I’ve been reading my way through all of the roleplaying games I’ve backed on Kickstarter. Some will get full reviews online either on Who Dares Rolls or on this blog. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about what I’ve read so far.
I’m going vaguely chronologically, but if I need to read a game because I’ll be running it or because it’s a new arrival then it’ll jump ahead in the queue.
Houses of the Blooded: Wilderness
Read before? No
Played? Yes, but not using this book
I like John Wick’s Houses of the Blooded, but I understand when people aren’t as keen. The rolling system’s inspired by Fate and in turn will also inspire what 7th Sea Second Edition has. You collect a pool of dice and aim to hit a ‘10’, wagering a number of dice by taking them out of your pool for additional effects. If you pass then you gain narrative privilege, not success. You can pick whether you succeed or fail and gain bonuses for complicating things.
Wilderness is a collection of expansion ideas by Jess Heinig, themed around the wilder aspects of the world. There’s a new hidden house to add to the ones from the core book, sullen and isolationist, but able to be integrated if you’re playing on the edge of civilisation. There’s also an interesting alternate campaign frame where you play adventurers sent forth by the Blooded to fight Orks and gather up treasure for them.
It’s interesting and I’ve run a few one-shots of HotB over the years. I like the idea of running a game on the edge of the wild and will probably incorporate some of this at some point.
Read before? Yes, multiple times
Fate Core is a toolbox, and an elegant one. Like Houses of the Blooded, it’s a bit marmite, with some people really not clicking with it and some loving it. I find the best presentation of the system in games like iHunt and Fate of Cthulhu where it’s integrated into a setting rather than presented in a general tome like this. The book’s well written and certainly worked for me better than Cortex, which I’ve still not managed to finish, but the grounding in a setting is what makes it pop.
The game is an earlier example of genre emulation than Powered by the Apocalypse mechanics, with narrative elements turned into rules, primarily Aspects. They give a +2 bump to a roll, or a -2 if used negatively. They also affect fictional positioning even outside of those numbers. The economy’s lovely, too. You gain Fate Points by using your character traits in a negative way, then spend them to do in-character things in a positive way. It’s simple, and encourages roleplay. There are a couple of clunky elements like the pyramid of skills and advancement. Other Fate games change this up a bit, and it’s not too bad a blemish.
I’ll definitely use this again, although I’ll probably use Fate Accelerated or Fate Condensed over Core.
Monsterhearts: Second Skins
Read before? Yes
This is an expansion to the amazing Monsterhearts RPG, consisting of several playbooks or ‘skins’ for use in games. They’re a little weirder and tricksy in some places compared to the core skins and Jackson Tegu nicely converted them to Monsterhearts 2 when the new edition came out.
- The Sasquatch – A shy, awkward person who wants to disappear
- The Wyrm – Someone who sees everyone as social currency
- The Cuckoo – A supernatural stalker and copycat, pretending to be other people
- The Unicorn – They desperately want to help and do good, but can they?
- The Heir – You have a ton of siblings each with weird abilities, who will fall to strange fates while you grow more powerful
- The Neighbour – Another mortal, a ‘person next door’ type who’s going to get in trouble
- The Selkie – Wistful and called to the sea, but without the pelt they need to return
I’ve played and run in games with some of these, and while I tend to mainly offer up core playbooks, they’re interesting ones to throw in occasionally.
Primetime Adventures Third Edition
Read before? No
Primetime Adventures Second Edition was the indie RPG I owned the longest without actually playing. I backed the third edition as I like the idea of it. The game’s basically about playing a television show. It has a good sense of media literacy and expressing the beats, focus and even to a point the fandom of a TV show. There’s a simple card-based system to resolve things and ‘fan mail’ which can help boost things. Each character has sets and props to help them, and will the the focus of at least one episode.
The thing with this game is that it’s still an interesting resource for storytelling, but I don’t think I’ll use it when a lot of other games do genre emulation for specific stories better than this manages for all stories. There are also games like Hearts Blazing which handles the ‘telling a season of an RPG’ really well.
Read before? Yes
Oh my god this game. I’ve reviewed it before on Who Dares Rolls and while I’m not a big World War II nerd, I loved Night Witches.
You play the airwomen of the 588th, a group of Russian pilots who were in out of date planes and told to harass enemy forces. This is done in a cycle of Day and Night phases. The Day phase sees you look after your planes, explore the airfield, interact with each other and deal with systemic sexism as well as the NKVD. At Night you run missions, deadly missions. Hopefully you’ll hit your targets and get back home intact.
The book comes with a campaign running the course of World War II, with a handful of missions per duty station and ways of abruptly moving on, even encouraging changing GMs as you change station. While I didn’t do that, I did get halfway through a campaign with my group and it was wonderful, if emotionally battering. Hopefully we’ll play it again, covering the back half of the war.
Paranoia Red Clearance Edition
Read before? Yes
I like Paranoia, and I think that aside from one or two things, this is one of my favourite editions.
Paranoia is a game set in an underground utopia where death has been conquered and a Computer looks after all your needs. All is order, all is peace. Only that’s a lie. The Computer had too many programmers all with their own agendas, it became aware of things like Communist propaganda and believed enemies were everywhere, lurking in shadows. The clones it made in batches of six all became defective with strange powers. But none of you really know how bad the rot is, instead you’re a Troublehooter, tasked with killing mutants and traitors, while also secretly being both.
This edition has a nice, simple dice system with a fun Computer Dice which randomly has The Computer interfere, often lethally, in a way it thinks is helpful.
The setting has been tweaked a bit, allowing for things vaguely like modern technology, even if they’re as busted as everything else in Alpha Complex. There’s a great character creation process which arms everyone against each other.
The one problem I’ve got with the system is the cards. There are action cards which have funny effects and numbers for when you go in initiative order. You go around placing cards facedown and announcing your number, then seeing if anyone calls you on it and if they catch you in a lie then you miss your turn. Then you count through, finally acting on initiative if you’re still going. I don’t care for this much of a faff in my fights, so I’ve resorted to using Balsera Initiative and some prop guns from Cash & Guns instead.
There’s a new edition which has come out on Kickstarter, but I don’t know who the authors are and it sounded like this edition without the cards, possibly resorting to some of the older elements of the setting, so I’m fine with this one.
Fall of Magic & Songs from the Axe and Fiddle
Read before? Yes
This is one of the most beautifully presented RPGs I own.
Magic is dying, and the Magus is dying with it. You follow him on his travel across the land, to where magic first came from. This game is represented with a beautiful scroll which you only see a section of at a time as you travel east, towards the origin point of all magic. You will spend moments or months at different stages of the journey, telling fragments of stories and often moving on abruptly to the next leg of the journey.
Your character is given a name, a descriptor and a coin to represent where they are on the map. The Magus is also given a coin and will lead the way. Each location they stop at, you take turns placing yourself on questions or statements stretching out from the settlement. You can have a scene there, answer a question and occasionally roll a dice to see what happens out of a set of encounters. You can either do that on your turn, or move the Magus on, which gathers everyone up and moves over to the next space. Loves met are left behind, chases with local guards stop abruptly as you catch up with your cart going to the next place. There’s even a deck of cards used to provide random islands when you finally cross the water.
This is a beautiful game which I’ve played three times, even if I’ve never made it to the end in a single session. My first game was incredible, lingering on moments and making it to the sea with a perfect stopping point as the young, naive squire looked out to a sea much larger than anything he’d seen in his life. The second playthrough was two sessions, even venturing into the underworld hidden on the back of the scroll. It was fun, although one of the group got stage fright in session two, as he feared the spotlight and establishing scenes by himself, even though he’d been doing it for a couple of sessions. The third time was a rare experience of an RPG my partner joined in with, but two of the players were wanting something tonally more wacky, in ways which didn’t even build off each other. It didn’t really feel like it clicked right there, which was a shame. That said, a lot of that was on me for not setting the table right and explaining the tone we were going for. It won’t stop me getting it to the table again.
The Songs from the Axe & Fiddle is a really interesting extra booklet providing tiny scenarios and alternate stories using the same map. You might be sailors using the deck of islands as the main location or people living in a village, trying to go about their lives while a swineherd chases an extremely troublesome pig around. I’ve yet to try these and want to, although I might save them until I either have little time, or have actually completed a full playthrough of the main game.
Good Society: A Jane Austen Roleplaying Game
Read before? Yes
I love Jane Austen’s stories, although it wasn’t always that way. I was having difficulty with Pride & Prejudice at sixth form and it took my dad showing me the BBC miniseries, then having a chat about Austen to help get it to click.
I liked Storybrewers from their Alas for the Awful Sea miserablist Hebredian sailors RPG, and I knew I had to check this out.
A false belief from a lot of people with little experience of indie RPGs is that they’re all pretty much freeform and lack the control of trad RPGs. Sure, they tend to be missing massive equipment tables and some sub-systems, but the ritual of the game tends to be more specific and more intricate. In this case, you don’t roll dice, you spend Resolve points to push the narrative in your chaaracters’ favour, to make supporting characters make mischief or to help push what people think or feel (as an offering, and only if they consent).
You get a character with a role, a background, a desire and a relationship with another character. As an example, in the current game I’ve got, I’m playing Selina Oakley, a Meddler from Humble Origins, whose desire is to take charge of the family and her relationship is that she’s the sister of Abigail. She was also given a relationship card from Luce Wynn saying that they’re rivals (although that’s going to change…)
Play goes through rounds of different phases. The Novel Phase is regular play, often between group events, visitations of vignettes. Reputation Phase checks what you did against triggers based on your background, earning you new traits based on society’s view of you. The Gossip Phase has you make and spread rumours not from your characters but from society. If you spread them then they become real in society’s eyes, if not then they fizzle out. Finally there’s the Epistolary Phase, where players write letters from their main character or any supporting characters they control.
You play through multiple cycles and it feels like a good way of measuring time. We had an introductory phase of learning who the characters are, then complicating their lives and watching it all get tense. When it’s the final phase, we’ll know to wrap things up nicely, like any good Jane Austen romantic comedy.
FIasco Boxed Edition
Read before? Yes
Fiasco was the first indie RPG I really got into. This new edition tightens everything up and puts it in a fancy boxed set.
Fiasco is a game of bad people making worse plans and watching them succeed or fail in ludicrous ways. It’s a Coen Brothers movie game. Each scenario has a deck of cards with relationships, locations, items and needs which you divide out between you. As a group you pick a relationship and one of the other cards to put between each of you to make a group who are all drama magnets, pre-loaded with terribleness. The backs of the cards have names on them so even the unused cards might be useful.
Players go through two rounds of scenes, choosing to define how the scene starts if they don’t care how it ends, or letting someone else do it if they want to pick whether it’ll end well or badly. You then have a ‘tilt’ where some extra petrol is added to the fire and two more rounds of scenes to get everything falling apart. The good and bad endings build up a score used to determine how well or badly things go for you, and it’s always going to tell a gloriously messy story.
I really like this system, although I don’t quite believe the two hour runtime it now boasts. That might just be that my players and I waffle a bit, but it’s generally been around three hours and change. This is an evergreen one-shot game in my eyes.
Read before? Yes
Much like Fiasco, I love having one-shot games which are ready out of the box. I have a ‘go bag’ with Lasers & Feelings, Lady Blackbird and several Grant Howitt one-shots. This series of ‘Littlebox RPGs’ are a perfect addition to that collection.
VIllagesong is a game about a collection of villages in an archipelago and how they deal with problems together, or how they push their problems on each other. Players pick a village leader and a village, then collectively pick relationships which also represent the physical landscape connecting the villages.
You draw cards from a deck which is customised based on the scenario you’re playing, reading them out and either handling the matter yourself or pushing it to someone else. They can reject what you’ve done, straining or breaking your relationship (the physical connection in the land also suffers when this happens) or answering the problem and dealing with the results.
Each card is added to your ‘Villagesong’, stacking up poetic little phrases to make the song of your community at the end of the game. If you like games like For the Queen or Quiet Year, this is definitely one for you.
Our Mundane Supernatural Life
Read before? Yes
Another Littlebox RPG, this one was trickier to get to the table as it’s a two player game. You and another player make a mundane person, a supernatural person, then put them in close proximity to each other with relationships like parent/child, spouses or flatmates.
You write out a schedule for a regular day, splitting some cards between each player and the pair of you together. They’re lined up in chronological order and you run through scene by scene.
You roll a four-sided die and add one to the result in order to determine the length of the scene, from two to five minutes. It’s a really interesting technique as some dramatic scenes may end up being cut short and some completely mundane scenes like washing dishes might take five. This means some scenes linger longer than needed, letting silence, repetition or conversations about the weather reign. The additional complication is that you might see a symbol on the back of an event card showing that something goes awry, but you won’t know until you reach it. There are extra modules, allowing for nicer moments, scenes of personal realisation, extremely bad things and even multi-day play.
I’ve only played it the once, but it was a nice experience and is definitely something I’ll do again.
Read before? Yes
This is a solo RPG based on Soulslike video games. You are Engraved, travelling from realm to realm, looking to fight enemies, gather lore and gain a Rune from the local Runelord before moving on. For a solo RPG, it’s got a lot of tactical fighting involved, all on a small four-by-four square grid. You roll dice and place them on your actions kind of like Euphoria or Dead of Winter. Enemies have patterns of behaviour where they move and attack based on a die roll as well, which makes them deadly but partially predictable.
The core book is 100 pages and has only one Realm to use, but there are several online and there’s an Atlas by the author which adds even more for you to try. I’ve only played one session of Rune, but I’m eager to get it to the table again.
Read before? No
This one’s a very much an ‘easy win’ RPG-wise. An RPG which is on two small business card-sized pieces of plastic. The PDF version is a whopping three pages.
Aesthetically like Mork Borg, this is a bright yellow and red RPG about travelling through a dungeon or other setting and buying upgrades, as long as you survive your current round. It’s fairly basic and I’m curious to see how it feels in play.
Read before? No
I mentioned earlier I don’t do Dungeon World anymore, but there’s a new challenger for the role of Powered by the Apocalypse fantasy RPG. I mean, there are more, there’s Fellowship which also looks good. Still, this game which is tricky to search for online given its generic name looks like an interesting system.
Instead of replicating D&D style play, Fantasy World wants to be a bit broader as far as fantasy stories. Your group have a role which helps provide a framework in which you’ll be making characters and interacting with the world. I think this is my first large Italian RPG, so it’s interesting seeing how differently things are laid out.
The rituals of play feel a little more formalised and presented in a more bullet pointy fashion, but the moves are all a bit more intricate and interesting. You get roles like The Captain who has a crew and a headquarters (which could be like Sherwood Forest or could be like a pirate ship). The Knight has an order and a code which grants them great abilities in return for restrictions they make to their lives. The Maker creates strange technology. The Occultist has magical abilities but may face corruption through them. The Priest works miracles based on their faith. The Scoundrel is well-connected and resourceful. The Troubadour knows about the world and can make connections. The Veteran is a battle-hardened warrior with a special weapon. The Wayfarer has primal powers over nature and animals. The Wildcaller is an elemental magician.
The structure looks interesting and intricate without being too obstructive. I’m really interested in trying it out this year and seeing how it fares compared to other fantasy games.
I finished January ahead, which I didn’t expect, but I had a couple of cheap wins with the Littlebox RPGs and Fiasco, compared to some big books like Fantasy World. It’s a mixed bag and the older RPGs have mostly been pretty good. That’s going to change soon.