Fellowship: Close To Great

What is it about gamers wanting to find their Forever Game? That one game they’re always going to be happiest playing, the pinnacle against which they will compare all future games, the one they think about when they’re playing anything else.

We just wrapped up a long, like around 20 sessions long, campaign of Vel Mini’s Fellowship. It will not be our Forever Game, but 20 sessions of a PbtA game is my record (followed by Impulse Drive at 13 sessions, a dozen sessions of Shattered City, and lots of 6-10 session runs of many others). So what made Fellowship so durable over so many sessions? And why wouldn’t it be our Forever Game?

Overview

Fellowship is about characters presenting a unified front against a shared enemy. It’s very us-versus-them, Three Musketeers, party-centered play. The first book presents a set of playbooks straight out of Lord of the Rings (halfling, elf, dwarf, Gandalf harbinger, etc.) and three options for the Overlord you’re opposing. The Overlord might be seeking ultimate power, or world domination, or widespread destruction. Those choices all give the GM an extra move they can make to display the Overlord’s villainy.

Once you get out of the first book, the overarching game goes completely bonkers.

In Inverse Fellowship (an adaptation of Inverse World) the PCs are exploring a weird world via some kind of vehicle (a ship or blimp or giant drill, whatever) and dealing with individual local bosses making their communities miserable. The playbooks are all over the place: angels, beast-people, magical collectors, robots, people made of rain. Rather than facing existential doom, the characters decide on their agenda – seeking adventure, fame, fortune, progress, and so on – and guide their play that way.

In A Fellowship in Rebellion, the Overlord has won and the characters are joined in rebellion to overthrow the baddies. There are a slew of new playbooks again – you can be a dragon, and why would you choose anything else? – as well as The Rebellion itself, a shared resource that grows and changes alongside the characters.

Finally, Generous Fellowship is a thick book packed with new playbooks, a complete and updated compendium of threats and set pieces (combinations of threats) from the previous three books, and so on. Just tons of additional content.

All of this stuff works together. In our game, a straight party-vs-Overlord setup, the fellowship was comprised of two playbooks from the first book and a third from Generous, they acquired a scrappy airship (from Inverse) from allies to help chase the Overlord down, and they regularly ran into threats that first appeared in Rebellion. All told it’s about a thousand pages – no joke – of material you can mix and match. Honestly it was a shock when the four books showed up on my doorstep: how did such a sprawling game slip under my radar this whole time? The PbtA space is vast and contains multitudes.

Shape of Play

Party-versus-evil is bog-standard roleplaying, right? Very traditional setup. And if you stuck to the first book you might think you were better off playing Free League’s excellent new edition of The One Ring. But hooboy Fellowship does a lot of interesting things of its own. It is in fact probably the least interesting when you’re just trying to channel Tolkien. Middle-Earth is barely even the jumping-off point.

The most distinctive aspect of play is that Fellowship mandates the players do most of the creative lifting throughout the game. Every player has absolute authority over their own character’s setting materials, for starters. If you’re playing an elf, then you’re who I go to for answers about elves. If I trip up and start defining things that’s not the vibe you wanted, then you get to tell the GM to shut up and let them know how it actually is. This of course demands incredibly good faith play, and I suspect it would quickly fail for players who abused this authority to make challenges trivial or the setting silly. We didn’t stress-test this part of the game. It took a couple sessions for everyone to warm up, but when they did, I was left with very little worldbuilding to concern myself with. I just took notes so I could reincorporate later.

There are tons of evocative little ideas scattered throughout the four books, without ever suggesting a meta-setting that’s “real” we needed to defer to. Every playbook has four “what kind of X are you?” choices, for starters. In our game, the dwarf chose to be “stoneborn:” your kin have more in common with the earth and stone than they do with flesh and blood. Your armor is your bare skin, solid as stone. When you stand on solid ground, you cannot be knocked off your feet or moved unless you want to be, and you can stop anything trying to get past you and so on. We took the color as fictionally positioned and “real” in the game, and given the heavy emphasis on fictional positioning the whole game requires, it’s a good play. The dwarves are literally made of stone, cool.

Advancement in Fellowship is easy, trivial even. At the end of each session you answer three questions (things like did you deliver a setback to the Overlord and did you learn something about the world), and for each one you get an advance. Leveling up is one thing you can spend that on, but the twist is that the Overlord also advances. And pursues their plans. And just gets worse and worse. In our game, once they got over the excitement of those first few advances, the players got much more circumspect about when and how they advanced. It was really in their hands the whole time, which was super interesting compared to the typical advancement-chasing that happens in other games.

Another very cool twist to characters is that, after a bit of advancement and depending on the events of your game, the players can choose advanced Destiny playbooks that provide new moves. Given how easy advancement is, Destiny playbooks show up pretty quick, and then everyone is kind of a dual-class chimera. Our Elf became an Elven Elite, the Dwarf became a Knight, and our Outsider (an Earth human dropped into fantasyland) became the Chosen One. Those choices in turn have even more implications about the setting we create together.

Much of the game is spent with the fellowship deciding which of two (and later, possibly, three) plans the Overlord has cooking to pursue. The Overlord is always working to secure a Source of Power (which then gives them a new stat and makes them a bigger pain in the ass) or trying to crush a community (because the Overlord is a jerk). If the players help a community with their problem – which may not have anything to do with the Overlord! – they gain Fellowship (capital F) with them, which comes with a nice permanent benefit along with all the relationships and world-building that happened along the way.

If the Fellowship destroys a Source of Power the Overlord has, they destroy the stat that goes along with it, and if they seize the Source they themselves get the new stat! By “stat” I mean a single word that describes some aspect of the Overlord. In our game, our Overlord was Invincible (literally cannot be hurt), Unknowable (nobody knows her plans or actions) and Mythical (nobody but the fellowship believes she even exists). It was a killer combination and at first glance seemingly unbeatable, yeah? But imagine if the fellowship acquired the thing that made the Overlord Invincible. Oh baby.

Last distinctive bit of play I have to call out is how the game handles long journeys. Travel is a very much unsolved problem in RPGs, or rather there are many solutions of varying quality. In The One Ring, the characters gain fatigue and lose hope as they’re exposed to the land’s ambient evil. In Mutant: Year Zero, the characters have to balance supplies against the harm of wandering the blasted Zone. In grindy overland OSR-style hexcrawls there are various economies to stay on top of so you don’t arrive at your destination too exhausted. But in Fellowship? Each player describes a hardship the fellowship faced and nominates a character who addressed it. No duplicates, everyone describes and everyone solves. And in the end, the Overlord player (the GM) describes one last scene as they arrive at their destination. The outcome is mechanically similar – resources are spent, injuries suffered – but the game essentially tricks the players into co-GMing the game. It’s my current favorite journeying system, just marvelous but also susceptible to bad-faith play.

In our game, there was just no telling if any given problem was going to be a simple roll-off or escalate into something truly dire that changed their plans en route. The players even started getting clever with the kinds of problems they faced: initially a chasm or a yeti, later things like internal social problems with armies and refugees they ended up with. Because of the complexity of the characters, it was hard to preload problems with “easy” solutions. And given the vagaries of the dice, sometimes small problems would grow and grow and then they’d stumble into their next destination wrecked.

So the fellowship spends its time evaluating what it knows about the Overlord’s activities, deciding where their priority will be, journeying to deal with those things and facing hardship along the way, all to fight against the Overlord’s efforts while creating relationships where they can. Every time the fellowship stops to rest they give the Overlord time to regroup and strengthen. Every time they slow down to eat a meal they’re gnawing through their supplies. Deciding when to slow down turns into one of the hardest decisions of the game, which is delicious. The game always ends up with a final conflict with the Overlord and the fellowship always prevails, but the road to get there is wildly variable. And in our case, it took 20 sessions to line up their ducks in a row to take the swing.

A few other mechanical bits worth mentioning:

  • The Bonds between characters have lots of uses beyond Hx-style help/hinders. Like, you need a Bond with a PC to provide them with hope, which is a third die (take the highest two). But also the Overlord can have Bonds with characters and vice versa, and those all have various rules. Bonds are as easy to form as simply saying you have, but despite that ease it was still hard for the players to remember to do it.
  • Stats are the core of the whole game. The characters’ stats get damaged through play, meaning they roll with despair (three dice, take two lowest) if they ever have to use it. The NPCs get mechanical or fictional benefits by virtue of their stats, and also use their stat list as hit points more or less.
  • There are lots of subtle cycles of moves and resources, either being spent or replenished, that can feel like a lot to master. The game rewards players who take the time to master it: they keep more gear replenished, their stats get healed faster, the Overlord doesn’t pull ahead too far. As long as at least one player takes the time to do this, the ones who don’t shouldn’t be punished. Woe be to the play group that just doesn’t want to learn, though.

Finish Them!

My favorite single rule in the game is Finish Them.

Rather than having a tactically detailed conflict system, players bounce between three moves: Overcome (to avoid harm already incoming via soft moves), Get Away (to just leave the conflict), or Keep Them Busy (kind of the catchall move but doesn’t do much on its own, not exactly). None of this stuff wins fights! But all of it is in service of the goal of making the Finish Them move.

Finish Them is the only way to harm or defeat an opponent, including abstract opposition like curses and obstacles. To make the Finish Them move, the player needs an advantage. Advantage is a term of art in this game that’s different than hope/despair in that, rather than giving you a third die to roll (a confusing point given “dis/advantage” is what you call that third die rule in many other games), gives you permission to make the Finish Them move. It’s positioning the fiction such that you have the clear upper hand.

You can get advantage three ways: describing what you’re doing that gives you the upper hand, spending one of your companion’s stats and explaining how the stat provides advantage, or making the Keep Them Busy move and giving someone else advantage (a detail that appears only in the rulebook and not the helper page, huge oversight!).

The first option is both the most fruitful and the iffiest, depending on the player. I had a player who simply could/would not engage with the conversation in good faith. There’s some mother-may-I to the conversation, granted, but opposition to that lies at the intersection of the GM’s style and player trust. I was generally permissive, I thought, but this player wanted to know what move to make so they definitely, procedurally gained an advantage and didn’t need to sell me on their idea. I get that. It’s a style thing not everyone loves. But when we did have the conversation I thought it was quite productive – particularly when I could push back and say “no, you don’t have the upper hand yet” and then expand on the situation as I understood it. It gets everyone talking about the conflict, and that’s a good thing because every word brings you closer to the same page. There’s some dysfunction around the edges of any mother-may-I system but I’m not sure the answer is more rules.

Durability

Where Fellowship shines is in its durability in the face of long-term play.

Twenty sessions is no small thing. Vincent Baker once described Apocalypse World as really coming into its own at around six sessions, and in my experience PbtA games rarely last more than a couple sessions past that. Six to eight sessions is my personal “PbtA campaign length” duration. So how does Fellowship pull this off?

I think a lot of it comes down to the required creative collaboration. Everyone’s invested in the world we’ve made because we’re all making the world at once. There is no big lore dump, there are no secrets or obscure details one might trip over. I know I was always curious to ask about each player’s slice of the game. It was much less load than I’m accustomed to, and I’m generally very okay with taking the reins and just doing all of it. This was a nice break. Relaxing.

The Destiny and Ship playbooks provided nice new toys to play with at just the right time in our game. The Ship, from Inverse Fellowship, isn’t required at all but it’s a very cool new game within the game to play: a crew to manage, upgrades to make, it levels up for crying out loud! Destinies are similar in that there’s the prospect of playing with a bunch of new moves ten sessions in, and sooner than that if you’re willing to ramp up advancement. There are also fictional requirements for the Destinies and the GM needs time to angle play toward those. That’s not required, either: the players can shop Destinies on their own and then use their Command Lore privileges to angle their own fiction toward, say, earning fellowship with beast-people or demons. But in our game, it was already a lot to ask of the players to dig into those thousand pages. So I pre-shopped the Destinies, which gave me ideas of where to aim the Overlord’s efforts. If I wanted them to become a Dwarven Champion then I’d need a reason for the players to earn fellowship with the Dwarves, right?

Another big part of the game’s durability is the formal structure of the Overlord always pursuing two missions, and those missions being public knowledge. It was an excellent prompt for me to constantly think about what the Overlord wanted, although at no point does the GM ever define the Overlord’s master plan – they just keep planning and planning until they’re defeated. Eventually, in our game I always had at least two leads to pursue and frequently more than that, so the players never felt like they were at wit’s end as to what to do next.

I will say that the characters eventually became so elaborately powerful that I had to present elaborate challenges to keep up with them. In our game they picked up five fellowships and everyone advanced six times – four on their initial playbook, then unlocked a Destiny, then I think everyone took one more move on their Destinies – and that was more than enough for them to defeat entire armies and overthrow nations. Not that it was easy, just that it was possible.

So, no, the game can’t last forever. Eventually the Overlord’s cheaty advantages will not stop the characters. And I think that is the truth of Fellowship’s durability: Everyone knows the game will end. It doesn’t have to be the game you return to for years of your life. You can dedicate a few months knowing you will get to the end. You can stick it out a few sessions longer than maybe you would have if you thought it’d just go on and on.

Why Not Forever?

Even after so many sessions, there were elements of the game system that I never quite wrapped my arms around. Overlord Bonds were a big one: every time the Overlord advances, they define a new bond with some outside group (including the Fellowship). There are some narrative privileges that go along with creating bonds with non-Fellowship bodies and I have no idea why those need to be called out, since the GM is expected to provide those kinds of inputs anyway.

There’s also the NPC stat system, which I mostly loved. In play, at a moment’s notice, I could throw down an NPC, or group, or whatever, and decide if it had one to four stats. Since stats are hit points, it’s a nice way to stagger out and structure lengthier confrontations. Personally I’m a huge fan of any system that lets me both improvise and provide some teeth to conflicts. But in this case, the premade opposition (and there are tons of options in Generous Fellowship) always had stats that did things, that had mechanical weight. When I’m just dreaming stuff up in situ, my stats don’t do things. They were just one or two word descriptors. The result was that the opposition was never quite as stout or as interesting as when I just pulled something out of Generous, or pre-built a baddie out of existing stats. But Generous is a big book and it’s hard to find good entries quickly that I could reskin on the spot.

The rules around groups are close to great. When you have three or more individuals, you have a Group. When you have thirty or more you have a Gang. When you have three hundred or more you have an Army. And then there are rules for how you engage with each of those scales. This is terrific for abstracting out big fights, and for breaking fights down into smaller skirmishes over time (if you damage the “army” stat it becomes two gangs, etc.). But also things get a little hazy around the edges as both players and GM start staging up lots of gangs and groups and armies against each other. In our game, the Fellowship had spent most of the campaign slowly gathering assistance from various aggrieved communities, frequently winning followers or going back and begging for help, Battle of Five Armies style. That’s great and very exciting, and ended up with either an Army of mixed forces, or a whole mess of Gang and Group cards sitting on the table. So far so good.

Here’s where things get iffy. Groups engage with two players at once, gangs engage with everyone at once, and armies engage with an entire location at once. Gangs and armies can also only be harmed if you have the area or dangerous tag available. Well, there aren’t a lot of ways to establish tags out of thin air – it’s not a move thing that I ever saw – so there’s the very real possibility that, by the rules, you either Finish Them or nothing happens (because you didn’t have the right tag). There’s also the question of how, say, two gangs interact. Does my gang engage your gang? Do I need a gang to engage with your gang? If I have an army and you have a couple gangs, is everyone still engaged with everyone everywhere? Interactions between these sizes aren’t spelled out very well. We stumbled around more than once trying to line up a Keep Them Busy roll to produce advantage (are enough of us keeping them busy?), or making a Finish Them roll (are enough of us committed to finishing them?).

Beyond these bits, there are design decisions I frankly didn’t understand but also they didn’t interfere. Like, there are some explicit rules about managing “spotlight” in the game. There are some useful tidbits in there, good reminders to make sure the players get time to shine, but the tidbits are presented in a very These Are Rules You Must Follow kind of way. Like how the Overlord can command the spotlight as long as you want: good guideline, let the bad guy chew the scenery, but why is this a rule?

Another example is the breakdown of “story types” told in the course of play. Mini breaks out four stories: downtime (characters just hanging out in a space, one scene each then move on), journey (discussed above, truly one of the game’s killer apps), “a proper challenge” (focus on a goal and how to achieve it), and “the showdown” (when the Overlord, a General, or a Source of Power appears and the rest of the game stops while they deal with the threat). Again, these are all good guidelines for pacing and tone, but presenting them as capital-r Rules feels constraining and weird. Although honestly, looking back, our play more or less fell into this tempo naturally. Our Downtimes may have lasted more than one scene per character and our Proper Challenges might have gotten intermingled with Downtime moments. I know our final Overlord showdown kind of bounced between a formal Showdown and Proper Challenge.

Truth be told, I have nothing but quibbles on any of these points. Absolutely none of them are show-stoppers nor is anything “broken” in any meaningful way. I still have some questions about the text but lord knows we played plenty of sessions despite those questions.

Finally, there are just so darned many pages of information on the table and I frankly cannot imagine refactoring all this into an online character keeper. This is a mechanically sprawling game. Every character gets four pages per playbook, on par with Space Wurm vs Moonicorn and just a heck of a lot to stay on top of. If I had to do it over again, I would print the playbooks one-sided and just give players four sheets of paper. Earn your Destiny and that’s a fifth page to manage. And in our game, adding the Ship playbook added another four pages. Meanwhile the GM has six of their own pages. The ephemera the game creates is pretty overwhelming, particularly for the players who don’t want to be nose-down in their paperwork. And this is before anyone ever has copies of the basic moves (two more pages). It is not a streamlined little tone-poem of a game.

I think folks will find the game either very mechanically integrated, or overmechanized for what we’ve come to expect PbtA games to feel like. Given the very high water mark set by Shattered City and the other Legacy games from UFO Press, I would say Fellowship is well below that threshold. But it’s also not real “loose,” and overlooking inconvenient rules can sometimes lead to unintended consequences.

That said? Spend three or four sessions really leaning into its ins and outs and Fellowship is intensely rewarding. Rather than deciding which rules to overlook, treat them all seriously. Work at including everything every time, and the game’s many subtle economies and cycles come into focus.

Fellowship may not be my Forever Game, but it’s definitely my At Least Once More Game.

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