Play and Review: Alas for the Awful Sea

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.

So here is a description of how I prepare the adventure, how it turned out in play, and finally a review of the game itself.

Whaler hove down for repairs

Prepare

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.)

Whaling—up close and personal

Play

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.

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. 
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Still here? OK.

Prologue: A Maiden’s Troubles

The setup requires that one player character be closely tied to a non-player character, a young woman named Francesca Nash, née Harris, as a former lover, close friend, or distant but dear relative. I asked who wanted such a tie and Ariel decided that Francesca was a childhood friend and quasi-sister of her own character, Mrs. Plaisance Houston. I handed her the letter from Francesca and said she had received this in the ship’s mail at a previous port.

Act I: A Bustling Town

Captain Nielsen’s ship, the Ansgar (sp?), arrived into the small coastal port of Dundwyer. Normally a quiet little fishing town, the place was suddenly bustling with activity since a pod of right whales had moved near the town a few weeks before. Whalers were flocking to the little port to bring their catch, resupply, get news, and spend their payday. The town was experiencing a sudden and temporary boom, with the associated welcome money and less welcome drinking, gambling, fighting, etc.

Captain Nielsen’s player, Jacob, declared that “his” ship used to be a whaler but had been converted to cargo work because the whaling industry was getting more difficult; however, with this sudden bounty from the sea, he decided to look into refitting for whaling. Luther was sent to O’Donnell’s general goods store to get supplies, while Plaisance spent time with Francesca and Captain Nielsen visited The Bloodied Mermaid to hear the latest rumours.

Since Francesca was concerned about the disappearance of her father, old Captain Harris, Plaisance and Francesca checked out his house and found it in a state of poor housekeeping. I gave Plaisance’s player, Ariel, the page from Harris’s journal which suggested that he had left in pursuit of the whale he called “the Mythic,” somehow finding a ship for this chase.

At the The Bloodied Mermaid, Captain Nielsen got to hear the latest stories about the whaling trade, including that of a large beast with which no ship had survived an encounter. I introduced the NPCs, Captain Mack O’Toole and Dr. Gordon Goodman. Jacob immediately declared that Captain Nielsen had long despised O’Toole, but no one paid much attention to Goodman.

Luther too had heard about the giant whale they called the Mythic, and decided to consult the spirits using the move Sense What’s Beyond, rolling… a two. Similarly, back aboard his ship Captain Nielsen checked what his Elder God, ah, affinities told him about the Mythic, also using Sense What’s Beyond—and also rolling a miserable failure.

I told the players that one of them would be convinced that the whale was the Great Evil, and the other that it was a Holy creature, and asked them to decided who felt what. They were gleeful about this development; Captain Nielsen decided the Mythic was pure evil, and Luther was infused with religious awe of this holy nature spirit.

The group agreed they would go chasing off after Old Man Harris and the Mythic aboard the resupplied Ansgar.

(Those who have read the adventure will notice that I skipped a few scenes in Act I; I was following where the players’ interest seemed to lead. This would continue throughout the adventure.)

Act II: Ships in the Night

Since the players had taken little notice of Gordon Goodman, I had him virtually disappear from the story. I felt that using the PCs’ own ship rather than forcing them to move to another gave them more agency and the players more investment.

In the interest of time, I skipped most of the optional scenes. After establishing colour of life at sea for the voyage and bringing the prospect of foul weather based on barometer readings, I moved to the night scene, with the wind shifting and Mack O’Toole’s ship the Agamemnon getting too close to the Ansgar, nearly colliding.

This segued into the storm scene, where the Ansgar was tossed like a cork in a bathtub, and the PCs scrambled to keep her afloat. We ended the act with their first glance of the Mythic.

Act III: A Gift From The Sea

The competing ships pressed the leviathan-like Mythic too closely and the beast opened its maw to swallow them. The Ansgar maneuvered deftly and somehow the Agamemnon found itself jamming the Mythic’s jaw open while the Ansgar was swallowed whole but not crushed.

Inside the Mythic, the PCs found the remnants of old ships and previous meals, and even Old Man Harris like Job, babbling with terror and hatred of the Mythic. They also saw the heart of the Mythic, glowing a deep red like gigantic embers.

They had a chance to try killing the beast from the inside but they came to an accord with surprising ease: Luther thought the Mythic was holy and wanted to let it live free; Plaisance had little inclination towards more killing after having seen the whaling trade and only wanted to bring Old Man Harris back to his daughter; and Nielsen thought letting the Great Evil loose upon the world was a great plan, likely to help bring back the Elder Gods!

They managed to cause the beast to heave and vomit them, and to dislodge the Agamemnon‘s wreck. I think they took the survivors on board, I’m not sure.

We all had a great time. Thank you to Manuel, Ariel, and Jacob, who were wonderful role-players and fun people to share an evening with.

Review

The Package

When you first pick up the book, you find it pleasant to hold, with a binding of good quality (I have the hardback), and great cover art by Kate Leiper, moody and intriguing. Steph Lam’s interior art is flavourful, on the cartoony or story-books side, reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s style or of Scott Reeves and Todd Remick’s work for Atlas Games’ Gloom card game. These illustrations alternate with black-and-white photos of lonely coastal landscapes and some historical images from the public domain.

The layout by Vee Hendro is clean, crisp and clear, a pleasure for the eye. Along with good organisation and clear writing, this makes it easy to read the book, understand the rules, and find information in play.

One notable point is the fact that the play aids we associate with PbtA games—character playbooks, basic move sheet, descriptor sheets, advancement sheet, town sheet, and GM reminder sheet—only exist as PDF files downloadable from the Storybrewers Roleplaying website; they are not included in the book itself, or at least not in this form. I can see both pros and cons for this: on the plus side, it helps control costs and maximize efficiency by dedicating the printed pages to the the game rules, not pages you would have to photocopy anyway. On the other, not everyone has access to the ‘net and printing at all times. Overall it works for me, though.

Let’s now take a look at the gears of this game.

Character Creation

Alas for the Awful Sea centers on a very specific setting (remote shores of the British Isles in the 19th century) and themes (poverty, community, tradition, helplessness, hard choices, with a touch of the supernatural.) This is a focused game, and to be appreciated it has to be played in its intended narrative space. That is not to say it can’t be hacked, but it was created for a very specific range of play experience.

Mechanically, Alas has a few features that set it apart from other games Powered by the Apocalypse.

First, as mentioned in the play report section above, character creation results from the combination of two elements: character role and descriptor. The role provides the character’s key stat, bonds, equipment, and one special move. The descriptor provides a special advantage and two or three special moves.

Each descriptor’s advantage is mechanically quite distinct and prompts development of the character’s background. The Kinsman, Lover and Believer have special bonds that have an effect on play; the Confidant has secrets they can use; the Outcast has a sin; and the Creature has a true form.

Moves

I have played or run over a dozen games Powered by the Apocalypse in the last few years, and read many more. Because they are centered on the “fail forward” principle, PbtA games live or die by how well their moves chain, how well an action resulting in a partial success or a failure triggers a snowball effect that translates to interesting repercussions and genre emulation.

Alas for the Awful Sea uses eight basic moves:

  • acting under pressure
  • intimidate another
  • act with force
  • manipulate another
  • read a situation
  • read another’s thoughts
  • sense what’s beyond
  • help or hinder

In addition, character creation will result in three our four special moves for each player character. Like in other PbtA games, the majority of moves take one of two forms. The first goes:

Roll 2d6;
on a 10 or more, you accomplish the action;
on a 7 to 9 you mostly accomplish it with some drawbacks;
on a 6 or less, the GM makes things worse.

The second, which is my favourite, is slightly sneaky:

Roll 2d6;
on a 10 or more, pick N things among N+1 or N+2 things you want;
on a 7 to 9 pick one;
on a 6 or less, the GM makes things worse.

“Things you want” may be a positive effect, or avoidance of a negative effect.

I’m very fond of the latter form because part of the players’ reward, even when they roll a full success, is to pick what kind of trouble they will run into next. This helps generate engagement while creating surprises for everyone, including the GM.

Some games use the first form almost exclusively, while others mine the second one to create dynamic tension: in essence, the second form says you can’t ever get everything you want, but you get to choose what kind of twist will result. It’s particularly appropriate in games where resource limitation (e.g., poverty, loneliness, powerlessness) is an important factor.

Unsurprisingly, Alas makes good use of this second form, particularly in the special moves from descriptors. Most of the special moves associated with roles take the first form. You could say that you can accomplish what you set to in your chosen profession, but the dramatic push-and-pull that makes up your personality will never allow you complete satisfaction.

Advancement

There is no list of advanced moves to pick from when your character gains experience. Moreover, that experience does not come in the form of experience points. Instead, characters advance when they have completed a story arc, and have a new tale to tell. A complete series of Alas is comprised of five tales. You get the following advancements:

  • At the end of Tale 1: Create a 12+ effect for a basic move.
  • At the end of Tale 2: Create a familiarity.
  • At the end of Tale 3: Add two extra bonds.
  • At the end of Tale 4: Create a 12+ effect for a basic move.

In addition, at the end of each tale you can also pick one of the following:

  • Create a connection (available twice.)
  • Create a custom move (available twice.)
  • Create a 12+ effect for a basic move.
  • Create a familiarity. [A familiarity is a focused area of expertise that gives you a +1 in limited circumstances.]
  • Rearrange your stats to reflect how you’ve changed.
  • Change descriptors during the next session.

At the end of Tale 5, you get options for deep transformation of the character or creation of a new related character.

The chapter on advancement gives clear, detailed but simple guidelines on how to create familiarities, special effects, and custom moves. If you like games Powered by the Apocalypse, this chapter alone is worth the price of admission.1 If you plan to hack a PbtA game, or even to write your own, I recommend you take a look at this section even if you don’t play Alas.

I can’t think of another PbtA game that relies on “do it yourself” moves to this extent, particularly for character moves. In fact, one of the most recognizable features of this family of games is the menu approach, where you pick options from a list. Alas for the Awful Sea sticks to the model to provide quick and clear character creation but opens up advancement, when the players have had time to think about their characters and learn the ropes of the game.

This creates a very interesting mix of guidance and freedom, where the scaffolding of the character and setting creation, the narrative development, and guidelines provided in the rules direct you towards in-genre play and development, in contrast to systems where the development is structurally enforced.2Setting and Flavour

The portion of Alas specifically addressed to game-masters contains excellent advice for running the game and creating tales, as well as detailed chapters on using conflict, history, and folklore in your games to create powerful tales. How much of each ingredient you use remains up to you. These chapters were made possible by reaching stretch goals during the very successful Kickstarter funding campaign.

The chapter on conflict helps GMs build strong, meaningful conflicts with themes and triggers that fit the campaign narrative as created in play. Conflict here does not mean combat, although physical violence may be involved. Because of the nature of the setting, physical harm is a very serious matter and can easily leave characters with long-term debilitating effects—or dead.

The chapter on folklore presents an overview of myths and legends of the British Isles, and especially from Scotland’s Hebrides archipelago, organized by theme. The longest chapter in the book, it provides many examples of tale, non-player character, and custom move creation that make use of folklore. The authors tell us that:

By design, Alas is a low fantasy setting. It focuses on relationships, power struggles, and poverty more than exploration or adventure. Fantasy in Alas tends to simmer below the surface, emerging only in mysterious ways or climactic moments. The focus is on how the fantastical affects the mundane, rather than on the players’ interactions with it.

However, frequency of the supernatural will be strongly affected by whether or not one of your players picked the Creature descriptor, which states explicitly that the character is not human and requires the choice of a true form. You could of course remove it from play to eliminate or tone down the supernatural in your series, but remember that only six descriptors are offered in the game so this could limit your players.

The chapter on history describes day-to-day life and traditions in the British Isles of the 19th century on board ships and in rural towns, then presents an overview of key moments —not battles and famous people, but the currents of change that affected the lives of common folk. The text explicitly places your narrative and tales above fidelity to specific historical events and dates.

The final section contains the core adventure of Alas for the Awful Sea, with a collection of encounters you can use or imitate. The encounters are organised around two main plots and the background conflicts of the town of Greymoor. They are not expected to unfold in linear fashion and may be skipped, modified, or expanded as dictated by the player characters’ actions. They provide valuable insight into scene and tale construction even if you end up creating your own tale from scratch.

By the way, the additional adventures presented in the companion book, the Winds and Waves Anthology, are excellent. I love that they are designed for different group sizes, durations, etc.

Conclusion

The one thing I would like added is a few more descriptor sheets. Six to pick from, or five if you want to cut the supernatural by removing the Creature, makes for limited choices; a few more descriptors would be useful.

Alas for the Awful Sea is a worthy addition to my shelves. It is very carefully designed, not a mere re-skinning of other games. The writing and layout are fine-tuned for clarity, and the book provides valuable discussion of move and adventure design that can be ported to other games.

And speaking of re-skinning, what about hacking Alas for another setting? I can think of a few settings that would work, as long as one took care to adapt the role and descriptor moves…

Notes:1 It makes a great pair with the similar discussions in The Sprawl, published by Ardens Ludere—another PbtA game centered on stress, limited resources, and effecting change. Return2 For example Night Witches, published by Bully Pulpit Games. There is no right or wrong way only different approaches, each yielding different insights and “feel.” Return

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