Busting a move

Mini-reviews from pandemic gaming

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.

City of Mist

Published by Son of Oak Studios, City of Mist has been a breakaway success. It’s built to tell tales of noir superheroes based on the power of myth, legend, and fiction, set in a city not quite of this world. The game was a runaway success in the RPG world, which I attribute to a few factors:

  1. It hit on a genre that was underserved in the PbtA space at the time, superheroes.
  2. Its production values are really high.
  3. The publisher is very responsive to fans.
  4. An amazingly slick character sheet had been released on Roll20 by the time the pandemic hit.
  5. Early into the pandemic, the publisher started releasing very well-made adventure modules on Roll20.

I ran a weekly series from January through November 2020 with three big story arcs, the first of which was based on the published adventure Shark Tank; the other two were complete homebrews. I had four players, who were all familiar with at least some PbtA games, and one of which who had run City of Mist before. 

The learning curve was pretty steep, though. First, City of Mist differs from other PbtA games in creating PCs not using playbooks, but by asking them to choose four themes, with at least one Mythos theme (legendary powers) and at least one Logos theme (mundane abilities, qualities, resources, and allies). From each theme the players then select three power tags and one weakness tag by answering prompts. Instead of having base stats (e.g., Cool, Tough, etc.), players determine their roll modifiers by selecting the power tags that apply (maximum one per theme).

The basic and cinematic moves were pretty easy to grasp but the game also involves four types of currencies to track:

  • Story tags, which are somewhat like stripped-down versions of Fate‘s aspects; they represent things and essential qualities important to the story, such as a pistol. To create story tags, you spend Juice.
  • Clues, which are a game resource generated through the Investigate move and can be traded for information.
  • Juice, generated through the Change the Game move, which represent your ability to shape the scene; they allow you to affect tags or statuses.
  • Statuses, which represent conditions that are acquired or transient, such as tired-2; they are somewhat similar to consequences or conditions in Fate.

At first glance, the idea to marry the aspects from Fate with the moves from PbtA games seemed brilliant, but was severely hamstrung by the effort required to track resources and the difficulty players often had distinguishing between them. 

Second, it’s pretty easy to regularly find 2-4 power tags on your character sheet to apply to a given roll, which strongly skews the results towards complete success. However, PbtA games thrive on partial successes and failures to create plot twists, so this is not in fact a good thing. Countering this factor requires that the GM apply plenty of negative statuses and that everyone at the table remember to track them and include them in their rolls.

Another challenge was that advancement comes in different forms. You can get minor advancement by “marking attention” on a theme, which allows you to change your power and weakness tags around a bit or get new ones; but the real power-ups come when your character goes through dramatic moments and you choose to flip a theme, either from mundane (Logos) to legendary (Mythos) or vice-versa. But if you’re happy with your themes and just want to keep building on them, the advancement will be very limited. It’s unlikely, for example, that you will be able to add a whole new theme without going through several of these dramatic flips. 

To top this off, the Roll20 character sheet was fantastic for starting characters but, at least by the time we ended the series, it did not yet handle things like adding new themes. 

Overall, this is a game I want to love—it’s such a high-quality game, beautiful and interesting, but I feel like it needs to be streamlined into a second edition. The big changes I wish to see are a simplification of the in-game resources, (preferably boiling them down to one; and of the advancement rules, making them more flexible for players who have built characters they want to keep playing without losing out on power-ups.

Last Fleet

Last Fleet was released last year by Black Armada and hews very close to the Battlestar Galactica reboot from 2004-2009. We played it this winter and spring as limited series (8 or 10 games, I think) run by my husband, with four player characters.

The art is good-to-excellent and the layout is middling-to-good. Setting-wise, the main problem we faced was how centered on the exact Battlestar Galactica experience it was; we found it challenging to do much world-building.

For example, the playbooks are named for the 12 zodiac signs, which means that you might as well tell me “the blue playbook” and “the triangle playbook”; I had no notion of what kind of characters those signified. But upon reading them, you will find yourself wanting to rename them “the Gaius Baltar playbook”, “the Starbuck playbook”, etc.. 

Because we wanted to create our own setting and not just play the television show, we decided to run with the zodiac theme and instead of a pseudo-Greek inspiration go for a Babylonian one; and instead of playing fighter pilots, we created a joint military-civilian task force charged with investigating sabotage on the fleet.

It was often difficult to figure out which of the basic moves to use, and I never felt like they flowed naturally. All the way down to the last episode we were scouring the rules to figure out what should happen next.

Another peculiarity is that you can only gain experience by using certain moves, all of which are ones that involve interpersonal drama rather than action. Fortunately and as usual, our group played hard into the mechanics to create the kind of heart-wrenching quandaries the system was clearly aiming for.

This is another game I would very much like to see a second edition for, streamlining the basic moves, revising the playbooks, and allowing easier drift away from the source material (or drawing for more different sources). 

Legacy: Life Among the Ruins

Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (UFO Press/Modiphius) is in its second edition; its focus is communities rebuilding after civilization-smashing disaster. This one was a short series played over a couple of months; we had planned to play it longer, but we ended up dropping it because it wasn’t gelling.

The game is based on people playing both entire factions (“families”) as well as individual characters representing these families. There are playbooks and moves for both levels of play, which alternate during the course of play. We had created a nice setting using Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year (Buried Without Ceremony) in an archipelago in a vast ocean; we four players had amphibian humanoids, uplifted cephalopods, artificial intelligences, and scheming geneticists.

The setting was great, but the two-level play was very difficult, at least for me; it was difficult to grasp the flow of in-game currencies to track (surpluses, needs, data, tech, treaties, etc.). Compounding confusion was the use of some terms in several different ways, for example “resources” versus “resource tracks”, which are different things altogether in the game.

In fact, I may have been the dunce of the party, I’m not sure, but it just wasn’t coming together in my head. I think it’s my own flaw, not the game’s, because I have also had trouble getting into a  number of games that include faction-level play, like Downfall, Flotsam, Dialect, or Dream Askew. I don’t feel very engaged by this scale of story-building. 

Take it as you will; if you brain is (mis)wired like mine, this one may be harder to play than other PbtA games. 

Monster of the Week

MOTW Front CoverMonster of the Week (Generic Games/Evil Hat Productions) is in its revised edition and emulates television and book series about monster hunters. I first encountered this game a few years ago when I was asked to playtest the draft of the revised edition for Evil Hat Productions, and immediately took to it.

I’ve been playing in a friend’s game since July, held every other week. As our group concept, we came up with a mysterious carnival that appears from the mist wherever it is needed because a town is threatened by some monster or mysterious phenomenon. 

This wacky choice illustrates a strength of the game: while sticking to its focus (monster hunters), it also allows tremendous flexibility in subgenres. You can play Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files, Primeval or Grimm. It’s much more flexible in this respect than the other games I discuss today.

The playbooks are distinctive, evocative, and easy to grasp while also allowing a player to interpret the archetypes in many different ways. Because each scenario (or “mystery”) is explicitly structured with an investigative phase progressively yielding to old-fashioned monster butt-kicking, there is something for every type of character to do, whether their respective fortes are intellectual, social, physical, or mystical. 

The basic moves are clear, they cover all the situations you can expect and it’s usually very clear which one is appropriate for a given moment. Playbook moves are flavourful and flesh out the archetypes while providing options for future development. And when you fail a roll, you get an experience point as consolation prize…

Compared to the other three PbtA games I discussed above, Monster of the Week shines for its clarity and flexibility.

A custom application

Cover of Harlem UnboundWhen my City of Mist campaign ended in November, I offered a few choices to my players for what I would run next; the one they chose was to explore the award-winning setting Harlem Unbound (Darker Hue Studios/Chaosium), which I paired with Monster of the Week for system. So I’m now in two MoW games!

The Harlem Unbound setting was first written for play with either Trail of Cthulhu (Pelgrane Press) or Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium), neither of which really floats my GM boat. Using MotW instead means the characters are very capable and much harder to kill; however, I did limit the available playbooks to the less supernatural choices. In particular, I eliminated the Chosen, the Divine, the Monstrous, and the Spellslinger as options. 

Because of the importance of interacting with the community in Harlem Unbound, I also added a move to investigate people more than monsters and scenes:

Read a Person: When you read a person in a charged interaction, roll +Charm. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7–9, hold 1. While you’re interacting with them, spend your hold to ask their player (including the Keeper) questions, 1 for 1:

      • Is your character telling the truth?
      • What’s your character really feeling?
      • What does your character intend to do?
      • What does your character wish I’d do?
      • How could I get your character to —?

On a miss, ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.

I try to keep my ear tuned to power creep because in this setting the PCs should feel very human, but so far we have not had any problems. The PCs are sturdy so I can throw Very Bad Things at them and not fear that they will die pointlessly. It’s possible for PCs to die, but the mechanics will make sure that it’s dramatic and earns them a big story. 

One thought on “Busting a move

  1. Since I was in all the games you mentioned here, I’ve been meaning to make some comments.

    I think that Legacy and City of Mist share a common problem – they both have way too many moving parts that everyone needs to understand to make the game run smoothly, but in many ways their systems are not robust enough to deal with all that complexity. Unlike some games out there where a player can have a good experience by sitting at the table, rolling some dice, and having another player explain what happens, these games are like jet engines – they’re powerful, but if you throw a turkey into the works they turn into a mess really easily.

    I was happiest playing City of Mist when I had few in-game currencies to keep track of. But leaving out those currencies threw my character out of whack with the game system, so each week I had to decide which of the mechanics I wanted to interact with in order to get the character to work and which I would just pass on because was too tired to deal with them all.

    Running Legacy the big trick is to know when to jump back and forth between the big view of factions and the smaller view of individual characters. And that decision is entirely subjective. The rules for coming up with a fun world to adventure in are great (we used “The Quiet Year” to help flesh out our setting and that worked very well) but going from world building and factional conflict to character level adventures can be bumpy. Resources are potentially problematic in that there are no guidelines as to what resources will be useful in a given campaign. In my game I put a whole bunch of different resources out there figuring we could use what worked best and ignore the rest This proved to be a mistake, as having something like 20+ different types of resource available just gave players analysis paralysis

    If I had it to do over again, I’d go for less flexibility – which seems like a strange goal. I’d pick half a dozen or so resources – no more and maybe less – and have a more structured time for the big picture/faction stuff. Maybe run an adventure for the characters, and at the end of the adventure have all the players make a few moves each for their faction, which would set the stage for the next adventure.

    I think you hit all the points for Last Fleet and Monster of the Week. Last Fleet is “Battlestar Galactica: TRPG” If you stray very far from the foundation of BSG you are going to start running into system and playbook problems. They aren’t insurmountable but they will take work to deal with.

    Monster of the Week is a solid product, that allows for a lot of different set-ups and playstyles. Harlem Unbound being one of them.

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