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.
Even in a year of pandemic, there was gaming. I probably played as often as I did in normal times, but fewer titles and with fewer people. I did not attend any conventions; I tried, signed up for online cons, but it didn’t pan out for me.
I played a total of 20 different titles, the lowest number in six years; this included only 3 board games, 14 role-playing games, and 3 story games. Only 6 of these (30%) were new to me, i.e., I had never played them before, including one playtest. The board games were sadly curtailed because my husband has been wrestling with vision problems that made it frustrating for him to deal with small writing and game components.
But I still played at least once weekly thanks to a variety of recurring RPG campaigns conducted online. Frankly, I had not had this much satisfying long-term role-playing in years: with few options for leisure and social activities, many more people could be counted on to meet regularly.
With six years of data, here is what the game type breakdown looks like:
For the last five years I’ve also been keeping track of who I play with. It looks like this:
Player diversity was disappointing in 2020, particularly when I was a player in other people’s games. The majority of players who were not cis men were players in games I or my husband ran, and somehow I did not play with any people of colour (that I am aware of), a sad performance. Despite this, I think it’s not too bad that I played with 41 different people.
Here is what my list of games looked like in 2020:
Continuing from my previous post: let’s look at creating some GM characters. This is a spot where Fate really shines for me, making my life easy as the game moderator. You see, while it’s true of any role-playing game, Fate is one of the few that openly acknowledges that adversaries don’t need to be statted the same way as player characters. At all. They don’t even need to use the same skill list. For example, here is a way to make very minor antagonists, a.k.a. mooks:
Make a list of what this mook is skilled at. They get a +2 to all rolls dealing with these things.
Make a list of what this mook is bad at. They get a −2 to all rolls dealing with these things.
Everything else gets a +0 when rolled.
Give the mook an aspect or two to reinforce what they’re good and bad at, or if they have a particular strength or vulnerability. It’s okay if a mook’s aspects are really simple.
Mooks have zero, one, or two boxes in their stress track, depending on how tough you imagine them to be.
Mooks can’t take consequences. If they run out of stress boxes (or don’t have any), the next hit takes them down.
This method is found in the Fate Accelerated Edition but used widely throughout the Fate range of implementations. It works very well for the lowest category of speedbump adversaries, dangerous mostly when in numbers or as impediments to slow the PCs down and let the real target escape. For example, I give you the hooligan: Continue reading “The Expanse in Fate: NPCs”→
We had another episode of our ongoing Paladin game. Alas, one player was unable to join but we still had three of our four sibling knights facing supernatural adventures!
At the end of last episode, our grandmother—now widowed, retired from her own days of knighthood, and abbess of a nunnery—had revealed that she was cursed by witches to turn into a werewolf AND had abandoned a baby at birth, triplet to our father and evil uncle Guillaume, because she could only care for two infants.
We had then discovered that a group of local Redcaps had found the baby in the forest and kept him. They handed it back to us, unaged! But the mere sight of the baby cause grandmother to turn into a wolf creature and attack.
So we started this episode in the middle of the Ardennes forest at night, facing a werewolf of supernatural strength which we did not want to harm but who kept trying to attack the baby. Hildegund’s page Bernard, son of Ogier the Dane, was tossed like a puppet and dashed against an oak (earning him a good concussion but nothing worse than a scratch otherwise.) We tried to restrain the wolf but in vain [largely because the system is that of Pendragon, where you should not expect your characters to be competent…] so Theodelina [my character] vaulted on her horse, snatched the baby and fled with him to keep baby-uncle from being eaten by wolf-grandma. Hildegund drew her rosary and called up the love of God [with a critical success], sending the werewolf fleeing directly away.
We regrouped and tracked grandmother wolf, finding her in human form once the sun rose. We secured her and resumed our search for the witch who had cast the curse—or at least for a village where we could get the baby fed.
We eventually found the witch’s hut in the depths of the forest. She recognized us, let us in and even gave us milk for the baby but wanted our entire lineage to suffer under the curse: long ago, our grandmother the Lady Knight Giselda had slain the witch Liutgarde’s sisters, as ordered by then-King Pepin.
We tried to convince the witch to relent, but she would not give up her vengeance. When we said that the (now-dead) king was the one she should take exception with, she demanded to be heard by “our king” but we soon realized she meant Carloman; she refused to recognize Charlemagne, even though we were in the lands given to him by Pepin when the old king split his kingdom between his two sons.
Meanwhile, our grandmother kept urging us to kill her and the witch both, and wanted nothing to do with the baby.
I finally got the notion to ask the witch if she would agree to the judgment of the king of Nutons instead since I was his knight and champion. She agreed, so we all trooped out to seek the Nutons. (It was the first such visit for my twin brother Adalfried, who finally believed the stories.)
The King of Nutons agreed to hear both sides, then rendered his judgement: his curse would fall on the king instead but would have to be witnessed by us young knights. Our grandmother would be freed from lycanthropy, at least for for now. Presumably, if we failed in the task the deal would be off. And the King of Nutons refused to name which king we should take the curse to…
We took our leave, returned grandmother to the abbey, and took the baby to Adalfried’s impoverished manor in spite of the rumours this would spark. We asked our steward Radegunde to find him a wet nurse, then prepared to visit Carloman—because to make things even more tense, our liege Duke Thierry asked us to attend Carloman’s winter court!
The Pendragon system is, to be frank (haha), an antiquated disaster. We all use it cheerfully, no one is lobbying for a conversion to another system because we love the setting (writer Ruben in ’t Groen did a great job with the Paladin material) and we love playing as a group, but we’re constantly mocking its ridiculous whiff factor, its unnecessary random tables, and its laborious logic. Yet we have such great stories together!
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.
Since mid-April, Evil Hat has been working hard on creating a lot of high-quality modules for the virtual tabletop Roll20 for gamers besieged by the pandemic and social distancing. I have put a ton of time and effort into these. A few more were published today so I wanted to give a view of the Wall of Awesome:
Today’s episode of Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne was like Call the Midwife meets Brother Cadfael by way of Brotherhood of the Wolf. The group is wonderful and the story was great.
Our four knights (Hildegund, Gottfried, Adelfried, and Theodelina) went to see our widowed grandmother, recently elevated to abbess of Our Lady of Pain and found the abbey under lockdown: three nuns had been torn to piece during a night of vigil in the chapel. We ended on a cliffhanger when we finally came face-to-face with a werewolf in an entirely unexpected way.
Oh, and the weird name for the abbey was due to my bad translation for “Notre Dame des Douleurs” (Beata Maria Virgo Perdolens, or Mater Dolorosa): this facet in the Virgin Mary’s veneration, I found out after the game, is actually known in English as “Our Lady of Sorrows.” But I did find A.C. Swinburne’s 1866 poem that does shed an odd light on the topic!
Who has known all the evil before us, Or the tyrannous secrets of time? Though we match not the dead men that bore us At a song, at a kiss, at a crime — Though the heathen outface and outlive us, And our lives and our longings are twain — Ah, forgive us our virtues, forgive us, Our Lady of Pain.