Last night we ran our third session of Forbidden Lands. After hewing closely to the game’s campaign materials last session (The Hollows, a sample town in the Gamemaster’s Guide) and grinding against, well, everything about it, this time I decided to run the game more in the vein of Mutant: Year Zero. That is: zero prep, generate everything on the fly, see where the game takes us.

It was a lot more satisfying! And it got me thinking about two divergent approaches to GMing and why I’m attracted to one of them and repelled by the other.

(To be sure, there are lots more than two GMing approaches. I just wanted to talk about these two. Be calm. Deep breaths.)

Pull You

For the sake of a framing device, I’m going to call this first one the “pull you” school of GMing. That is: the GM is there to facilitate a grand design, a module, or some other flavor of pre-planned setting and plot. On the one hand, you can hope there’s been more thought and care put into work that’s been done ahead of time: the designer has worked out the bugs, the facilitator has internalized the material, it’s a shiny present waiting to be unwrapped. Those things may or may not be true but that’s the promise, yeah?

You need some specific tools or talents, I think, to make this shine. It seems to me like the big one is knowing how to sell someone else’s stuff. When I was spooling out The Hollows last session, a lot of my bandwidth was spent trying to present material I didn’t believe in in the best possible light. There were also some insurmountable organizational problems, along with the fact that it’s just not that good. But I think, if you’re a super-good pull-me GM, you’ve learned to make the absolute best of what you’ve been given.

I’ve never been a fan of modules, but I’ve put in my (decades of) time on prep, setting stuff, NPCs, “fronts” or whatever we called unresolved pressing issues before we had that language. Sometimes I find this kind of deep prep deeply rewarding! There’s a crapton of work that needs to be done before campaign-scale Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, for example. And fronts work per orthodox PbtA doctrine is the good kind of prep. But stuff like the Raven’s Purge campaign material is just not fun for me, as the GM. It’s too hard to use, it’s too inflexible, it’s too detached from the concerns of the PCs and the players.

The players are playing to find out, but I’m not. Which brings me to push me.

Push Me

The other approach I want to talk about I’m calling “push me,” mostly because it fits nicely with the Dolittle critter. This is pretty much the opposite of pull you: nothing is prepared, everything is improvised, and we’re all playing to find out. I like it because I like being pushed along with the players.

Obviously there’s a very long, fine-grained continuum between total-prep module-style games and zero-prep full-improv games. I get that, you get that, there’s no reason to get angry. My point is, this session of Forbidden Lands revealed to me that I’m so much happier on the push me end of the spectrum for this game in particular.

I have to think there’s a central tension to Forbidden Lands that’s almost certainly the same tension in lots of hexcrawl-y sandbox-y trad-slash-old-school games, yeah? You do all this procedural creation on the fly for journeys via tables or oracles or card draws, whatever, but that’s just kind of filler until you get to the carefully crafted adventure site where, one supposes, the “real” game lies. But jeez…maybe this is specific to how bad the Forbidden Lands campaign material is, but I’ll be perfectly happy never, ever revisiting the “real” game again. I’m just so bored, or maybe dissatisfied, trying my level best to present someone else’s materials in the best possible light.

In the end, I think it comes down to wanting to play with the players. I am much happier right there in the mix with them, struggling and improvising and fighting, really, to make this thing work. I could have stayed home and practiced my piece until it was perfect, but instead I’m in there playing my instrument along with them.

Anyway! The session!

Since this session ran in the vein of pure on-the-fly procedural creation (like most of how Mutant runs), I got a much better feel for the game’s mechanical ebb and flow this time.

The players decided they needed to start making some coin, so they looked around the map near their area and found a castle-type adventure site on the shores of Lake Varda (X-15 on the map). We were reintroduced to how small the Forbidden Lands are: about 300km east to west, maybe 250km north to south. A smidge bigger than Massachusetts. Yeahhh. There are some dissonances to reconcile once you realize how small that is. Like, why has nobody yet checked out this weird structure that’s literally 10-ish miles away from the town? You can get there and back by foot in a day. Heck, you can be back at the inn for lunch if you take a horse out there. Who fuckin’ knows? The lands, they’re forbidden.

One thing that popped out at me, now that we’re a bit into our campaign, is that this is the most play-the-day game we’ve done. Every day is broken into quarters, and every quarter every player must declare what their character is doing. So we’ve played, in three sessions, 5 days x 4 quarters: 20 increments of play. Lots of those just zoom by because everyone but the lookout is asleep, or everyone is doing support stuff (foraging, hunting, repairing) while the lookout rests up for his long lonely night. I like that, because it feels like the logistics of long through-hikes I’ve done: we get up at sunrise and need to be to the river by lunch, then to our campsite by six-ish before the sun goes down, then Paul and Andy set up camp while Bruce and Tina set up the kitchen and get us fed. Like, the scales are all pretty correct: you really can get in a not-brutal cross-country hike of 10 to 12 miles in a day, you really do spend a good chunk of your day with the tedious logistics of self-contained travel, you really do need to divide the labor, you really do need to get your sleep in.

I spent about 10 minutes generating the adventure site at X-15: an outpost-sized structure, built during the last Alder War (ie before the Blood Mist) by dwarves as a trade house, kind of a small caravansery. It got partially destroyed by raiders, and now it’s inhabited by a dozen skeletons trudging their way through the rituals of the living: some go on guard, others “till” a field outside with old rotted tools, others still sit three times a day at a table and “eat.” This weird automaton behavior keeps repeating through the day.

Meanwhile, camp is not uneventful. The late-night lookout discovers the Blood Mist itself has come roiling out of the dark forest that looms to the north. Yikes! This is great because this is the players’ introduction to the thing that kept their characters penned up in their various communities their whole lives. There’s a clusterfuck of Move rolls to escape, and Insight rolls to tolerate the Mist lest it saps their Empathy and leaves them broken and lost inside. After a couple Lore tests, I went ahead and revealed that the Blood Mist seeks out loneliness and homesickness. “But isn’t our party a community?” someone asks. Later on, that very same player declines to send his character into the heat of battle straight away. It’s a nice moment, joining those threads.

Oh yeah and of course the Mist has arrived in the night quarter. Everyone starts their next day Sleepy and fucked up, their first-ever Conditions. They spend another day rolling against their rations, slowly grinding away at their supplies, killing another day because they absolutely do not want to head into skeleton central at night. It’s still spring and the nights are still long.

The game provides zero support, none, regarding what might be found in an adventure site. Should there be an artifact? What about small or large treasures left behind? It’s entirely left to the GM’s discretion. My very smart players, realizing their characters have started out their lives woefully underprepared, realized the skeletal soldiers themselves were the biggest payday: they had a rip-roaring fight (the halfling sorcerer child busted out a six willpower Stun spell, rolled and overpowered it, taking out half the guards in one shout…and ended up Thirsty, the spell having taxed the poor kid) and scored a bunch of old broadswords, spears and leather armor. There was stuff left in the old outpost as well, again totally just eyeballed by me: some coins, a decent pair of boots, a couple bits of jewelry, and a compellingly mysterious old book.

One thing I didn’t realize until I was a ways into the game is that there aren’t any rules for magical artifacts, other than the artifacts that come listed in the book itself. There are no enchanted swords or potions or anything. I like this quite a lot, truth be told, because I also gave them their first artifact (an enchanted/cursed evil spear) and it’s special. Nice! I just had to get past the expectation that one could find the lands littered with old magical shit. Crafting talents (Smithing, Bowyer, etc.) let you build exceptional goodies with bonus gear dice. Those (wildly overpriced) artifact dice are hardly ever going to get rolled.

After our skeleton fight, we agreed that the card-based combat scripting game is too much overhead. That’s a shame, since the Legends & Adventurers supplement provides talents that rely on it. I had folks pick new talents so they weren’t saddled with bennies we’re never going to use. Just too darned much handling time. Maybe, perhaps if there’s an important fight with a major NPC we might try it out. I suspect Free League were trying for the Fight! scripting from Burning Wheel but I’m skeptical about using it there too.

The party ended up with a decent haul from this little outpost once they combined the weapons, armor, and various goodies. They’re struggling a bit with the logistics of hauling shit around, but they have horses so it’s not impossible. I think they’re working out an overall tempo of going out to an adventure site, grabbing what they can, and cashing out in a town. I wish there was better support for what happens in villages, though, because I can’t fathom that The Hollows’ various NPCs have unlimited funds with which to buy expensive trinkets. I’m already imagining that trade will mostly come down to barter, rather than passing through coinage first.

We’re playing again next week. I’m perfectly content to continue getting pushed along with the rest of the players into the countryside as it reveals itself. I might try to use another of the pre-created adventure sites at some point, but it’s not something that, in the words of Marie Kondo, sparks joy.

Yesterday I had an unexpected opportunity to run two similar games side by side. My friends Ralph Mazza (Ramshead Publishing, created Universalis, Blood Red Sands) and Jahmal Brown (indie con rock star, wrote Clockwinders for Fate Worlds, writing Cortex Prime: Supers) were in town for a week of gaming and escaping their icy wastelands. We had been batting around the idea of firing up a rolling campaign of The One Ring –– as in, whenever we’re together in the same place, we can pull it out, bring in some guest players, and have a session. I was inspired by Morgan Ellis’ (Atomic Robolots of other stuff) rolling Fate Star Wars campaign he’s been running for years. I got into that game at last year’s NewMexicon and it was super fun.

With practically no prep, we tossed together a couple Middle Earth badasses (the two super-classes from the Rivendell supplement), a standard-issue Wood Elf from the core rules for my buddy Robert to slot into (he probably won’t be present when we play again this April in Albuquerque), and we started into the campaign presented in Ruins of the North

But, being Tuesday, they played as guest stars in my ongoing Forbidden Lands game as well. Yikes! Ugh!

Running two trindie fantasy games side by side was super interesting! I had thoughts.

Characters

We made our Forbidden Lands characters a couple weeks ago, so the process was still fresh. In the interest of saving time and the challenge of playing something unexpected, we used the Legends and Adventurers supplement — everything randomized. The mechanical bits came out just fine, but now that we’ve made, what, six characters using L&A? The fiction it generates is just dumb. Ralph said it was pretty obvious that the mechanics, the backstory/setting folks, and the adventure folks almost certainly never talked to each other.

The Forbidden Lands conceit is that a vast killing curse has kept every settlement constrained to a day’s travel, right? Three hundred years have gone by. There’s nothing bigger than a village of perhaps a few hundred, and they’ve been incommunicado except where traveling minstrels and itinerant monks (the “Rust Brothers”) have somehow not suffered from the Blood Mist. Okay right? So one of our randomized characters turns out to be a human fighter (ho hum). We didn’t have any “old” characters, so Ralph went through and did that. Somehow, in five years, he had belonged to three separate standing armies, all of whom had been slaughtered to the man. And he’s “old!” As in, you know, he lived in some village somewhere until he was 60 or whatever, and the past five years apparently have been the entirety of his absurd career.

Pretty much every history that comes out of L&A is just dumb. It would have been trivially easy to have two sets of tables and have them stretch back in time, you know? The set everyone rolls on, young through old, is what happened in the past five years. The next set, for adults and olds, is what happened prior to the lifting of the Mist. Either the designer didn’t actually read the game’s premise, or they honestly didn’t think anyone cared about boring stuff like character histories.

The “how you met” tables are just as bad. Ye gawds. Not one item on that table feels like it could have happened in the Ravenlands.

But more to the point: in Forbidden Lands, your kin is your culture. Humans are alike no matter where you find them, as are Wolfkin and Halflings and Elves and all the rest. Their main difference comes in the form of a single kin-based Talent you get. Otherwise? You start the game a total blank and it’s your profession that shapes you going forward. There’s no consideration given at all to what your village might have been like, how you spent your days before the curse lifted, any of that. None of my players have any sense of where they’re from or what they should care about.

Our characters in The One Ring are, at least, more varied by culture. Every culture has a pick-list of starting abilities, and as you advance you continue to pick from your culture’s own set of stuff. There are a few general-purpose talents, but the good stuff continuously ties you back to you folk and your history. The two games couldn’t be more different. Then again, TOR has the advantage of thousands of pages of Tolkien to draw from and distill down. I get that, I do. But whatever the game’s starting advantages, it clearly cares more at the mechanical level about where you’re from and what you’re about.

Journeys

Both games have robust travel minigames, which I think is the place they’re most like each other. In The One Ring, there’s this elaborate interlocking system of needed equipment, road exhaustion, the change of the seasons, exploring and learning an objectively knowable map, and the constant struggle to maintain your Hope (an in-game resource) and keep the Shadow (an in-game bad-shit-happens countdown) at bay. Oh and if you use the Rivendell supplement, which I do, the Eye of Sauron itself is slowly becoming aware of the fellowship’s movement and activities, moreso if it’s comprised of Elves and if the heroes do anything involving magic. The themes of TOR are centered entirely on the journey, fighting exhaustion both physical and spiritual.

The travel game in Forbidden Lands is quite a bit more objective and straight survival-oriented: you need to eat, drink, sleep and keep warm or start suffering penalties. At first the penalties are small and the resources plentiful, but much like in Torchbearer, those grinds start to add up fast.

Our FL session last night didn’t involve travel, but they moved three hexes on the big FL map last session and it’s still fresh. Procedurally, both games are pretty similar! In The One Ring, as you get fatigued you might trigger a hazard, which targets one of four established traveling-party roles (leader, lookout, scout, etc.). Those roles are similar in FL (except they’re “actions” you choose to take each quarter-day) and events are generated there as well, on tables keyed to terrain types. The result is pretty comparable. I think I like Forbidden Lands’ version better, because there’s kind of an outline of little mini-stories buried in its encounter tables. You don’t just run into “a monster,” you run into a specific clan of orcs hauling a different clan’s orc as hostage. If you ever roll that result again, you’re instructed to pick up where the last bit left off. That’s nifty, feels more alive. When I generate a hazard in TOR, I’m either making Tolkien shit up (which is fine), referring to tables in Journeys & Maps, or interpreting a card draw from Hobbit Tales. It’s more, or maybe just different, lifting.

Adventures

In both games, I used pre-designed adventure material in part of each game. The differences become quite a bit more stark here.

In The One Ring, I’ve started the fellowship through the linked adventures in Ruins of the North, which centers the action west of Mirkwood in the Eriador region — you know, Angmar and Rivendell and the Shire, all that. I know the setting material less-well there, but Ralph, Jay and Robert all know Mirkwood too well, so this is fun for all of us to explore. The way C7 designs TOR adventures is that they’re usually kind of on rails: first act is when the fellowship arrives and susses out the situation, then something happens and the next act is triggered, then whatever happens the third act is triggered and so on. You can bend events such that future acts become irrelevant but as a practical matter that kind of doesn’t happen. When we ran The Darkening of Mirkwood a couple years back, the bigger danger was the accumulated impacts of each year’s vignette on future years — very much like how The Great Pendragon Campaign plays out. Major NPCs might have died or had their contexts changed too much, so I’d need to swap in someone similar. But history marches on, and events happen with or without the fellowship’s input.

I started Forbidden Lands with every intention of working through the Raven’s Purge campaign that came with the Kickstarter. It looks on its face to be kinda-sorta like how the campaign in Mutant: Year Zero spools out: a combination of physical artifacts, procedurally generated zone encounters, and pre-seeded map locations come together to unveil the storyline in a very organic way. It’s magical, it works great, I’ve never run into another game that does it. I thought that’d be Forbidden Lands, but it just … isn’t.

One big difference is that Raven’s Purge is bigger, more complex. It’s mostly delivered via “adventure sites,” where the characters learn legends surrounding places and artifacts, and slowly piece together the history of the land as it existed before the Blood Mist. It’s ambitious, but they’ve also made it too fucking complicated. There are numerous world-shaking players on the map, each with their own agendas. You can’t really know how things are advancing without fully internalizing all of Raven’s Purge, despite their best efforts to encapsulating that stuff. The storylines behind the eight campaign-important artifacts are, gosh, more complicated than I can keep up with. But the greatest sin the game commits is how they organize their adventure sites.

There are three such sites in the core rulebook and a bunch more in both Raven’s Purge and Spire of Quetzal. Each comes with a keyed map, a player’s version of the map, a GM-facing history about the place, an explanation of what all’s in the physical space, a breakdown of the NPCs, and then a list of events that could take place in the location. It’s quite different than a traditional D&D module, less detailed but also broken up really badly. Each time the players wanted to explore a place, I needed to flip between three different areas to get the full picture.

The goal, I’m sure, was to make adventure sites in Forbidden Lands flexible and dramatic, but as a practical matter, jeez, I have no idea what’s going on in any given location. I didn’t have this problem with the Special Zones in MYZ. I need to go back and see how they’re different.

After fumbling through the ostensible campaign start in a town called The Hollows, I thought long and hard about just running the game Mutant-sandbox style, randomly generating locations as the characters go, executing the travel grind, and discovering the world alongside them. Maybe the campaign will reveal itself anyway? I have no idea.

Theme thoughts

At some point, debriefing after the night was over, I said something like “Well, I feel like The One Ring supports its theme more tightly.” And then I had to think long and hard about whether Forbidden Lands has a theme at all.

It does, of course, but I’m not sure the game is about its theme in the same way. Forbidden Lands has a gritty survivalist vibe, not as desperate as in Torchbearer but in that vein. The world is out there for you to explore, and you can probably survive in it with a little forethought (unlike in Mutant: Year Zero, where events could very well conspire to kill you no matter how well you planned). Having a known, knowable map to touch helps that a lot. If the players didn’t have that to work from, and just traveled blindly from hex to hex, it would feel much different. Forbidden Lands doesn’t care if you murder and pillage your way across the land; it’s much darker than The One Ring that way. Amoral fortune-seekers versus deeply moral do-gooders!

I feel like Forbidden Lands is trying to serve too many masters, and thus far it serves none of them well. It splashes the phrase “old school” all over the place, but in actual play there’s not much old about it without outright ignoring its many indie inspirations. Other than the blank-slate characters whose backgrounds really have no impact, which is no small thing. Its adventure sites feel like they’re trying to be both “dungeons” and dramatic opportunities, but I can’t make both those things come together at once yet. Maybe I’ll learn! It might very well be that I came to the game with expectations that were not met, and I need to do a better job of meeting it on its own terms.

We’re still playing! Everyone was excited to get going last night, and despite a pretty mediocre session (beyond the adventure site problems, I was just flat exhausted) everyone’s good to go next week. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say The One Ring has reminded me just how freaking great it is.

I’ll be attending Dreamation 2019 in Morristown, NJ in February. That’s a big expensive flight for me! So I’m running some events for the Indie Games eXplosion:

Sagas of the Icelanders

SagasoftheIcelanders

It’s been a good while since I ran Sagas of the Icelanders last, but it makes for a terrific convention experience. Total improv from start to finish. It’s also, this year, my official workshop for my patented Situation Map technique, for folks who want to learn more about in-situ thematic thread organization. Probably most folks will just be there to play but I’m happy to share thoughts in the debrief.

Space Wurm vs Moonicorn

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I’ve been fiddling and refining my one-shot presentation of Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, and I think I’ve got a pretty good package lined up. If you don’t know the game, it’s pretty wild: psychedelic space opera featuring the eponymous characters in conflict, and everyone else in orbit as they fight and love. The one-shot is tricky to set up, since the game can produce such a sprawling and weird setting, but there are special one-shot playbooks that help speed things up.

The King is Dead

The King is Dead

I kind of feel like this is cheating, since it’s GMless and I get to play as well! The King is Dead is a five-player GMless PbtA game. Everyone plays an heir or challenger to an empty throne, it’s sexy and violent in the A Song of Ice and Fire vein, and it’s really interesting playing tech. This will be my fourth go at it, and it comes out different every time. Tragically I don’t think the cards or printed playbooks will be ready, but I’ve already done my (dark) arts and crafts day to prep.

Packing for a con always feels like Christmas to me. #RinCon2018 here we coooome.

My intention is to make those links, and future links, affiliate-sales things that hook back to Drivethrurpg.com but it’s not set up yet. Just getting into the practice of posting them!

EDIT: I’ve updated these links to include my affiliate ID. If you’re thinking about picking up games I talk about, please consider buying them through my link. It’ll help defray the cost of keeping up with the latest titles.

A couple things have been nagging me about Forbidden Lands since our first session. They are entirely tied up with the fiction, not the procedures.

First: the creators went through a lot of trouble to design a multi-faceted, robust, living setting. It’s like a mini-Glorantha in some ways. There are detailed demographic breakdowns on the map, lengthy writeups about the various kin, deep history (1200 years worth!), and religion. The GM’s Guide tells us that religion, for example, is super important to everyone in the Forbidden Lands. But then there’s no on-ramp for any of that for the players.

We have one character whose backstory, generated via the Legends & Adventurers booklet, includes a reference to one of the gods. So, sure, I went ahead and read the bit about Clay out loud from the GM’s Guide. There isn’t even, like, a quick little breakdown of the religions in the Player’s Book iirc. I should probably just designate who worships what, following the kin and history materials, and provide that stuff to the players.

That’s kind of a theme of this game, and it feels a lot like their other games (in particular Coriolis): lots of talk about how important culture is, but very little to actually make that happen in the game. Not even a player-friendly setting dump. So the characters feel like fish out of water, rather than deeply embedded into the setting. Combine this with the lack of family or kin ties, and you’re left with either lots of GM heavy lifting or just letting the players discover the world as they go.

Second issue, much smaller: I have no idea what fictional justification there is for the big pretty map they have. In Mutant: Year Zero, only the GM has the full map. The players need to draw out their map as they go. But the big pretty map in Forbidden Lands is explicitly a player tool. Where did it come from? How do they have it?

Dunno. It just bugs me. They could and probably should have made ’em map as they went, maybe providing some ranged scouting like the zone stalkers can do via tall buildings and radio towers in MYZ: climb a very tall tree on a hill, or a mountain, or the walls of a major structure. That would change the nature of the food/water/sleep/cold grind a whole lot, though, especially since they don’t really have a home base to operate from (other than The Hollows, if you’re following the official campaign).

We spun up our Forbidden Lands game last night, creating four characters and doing some simple map-wandering to start shaking the system out. I think it’s gonna be pretty fun!

Characters

We added a fourth player to our regular group. It’s so interesting to me to watch how the interpersonal dynamics change from things like this. I feel like we had built up some bad/acrimonious habits throughout 2018 and I’m still thinking about why, but one of my end of year takeaways was that I wanted to start the year with a party-oriented, everyone-against-the-world-together kind of game.

There are, broadly, two ways to make a Forbidden Lands character. One is to just go through the book and build a character. You get the stats you want, the skills you want, the talents. It’s all very hands-on and conventional. And then there’s the “Legends and Adventurers” supplement, a slender volume that semi-randomizes your PCs (and has tables for monsters and legends). The L&A version is nifty to me because it doesn’t provide perfect control over your character: you get to pick your kin and your profession, but in both cases you follow those decisions with rolls on tables. If you’re a child, you roll a childhood event for your kin choice (which sets your stats and skills). If you proceed to adult, you roll on the profession event table (which sets the second set of skills, your talent, and some gear). The result, I think, really puts everyone in a head of not knowing themselves or this strange world. Top marks, I recommend it.

I totally get that this also frustrates players who came to the table with a firm idea of what they wanted to play. The player who usually grates against systems like this – he hated King Arthur Pendragon for similar reasons – grated against his fighter result. He wanted to be a big brutish Conan-esque figure, but ended up a fast, twitchy horseback rider better suited to scouting and sniping.

One twist to Forbidden Lands characters I don’t love but is probably necessary is the character relationship choices. Every profession has three starter ideas for relationships with other PCs. You know, stuff like “I fear X is drawn to the dark arts and I must save them” type stuff. Way back in Mutant: Year Zero, this helped shape your Buddy choice, and was tied into the XP system. Here, it’s pure color and eminently ignorable. Like, I had to remind the players to go ahead and write down their relationship narratives. Literally nobody ever referenced these in play, and I guarantee they’ll just be gone in a session or two.

There’s some nifty stuff buried in character creation, and I’d love to just make a shitton of characters to try it all out. Two of the characters start the game with Mounts, so we went through the card supplement and they picked out rides with names and stats and backstories – neat! We already have two NPCs mentioned as a result. Two of the characters (the Halfling sorcerer and the Wolfkin druid) use magic, and that’s nifty. And, because advancing magical talents is super-duper slow without instruction, they’ve already got incentives to seek out NPC mentors in the world. The other two characters are an Elven hunter and a Human fighter. Oh! Additionally, the Halfling and the Elf chose to start as children, while the Wolfkin and Human are adults. Nobody went for “old” and I has a small sad, but it’s fine. Someone’s gonna die early. I can feel it.

20190116_092713The Hexcrawl

We decided to start the game literally the morning after the last of the “how we met” rolls. So like: the Elf was the one character who didn’t roll (it’s a rule that, I guess, means everyone kind of accretes around them). The Halfling had survived a shipwreck with the Elf, then got picked up by a caravan where the Human was working as a scout, then they all got drunk together with the Wolfkin who had just found item #66 – the highest and most valuable item on some treasure table or another, a completely ridiculous gigantic silver statue – on the “valuable finds” table he rolled on from the professional events. It worked out great, kind of gonzo and funny, and they were off to the races. I offered a spot on the map in the plains that dominate the center of the map, alongside a river.

The hexcrawl grind of Forbidden Lands is at the core of the play experience, very much like the dungeon grind is in Torchbearer. It’s lifted straight from Mutant: Year Zero,  with the difference that there is no home to go back to and recover in. If you want to recover, you either set camp out in the world or you find a settlement. But it’s all very wandering vagabond type action, exploring and foraging and poking around where you find places.

This early on in the game, there’s a lot of ugly form factor in my face. Honestly, the learning curve feels a lot like learning my way through Zone exploration in MYZ. I learned it there well enough that I was able to create Zone areas on the fly, which was fun for me and the players. The grind is a bit more detailed in FL, though. Like, there are 10 different terrain types and that impacts hunting, foraging, movement, and the encounter table you roll on every quarter day. Well, maybe not at night. I’m not sure! MYZ was equally fuzzy on that. Probably you do, honestly, which is why you need to have someone on guard (thereby making Resting an important consideration). Oh, and there’s also the seasons, and that tells you which quarter-days are light and dark. It’s fussy but I think 100% necessary to get it all nailed down. This is where the bulk of your wandering-around story stuff takes place.

Anyway, that form factor. Forbidden Lands comes in two books, one for players and another for gamemasters. But marching-order rules (who leads, who is on lookout, etc.) and movement rules appear in the player book, while all the encounter stuff appears in the GM book. It’s a lot of two-book juggling. It won’t be forever, because next session I’m handing the player book over and they can figure out their own marching order stuff.

The point of our opening session was just to give the system a spin. They were 4 hexes away from the nearest village, which is great because they immediately discovered the map isn’t nearly as big as they thought it was – you cover 2 hexes through “easy” terrain on foot every quarter, which means you can probably get 6 hexes on foot each day. Happily the reality of the Blood Mist conceit, that you just fucking died if you were more than a day away from town, is reflected by the distribution of stuff on the map.

First quarter they did lots of foraging and scouty stuff. The Halfling learned all about the crafting rules, mostly discovering he doesn’t even have the tools necessary to make stuff! Which is just fine. He “discovered” he was a sorcerer maybe a week ago and washed ashore with almost nothing, so that’s great. The Elf and the Wolfkin both did the foraging and fishing thing, got to roll some dice, faced whether to push their rolls to start banking Willpower. We fumbled around looking for how to recover lost stat points, and I think it’s just a matter of resting or sleeping while not hungry, thirsty, or cold. So that’s a nice prompt to go ahead, what the heck, push a bit because it won’t be that hard to recover from that night. The hunter went poking around the hex they’d woken up in, and found a nice camping spot they probably should have settled in the night before, rather than partying around the only tree on the open plain.

But of course the next quarter of the day was more dangerous, and there were quite a few lowered stats they hadn’t had time to recover yet. Anything-grind games, I think, demand some real survivalist discipline. The lookout spotted a band of orcs hauling another orc tied to a pole, singing and bashing their shields with their swords. He tried to slip away but they noticed him and gave chase. He wanted to pull the whole warband away from his people, and I called that a Manipulation while he argued it was Riding. He missed that roll in any case, with half the warband splitting off to accost the Halfling and Elf kids and their Wolfkin grownup, and half the warband chasing the scout.

That gave us a chance to spool out the initiative system and experiment with conflicts. The orc warbands went first and closed distance from long to near, both against the kids and against the scout. The Elf tried to talk the orcs down but completely fucked it up. The Halfling just ghosted the whole thing, disappearing behind some nearby rocks. Finally, the Wolfkin offered their foraged fish if the orcs walked away, or death at the point of his spear if they didn’t. I liked that! And it fiddled with the Manipulate dice pool calculation enough that he ended up with a good-sized pool. He succeeded, the orcs failed their Insight resistance roll, so they took their fish and wandered off. It played out just fine, nice outcome, and it showed the players they can intermingle social and physical conflict in the same continuum. This is one of my favorite aspects of the MYZ engine, and I wish more games did this.

Hmm. Oh yeah, I had everyone roll Lore to know about the village just beyond the hills they were due to arrive at that evening. Everyone failed. The Halfling’s Pride was something like “I’ve read a lot of books” so he rolled his d12 on the push and failed that roll as well! So good. That means his Pride got erased and he’s going to have to write a new one, and go without his Pride next session. It also means he got an XP for using it.

There are a lot of character gewgaws to remember to use. The character sheets aren’t much help. Like, all your talents are on the back of the official character sheet. The Wolfkin remember to use Pathfinder while taking the lead, because that’s an easy +1d modification. But there were lots of other talents, both kin and professional, that nobody remembered.

Finally they arrived at The Hollows, a well built-out adventure location that is the notional start of the Raven’s Purge campaign. We stopped as they walked into town, reading the weird sign at the gate. I got to add the first map sticker!

You may also see in the picture that I’m adding a small ink dot to the corner of each hex they’ve been to. Going to hexes they’ve never been to is an XP, so it’s important they be able to track this. I really wish the hexes were numbered, too, so I could add notes about permanent features, like the old inn ruins they came across on that very first hex. That could be nice to remember in the future!

Denouement

I’ve always liked the checklist style of XP distribution in the Mutant games. FL has a pretty long list! Then again, advancement is relatively slower in FL than Mutant. Thank goodness, I found my players had outrun the world within about 8 sessions of Mutant. Don’t see that happening in FL, not only because of the tweaked XP scheme but because it’s very sandboxy. There are challenges in the world you just don’t fuck around with, even after lots of advancement.

The Halfling bought the Chef talent, which is 100% in line with his background, being a Halfling, and what we discovered during the hexcrawl – you really need a chef to render raw food “units” (which you just eat and erase) into better food resource dice (which you roll and only reduce on a 1).

And that’s that. I think we played, for real, about two hours. Hopefully our sessions will run 3ish hours in the future.

Last First Thoughts

Forbidden Lands feels a lot like my favorite parts of Mutant, and that’s very reassuring to me. It also tells me it’ll be three or four sessions before I’m fluent with the rather long formal punch-list of this game’s grind: all the hexcrawl stuff, all the terrain modifications, eating/drinking/sleeping, all that. It’s more detailed than Mutant but there’s also no Ark aspect. Well there sort of is once they build a Stronghold, but that’s a good long ways away.

I don’t love how well the game apes the fantasy tradition of relationships not mattering. Not only is there nothing mechanical to try and incentivize relationships, but the hexcrawl itself demands a lot of bandwidth and discipline. In that way, it feels most like Torchbearer to me. But in Torchbearer¸ there was the Goal, Belief and Instinct areas where you could pursue interpersonal stuff. I’m thinking (hoping!) relationships will emerge via the Pride system, which looks a lot like Burning Wheel type Beliefs.

I was so busy grappling with the procedures that I spent literally no time at all thinking about the campaign stuff. I’m going to need to read up on The Hollows before they dig in next week. There’s also the fact that players start with a very, very blank page setting-wise. I have no idea where anyone’s from. I have no idea if they have families or friends or, like, anything they might tap into through play. Another place Torchbearer does it better.

I’m gonna put together my own hexcrawl cheat sheet so I don’t have to go between both books to get all the rules in one place. That is by far the most irritating handling bit of the game.

A lot of the pleasure of the MYZ games is the mechanical stuff. I won’t lie, the dice are fun! Leveraging talents and skills and Willpower and pushed rolls, all that stuff comes together in a really satisfying way. It requires my players learn and master their options. That’s funny inside my head because we’ve come off a string of PbtA style games where the best advice is often “just talk and I’ll tell you when you run into a move.”

I meant to do this before 12/31 but, well. Y’all have read plenty about my malware woes. It’s under control for now, but I’m looking at maybe, possibly reinstalling at wordpress.com and letting them deal with the server headaches.

Here’s what I played and my year-later takeaway, nice and short for potty reading:

Epyllion

Played, didn’t run. I really enjoyed it! But a couple things still jump out at me a year later:

As lovely as the friendship crystal mechanic works (short version: you give away your supply of tokens to other PCs when they act on the flags you’ve put on them during character creation, then either count them up when helping or spend them on the “moon magic” move), I still remember it being especially punishing for groups that aren’t great at paying attention to each other. Basically, you end up spending a lot of energy playing toward other folks’ flags but if they’re not paying attention, it’s easy to feel resentful about spending that energy. Given how my year played out, I very much think this is a phenomenon of my home group. I hope to address this more specifically in 2019.

I have no idea how the long game plays out. I chased advancement really hard and got to the next age. It’s fine. I did notice that advancement choices are pretty narrow. I feel like everyone’s playbook will end up looking like everyone else’s playbook across play groups and experiences.

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Purposeful Play

No Thank You, Evil!

I played a good amount of this with my daughter early in the year but we haven’t played in months, now. Honestly, I’m kind of itchy to get her to try something with a little more mechanical complexity. That’s totally on me and if I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably not what she would enjoy. But I think about running NTYE and it bores me. The narrow, short formula absolutely works! But it’s a narrow, short formula for play.

Probably the next thing we’ll do with it is move her to the highest character sheet level. She graduated from triangle to square in January, and that might have been the last time we played.

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No Thank You, Evil!

Burning Wheel

2018 has obviously been a long fucking year because I completely forgot we played Burning Wheel! I played, didn’t run. It was nice. I’m also clearly not the target demographic for this game any more. It’s just such a heavy load, both on the GM side and the player side. Lots to manage. We didn’t do a great job of really workshopping Beliefs, and our campaign reached a point where we’d just kind of…done what we came to do. Was that my short attention span? Maybe!

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Burning Wheel

Burning Wheel

Indie Game Reading Club Live™️! Here in Tempe with Paul Beakley. We’re Duel-of-Wits-ing the heck out of some BW.

Bluebeard’s Bride

Played this at NewMexicon 2018 and it blew my mind. It’s super weird, very arty-farty, not at all a conventional RPG in terms of agency and bildungsroman and long meaningful campaign play. It’s a one-shot featuring a series of horrific vignettes, everyone plays an aspect of a single character and takes turns in the driver’s seat, and it’s so squicky and weird that it’s just impossible (or perhaps just in poor taste) to try and describe actual play. Very high on my list of best games of the year.

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New Mexicon Recap

New Mexicon

Sagas of the Icelanders

Another NewMexicon 2018 game. I ran this, because I always run it. SotI is on my very short list of games I’m so good at, I can make the game do anything I want. It is a lovely experience every time.

This particular game was a “spotlight GM” event that I ran. I remember it being funnier and more Fiasco-y than it usually is. Worked great and I’m adding that mode to my quiver for future runs.

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New Mexicon Recap

Look at that big beautiful relationship map.

Masks

My first run at Masks and it was super fun. My buddy Kit ran it at New Mexicon, and he is to Masks what I am to Sagas. The game does some really interesting stuff about supers relationships and completely dispenses with Champions style physics modeling. It’s terrific, loved it, want to run it here in 2019.

I had another opportunity to play Masks later in the year, at Rincon 2018 with Jason Corley running it. I played a more conventional character and it was a more conventional experience, which is great because you don’t have to push the envelope every time.

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New Mexicon Recap

And I finally, finally got Kit La Touche to run me an excellent session of Masks. Supers are not my regular jam but…

Golden Sky Stories

Actually a fantasy adventure hack called Fantasy Friends. GSS is cute but not my jam: it’s heartwarming and affirming, you basically bid points to get things done and then do heartwarming and affirming things to get those points back. I mean it’s nice! And Nick Hopkins did a really good job running it. I was just ehh on the whole model of play afterward.

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New Mexicon Recap

Playing Golden Sky Stories.

CoriolisCoriolis

Coriolis was my only real heartbreak of 2018. I adore, absolutely love Mutant: Year Zero from Fria Ligan, and Coriolis is built on the same engine. The game is packed with interesting history and social context, the setting is super interesting, characters look neat. I mean just on reading the text, I was all in. But the game has a huge glaring problem at the center of it: a GM-facing economy called Darkness Points.

What I discovered was that I grind against the DP economy in every imaginable way. First off, there’s a huge list of bad shit the GM is “allowed” (?) to launch at the players by spending DP. I read that to strongly imply, or mandate really, that nothing on that list is in my toolbox without spending those points. Then what really killed me was that I can effectively earn and keep unlimited DPs, and the players can’t do shit about it. Even playing hard toward the intent of the system, this is I think intentional! So there’s no meaningful decision making, no tension, nothing. It’s a list of things I feel like I can’t do but actually can do because I’m spending an effectively unlimited number of points.

I will say, though, that Coriolis has an extremely nifty spaceship combat system. Each player takes on a specific on-board role and everyone’s contribution matters. It’s great.

Otherwise, the game left me restless and irritated. What a shame, because it’s so very beautiful. And it appears I only ran three sessions of it? Ye gawds.

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Coriolis Wednesdays

Coriolis Wednesdays

Coriolis Wednesdays

Coriolis Is Over

The Veil

I tried to run The Veil but it catastrophically failed for us within an hour of the first session. When I had read the rules, the playbooks stood out as weird and very specific and I thought “oh wow, everyone is so strange!” And they are. But once you figure out where each playbook comes from, escaping the tropes and references becomes nearly impossible.

For us, I think, we worked hard at not doing that. But the moves, oh the moves. Designer Fraser Simons made a fairly lengthy argument explaining his approach, which was to build the moves in a very broad way. I like the idea in principle, but lordy in practice we just couldn’t get a handle on how anything was supposed to work or how any given move’s outcome was supposed to look in the fiction. The whole thing felt very abstract and it wore everyone out in about an hour.

But! But but but: I think The Veil may be best in class for how you create your cyberpunk setting. Each playbook has a very specific set of questions and inputs, so that any given playbook mix produces a wildly different and unique setting. We really liked this. The Veil produced a setting I’d be very happy to play in! Just with a different game.

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The Veil

Scum&VillainyScum & Villainy

My surprise hit of the year was Scum & Villainy, a sci-fi take on Blades in the Dark. I’d had the pleasure of playing once before at a private con earlier in the year, but I was so exhausted that the playbook felt like an incomprehensible wall of jet fighter controls.

I gotta say, now that I fully grasp how the GM-player transaction works in Bitd/S&V, it might be my favorite. Even more favorite than Burning Wheel! I really like how the negotiation bounces back and forth: how well positioned are you? How difficult is the thing? How hard do you want to try? Are you willing to take an additional consequence? Love it to pieces.

Our run at Scum petered out because everyone advanced to a point where there was really no more mechanical tension to the game. This is something I was worried about in Blades as well: the Resistance mechanism (short version: if you suffer consequences you don’t like, you can resist them at a cost to your stress) is such that eventually you can just do anything and everything and practically never suffer for it. I don’t love the realization that so much of the play juice was coming from the mechanisms, but in S&V it did for us.

It did get me thinking about versions of Blades where maybe you don’t get better, but the scope of your action just gets broader. Dunno. It was a good experience, very fun, just ran its course.

Oh and I ran it at RinCon 2018 and completely forgot! Pitched it, explained it, ran it, easy as pie. S&V is definitely on my short list of pickup one-shot games I’m happy to run without any prep.

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Scum & Villainy

Scumday Wednesday

Scumday Tuesdays

Scum Day Recap

Scum Night!

Scum Day!

The King is DeadThe King is Dead

This is Vincent Baker’s diceless, GMless game of fantasy intrigue built on the PbtA framework. I absolutely love this! And it may be my favorite of his games, even more than Apocalypse World itself.

The core of the game is that everyone gets a copy of the same rules book. You sketch out sexy young princes and princesses in a Game of Thrones-ish setting. And then you start picking little mini-games to play out scenes. You start with a game called “muster and intrigue,” which adds a little fictional context to the setting and gives you a card. The ostensible object of the game is to win the crown by any means necessary. You do that by building a good hand of cards, with more and better face cards worth more than numbered cards.

I’ve played this game twice now. The first time, we just rolled with the minigames and didn’t worry much about the underlying card game. It was really fun that way! But the second time, when I ran it again at Rincon in Tucson, I really charged hard at the card game. It was even more fun that way, because it forced me to play really strategically and think bigger-picture. My game basically shifted from playing Arya to playing Cersei.

Highest recommendation.

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The King Is Dead

PalimpsestPalimpsest

Okay, I pretty much never brag on myself but I’m going to now: I am super proud of my Game Chef submission this year, a little time travel game called Palimpsest. The premise is that three different time travelers converge on a small but vital moment in history, and try to make events conform to their wishes before uncertainty collapses and that moment is forever set.

I’ve run it twice, it was fun twice. It could stand a bit of polish and definitely some art direction, but this was the first time I’ve ever submitted a Game Chef and thought to myself “oh heck yeah, this fucker has legs.” I’m gonna publish it in some form down the road. But for now, here it is:

Download here

LegacyLegacy

Oh boy. The last game I ran this year.

It did not end well.

It started with such promise: a game about generations passing through time. A game about building up communities, rather than scrabbling for short-term wins.

It ended for a lot of reasons. Some had to do with the game itself: Mechanically, Legacy was overwhelming to everyone. There are move sets for your character and your family and the common moves and the story moves and and and. There are multiple economies. There is room for really unpleasant coercion via the game’s debts system. But beyond that, Legacy demanded everyone walk away from deeply ingrained habits of character monogamy, agency, and campaign continuity.

It was just too hard. It ended on a really sour note and we haven’t run a game since. That was early December, I think? It’s been a month.

It did, however, give me a lot to talk about.

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Legacy Tuesdays!

Legacy 2e

Zero Sum Games and the Magic Circle

Missing Words

Legacy Tuesday!