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.

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.

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.

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.

7th of December: A Penny For My Thoughts

07 Tevis-PennyForMyThoughts

Remembering other people’s lives

Author/Designer: Paul Tevis

From: The Bundle of Holding +2

Today I’m bringing you a game from the very first bundle I got from Bundle of Holding: The Bundle of Holding +2. I think Monsterhearts was what persuaded me to get that bundle, but that’s not the game I want to talk about today. Instead, I’ve taken a look at A Penny For My Thoughts, a game I remember Oliver talking about back when we were playing Indie games together when we lived in Aarhus. I’ve never played it, though, which is why I decided to read through it for today. The game is a product of the Game Chef competition, an annual design challenge, where participants are asked to design a game based on a number of ingredients, in this case “memory”, “drug”, and “currency”.

A Penny For My Thoughts is a game about memory and personal stories. In the game, you play a group of amnesiac patients who have been administered a dose of a drug that allows you to see each other’s memories. The idea is that the others are free of the emotional trauma that caused the amnesia, and as such can get into the memories that the person are shutting out.

In the game, you write a number of “Memory Triggers” – brief phrases that will spark a memory. Everybody writes a number of triggers and put them all in a hat, a tin or something similar. Then, on your turn, you draw a trigger and read it out loud. You will then ask each of the other players in turn to ask you a “guiding question” – a yes or no question about the memory, to which you must answer, “Yes, and”, and then elaborate on the answer.

When you are done asking questions, you will narrate the memory. There’s a catch, though: you are free to narrate other characters and the world around you, but whenever you take considerable action yourself, you must ask two other players: “What did I do or say then?” Each of them will give you an option for what you did, and you must choose one of them, giving that player a penny from a little stash in front of you. When you are out of pennies, the memory is finished, you wrap it up, and take one penny from a central stash.

Then the player with the most pennies (sort of – there’s a more complicated rule I won’t explain here) takes the next turn. This continues until each player has done three memories. At that point, the game is over, and each player will decide whether to retain their pennies – and their memories – or give back the pennies, going back into amnesia.

Most of the book is written from the point of view of the doctor administering the drug, explaining to the patients how to carry out the procedure they are about to undergo. The game text is designed to be read out loud while playing, such that you can pick up the book and play with very little preparation. The last chapter of the book is written from the author’s point of view, giving some advice and explaining the inspiration and design process of the game.

The game is intended to be played in a realistic, present-day setting, and in the appendices, there is a “Facts & Reassurances” sheet to that effect. “Facts & Reassurances” is the game’s way to coordinate expectations about setting and tone, to avoid clashing visions causing a problem for the players. The game does provide other versions of “Facts & Reassurances”, allowing for instance a Bourne Identity style secret agent game, or a game of Lovecraftian investigators in an asylum.

My impression: First off, I want to mention the tone and layout of the game. It is designed to look like a case folder, and the tone of the doctor comes through quite strongly. On one hand, this is a bit silly. On the other hand, it sets the mood for the game, and I think it will help ease the players into the game very nicely.

The game itself is clearly heavily inspired by improvisational theatre (something Tevis himself acknowledges). I’ve done some improv myself, and I recognise many of the moves that the game uses. Drawing cues from a hat and getting heavy prompting from others are both ways that improv helps participants get into the scenes. This seems like a very good way of doing a game like this, as it effectively stops the players from planning, and instead gets them into the flow of the story. The storyteller knows as little as the other players about where the story is headed.

On the other hand, this may also be a turn-off for many players who like more control. And while I think it might be good for them to learn how to relinquish control and go with the flow, a game that rotates so heavily on that mechanic needs players who can accept that premise for the game.

All said, I like a lot of things in this game. It would seem the game has some very sound mechanics that give good support to storytelling, and teaches some good habits that could be good to have in other games.

I’ll be honest, though. While I like the game, and would be perfectly happy to play it, it doesn’t really get my blood flowing. I think part of that is not having experienced the game in full flow. But part of it is also the way the game seems a little like an exercise, and not quite as much as a game. I’d have to try it to really pass judgement on it.

How would I use this: I would love to give this game a try, just to see how it works. I would prefer to do it with some players I know to be good storytellers, though, as I’d be worried the game would drag with players who are not comfortable with this way of storytelling.

On the other hand, I could also see myself using this game as part of a storytelling or writing workshop. The game aims at fining the emotional content of a scene and making problems for a character, and could be a good exercise in writing potent scenes. Also, you could definitely use the game as the basis for a short story, or even for a novel.

5th of December: Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

5 Solis-Do

Let’s get in trouble with the flying pilgrims!

Author/Designer: Daniel Solis

From: Bundle of Holding +4

Today I bring you a storytelling/writing game from Daniel Solis, who also designed the cute writing game Happy Birthday Robot (which we converted into Happy Birthday Zombie by mashing it together with Zombie Dice). Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is a slightly more advanced game, but similar in many ways.

In this game, you play Pilgrims – teenagers sent out from the Flying Temple in the middle of this universe to solve problem and grow up on the way. (This is actually somewhat similar to Vincent D. Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, though the similarities more or less stop there). The world of the game is heavily inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, with loads of little planets, each with their own community to encounter and interact with. The Pilgrims can fly from planet to planet, and will encounter a situation to solve on each planet they visit.

Generating characters in Do is simple: just make a name for your Pilgrim. A Pilgrim’s name consists of three part: First, the title “Pilgrim”, then a Banner, and finally an Avatar. The Banner is an adjective or descriptor, and indicates the way the Pilgrim gets into trouble, while the Avatar is a noun that indicates the way the Pilgrim helps people. So Pilgrim Green Tree gets in trouble by being inexperienced, while she helps people by nurturing and growing things. At the end of each session, either the Banner or the Avatar will change to reflect what has happened to the Pilgrim during the session – and when the character is ultimately retired, she will have undergone many changes, and be a more grown up character than when she started.

Once you have your characters, you need a world with problems for he pilgrims to solve. To this end, the game comes with a number of letters, written by people desperate for help by the Pilgrims. The letter will describe the situation the writer finds him or herself in. Besides that, there are 20 Goal Words that the Pilgrims will be trying to get through, and some round icons, indicating what kind of issues the letter is likely to involve.

While playing, the players will take turns being the Storyteller, the other players serving as Troublemakers. The storyteller will draw three stones from a bag of white and black stones – 20 of each. Then, he will select to keep either the black or the white stones, and put the others back in the bag. Depending on how many stones he kept, the Storyteller will write a sentence about helping the locals, getting into trouble, or getting back out of trouble. Maybe the Troublemakers add a sentence to the story, and either the Storyteller or the Troublemakers may get to cross a Goal Word off the list.

You continue taking turn as Storyteller until someone has eight stones, at which point you end the session. If you managed to cross off all the Goal Words, you get sent off with a parade – otherwise, you get chased away with pitchforks. Then you do a brief epilogue and change your Pilgrims’ names.

The book is beautifully decorated, with a nice parchment look and loads of pretty and evocative drawings. The letters in particular are presented very nicely, in a way that is not only inviting, but also helps set the scene for the particular world the Pilgrims are visiting today.

My impression: I am quite charmed by this book. The setting is nice and very inviting, and it seems to invite some lovely storytelling about the Pilgrims. There are a fair number of moving parts, but I think it will be easy to keep it going, even with relatively young players.

Speaking of, the game itself states that it is designed for players of age 12 and up. On one hand, I think the story of the Pilgrims would appeal to slightly younger kids. On the other hand, writing out the story of the Pilgrims in a good way, while accepting the bad things that will invariably happen to your Pilgrim, requires a relatively mature player.

The game comes with a lot of advice for the players. This is a good thing, in that it can help inexperienced players get into the game. On the other hand, I think the game requires an adult to communicate the advice to younger players, and help them understand the advice.

My main concern with the game is whether it will feel rewarding in the end. Writing down sentences takes a fair while, and I’m a bit worried that it will drag down the game and make it feel slow. Particularly as you’ll only do one sentence whenever it is your turn. This means that the game will probably last 3-5 rounds, amounting to somewhere between nine and 25 turns. Granted, nine is quite unlikely, but it is certainly possible, and would hardly be enough for a satisfying game. Of course, players can willingly extend the game by taking the lesser number of stones, which may be needed to get the parades ending.

This is of course purely speculation. It is a bit difficult for me to predict how the game will feel when you play it. As it stands, the game is a compelling invitation to a fun session of storytelling. And the book itself is a beautiful and very inviting piece that makes me feel welcome and in good hands. As such, I could definitely see myself recommending this to teachers and parents, even those without storytelling, writing or roleplaying experience, to use with their kids.

How would I use this: I would love to do a session or two of this. I doubt I’d want to do repeated plays of this with the same group of adult players, but if I ever go back to teaching creative writing for adolescents or young adults, I might very well consider bringing this along. I am also considering taking it along to play with some of my family over Christmas – this game could certainly appeal to people without any roleplaying experience at all.

3rd of December: Sorcerer (Annotated)


3 Edwards-Sorcerer-SpreadsScreenviewThe grand-daddy of indie-games, with commentary by the creator
Author/Designer: Ron Edwards
From: Indie Treasure Trove

Today I’m looking at the annotated version of Sorceror, taken from the Indie Treasure Trove
bundle. This one has a number of classics, including 3:16: Carnage among the stars and Annalise, just as I was tempted to go with the western game, Dust Devils. But in the end, there was no getting around this game.

See, Sorceror was the game that started it all. The first certified Indie RPG, by the man who created The Forge himself: Ron Edwards. Today, the web is teeming with story games and indie games building on the ideas that grew out of The Forge, but back then, it was a revolution. Now, I haven’t played Sorceror, nor had I read the book till today, so this book was too obvious to pass by.

In Sorceror, you play more or less regular people in an ordinary world. At least on the surface – because in reality, you possess secret knowledge that allows you to summon and bind demons to carry out your bidding. Of course, that is not an uncomplicated thing to do, and so you are fighting to keep up your cover while trying to sate your demon’s needs, just as it helps fulfil yours.

The book is divided into chapters, with each chapter detailing a certain part of the play. Edwards has a little graphic describing this that I thought described it pretty well, so I’ll include it here:

Diagram from Sorcerer
Edwards has a neat little diagram showing both the structure of the book and the flow of the game.

And so, Chapter 1 describes the initial discussion as you’re sitting down to play Sorceror – where and when are we, and how do we envision the magic working? Chapter two is Character generation, while chapter three deals with generating Demons, something that is mostly a task for the GM. Chapter 4 then describes the overall framework for playing the game, while chapter 5 deals specifically with how you deal with demons, and chapter 6 is all sorts of other kinds of conflict you might end up in. I liked the clarity of this visual way of describing both the structure of the book and the flow of the game.

This is the annotated version, so on the left hand side of the book is the original page, while on the right you’ll find present-day Edwards’ commentary on the old text: praise or condemnation for his earlier self, along with clarifications and better ways of doing things.

At the centre of the game are two concepts that have become very famous in indie game parlance: the Kicker and the Bang. The Kicker is created by the player during character generation, and sets out the beginning of the character’s first story arc. It details a conflict, an opportunity or a threat that the character will deal with during play. This should be enough to fuel the character’s story for a few sessions, and by the end of it, the character will have undergone significant changes.

The Bang, on the other hand, is a loaded situation here and now that players have to deal with. Anything from “Ninjas come barging through the door!” to “Your mother is at the door, and the escort you picked up last night is still in the bathroom, freshening up.”

My impression: I can see the appeal of this game. Even today, after so many other games have developed these ideas further, there seems to be a number of really interesting aspects to Sorcerer. Not least the basic premise of being pretty ordinary people, except you can summon Demons to do your bidding and get you everything you desire… for a price. The basic rules seem pretty simple, and I think it provides the tools for interesting play.

Having said that, though, it feels somewhat clunky. The text seems longer than it needs to be, and it doesn’t always explain the concepts of the game very well. At one point, I searched through the whole document for the proper definition of the Bang and how they should work, but it turned out that the book only had a very vague definition and a loose discussion of their role in the game. At other times, the book seems to spend far too much time on concept that are, all things considered, rather straightforward.

Of course, part of the clunkiness comes from the fact that half the book is commentary. This means that in order to understand a concept, you often have to read the original text, then read Edwards’ comments on it to understand how he would do it know, then skim the original text again in order to see how it relates to the commentary. The commentaries are interesting as part of a study of the development of these kinds of games, and the development of Edwards as a game designer, but I found myself wishing he would write an updated version instead, streamlining the rules and integrating 15 years of experience into the main text, making it more accessible.

Speaking of… Something about the commentary bothered me a little as I was reading. It seems a little as if Edwards is ignoring the development that’s happened over the decade and a half since this game out. This particularly stood out to me during the commentary to the start of the first chapter. Edwards writes:

You simply cannot begin preparing and playing in the same old way you’re used to because you “understand role-playing,” and rely on looking things up as you might in many other RPG texts. This goes double for people who’ve been GM for many different games and who consider themselves experienced. (Sorcerer, p. 13)

And a few lines later:

A lot of games shoot for the initial, necessary inspiration by providing a detailed setting. However, Sorcerer begins with building characters. And since the character creation process necessarily wraps them into in a crisis situation, you only need a little bit of setting to make this go. In other words, setting exists at the outset only to supercharge the characters’ immediate hassles, not for the characters to explore. Play itself will make lots more setting (the “complete” setting if you like), which is fine.

Now, I can see how this holds true if you’ve only ever played “trad” games, with complete GM control and great big setting tomes. But take a look at games like Prime Time Adventures, Fiasco or Apocalypse World, and this is exactly what they do. And honestly, the people who are most likely to read this book are the people who are already familiar with the Indie scene, and who will know about the development over the intervening years. As such, it seems odd for Edwards to write like this. I am certain that Edwards is aware of the development in the scene. So has he misjudged the audience for this book so severely (or, I guess, am I misjudging it?), or does he really think that sorcerer is so different from all the games it inspired?

All in all, this is an interesting game, unfortunately presented less clearly than it could have been.

How would I use this: This annotated version of Sorcerer is interesting as a historical document. I wouldn’t mind diving into it a bit more, seeing which lessons Edwards drew, and trying to figure out what that says about the development of the Indie- and Story-game scene.
The game in itself is also interesting, both as in itself and because of the historical significance of it. I would love to try this game, perhaps just for a couple of sessions, to see how it works. It seems like the game might provide a good basis for some interesting and rewarding stories.

1st of December: Legacy: Life among the Ruins

A Powered by the Apocalypse game about families surviving in the generations after the Fall.

Author/Designer: James Iles

From: Apocalypse Engine Bundle

Legacy is the illegitimate love-child of Apocalypse World and Microscope: A game about families surviving in the generations following a great apocalypse, laying the old, advanced society in ruins, and leaving people to make their way in the mess that’s left behind, digging out old technology when they can. The game is intended to take place over a series of ages. Throughout the ages, each player will control a family as it develops, creating a particular family member to play in each age.

My impression: The first thing jumping out at you when leafing through the book is the wealth of full-colour, very evocative images that saturate the book. They are not strictly necessary, and they would make it more difficult to print out the text for use at the table (a print-friendly version of the pdf might have been nice), but they definitely make the idea of the game come alive. Particularly the images of the different Family- and Character playbooks really communicates what each is all about.

I bought this bundle, not least because I was really curious about the concept of the family playbook. It is a way to do a powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and it sounds like a really interesting adaptation of the system. As it stands, the families clearly provide the flavouring of the game, the Character playbooks being much more about providing a certain function for the family. I like this concept, and I quite like the different Family playbooks, as well. The Character playbooks seem a bit more bland to me, but that’s OK; they are not the main focus of the game.

Unfortunately, it feels like the game has negated this part of the game a little too much. I have only skimmed the game book, and as such, I may easily have missed something. Still, I have a difficult time telling you precisely what you’ll be doing with the character and why. Encountering threats to the family? Sure. But where do they come from? And why are all these characters going at it together? What if one family has a radically different objective to the others this age? Do we then tell two parallel stories, bearing in mind that an age is supposed to take 2-5 sessions? I lack some more guidance to help me – either as player or as GM – kick off the action of the age.

That’s a pity, because the rest of the book indicates a careful attention to making the book accessible to beginners, particularly to GM’ing PbtA games. The game is complex, but I think the mental barrier to entry is lower than for, say, Apocalypse World itself.

How would I use this book: I do like this game, and I would not mind trying it. Unfortunately, it seems like the kind of game that needs a good number of sessions for it to really fly, and that is not likely to happen any time soon. And if I got the chance, I have other things I would probably prioritise: Apocalypse World if I wanted a post apocalyptic game, Kingdom if I wanted to tell a story of a community, Microscope if I wanted to tell a story spanning long stretches of history.

As such, I am most likely to only ever use the book as inspiration, stealing the concept of the Family Playbooks to use in another game, whether PbtA or something else.