Off to the races again in my ongoing review of my most impactful small-press games of the twenty-teens. The year 2014 was the Year of the Trindie for me. That is, trad games (conventional GM/player authority split, capability-driven play) with heavy indie influence (classes focused on characterization as much as capability, new ways to handle old problems). I don’t know who coined the phrase trindie; I heard it first from The Gauntlet’s Lowell Francis. Sure is handy.
2014: Mutant: Year Zero
This year is my first tie (and check out the list of runners-up). Honestly I have no idea how to put one atop the other! Mutant: Year Zero, a semi-gonzo “trindie” post-apocalypse game, was my first exposure to the Year Zero Engine. The rulebook feels like a cross between Gamma World in tone, Apocalypse World for playbooks and social context, and Burning Wheel in terms of trad-oriented best practices encoded into Actual Rules.
I have gotten so, so much play out of MYZ. It uses rich dice to provide context for the characters’ stats, skills and equipment. It shifts between two modes of play: crises that arise in The Ark that the characters must then address by leaving the Ark and head out into the Zone, a procedurally-generated old-school grindy mapcrawl. Most exciting to me: the game is built atop a campaign that organically reveals itself via its various procedures. The campaign is driven by a combination of card draws (Arc crises and equipment you find in the Zone), tables, a little map prep, and a handful of important pre-generated locations. It is a chef’s kiss of a game.
Since MYZ, additional self-contained games have appeared in the series (Genlab Alpha, Mechatron, and Elysium), as well as Tales from the Loop and Things from the Flood in the kids-on-bikes genre, Forbidden Lands for grindy map-based fantasy, the gorgeous Coriolis sci-fi ship-crew game, Alien in 2019 and Vaesen in 2020. The Year Zero Engine is a big deal.
The One Ring
A master class in intentional, trad-accessible, design.
PDFs are available on DriveThruRPG. No idea how much longer, though; the creators and publishers have parted ways.
2014: The One Ring
As much as I loved Mutant: Year Zero, oh boy, The One Ring is also spectacular. I’m kind of a Tolkien hater, but damn does this game do Tolkien well. I have gotten so very much play out of it. I ran a big chunk of The Darkening of Mirkwood, a generation-spanning campaign, for nearly a year here. I’m currently running Ruins of the North, a series of adventures set in the area around Rivendell, for friends who meet up just a couple times a year at conventions.
TOR is a trindie game like MYZ in drawing valuable lessons from the world of storygames: three explicit modes-of-play (and an explicit downtime phase), prominent economies that drive play and evoke the themes of Middle-Earth, and advancement is an interesting mini-game of its own.
The takeaway for me in 2013 was that there are many ways to do “fantasy adventure” other than the D&D mode. In the case of The One Ring, it’s the balance of pushing against existential horror while trying to do right by communities of people that mostly have the party’s best interests at heart. I’ve never run a fantasy setting so filled with supportive, friendly NPCs!
TOR’s future is unknown as of March 2020. Publisher Cubicle 7 announced they’d had a dispute with Sophisticated Games, TOR’s design team. There’s a 2nd edition planned and I’ll bet someone, somewhere will put it out.
Ran Night Witches one-shots a lot at conventions and once at home: the characters belong to an all-women division of the USSR air force in WWII, stuck in a toxic stew of outdated equipment, constant dangerous missions, and ugly sexism. (Based on actual history, mind you: the story of the real Night Witches is astonishing.) Running this game with my dude-dominant home crew was a valuable step for them getting everyone out of dudes-only roleplaying. That frog is well boiled at this point, and they’re as likely to play women as men, but Night Witches still stands out for driving home these lessons as part of the game’s holding environment. The Watch will swing around to these themes again in 2017.
This was the first freeform I’d ever played that was specifically designed around triggery emotional manipulation. While Bully Pulpit’s Durance set up fraught interpersonal relationships and then stood out of the way, Montsegur 1244 is more structured toward hitting specific emotional notes. The characters are a mix of Christian heretics and the noble family protecting them from the Inquisition. Eventually everyone either burns or forsakes their faith. Fun times. I was a wreck. Haven’t played since, but I did have the pleasure of running Mars 244, a sci-fi adaptation of the game that hits similar notes.
Circle of Hands
Believe it or not, Circle of Hands was my first play of a Ron Edwards (of Sorcerer and Forge fame) game. The play itself is interesting when it comes to trying to move the players into a pre-modern head space. This is one of my favorite things to try in RPGs, and CoH almost got my players there. Not quite, though. This was also right in the middle of my years on Google Plus, and it was interesting to interact so directly, session-by-session, with the creator.