Independent role-playing games—what does this mean in a market that is dominated by publishers with very few full time employees? To me, independent role-playing games are simply the games that are left when you discount the big ones:
No D&D, no Pathfinder, no Shadowrun, no Warhammer, no Old School Renaissance, no Das Schwarze Auge.
Ryuutama is one of the unplayed games on my disk which I really need to take a longer look at. The first thing I like about it is the positive background. The art, the colors, the premise (traveling and exploring) – I want to know more.
Zak S. wrote an excellent post on his blog regarding the role of violence in role-playing games. Violence in games is important because violence is important outside of games. It’s all around us. There’s systemic violence, there’s physical violence, there’s psychological violence, there’s fear of violence. Role-playing games give us agency in the face of violence, and that’s important.
Natalie also wrote an excellent post about death. Not many things have value if you die, even if some people would like to tell you that there are in fact values worth laying down your life for. I’m not so sure and I sure as hell am happy that I’ve never been asked to do it.
Anyway, Zak Smith. Violence. Natalie. Death. Important things.
At the same time, the Burning Wheel family of games or the Apocalypse World family of games have us roll dice for things other than combat. A duel of wits, a play book with other moves, all of these things make me wonder whether we can make non-violent things interesting and tense moments at the table. So, Ryuutama: can travel and exploration be tense and interesting without dungeons and dragons?
And what prompted all of this:
We had another one-shot. Playbooks used: grandmother, shield maid, seiđkona, and child. I looked at fronts and decided to have the influence of Hel color the session. A grey winter day, visions of blood seeping up from the ground, dead friends calling you from beyond the fence, ghosts trying to lure people out into the snow storm… Sadly, the session wasn’t very good.
The player of the child felt he had ended up with a playbook unsuited to the situation. What use was there to hiding and sneaking? I guess it might have played like Newt in Aliens: Bonding, and spending those bonds to grant benefits to those braving the storm.
Also, the tension between violence being always available to solve problems but being basically the wrong tool because people will get hurt and die – the tension between men and women, where women goad men into action, where men are mute and violent – all of that was missing because of our all-female cast.
Today we played Sagas of the Icelanders. I spent about half an hour skimming the book, having read various playbooks and some stuff online, some months ago.
I had three players playing the Skaldmey, the Seiðkona and the Huscarl. I noticed that the fighters picked moves such as Belligerent, No Mercy and Freya’s Light. That seemed to indicate armed conflict. The witch picked Bonecaster. That seemed to indicate some searching. I decided to make this about a whale. If somebody managed to harpoon a whale, there was a 50% chance that it would wash ashore in the following days, dead. In this case, half the whale belonged to the owner of the land and the other half belonged to the owner of the harpoon.
We quickly introduced relatives. Picking a last name automatically determined the names of parents. The relationships at the beginning determined additional background: The Huscarl belonged to the family because his father had been killed in Norway and the father’s friend had taken the boy back to Iceland. The Seiðkona had maybe killed and buried her husband and made sure to set the Skaldmey on her path of rebellion.
The player characters venture out to find the whale. Some bone casting follows. They arrange to bring along an ally from a neighboring homestead, a young man thirteen years of age, defend their honor against malicious comments from the elder brother, find other neighbors having also heard about the whale, pick a fight, kill one of them, both parties call for reinforcements, a standoff ensues and finally the whale is divide 50:50, partly to avoid a feud about land ownership because this is a bay where oath breakers are drowned and therefore it belongs to neither family, and partly to avoid a feud because the Skaldmey had killed one of the neighbors in a wrestling match, tempting fate.
Some of the interesting things I saw at the table:
At the end of two and a half hours, all three players said they liked it. One of them had run a few sessions of Apocalypse World for us, ages ago. He liked it. The other had played in those Apocalypse World sessions and he had also played in my One Shot of Colonial Marines. He said that he liked Sagas of the Icelanders best.
The things we liked are the simple rules, the layout keeping rules and character sheet on a single page, this being a different situation entirely than Lady Blackbird…
When compared to Lady Blackbird, I noticed a difference in theme. The thing I like about Lady Blackbird is that the underlying theme appears to be love and friendship. Is the love between Lady Blackbird and the pirate real? What sort of bond is there between Lady Blackbird and her body guard? What sort of bond between the captain and his goblin? What sort of relation between Lady Blackbird and the mechanic? It’s interesting, it’s positive, and it goes into themes that my usual games do not.
In comparison, the theme of Magister Lor wasn’t as strong: revenge and forgiveness, the love and hate between siblings – somehow we couldn’t relate as much. The setup is also highly symmetrical. Master and Apprentice vs. Master and Apprentice. Brother vs. Brother. Magister vs. Demon. This contrasts with the multi-layered Lady Blackbird setup where bonds of various strengths relate characters to each other in asymmetrical ways. This made it feel a lot simpler, or it provided us with less guidance towards a complex situation.
One proposed solution was that we might start our next game without any pool dice, forcing us to start with refreshment scenes. Perhaps that would introduce some initial asymmetries and some “grit”.
Another thing we noticed in comparison with Lady Blackbird was that this is a clear player-vs-player situation, the game does not come with a suggested list of obstacles, events, and so on. These provided a lot of setting and inspiration for the game master to improvise upon. This is lacking in Magister Lor. A list of things to do in the Sanctum would have been nice – even if just a list of things to use against each other! Circuits? Elevators? Traps? Archives? Magical currents? Prisons? Names of demons and their characteristics? It would have helped, I think. Perhaps somebody else will write something like that?
When compared to our goto player-vs-player game, In A Wicked Age, we noticed that Magister Lor does not provide best interests for the characters. There is some guidance hidden away in the keys, but since these try to suggest various ways of running the game without offering a clear “win condition”, I think we all went with the simplest solution: Fight! Master and apprentice vs. demon and apprentice. In hind sight, not the most exciting development.
All in all, 4/5 stars.
★ ★ ★ ★
Here’s how I think about the number of stars: 5 is a recommendation, 4 is a good game with some very good elements, 3 is a good game that I’d play again, 2 is only for people who like a particular thing about the game and 1 is not recommended.
An der letzten OerliCon habe ich In A Wicked Age geleitet. Irgendwie war mir die Würfelmechanik aber nicht mehr ganz präsent, und so habe ich etwas improvisiert, und jetzt, ein paar Tage später, habe ich nochmal nachgelesen, wie das alles funktioniert. Ich finde In A Wicked Age sehr schön geschrieben, kurze, prägnante, fast poetische Sätze. Und die Beispiele sind wunderbar ausführlich, bedenken alle Eventualitäten, bringen dir bei, wie man das Spiel spielt – und wie man Rollenspiele generell spielt.
Leider taugt es nicht als Nachschlagewerk. In der Eile etwas gesucht? Oje! Deswegen für mich selber hier die Zusammenfassung. Ideal für eine Convention. Deutsche Charakterbögen und Orakel gibt es bei 3w20.
Konflikt: Wenn ein Spieler zur Tat schreitet und jemand dagegen halten kann und will, dann kommt es zum Konflikt.
Formen: Alle Beteiligten Spieler wählen zwei Formen für ihren Charakter (Gewaltsam, Liebevoll, Direkt, Verdeckt, Für mich, Für andere) und nehmen die entsprechenden zwei Würfel (W4 bis W12) zur Hand.
Besondere Vorteile: Wer einen besonderen Vorteil einbringen kann, nimmt den entsprechenden Würfel dazu (meistens ein W8, selten ein W10, sehr selten ein W12).
Die Liste: Wer auf der Liste steht, kann sich streichen lassen, und sich dafür jederzeit einen Vorteil kaufen und diesen bis zum Ende des Konflikts behalten. Spielercharaktere kommen auf die Liste, wenn sie mit kleineren Würfeln die erste Runde überstehen.
Vorteil: Wer den Vorteil hat, darf einen W6 zum eigenen Resultat hinzu zählen. Einen Vorteil kann man im Konflikt erringen oder durch die Streichung von der Liste kaufen. Beides bringt je einen W6. Mehrfache Vorteil erringen oder kaufen bringt nichts. Es ist egal, gegen wen ein Vorteil errungen wurde. Ein Vorteil ist ein Vorteil.
Initiative: Alle Beteiligten würfeln ihre Würfel. Gibt es mehr als zwei Beteiligte, so wird in der Reihenfolge der Initiative angegriffen. Das höchste Ergebnis steht. Alle Anderen werden ihre Würfel neu würfeln müssen…
Angreifen: Man erzählt, was man vor hat. Gibt es mehr als zwei Beteiligte, so benennt man diejenigen, die sich verteidigen sollen. Das müssen nicht alle sein! Wer nicht angegriffen wurde, darf später noch angreifen, seinen Angriff neu würfeln und die Beteiligten benennen, die sich verteidigen sollen.
Verteidigen: Man würfelt seine Würfel neu und versucht, das Ergebnis des Angreifers zu schlagen. Wer sich verteidigen muss, kann diese Runde nicht mehr angreifen. Es kann sein, dass man sich mehrmals verteidigen muss: Wenn man gegen mehr als einen Gegner antritt und die Initiative verliert.
Resultat: Der Verteidiger vergleicht sein Resultat mit dem Resultat des Angreifers und erzählt etwas passendes:
Kurzum: Man versucht den Gegner um das Doppelte zu schlagen oder wenigstens den Vorteil zu erringen. Wer nach drei Runden den Vorteil hat, gewinnt.
Erzählen: Man beachte, dass der Verteidiger erzählt, was passiert ist!
Verlieren: Der Sieger wählt zwischen Erschöpfung (für Spielercharaktere: der Würfel für Gewaltsam und Direkt wird um einen Schritt zurück gestuft) und Verletzung (für Spielercharaktere: der Würfel für Verdeckt und Für andere wird um einen Schritt zurück gestuft), oder die beiden Spieler einigen sich auf ein anderes Ergebnis.
Nächste Runde: Nachdem alle gehandelt haben (Angreifen oder Verteidigen), beginnt die nächste Runde wieder mit der Initiative.
Drei Runden: Ein Konflikt dauert maximal drei Runden. In der dritten Runde gewinnt das höhere Ergebnis, Punkt. Wenn sich die Spieler auf ein Ergebnis einigen, kann jeder Konflikt vorher abgebrochen werden.
In A Wicked Age. Das PDF kostet $5 und lohnt sich allemal!
At the local con, I ran four games. The game for Saturday morning was Darkening Skies by Chris Sakkas, an unofficial chapter two for Lady Blackbird by John Harper. The players at the con were the very same ones I had a year ago, plus one. Seven players!
Last year, we played Lady Blackbird, this year we played Darkening Skies. And I think they want to play another session next year. I had to make two new characters. They love it, they love my running the game, and I love them.
The game mechanics are great. Simple enough for everybody to understand. Using a trait and various appropriate tags replaces a multitude of related skills, and it informs the narrative. The results, on the other hand, cannot be talked away using bennies. You must invest your pool dice before you roll. Oh, the groaning at the table when a sure roll fails anyway! “One’s for free, one for being a veteran, one for being fast, and … uh … help, guys??”
The refresh mechanics are also extremely simple. Players need to replenish their pool. If there’s a lull in the action, two players can get together, have a flashback or some intimate conversation that lets us, everybody at the table, know something about them, how they got to know each other, how they felt about each other, how they feel about each other right now. When I run the game, I tell the players that we all want to be entertained. Tell us! And slowly, players start to appreciate that the game is also about the personal drama. He loves here but she’s looking for somebody else. This somebody else is an imperial captain out to get the pirates. One of the players is the pirate captain come to rescue them. One is the imperial spy come to rescue the imperials. One is the sheriff come to see justice done. One is the priest come to find forgiveness. This initial setup, and the mechanics slowly pushing the players to reveal more and more about their characters. At the end we have a sister betraying her brother, a gentleman shooting the true love of his beloved, an aristocrat rebuffed by a pirate, all of these things come together, and ships are exploding, and escape pods are raining down from the sky, and everybody is shouting and shaking their heads and whispering under their breath, “That was cruel, man. Cruel.”
I love it.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Comparing it with my previous experience of running Darkening Skies, I’d say what worked much better was Jezebel’s love interest going on a mission to capture the pirates, so it wasn’t easy for her to leave. Other than that, we had the same effect as last time: the party split up into three groups or more, but this time, with so many players at the table, and many of them so much into it, this was not a problem. They simply moved aside and talked about things, in character. Twice, I had to tell such groups to please not keep their secrets to themselves. We all wanted to know what was going down. So many things were going on, all at the same time. It was confusing and wonderful.
Extra German characters:
Support John Harper on Patreon, if you are so inclined.
Heute war der erste Tag des Zürcher Rollenspieltreffens, der OerliCon (in Dietikon). Ich habe viele Leute wieder getroffen, welche ich von früher kenne, alte Mitspieler aus alten Runden und von früheren Jahren, ein paar Bekannte aus der [Pen & Paper Schweiz] Facebook Gruppe, … viel zu kurz, um mit allen zu schwatzen. Ich habe In A Wicked Age geleitet und es hat super funktioniert. Gerne wieder mal!
Am Samstag Nachmittag habe ich dann Isotope geleitet. Auch dies hat grossen Spass gemacht. Diesmal ging es mehr um die Komik der Postapokalypse und der Mutationen als um die Beziehungen unter den Charakteren.
Am Samstag Abend habe ich noch eine kleine Mission Mouse Guard geleitet, was leider nicht sehr gut ankam. Da ich selber auch immer noch kein Freund von Mouse Guard bin, sollte ich das Spiel vielleicht aus der Liste streichen. Es ist halt ein guter Kontrast zu den anderen Spielen. Mechanisch intensiv, wie alle Burning Wheel HQ Spiele.
The other day we played Darkening Skies, an unofficial Lady Blackbird sequel. It went very well. My prep was minimal (a few minutes at most), the rules were easy to understand, the setting quick to get into. Rules, plot and setting borrow so heavily from current sensibilities, it’s incredibly easy to digest. Everybody at the table sees within the material the things they like: Firefly, Star Wars, The City of Lost Children, Solar System, Apocalypse World, Fate, Mouse Guard, it can all be there if you start looking for it.
One thing to look out for is the additional freedoms built into the setup. Lady Blackbird had characters with diverging goals, but they were all going to a particular destination on a ship. So even if the stories diverged on the way, characters always returned to the ship an proceeded on to the next chapter. In Darkening Skies, the characters all have a reason to come to the ship, but they have different reasons for leaving the ship.
As soon as Jezebel had found her target, for example, she was ready to leave the ship. After contacting all the factions on board, the remaining party soon decided that they needed to split up. Half of them were going to blow up the bridge while the other half was going to find a lander. The bridge fight was going very, very badly. The two characters ended up “presumed dead”.
Should I run it again, I’ll have to push harder in order for the party to feel the need to stick together. Perhaps I was to lax in the beginning and when players realized how deep the shit was they were getting themselves into, it was too late. No more refreshment scenes, no more helping dice, no more group efforts. I think players where surprised to see this happy Hackbird go into survival horror mode.
I loved it, 4/5 stars.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Isotope is a 4-page post-apocalyptic RPG. When I read it, it looked like a simpler Apocalypse World to me. Easier to create characters, none of the playbooks, moves, and all that extra. I was reminded of Vincent Baker’s 2011 blog post Concentric Game Design. There, Vincent says that Apocalypse World has 4 layers of rules. The first layer has a few stats and uses 2d6: “On a 10+, the best happens. On a 7-9, it’s good but complicated. On a miss, it’s never nothing, it’s always something worse.” That’s basically what Isotope does.
There are four classes, human, mutant, wolfling and troll. Assign -1, 0, 1 and 2 to the four classes, get some perks, mutations and some equipment, go. It has an optional list of character names. We played for about 2½h. After the game, players said that they really enjoyed character creation. It was short and the two pages of classes, names, mutations and equipment provided all the setting information they needed and just enough complexity to have them pondering their choices without getting bogged down.
The rules being so short we ran into two issues. One player really wondered about gaining levels and hit-points. You basically have between seven and twelve hit-points. Roll a d6 for every level you have and pick the highest result, add six. You optionally reroll whenever you get to eat, drink and sleep and you reroll when you gain a level. I think I get it but something about how this was worded confused one of us, as I said.
The thing that confused me was how combat works if a creature has multiple attacks. The way I see it, combat means rolling 2d6 and adding appropriate numbers. On a 10+, you deal damage as per weapon. On a 7-9, you deal damage and you take damage, I guess? Not sure about this one. On a miss, you take damage. But then the rules say that monsters should have one to three attacks. How does that work? Just triple damage? Wow! Perhaps I should check Apocalypse World or Dungeon World.
The sample adventure provided was interesting but light on stats. As I said in another blog post, I like to believe in the independent existence of my game world. This means that I don’t like improvising monsters, traps and rewards on the spot. If I do, I feel like it’s me against the players instead of me acting as the impartial referee between the game world and the players. Improvising in this context often means adjusting the difficulty, being tempted by an imaginary arc of excitement, reducing player agency.
⚠ Spoilers! ⚠
This is where I made a misake. I started with a few notes:
As the game went on, I added more:
It was quick to do, no problem. It just felt a bit weird to write these things down on the fly.
Figuring out which rooms contained useful loot was a similar problem. Was the big loot in the flooded room at the bottom? If so, what did it contain? What would be the big reward for successfully launching the rocket? Should I run it again, I would have to better prepare a few end scenarios so that I can push players towards one of these endings with appropriate closure as time starts running out. As it stands, the end was a bit flat.
So, next time: More prep!
As far as plot goes: the party got split towards the end. One managed to have the shadow dragon open the sarcophagus and so the character went exploring and found some valuable power tools to sell. The other characters found the map room and managed to set the intercontinental missile targeting system on a few cities by accident, but I decided that more was required to actually launch the rocket. We didn’t have the time, however, so we broke off saying that the delvers camping around the titan sarcophagus had finally caught up to what was happening and would start exploring the structure soon enough. The power tools where the only loot recovered.
We spent half an hour after the game talking about it, comparing it to Apocalypse World (which was deemed longer and harder to get into for little benefit), Lady Blackbird (which was deemed to promise better character development via keys and locked tags) and Traveller (which was deemed to similar in that character development basically meant the accumulation of gear and allies instead of powers).
I said I’d run a Lady Blackbird hack in two weeks time. Perhaps The Bugs of Venus? Then again, I like the original Lady Blackbird characters, I like the romantic angle, and I don’t have much experience in the military fiction genre, didn’t like Starship Troopers too much, don’t know whether I can recreate the Alien feel… We’ll see!
Today we played two and a half hours of Torchbearer. We had three players and started out with me playing the warrior, Johannes playing the halfling and Harald playing the dwarf. Pascal was running the game for us. It involved a kid disappearing into a tomb. We crawled into the tomb, got up, advanced down the corridor and met four skeletons. We went for a kill conflict and started with a disposition of 10 vs. 5 but by the second volley we were down to four and we just barely managed to avoid a total party kill. My warrior escaped, badly wounded, got lost in a swamp, was led astray by green flames dancing in the distance and nearly drowned.
We wound two replacement characters (the cleric and the magic user) and then we went there again. We realized that going for a kill was dangerous and tried a trick conflict. Again, we started with a disposition of 9 vs. a lot less, and within a few volleys we had lost. We were driven off by the skeletons never to return…
And that was that. We liked some ideas in theory. We liked the grind. We liked the light rules. We liked how encumbrance worked. But as soon as the conflict started, we got disconnected from the fiction. Attack, Defend, Feint and Maneuver—it was dry, hard to picture, very abstract, and we lost. And then we started noticing that the other systems didn’t seem to make a difference or didn’t result in a play experience more entertaining compared to using classic D&D.
We’ll be playing something different next indie night.