for both the players and the GM, to ease them into the world of surrealistic roleplaying. As it is, I would love to play this game with players who have played a good number of Story Games and Indie rpgs before, people I know will be able to spin good stories within the loose framework of the game. On the other hand, I would not give this book to players who are not used to communal storytelling – that might well lead to disaster.

How would I use this: I would love to play a short campaign of a few sessions of this. I think this game would be very well suited to campaigns of a limited span, exploring one main storyline. On the other hand, I don’t think I would want to do a campaign with no agreed end-point – I don’t think the structure would hold up to long-term play.