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