I finally ran Alas for the Awful Sea (Storybrewers Roleplaying) at Big Bad Con. This is a game Powered by the Apocalypse, built to tell dramatic tales about the characters’ needs, feelings, and conflicts; it’s set in poor coastal villages of the British Isles during the 19th Century and includes elements of history, legend, and supernatural.
Created by Australian game designers Hayley Gordon and Veronica “Vee” Hendro, the game was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign back in February 2017. I was really excited about the focused theme, the promise of a streamlined approach to PbtA, and the team of women and non-binary people putting together the main book and the digital stretch goals. Besides, I don’t have very many Australian role-playing games (I can’t think of anything except Hunter Planet right now…)
They delivered right when promised and this beautiful book arrived in time for me to prep a game for Big Bad Con. It fit well, since I had decided to run only games made by women and non-binary people.
Preparation started with a thorough reading of the rule book. Sometimes when you try a new game you want to jump right to specific points like character creation, special moves, etc. However, I recommend reading PbtA games from cover to cover, because it’s never just a simple re-skinning like, say in most Savage Worlds or GURPS books.
So yes, I read Alas for the Awful Sea as if it was a novel. It gave me a good overview of the setting and flavour as envisioned by the authors, as well as a sense of the type of action and drama the game is made for.
Storybrewers Roleplaying had also delivered some of the digital stretch goals, including some scenarios, so I decided to use the first, “The Tides of Man.” (They continued to deliver right on time!) This is a sort of Moby Dick-like premise: an old mariner has gone missing, leaving notes on a terrible whale he calls Mythic. For various reasons, the protagonists investigate and probably go chase the Mythic whale.
This and other adventures for Alas are very well set up, just the way I like them: some characters and their motivations, some locations and what you can learn there, some ideas for encounters, and broad-brush sketches of how the adventure might unfold, but the resolution left open. This is perfect for PbtA games in general, and for my preferred game-mastering style.
Most of my preparation consisted of carefully reading the rule book and adventure, and researching the setting (British Isles in the 1830s), topic (sailing and whaling), and legends (famous whales that inspired Moby Dick and similar literature, such as Mocha Dick, the Tay Whale, etc..) I prepared a couple of pages of notes such as typical descriptions of ships and whales, questions for character creation, etc.
I selected a few period images to help players visualize the setting, and created handouts based on the text of the adventure—everyone likes handouts, right? Finally, I collected character images from a variety of sources such as period engravings, vintage photographs, and open source portraits. I tried to offer gender and ethnic diversity, while sticking to what I know of the period.
Finally, I contacted the players who had signed up (Big Bad Con GMs receive their players’ contact info) and warned them that the scenario I was running would contain structural misogyny/racism/etc., descriptions of whaling/animal cruelty, and references to family domestic violence, but also that I would be using safety tools (Lines and Veils, X-card, and Script Change.)
At the event itself, I had three players: Manuel, Ariel, and Jacob (a fourth had to cancel at the last minute—I missed you, Sandy!) Three or four is a good number for this sort of intense, player-game.
Also, we nay I went over the rules, setting, and safety tools. Everyone had played in some PbtA games before, so the rules overview was easy. I could readily see that the players were interested in the setting and had some familiarity with the period background.
Character creation was relatively quick; there is little risk of analysis paralysis in Alas because there are no long lists of moves to pick from. The characters are created by picking one of ten different character roles (Captain, Boatswain, Mercenary, Merchant, Old Sea Dog, Scholar, Strider, Surgeon, Cook, or Stowaway), and one of six different descriptors (the Lover, the Kinsman, the Believer, the Outcast, the Creature, or the Confidant.)
Each role gives one special move, and each descriptor provides one special bond and two or three special moves. As usual in most PbtA games, you select from options for your appearance and equipment, assign values to basic stats (Brains, Brawn, Beauty, Balance, and Beyond), and create some bonds with the other characters. Players also picked their character portraits; in my experience, character pictures are always a success at conventions.
We ended up with Captain Zacharias Nielsen, originally from Norway and a dour Outcast (played by Jacob); Luther the Old Sea Dog from Jamaica and a devout Obeah Believer (played by Manuel); and Mrs. Plaisance Houston, a wealthy widow Merchant and Confidant (played by Ariel.)
Finally, we discussed the basic moves available in Alas for the Awful Sea, and we were ready to go. This is where I give you a spoiler alert if you don’t want to read anything about the scenario: you can scroll forward to the review portion of this post. Continue reading “Play and Review: Alas for the Awful Sea”