Play Report: Threadbare RPG

On Sunday I ran a game at EndGame, a local friendly game store, as part of their 3d6 Con event (a mini-con with six table of role-playing games held three times a year.) I chose to run Threadbare, a delightful game created and published by Stephanie Bryant and Powered by the Apocalypse.

Threadbare RPG is a role-playing game in which you play a jury-rigged toy in a broken world. Caught in a world where Entropy is a constant danger, you’ll patch yourself up, invent new devices, and maybe make new friends along the way.

Your character starts out as a Softie (soft-filled toy), a Mekka (hard-shelled, plastic or metal toy), or a Sock (a single sock, often thought to have been lost in the laundry).

In Threadbare, there are no hit points and characters do not die (unless a player wishes to make an extraordinary sacrifice.) Instead, each toy character is made up of parts that can be damaged, modified, exchanged, or lost. They are in a constant state of change. There are also no experience points; instead, the characters undergo more change or repair of their own choice. In addition, when a player rolls a failure (6 or less on two six-sided dice), they gain a hold which can be spent at a time of their choosing to activate a benefit specific to their character’s type and form. 

Game Parameters

My players were Kate, Julie, Topher, and Anthony, and they were all fun, pleasant, creative people. We started with my usual safety talk, where I discuss the use of the X Card, Lines & Veils, and Script Change. (See here for a brief overview and useful links.)

Related is the issue of what tone the group wants for the game. There are three options:

  • FLUFFY: There is no combat and the GM should never present a conflict that can only be resolved with violence. This is like a G-rated movie. When taking damage, players decide which Part is damaged.
  • SCRUFFY: Just a little bit darker than Fluffy, conflicts may resolve with violence. This is more like a PG-13 movie rating. When taking damage, players decide which Part is damaged.
  • DENTED: Combat is a frequent option in conflicts, and there may be threats that are hostile and cannot be reasoned with. There might be inter-party conflict as well. This is like an R-rated movie. When characters take damage, the GM determines which Part is damaged.

All three are fun and valid; a few weeks ago, I ran the game for a group of friends after we’d all had a rough week and people decided they wanted “fluffy,” gentler, kinder interactions. And we had a lovely time. This time, though, people opted for “scruffy” about the level you’d find in the touchstone fiction that inspired this game, such as the movie 9 (watch it on Netflix, it’s good!) or the video game series LittleBigPlanet.

The Cast

We then worked through character creation, which resulted in the following cast:

Holly (she/her, played by Kate): A Christmas stocking from (of course) Christmasland. Left feeling empty by all the presents she has been stuffed with, she was looking for the present that could fulfill her. Starting parts: Toe, cuff, heel, embroidered name (“Holly”), stuck candy cane, glitter, snowflakes, holly leaves.

Artie (he/him, played by Julie): Softie armadillo of the “Unhand Me!” variety from the land of Texas and more exactly from a Houston Airport souvenir shop, looking for the hat that would complete and signal his manhood. Starting parts: Tail, head, eyes, shell, stuffing.

Swell (he/him, played by Topher): A Sock made of two pairs of tights which evoked Stretch Armstrong; he was looking for his dog Swishy. (In truth, this character was not exactly designed per the rules, but I really, really didn’t care because player and character were so much fun.) Starting parts: Bitchin’ tank top, appropriate amount of corn starch, semblance of humility (very thin), snap-on mohawk.

Creepers (they/them, played by Anthony): Of the Mekka variety, a Bunch of Little Guys based on the Creepy Crawlers of old which you could mold and bake in the shape of various rubbery arthropods and worms.  They were looking for their Maker. Starting parts: Buzz the hive-mind bee, Queen the ant(?), Webby the spider, Clamps the scorpion, Squirmy the worm, Legs the millipede, Sparky the firefly, Murphy the butterfly, Horns the beetle, Slurps the tick, Stinky the cockroach, and Snooze the bedbug.

After creating their characters, the players established bonds between them, with each player character taking a bond with each other PC.

Adventure Setup

I chose to run one of the sample adventures provided in the book, “Off to See the Clockmaker,” written by my talented friend Bryanna Hitchcock. The premise of the adventure:

A group of toys embarks upon a great journey to make a request of the Clockmaker, an elusive engineer who rules the fabulous Wind-up City.

The strong point of the adventure is that the author provides guidance for running it in a variety of formats, from short demo to on-going campaign. This was very useful when I prepared for the event.

Threadbare provides useful game-master advice for setting up adventures, and of course I used the advice specific to “Off to See the Clockmaker.” The latter provides a series of questions for the group to foster player buy-in and shared ownership of the world; these come with suggested multiple-choice answers to speed up setup process. I had already written the questions and multiple-choice answers on index cards to help things along. Here is what we came up with:

How are you finding your way? Answer: A map with amazing landmarks.

How are you getting there? Answer: Big Red, a Radio Flyer cart drawn by a Big Wheels tricycle, fitted with a battery to store some of the pedaling energy. Because in previous games I had run players had enjoyed creating their vehicle, I also had the group design Big Red in more detail and give it stats and parts: Maneuverability +0, Speed +1, Fuel +1, Durability -1; starting parts: steering wheel, pedals, wagon handle, generator, horn, headlamps.

What region are you about to cross into on your journey? Answer: The Empire of Dreams. (I asked for regions one at a time, because I was not sure how well things would work time-wise. So I started with just one region.)

What do the toys you encounter there need? Answer: Competitors for the toy Olympics.

Who is your Nemesis, the toy that will do anything to stop you? Which PC do they have a particular dislike of and why? Answer: Fang the Die-cast, who particularly hated Swell after losing a fang to him in a previous encounter. We picked an image for Fang; I had gathered a bunch of toy pics to use for NPCs.

The Olympic Dream

Having decided that the Empire of Dreams, the next region on their journey to see the Clockmaker, had been seized by the Olympic Dream, the heroes now had to face the Customs and Immigration guard at the border: a Grumpy Care Bear.

The grumpy border agent demanded to see some identification so Holly proudly showed off her embroidered name and Artie the tag from his origin at the Houston Airport gift shop. But Swell and Creepers were less convincing, until Artie declared that they were seeking entry in the Empire of Dreams in order to participate in the Olympics. Grumpy Bear turned cheerful and welcoming (I loved getting a laugh from my players with the change of demeanor.)

Along the way to the Olympic City, the heroes saw quite a bit of traffic. The Empire of Dreams, it turns out, was happy to get contestants in order to validate their Olympic games and their athletes’ victories. There were all sorts of competitions to join, from sack races to claim jumping to icosathlon. The heroes decided to compete in the land-based endurance vehicle race in order to get across the Empire as quickly as they could towards Wind-up City.

On the road, they made the acquaintance of spectators and competitors, both local and foreign. Meeting the disagreeable national bobsled team, a group of sneering boggarts, cemented the heroes’ intent to win their competition.

When they reached the Olympic City, the heroes split up to prepare for the trials. Creepers went to acquire Stuff [the amorphous material which serves as currency, supplies, equipment, repair kit, etc.]. Competition for Stuff was akin to a Black Friday sale and Creepers got the last bit of it right under a boggart’s nose [with a Find Something move resulting in a 10+; Anthony chose “It’s exactly what you were looking for” and “It isn’t dangerous”, but that meant that someone else wanted it]. The boggart started chasing the Creepers, hurling curses and threats. [Creepers used the move Run Away.]

Meanwhile, Swell went in search of the rest of the boggart team and found them—thanks to their raucous laughter—in a pub. Instead of approaching them, Swell searched around the pub for the boggarts’ bobsled and, when he found it, Cannibalized it [another move to break items in order to get Stuff; with the obvious and desired result “It already belonged to someone.”] The boggarts, it must be said, were not only jerks but also now sported a “Team Fang” logo on their shirts and bobsled.

In the trials, Holly piloted Big Red and did wonderfully, not only letting her get exactly the starting position she coveted, immediately behind the boggarts at the head of the starting group, but also letting her spot the place along the race course where an ambush was most likely to occur. [I had her use the Play a Game move for the trials and with a 10+ result, Kate picked ” You won a wager! Describe what was on the line and what you won,” “You discovered something new about this game. What is it?” and “You feel really good about yourself. Nothing can tear you down! The next time you roll a 6‑, you do not damage a Part.”]

Artie took the wheel for the actual race. The boggarts took off with all speed on their hoverboard-like bobsled, opening the distance. Instead of staying at a good distance for the first part of the race as planned, Artie felt the sting of pride and drove Big Red right up the boggarts’ tail. In response, Team Fang threw calthrops! Artie pushed through the danger [using Big Red’s -1 Durability!] and the horn was damaged by a bouncing calthrop [losing the part “horn.” If this seems a freebie part, it wasn’t: the horn was stuck and would not stop, resonating with Creepers’ rubbery material.] Creepers repaired the damage, stopping the blaring sound to everyone’s relief [a successful use of the move Jury Rig].

At the expected ambush spot in a narrow canyon, sure enough, the boggarts had created an avalanche and rolled boulder in the road to create a barricade. And Fang the Die-Cast himself was there to gloat! [I then had a flash-back scene where the players explained what they had done to prepare for the expected ambush. With the stuff they had acquired earlier and judicious application of the Help Someone move, which Sock characters are super-good at, Creepers modified Big Red to add a once-per-episode Jump! move.]

Artie fired the new modification Creepers had installed, allowing Big Red to Jump! right over the boggarts’ barricade — and Fang, who suddenly lost his gloat. The heroes made trails, gaining an insurmountable lead to the end of the race. When they reached finish line, they were awarded the gold medal, with Team Fang taking the silver, and Alvin and the Chipmunks taking bronze. The boggarts wanted to start a fight but Artie intimidated them into quiescence [with a Look Fierce move.]

Despite the original plan to immediately continue on towards Wind-up City, Swell absolutely wanted to attend the after-game party at Barbie’s Dream House, and Creepers decided that was a good idea. Artie was less enthusiastic — until he met Arlene the armadillo dream girl. Sole holdout for sticking to the plan and moving on, Holly bowed to the general wishes.

It was a great party, where Holly told a very impressive story of Christmas and how she, Artie, Swell and Creepers had met on their quest. [The Help Someone move plus the move specific to leaving the Empire of Dreams, as written in the adventure.] Holly’s story was so excellent that the Christmas Dream seized the Empire, ousting the Olympic Dream. The Dreamers thanked the heroes by providing them with Stuff for the road ahead. Alas, Artie’s lovely evening with Arlene ended up in disappointment, for their love was not meant to be.

Bee Brave

[At this point, I had the players answer these questions again:

What region are you about to cross into on your journey? Answer: The Forest of Mechanical Bees. We felt it made sense that it would be close to Wind-up City.

What do the toys you encounter there need? Answer: Friends to help them get home.]

The heroes left the Empire of Dreams and crossed into the Forest of Mechanical Bees, hoping to get precise directions to Wind-up City from the bees. Almost immediately they found themselves barreling down a steep slope, but managed to keep control of Big Red.

They found gently rolling hills topped by dark forests, and flower-filled meadows. Although the flowers were precise reproductions of real flowers as seen in the books from Before, they were made of tissue, silk, paper, plastic, and even jewels, and each scented with the right perfume. But everything was very quiet, with no sound to be heard except the whisper of the breeze.

Creepers finally found a faint, distant hum [with a Find Something move]. Cautiously and with detours, the heroes followed the hum to a clearing where a strange contraption had been assembled. It looked like a spherical Faraday’s cage, coursing with electricity, suspended from a scaffolding above a patch of flowers seen nowhere else. The humming came from the multitude of mechanical bees trapped inside the sphere. From time to time, a bee would try to power through the surface of the sphere and get zapped, falling to the bottom of the cage.

And nearby, on a hill overlooking the road from the Empire of Dreams, was Fang himself!

Having avoided detection, the heroes were able to form a plan and put it in motion. Creepers used some of their Stuff and, with help from Holly and Artie, added a new rotor part to Swell to allow the flexible hero to hover like a helicopter! [Jury Rig, to add a new move. I handled it by simply giving Swell a new Lift stat of +1, to use when flying.]

The plan was for Swell, carrying Holly, to get right above Fang then drop from above to distract him, while Artie and Creepers would free the bees from the sphere. Artie’s suspicion was that the sphere was an illusion which would be shattered when he poked through to demonstrate. [I told Artie’s player, Julie, that she should form a hypothesis about how to free the bees, and when Artie tested it we would roll the Think It Through move.]

Swell, carrying Holly, executed his portion of the plan! When they were right above the unsuspecting Fang, who was still watching the road, Swell dropped, holding on to Holly as a parachute, and they dropped on Fang. Swell immediately wrapped himself around his Nemesis to prevent Fang from moving. Holly jumped on Fang’s head and covered it like a bag, keeping him in the dark.

Meanwhile, Artie and Creepers approached the sphere. Artie tested his hypothesis by poking the field with a tissue-and-wire flower and got shocked badly, damaging his tail. [Failed roll!] So the two compadres tried to find another way to free the bees. Artie modified his hypothesis, surmising that if they could punch through with something non-conductive, they would collapse the sphere.

This was another Think It Through move, this time with a basic success. That meant I got to tell them one aspect of their suppositions that was wrong, so I told them that they were mostly correct, except that the sphere could only be collapsed by pushing from the inside out. If they could get all the bees to push through the field at once, it would short out. Naturally, the bees were afraid but Creepers realized that they would do it if their Queen told them to. [Anthony spent a hold gained in a previous failure to use Creepers’ special ability to know information about the world.] Creepers and Artie looked for the Queen and the trapped bees told them Fang was holding her.

Artie called out to Swell and Holly, who were still struggling with Fang to keep him busy. Hearing Artie’s warning about the Queen, Swell dug Her Majesty out of Fang’s jacket and freed her [successful Push or Pull move.] Creepers brought the Queen up to date and she directed her subjects to attack the sphere on Creepers’ command. ZZZAPPP! went the sphere! And all the mechanical bees were free. Fang was left trussed up, abandoned to the Queen’s justice.

After offering their respects to the Queen and a gift of a suitable Flowering thing [the region-specific move], the heroes got back on the road.

Wind-Up City

The mechanical bees’ directions were good. At last the heroes reached Wind-up City! The place was a marvel to behold.

The heroes’ reputation preceded them, and they were granted an audience with the Clockmaker. They respectfully presented their pleas [and made the custom move, modified by +2 for the number of regions they had crossed, rolling a basic success.]

“I am looking for the present that will fulfill me,” said Holly. The Clockmaker looked at her kindly and explained: “My dear, you’ve always had it inside you. You are the Christmas present.” And she provided Holly with a lovely calligraphed certificate to prove it. Holly was overjoyed!

“I am looking for my perfect manly cowboy hat,” said Artie. “The hat that will complete my manliness.” The Clockmaker looked a little sheepish. “I can give you a manly hat,”she said. “It’s not a cowboy hat, it’s a fedora, but it’s very manly, in a noir sort of way.” She proferred the hat in question. Artie hesitated, then took the hat. Indeed, it did look quite impressive on him!

“I am looking for my dog Swishy,” said Swell. This time, the Clockmaker looked a little sad. “I can’t get Swishy for you,” she said with regret in her voice. “But I can give you a map to help you find him.” Swell was joyful and grateful—his first solid lead!

And finally, Creepers approached the Clockmaker. “We’re looking for our Maker,” they said in one tremulous voice. The Clockmaker smiled and opened her arms. “Children!” she said. And Creepers were ecstatic!

Final Thoughts and Impressions

I had a great time running the game, and the players seemed to have an equally good time.

I found the GM guidance, the adventure questions, and the move creation advice useful. The setup process provides solid bonds between characters, and equally solid player buy-in for the setting.

The basic moves are well-designed to support the intended play style. For example, the Help Someone move is constructed to provide significant benefits compared to other PbtA games, as well as incite chained use (one of the option you can choose on a success is to allow another PC to help as well.) Because it’s very effective as well as rewarding (since it allows multiple players to participate in the action and contribute to success), the players catch on quickly and start using it a lot.

Along with the cycle of parts lost and replaced, the absence of experience, hit points, or money also reinforces the unique feel of the game, at once gentle and precarious.

In short, this is a fun game that feels different from any other, and I heartily recommend it.

2 thoughts on “Play Report: Threadbare RPG

  1. 1- Did you take opportunities to highlight the drastic scale disparity between the characters and the original human world?

    Not so much in this adventure though I had in the previous one. I mentioned it in passing when referring to the Old Ones, but I felt that the regions we crossed belonged to, and had been shaped by, dreams, mechanical bees, and clockworks so I tried to emphasize how they differed from the toys’ own regions.

    2- Did you opt for a more liminal or imaginative set pieces?

    I described the Empire of Dreams as always foggy on the edges, so you could never get a good view of the horizon there. It was a place of sights and sounds, but touch was weaker than usual. The Forest of Mechanical Bees was a place of odors first (flowery perfumes and watch oil), then sights (flowers’ colours), and finally sounds (once they found the bees).

    The set pieces proper were suggested by the players’ choices (toy Olympics and the choice to run in a land race, bees unable to go home which fit well with the Nemesis’ ultimate attempt). In more prepared games I like to have a few set pieces in my back pocket, ready to throw at the players if they don’t generate their own, but this game lends itself to full improv.

    3- Did the scenery basically operate at the scale of plot without much worry?

    Pretty much; I didn’t create any custom moves for the environment. Except for the region-specific moves provided in Bryanna’s adventure write-up, all the location-related moves were GM moves in response to players’ rolls and choices. All the material was there!

    4- Did the game explore the nature of the mechanical bees? Were they themselves pre-Event toys of a sort, or perhaps newer creations, or something else entirely?

    That was not answered definitively but I presented the bees as distinct from actual toys, more like the occasional animated statue. We also felt they probably got occasional help from the Clockmaker herself. Was she their Maker? We don’t know.

    Through roll results, Creepers lost parts from time to time, particularly Buzz the bee — their hive-mind — when they and Artie got ZZZAPPPed! by the sphere. As part of a Jury-Rig move and in order to communicate with the bees, Creepers used part of a dead mechanical bee to repair/replace Buzz as a cy-bee.

    5- Were the boggarts themselves toys?

    No, they were nightmares from the Empire of Dreams, so they were the home team and favourites, despite being cheating jerks.

    6- Did the tights character operate within its general idiom?

    Despite not corresponding to the two-headed creature of the Tights form, Swell behaved like a Sock and used the Paired Up move a lot with Holly, our other Sock. I can’t recall if he used the Socks’ Friendship move, though.

    He was shaped like two pairs of tights sewn together and filled with starch, with a head sewn onto the upper pair’s crotch in some unholy Jury-Rigging lost in the mists of the past.

    7- Were characters in general using their own individual moves, or relying more on the basic moves?

    They did use their playbook moves, but of course the basic moves cover way more ground. The playbook move with the most use was the Socks’, unsurprisingly.

    – Of the basic moves, we used Help Someone, Jury-Rig, Find Something, and Push or Pull the most.

    – Look Fierce, Think It Through, Take a Breather, were used a few time each.

    – I believe Cannibalize, Fight Song!, Play a Game, Make Friends, Run Away, Minor Fix-Up, and Lead a Cheer were used only once or twice each.

    – I don’t think Bribe, Make a Bargain, or Make a Device were used.

    8- Did characters lose parts and have to rebuild themselves often, or more often then reported in the play report?

    Yes, parts were frequently lost and we saw lots of Taking a Breather and Jury Rigging, and the occasional Minor Fix-Up.

    – Holly lost her candy cane (it stayed stuck to Fang’s face), but took a flower instead (poinsettia, I think.)

    – I already talked about Creepers’ loss and repair of Buzz; they also lost and found Stinker the cockroach, and Slurpy the worm (he was found at the bottom of a (full-size) bottle of tequila at Barbie’s Dream House party.)

    – Artie damage his tail, shell, and eye, but eventually repaired them.

    – Swell, well, Swell… Player Topher had warned us that his Semblance of Humility was wobbly, and it was the first part to go missing. He also lost his snap-on mohawk but I think he got it back.

    9- I liked your Fang choice!

    We did too! I try to always have picture choices for NPCs in my games, I think it helps visualize the story.

    10- I also liked the choice of consequence for having lost the horn.

    Yep. I’m all into saying “yes” to my players, but I also like their actions and choices to have consequences so it’s often “yes, and” or “yes, but.” Although the fact that Creepers’ rubber resonated with the blaring was all player Anthony’s idea.

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