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.
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.
My bi-weekly campaign Ariadne’s Spindle, which explores the universe of The Expanse using the Fate system, is going swimmingly. Dead of Night, my weekly series of City of Mist, is reaching the Season 1 finale after about 25 episodes and very satisfying gaming. So here I am, planning another limited series, which will be set in Darker Hue Studios’ Harlem Unbound.
This award-winning book offers Lovecraftian mythos investigations amidst the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-30s. I have the original edition, which was statted for both the GUMSHOE (Pelgrane Press) and Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium) systems. A second edition has just been released under the auspices of Chaosium, statted only for CoC but offering four new scenarios; the contents otherwise look substantially the same. I may eventually purchase the PDF version to get these scenarios when I have a bit of spare change; however, neither of these systems floats my boat as GM.
Instead, I decided to use Monster of the Week (Generic Games/Evil Hat Productions), a game Powered by the Apocalypse with which I am very comfortable: I playtested the Revised Edition, I wrote a scenario for the Tome of Mysteries supplement, and along with Sean Nittner and Fred Hicks, I put together the five adventure compilations on Roll20. It’s like taking off my steel-toed boots and getting into my slippers.
Our friend Bryanna ran a game of Monster of the Week last night for two other friends, Edmund, and me. It’s a custom mystery but she used some of the tools we (Evil Hat Productions) included in the recently released Monster of the Week collection modules on Roll20. It was gratifying that she found a lot of use from the material even running a brand new mystery.
Our hunters were members of a travelling carnival that tries to bring wonder wherever they go and help the towns we visit. We played Chief, a Spooktacular carnival master (Edmund); Lydia,, a Constructed tattooed woman (me); Valentine, a Hex stage magician (Steve); and Violet, a Pararomantic fortune-teller (Dani). All of these are from the newer playbooks released by Generic Games.
14. What is an awesome RPG for open-ended campaign play?
This is sort of the opposite of the Day 9 question. Most RPGs work for this, unless they are specifically designed for short play. What really matters is how engaged everyone at the table is, and whether you’re tracking what has gone on from episode to episode so dangling plot threads and interesting NPCs can be reincorporated in play, making the GM’s life easier (the adventures write themselves) and the players’ actions more important (they impact the game world.)
That said, some games make it particularly easy for me, because the mechanics are light enough that statting more NPCs and creating new locations and plots does not create a burden on the GM. I particularly like games based on Fate Accelerated (like War of Ashes or Dresden Files Accelerated), PDQ (like Truth & Justice, Jaws of the Six Serpents, or The Zorcerer of Zo), or Heroquest (like Mythic Russia or of course Glorantha.) Some (not all) games Powered by the Apocalypse work well for this style of play, like Dungeon World or Monster of the Week.
I’ve talked a few times about the role-playing game Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games, 2010), especially here and here. This month, I get to playtest Generic Games’ hack of the AW system, Monster of the Week, in its most recent version. It’s a short turnaround playtest effort organized by Generic Games’ partner in the U.S., Evil Hat Productions; my understanding is that this new edition will be a chance to release a high-quality print version in the U.S. at reasonable cost, rather than have the choice between good printing but expensive shipping costs from New Zealand, or more affordable but lower quality print-on-demand copies from Lulu.It’s also a chance for author Michael Sands to fine-tune his game.
Like the popular AW hack Monsterhearts, Monster of the Weekis meant to emulate urban horror series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, The X Files, The Dresden Files, or Twenty Palaces. However, where Monsterhearts focuses on the teen angst aspects, MotW places the emphasis on action drama. This is much more to my taste, I like Scooby-Doo stuff for grown-ups.
The game provides a re-write and re-skin of the AW moves, completely different playbooks, a richer History phase that solidly ties the player characters (“Hunters”), and a new stat called Luck that provides resilience but also moves Hunters gradually towards the ultimate fate. Experience is changed from the first edition; while it originally followed the AW model with experience gained for using stats highlighted by other players each episode, it’s now earned for every failed roll instead like in Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions, 2012), an approach I like much better. Instead of your character growing for acting out other people’s choices, you now have an incentive to accept failure, which is very true to genre and easier to track.
Another change is that the GM (“Keeper”) uses “mysteries” instead of fronts to create the opposition. They’re mysteries in the most basic sense that they start with something unknown with an agenda, not in the sense of necessitating involved investigative skills like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Each mystery includes at least one monster, one or more minions, some bystanders, and some locations. A starter mystery is provided, and Generic Games & Evil Hat Productions requested it be playtested, along with the Keeper advice for how to set up a first session. The mystery is called “Dream Away the Time” and is set in the cute New England town of Handfast. This review will contain spoilers, so I’ll place the rest after the cut.