Something I’ve learned during the pandemic is that I use roleplaying as a distraction. Sure, yes, I’ve got a weird obsession with the metasocial meaning of rules structures. And I agree that gaming can be a safe way to explore emotional and interpersonal stuff. But at least during These Unprecedented Times, I need gaming to be a distraction. I’m honestly not sure if that’s healthy or not.
I’ve always been a little obsessive with my hobbies. Hell of a play ethic, maybe not such a great work ethic. When I need my hobbies I really need them. For a few early weeks of the lockdowns, low-level depression nearly leached away the obsessiveness with play. We ran a terrific, long campaign of Impulse Drive during that same time, though, so it certainly wasn’t gone. Now that I’m over the hump, or maybe because everything feels like it’s coming to a head in the real world, I’m back in baby. All the way in.
I’m in with a new game called Shattered City, from Douglas Mota and Mina McJanda of UFO Press. This game is so very extra. But it’s the kind of extra that fills my brain, blots out unpleasant thoughts, fills my time and consumes all that nervous energy that has nowhere else to go.
The Short Version
Physical books soon!
Shattered City is the latest game in the Legacy: Life Among The Ruins branch of PbtA. The distinctiveness of this branch is an emphasis on shared world-building, the passage of time, and a lot of authorial intentionality. Legacy games’ killer app is a formal split between high-level faction play that feels a bit boardgame-y and abstract, and character-level play that’s framed by the high-level play. I’ve played both first and second editions of Legacy itself as well as a modestly down-scaled fantasy version called Free From The Yoke. Shattered City is by far the biggest and most elaborate version of all.
The game is built atop a licensed setting called Mysthea, designed by Italian game publisher Tabula Games. There are a bunch of boardgames set in Mysthea, as well as a graphic novel. I’m intimately familiar with the difficulties of working with an art-driven licensed setting, having developed Mutant Chronicles, 2nd edition (the one before the current 2d20 version from Modiphius) for Target Games. The process typically involves a lot of nonsensical rationales to make the badass art make any sense at all, much less a coherent through-line. The Mysthea setting is no exception, and when I looked through the other games Tabula has done it’s all pretty contrived. But that art, lordy, it looks great.
UFO Press calls Shattered City “crystalpunk,” which, well. You know. Everything -punk is garbage and Tabula feels like they’re very much in the “-punk = art direction” school. But to Mota and McJanda’s credit, they’ve done a heck of a job of designing a very elaborate game around audacious worldbuilding with an actual punk thread of rebellion running throughout.
The setting is a city called Montara (the eponymous Shattered City), torn apart by wars and occupations by two outside empires. There are legit well-structured takes on wartime refugees, PTSD, colonialism, ecological collapse, class warfare, all of it. The players’ Houses all stand opposed to the occupiers, but they have their own agendas. And sometimes collaborating with your colonizers may be necessary for your long-term goals. Meanwhile, the occupiers serve distant masters and aren’t in control of their own fates. There’s goofy canon behind everything – Mysthea is a floating continent broken loose from its world by a giant magical crystal, every living being on Mysthea is tied into a telekinetic force called Qoam, and so on – but honestly? So much less canonical load than old fan favorites like Glorantha or Star Wars.
The holding environment of Shattered City feels like a funhouse version of what we’re going through in our real world, with a powerfully shiny fantasy gloss. It’s exactly the kind of all-encompassing distraction I’ve been hoping for.
Here’s a short list of what makes Shattered City so very extra:
- Fifteen character playbooks, roughly broken into three sets of five “styles:” civil (social-intensive), bold (action-oriented) and uncanny (magic!). You also choose a Role (leader, outsider, rebel, prophet, agent or traitor) that represents your character’s relationship to their House. If you have a hero-scale session where it just doesn’t make sense for your own character to attend, you make a Cohort, a less-detailed filler character (Band of Blades does this trick with new recruits as well). And eventually you might grow your hero into their own faction, at which point they become a Champion, which has yet another playbook.
- Eight House playbooks, representing the faction to which your character belongs. The Houses are connected via a frenemy relationship called the Venture: sometimes you’re allies, and sometimes you have dominion over another faction.
- Five Guild playbooks, one of which you choose to represent the city’s foreign occupying force. They serve distant masters but are far enough away from their capital that they can kind of get away with anything. In the full-blown version of the game, the player running the Guild is kind of a co-GM.
- Five Ancestries (species), with a couple playbooks standing in as their own species as well.
- Two sets of common moves, House and Hero, that you switch between throughout the game. There are, no kidding, fifteen common Hero moves. And fifteen common House moves.
- A library of dozens of gear tags, all of which have brief rules implications mostly having to do with obvious fictional positioning effects.
I’m not great at math but the possible combinations of playbooks, Houses and Ancestries seems like a lot. I’m kind of reminded of the frustration I have with videogames that offer a zillion possible builds and not enough time to explore them all.
The sheer volume of game design in this game is jaw-dropping. Shattered City is the polar opposite of a compact little tone-poem of a game like Monsterhearts (even taking into account the Second Skins playbooks) or Sagas of the Icelanders. A good friend snarked that UFO Press designs trad games dressed up like PbtA, and I’m not sure that’s totally wrong. There’s a ton, a ton of procedural detail. But the moves are still moves, they still respond to and constrain the resulting fiction. There’s just an awful lot of them to track. And gear tags and multiple interlocking economies.
Honestly I can’t wait to dig in.
We’re Gonna Play
So, yeah, we’re playing this. It’s just about the most difficult game I’ve run into for online play, with 56 pages of helper PDFs and, well, that list of stuff I went through earlier. And it’s got a strong collaborative map-making component, which was tricky to work out for online play.
I ended up building out an elaborate character keeper in Google Sheets, and it’s got a lot of development to go before I’m ready to make it public. We’re using Miro for the shared map, Google Docs for the setting bible that arose from the lengthy session zero process, and of course Zoom for their pretty faces and Rollforyour.party for the dice. I have three monitors and had to bounce between seven screens of information throughout our three hour setup. Hopefully we can get it down to just the keeper, Zoom and the dice roller when it’s time to actually play.
Sometimes you want a healthy salad and sensible portions. And sometimes you want to engorge yourself on a nine-course banquet. I’ll be writing about our game going forward.