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.