Bundle of Holding: 10 Quick Reviews

So what’s in that big indie Bundle of Holding, anyway? I spent $24 to find out. Here’s a quick rundown based on my quick read-through of every title. Normally I only like to write about things I’ve played, but time’s running out on this.

Girl Underground

A late-generation PbtA game about a girl and her companions in a weird fantasy world of your own design. It’s about playing Labyrinth, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz: not necessarily old-timey but definitely the eponymous Girl has to learn about herself and grow into adulthood. Gender politics are front and center, with the Girl playbook being largely defined by a list of Manners she struggles against as she moves between distinctive set pieces. As the Girl confronts her Manners, they become new Beliefs, which the Girl can then use to her advantage later in the game. There are 12 settings in the slender book, more than enough to play out a game in its expected one-shot format.

There are some nifty system innovations for the gear heads to dig into. The big one is that the Girl playbook is shared among all the players: you hand away control to someone else when you want to play your Companion playbook. The Companion is, like, the Lion/Scarecrow/Tin Man, or Hoggle and Ludo, or whatever other critters are natives to the wonderland setting you play in. There is no advancement, because it’s meant to be a one-shot. Moves are worded in a very strict “ask a question of someone else” format, which I thought was interesting. And the pre made settings are a nice, easy way to just grab the book and start playing.

Hunt the Wicked

You play bounty hunters working on behalf of an iffy boss, a galactic alien AI.

There’s a lot of setting up front, and I’m not sure what to do with any of it. It’s all interesting! There are three races, and this big evil AI thing, and a bunch of planets described.

It’s a straightforward trindie system (based on Vow of Honor, about which I know nothing but I picked up in some previous bundle) where you build a die pool out of whatever assets you can bring to bear. Motivation Dice are a renewable resource: you earn them pursuing your bounty, and spend them pursuing your bounty. It’s a real straightforward “reinforce the tropes of the thing you’re already doing” kind of loop. The system focuses on assembling your character’s abilities, although choosing your Motivations (you get 2) provides some nice roleplaying guidance once you’ve started.

Motivation is the game’s killer app, not only juicing the earn/spend loop but also prompting the GM to aim the action toward your Motivations.

Another interesting mechanical twist is the “narrative action,” a statement you can make that creates a game effect but doesn’t require a die roll. If you invoke Collateral Damage to do something awful to your bounty, you eventually become Haunted. If you choose Let The Loose (probably to avoid collateral damage!) you eventually become Obsessed. Both of those conditions then prompt a recovery cycle and so on.

Interesting wrinkle: the GM can choose to resolve a task or a scene, and the system itself doesn’t especially care one way or the other. Not sure how you choose other than as a matter of taste and focus. One assumes task-level play generates far more opportunities for screw-ups and resource drain.

And finally: there’s a campaign-wide counter called Ire that represents the vast god-machine’s unhappiness with the bounty hunters’ methods (frequently increased with those narrative actions I mentioned). When it hits 10, the machine gets angry and the game shifts to calming it down.

Layout is notable for including nice summary sidebars at the end of each section.

The whole game is book-length, perhaps the largest game on offer in the bundle, and seems like it provides a serviceable, focused game that delivers the goods at the campaign scale.

Mage to Order

Play a team of magical maintenance workers in a fabulous techno-magical city of haves and have-nots. The setting description doesn’t outlast its welcome but I didn’t get a strong sense of inspiration for the different kinds of problems/projects the characters might face in each of the city’s “districts.”

Actual gameplay is straightforward dice vs target number arrangement. Characters are made up of a skill and a specialty (each provides a bonus as well as a special ability), with an Aspiration statement guiding play and providing an advancement trigger. There’s not a lot of guidance as to what makes a suitable Aspiration other than that it be “attainable.” Given the consistent difficulty folks have with Beliefs, Value Statements and other similar mechanisms, I’m skeptical this works without some best practice development.

There’s not a lot of guidance as to what a typical session should cover or what an “adventure” might look like, but lots of aspirational language about collaboration, safety, violence avoidance, and so on.

Seems nice, I’d play a session at a con to see what it was about. The game doesn’t take a lot of chances.

Save the Universe

Rebels-versus-evil empire game that starts with lots of setting and premise collaboration. You pick details about the rebellion, the characters’ ship, and the empire from a bunch of lists. The game comes with a bunch of really inventive settings already built, and I was impressed that not one of them had the expected whiff of Star Wars clinging to it.

System wise pretty straightforward trindie game: there are six Actions and you achieve yes, yes-but and no outcomes from rolls. Evaluating rolls involves checking against an interesting and maybe fussy list of criteria, which each individual face of a d6 providing success under certain circumstances: if you’re using a preferred skill, if you’re healthy, if you’ve got specific expertise, and finally, if you’re being helped, with a 6 always a hit and a 1 always a miss. Feels like it would take a while to evaluate but I like the idea.

Like a lot of “games like this” (pick lists, task resolution, straightforward premise) if you’ve played one like it before you should be able to jump into this one fast. It’s not groundbreaking but it works. Happily Save the Universe includes a bunch of sample missions, so at least you get a clear idea of what prep and session events will look like.

The Spider and the City

Super colorful, weird journaling solo game. This was my favorite thing in the bundle! The setting is very specific and colorful: the city of Inquilad, ruled by five weird Factions, is facing an invasion by an evil General. You are writing the journal of a criminal mastermind as they decide how to deal with the invasion. Do you help protect the city or collude with the invaders for profit?

The game is played across three Acts of four weeks each. Each week, you generate a job, see how you did on the job, and write about it in your journal. Mechanically, each job fiddles with one of your game’s stats (reputation with each of the factions, the overall level of strife in the city, the size of your crew, the coin in your pocket, etc.). Narratively, you’re supposed to explore your mastermind’s feelings about the jobs they do and how they impact their relationship with the factions. There’s a list of prompts toward which you have to write each entry. Between acts there’s a “downtime” phase, Blades-style, with its own prompt.

I think the game gets real interesting as it moves between Acts. The first act warms you up to the premise and your setting, each enough. The second act demands you choose between two major paths as the invasion gets closer. The third and final act faces the actual invasion, with another big choice to make that impacts your prompts going forward. Feels like it would provide a nicely organic and replayable game.

Dueling Fops of Vindamere

Designer Greg Stolze writes very colorful rules text and honestly more indie writers could learn from him. Dueling Fops of Vindamere is about what it says it is, with foppish aristocrats getting up to all kinds of nonsense (rivalries, sexual escapades, duels, parties, insults) across four random scenes and three programmed scenes. I have no idea how long a scene might last, but to finish the game in four hours each scene would need to be 30-or-so minutes long. Seems doable!

The scenes feel a bit programmatic like the minigames in The King is Dead and Firebrands, with a series of choices within each scene that feed into one another. Everything each character tries to achieve is based on rolling against stat + stat, with each stat being one half of a pair of values that add up to 10. So if you’re more Serious then you’re less Foppish, and if you’re a better Duelist then you’re a worse Aristocrat. Values also go up and down throughout the game, and if any stat reaches 10 then you’ve come to the end of your fop’s story. You’ve also got an NPC called your Beloved, which provides a little more fictional context plus some tweaks to your stats.

There’s some setting material at the end of the file that adds a bit of context to Vindamere, again not unlike the setting material you get in The King is Dead. The two games remind me a lot of both, only with different emphases. Dueling Fops also feels more bro-coded than TKID, although there’s nothing at all specific about the setup that requires this, there’s in fact even a list of women’s names to roll or pick from.

dot dungeon

If you like your meta in your peanut butter, this is your meta treat. You play a videogame player playing a VRPG character in a virtual setting. Everything is framed around the idea of being in a videogame and the fact that you know it. It’s beautifully laid out and very distinctive, lots of 8-bit aesthetics. Makes me, a 50+ gamer, feel weird about much younger gamers feeling nostalgic, I guess, for their understanding of an era I lived through!

System-wise it’s a pretty straightforward task based system, but it’s interesting because of the meta-ness of the game. You test things like “system” (your skill playing the game) and “charm” (your ability to win over other players in the game) and, yes, “meta” (your knowledge of the game world as a player, not a character). Everyone shares a stat called “Connection,” which is a countdown on the social bond shared by the players currently logged in and playing this particular game. Eventually that pool runs out, perhaps over several sessions, and the game is over. You also get four cheat codes that let you break some bit of the game once each session, stuff like using two stats in a contest or adding a d20 to whatever you just rolled. It’s cute and pretty deeply thought through – again, based only on a read and not actual play!

Over Arms

Over Arms describes itself as “a tabletop roleplaying game for people familiar with series like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Persona, Fate, Shaman King, etc.” and, being unfamiliar with all that, it meant nothing at all to me. I have no idea what “these kind of media” refers to, so let’s just talk about the game outside that context.

Everyone in Over Arms has an “anima,” a being that characters can manifest in the world to do supernatural stuff, either an an external force or assisting the characters themselves. As far as I can tell, the game itself doesn’t actually have a premise or a holding environment type structure, instead a more traditional “here’s a toolbox of rules if you already know what’s up with JoJo” approach. The end of the book includes a simple “scenario generator” and some material to get you started.

There is a parallel reality you can enter, because of your anima, that reminds me of Voidheart Symphony, another game based on Persona. Beyond the fact that this parallel reality exists, there’s just not much in the book describing it beyond being dangerous and “it can take many forms.”

Mechanically there’s not much new going on under the hood, if you’re already familiar with stat + die versus target number type play. The Anima is a neat wrinkle in that you can add one of its stats when you roll. But given the GM still has to set a target number…is that relative to the expected difficulty of a human or their anima doing things? I couldn’t really tell.

The Well

This is a lightweight dungeon crawl game set in an inverted city that tunnels deep into the earth, with adventurers (“gravediggers” in the game) climbing up and out of the city into the tombs above. The setting is stylish and incoherent, who cares, you’re gonna crawl dungeons. There’s a surprising amount of setting material to read through but it’s not clear to me when it will ever matter. There are a couple short stories in the middle of the book that set a nice tone, but the vast bulk of actual adventuring material is tables and monster listings.

The system is pretty straightforward. You build a pool of dice out of various skills and gear, maybe buy more dice by taking a Devil’s Bargain gambit, and counting up 6es for successes and 1s for the gambits to come to pass. Character creation is a checklist, which is nice: pick three bits of “weapons and armor,” five bits of an adventuring kit, a skill, maybe some “runes” (magic spells) depending on your weapon, skill and history choices, and so on. It feels like a lightweight Blades in the Dark and you should be able to get playing in just a couple minutes.

I will say it’s a really pretty game for what it is, with lots of interior art by Kurt Komoda.

Wicked & Graceful

This is a capital-s Storygame about Atlanteans doing…well, I’m not totally sure what. It’s a very short game and feels unfinished, but it’s got some clever bits: your only stat is your Number, which you can choose freely between 2 and 5. The lower it is, the more often you’ll succeed when you’re Wicked and the higher it is, the more often you’ll succeed when you’re Graceful (Lasers & Feelings style!). You roll black and yellow dice, plus a white die if you’re being helped, with various outcomes based on which dice roll the direction you need them to (low if you’re being sneaky and magical, high if you’re giving a speech or conducting a formal duel). Black dice that match your Number let you shift your number, and matching pairs of dice also provide little narrative twists. If you only get one hit, you achieve your goal but must also foretell a doom that will befall you. It’s cute, I dig it.

There’s a mess of tables that generate situations: the factions involved, the object of the conflict, intrigues, demons involved in demonic shenanigans. There are no instructions on what to do with any of these. I feel like you could probably string together a series of duels and balls and conspiracies in a one-shot using these tables and some lifting to connect the dots between conflicts. But for 12 pages, it could be a fun little filler.

Get It Soon!

The 2022 Treasure Trove is available until September 5.

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