Another week, another year looking back at the 20-teens and what they brought to small press roleplaying. To recap the games I’ve focused on so far: 2010 was Apocalypse World, 2011 was Burning Wheel Gold, 2012 was Monsterhearts. All huge games. But 2013 brought one of my all-time favorites, which I continue to play today.
Sagas of the Icelanders
This is it, my favorite-favorite Powered by the Apocalypse game of all time. Serious, melodramatic, accessible.
2013: Sagas of the Icelanders
Sagas of the Icelanders seems like it should be a weird little niche game. It’s early PbtA. It’s got some rough edges. It’s about Viking settlers making a life for themselves in a lawless, empty land. It continues to be my all time favorite PbtA game, even above Apocalypse World itself. I have written extensively over the years about SotI, but here’s my elevator pitch: it might be the best, most accessible subject matter for non-gamers to get introduced to roleplaying. Everyone understands family melodrama, and most everyone understands violent family melodrama. I introduced my wife and many others to ttrpgs via Sagas of the Icelanders.
The game’s killer app is a split list of common moves, one for men and one for women. It’s intensely binary, reflecting the values of the Vikings at the time, even while subverting that very binary via playbooks like the Goði (a judge/priest who can learn “women’s” moves like healing, magic and coercion) and the Shield Maiden (a woman dedicated to doing a man’s job and suffering at the hands of both the men and women who reject them).
It’s just so great. Games are quite intense and serious, the moves constantly push the women to be shrewish and manipulative and the men to be vicious and honor-bound, nobody ends up looking “good” but the drama is palpable. Designer Gregor Vuga is actively working on a second edition, which the game desperately needs. It’s not perfect, but I’ve learned to route around the game’s quirks.
2013 was a very good year for games with staying power. Torchbearer is Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane’s love letter to old-school (but maybe not OSR!) Dungeons & Dragons, built on the skeleton of Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard.
What if you went dungeon delving not because you’re a great hero, but because you’re a dead-ender? Why would anyone go into life-threatening environments with a slim chance of finding enough sellable garbage to pay for room and board for a bit? That’s the Torchbearer angle. As part of this narrative deconstruction of B/X D&D of yore, your characters have Natures based on their culture, with much of the game maintaining a delicate balance of not too low (your character is alienated) or too high (your character craves comfort and safety). You also have a Belief and a Goal, big explicit flags you set to pursue the game’s various economies. There are all kinds of interesting procedural nods back to B/X-style play, including a hyper-detailed grind of light, food and rest, and an admonition to the GM to just Say Yes to players who come up with great ideas on how to overcome their obstacles.
I’ve run a couple campaigns of it and played several sessions at cons. It is consistently frustrating and fun, with fun just barely nudging out the frustration. Quite a trick to combine both overcoming obstacles and addressing situations: those are different play and design goals, and few games put them both under the same roof. Terrific game, and my favorite dungeon-delver.
Tenra Bansho Zero
Tenra Bansho Zero is a huge title in Japan, and translator Andy Kitkowski moved heaven and earth to translate it and bring it to America. It’s a hell of a smart design that does lots of weird things well: tons of manga/anime tropes (mecha and ninjas and sorcerers, oh my) are thrown together into one Rifts-like setting, players constantly chase and churn little melodramatic story arcs, an inverted NPC reaction table (you roll to see how your character reacts to an NPC!) and other cool little design gestures throughout.
The Quiet Year
The Quiet Year, a post-apocalyptic map-drawing game by Avery Alder that is kind of ttrpg-adjacent, opened my eyes to the pleasures of, well, ttrpg-adjacent play. I’ve had more exposure to The Deep Forest, a fantasyland adaptation by Alder and Magpie Games‘ Mark Diaz Truman where the monsters are spending a quiet year preparing their realm for the return of adventurers (ew, yuck, ptui).