Closing in on the finish now, and not a moment too soon. The games in these last couple years are going to be familiar with most everyone, I think. Another tied year! 2018 was, I think, the year I finally conceded that I just can’t keep up with everything coming out.
The King is Dead
Feels-heavy dynastic melodrama in a super accessible GM-less package. Great to play with your non-gamer friends who are enjoying the mainstreaming of fantasy.
2018: The King is Dead
The King is Dead is a sexy, violent Game of Thrones-inspired GMless PbtA game. Each player gets a book filled with little mini-games that handle various types of scenes. You take turns arranging scenes between characters, while organically developing a map in the middle of the table comprised of locations, events, and characters mentioned in those little games. Oh and there’s a card game happening concurrently with the mini-games, where you’re trying to assemble the best possible hand before moving to “the coronation,” the last scene of the game.
For subject matter that could be so fraught –a sexytimes-focused minigame, seduction baked into almost all the rest, lots of violence and the possibility of character death – I found TKID notable for the extensive safety and consent baked into every element. It is currently my favorite game by the Bakers.
Legacy (2nd Edition)
A PbtA game about building communities across generations.
2018: Legacy, 2nd Edition
Legacy 2nd Edition by Jay Iles was my other important game of 2018. I ran a nice campaign of this for my local group, and playing it was a great reminder of how different PbtA games can be. Legacy is a post-apocalyptic game based on Apocalypse World, which sounds like an ourobouros but the focus is very different. In Legacy, you play both specific characters and the family/house/faction to which that character belongs. The editorial focus is on community building, rather than personal stories. Playing at the house level is the big, abstract movement of history, while zooming in on the characters lets you work out the personal dramas of the folks tied up in that history. The weakened character monogamy and shifting scales is an acquired taste; my players prefer sticking to one character. But the form is strong and distinct, and has spun off several free-standing hacks.
Maybe my favorite part of Legacy is how very different your world and shared map ends up looking, depending on the mix of family playbooks you started with. If you chose Kaiju-hunters, well, welcome to giant monster land! If you chose the sneaky scientists hiding away in their secure bunker, you get lots of pre-ruin technology. You want mutant monsters? Play the mutant monster hunters.
For The Queen
Few games have garnered as much critical acclaim and fan hype as Alex Roberts’ For the Queen. The structure of the game is dead-simple, so simple in fact I’m having trouble reconciling how this was the first breakthrough game in this format. There’s a deck of provocative questions about your past with the Queen, and you spend the game drawing cards and answering those questions. That’s it. I called it a “feels filler” when I first played her hand-written draft of it at a house con. The published version includes a deck of gorgeous art of various “queens” to choose before you embark on your mission. Terrific game and enjoyable at any age or experience level. I expect many, many hacks to appear in the coming years.
I got to play Star-Crossed, Roberts’ other big-deal game, at the same house con as For the Queen. This one’s more conventionally structured, although it’s still GMless: two players act out two people who cannot be together for reasons you come up with before play. Then you pull blocks from a Jenga tower as you execute PbtA-style moves from your playbook. There are two playbooks and they’re slightly different from each other. I played half of an isolated pair of scientists on a distant planet romantically orbiting one another despite the mission’s prohibition against fraternization. I love that this model can be mapped to so many different settings. It’s also got a nice game-y layer, which is a fine alibi for friends to not feel weird about flirting with each other.
Goblinville is a sweet little fantasy mashup of several other games. I’ve run it a few times now, and it always produces a fun time. The characters are little goblins in a big world, going off on small-time adventures for small-time stakes while trying to build up their small-time village. I wrote way too much about Goblinville in 2019. It’s a tiny, very good game.
Forbidden Lands is Free League’s fantasy adventure game built on the Year Zero Engine. I played a bunch of it, and it was pretty fun, but I couldn’t help but feel let down by it. I was hoping for a more direct adaptation of Mutant: Year Zero, in particular in how MYZ delivers its campaign, but FL was more concerned with serving up an old-school-evocative experience. Which it does. Forbidden Lands is probably my favorite fantasy adventure game, but the setting is a mess and its official campaign was hard for me to deliver to the players. I’ll probably run it again in the future for my own fantasy setting.
Old School Essentials
I’m not super into OSR-style games (other than Sine Nomine’s Godbound and Stars Without Number), but I’ve had a couple chances to play convention one-shots using Old School Essentials. It’s just B/X D&D, but it’s reorganized and super cleanly presented. It’s the D&D I grew up with so I know it down to my prepubescent bones. A fine platform to run system-agnostic OSR-style adventures in.