- Concept: What are you trying to do?
- Execution: How well did you do that?
- Completeness: Can I pick this up and play it?
- Cookery: How well did you make use of ingredients?
- Conclusion: Where do you go from here?
The Submissions with Comments
Danger Mountain! by Jason Morningstar
Danger Mountain! emulates disaster films from the 1970s, which capitalized on a growing environmental malaise and blended it with age-old B-movie melodrama. The results were roundly terrible in retrospect, but terrible in a really fun way.
- Concept: 70s ecological disaster movies. Both unexpected and enticing.
- Execution: This game reaches into the same cooperative boardgame-influenced GM-less design tradition as Fiasco and Geiger Counter. The game encourages loose player attachment to characters, gleefully describing terrible things happening and brutal deaths, but it is still grounded in the spark of humanity within stereotypical characters who can die from a single random die roll. Not a lot of pushing the envelope here, but it looks solid and fun.
- Completeness: Some of the procedures are less than 100% clear on first read, but would probably be clearer in play or with additional examples. The game actually answered a bunch of my early questions later in the text. When do you foreshadow disasters? (At the beginning of a scene or sometime during it.) Why bother rolling the disaster dice before you have 4? (You don’t need to, really.) Does everyone choose a second disaster secretly? (No, just the player who rolled the disaster.) The only couple things that I think would make it easier to get this to the table are reference cards listing the play procedures for different stages of the game. There are thankfully already character cards and disaster references included.
- Cookery: Excellent use of the ingredients, overall. This game really took “city on the edge of the desert” and ran with it, rather than being overly restricted by it. The theme isn’t really there – the characters’ personal journey? journeying quickly away from raging wildfires? – but the game doesn’t miss it.
- Conclusion: Finalist.
Paths of the Resolute by Jonathan Janssen
Paths of the Resolute is a game about finding personal identity amidst chaos. In this game, the players will play people who have lost their identity in a catastrophe, but struggle to create a new one in order to survive annihilation.
- Concept: A dreamlike desert city full of memory-less inhabitants is about to be swallowed by a mysterious force. The characters attempt to retrieve ancient documents from desert ruins and tattoo written verses across their bodies, inscriptions which they believe will protect them when the city is destroyed. A bit hard to explain to a potential audience, perhaps, but interesting.
- Execution: For all the complexity of the premise, the game itself is very simple, with minimal opportunities for character interaction. It is competitive, but mostly in a solo sense, with characters individually attempting to best challenges presented by the GM. In fact, aside from the option of trading discovered texts, it could easily be a 1-on-1 or even a solo game if there were fixed or randomly rolled obstacle difficulties for the various seasons. Honestly, the part I find least compelling of this – since I like searching for documents amidst desert ruins filled with deadly traps – is the moralistic part, where the texts are supposed to represent virtues that the characters aspire to. It seems tacked on and without much support in the rules. The different stages of play also seem variably important, with racing being less important than avoiding traps, but the entire enterprise also being undone if you can’t tattoo yourself successfully. Additionally, I would have loved to see some kind of more active endgame where the characters use their skills at raiding desert ruins or their secret knowledge gleaned from texts to attempt to save or escape the city, rather than it being more of a passive thing, where those who haven’t gathered up enough texts are simply destroyed along with the city. It’s not hard to imagine the city’s destruction in terms of traps, after all, and maybe if you bested one of those traps, you could activate one of your inscribed texts to do something., like preserving things from being destroyed or deciding what gets remembered.
- Completeness: You can definitely pick this game up and play it, with the only exception being the relatively limited guidance for creating traps (pick a number between 4 and 8, with more lower numbers in the early stages and higher ones later on), when those are the core of the game. Also, what does failing a tattooing roll mean? Right now it’s not very clear.
- Cookery: Used all four ingredients, certainly, and you can see something of the theme in there, journeying out to the desert ruins, but the game doesn’t rise very much above a relatively literal reading of the contest elements. Good, but not exceptional.
- Conclusion: A solid attempt and a fun premise, but I’m not sure there’s enough here for this to move on to the playoffs. I do think that, with a bit of work that perhaps fleshed it out a little, it could be the basis of a fun game where you explored desert ruins in an attempt to save knowledge from the city’s eventually destruction or even save the city itself. Right now, it’s a fun little roleplaying poem and I definitely think it deserves to be played, but the group would have to invest the rough outline here with more meaning and purpose.
The 7 Symbols of San Rio by Joe Jeskiewicz / Artexercise
The 7 Symbols of San Rio is an Oracle Style game in which the players are stuck in an abandonded city in the middle of a desert with some brand new tattoos and a note addressed to them. There is a push towards exploring the meaning of Sin and Virtue in this environment.
- Concept: Something like Robert Rodriguez directing Momento, but mechanically inspired by minimalist oracle-based designs like Ghost/Echo. A bunch of memory-less folks with strange tattoos awake in an abandoned desert town and try to figure out what this all means by showing off their vices and virtues. Seems like a better premise for a single-player game, but okay, I can dig it.
- Execution: This game is very light on guidelines, so it’s easy to review all of it. The text says you have seven tattoos. You pick 3 and the other players pick 3. Where does the last one come from? There are mechanics for committing violence (cool), using special skills (how do you know what these are if your characters have no memory?), committing a sin or virtue (cool), and witnessing a sin or virtue (why do you roll for this, if it’s already determined by the fiction? what if we’ve described you standing right there?). All these mechanics are completely random, though there’s some weird strategies in number picking, like how if you pick numbers in the middle (4) you won’t get the extreme results. Presumably you can also draw a lot of narrative content from the tattoos and the GM just making stuff up, though there’s no GM guidance.
- Completeness: I really like minimalist designs, but I think this one goes too far in a number of senses. It’s hard to make minimalism work if you don’t know anything about the characters (no memories) because you can’t effectively draw on established material (“I’m a former mob enforcer on the run from my ex-boss”) or ask the players questions (“How do you usually do this?). Also, there’s no explanation of why some of the core mechanics, especially “witnessing,” are so critical to the game. Is it about spying on the evil deed of others, somehow? How do I make that happen? In general, I feel like I need a bit more guidance and direction to really know what to do with these interesting elements that I’ve been presented with, in order to make it into a game.
- Cookery: Totally legitimate, if relatively straightforward use of the ingredients. Not really seeing the theme that much, unless it’s supposed to be the journey of self-discovery through unraveling the tattoo mystery.
- Conclusion: A good attempt and something I’d be interested in reading play reports about, to see how different groups patched up the gaps in the text, but not solid enough to move on to the next round.
A Trick of the Light by Jeff R.
A Trick of the Light is a game of unreliable narration and intense reaction. Four survivors tell tales of their arduous journeys to the ruined city, and try to learn which of their fellows are real, spirit, or ghost; trustworthy or deadly misleading.
- Concept: A group of figures gathers in the center of a ruined desert city, telling each other the stories of how they arrived here. Which ones are human and which ones are merely ghosts and spirits? Compelling and cool.
- Execution: There are several interesting mechanics in this game, actually. It uses a deck of playing cards for all the core mechanics: an oracle-like method of choosing scene types (which is very cool), a way of questioning parts of other players’ narratives (also very cool), a way of getting rid of cards by matching your cards to things that happen in other players’ narratives (problematic, as in Once Upon a Time, but exacerbated by not having the needed fictional elements written on the cards), and discovering your true identity at the end (okay, but could be better). There’s also an endgame where the different players score points based on different conditions for each character type (human, ghost, spirits). So, a mixture of things here, some of which are really great, but some which work less well, I think.
- Completeness: Because the entire game is so tight, I worry that the less good parts of the game are going to negatively impact the better parts and lead to a pretty mixed play experience overall, similar to my worries about Paths of the Resolute (02). There is a great premise here, but a few things are holding it back: edging under, the endgame (if the game is really about trust, shouldn’t it come up before the final moments?), and the lack of guidance for how to inject your characters into other players’ narratives. The text tells you to inject characters and each player has a number of characters to choose from, but the lack of structure here worries me.
- Cookery: This feels like a fairly strong, if literal, use of the ingredients and theme. I’m not sure I see “edge” all that much, but that doesn’t bother me.
- Conclusion: This is close to being a really compelling game. In particular, the scene types and questions are very sharp and exciting. But it’s not quite ready for the playoffs.
Pub Crawl: Take the Edge Off by Samuel Briggson
Recently, you and your friends participated in a semi-annual event in your city: the pub crawl. There were good times, there were bad times and, as is often the case, now you’re all sitting around swapping stories from that day. Since alcohol was involved, you’re going to need some help from your friends to remember the details of what happened that day.
- Concept: Remembering the misadventures that occurred after a long night of drinking. Fabulous concept.
- Execution: Wow, I was not expecting to like this game, but it is really solid and seems like it would feel very much like a pub crawl, complete with the highs, lows, and random shit that happens when you are out drinking with some friends late at night. The mixture of elation and depression is just about right, I think, and the Fudge dice really bring that across. The mechanics are really simple and straightforward, and I only have a couple of mechanical concerns. First, Fudge dice are really strange, mathematically, especially when you start altering how many of them you’re rolling. There is not a simple progression from 1dF to 2dF, 3dF, 4dF, etc. Each of those rolls very differently. Also, the fact that most Fudge dice rolls center on 0 makes me think that the net result of any bar visit is likely to be no change in BAC, at least for the player narrating the bar. However, on second thought, both of those may actually work with the tone of the game, both in the sense of random arbitrariness and in the way that most of the value changes will happen to other players during your turn.
- Completeness: As I said before, this looks surprisingly solid, but the difficulties of predicting how Fudge dice will roll means that I’d want to see it playtested a fair bit to iron out whatever kinks exist, even if it is a fairly light bar game. As in Ribbon Drive, I think the light mechanics and fun tone may cause folks to underestimate how emotional and – I am not at all kidding – how compelling the game could be, especially as the characters sink down to their lows. Compared to the rest of the game, the endgame seems a bit weak, where you determine victory based on how close you came to your target BAC at the end of play. But, in reality, that “win condition” is a false one, I think; it drives play but does not actually determine true victory, which is something ultimately unmeasurable in a game like this. Perhaps, in the event of a really depressing night out, it could offer some comfort to the players, that somebody got something out of all this.
- Cookery: The theme is pretty well represented and I’ll give this game “city” and “edge,” but that feels pretty generous. This game is not really about the ingredients but is a better game because of it.
- Conclusion: Finalist. Can you believe it? Ha!
Nowhere Road by Jamie Fristrom
It’s a “make your own road movie” game. You’re on a road trip. You think you know what you want. But the other players know what you Really Need.
- Concept: A road trip game about self-discovery. Simple but strong.
- Execution: There’s a lot of really cool stuff going on here. Printing out an actual map for your journey is neat. The Real Need mechanic, which is the core of the game, is reverse Mountain Witch. Instead of hinting at your own Dark Fate, the other players hint at your Real Need and you have to try to fulfill it without knowing what it is exactly. But the “official guess” mechanic, where you try to guess your Need after each of your scenes, is less awesome than just making the characters achieve their Real Need in play and never really discussing them out loud until the end of the game. The different scene types and their different resolution mechanics are pretty cool, actually, and something I’d like to see more of in other games (differentiated resolution), but the conflict guidelines are somewhat weak in a stereotypical indie game “freeplay until a conflict happens” kind of way. That was a trend in design for a while (based on the popularity of Primetime Adventures, I think) and can lead to a lot of “Where is the conflict?” discussions at the table. This game mitigates that with the other scene types – which is a really smart work around – but doesn’t totally address the original problem. I also wonder if a game concept like this really needs randomly rolled conflict resolution, but I guess it depends on your play tastes and what sort of misadventures the characters get involved in. The endgame could also be a bit stronger, saying that, if you haven’t achieved your Real Need by the end of the game, you get your Surface Goal instead, but remain ultimately unfulfilled. That would be pretty hot, actually, and the rules suggest that without saying it explicitly.
- Completeness: There’s no example of establishing Real Needs, just a copied misprint example from an earlier section of the rules. Also, I wonder you have to be traveling to the American Southwest? Why not a sheep herding competition in Wellington, NZ? Additionally, why is there not room for detours? In general, I think the actual map of the trip is underused, being such a strong idea. It would be better if it developed dynamically over the course of play, responding to choices the characters made, instead of being broken up into fixed sections from the beginning. The text also occasionally slips into a condescending voice – “This is what makes Road Trip different from other RPGs” – which is something to be careful about, since that kind of language is often both annoying and not especially accurate in claiming uniqueness.
- Cookery: Great use of the theme. Artificially limiting the road trips to the Southwest is a weird way of getting “desert” in the game, since it limits the game rather that really making it about that region of the country. Also, calling them “Skin Goals” rather than “Surface Goals” or something is something of a stretch. The ingredients mostly seem to be holding the game back, rather than empowering it.
- Conclusion: This game is really close, has a lot of great ideas, and needs just a few significant tweaks for it to be really cooking with gas. But it’s not quite a Finalist as it currently stands.
Never to Die by James Mullen
It’s about a bunch of lads having a night out on the town, but it’ll be their last night out ever. It’s very British with lots of sex, drink & violence, ending in a tragedy.
- Concept: The last night on the town with your mates, because something’s about to change. It’s like Pub Crawl (05) meets Black Swan Green. Very British and very cool.
- Execution: Our second “night out”-based game is just as strong as the first, but for different reasons. This one de-emphasizes the drinking and places more emphasis on the trouble and social posturing, since it’s all about the lads and their social roles in the group and why everything is going to end after this night. It’s tragic not because it’s ultimately fleeting and a bit sad, really, but because it was so good, in its way, being together like this with your mates, but the fucked up sides of it are going to destroy all that goodness. There are still some potential issues with the game – the very colorful text is a bit too long and wordy, I’m concerned a bit that the GM resources and player stats may not shift like the game expects them too, and there probably aren’t quite sufficient guidelines for the GM to create trouble, just a lot of encouragement, mostly – but some playtesting will probably put things right in a jiffy. My initial reaction is definitely that 90 dice sounds way too many for the GM’s resource pool. The stats are really great and you can see a fair bit of Vincent Baker’s influence here (adding Mood+Action is like In a Wicked Age, there’s a mention of “Say Yes or Roll,” etc.), but it feels very much like its own game. The pre-generated characters are an interesting choice as well and I’m excited to see if they actually feel different in play, with Moods changing all over the place. The core dice mechanic is very clever as well, since the players ultimately want both themselves and the GM to be rolling as many dice as possible.
- Completeness: I wonder a bit at trying this game with the bunch of Yanks I typically play with here in the States. Clearly part of the draw is the idea of getting into it with your mates, not just with your friends, y’know? And we could all throw on terrible accents and give it a go, but it would certainly be a different experience. Once it gets some more playtesting, I’d be interested in hearing how different groups handle this and if there could be suggestions written into the text about ways of dealing with cultural gaps.
- Cookery: Nice use of the theme, on a number of different levels. Having the GM be the City is a smart touch, as is using “skin” in the kind of pseudo-fascist way that means close brotherhood ties. And the group is certainly teetering on the edge. Very nice ingredient use, really, perhaps the best so far.
- Conclusion: Finalist.
My God’s Bigger Than Your God by Joe Prince
A spiritual journey of faith and religious intolerance in the holy desert city. Can your deity be the one that flourishes?
- Concept: You play the leaders of different faiths battling for religious dominance of a great desert city. Nice!
- Execution: This game is obviously rushed and I wish the author had time to really finish it properly. The game itself reminds me of Paul Tevis’ review of Trubune and other board games where you invest turns in different strategies in an attempt to out-maneuver your opponents. The very cool strategies add a more complex mechanical dimension to what is basically some very light narration of the “describe a scene in which X happens” variety. To give the narrative aspects of the game more teeth, I’d love to see more guidelines for actually playing out the events of the game, inspired by Microscope or other hybrid storytelling-RPG games, or just some other way of making the game more than just a competitive board game. Not that there’s anything wrong with board games! What is here seems like it would work pretty well, though. All the strategies are really gripping (“warrior messiah!”) and would be fun to narrate.
- Completeness: The game is basically complete, aside from one strategy that the author didn’t have time to finish. A booklet doesn’t seem like the right form factor for the game, however, since it would be easier to choose between stratagems for this turn if they were on cards. I also wonder if it would be possible for all the players to choose their stratagems at the same time, perhaps choosing them in order of their number of followers, with the most popular religion getting preference, and have them all happen effectively at once.
- Cookery: This game really isn’t about the theme or ingredients, but who cares? Not me.
- Conclusion: Finish this game, Joe! I want to play it. But it’s not a Finalist.
Long Shot by Nick Wedig
You’re a colonist four light years away from civilization. Now Earth has gone silent: they’re possibly dead but they’re definitely not sending any help. How will you survive on this blasted desert planet?
- Concept: A group of settlers tries to survive on a dusty alien world after they find out no more supply ships are coming and the sheriff has been murdered. Mechanically, it’s Dogs in the Vineyard + Danger Patrol, but without a GM. Thematically, it’s Firefly + Polaris. Very cool and ambitious.
- Execution: This game tries to take on a lot of different tasks and mostly succeeds, to its credit. It’s a GM-less game with strong player affiliation with a single protagonist; there’s a mystery that gets unraveled during play (“who killed the sheriff?”); there’s the growing problem of running short on supplies; there are various player-described conditions that characters can get; and the endgame means that eventually the characters will turn on the NPCs and each other, ending with everybody dead. That’s a lot to get done, but this game does it, despite my initial skepticism. Mechanically it seems pretty robust, but playtesting is of course needed to see if it’ll actually stand up and if the included characters are as potent in play as they appear on paper. You combine two half-sheets to make a character but, unlike in Danger Patrol, this actually gives you a name, character background, people you hate, and the like in addition to mechanical elements. So the fictional elements of the game are strongly framed from the beginning, which helps, I think, since the mechanical elements often rely on judgment calls and a good sense of pacing from the players.
- Completeness: There are some things that might be worth fixing before or during playtesting. For example there are only vague guidelines for determining when a conflict occurs – “when character want different things” is not quite enough; they want different things from the get-go, right? – and having players spend their own characters’ dice to create terrain obstacles or other threats is okay but perhaps not the best, though being able to draw from the common pool mostly mitigates this. I also suspect that the mechanical result of conditions need to be rethought, since rarely will having a -1 for your next 20 rolls will not often make for really provocative story content. It’s probably better if you have to take at least -1 for every condition you have active, but you can take bigger penalties (and in some cases may have to, like if the other players invoke your weakness) to make your conditions go away faster. Perhaps players can invoke a condition directly to make you take half its current value in penalties, something like that.
- Cookery: Great use of the theme and ingredients, though “skin and bones” was more of a stretch than this game really needed, since all they do is determine starting die pools and the fictional meanings – high-tech miracle cloth and raygun ammo cartridges – don’t seem to matter much, since you can roll your dice to shove people or browbeat them as well as shoot or heal them.
- Conclusion: Finalist.
Brachininae by Alex Isabelle / il mietitore
Robots have conquered the Earth. Now humans live hidden under the ground in the subterranean city of Skin. A group of heroes is taking part in a mission where they are all probably gonna die. We want to find out why are they doing this.
- Concept: WWII-era pilots go on a bombing run to destroy the robots from the Matrix movies. Along the way you have flashbacks that help explain why you are here and determine how the endgame plays out, whether you succeed on your mission. A bit weird, but okay.
- Execution: This game has some cool ideas but I don’t think they ever really gel together. The scenes are framed by asking questions about things the characters care about and are resolved based on a second question, which is a very smart structure. However, the resolution mechanics, which always involve threats of violence between characters, are a bit limiting, considering all the different kinds of situations that could potentially take place in flashbacks. Additionally, the escalation system, reminiscent of Dogs in the Vineyard, involves invoking character traits, which would normally be okay, but in a very short one-shot game like this, character traits are pretty meaningless, since they’ll only come up once and don’t have a lot of narrative or emotional significance to the players when they do appear, unless the game has gone out of its way to supercharge them somehow, as this game does by the way it structures the scene framing questions. Finally, while I like tying the stages of the journey to the escalation system, having the journey stages be both an abstract map, stats, escalation stages, and the endgame mechanic puts too much weight on them, I think, more than they can support.
- Completeness: This game is definitely playable, as is, since there are no major missing pieces. But I suspect that play would not be especially rich or fulfilling, giving the way the rules only support certain kinds of conflict and telegraph a fairly pessimistic ending without giving the characters many tools or opportunities to change their fate or at least determine what it means or what results from it.
- Cookery: Aside from journey, the ingredients here are mostly a stretch, which is fine, but I can’t help but think that maybe making the ingredients more central would give this game a stronger sense of purpose.
- Conclusion: This one needs a fair bit of work to either discover its real focus or better communicate what the game is actually about and how the rules help the players achieve that. While the author seems mainly worried about language issues, I don’t think that was a significant issue here, actually.
Walkers in The Witchery Way by Alla Hoffman
My game is called “Walkers in The Witchery Way” and it centers around a city carved into a desert cliff where the nearly-human Skinwalkers live. It is uncertain what they want or where they come from, but since you are one, I suppose you know.
- Concept: You play a bunch of skin-wearing shape-changers in a desert city, either trying to champion its cause or destroy it. Very cool.
- Execution: Reading this text, it seems much more like a description of the game rather than the game itself. For example, the game says that Skinwalkers are X, Y, Z, or typically do X, Y, Z or that the GM can do X, Y, Z, but it doesn’t really provide rules or guidelines for doing those things. When characters heal, they heal one sliver per day but take a whole month if they are completely injured. Is a day or month a meaningful unit of game time? What do injured characters do in the meantime? Skinwalkers can be killed by someone speaking their true names, but there are no guidelines for determining another character’s true name or preventing someone from discovering your own name. If you roll a 2 on Magic, you’ve put your skin on improperly. Can you try to take a skin off and put it on again? Wearing a skin longer than you need to has all these cool effects but no reasons or mechanics are given that show why you would you wear a skin that long. These kinds of issues go on and on, especially in the sections on what the GM does and for the other stats aside from Magic. The game says that you can do all these cool things, but then the rules of the game only sometimes touch on those cool things (like putting on skins and cursing people, the only things covered well). Additionally, all of the die rolls are basically the same, no matter the fictional circumstances. That’s fine, but it makes these descriptions of cool situations (wearing a skin too long, etc.) even more meaningless, if they have no mechanical significance.
- Completeness: This game is missing a great deal. It’s not too short, necessarily, but what it does provide is not enough to really play the concept that the game presents you with. Say we want to play one of the core campaign concepts it suggests, infiltrating the city and destroying it. How do we start? What obstacles should the GM create? What kinds of characters should we make? What will the characters need to do to destroy the city? The players basically have to come up with all this by themselves and the mechanics do not really support city destruction, so the GM will have to figure out how to measure their progress in that respect and decide when the city has been destroyed, I guess.
- Cookery: The ingredients are all here and the theme is present in the different campaign types, all of which involve a journey.
- Conclusion: Conceptually, this game doesn’t have any issues, but it needs to figure out how to effectively invite would-be players into this setting and empower them to explore it. Right now, the setting/concept and the rules are only barely hanging onto each other, so there’s not much reason you would use these rules rather than, say, using this awesome concept as the basis for a D&D campaign or some other game.
Memoir by Declan Feeney
Memoir is a game about our lives, choices, relationships and legacies. How will we be remembered when we’re gone?
- Concept: Play out the lives of real, everyday people, from childhood to death, and determine the legacy they leave behind. Super ambitious.
- Execution: This is a classic “roll to overcome your grief” indie game, where you use fairly traditional roleplaying techniques in an attempt to describe realistic characters facing everyday problems. The various life stages have different rules while still drawing on the same character traits and resources, which is a cool concept. I also really like the desert stage that you fall into if your character loses touch with other people. But there are also some choices that feel like mismatches. For example, why have relatively traditional stats (Mind, Body, Soul, Wealth) in a biographical game about real people? Why focus on conflict resolution and antagonism in a game about life’s most important moments (which may not involve conflicts)? There are some ways to mitigate this by actively encouraging the type of “I want to prove I’m not a coward” conflicts that punctuate Dogs in the Vineyard (perhaps still the best game about growing up), but there’s perhaps not enough of that kind of guidance here. Overall, though, my biggest concern is that the huge range of stories you could tell with such a game – from the bio of a nameless homeless woman to Abraham Lincoln to Conan – makes the game ultimately an enigma: it’s very hard to know what you’re going to get from it, especially with each player potentially telling a very different kind of story. It also seems to require immense creative leverage on the part of the players to keep the narrative content compelling, perhaps more than any other game I’ve ever seen (though Microscope may be similar). You have to invent, without much support, an entire set of people, their family members, and their entire lives. Sure, you do it in stages, which helps, but I would definitely appreciate places where I could choose from a set of options or have the game push me down particular paths, rather than have it be so completely open ended. It’s as if the huge ambitions of the game aren’t quite adequately supported with practical guidelines to make things more accessible.
- Completeness: This game is thorough in the extreme. But after reading the whole thing, I find that I am still intimidated and uncertain about what it is asking me to do, rather than empowered by the text to attempt this monumental challenge.
- Cookery: I could talk about the ingredients here, but it’s obvious that – since the game is dedicated to the author’s unborn child – that he brought the most important ingredient at all: passion. What else could I ask for?
- Conclusion: This is the hardest call I’ve had to make so far. There is a lot of really great stuff here and clearly the author put a ton of heart and effort into this game, but I still don’t feel like I’m ready to bring it to my table, that the game has given me what I need in order to really create the type of experience it describes. I would love to play it if someone else was organizing a game, though. Maybe it’s a good candidate for “Best Game Jonathan Overlooked.”
World Riddle (with cards) by Stuart Chaplin
World Riddle is a Journey towards Enlightenment. It is a game of two worlds and of questions. World Riddle is a koan to which each play group must find their own answer. World Riddle is about the search for the City of the Real within the Desert of the Mundane.
- Concept: A group of sojourners travel along the edge, between the City (enlightenment) and the Desert (spiritual wasteland). What choices do they make and where do they end up? Surreal and potentially very cool.
- Execution: As some of my previous Game Chef attempts indicate (especially When The Forms Exhaust Their Variety from 2006), I’m a big fan of surrealism and transcendentalism in roleplaying. This game is clearly a Polaris descendent, with four players taking on rotating responsibilities and the use of ritual phrases to adjust the developing narrative. There are very cool question cards that are drawn by the protagonist player, who frames a scene around them and uses it to examine the question (“What secrets are birthed beneath this one’s smile?”). The other players then help play out the scene, taking on the roles of the World, Attachment, and Enlightenment, and ultimately you decide whether to give the card to the Enlightenment, moving towards it, or the Attachment, holding on to things here. There are also random elements called forks (“Something burns!”) that can be added to later scenes. There’s an endgame that determines your character’s final outcome based on how many cards you received from the players on either side, when you were playing the Attachment and Enlightenment. This is all pretty neat.
- Completeness: But the game is missing a few key things. On the first page the text says to talk with the other players and figure out who your characters are and what sort of journey this is. That’s it: you just make it up with no guidance whatsoever. For a game this surreal, I’m not sure that’s going to cut it. The players need to know how to make characters that fit with what this game is trying to do. Additionally, I wonder about deciding the characters ultimate fate based on the choices made by other characters based on how the players portrayed abstract forces. That is completely arbitrary and unconnected to the actual characters choices, which adds to the randomness but doesn’t really feel appropriate if the game is really about choice. Finally, it’s great that characters get to choose which spiritual direction a given scene pulls them in, without any randomness or mechanical resolution, but the simplicity of this also leaves the effect of that choice on the endgame completely transparent, since the cards are all lying on the table. As a player, I know what the different choice options will mean for the players on either side of me when the endgame comes and that serves as a distraction from the workings of the scene itself and freely making that choice. I also feel like, for a game about spiritual salvation, the choice itself is pretty toothless, right? What’s the difference between choosing between them? Is choosing Enlightenment really just that easy?
- Cookery: Pretty sweet use of the theme and the ingredients. Very creative.
- Conclusion: I really like the premise and overall structure, but it needs more guidance on the narrative aspects, especially creating characters and deciding the overall feel of the journey, and for the mechanics to better support meaningful decisions, even if the overall game still feels very surreal (and that surreal aspect is executed pretty well).
The Hand of Gulliver the Man-Mountain by Mike Pohjola
An RPG where Lilliputians explore the hand of Gulliver who just washed ashore. Your finger represents your Lilliputian character, and the GM’s hand is the Hand of Gulliver the Man-Mountain. (The world’s first manual-digital-tactile roleplaying game.)
- Concept: In the proud tradition of Rocky & Bullwinkle and Puppetland, players create puppets out of their own fingers and explore the back of the Gamemaster’s hand as Lilliputians exploring Gulliver’s tied-down body. Brilliant.
- Execution: This game is great, though the players really shouldn’t read the GM guidelines or – even better – there should be suggestions for how the GM can alter them or come up with new ways to play Gulliver. As solid and fun as it looks, I have three concerns going into playtesting: falling off, dying, and character traits. As the rules currently stand, the rules for jumping (which are great) are basically required to move to the cool parts of the hand, such as the fingers, but it’s super easy to fall off the hand entirely, because you fall off if you overshoot your target, even if you still land on your hand. Maybe this will still work in practice, but it stood out to me. There’s going to be a lot of “wasted” turns climbing back onto the hand. Also, Lilliputians can be instantly murdered by their fellows if they lose a game of “finger war,” which seems a bit too easy (and they can additionally die in a random fashion due to the movements of the man-mountain). This could be fine in practice if the game isn’t intended to last very long, like 20 minutes or so, and it’s unclear how long this extended joke can be played before it’s better to leave it be. Finally, I was disappointed that there weren’t any real guidelines for debates or other social/political aspects since so many of the Lilliputians traits have to do with their political parties and religious beliefs. Are those just meant to be reasons to murder other Lilliputians? Because it’s hard to see what else you do with that, mechanically, though clearly arguing about them in Mickey Mouse voices could be very entertaining.
- Completeness: It seems pretty easy to pick up this game and play it. Aside from social stuff, which could be freeformed, there weren’t any big gaps or places where I felt confused about how to run the game. That said, with some additional work, this game could go from being a funny little idea into something that really offers a complete game experience. Imagine, for example, if one player volunteers to play the man-mountain and lies face-down on the floor. Then, the other players could play across the entire back of his body (with perhaps a “not below the waist” rule), starting with the hand. And there could be guidelines for what happens if Gulliver convulses from being tickled by the fingers or bellows with rage or whatnot. And with additional terrain to be explored (mining his teeth for gold, for example), the game suddenly becomes more interesting and there’s more room for political drama to play out, with one faction seizing control of the head or the peaks of the shoulders.
- Cookery: The theme is well-used here, as is Skin and Desert and Edge and even City in the sense of Lilliput itself. Very, very well done.
- Conclusion: Despite a few concerns, I think this is still a Finalist and, as I said above, could develop into a more significant game like Puppetland or Paranoia going forward, while still keeping the humorous aspects.
Chronicles of Skin by Sebastian Hickey
Pictures on leather record the history of an ancient civil war. Tell the stories of the people of that war and write your history through the eyes of the victors. Chronicles of Skin is a 60 minute game of ancient atrocity and propaganda.
- Concept: Players play out a limited number of scenes describing a war between two different groups of people, recording the results with pictographs drawn on a sheet of paper. The endgame determines which group ultimately triumphs. Solid.
- Execution: There are a number of really cool ideas here. The pictographs and skin are terrific, though I think they could have been incorporated more centrally into the mechanics, instead of serving as merely a record of play. For example, they could have mapped out the boundaries (physical or whatever) of the conflict, which the players would then contest or explore. Or resolution could have involved trading pictographs back and forth in a way that was more interactive rather that just accumulative, with elements combining to create new pictographs. Overall, I was surprised and pleased by how much I liked the scene framing guidelines, though I would suggest getting rid of the term “PC,” which has some unnecessary baggage. In a Wicked Age could offer some inspiration, I think, on how to handle reoccurring characters in a game without strict PCs. Plus, the rule about not killing major characters even if they lose a battle seems a bit too nice, perhaps, in a game about war. While I think the game could be made much stronger (see below) it mostly works as is due to the very limited scope. Players only have a few scenes to record the major events of the war, and the rules offer enough to get that far, but maybe not much further, at least right now.
- Completeness: Overall, this game is pretty solid. But I can’t help but feel that the game would be better if it provided guidelines for the players to invent names and important locations for the different parties involved in the war, rather than starting with the names Ilho, Croen, and the city of Seraphin. I’m not sure what those are really adding to the game. For example, the biggest question in the game, one that is not at all addressed by the rules or the text, is where these two “cultures” in this war came from, why they share the city of Seraphin, why the last king died, and what that leads to war between the two sides. Seems like those might be important issues to deal with in play and exploring those issues also seems more likely if that content is player-generated, unless it is really top-notch and compelling, like Montsegur 1244. Also, while I like the way cultural traits are developed through symbolic association, I wish some of the more sophisticated cultural-modeling ideas of Simon Carryer had been incorporated. They also use playing cards as a basis, so there’s definitely the potential for some good cross-pollination there. I also think riffing off Simon would allow for more space in which to deal with the kinds of issues that an ethnic conflict or civil war necessarily brings up: identity, loyalty, boundaries, prejudice, etc. Finally, the number of different resources in the game seems overly many. You already have a deck of cards, which is being used to draw and discard and a physical record of the scenes (with winners and losers) on the skin, so it seems redundant to also vote with accumulated tokens to ultimately determine the victorious side. The mechanics for earning vote tokens were also a major distraction when reading the text, because it wasn’t clear in the beginning what they were for or if it was important to pay attention to them.
- Cookery: I don’t really see the theme much here, but Skin and City are prominent.
- Conclusion: I’m torn, because I think the game could be significantly better than this current draft, but it’s solid enough to play as is and there aren’t any major gaps aside from the major one: “Why are we fighting in the first place?” So, Finalist. Let the people decide.
The Chaos Lords and the Desert of Death by David Best
Chaos Lords is an over the top science fantasy RPG where the players are heroes drawn from across space and time to the end of the universe to fight Death before he claims the Last City.
- Concept: A relatively rules-light sandbox game in which a group of random heroes plucked from throughout time attempt to battle Death and his forces at the end of the universe. Doesn’t really grab me nowadays, necessarily, but I’m sure I would have loved this in Middle School when I played nothing but Rifts. Woohoo!
- Execution/Completeness: I’m going to combine these two comment categories here, because they ran together in my response. The system has a couple of clever ideas here. The dice mechanic is neat, in the way that d20s and d30s generate automatic successes with their tens digit and still give you a roll result with the ones digit. On the whole though, I’m not sure what to make of it. Even with the craziness of the premise, the rules don’t offer very much that convinces me that I’m better off using these rules than Fudge, d20, Fate, or TSOY, all of which provide more structure for fighting and adventuring in a cross-genre environment. In truth, the game reminds me the most, thematically speaking, of Mythender, in terms of being a sandbox – though with no really rules for anything other than fighting a bunch of dudes leading up to a mega final battle, which makes me wonder why you would do anything except fight dudes – but Mythender at least offers a set of mechanics that make the battles themselves fairly compelling. Along those lines, the unfinished classic Scarlet Wake is also a bit similar, I suppose. There is definitely a way to string a bunch of random fights together and make them really work, but I don’t really see that happening here. The fight mechanics aren’t particularly interesting and there’s nothing else to do that takes their place. So either I just don’t get it or this game isn’t really driving hard at a particular purpose. Is it about the fights? Then the fight mechanics need to be more interesting. Is it about beating Death? Then we need interesting rules for that. Is it about doing things in the Last City? Then we need interesting rules for that.
- Cookery: A lot of the ingredients here seem mashed together or forced a bit, which leads to a madcap sort of feel. That’s fine in general, but may be contributing to the lack of focus this game seems to have. Madcap is cool as long as you support it and make it compelling or at least exciting.
- Conclusion: Definitely feels like an initial sketch of a concept, not a game ready to be playtested.
Burial at Crossroads by Bryan Hansel
Deliver a skinner across the desert to Oasis, the city of exile. An exile’s fresh start means your fresh start. You’re joined by a mercenary, scientist, gambler, frontiersman, forgotten marshal and a native. Arrive together, apart or alone.
- Concept: This game reads like a distillation (yum, moonshine!) of every face-stabbing indie game of the past 5-6 years. A motley group of characters have to deliver what is basically a corpse-in-a-box from one end of a God-forsaken post-apocalyptic piece of cowboy country to the other, supposedly without killing each other (but where’s the fun in that, right?). It’s not revolutionary, but it shows someone’s been paying attention.
- Execution: This is another game very clearly inspired by Vincent Baker, specifically Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World, but the addition of Keys (from TSOY), Conditions (from any number of games), and GM-set target difficulties for rolls makes it feel pretty different. Also, the whole premise feels much more like The Mountain Witch + Lady Blackbird, especially with the inclusion of Take A Stand, which works like Trust in tracking the arrangement of loyalties in the group (and the fact that the title implies that some folks are gonna die). Honestly, having the GM set difficulties feels really weird in a game as Baker-esque as this; it feels unfair, somehow, since the numbers are invented on the spot rather than coming from GM prep. A few other concerns: I worry a bit that the requirement to hit condition-style desires at least every other time you hit a desire will feel artificial, bopping back and forth between them. Also, do characters take injury conditions in order (as implied in some places) or based on the fiction / GM’s choice (which the wound rules seem to imply)? Take A Stand is really cool but the procedures need to be much, much clearer. Can I roll against every other character involved in the stand? Do I get the dice I buy to roll against every other character or do I have to pay for extra dice each time? Do other players also get to roll and make adjustments to the groupings or just the player taking a stand? If everyone can roll, this could take all night. How do you know when the standoff is over? More generally, having the GM keep track of when the characters perform actions (and, therefore, when you roll dice) seems less than ideal, given the number of actions each character can potentially have, but that could just be an awkward description and not an intentional change from the status quo in Apocalypse World. At the very end of the document, it says both sides must risk their lives in order for a character to die, which seems to clash with the Take A Stand rules as currently written, when one character can risk their life without others doing so.
- Completeness: This game is so, so close to being all the way there. A few things like the lack of complete clarity in the Take A Stand rules and the limited guidelines for GM-set target numbers are holding it up from being 95% awesome, I think. If it was me, I’d try to make the target numbers fixed (perhaps for each location on the map or using some other distribution method) or part of the GM’s prep somehow.
- Cookery: Nice use of the theme and ingredients, plus the first real game to take advantage of this year’s guidelines opening the contest up to hacks. There are a few places where the remix works less well than the originals, but that’s probably expected in an alpha draft where the pieces have not quite stewed together enough yet. I’d expect some of the seams to show in playtesting too, but you should be able to sew the parts back together.
- Conclusion: There’s so much good happening here that it has to be a Finalist I think, despite some significant lingering issues. Fix this stuff so it’ll rock even more when people play it!
The Doldrums by Zac Dettwyler
Join a world that’s tearing itself apart just to keep itself going; a city where the downtrodden rise up to stop the horrors that abound; a hero who will fall by tale’s end. Choose a side, find trustworthy allies, and join the struggle!
- Concept: Players take on the roles of characters – either the Star, their Cohort, or random Chorus members – in a player-generated setting broken down into three areas: the City, Ruins, and the Border between them. This is a decent concept, but, once we start playing these characters, what do we do?
- Execution: There’s definitely some good stuff happening here. The example setting bits that are sprinkled throughout are very evocative and compelling. The relationship mechanics, measured in “hands” (as in what you lend someone) is very clever, perhaps the most interesting mechanic in the game. Unfortunately, the mancala-based resolution mechanic, while neat in its own right, seems more like a gimmick than something specifically tied into the game. Plus, as the text acknowledges, I wonder if mancala is ideal for resolution since player skill can matter a great deal in the outcome. Overall, I like the idea of a “star” protagonist character a great deal, but there’s very little description of how to treat them or play them in relation to the other character types. Additionally, in a contrast to my comments on Chronicles of Skin (15), I find the example settings in this case to be much more compelling than the setting-less structure the rules offer you. There just doesn’t seem to be enough flavor to the rules, on their own, to give the players a sense of what to actually do in the game, and because there’s no fixed setting, it’s impossible to look to the narrative to provide structure (“You’re guards and your job is to protect the king” or whatever). Picking a particularly compelling setting concept – and there are plenty of them here — and basing the entire game around it would have led to a stronger result, perhaps.
- Completeness: The guidelines for setting creation are relatively short and suggest discussing things like whether there is magic and how silly the game is, which seem like much less significant worries than, like, what the heck is the game about. Additionally, having characters defined primarily by their location (City, Ruins, or Border) denies the opportunity for characters that cross boundaries and therefore begin the game in tension, which seems like a wasted opportunity. What if you are City member who’s discovered how corrupt and decadent the City is? What if you are a Borderlander who’s secretly a Ruins sympathizer? More critically than these other complaints, which are small, easily fixed issues, is the general lack of direction in framing scenes or creating narrative content of any kind. Having read the game, I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do with it. Additionally, similar to Nowhere Road (06), it doesn’t provide very clear guidelines for knowing when you should reach for the conflict resolution rules or what that even means. In GMless games this is a critical issue, since you’re sharing responsibility for invoking mechanics, making a shared understanding of the basic principles critical.
- Cookery: Don’t really see the theme, but Edge and City are clearly here.
- Conclusion: An interesting concept, but not really a fully developed game yet. I think it needs a stronger sense of identity – something for the game to be about – and then it might be able to move forward and grow into something more robust.
Symbolon by Kamion
A City is a construct created to provide Answers…. only it has a gambling habit. Someone had a Question and enough Skin to write a road map on.
- Concept: In the most abstract game yet, the protagonist (I assume there is only one but it’s unclear) seeks an answer to a question they ask within the City, an urban locale that is a metaphor for life, the world, etc. In seeking the answer, they mark clues and maps and information on their skin.
- Execution: My sense of this game is that it’s not actually meant to be totally surreal. In practice, once the playgroup defines who the protagonist is and what the City is like and what the question being explored is, things will probably settle down a bit and only be a little bit surreal. However, that’s not really the feeling you get from the text, which doesn’t offer any examples or descriptive text that gives players a sense of how the game plays or what it’s suppose to feel like. Consequently, it’s really hard to judge how well the game’s rules support what the game is trying to do because, having read the text, I’m not really sure what the game is supposed to do. As a result, I find myself at a loss in giving feedback on how to make the game better without talking more with the author about what the intent is and how the existing mechanics are intended to assist in that.
- Completeness: I’m not sure there’s really enough here to play this game as it currently stands. There are some resolution mechanics, but they are so vague that it’s difficult to know how to implement them and, additionally, the results that they generate don’t appear very interesting or likely to drive the narrative forward towards some kind of conclusion or catharsis. Additionally, while the guidelines for drawing marks on the skin is probably the most interesting aspect of this game, it’s not at all clear what the point of that is or how you build on that to create enjoyable play.
- Cookery: The theme and ingredients are all here, but they haven’t really helped this game find a sense of identity or purpose.
- Conclusion: I would suggest that the author take this game to their local game group and try to play it, actually. I think that kind of exercise, prepping a game for people to actually play, might shine some light on the things that are missing here and give the game more direction.
Last Chance, USA by Tim Rodriguez / Ogreteeth
In the aftermath of nuclear war, A group of wanderers comes together to the remnants of a town where they will try to rebuild. But their newfound community is threatened from within as everyone alive has secrets and no one can fully be trusted.
- Concept: It definitely takes some balls to attempt a community-based, post-apocalyptic game the summer that Apocalypse World comes out. Respect.
- Execution: At the core, this is a fairly simple and straightforward game with a roll-and-keep, attribute+skill resolution mechanic and point-based character creation. I like that the group assigns the character a “theme” based on what the group thinks of you, in addition to the themes you pick for your own character, but ultimately the themes are just “role-play aids” (in the words of the game) and don’t really play a substantial part in the game. This seems an unfortunate waste, especially considering that characters have a secret, nefarious theme just begging to be exposed. The most exciting part of the game is the fairly clever back-and-forth dice mechanic, which includes several different maneuvering tactics, a minor form of escalation, and some other neat stuff neat. Unfortunately, there’s not much else here to write home about. There’s an appetizing method for tracking the state of the community across the arc of play, but it’s left only vaguely described and with few guidelines about how the GM can use it to help structure what is otherwise a very sandbox-y game with no GM guidelines.
- Completeness: I don’t think this game is merely suffering in comparison to Apocalypse World, but that there are some core issues here that need to be more solidly developed if it’s to be a solid game in its own right. Resolution is currently the strongest part but there needs to be other pieces surrounding resolution that let players – including the GM — know what they are supposed to do between conflicts. Sandbox games can be great! Despite my Forge-y background, I don’t think that all games have to have a thematic premise that they consistently drive towards. But planning for a sandbox style of play doesn’t mean you can skip telling the GM and the players how to play the game. In the “Outside Threats Manifest / Rebuilding and Survival / The Great Unknown” descriptions, there lies the seed of some play instructions that would allow GMs and players to be better equipped to make interesting stuff happen. As things stand, though, I worry that players will make interesting characters and brainstorm and interesting setting and be stuck with the “Now what?” problem. One of our hardest jobs as game designers is overcoming the “Now what?” problem, empowering players so that they are prepared to handle moments when they have lost a sense of direction and don’t know what to do. And the first and most important “Now what?” moment occurs between two critical events: A) when the players have completed the game preparation instructions – character creation, etc. – that we give them; and B) when the players first engage the mechanics, typically in the first conflict but sometimes otherwise.
- Cookery: I don’t really see the theme much here, but the ingredients look good.
- Conclusion: In addition to providing more guidelines for prospective players, this game probably needs to find a stronger sense of uniqueness. The name of the game is great and colorful but the mechanics and guidelines right now feel perhaps more generic than they could be. I want to live in Last Chance, USA! What does that feel like?
If Wishes Were Horses by Raquel Mutton
Make a wish…just don’t think about what it might cost you to make your wishes come true. If Wishes Were Horses is a roleplaying game about the journey to achieve a dream. Some people can reach the unreachable star, others just crash and burn, but everyone pays the price.
- Concept: This is a brief roleplaying poem somewhere between Death’s Door and The Mustang, focusing on three scenes in each character’s life and their attempt to overcome obstacles created by the other players. Players gamble tokens on the obstacles and reap a reward if the other character fails, and characters whose players have 55 or more tokens at the end achieve their dream. I like the narrative theme but the mechanical approach makes me very nervous.
- Execution: This game reminds me a bit, thematically speaking, of a game that I improvised with Emily, James, and Marc at GenCon 2007. I like games that can make the normal events of everyday people’s lives compelling, since that is an incredibly undeveloped genre of play, but there are a few issues here. First, the incentivized inclusion of words or themes is a somewhat tricky mechanic to work with, dating back to at least Once Upon a Time. Play that game with several different groups of people and you’ll immediately see what the issues are: people forcing elements into the fiction when they don’t really fit, a disjointed narrative resulting from elements thrown together, etc. That might not be a big problem here, but it’s something to keep in mind with these sorts of mechanics (and it sometimes even crops up with incentivized XP mechanics, such as Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday or highlighted stats in Apocalypse World). A much more significant issue, I suspect, is the token gambling economy here. Obstacles can supposedly be up to strength 6, but if each player can only contribute 1 token to an obstacle and the game is for 3-4 players… I’m not sure how that’s possible. Additionally, the mechanic seems to incentivize bandwagoning, since big obstacles are much more likely to make a return on tokens invested. Once someone puts a second token on an obstacle, it’s hard to see why the other players wouldn’t put a token down (though I haven’t done the probabilities to see where the actual break is, which probably depends on the number of players). This would be less of a problem if this wasn’t the core mechanic of the game and the only mechanic of any real substance, but, as it is, I’m not sure the game is functional, practically speaking. Additionally, as in World Riddle (13), attaining a character’s dream is mechanically tied to how well the player navigates the other characters turns and has nothing to do with their own character’s story or actions, which feels both odd and somehow injust.
- Completeness: I like the theme and the structure, but currently the issues with the token gambling system appear to be hobbling the game and distracting from what the actual point of play is, which shouldn’t be trying to gather as many tokens as possible, I don’t think.
- Cookery: The theme is here, but I don’t really see the ingredients.
- Conclusion: I would recommend rethinking the mechanical structure of this game entirely, but perhaps it would be worth it to play it a bit first to see if the issues I’m seeing with the token gambling economy manifest as I’m expecting they will.
What Happened Here by Rustin
2 player game establishing and questioning the evidence of a journey.
- Concept: Two players take turns: one player imagining fictive circumstances based on one of classic stages in the hero’s journey, the other being the questioner in a short version of 20 Questions (i.e. with only 5 questions), attempting to guess what happened here. The resulting guess is scored based on how close it was to the events the establishing player imagined. The player with the lowest points pays for the beer.
- Execution: I really respect that this author came in with a limited game concept and then really nailed it, which is perhaps one of the most surefire ways to approach a design contest: decide on something simple and then keep your eyes on the ball, making sure you do what you came here to do. My only concern is that the scoring mechanic seems a bit bland in comparison to other ways of handling the endgame or conclusion of play. Additionally, I feel like there could potentially be a premise of some sort that would make the act of play itself more compelling. For example, if the questioning player is treated as an investigator of some sort, perhaps an assassin sent to hunt down the hero (the one whose journey the game tracks), then the player suddenly has a reason for attempting to figure out what happened (aside from free beer, of course) and the endgame could potentially gain some narrative teeth to go with the mechanical and alcoholic incentives. Do you catch the hero or not? Do you catch the hero in time? There could be a number of interesting questions. Also, I wish something more interesting could be done with the stages of the hero’s journey rather than simply picking one at random to base the establishing player’s imaginings on. Perhaps it could plug into the timing idea I suggested? Can you stop the hero before their journey is complete? Will your attempt to stop them ultimately end up merely being a part of their journey? But that would require some more design work by the author, who may or may not be interested in fleshing this out at all.
- Completeness: While there’s many things to like here, I feel that this game is not nearly as gripping or provocative as it could be and I hope that the author will at least consider giving the game a stronger sense of motivation. What would make players really want to play this, especially more than once? If I can play Boba Fett, Agent Smith, the T-1000, Willhem Defoe’s investigator in The Boondock Saints, or one of the other super-assassins hunting Jason Bourne, suddenly I’m much more interested. I really like that, in this game, you’re explicitly not the hero, but it would still be cool to be narratively involved somehow.
- Cookery: The theme is certainly here and it’s an interesting move to include the ingredients as different story types. Nicely done.
- Conclusion: It’s difficult because I think this game has the seed of something really terrific in it, despite how short and straightforward it is, but right now the point-scoring mechanic just isn’t working for me at all. Please, please find a way to make the results here more compelling! I realize this is just meant as a beer-and-pretzels game, but it could be so good!!
In Between by Dan Mckenna
In Between is a role playing game for two or more players. You will take on the role of a recently deceased soul that is stranded in The Wasteland. Will you earn redemption and make it to The Golden City, or will you go down the path of corruption and slowly transform into a hideous monster?
- Concept: Players take the roles of dead souls traveling back into the mortal world through reflective pools in the Wasteland, a purgatory-like afterlife, and attempting to make amends for their crimes and regrets. The first player who removes all their fetters to the living world can enter the Golden City, a different and hopefully better afterlife.
- Execution: This author was nice enough to include a very simple, sketchy layout, but it does wonders for the ease of reading and understanding the text. Nested subheadings, woohoo! I feel spoiled, almost. Overall, this game takes a couple steps forward compared to some of the other abstract and setting-free games in terms of providing a attractive premise that is substantially more provocative. The Wasteland, its silver pools, and the Golden City all sound pretty awesome. Plus, seeking to make amends and fulfill regrets is both emotionally and narratively powerful. However, this game continues an apparent trend of taking a GMless game of personal exploration and structuring it by having the players (if not necessarily the characters) compete directly with each other using limited mechanical resources. This trend is especially striking to me because it does not seem very natural to match the mechanics of inter-player competition to the theme of individual exploration, yeah? When you watch The Fountain or American Beauty, is Universalis the first game that comes to mind? Probably not. And yet several designers have made just that connection, which suggests that inter-player competition may be the sort of dynamic they feel most comfortable designing around. But there are other ways – Polaris, Great Ork Gods, Geiger Counter, Fiasco, Montsegur 1244, etc. – to design GMless games and encourage other players to take on NPC or antagonist roles without putting the players themselves in direct competition to win. I feel like this game and several others may have been more successful if they’d taken a different route and created a more cooperative GMless dynamic between the players, which might have also led to more innovative mechanics. I don’t mean to pick on this game overly much in this regard, but just wanted to point this out explicitly since it’s at least the third or fourth game to do it.
- Completeness: There is some missing text between pages 5-6, describing demons. Otherwise, there are some places where the “power” token economy seems to have issues. For example, there doesn’t appear to be any incentive to spend tokens on narrative control if players are ultimately trying to spend them on winning control of possessed mortals and resolving their issues. I also wish there were more guidelines for what was supposed to happen either in the Wasteland or the mortal world, because right now that’s entirely open-ended, even though it comprises the vast majority of play. Additionally, as with some of these other GMless games of personal exploration, I wonder if the game could be strengthened if the various characters could actually meet each other in the Wasteland or mortal world and interact directly. That seems possible according to the premise and maybe even the rules, but isn’t discussed at all. Finally, what’s the point of having these different classes of dead souls – wanderers, unmarked, and demons – if they players don’t get to choose or explore which one their character ultimately is? Seems like a wasted opportunity.
- Cookery: The theme is definitely here, and the ingredients are well included. The author did a clever and evocative job with the requirements here. Very impressive.
- Conclusion: The solid premise of this game makes it at least as strong as the World Riddle (13), perhaps more so, and ultimately more narratively compelling than Symbolon (19) and If Wishes Were Horses (21), I think. However, like the other games mentioned, which all operate in similar thematic space, this game needs a bit more work if the rules are truly going to support the potential of the premise. I really want to see a game in this vein make the playoffs, but I haven’t quite found one yet.
Walkabout by Michael Wenman
The world isn’t dead, but most of it’s survivors cower in the shadows. They might as well be dead. The ways of science have not saved them, the ways of the ancient shamans still might. It is a time for heroes to call on the mysteries of the ancients. Time to go Walkabout.
- Concept: This is a post-apocalyptic fantasy game in which the players play a group of shamans attempting to protect local communities from problems emanating from the spirit world. Very, very cool, though in practice it loses me in a few places by heading too far towards the sillier aspects of Gamma World or Unknown Armies, since my shaman could be a pole-dancing cyborg dust farmer. If this was slightly more restrained, it would be easier for me to take this as the serious premise it claims to be.
- Execution: When I was initially reading through it, I was thinking that this premise could make for a really cool Dogs in the Vineyard, Mouse Guard, or even D&D hack, since it’s based around the concept of a group of heroes coming to a new place to solve local problems. However, as I read further I became more interested in the unique mechanics here, which are ultimately based around an Otherkind or Bliss Stage-style dice mechanic where you build a dice pool, roll, and then divide dice between the three categories of success, sacrifice, and narrative control. There are some things worth rethinking here, though, since this game seems to have the trait-invocation issues that Vincent recently talked about in this podcast, in addition to the Wushu-style issues where you end up invoking as many traits as possible each time because to do otherwise is mechanically stupid. Additionally, there is a section about opposed rolls, which doesn’t seem to make sense with a roll-and-assign mechanic. In Otherkind-style dice mechanics, you basically make things harder for the players by either 1) giving them fewer dice to roll or 2) creating new categories that they have to assign dice too. Both of these essentially amount to the same thing and you could certainly have the GM roll and then remove matching dice from the player’s roll before the player assigns dice, but that’s the only way I can see opposed rolls really working. I like the fallout/advantage system resulting from rolls, but it has a “double choice” structure which I think is overly complicated. Players choose to assign dice to categories and then choose which of a number of options is the result of placing dice in that category. This makes it hard to know what choosing to place dice in a category actually means and I suspect the game would ultimately work better if these two choices were conflated into a single choice. As a sidenote, the way that other players have to tattoo you to allow you to use certain traits in the spirit world is really cool.
- Completeness: I really, really like the token-based system for pacing and providing antagonism, as this is one of the few games that offers solid GM advice and an explicit structuring mechanic. Super great! However, I still feel like I need a better sense of how to initially describe and develop problems, basically the equivalent of the “town creation” rules in Dogs in the Vineyard, since I’m not sure right now how to make spirit world problems or figure out how they should plague the local community the players are supposed to save (and later, how to make problems get worse). Additionally, at one point the text advocates a very antagonist relationship between the players and the GM, encouraging the GM to punish defensive or cautious players by giving them lots of negative traits until they decide to take a more proactive stance. To me, that kind of passive-aggressive GMing sounds socially messed up, but it could just be the way that technique is described.
- Cookery: I like the use of the theme and ingredients here. They are understated and there’s not one or more that are really dominant, but they were clearly inspirational to the overall concept.
- Conclusion: There’s a substantial amount of editing, clarifying, tightening up that needs to be done here, but I think this one is actually a Finalist, which is not what I initially expected. If enough time and energy is put into this game, it could definitely be something really solid.
After the Fall by Patrick Gamblin
A game of survival and heroics in a post-apocalyptic steampunk world.
- Concept: Another post-apocalyptic fantasy game in which you play the crew of a flying airship trying to survive. There’s a very strong Final Fantasy or general Japanese video game RPG tone and this is by far the game that comes closest to being a straightforward fantasy adventure game – though of the 1990s-2000s style, not old school retro.
- Execution: There’s a fixed skill list and point-buy character creation. Players get more creation points from taking negative traits for their characters, a well-tread mechanic that is also pretty unfortunate, in my opinion, but that’s a whole different story. The group ship- and port-creation concept is substantially more interesting. Also, the relationship mechanics are relatively cool, but don’t seem to allow for relationships to change over time. Vice and virtue traits are also interesting, but there are so many dice-adder traits of various sorts that it would take a while to learn to keep track of them all. I’m also left thinking: so I have the power to shape-change into a beast and what it gets me is… a generic +2? Seems like there could be more interesting stuff happening there. The rule to spend a challenge die to ignore a failed social challenge roll is cool, addressing the traditional distaste for “mind control” as a result of social challenges, but it also serves to make social challenges ultimately less important, if you can ignore the outcome but more muscle-based approaches work every time. Still, that’s probably not an issue in this kind of adventure drama. I initially thought it was neat that that challenge dice also serve as XP, but then I thought more about the weird tension this creates: do you decide to be better now or raise your traits for later? I don’t think that’s a very interesting or fruitful tension. I have some other minor concerns such as, in the weapons tables, it seems like the ranges could be abstracted in a game like this (far, medium, short, hand), rather than measuring them in hundreds of meters, but that’s much less significant in the big picture.
- Completeness: There are limited GM guidelines in the current draft, which is pretty disappointing because otherwise this game might even be a finalist, since the game seems reasonably solid, if not all that exciting, mechanically. The GM arbitrarily picks difficulties for rolls and is supposed to set them at roughly 50/50, making the game super whifftastic. There are also arbitrary challenge dice rewards for doing cool things, which doesn’t really excite me, but it’s par for the course for post-90s fantasy adventure.
- Cookery: I guess the theme is here, plus a couple of the ingredients, but they don’t really figure very prominently.
- Conclusion: I know some folks seem to be using the term “fantasy heartbreaker” in a pejorative sense nowadays, but it’s important to remember that it was originally intended to mean a game that, yes, actually breaks your heart, not one you turn your nose up at, and this game seems like a heartbreaker in those terms. The author has put a lot of work into this, but in the end it seems like a variation on a bunch of other games without much that makes it stand out as being exceptional aside from the unique setting elements. Plus, even those elements often seem to boil down to a generic +2, making it hard for the unique flavor of the game to stand out, even in play. I can totally understand why you would want to write up these rules as a homebrew system to play with your local group, taking all the things you like about post-90s fantasy adventure RPGs and combining them into this rule set, something that feels natural and comfortable after playing all those other games but doesn’t have some of the annoying bits that bother you about those other games. But I’m not sure there’s enough unique and evocative content here to draw other players away from True20 or the One Roll Engine or Savage Worlds or Exalted or Fate or whatever else they’re playing. And that’s the heartbreaking part, having an original setting and premise that seem really cool and are totally worth exploring, but pairing it with a relatively generic, unexciting set of rules that don’t really differentiate it strongly from dozens of similar games, aside from maybe one or two stand-out mechanics that are not enough to make it worthwhile to adopt the rest of the system. The traditional Forge response to this issue – which is only one solution, among many – was to ask “What is this game really about?” and then make sure all the rules focus on that premise. Another solution is to make the rules exciting and engaging enough, or just better at one particular thing than any other game, that they draw folks away from similar games. So I guess I would suggest moving in one of those directions, because I like a lot of what this game is doing, conceptually, but am not enticed by the mechanics yet.
Fall of Granada by Travis Lindquist
Pick from one of four archetypes and work your way through the deserts of Northern Africa, trying to reach Cairo. Can you change history, or will the memory of doomed Granada be too much?
- Concept: This game starts where Thou Art But a Warrior ends, with players taking on the roles of Grenadine nobles at the tail end of the Reconquista, trying to make their way to Cairo and seek aid for the shattered remnants of Muslim Spain. Very cool.
- Execution: As I got into the text itself, my first questions were: if the focus of the premise is about making your way to Cairo and getting Egypt to save Grenada or even retake Cordoba, why are we fighting over relics with the Christians? Why are these Christians in North Africa anyway? The dice mechanic is a mixture of determining the result (does Hope, Revenge, or Hate triumph?) determining who narrates (the player with the highest total starts and players can spend dice to contribute?), and who gets the relic (the player who contributed the most dice?). While I like that this means that conflicts are not zero sum, that there can be multiple winners and contributors, I worry that this is trying to do too much with one already fairly complex mechanic. As a sidenote, since several games seem to have used similar mechanics this year, I would like to caution designers about dice mechanics that assign narrative control to individual players without providing solid guidelines for what they should narrate, what outcomes are up for them to determine, and what is within the scope of the narration they provide. I would even say that providing a blank check for narrating resolution is lazy design because it allows the designer to pass the buck on a very important design question – resolution – to the players. After all, assigning narrative control doesn’t actually tell the players HOW to resolve anything. It just tells them WHO gets to resolve it. If you’re going to create mechanics that assign narrative control, please make sure to work on the “how” issue as well as the “who.” This game actually does this a lot better than some because it tells you, “revolve the dispute in the direction of revenge,” or whatever, but I think it could do even better, especially in explaining how the narration of the controlling player interacts with the details contributed by other players. Right now that’s totally opaque. Getting back to the game, the refresh/rest rules are nice, since they bring the theme of Grenada back into play. I like the creativeness of some of the special moves here, such as allowing players to turn dice to adjacent faces, something I’ve never seen before, but on a six-sider that means you can get any result except the opposite face.
- Completeness: As a GM, I feel like I still have only a vague sense of my role. The PCs are traveling across North Africa and it’s apparently my job to push towards disputes over relics, typically by using their four Christian nemeses. How do I do that? The example conflict, over getting water, seems fairly banal. Maybe Apocalypse World has corrupted me but my first thought was “What are my principles?” What kinds of things should be problems? What kinds of relics are likely to be up for grabs? How do I bring forth the things that the game should be about? In recent years, the bar for GM guidelines has been set significantly higher, so I hope you designers don’t mind if I attempt to hold you to a higher standard. Another thing missing seems to be any sense of a race against time or Grenada’s enemies. How many disputes are there before you reach Cairo or, worse, Grenada falls? A sense of pacing here would improve things significantly. Also, the final endgame outcome, where you resolve the fate of Grenada, seems independent of the efforts of the characters and simply emergent from the assortment of elements that have been brought into play, unless I’m misreading the mechanics. For example, if I’m playing the Nomad, who has a lot of Revenge-related powers, and I’ve gained some Revenge-enhancing relics and do really well in the final conflict, winning a result for Revenge… Grenada falls. So, in that sense, the endgame isn’t really reflective of the “score sheet” of play but of which themes are most powerful by the time the game ends. Part of me thinks that is interesting – that the Nomad might seek revenge even though revenge will not ultimately save Grenada, only Hope will – but I think the guidelines for the endgame, or at least the way it is described to the players, may need to be changed if that is the purpose. Even then, I wonder if players with a low emphasis on Hope will feel like they are secretly antagonists in the entire project, even though a Revenge triumph is certainly better than a Hate triumph.
- Cookery: Supremely great use of the theme and ingredients. Grenada really is teetering on the edge of a knife.
- Conclusion: This is another really tough decision, since I really like a lot of what this game is doing but feel like the current rules don’t yet fully do justice to the powerful concepts here. I think that if either the GM guidelines or resolution guidelines were clearer, that this would definitely be a Finalist, but since I still have concerns about both of them, I think this needs a bit more work first. Keep you eye on this game in later drafts though, because I think the designer is really onto something here.
In Skin City, You Need An Edge by David Wendt / Doc Blue
Skin City was once a city infested with vice and corruption. That was before the government walled it off and turned it into a penal colony. Now it’s worse. Just crossing town to get supplies is an adventure.
- Concept: You play a near-future gang trying to make their way across an isolated urban penal colony, like The Warrriors + Escape from L.A. Believe it or not, the core mechanic is crossword-based. Wow, let’s hope the designer actually pulls this off.
- Execution: The initial roll for how many words a character can contribute to the gang’s cause seems hugely important and essentially determines their worth, though it is mitigated somewhat by allowing characters to contribute their keywords for free (and generating obstacles). Part of me wishes that the number of free words a character received was inversely proportional to their number of keywords, so that you could either be dependable or flexible in word contribution but not both. Also, while you can gain additional free words by generating obstacles, it seems as if players will frequently roll enough free words in the beginning that generating obstacles isn’t necessary, which seems unfortunate, though that concern would have to be validated though playtesting. Also, the randomness of obstacle placing means both 1) you may have to re-roll placement several times, especially late in the game, and 2) obstacles may not actually provide much opposition. I really, really like that the “resolution” in this game essentially comes from combining two or more words together in a crossword; that seems to work really well and provides just enough context for narration by the active player. However, I worry that the turn-taking structure will mean, as in several other games, that there will be minimal opportunities for character interaction. I wish there was a mechanic that chained players together in micro-scenes along with their words and provided an incentive for chaining 3+ words together to get multiple players involved. Probably that would involve ditching the black boxes at the end of words, which block a lot of potential chaining, and also altering the rules for generating obstacles, to make them stronger (which honestly might need to happen anyway). As an unrelated comment, having the active player choose the next player to place a word is likely to be both a social poison and a distraction from the rest of the game. There has to be a better turn distribution mechanic out there if you want something more flexible than going around the circle or going with whoever wants to act next.
- Completeness: The crossword grid doesn’t come out properly for me in Viewer on Mac, but that’s not really an issue with the game. The guidelines for generating the abstract, crossword-style “map” of the journey are pretty brilliant, though it’s a bit gimmicky and so probably doesn’t have the replay value that the designer suggests through the optional guidelines for tracking experience and playing multiple sessions with the same characters. I can see this game getting a lot of one-shot play, after it undergoes some tweaks and revisions, but I don’t think long- or even medium-length play is really its strength, at least at present. Finally, I am dying to see the hinted-at “advanced” mechanics for playing on an actual printed newspaper crossword, since I can imagine that working a lot better and being much more evocative than these “basic” guidelines, with the layout of the black boxes on the crossword representing existing obstacles. There’s definitely a huge amount of potential in that format, plus the added fun of playing on a real crossword.
- Cookery: Brilliant use of the theme and ingredients. Hat’s off.
- Conclusion: Unquestionably a Finalist, but what is currently very a clever idea could be truly excellent game if the designer follows their design principles as far as they will go. Give us the advanced rules for using real crosswords! Improve turn distro and obstacle creation! If you do, I can definitely imagine playing this game multiple times in the playoffs. The potential is huge.
Cosmic Journey by Krista White
You find yourself in the Cosmic Temple Arena charged with bringing the band “Journey” back together to play a rock show on which the fate of the entire universe depends. Beware! The Agents of Entropy are out to spoil your quest and hasten the end of all creation.
- Concept: In the great tradition of Metal Opera, you play Galactic Roadies called upon by the Queen of the Universe to bring back the lost Celestial Guardians – the members of the band Journey – from somewhere in space-time and get them to play one last concert to save the universe. And you best look out for the members of Kiss, who will try to stop you. And party every day. But mostly stop you.
- Execution: The introduction and obstacle creation guidelines are great, though I was thinking that it would be cool if the band members of Journey could be divided up among the obstacles (say 2-3 obstacles for each musician), with some additional obstacles unrelated to specific band members. That way, after shuffling the obstacles and playing through them in order, play could come to a climax once you’d rescued all five members of Journey. If you drew an obstacle based on a Journey member you already rescued, you could then skip it and draw again. I am very excited by using phrases from song lyrics to structure play, but am slightly intimidated by having to create a whole batch of lyric cards. Also, I’ve talked previously about my concerns with Once Upon a Time-style mechanics that involve chaining random narrative elements together – see A Trick of the Light (04) and If Wishes Were Horses (21) – though I designed a game like that myself for Game Chef 2005 and think that this game potentially overcomes those difficulties in the same fashion: by 1) using whole phrases, rather than single words, giving those elements more context, and 2) using elements from the same, relatively consistent body of work (i.e. the songs of Journey), which are more likely to fit comfortably together.
- Completeness: I like the suggestion to use other bands if Journey is not to your tastes. I can definitely imagine calling on another cheesy, anthemic rock band like Boston, Blind Guardian, Dragonforce, or Coheed & Cambria to save the universe. The author notes that the fanmail-like dice awarding step can be easy to skip, so I wonder about making it an explicit step in the mechanics, like: “after a scene is over, players award bonus dice.” Also, it seems like incorporating phrases from the Adversaries should be cheaper, not more expensive, than normal extra phrases, but come with some cost, such as Kiss showing up to interfere.
- Cookery: Definitely one of the best uses of the theme. The “scarab ship” made me laugh.
- Conclusion: Despite a few concerns, this game is a Finalist and I’d like to think the playtesting it went through is part of that. Overall, this is an interesting example of a game whose mechanics are essentially explorative – you have a 50% chance of beating any obstacle on the first try and have unlimited retries – even though the overall concept is competitive, both for individual characters and the Galactic Roadies as a group. It’s basically the opposite of all the game with “explorative concept + competitive mechanics” that we’ve seen so far. Unlike those other games, I don’t feel that this is a mismatch as much as it is like a video game where all failure is temporary as long as you persevere. The point, very appropriately, is to not stop believin’. However, I do think this could be stated more clearly up front, as the face-stabbing crowd that reads the premise may think: “Oh man, can we bring Journey back together in time to save the universe and what will it cost us?” But that’s not up for grabs at all. You CAN and you WILL help Journey save the universe and the point is to enjoy doing it. Perhaps the basic description should say: “In this game, you tell the story of how you saved Journey and the universe.”
- Unnecessary Theoretical Sidenote: For people who don’t think that Simulationism (or something like it) exists, this is it right here. Though this kind of play doesn’t necessarily require the adversity to be fake, as it is here and in In Skin City, You Need an Edge (27). Failing can be part of what you want from the fiction, if the stories you’re inspired by feature a lot of failure. The more dysfunctional stuff is just when you include failure in your mechanics to hit a kind of fake premise that you don’t really believe – maybe Frodo will fail at destroying the ring! or the Rebellion will fail to destroy the Death Star! – and then are unprepared or unwilling to deal with the consequences, which just suck for the type of story you intended to tell. That’s sometimes how you end up hand-waving failures away because it’s “not fun”; it’s not always because you have a tightly railroaded plot; sometimes it’s because certain specific failures break the premise or concept, the kind of story you’ve come here to tell. Which means failure at those things should have never been possible at the first place. There are multiple ways of handling that, though. Do you roll to climb a cliff in Apocalypse World? Only if your failure is interesting to us because you are Seizing By Force or doing some other narratively significant thing specifically called out by the mechanics! This game avoids all those problems by having all failures be only temporary setbacks, which is definitely a different solution. Frodo can get tormented all to hell, but as long as he and Sam (and Gollum) don’t stop believin’, everything works out.
A City by Tad Kelson
A City is a RPG with the scant premise of exploring a city and living there, somewhere on the edge of forever.
- Concept: The players play – as far as I can tell – white and blue collar workers (management, doctors, scientists, farmers, industrial workers, and military) in an abstracted urban locale, like the city in the Matrix, and attempt to overcome their day-to-day problems using a fixed list of 24 skills that includes Archaeology, Business Tactics, Jump, Munitions, and Tumbling. Honestly, I’m a bit baffled, since I don’t get the sense that the surreal nature of this concept is fully intentional.
- Execution: Characters basically have three stats – physical, mental, and emotional – which are ranked from 1-3 in the way your abilities are distributed between them. Combined with the fixed skill list, I can’t help but get the sense that the designer doesn’t have enough experience or design comfort with a wide enough variety of mechanics to really execute the kind of game they intend to create here. There is a huge basket of potential tools available for supporting games about modern urban life, but the designer isn’t reaching for them, either because they aren’t aware of them or dislike them. But when I think about games as diverse as Montsegur 1244, Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures, and Nicotine Girls, I feel like there are many more tools for describing normal people and their triumphs and tragedies than I see evidence of here. Roleplaying has come a long way since Basic Roleplaying (i.e. the bland, generic version of Call of Cthulhu), which honestly this game reminds me of the most. There are other things I could say, but they feel so secondary compared to the larger issues. For example, in two different place the text says that the conflict rules are for “win or lose, life or death, direct antagonism” and “when you don’t know if something will result in success or failure” which seem like two very different things. I’m baking a pie. Will is be success or failure? I don’t know. Is it a matter of win-lose, life or death, or direct antagonism? Certainly not, unless I’m entering a baking contest critical to my future or sense of self-worth. But, as I said before, that doesn’t really matter as much compared to more fundamental issues.
- Completeness: When the first rule I encounter is “feel free to change it to suit your mentality,” I’m already worried, since it signals to me – from experience with game texts – that the designer may be 1) unsure what the game is about, 2) not especially confident in their rules, or 3) both. The rest of this page is spent by telling me that the game doesn’t have classes or a combat system and that I shouldn’t roll dice for normal things. Why would I expect any of that if you haven’t yet told me anything about the game? Overall, it sounds like the designer is very clear what this game is NOT but not what the game actually is.
- Cookery: Immaterial at this point.
- Conclusion: Despite all the concerns I have about this game, this is – in all likelihood – a critical first attempt by the designer to attempt to realize their vision of a non-traditional game concept as a set of mechanics. That’s worth gold, no matter the outcome. The game I submitted for my first Game Chef was honestly something about like this. The most important tasks facing the designer now are two-fold. First, they need to become familiar and adept with the types of mechanics that will make designing this sort of game possible. Go out and play a bunch of games that are radically different than what you’ve played before. I suggest starting with the Indie RPG Award Finalists, but there are plenty of other good games too, by other folks. Second, if you decide you ultimately want to come back to this game, decide what it’s about. Honestly, the “about” question is probably the hardest one in game design. I am 100% serious. You may change your answer several times in the process of working on a game, but you can’t have a truly successful game until you discover what it’s about and, then, find a way to communicate that to your players. Why have I never published a completed game? That’s why. It’s that simple, but also that difficult.
Red Land, Black Land by Jason Godesky
Soon, the Scorpion King will rule the Black Land from the cataracts to the sea. If any place exists where he cannot reach you, you will only find it beyond the Red Land, at the very edge of the world.
- Concept: You are a group of characters attempting to escape East from archaic, pre-dynastic Egypt, finding a new life on the edge of the Red Sea, a land that is mythical, since everyone figures you will die like dogs in the desert. Nice.
- Execution/Completeness: The layout is the easiest to read so far, though the paragraphs could use some indenting the subheadings need more space around them. As for the game itself, it’s pretty straightforward and focused, though the tables for character generation seem a lot more exciting than the rules for resolution or guidelines for creating obstacles in the desert. Since the bulk of the game takes place in the desert, that’s a shame. I’m beginning to wonder if more than a few designers are being tricked by the emptiness of the desert into filling their desert, mechanically speaking, with a dearth of interesting procedures. That’s a trap, folks! If playing a desert journey is supposed to be compelling, you have to put interesting stuff there. It also seems a bit counterintuitive that failing to solve a problem with the Law (i.e. things you learned from authority, like telling someone to carry your baggage) would lead to an external, environmental problem for another player (such as them encountering a sandstorm). The opposite almost seems more likely: if you succeed (rather than fail) and the other character is carrying your baggage, then maybe it makes sense that they would have trouble in the sandstorm. Despite this, I like that linking failures to other characters gives the characters a reason to interact, since otherwise they have none – as in many other games; isolation seems another desert-based characteristic that designers are overindulging in – but it’s not quite satisfying, currently. I also like how Law diminishes as the game goes on, both because that means players will rely less on authority and also because it means more environmental obstacles, so that part is well thought-out. However, the obstacles here appear to be ultimately fake, as everyone reaches the Red Sea after 6 rounds of turns (a very long time, with any significant number of players), no matter the outcome of your obstacles. Additionally, there does appear to be a correct way to play, in the sense that you A) want to ultimately have more Skin tokens than Law tokens and B) appear to have nearly complete control over what tokens you spend. And it gets worse: apparently, the best way to make sure the Scorpion King and his Law have no hold over you is to act Lawfully a lot and spend all your Law points. And that runs counter to both your intuition and the theme of the game, no?
- Cookery: The theme and ingredients are straightforward here, but very well used.
- Conclusion: I really wanted to like this game but ultimately it falls short, at least as things are currently. With some revision, it could easily be a Finalist. All the mechanics, taken individually, are pretty strong, but they just don’t quite add up to a whole that actually fulfills the overall concept of the game. The designer seems to have all the right tools, though. In the immortal words of Tim Gunn: make it work!
A Sojourn in Alexandria by Jason Pitre
A Sojourn in Alexandria concerns both physical voyages and ethical journeys. The characters try to walk the knife’s edge between the deprivation of the harsh Desert and the excess of the opulent City. Walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great!
- Concept: You play a group of characters trying to escape to or from Alexandria. Cool.
- Execution: The dice mechanics are quite clever and remind me of a more dynamic version of Shock:, since the characters’ virtues exist somewhere along a continuum between Desert and City, with the Edge marking whether they are more of the Desert or of the City. The assignment of narrative authority in “resolution” seems somewhat problematic here, as I have previously mentioned in other games, such as Fall of Grenada (26). Depending on how the dice fall, relative to the Edge, the result is either Desert dominant (narrate deprivation), City dominant (narrate excess), or an even split (in which case the player has full narrative control). I feel like all of these are too open ended, potentially, to lead to really satisfying and punchy narration in actual practice, especially the balanced case. None of these directions really tell players how to resolve much of anything, in my mind, instead just assigning a theme and narrative control. Another thing that strikes me here, though it was the case in several other games as well, is that the guidelines don’t really tell you how to determine what is actually at issue – what is being resolved – which makes it hard to know when you’ve resolved it. Formal stake setting, as in Dogs in the Vineyard, is one possible solution, but there are plenty of others. You never wonder what’s at stake when rolling in Apocalypse World, for example, because each move tells you explicitly what its outcomes potentially are. In both cases, though, knowing the boundaries of resolution makes it easier to narrate outcomes, especially if you have explicit guidelines for doing so.
- Completeness: In reading through character creation, I found myself not understanding the command to “pick one virtue to be in the City and another to be in the Desert,” since that doesn’t really give you starting values and I’m not sure if you get all the virtues by default or just the two you pick. I also didn’t really understand the Edge rating that the GM picks for every scene and how that interacts with resolution. In theory, I really dig the scene framing guidelines and suggestions, based on where the characters Edge falls. However, I’m uncertain how well it will work in play, since resolution will push the Edge in unexpected directions that may not follow naturally from where the fiction is going. Consequently, it seems as if the fiction is bound to follow the Edge around. That’s interesting, potentially, but probably needs a bit more discussion in the text. Right now, the text seems to be pushing the other way, with the fiction leading, especially in the example journey types. How can we set the next scene in Alexandria if my character’s current Edge placement means I need to be deep in the desert?
- Cookery: The theme and ingredients are straightforward but fine.
- Conclusion: The basic procedures here need to be explained more clearly. I’m a pretty sympathetic reader, but had serious trouble figuring out what was going on. Also, while I think the Edge mechanic is really neat, I think resolution needs a bit of work to be fully successful.
Edge City by Tomas HV Mørkrid
EDGE CITY is a game about a city on the edge of the world, and a group of explorers who decides to brave the depths beneath The Edge. They embark on a journey, trapped in a capsule, hanging in a wire, dying to find out what is hidden in the darkness. And they find the old, abandoned skin of their own city, the “undercity”, peopled with strange ghosts …
- Concept: The characters are a group of normal people who have, for some reason, decided to leave their lives in Edge City and travel in a dangling capsule over the edge, exploring the Undercities that lie below in the void, like the layers beneath the city of Rome. Thematically, it reminds me of Bliss Stage + Mwaantaangaand; mechanically, it’s inspired by 3:16, among other things. Very unique and original.
- Execution: Overall, this game is pretty great. Scenes are basically split between character-building and recovery scenes inside the capsule and exploratory, challenging, experiential scenes out in the Undercities. I wonder about – though I don’t necessarily question – the decision to not set any scenes, even as flashbacks, in Edge City itself. I agree with the designer’s choice in many ways, because that’s not really what the game is about and the capsule scenes may provide that sense of grounding already, but since the Undercities are supposed to be dark reflections of the world above, I wonder if they will be able to be as powerful without having surface experiences to compare them to. Perhaps. I am more skeptical, I think, about the rules for challenges, since characters traits are simply descriptions of people and places in Edge City, so I’m not certain how you are to properly roll them in conflicts. Additionally, since resolution takes up all of two sentences in the rules, it’s clearly not the most important thing happening here and is probably superfluous. This game is fundamentally explorative and relies a great deal on the judgment and decision-making of the players. The only place where some sort of resolution might be necessary is in group encounters with the ghosts of the Undercities, but even then I’m not sure. The Undercity instructions are way cool in format, but I’m a bit unsure about the seven deadly sins, which are already pretty well worn in indie game symbology, being used as the themes for them. Surely, the designer could come up with some unique sets of themes and descriptions for the Undercities that would make them as unique and provocative as the rest of the game. If that was the case, this game would go from one that I am excited about to one that I would want to play very soon.
- Completeness: The only part I really found missing from the game was a solid endgame that would serve to wrap up the experiences. The travelers exist in this liminal state, right? Hanging over the edge in their capsule, making trips to and from nightmare cities on the edge of the void. And you need some way to bring that in-between-ness safely to an end, to end the pseudo-ritualistic space of play and allow the players to process and move on. Most likely, returning to the capsule will do this after an excursion to the Undercities, but you need some form of endgame to do it for the entire experience. Right now, the suggestion of playing out a press conference where the characters announce their findings is interesting, perhaps, but not likely to be fulfilling. I mean, if I just explored the Undercities, the first thing I’d want to do would be to see the people I know and love in Edge City, to make sure everything wasn’t weird up here too. Something that would allow for that kind of closure or maybe even the exploration of Edge City as the final “Undercity,” perhaps even with the people you originally wrote on your sheet acting as “ghosts” in encounters… that would be pretty great.
- Cookery: Terrific, imaginative use of the theme and ingredients. Perhaps the best so far.
- Conclusion: Without a doubt, a Finalist. I suspect that the resolution mechanic may not work here, but this game doesn’t need traditional resolution, so nothing important is really missing.
City in Darkness by Dave M
You’re a Journeyman Magi and have just arrived in a new city. Will you and your friends be able to solve the mystery in this new city and overcome the warlock?
- Concept: You play post-collegiate magi in a world apparently full of magic and struggle to learn magic (though there don’t appear to be rules for that) or something else while resisting their rivals, one of whom may be a warlock. I feel a bit confused, but alright.
- Execution / Completeness: The core domino-bidding mechanic here is pretty solid, reminding me of the way summoned creatures used to – and presumably still do – fight in Magic: The Gathering. However, all the magic powers the PCs can invoke are defined purely mechanically, which means they can be invoked without regard to the fiction, leading to the same trait-invocation issues that I mentioned (and linked to a podcast about) in reviewing Walkabout (24). Like several other games, this one has issues with assigning complete narrative control to particular players, passing the buck on all major resolution decisions by having the dice independently determine 1) whether the player or GM arbitrarily decides who wins and 2) which party narrates. Man, I don’t mean to pick on this game, but this is getting pretty old after all the previous games with similar issues. In fact, I’m going to write another sidenote about it, to not distract from the rest of this review. The whole process of winning clue points and resolving the mystery is still pretty opaque to me after reading the game, partially because you seem to win clue points mostly through challenging your rivals, not through looking for clues (though looking for clues is explicitly one of the four types of scenes you can have). In the end, I’m not sure what tools this game gives me to play out the premise of young magi fighting their rivals that a solid “generic” game like Primetime Adventures or Savage Worlds wouldn’t handle better.
- Cookery: I guess “journeyman” is meant to be the theme here, which would be an interesting use if I felt like I understood the rest of the game.
- Conclusion: The domino mechanic seems neat and some other part of the game seem potentially interesting, but I feel like I don’t really know what this game is about and how to make it happen at the table. If the players pick what the scenes are about, what are my duties as GM and how do I bring the rivals into play? What are we gathering clues for and how does that interact with the seemingly very complex endgame? Why should I care about any of these characters and what they want? Those questions need to be answered before this game can really move forward.
- CRITICAL Design Sidenote: If you, as a designer, aren’t willing to write resolution mechanics that actually resolve conflicts, then maybe you shouldn’t write resolution mechanics at all, you know? I mean that seriously. Look at refresh scenes in Bliss Stage or the complete play guidelines of Montsegur 1244 and A Flower for Mara, which provide examples of scenes without formal conflict resolution. But if you do want resolution mechanics, please recognize that they require something distinct from mechanics that assign authority. Authority-assigning mechanics are great, powerful things, but they are not a substitute for resolution. For example, having a GM is – in and of itself – an authority-assigning mechanic, as is being a Moon or the Mistaken or the Heart in Polaris. And, sure, you could say that the GM or the Moon or whoever arbitrarily decides what happens in all cases (or certain categories of cases), but that’s pretty lame, right? Dice mechanics that assign complete narrative authority as a form of “resolution” just distribute that lameness around. It may not look or feel quite as lame, because the lameness is shifting around constantly, but it’s still there.
Broken Dream by Jason A. Petrasko
On a harsh alien desert world you along carry the burden of ‘the earth that was’ you etch it into your very skin. Now you journey with your companions into the badlands, the very edge of what is and what may be to recover the sacred ink of your tribe.
- Concept: The characters are nomadic desert people on an alien world, trying to recover a young child that has run off with the sacred ink.
- Execution / Completeness: This game is pretty impressive in several respects. The “sacred stone” diagram used to play the game is great. The way the masks distribute authority over certain swaths of the fiction is great. The purely fictional powers the different character types have are great. The themes and milestones are great. The preset openings are great. All of that is worth the price of admission. However, the ink economy seems problematic, just from eyeballing it. Players start out with only 5 ink tokens and yet they appear to spend them on all sorts of things, including bringing other characters into scenes, even though those characters don’t appear to be able to provide any help. Sacred rolls seem really cool in theory, but I find it hard to imagine characters having enough ink to actually make them work. Additionally, while the preset openings basically set up the conflicts in the individual scenes, I wonder about the freedom given to the framing player to provide as many challenges as they like. That seems too open-ended and unlikely to be what actually occurs in practice, which is one or two challenges at most. Also, like several other games, the narrative here seems focused on the struggle of individual characters against the desert environment, isolating all the players from interacting during play. The final endgame conflict is even handled solo by a single player, with everyone else simply able to buy input with ink. Finally, I can’t tell which numbers the labels of the roots point to on the sacred stone, since the root labels are placed directly between two numbers in a triangle. But if those concerns are resolved somehow, things look pretty promising here.
- Cookery: The theme and ingredients work great.
- Conclusion: I feel like I have very little sense of what this game would be like in play, especially if the ink economy grinds to a halt early on, but I feel pretty excited to give it a try, so this one’s a Finalist. Let’s hope the author can ultimately find a way to live up to the promise behind these concepts.
Skin City Romance by Chris Edwards
It’s a role playing game of noir-inspired journeys ( or will be when it’s complete anyway). You’re desperate people submerged in a city synonymous with corruption. You play to find out how that works out for you.
- Concept: In a noir-inspired game, everybody’s looking for something, though the guidelines for that something aren’t fully detailed in this current draft.
- Execution / Completeness: This is an unfinished first attempt, but it looks pretty promising so far. Whether intentionally or not, the designer has created a hybrid between single-die resolution and Otherkind dice. Normally, the player rolls a single die against a single obstacle, but both the player and the GM can add in additional challenges and additional dice that must be assigned to those challenges by the player. I wish the waypoints, junctures, and memories mechanics were more developed here, with examples, because they seem to have significant potential. Additionally, the common problem of keeping the characters (and therefore the players) isolated and unlikely to interact seems a danger here, especially since noir if often about being alone.
- Cookery: A nice use of the theme and ingredients, definitely. Noir wouldn’t have been the first thing to come to my mind, but it works surprisingly well.
- Conclusion: Keep working on this! It seems good, but there’s not quite enough here yet, even for initial playtesting.
Sojourn: The City and The Desert by Brendan G. Conway
Sojourn, a moving city, eats its way across a pristine land, leaving Desert in its wake. The People of the land stand against Sojourn. The Characters must choose to either stand with Sojourn and win their dark desires, or stand against it and save their homelands.
- Concept: You play members of a tribal community who’ve moved to Sojurn, the great moving, destructive, steampunk city, for their own reasons. Tribalism and ethnic primitivism have been super popular this year. I’m not sure whether to blame Avatar or what. This game’s premise is more unique than some, however, by depicting the struggle between a traditional way of life and the forces of technology and urbanization, placing you in the middle. That’s still somewhat stereotypical, perhaps (see Ferngully, Avatar, etc.), but at least it’s more interesting.
- Execution / Completeness: The map-making guidelines that kick the game off are superb. I don’t know if the designer invented or stole those, but I’ve never seen them before and already plan on using them in the future. Nice work! Sojourn itself, or more accurately the player representing the city, seems to be playing something like Settlers of Catan on the generated map, collecting resources (for example: 2 treasure, 2 people, 1 wood, 1 ore) in an attempt to fulfill the moving city’s secret goals. The players, on the other hand, generate restrictive social customs for the native peoples – very reminiscent of the restrictions of the faithful in Dogs in the Vineyard – and dark desires that their characters have to break those customs (the example given is to marry a women declared to be a witch). The characters have come to Sojourn in an attempt to have the city and its resources assist in fulfilling their desire. Play is mission based as Sojourn assigns the characters tasks to undertake in return for its aid, which is cool. The resolution mechanic here is passable but not as exciting as it could be: conflict arises “when one player says ‘I’m doing this” and another player wants to stop him” (better than many descriptions so far), you build a die pool based on resources, traits count as free successes and you can permanently sacrifice them for 3 successes. It strangely assigns narrative control to the losing player, forcing the winner to buy influence, which strikes me as particularly odd, but I would want to hear the designer’s reasoning for making that choice. At the end of each mission, the Sojourn and People players (yes, two semi-GMs) roll off against each other – with the players contributing and interfering – to see what progress Sojourn makes in destroying the land. Refresh scenes and the way the characters gradually earn points to buy their desire from Sojourn are cool but could use some revision in playtesting to make their mechanics match the overall themes better. For example, you earn “desire points” by winning conflicts but spend them to get your desire. Shouldn’t you get closer to your desire by completing missions for Sojourn? Or maybe I’m missing something. Finally, the endgame’s triggering conditions – when a character frees themselves of Sojourn or the devil city completes its mission – are super sweet, though the final battle between the city and the People is just a standard conflict and could also use some strengthening.
- Cookery: Terrific use of the ingredients. A+!
- Conclusion: This game really needs some hardcore playtesting, to strip some of the superfluous and fiddly resource-based mechanics down to a core that is lean and rock-solid. Honestly, right now the resolution and trait mechanics aren’t very pleasing and I think they could be much stronger if they were either 1) dirt simple or 2) more complex. Which way the designer will ultimately go is up to them, though. Enormous potential in this Finalist, though. I look forward to seeing where it goes.
Under the Sun by Anna Kreider
The good spirits have spoken. In order that the People are not entirely destroyed, your tribe must journey into the heart of the Deepest Desert to find the Promised Land – a land that until now was thought only to exist in myth and legend. Will you have the strength to survive?
- Concept: You play members of a desert tribe trying to keep their people alive as they cross into the deep desert in search of a mythic paradise. Very cool.
- Execution: First off, the cultural elements of being members of the tribe are very well handled. This game does a tremendous job of transmitting the setting and characters in a few short pages. Great stuff! However, I wondered in some places if a few of these elements, such as the purported different treatment of youth, adults, and elders, was intended to have mechanical effects that never made it into this draft. The way the other players decide how much honor your character has is a nice touch. I also like very much that this game supports conflicts both against other tribesmen and the elements, but also conflicts in which all the players work together to try to save the tribe from disaster. That all works very well, conceptually. The designer also does a great job of handling stake-setting as a part of resolution, which was refreshing to see, but I was a bit confused about how the back-and-forth Dogs in the Vineyard-style resolution worked. After I’ve played a lower or equal card in defense, do I still get to attack again? If so, how is that different than playing a slightly better card? How do we determine who the ultimate winner is if we have several back-and-forth plays between multiple players, in which sometimes one side has triumphed and sometimes the other?
- Completeness: The only other substantial issue I have with the game is how long it is: 11 scenes per player (2 rounds of turns per 5 section of desert, except for 3 in the last one) in order to complete it. That sounds like at least 3 sessions, or about the length of The Mountain Witch. In and of itself, that’s not an issue, but the guidelines for each section of the desert don’t really distinguish between them enough, descriptively, for me to imagine it will be sustainably compelling to play the game that long. Perhaps if the game gave us more structure for creating problems and told us more about the practicalities of desert life, so that less familiar players aren’t always imagining sandstorms, we would be better equipped to make desert travel interesting for three sessions. Oracles or something along those lines might be helpful in generating gripping situations.
- Cookery: A nice, relatively realistic take on the theme and ingredients.
- Conclusion: This game is a Finalist, but still needs greater clarity in the process of resolution and better support for making three sessions worth of interesting desert and inter-personal obstacles.
Pilgrim by Leo M. Lalande / 14thWarrior
Characters take on a pilgrimage through a global desert to unburden their souls so that they may be reskinned, rejuvenated, in the distant city that is their destination.
- Concept: An unfinished game that takes place in a caste-based, post-apocalyptic future in which the characters are traveling to a special city to have their body genetically rebuilt.
- Execution: Since most of the character creation rules are missing (and I’m not sure what else), it’s hard to know exactly where this design is going, but it has some interesting ideas. Like several other games, the characters are essentially acting on their own, but here the other players are explicitly acting as co-GMs during your turn, presenting you with challenges in a manner something like Polaris but without the explicit role divisions. I worry that the simplicity of the resolution + endgame mechanics (because they are closely aligned) will enable them to be easily gamed, with players pushing for X number of tokens and Y number of dice to maximize their chance of success. In my mind too, it’s not clear what the tokens and dice actually represent fictionally, which makes keeping track of them something that creates a bit of cognitive tension in the players’ minds.
- Completeness: This game isn’t really done, so it’s really unfair to judge in this category.
- Cookery: Overall, I like the use of theme and ingredients.
- Conclusion: Still a long ways to go here.
Deserting Paradise by Joe Mcdaldno
All you wanted was to live forever. So you and your street punk friends stole immortality from The Man. Now he wants vengeance. The City has come alive to try to swallow you whole. Deal with your unfinished business, put this voodoo stuff behind you, and get the fuck out of dodge.
- Concept: This is the post-punk, emo version of Unknown Armies. What more do you need to know? Yes, please.
- Execution: The writing in this game is flat-out terrific, a slightly more aggressive form of the conspiratorial, frenemy way that Vincent writes in Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World, showing you how easy all of this is while leading you down a dangerous path to your doom. The dice mechanics are straightforward, with modifier lists that act like the Ob tables in Mouse Guard, making it easy for the GM to determine how difficult life is. Furthermore, the designer tells you explicitly what happens on failures – or, really, gives you solid principles for narration so you have clear boundaries that help you know what to say. And, holy crap, there’s a whole page (p. 18) that gives the GM an overview of what the pacing and feel of an “episode” or arc of the game should feel like. Really, page for page, line for line, word for word, this is the best written game of the batch so far and a great role model for other people. I’m not sure how in the world the designer found time to write this game in a week (actually, I do know, it’s because he suddenly found himself between jobs), but this is very, very impressive.
- Completeness: The game is supposedly structured as a multi-session thing, but I think more than a short 2-3 session arc is going to need some character development rules, but those shouldn’t be too hard to concoct. I’m sure I’ll have other concerns that come out of playtesting, but nothing jumps out at me as particularly worrisome right now.
- Cookery: Theme and city are here. Maybe some others. Who cares?
- Conclusion: This one goes straight into the top batch of games I want to play soon. Finalist, as if there was any doubt.
Going Home: An Urban Power Fantasy by Mikael Andersson / lachek
You and your friends play three to five travellers, people traversing an urban landscape with their own personal destinations. We don’t know who these travellers are or where they are going. The game is about that discovery, and seeing what happens when they get there. Basically, “Falling Down”, the role playing game.
- Concept: You play characters in a modern city who have just abandoned something but who do not yet know where they are going. Super vague but okay.
- Execution: This game is definitely one of the most mechanically innovative so far, thanks to a unique consensus/majority mechanic whereby conflicts are played out until most of the players agree that they have been resolved, with that process being conducted entirely with hand signals (but much easier signals than in Mridangam, don’t worry!). The scene framing guidelines are also pretty neat, being reminiscent of both a flowchart, the question-asking psychic maelstrom from Apocalypse World, and the play diagram of intersecting lines from It’s Complicated. And characters can end up blocked off or isolated on the scene chart due to moves by the other characters. Speaking of Apocalypse World, there are also sets of guidelines for the behavior of the non-protagonist players during another player’s scenes, which seem inspired by AW, and even tell you when to create conflicts or join in opposition during a conflict declared by another player. Very cool and helpful.
- Completeness: Though this is perhaps the first of the “personal exploration” games that’s going to be a Finalist, I find its overall concept less compelling than some of the others, perhaps because the sense of setting or character is so vague and hard to hook into. It appears entirely up to the players to create characters and situations that aren’t lame, which is fair enough, we should all be able to do that, but there are ways in which rules texts can give you support on what types of characters and situations are most appropriate for this particular game and there’s not much like that here. Consequently, there’s a bigger hump to get over if you’re deciding on which games to play, since this game is somewhat less accessible, at least at first. Also, I’m not sure how much the several pages of supplemental advice do for the game. The designer calls this game “urban power fantasy” because the protagonists can ultimately decide to do what they want, but the guidelines and rules of the game don’t seem to support that kind of personal indulgence, making me think that players are just as (or more) likely to act cooperatively than unilaterally.
- Cookery: The theme is here, definitely, and perhaps desert and edge are being used here to create the sense of vagueness and liminality.
- Conclusion: As I said above, this is the first Finalist focused on personal exploration and abstract guidelines, but I think it has the potentially to be more compelling than these already pretty solid rules, if it can find a stronger sense of aboutness.
The Book of Sands: A Story of Our People by Nolan Callender / masqueradeball
You play the first humans being exiled from a tribe of pre-humans, whose wandering in the desert ends when God directs them to the site of what is to become the first city.
- Concept: You play out a story about the founding of the first city, beginning as non-human semi-animal creatures that shed their skins, are expelled from their original community, and eventually fight among themselves to determine who is the original patriarch (or, one hopes, matriarch).
- Execution / Completeness: Conceptually, I like the way the card-based mechanics are structured. The core mechanic is based around trying to guess the number on a randomly selected card, but your guess actually counts as the number you guessed +/- a stat called your Edge. However, this is problematic in a couple of ways. First, it’s probably easier if the player actually guesses a range of numbers, like “I guess 4-8, since I have an Edge of 4,” rather than making everyone do the math every time you guess something. Secondly, you Edge it generated by you tagging traits in your description of your character and what’s happening, which combines all the problems with Once Upon a Time-style mechanics, Wushu-style mechanics, and the trait invocation issues I’ve linked to previously. Why incentivize the players to invoke as many traits as possible if that’s not actually going to create an interesting narrative? In most cases, it’s likely to make things jumbled and artificial. I also worry a bit about the random pacing of the challenges. While in theory it makes sense to rank the difficulty of challenges from 10 to 1, since those are the remaining cards in the deck, having level 1 challenges represent “minor difficulties” seems less than ideal. Especially if the last challenges to be faced were levels 5-10, who wants to bother dealing with a minor difficulty (especially for an entire scene) unless it’s going to potentially grow into something bigger? There’s also Harm and Bond and a few other mechanics at work here, which seem interesting enough, but nowhere here do I get a sense of what any of this stuff means in the fiction. The mechanics overall seem rather divorced from the narrative content. The second section (Chapter Two) of the game seems somewhat more connected to what’s actually occurring, as the characters attempt to gather resources that they can use in later parts of the game. Additionally, the last few pages try to give some guidelines for what kinds of things should be happening, but it’s both too little and too late, I think, since these guidelines would have been way more helpful worked into the actual mechanics, so readers have a sense of why they would do something or what kinds of things they might do.
- Cookery: Another semi-tribal game, but this one uses the theme and ingredients to create more of an origin myth, which is cool.
- Conclusion: In general, the text feels very unfinished, like it needs to be reorganized and clarified for a wider audience, even though it’s probably sufficient for the designer to use as notes in initial playtesting with their home group. That’s cool. Hopefully this game will be playtested and come out the other side stronger and ready for outside playtesting.
Maddenhafen by Renee Knipe
You’re thousands of miles from home in one of most inhospitable places in the world, laying siege to a city that defies human comprehension…to destroy an enemy you know nothing about. Who are they? Who are you? 70 barely formatted pages, 37 Careers, Combat, Magick, and unique mechanic for exploring the nature of hatred.
- Concept: You play conscript soldiers taking part in the siege of a mountain-city of ratmen.
- Execution / Completeness: Both with its career structure and by having the main foes be ratmen, this game is digging into the same Warhammer Fantasy tradition that also seems to have inspired The Burning Wheel and some other great games. The basic mechanics are task-based and the tasks are called “feats.” However, by equating feats with “doing stuff,” the designer is basically saying that doing anything significant is a feat and therefore involves rolling dice, which sounds like it could get old very quick. There are a few other mildly annoying retro tendencies here and there. After all, I really doubt the game needs to tell us that you need both your hands to use a polearm. Additionally, the prerequisites for careers are all measured in stat ranks, but the only way you can improve your stats, as far as I can tell, is by taking new careers, leading to a potential difficulty where a character’s stats are too low for them to take any new career, but also has no other way to raise their stats. That said, all of the retro flavor is partially in service to an unexpected twist in the game, which the designer doesn’t tell you about until page 22. In fact, the real purpose of the game is to explore the gradual humanization of the enemy over the course of war, as you get to know them and discover they are not what you expected from the propaganda. Unfortunately, the way this happens is through a fairly artificial-feeling mechanic where the players intentionally choose when to increase the humanization of the enemy, one step at a time, rather than something more emergent, such as if the GM pushed to make the ratmen more “human” and the players discovered how their characters reacted in play, based on the context. There’s perhaps an overindulgence in old school dark fantasy tropes and play structure for a game that’s ultimately not really about those things. The humanization theme of the game is not actually a secret; the players know about it and choose when to push it forward, so it’s not as if the mechanics need to go about luring them into slaying ratmen for giggles. Instead, there’s just a weird tension between what the mechanics of the game are written to do and the themes that play is supposed to invoke (i.e. growing understanding and eventually desertion or fighting against efforts to eradicate the ratmen). To me, it almost feels as if the humanization instructions were added much later to the text, they seem so out of place. All in all, the coolest part of the game in my mind is the way that you finish one career and advance to a new one by completing fictional requirements. In the long run, I think that might feel awkward unless the requirements were relatively complex and strict – the current ones are relatively easy – but it’s a pretty cool concept.
- Cookery: It’s meant to be a journey of understanding, I guess.
- Conclusion: I’m left wondering if I just don’t get this game or if it is actually as confused as it seemed when I was reading it. Clearly, the designer put a lot of really good work when into making this game, since the Warhammer/BW-style mechanics seem pretty solid and the careers look interesting. But I really do think that, if the humanization element is really important, it should be more central to the overall design, instead of just tacked on to a ruleset that seems built to do something else.
The City: On the Edge of Humanity. by Mike of Many
Play out your teenage rebellion against a futuristic utopia where no one thinks for themselves anymore. A game that will take one from the beginning of one’s search for independence, through shedding the false skin of society, to truly finding oneself.
- Concept: The characters are teenagers in a near-future megacity, rebelling in some fashion, for reasons determined by the players.
- Execution / Completeness: I came away from reading this game appreciating much of the setting material – which sounds like a great premise for a game of Misspent Youth – but utterly confused by the character creation and resolution portions. For one, you don’t really need to tell your readers what a roleplaying game or a d6 is in an alpha or playtest draft. Anybody who’s going to read you game or play it at this point is not new to roleplaying The text also makes dubious statements like, “most roleplaying games also have what is called a fumble or a botch.” Really? Most games? Getting into the actual mechanics, during conflicts, the GM apparently rolls a number of dice equal to the total number of characters in the scene (PCs + NPCs) vs. a PC’s die pool, to see who gets the most successes. Honestly, that baffles me completely and I’m not sure what to say about it other than: what does the number of characters in the scene have to do with either 1) the difficulty of the challenge or 2) the themes of the game? It just seems like a completely random decision. There’s also another kind of roll called a “personal victory” roll, where a character attempts to break free of the city’s conditioning, functionally rolling their “individual” dice versus their “tech” dice (the latter is determined by which floor they live on in the city and is roughly a marker of social class), but I’m not sure if that really makes much more sense, honestly, though success does earn you d10s to roll instead of d6s. At least the “personal victory” roll seems to be getting more into what the game is actually supposed to be about: teenagers rebelling against the boundaries of the city, but this theme isn’t really supported at all by the rest of the mechanics or the guidelines for setting up scenes or being the GM (which are very sparse).
- Cookery: The theme and ingredients are fine here; that’s not the issue.
- Conclusion: Ultimately, it seems like the rules and setting of this game are not sufficiently complementary. Really, there’s barely enough rules and guidelines here to run the game at all. There’s a lot of setting description, which reads well enough, but much less material on what to actually do once you have some characters and are actually ready to play. I think the designer needs to think a bit more about how to empower the GM and players to really share the kind of play experience that that designer has in mind. Additionally, I would suggest checking out other games about teenagers in trouble – Nicotine Girls, Bliss Stage, and Misspent Youth, maybe – just to have a sense of how other folks are structuring play to focus on youth exploring their changing personal identities and changing relationships with authority.
Desert Journey by John Evans
The city shines like a jewel, the only evidence that you are not alone in this world. But perhaps the desert isn’t truly a desert. Perhaps you are merely trapped in a nightmare, searching for a way out. Perhaps you’re dead.
- Concept: A two-player game in which one player struggles through the desert towards a shining city that may be a mirage. The other player acts as the Guide, choosing half of the challenges the Journeyer faces and any remaining players have supporting roles as Voices which have no mechanical importance but serve as informal advisors to the Journeyer.
- Execution / Completeness: As the designer acknowledges in the footnotes, this game builds on the solid chassis of the post-My Life With Master tradition of games that pace themselves by tracking changes in players’ traits, with trait adjustments happening regularly through a single conflict resolution roll per scene (Polaris, Breaking the Ice, etc.). That structure works really well here, making this game stand out from many of the other games of personal exploration that involve someone wandering through the desert experiencing surreal visions. The other things that really make this game work are how the Journeyer and Guide take turns calling for different types of scenes in a semi-tactical way, presumably trying to make the Journeyer’s traits move in distinct directions, so that the endgame will occur under conditions favorable to them. Just eyeballing the different scene types and the way they allow for the accumulation of traits and resources, it looks as if the game will build pleasingly towards the eventual endgame. One major thing missing from this draft, which would make it much stronger, is specific instructions to the Journeyer and Guide about what their mechanical and fictional goals are and how they can best pursue them in practice. If there are a range of different things that players can choose to strive for at different times, that’s cool too, but some discussion of that would be very helpful, I think. Is the Guide really trying to kill the Journeyer or leave them wandering in the desert forever, or is the game less antagonistic than that? Right now, it’s less than crystal clear. There are also some preliminary efforts to encode ritual language in the instructions for invoking different types of scenes. This is a solid start, but should probably be expanded to include a different ritual opening to the description of each type of challenge. After all, some of the challenges seem to be occurring in the memories of the Journeyer rather than in their current desert-bound predicament, so they probably need a different opening, unless I’m misreading the intent somehow. I also can imagine some custom playsheets that would make this game much more accessible and fun, laying out the options for different challenges in a way that made them easy to invoke.
- Cookery: A solid, straightforward implementation of theme and ingredients.
- Conclusion: All told, this game is very short and straightforward in its rules and descriptions and, while I’d like to see some aspects fleshed out more, there’s more than enough here to begin playtesting and moving forward. Nice job, Finalist.
Man-of-Letters, Man-of-Wars: A Game of Tactical Correspondence with a Chance of Drowning by E. Tage Larsen / Double King
“Man-of-Letters, Man of War” is one part saucy libertine epistolary and one part age-of-sail slugfest. It is loosely set amongst the 18th and 19th century’s naval warfare and the epistolary novels that were popular in this time. This is a gm-less game is about letter writing and naval battles. Each player will have a turn with naval mayhem and scurrilous penmanship. Bon voyage!
- Concept: This game emulates 18th and 19th century epistolary naval novels. Hotness.
- Execution: Perhaps the designer knew that I’ve been reading the Master & Commander books recently and is trying to stack the deck on here. Still, I really wish the designer used larger type, as it was somewhat painful to read on the screen as a PDF, at least without awkwardly zooming in on the pages. I’m a bit unsure why every player makes their sailor be on a different boat during character creation. The designers this year really want to design solo or 2-player games, don’t they? Still, I suppose it supports the correspondence theme, though characters are corresponding more with their loved ones at home than with the other characters aboard ships, which seems like a missed opportunity. I can imagine a lot of drama with various sailors and officers informing their fellows on other ships of their victories or defeats. The way the dice “explode” is clever, because it allows you to gamble that the explosion will continue, but with the potential to lose everything. This is actually the only way to fail, which matches nicely with pulpy novels in which self-aggrandizing junior naval officers mess things up by overplaying their limited resources and luck. Additionally, the ship and character creation guidelines are delightful and really add to the feel of the game.
- Completeness: In the naval combat section, the Speed rules are a bit unclear, since you seem to roll+Speed (of your ship) in an attempt to close with any object on the playing field, but it doesn’t really explain what happens if you don’t actually want to close, but keep your distance, or how to maneuver your ship marker on the map if you miss, since presumably you still move somewhere. The rest of the rules look pretty exciting, though it’s surprising that there are no explicit guidelines for continuing your narrative, presumably under a new flag and on a new ship, once you are rescued from being shipwrecked. In the correspondence section, there probably need to be examples of Assertions, since they are so crucial to the rules and are won with naval victories. Part of me also wonders how random impressed hands know how to write, but that’s a separate issue entirely. This game is clearly in need of some playtesting to see if traits are adjusted in practice in a way that suits the endgame.
- Cookery: On the acknowledgements page, the designer wrongly lists the theme of this year’s contest as Voyage rather than Journey. But I suppose we’ll forgive that.
- Conclusion: This Finalist really needs to see the table, which will undoubtedly help it work out any remaining issues. Like the last game, it is also in need of some playsheets to make this easier, given the relative density of the mechanics and guidelines.
Sparks from the Fire by Brennan Taylor
Sparks from the Fire: Tell the story of who and why as pilgrims travel to make a sacrifice to The Burning One, Ever Hungry Melatria.
- Concept: You play pilgrims on a fantasy version of the Hajj or Umrah. Very cool.
- Execution / Completeness: The rules begin with a description of Baron Munchausen-style leading questions (“Why do you fear your own impending death?”), which are both included with each individual character class, to help you brainstorm your character’s background, and are invoked at different points in the game. Play is structured in several phases, the first two of which are divided into two parts. Part one is very much like Munchausen, featuring the pilgrims each explaining, first, their background and, second, their reason for seeking the temple. This part allows players to cooperate in storytelling and build up tokens, which is important, since the second part of the first two phases is where each pilgrim faces a challenge that they must resist individually. It’s interesting that you can build tokens cooperatively but must face challenges on your own, even though it makes sense that pilgrims might be able to cooperate on challenges. The final phase is the endgame in which players sacrifice points of their traits to Melatria, the consuming fire goddess, in an effort to gain her assistance with their plight. And the final step of the endgame has the players look at their lowest stat (lowered by the challenges and the sacrifice), which determined what happens to their character. Structurally and rules-wise, this game is very solid and clear, but it has an evocative setting and an usual concept for a game – i.e. a religious pilgrimage. I feel like I would have more comment on how play might be improved to make it more compelling – for example, providing more opportunities for interactions between characters, something I keep harping on in all these games – once I played it. Right now, there’s still a fair bit of “lonely fun” being cultivated here, despite the fact that you are sharing the character’s story with the other players. But for a short and fun mini-game or roleplaying “poem,” it’s quite lovely.
- Cookery: Terrific culinary work here.
- Conclusion: This game is a Finalist, though a pretty humble one. Not very flashy or exciting, necessarily, but quiet and potentially very powerful.
Action City! by Mike Olson
Action City! is a paean to (mostly ’80s) action movies at their most cheesily Hollywood. Players take on the roles of the Hero, the Hero’s Friends, or the Opposition (including the Badguy). The game uses a dice pool mechanic to resolve narrative disagreements and a deck of playing cards to help focus the game and the nature of the Badguy. Play focuses on both foiling the Badguy and dealing with the characters’ Sub-Plots and Hang-Ups. Enjoy!
- Concept: A game about 80s action movies. Explosion-tastic.
- Execution: Unlike several other games, which have several single-protagonist stories happening in parallel, this game is explicitly about one character, the hero, with everyone else playing allies or enemies. The explicit division between scenery chewing, talky scenes and action scenes makes good design sense. It’s perhaps a bit strange that both the hero and the other characters have equivalent stats, since the hero in these movies is usually both super-competent and unkillable (i.e. they die hard, but these movie often try to portray them as normal dudes, so perhaps that make sense. Resolution contains an unusual combination of both stat+trait invocation and setting difficulties, though, in this case, it seems as if the acting character sets their own difficulty, taking a bonus or penalty to their roll based on either personal preference or the fictional circumstances (it’s not really clear which). Additionally successes can be banked to help in later conflicts, so the mechanics seem to incentivize making some easy rolls in the beginning, which could be weird if players decide to roll for things that don’t really matter. Failure gives characters conditions that prevent them from selecting the easier options when assigning their own difficulty, which is a pretty smart mechanic. There’s also a Once Upon a Time-like mechanic where the players are incentivized to incorperate specific action movie clichés (“vehicle of convenience”) into the narrative, with any remaining clichés counting as resources for the GM and bad guys in the final conflict. While my concerns about “forced incorporation” mechanics remains, I like the way teamwork between the players might be required to set up some of these situations. The bad guy generation guidelines also look like a ton of fun.
- Completeness: feel like the main thing missing from this game is some sense of how pacing and scene distribution is supposed to work, especially when the hero might end up with the crap beaten out of them after just a few scenes. When should we cut from the hero to the various other characters? The hero is supposed to get more spotlight time, right? But how much is “more”? Does the GM frame all the action scenes while the players call for and frame the personal scenes? That seems to be the way it works, but the rules don’t say that explicitly. How do we know when we are reaching the final showdown? Should the GM specifically try to target the friends of the hero, or just allow them to become entangled in the caper?
- Cookery: Some of the uses here are a bit of a stretch, but this designer was smart not to let the ingredients been too restricting.
- Conclusion: Nice job, Finalist. This game is definitely ready to be played, but needs to keep an eye on a few things, including refining the scene framing guidelines and figuring out how the non-hero characters can become involved in things.
Egregore by Tad Ramspott / Baxil
Egregore is a game about mages exiled from reality into a world of their own making, trying to discover the secrets of a deserted city before their own phantoms and emotions drive them over the edge.
- Concept: Modern day magicians are exiled to a dreamlike city as punishment for some great crime that they committed and must discover the city’s secrets in order to… achieve something. Honestly, I’m a bit confused about everything that’s happening here, though I like many of the concepts.
- Execution: For an alpha draft, this game seems to be attempting to do too much at once. There are many, many different mechanics and resources to track when playtesting this game, which can make it hard to figure out which parts are working and which parts are not working as well, which in turn makes the process of playtesting and revision very difficult. The four different kinds of drives – fear, need, sin, and guilt – and the four different edges – confusingly named insanity, insecurity, injury, and iniquity – were numerous enough that I feel like I needed help in tracking them; it wasn’t enough to say that they should constantly be roleplayed, since it’s difficult to remember to roleplay 8 different states at once. There were also many things that seemed to distract from the overall point and style of the game, as demonstrated in the microfiction that opened the different sections. The microfiction and play example imply that play is mostly about having emotional conversations with various elements of the dreamworld, attempting to make progress on your various goals (which sounds pretty awesome, actually). If that is the case, I don’t quite understand why the characters are allowed to buy special abilities like fire breath and having four arms. What does that have to do with mages trapped in a dreamworld? I’m also not sure what the purpose is in lowering the characters stats when they succeed in conflicts, since that seems like it would draw the story out in a painful fashion, as challenges become more and more difficult over time until the game seems like Achilles and the tortoise, moving towards the end but in an increasingly slow manner that never actually gets there. It’s somewhat more difficult to get excited about a game that seems destined to end with a whimper, not a bang. If the whimper is part of the point, the players need to have clear incentives and reasons to endure that, to make it seem worthwhile, which I’m not currently seeing.
- Completeness: Personally, the modern day backstory – apparently this game is connected to a setting previous concocted by the design – served as a bit of a distraction from the game, since I don’t know and don’t really care about it, at least as far as this game is concerned (and I doubt many other people will either, outside of the designer’s local playgroup). Rather, I felt the need for guidelines that would help me and the other players develop our own ideas about what the Shadowlands was and why we ended up here. The guidelines for creating the dreamworld in Bliss Stage came to mind as a good example of this. Also, since the game takes place in a dreamworld and there seems to be no provisions for characters to have scenes together, having solid scene framing guidelines for setting up challenges for individual players is critical, and I didn’t see a lot of that here. Who are the characters likely to encounter in the Shadowlands? How do challenges build on each other in a place where the normal rules of logic and causation may not work the same way? From the text, it sounds like the Shadowlands make sense in the designer’s head, but I think he needs to make a lot of that more explicit, not through pages of description, but through foundational principles that other playgroups, who don’t know or care about the designer’s “Tomorrowlands Universe,” can put into practice at their tables.
- Cookery: The designer seems to mostly have taken advantage of the ingredients to write a game based on concepts he was already thinking about. That’s totally fine, but greater efforts need to be made to make the setting accessible for and actually useful to outside audiences.
- Conclusion: Right now, this text reads as a strange hybrid between a set of notes that the designer could use to run the game himself – since it seems to require outside knowledge – and an attempt at creating a commercial RPG text, as you can see from things like the disclaimer that this game might be disturbing. I can’t help but think that both of those miss the mark a bit, since the point was to write an initial draft that other folks could help you playtest. Right now, this game need to be simpler, clearer, more accessible, and also less formal and concerned with how published games are supposed to look or feel. It doesn’t go to the extent of having a White Wolf-style glossary, which many games had (and always made me chuckle), but I think it could benefit from being rewritten with someone specific in mind as the target audience. For example, I wrote the original draft of Geiger Counter with my friend Dev in mind, telling him how to run the game. That’s a useful trick when writing a first (or subsequent) draft and I recommend it here.
Silver and White by Jackson Tegu
Four players invent truths for the story according to their card. Cards are exchanged when characters come into physical contact with one another: we zoom in on every touch, give it our full attention, just like our awkward, hopeful characters do.
- Concept: A group of teenage characters stumble upon the mystery that will ultimately determine their fates in the midst of an otherwise normal suburban evening.
- Execution: So it’s great that the designer wrote this game because it means I can stop pointing to Montsegur 1244 as an example of a game of personal exploration that lacks formal resolution mechanics, since this game represents more or less where the cutting edge of freeform tabletop design is right now, at least until I finish Ghost Opera :) Like several other games this year, it combines several mechanics that have been prominent in recent indie games: pre-established character types, dark fates in the manner of The Mountain Witch, and distributed “GM” responsibilities in the form of unique player responsibilities (in this case, those responsibilities are encoded as character-based abilities or roles, which is a clever trick). Ultimately, I think this game is more successful in making use of having multiple players at the table (as opposed to one or two), by structuring its personal exploration in the form of a darker and more surreal version of Stand By Me, like a mixture of Donnies Darko and The Virgin Suicides, all stories that are ultimately more about a group of characters (even Donnie Darko) than what happens to individuals. The surreal nature of the mystery – which is thankfully explained in specific details but left open-ended for the players to explore – gives the players permission to not be limited by realism and their concrete expectations about how the world works, which I think can be really important, since sometimes playgroups can get hung-up on the need to be truthful in “fact” (getting the details right) when games like this really want them to be truthful in emotion (getting the tone and feel right). And the pacing mechanic and fates allow for structure in the absence of formal resolution (I keep saying formal because resolution always happens, just informally in this case, because the designer has decided that the factual outcomes of the narrative, “what happens,” aren’t worth fighting over). Interestingly, the “skin” mechanic – where the players potentially trade fates and narrative responsibilities when their characters touch each other, for any reason – operates in the same procedural space where we would normally expect to find conflict resolution, i.e. in the middle of a scene, requiring players to freeze the fiction and engage the mechanics. But nothing is actually resolved by that trading of cards; the fiction rolls on and instead the mechanic merely calls our attention to a certain kind of narrative (touching) that the designer wants to emphasize. This is a cute trick, because it basically allows players to relax and be comfortable, engaging the game’s mechanics into the spaces where we would normally expect to have them, even though this game is actually doing something very different. I wonder if, in practice, that will mean that players, lacking something else to do in the scene, will start looking for ways for their characters to touch each other, driving towards the “resolution” mechanics in the way that we have traditionally been trained to do. If so, that’s probably just what the designer wants, though the designer may have structured the mechanics that way instinctively rather than intending to trick players into focusing on touching. Either way, very clever.
- Completeness: I feel very confident about being able to pick up and play this game with the right group of players. I really like the parts of the text that are meant to be read aloud and I worry that substantial revision to them might cause them to lose the original, unspoken intent and the evocative way they match with the other things happening in the text, but I do wonder what the unspoken intent behind their wording actually is. Are they supposed to be formal, like the ritual phrases in Polaris, invoking respect and attention? Are they supposed to be evocative of the attitudes of people in the setting, like the character blurbs and other descriptive writing in Apocalypse World? Are they supposed to do something else entirely? Are they supposed to be comfortable and natural for the players or unnatural and surprising? I’m not sure the designer needs to re-write them with a clear intent in mind, but I would appreciate some clues in the text about the tone and style in which the players are supposed to read them aloud.
- Cookery: The ingredient use that stood out most prominently to me is the way this game uses City as a surreal, unnatural element impinging into suburbia, not just an urban place the characters can escape to. Brilliant, really.
- Conclusion: This is another game that I can’t wait to play, though it’s very different from many of the other games here that I feel that way about. Plus, it’s a Finalist.
Burning Your Skin by Sean Nittner
A game inspired by the journey to adulthood, whether we’re ready for it or not. The burning desert sun will test you, are you ready?
- Concept: This game is about young people going into the desert in a rite of passage. It’s about the things that happen to them there and how they process those experiences and become new people.
- Execution / Completeness: Character creation looks solid and I like how it ends with the first challenge, as in Dogs in the Vineyard, which serves to jumpstart things by forcing players to get to know their characters a little. However, the example “initiation” conflict is a bit strange because it doesn’t seem to be about actually resolving the trait about the character’s spear-throwing ability, instead being more about his relationship with his parents. It makes me less sure about how to frame these conflicts, instead of more confident. The resolution mechanic seems pretty solid, but I wonder a bit about how the “burn dice” work, which measure a character’s growing maturity and are at the center of things. You’re looking for matching dice in rolls and when you burn dice are part of the matching set, they constrain the narration (woohoo!) by forcing your character to act as others expect them to act. However, if one or more of the players is portraying heir character as already being quite like what others think of them, then I worry that the impact of rolling burn dice matches will not be adequately felt and the game will thus not really be able to hit on the themes that it wants to. I’m not entirely sure how to solve this issue, since simply providing a counter-incentive seems crude and less than ideal. Maybe you can just assume that players will tend to resist being defined by others, but I’m not certain. Again, in this section I was confused by the examples. In one of them, the character rolls a three-die match that contains some burn dice, but the description says the burn die doesn’t matter. Right now, the change scenes, in which the character processes what has happened, feel a bit artificial, since they are required to come right after the scene they refer to. Honestly, I would appreciate guidelines that supported a freer hand in ordering scenes, so you could have a few problems, then a change scene, then a few more problems, then a handful of change scenes, etc. I think that would make the pacing feel more interesting. The endgame also feels somewhat incomplete, since the characters are supposed to somehow resolve their traits but its not clear to me what the issue is that needs resolving. Is there supposed to be some tension between how the character feels and what other people think of them? If so, how do players choose which way traits resolve? Simply arbitrarily? That seems not to fully value the process of exploration that happens in the game. Shouldn’t it theoretically have something to do with how many burn dice they’ve accumulated or some other mechanical marker? Otherwise, why are we tracking these resources? Simply for pacing?
- Cookery: The theme and ingredients are well used.
- Conclusion: I’m pretty torn on this one, because I think it has many strong elements for telling coming of age stories and the dice mechanics have the potential to constrain post-resolution narration in an interesting way. However, I think the procedures and the boundaries of narration need to be clearer about what they are trying to achieve if playtesting is going to be successful. But I hope this does end up seeing further development.
Bridge Across Eternity by Tamara Persikova
A group of characters who were involved in a certain conflict, a conflict they felt committed to not so long ago, suddenly decide to abandon it fully aware that severe consequences for such an act are imminent. What changed?
- Concept: You play a group of deserters, on the run or attempting to leave their previous commitments behind. Now, wandering far away from where they started, they begin to wonder, did we do the right thing? Fantastic premise.
- Execution / Completeness: In practice, I wonder a bit about distinguishing between the stats of Skin (endurance, emotional integrity) and Gut (courage, drive), since there seems to be a fair bit of overlap there. If I’m clinging fast to something, someone, or a belief, is that due to courage and drive or endurance and emotional integrity? Even given the context of an actual situation, it seems like it could be difficult to decide. The stats are also supposed to be roleplaying guides, illustrating how you should play a character, but there could stand to be more advice on what “10 drops in Heart” means, in that case. Am I warm and compassionate at 10 drops, or just mildly sympathetic? The guidelines to when to roll for conflicts are super clear, which is awesome, though it’s a bit unclear whether NPCs that join the group are adopted and played by the players as additional PCs, though that’s semi-implied by the statement that you should “treat the NPC as any other character.” That’s a pretty interesting departure from most roleplaying games and probably needs to be called out specifically, if that is the case. The guidelines for success are pretty good, though it’s hard to see why you would buy an automatic success for 3 drops rather than simply buying dice one at a time to see if you can roll a success for cheaper. Sure, that could backfire, so maybe it actually works in practice. I’d have to try it out to know for sure. The simply failure result seems pretty boring, unfortunately, since it sounds like whiffing, with nothing happening as a result. Honestly, I’d rather failure be more like the “flop” guidelines for rolling 1s (“annoying, infuriating, inconvenient”) and then have the flop guidelines be worse (for example: pain, rage, or sorrow). The players narrate all resolution results, though the GM calls for all conflicts, which is interesting. The “on edge” rules, which are pretty clearly intended to be a core part of the game, are unfortunately not that strong, since they basically leave it up to the player to portray their character getting mentally strained and eventually flipping out when all 5 boxes are marked. But there’s no real guidelines or incentives for doing that and no directions for what happens after a character flips out. Does the game end? How do you keep going forward if somebody’s lost it? Clearly this is an opportunity for something interesting happening, but it’s not clear what that is. The rules also don’t explicitly say how many wounds a character can take, but I assume it’s all the boxes drawn on the character sheet. Also strangely, wounds taken don’t seem to do anything at all until they kill you. Wrapping up the rules, the example settings are well done and I like the little graphic design elements that call out themes, for example: “mood: urgency, isolation, doubt.” The GM guidelines are also terrific, putting forward a bunch of cool ideas about where to take the narrative. Still, the lack of an endgame or other way to really wrap things up makes me wonder if this question of “did we do the right thing?” will ever really be satisfyingly addressed (obviously, resolving it one way or the other isn’t really the point, but addressing it definitely is).
- Cookery: Very nice use of the theme and ingredients. I like the explicit use of “deserters” quite a bit.
- Conclusion: All in all, this game drips with cool color and story concepts. Thus, it is a Finalist despite some concerns I have with resolution and concluding the game.
Skin Men by Marc Majcher
A straight-up biopunk adventure game in which the a team of players escort their hunted and scorned genetically enhanced clients to freedom.
- Concept: This game is like a mixture of The Matrix and Gattaca. You play genetically altered people within a post-apocalyptic megacity trying to help other altered humans escape from purification squads and make it out into the desert beyond where other mutants and modified people have created a new life.
- Execution / Completeness: Honestly, the premise of the game is more powerful than I expected, since you are essentially benevolent human traffickers. Makes me think there could be room for a Steal Away Jordan supplement about people working on the underground railroad. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the client is an NPC, since media as diverse as Burn Notice and Inception have shown that clients can be really interesting characters in their own right, but that’s more a side comment than anything else. The “pinch,” the first scene that opens the game, is always a flashforward to something in the extraction plan falling apart, which is a terrific way to jump right into things. You play out this scene until you are about to roll for resolution and then cut back to how things started, making it feel very much like the opening sequence of a TV show (you almost want Horatio Caine to put on his sunglasses while Roger Daltrey screams in the background). I’m a bit worried about having the pinch telegraph the first half of the session, unless the GM uses a jump cut of some kind to basically force the play group back to resolving the pinch when it looks like they’re approaching that point in the story. Client and mission generation is evocative and very cool, though I wonder how you can run the pinch without first knowing who the client is, especially if they or their enhancements might very well feature in the opening flashforward. The way challenges move you between districts reminds me a bit of the crossword resolution of In Skin City, You Need an Edge (27), but I like the way that this makes the map actually matter, since the difficulty of the journey can vary quite a bit depending on where you start on the map and where you are taking your client. Resolution looks pretty solid, though also fairly difficult, so it’ll be interesting to see how this works out in play. I like that the players are able to call on their client’s special enhancements, because that makes for more replay value with different clients. However, I wonder why the characters can’t also call on their own enhancements, since they are also genetically altered, right? The only real problem I have with the rules as written is the fact that stat refreshes take the character out of the game for a number of scenes while they go deal with their issue. Depending on what a character’s issue actually is, that may or may not really make sense. Also, it pretty much sucks for that player, so surely there’s a better way to make issues scenes a part of the action. Maybe you could trigger your issue to add an immediate complication to a scene (one that everyone has to deal with, not just you), but then get a refresh once that complication is overcome. That would seem to fit more with the group-nature of the game. The “edge token” economy will also clearly need some playtesting to finalize, but looks pretty interesting so far. I wonder, though, if only giving the GM new tools every 7 challenges is moving things a bit slow. This seems more like a fast-and-furious game where you only roll for significant things, so maybe upgrade every 3-4? Finally, the district tags are simply delicious and really give this game a lot of colorful atmosphere.
- Cookery: This game was a pleasant surprise. I like the use of E.D.G.E. as an acronym. Ha!
- Conclusion: Honestly, I was not really expecting to like this game, since genetically altered beings in a dystopian megacity just didn’t sound like my thing. To my astonishment, this game is not only pretty solid, but makes me excited to play it, which is quite an accomplishment. Finalist.
In Your Own Skin by David Berg
A group of teens takes a road trip through alternate realities to seek and define their adult identities. This rite of passage comes complete with deal-offering spirits, animal skins that bond with your own, and a potentially lethal dose of peer pressure administered via ritual tribunals.
- Concept: A surreal road trip + coming of age story in a land of mythic weirdness.
- Execution / Completeness: This game takes a super minimalist approach to the rules, in some places giving you basically something like shorthand, where you don’t really get a full explanation of what you’re supposed to do or why (example, “define: love about your current life”), but there’s just enough content to go with it. Honestly, at first it bothered me but after a while I kinda got into a groove and now I feel like it’s a clever and worth experiment, whether it’s fully successful or not. One of the issues with this approach is that the entire game is incredibly surreal. You are going on a supernatural road trip where you mean strangers who can manifest animals and you ultimately decide to wear one animal’s skin and therefore grow into an adult. So it’s like a coming of age story as told by Hunter S. Thompson as a shaman. As such, while the shorthand, half-written rule guidelines fit with the tone of the game, they don’t really offer enough guidance to really help ground the craziness. If your play group is okay with that and embraces the craziness and very loose structure, then maybe you’ll be fine. Otherwise, you’re likely to be completely baffled. As for the procedures themselves, they fall into the trap of being both overly simplistic and a little too on the nose, I think. In the beginning, you divide your traits between Egocentric and Socialized and, over the course of play, there is tension between these two things and you ultimately decide between them or lean one way or the other. In my mind, these would be better off as underlying themes – the way Dogs in the Vineyard is about faith and tradition and growing up without explicitly representing any of those as stats – and not explicitly called forth in the mechanics the way trust is in The Mountain Witch. It’s very much like the difference between “showing” and “telling” that they tall about in writing. When you have a trait that’s specified as Egocentric, the rules are telling me what the game is about instead of showing me how to experience those themes. And overall I think that makes for a less compelling experience.
- Cookery: A very cool use of the ingredients and theme.
- Conclusion: Man, this is definitely a worthwhile project and I like the sheer creativity and embrace of the surreal that went into this. The designer was certainly very brave and undaunted by the task here. However, like a lot of experiments, I think this one overstepped a little and needs to be rethought in some places before it goes through extensive external playtesting. It does seem ready for some initial alpha testing with groups of local players, though, to help polish some of the rougher bits before a wider release.
Edge of Annihilation: The Last City by Shinobicow
You are a group of survivors of a world ending nuclear even that has turned the earth into a giant desert. The players must attempt to build a city facing horrible trials thrown at them by the post-apocalyptic planet. Each day pushes civilization towards the Edge of Annihilation, will you be able to erect the earth’s Last City.
- Concept: The players compete to build and gain dominance over a growing outpost in the middle of a post-apocalyptic desert, based around the only local water source.
- Execution: The structure of this game is much more like a war game or strategic board game than a roleplaying game, which is totally cool and interesting. It reminds me a bit of the collaborative rules for How to Host a Dungeon that I playtested a while back, except that the players are attempting to build up their own resources and attack each other as rivals rather than collaboratively build something together. Character creation seems solid, but having each player pick, before the game starts, whether their character is good or evil (as if those were the only two choices! or meant anything at all, without context! as if the players’ factions aren’t required by the rules to attack each other anyway!) seems either really retro – like basic D&D – or totally irrelevant. I didn’t really get a retro feel from this game, so I’m gonna go with the latter. Additionally, having all the resources measured in points and having them have nearly identical acronymns (food is “food points/FP,” protection is “protection points/PP” etc.) seems really dumb, honestly. Why not just Food, Protection, etc.? That makes confusion much less likely and the game easier to learn for new players. Aside from that, the rules for creating and strengthening individual player resources and fighting with the other players looked very complicated but relatively solid, just at a glance.
- Completeness: The issues I see here are mostly about how the mechanics connect to the fiction, mostly because they don’t really. I mean, just the fact that you can summarize a follower with a shorthand like “F2A1,” shows that it doesn’t really matter, narratively speaking, who or what your follower, building, or resource is, just what its stats are for the purpose of competing with the other players. I worry that, especially over time, this will lead basically to “number wars,” where the players will send their “F2A1” to assassinate another player’s “F3P3,” and nobody will bother with or care about the fictional events that surround this. They’ll just roll the results and move on. Likewise, while the buildings and their stats and their sense of purpose and character should be a great place for the players to plug in and invest in this game, there’s not a lot to hold your interest there. Even the treats and special items are lacking in any real flavor, leaving it up to the GM to paste some color on a very generic rules description such as “training requires 2 more successes this turn” or “take one additional die for HP threats.” I like the random tables in general, I just wish the results you rolled were more compelling, a mix between these pure mechanical definitions and the potent, grabby results on the tables in In a Wicked Age. If training requires two more successes this turn because, say, freak torrential rain that has everyone (including your followers) out in the streets catching rainwater in pails, attempting to gather their own stock in defiance of the city-wide water monopoly and rationing system… all of a sudden, I’m much more interested, right? If this was a fancy board game, these kinds of things would probably be described on cards, but we can do better than that, coming from an roleplaying background, to make things even more gripping than a tiny illustrated picture of the city in the rain. And without those kinds of things worth caring about, I’m not sure what the motivation is for playing this game and manipulating all these numbers. I mean, I realize I’m more touchy-feely and less of a hardcore wargamer than perhaps these rules are aimed at, but accumulating mechanical strength that doesn’t actually represent anything significant in the fiction seems pointless to me. Who cares if my building has the best stats? But if I’ve built myself a lavish palace and declared myself emperor, okay, now I know what that means, I know how to behave, I know why that makes the other players upset.
- Cookery: Overall, I like this premise a lot and the way it incorporated the requirements.
- Conclusion: I really wanted this game to be compelling, but, as it currently stands, it’s hard to imagine slugging through all the numbers and having to come up with all of the color and characters and buildings and other narrative content all by ourselves. It sounds like it would be laborious instead of exciting. I feel like the game needs to commit to meeting us halfway there and give us more information about who these people and places and resources are, so we can decide if we care about them.
The Perfect Tool by Shreyas Sampat
The Perfect Tool is a techopsychic spy game inspired by Aeon Flux.
- Concept: This game sounds like City of Ember meets Mission Impossible. If this were a movie, it would be written by Lois Lowry, star Milla Jovovich, and be directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Basically, you play a team of special operatives trying to break out of a city that’s been kept isolated for 300 years, though other cities and other people may be out there somewhere, though they are merely myths.
- Conclusion: In the spirit of Skin City Romance (35) and Pilgrim (38), I’m going to crunch my response to some of these later unfinished games into just “concept” and “conclusion,” since that’s basically what I was doing in those short reviews of early semi-baked games. This game is probably more unfinished than some of the others, but the designer is working with strong concepts here and the stuff that exists so far is pretty exciting. Keep going!
Omphalos by David Pidgeon
It’s about healing the world (kinda).
- Concept: I’m going to have to quote the text here. In this game you create heroic characters who attempt to save the world by “enter[ing] into the blood of the world, sinking through its skin. Here they are tied into the rebirth of the world, the creation of a new myth cycle.” Sounds epic and moving.
- Conclusion: This game is highly unfinished but currently takes the form of a collaborative storytelling game, like Baron Munchausen, more than a straight-up roleplaying game. I like many of the ideas here, but might point it towards hybrid storytelling/RPG games like Sparks from the Fire (46), because I think it could use a bit more structure, especially in the final section where the characters enter the blood of the world. There are also plenty of games this year which deal with the hazards of the desert, so I would also suggest reading a few of the more polished ones and maybe mining them for ideas, though I do really like the condition list here. Let’s hope the designer plows forward here, because entering the blood of the world sounds like something I could definitely get excited about doing.
A Journey by Alex Fradera
The game of writing British Prime Minister’s best selling autobiographies!
- Concept: This is the roleplaying game of Tony Blair’s autobiography. Genius.
- Execution / Completeness: This is the strangest Apocalypse World hack I have yet seen and that includes Monsterhearts. There’s some other stuff mixed in as well (Polaris, Primetime Adventures), but this draft still feels unfinished, with procedures that look like they have a lot of potential, but aren’t really clear enough for solid playtesting yet, except maybe by the designer and their local play group. That’s too bad, because there’s a lot of potential here: having the Prime Minister character narrating in the first person past-tense (“That’s when I got a call from the Home Minister…”), having the two other players representing Labor (and allies) and the opposition, the way the Prime Minister can intentionally ignore problems to get a refresh, the way the (Labor) Party player is encouraged to reveal covered up secrets and past mistakes to the Prime Minister (“to build intimacy and trust with the leader”), and a bunch of others. But the game doesn’t look like it’s quite come together yet, especially the final playbook on the “Desert,” following the Minister’s quazi-retirement from political life.
- Cookery: Very creative and unique.
- Conclusion: Hopefully the designer will keep pushing this forward. It’s certainly a worthwhile project and could be a great addition to the very small number of roleplaying games – Executive Decision, Heads of State, A Day in the War – about modern politics.
Over The Wall by Jonathan Lavallee
You want to make it Over the Wall and into Paradise. The problem is that the Bot city of Vaturdu is in the way and the only viable currency is your very skin. How much is Paradise worth to you?
- Concept: You play cloned human youth raised to be the hope and future of the denizens of a dystopian robot city in which flesh is currency and everyone wants some, because you have to be part human to make it over the wall to the paradise beyond. Very cool.
- Execution: The designer made the really interesting choice, when writing up the rules for this game, as including them in the setting description. It makes the text very difficult to skim, but is a cool approach overall as it really lets even the rule descriptions carry the feeling of the game. Still, it would have been nice to have a summary somewhere – preferably before or after each section – that stated the basics (for example: Run and Hide are the universal skills and characters get other skills for being a Roboticist, Trader, or Bully). As far as resolution is concerned, the ability to remove elements from other players’ narration strikes me as one that could lead to social problems in the group, so it should probably be handled with additional care than is shown in the current guidelines, where it seems more like a throw-away line, something easily ignored. Resolution is deterministic rather than random (“karma” rather than “fortune” for those familiar with Jonathan Tweet’s breakdown in Everway), with the player deciding whether the youth or opposing side has the advantage in a scene (similar to determining refresh scenes in Bliss Stage, perhaps), but then the youth has the opportunity to invoke skills if they are at a disadvantage. This use is capped by the level of the skill. Once you overuse a skill, you can still invoke it to succeed, but begin to suffer negative consequences, including damage. The rest of the game is full of cool setting information and scene generation guidelines, which include randomly drawing elements from a deck.
- Completeness: There is a lot to like here. However, the premise of the game seems to demand that a major focus be on how well the youth (creche-kids) are about to save their own skin (literally) in a city full of robots looking to become more human. Unfortunately, I don’t see any mechanics or guidelines that really hammer on this theme, including guidelines for slowly adding more and more robotic “bits” in exchange for giving up your human flesh. So, while there’s the chassis of a relatively solid game here, it doesn’t fully deliver on the promise of its premise. Additionally, as with some of the other games that build on Polaris and have rotating protagonist, antagonist, and support roles, I feel like this responsibility-distribution framework is kinda half-heartedly slapped onto the game, rather than really fully worked into the game. I mean, Polaris is great, right? We all recognize that. But it’s been 5 years! There are other methods for making GMless play work and, even if Polaris is maybe still the first GMless or “rotating responsibly” game people think of, these techniques have been around long enough now that designers should be developing their own unique guidelines for shared “GM” responsibilities, based on what you want your game to do. Ultimately, you can’t assume that you can just tack on something as important as the way the players approach the game. That doesn’t work for GM guidelines and especially doesn’t work for GMless guidelines because even hippie players typically have their own house style of sharing control rather than doing what the designer wants.
- Cookery: Perhaps the best use of skin so far (as a unit of currency), even if it’s underdeveloped.
- Conclusion: This is another close call. The lack of emphasis on the theme of becoming more robotic is troubling, but there’s enough here that you could probably playtest it. I imagine that quite a few changes would need to happen immediately, though, which means it’s probably more ready for local playtesting than outside playtesting. However, since this is the last review I’m doing and I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and call it a Finalist.
Finders by Davide Losito
It’s a game about telling the story of the journey of the adventurers through the desert, their stages, the treasures they’ll find and the city they’ll visit and stop in for a break, all in their pursuit of secret items or knowledge.
- Concept: You play adventurers in a relatively gonzo-sounding desert environment that can include almost anything. You’re searching the lands and cities for specific people or things and attempting to overcome the challenges of the desert to find them.
- Conclusion: Like several other of these later games, this one seems pretty unfinished but I really like the concepts it puts forth and the overall structure of the game, though it’s much more like a board game than a roleplaying game. My main concern with the current version of the rules is that both player choices and the fiction of the game don’t seem to matter very much. When players face certain challenges, they can narrate specific things and pick up dice and the gradual accumulation of dice is what’s necessary to win the game. However, you can always pick up the dice, so there’s no real sense of fictional challenge or choice-making to add tension to the game. Instead, it’s more of a drawn-out, structured, storytelling process without any teeth, which is pretty strange for a nominally competitive game. Still, as I said, the overall structure and madcap tone of the fiction sounds pretty fun, so I hope this continues to be developed.