Continuing with the review of games I did a deep dive in thanks to the pandemic, today I look at a group of games Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). I have talked before about PbtA games, particularly in a compare-and-contrast with Fate.
To be honest, this is a difficult set of reviews for me to write because I love all the creators and publishers involved so much, but I have some criticism to level. Please bear with me, this is written with love.
I recently talked about how I’ve been able to play longer game series during the pandemic; this provided me in-depth views of several systems. Today I focus on “trad” games, RPGs rooted in the early years of role-playing even if they have been published in the last decade: 13th Age, Paladin (Pendragon),Cypher (Numenéra), and Dragon Age and The Expanse (AGE).
Buckle up, if you know my tastes in RPGs you know this is going to be rocky.
What do you mean, “trad systems”?
I played in four campaigns, and ran one, using systems that have a direct lineage to the early days of role-playing and still foster the same kind of experience. I would characterize them thus:
They use pass/fail mechanics: you succeed at a task and advance in the story, or you fail and nothing happens. In limited cases, you can get extra-good successes (“critical” in common RPG parlance) where you get a cherry on top, or extra-bad failures (“fumbles”) where disaster strikes.
Player ideas and narrative authority are filtered through PC skill rolls: you may have a brilliant strategy or a rousing speech but the impact on what happen in the fiction depends on a skill roll result, not player creativity.
The GM is the primary author of the game. By default, information is secret until revealed by the GM. The players’ decisions on the fictional background is limited to their characters.
PCs can only accomplish things that their character sheet and the rules give them explicit permission to. PCs are presented with challenges (e.g., a locked door or an adversary in their way) and players check their character sheets to find out what they can do about it. Do you have the lockpicking or fighting skill? Then you can roll. Some games may let you roll certain actions unskilled at a penalty (i.e., the explicit permission is in the rules.)
This latter point is the sharpest contrast with more modern or story-driven games: in PbtA or Fate games, for example, you figure out what you want to do and then determine which mechanics to use in order to support the fiction, in other words, you do what makes sense in the story. In traditional games, you figure out what you’re mechanically allowed to do, and the fiction is what is left after the dice are rolled, in other words things happen because of the way the rules are written regardless of whether they make sense in the story.
Yesterday I mentioned the silver lining of pandemic gaming, being able to play a lot of games (since no one had any social activities anymore!) and being able to play them in more depth. I have had a chance to give a thorough look at several titles and I want to share my thoughts on them. Some of these thoughts are going to be less than complimentary, but I wanted to start with a game I have nothing but praise for, Lady Blackbird.
Lady Blackbird by John Harper (One Seven Design Studio) is the first in his Tales from the Wild Blue Yonder series. It’s a name-your-price (including $0) download that has been around for over a decade but updated periodically, providing five ready-made player characters, a scenario, a mini-setting, and light-weight rules spun off from The Shadow of Yesterday (Clinton Nixon).
Lady Blackbird is on the run from an arranged marriage to Count Carlowe. She hired a smuggler skyship, The Owl, to take her from her palace on the Imperial world of Ilysium to the far reaches of the Remnants, so she could be with her once secret lover: the pirate king Uriah Flint.
HOWEVER, just before reaching the halfway point of Haven, The Owl was pursued and captured by the Imperial cruiser Hand of Sorrow, under charges of flying a false flag.
EVEN NOW, Lady Blackbird, her bodyguard, and the crew of The Owl are detained in the brig, while the Imperial commander runs the smuggler ship’s registry over the wireless. It’s only a matter of time before they discover the outstanding warrants and learn that The Owl is owned by none other than the infamous outcast, Cyrus Vance.
How will Lady Blackbird and the others escape the Hand of Sorrow?
Within its 14 pages, the PDF contains all the play aids to run a one-shot adventure or even a little campaign: five ready-to-play character sheets and one blank one, with all the rules and choices for future character advancements; a ship for the player characters to fly around in; GM prompts and advice; and scenes for the GM to run at the drop of a hat based on players’ decisions.
It’s completely open-ended, meaning there is no end scene you need to struggle towards, only a starting situation and characters with their own motivations; but it’s full of hand-holds to help the game-master improvise with confidence. The GM advice is excellent and much of it is applicable to any RPG, not just this one. In short, it may be the best role-playing game ever published to learn how to GM without railroading.
As if this wasn’t enough, there is a great character sheet made by Jakob Oesinghaus on Roll20 that allows you not only to create your own characters from scratch, but also to load one of the ready-made characters by entering their name:
So in order to set up for an online one-shot, all I had to do do was:
Read the scenario and become familiar with it;
Set up the five pre-gen characters in Roll20 by typing in their names;
Create a couple of handouts by pasting the stats for The Owl and a few paragraphs of setting information from the PDF into Roll20.
In all, less than an hour to get a nice-looking game in place and be ready to run. And we had a blast! It was easy for players to learn the system, they had plenty of cues to role-play their characters, the system supported fun action and interaction, and the GM support made it easy for me to improvise in the face of player choices. This is a model of how I want ready-made scenarios to be structured: an exciting situation to start the adventure with, clear agendas for both player and non-player characters to act upon, and lots of support for the GM to respond to the unfolding story.
For details on how the game works, see this extensive review by MJ Harnish on Wired.
Man, it’s been a sparse year in blogging for me. Edmund and I have now received both doses of Pfizer vaccine and will be reaching the end of the final 2-weeks waiting period later this week. We’re contemplating actually seeing other vaccinated people, in person, next weekend!
In the mean time, we’ve been gaming online a lot. At least it’s been good for long-term role-playing series, better than at any time in the last 25 years for us. Here is what it has looked like:
BFF! (Heart of the Deernicorn)
Checkpoint Midnight (PbtA) (Cloven Pine Games)
Kids on Brooms (Renegade Game Studios / Hunters Entertainment)
Lady Blackbird (One Seven Design)
The Quiet Year (Buried Without Ceremony)
Urchin (Clint Krause Games)
Of these, I GM’d or hosted BFF!, The Quiet Year, and Lady Blackbird.
The League of Exceptional Felines, using Cortex Prime (Fandom Tabletop)
Last Fleet (Black Armada)
Legacy: Life in the Ruins (Modiphius Entertainment)
Star Trek Adventures (Modiphius Entertainment)
Of these, our friend Brian ran the Star Trek Adventures bonanza during the holidays, and Edmund ran the others.
13th Age (Pelgrane Press)
City of Mist (Son of Oak Studio)
Dragon Age (Green Ronin Publishing)
Harlem Unbound / Monster of the Week hack (Darker Hue Studios/Evil Hat/Sophie Lagacé)
Journey Away (Purple Aether Games)
Monster of the Week (Generic Games/Evil Hat Productions)
Numenéra (Monte Cook Games)
Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne (Chaosium/Nocturnal Media)
The Expanse RPG/Fate hack (Green Ronin/Evil Hat/Sophie Lagacé)
Of these, Edmund ran 13th Age, Dragon Age, Journey Away, Numenéra (ongoing), and Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne, Bryanna runs Monster of the Week, and I ran City of Mist, Harlem Unbound using the Monster of the Week system, and The Expanse using the Fate Condensed, with the latter two ongoing. It’s been a mental health-saver to be able to meet with friends online every week to play.
I think I’m going to write mini-reviews for some of these systems, but here is the skinny:
My favourites in the lot are by far Fate, Monster of the Week, and Lady Blackbird. In addition, I love the setting in Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne even though the Pendragon system which it uses is laughable. Similarly, Harlem Unbound is a fantastic setting even though it’s created to play with two systems I find uninspiring, Call of Cthulhu or GUMSHOE; I feel it is well-served by marrying it instead to Monster of the Week. For one-shots, BFF!, The Quiet Year, and Urchin are all great fun.
All the others earn mixed reviews, although all were fun at the virtual game table thanks to the people I was playing with.
Long story short: we just moved and we’re really feeling it.
Short story long: in July 2019, we moved to share a 4-bedroom house with three other people and live more affordably — narrowly avoiding homelessness. Then COVID-19 hit and the housemates left at the end of the the lease to move in with parents or fiancés. The house was managed by an indifferent real estate company and the onus was on us to rent out the rooms or pay the difference. There was a revolving door of people dealing with their own issues, and even one instance of someone outright scamming us. When the two current housemates announced at the end of January that they were leaving, we knew that we had to move out too; we just couldn’t make this shared housing work.
We also gave notice, and had a month to find a place and move. We were not ready, financially, to have the move we wanted so we got the move we could (more or less) afford. The place is actually nice, a townhouse in southern Solano county, but more expensive. There are flights of stairs and we are aging so we had to hire professional movers. Edmund exhausted himself to the point of being sick, so I had to finish by myself and so paid more movers as well as exhausting myself in turn. I have been having trouble walking through the weekend, limping between bedroom and bathroom.
The cats think we are monstrous idiots, and have been stressed out. We are surrounded by boxes.
We have just adopted a new cat, as a companion for Valentine. She’s a petite, black domestic short-hair little lady formerly known as Macy, but renamed Gato-ichi because we weren’t enamoured with calling our cat for a department store. As the new name suggests, she is blind and probably has been for most of her life. Despite this, she is one of the most fearless, confident cat we have ever invited into our home. She’s very good at finding edges and measuring height of furniture; and she’s been following Valentine around to get the lay of the land.
We got her from SNAP Cats in Santa Rosa, where they do wonders for senior and special needs cats.
This week’s terrorist attack on the Washington Capitol Complex by white supremacists is also a dress rehearsal, a stress test. The terrorists came with weapons, body armor, Confederate flags, neo-Nazi regalia, and zip ties to take prisoners. If decisive action is not taken, policy enacted, and lessons learned, in a few years we will see another far more effective decapitation attack on the U.S. Government and more importantly on the institution of democracy itself.
Right now, we progressive are laughing nervously because trump finally lost his social media access with less than two weeks to go in his presidency, and because an idiot tasered himself in the balls while looting the Capitol. And yes, it’s worth a giggle of relief, but we’d better get back to the business of securing democracy pronto.
This was a joint session of Congress, where every elected representative and the Vice President are in one place. The terrorists won’t miss twice.
Even in a year of pandemic, there was gaming. I probably played as often as I did in normal times, but fewer titles and with fewer people. I did not attend any conventions; I tried, signed up for online cons, but it didn’t pan out for me.
I played a total of 20 different titles, the lowest number in six years; this included only 3 board games, 14 role-playing games, and 3 story games. Only 6 of these (30%) were new to me, i.e., I had never played them before, including one playtest. The board games were sadly curtailed because my husband has been wrestling with vision problems that made it frustrating for him to deal with small writing and game components.
But I still played at least once weekly thanks to a variety of recurring RPG campaigns conducted online. Frankly, I had not had this much satisfying long-term role-playing in years: with few options for leisure and social activities, many more people could be counted on to meet regularly.
With six years of data, here is what the game type breakdown looks like:
For the last five years I’ve also been keeping track of who I play with. It looks like this:
Player diversity was disappointing in 2020, particularly when I was a player in other people’s games. The majority of players who were not cis men were players in games I or my husband ran, and somehow I did not play with any people of colour (that I am aware of), a sad performance. Despite this, I think it’s not too bad that I played with 41 different people.
Here is what my list of games looked like in 2020:
Fall is a rough time for cats in our household, making it hard to be properly thankful on Thanksgiving: Benjamin Black died on October 30, 2010; Eurekatous on November 8, 2011; Phantom on October 27, 2018. And now we had to say goodbye to Ubaid on Monday November 23, 2020, ten years almost to the day since he came to live with us.
Ubaid was born in California’s northernmost county, Del Norte, in 2003. He was found abandoned in Klamath after the December 2005 flood of the Klamath River forced the evacuation of the Redwood RV Park, along with many other cats and dogs left behind. Later that winter he was caught in an operation to spay and neuter feral animals, where he was marked by clipping the tip of his right ear (standard procedure to avoid recapturing an animal already neutered or spayed.)
There were no animal shelters in this poor rural county but a sweet local woman went in and spent weeks catching as many orphaned pets as she could, bringing them back to her ranch, and finding their owners or putting them up for adoption. Ubaid lived there until we saw his photo and read his story nearly five years later. The fact that he also had a bit of an old injury to his lower back, and his beautiful black fur, had made him hard to find a home for. We’re grateful he waited for us that long.
He arrived just before Thanksgiving 2010. We got him as a companion for Valentine after Benjamin died and Val was clearly lonely. The two became fast friends and until a couple of months ago when Ubaid got too sick, they played and slept together. I referred to them as the Taiji Two because they so often looked like a yin-yang symbol.
His fur was velvety soft. In fact, when he came to live with us he was called “Fuzzy” but we felt it didn’t fit him. Instead we renamed him for a character in one of Edmund’s games, Ubaid (the name means “faithful”) who was apparently the abandoned familiar of a sorcerer but claimed to really be an ancient god, diminished in the God Wars. That fit our new friend to a T!
He loved belly rubs, sleeping on the bed, standing above us and looking down, and hanging out with us. He loved to play with cat toys but you could tell he had been feral and had had to survive on his own: he hunted to kill, not to play with the prey. He would jump on that toy, wham! and hold it for keeps.
Back in early fall of 2017, he started being sick and was diagnosed with a thyroid condition. It was managed with medication, but that was the beginning of his decline. In early 2018 he also developed a cyst on his chest that started filling with fluid and choking him; the vet drained it but it kept refilling. It was too close to Ubaid’s jugular to safely operate so all we could do was keep having it drained. For a while, we had weekly visits and we really though it was the end. But gradually the cyst stopped filling.
Throughout all the health scares, Ubaid would rally and fiercely hold on to life. But this year, he started losing weight and even though we fed him anything he wanted whenever he wanted it, he kept wasting away. We kept an eye on him; as long as he was happy and engaging with the world around him, as long as his quality of life was good, we would do everything we could to keep him.
But on Monday morning it was different. His back legs could no longer support him but he still insisted on trying to jump up and down between the floor and his favourite chair. He couldn’t fully stand up, he was just skin and bones and we had been unable to stop the weight loss. He wasn’t going to get his strength back. We called our vet and were fortunate enough to get an appointment that same day. He fell to sleep for the last time as we were petting him.
We had an extensive brainstorming session for our group concept, and settled on a small periodical/alternate weekly newspaper, The Black Cat’s Meow. Our team of Hunters are not the owners but they are the heart and soul of the newspaper.
Using the Expert playbook, Blanchard is an aspiring playwright and novelist. He started his career as a black vaudeville actor on the Chitlin’ Circuit, where he was involved in a play derived from a heavily redacted version of The King in Yellow. This changed him in subtle ways, and he found himself driven to uncover the truth behind the supernatural which he now realizes is everywhere around him. He’s the archivist and a senior writer at the newspaper.
Based on the Spooky playbook, Delia is the up-and-coming society page editor and advice column writer. Her polished appearance hides another facet: she is the grand-daughter and apprentice to a successful if discreet conjure-woman (grandma has not yet been named). She doesn’t yet fully control her powers and as a result, struggles with side effects of occasional hallucinations, lust, and poor impulse control.
The Big Whammy
Built on the Flake playbook, Persephone is a young conspiracy theorist who happens to be right more often that not. She is also Blanchard’s niece. Although few people take her seriously (aside from the other Hunters), Persephone sees all. and has a finely honed talent for investigation.
Connect the Dots
See? It All Fits Together
Based on the Hard Case playbook (2020 version), Whales is the workman of all odd jobs at the newspaper, a job he got thanks to Blanchard; before that he was a dockworker and day laborer. He served in France with the 369th Infantry “Harlem Hellfighters” and came back a changed man, now driven more by willpower than anger. If you need the printing press moved or the delivery truck loaded, Whales is your man.