It’s been a while since I just straight up reported on what I’m reading, so here are four short reviews from recent arrivals. They are listed in order of personal hype for the game, from low to high.
Hack the Planet: Cyberpunk Forged in the Dark
Hack the Planet arrived yesterday from Samjoko Publishing. I backed it shortly after the first Forged in the Dark games hit the shelves, based on my experience with their previous game, The Veil (and its sequel, Cascade). Now, The Veil didn’t work well for us here: setting the game up was amazing, but actually playing flummoxed us so badly that we quit after about 30 minutes. Not a great experience. But I hoped the designers had learned some stuff along the way, and future releases would reflect this.
Hack the Planet is the fourth Forged in the Dark game with which I have direct experience. It is also the least ambitious of them all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for your table! What I mean is that Hack the Planet looks, reads, and plays the closest to the original Blades in the Dark. Like Blades, you play a gang of criminals. And like Blades, you run a parallel game of gang management that involves expanding your gang’s assets, growing in status and clawing your way out of poverty. But in all the important ways, Blades and Hack are indistinguishable from each other. There are five gang types that set up different campaign frameworks. You operate in a sealed, claustrophobic city. You take jobs, either generated during downtime phases or via GM design or via random tables. Those jobs generate heat and money, and so on and so forth.
If you like the idea of Blades in the Dark but aren’t feeling the steampunk-ish setting, you could drop right into Hack the Planet and have a very similar experience. There are some slight changes in focus, in particular around “Acts of God,” that is, extreme weather events that take place in this particular cyberpunk future. The rules around these Acts are pretty minimal, mostly insofar as they are both threats to the gang and occasionally opportunities to jump on. Acts of God feel like they stand in for “magic” in Blades, all the way down to a particular playbook that’s designed to leverage that aspect of the setting.
In terms of new game design, there’s hardly any here. This is not a dis, but it is damning with faint praise I guess. Look: it’s a clean, functional reskin. The gang “maps” are hexagonal in Hack rather than the squares in Blades, and that’s cute but not really meaningful. If you already know Blades you’ll be able to jump on Hack with zero hesitation. You’d want to read up on the role exotic weather has on the game and setting (there’s both a playbook and a gang that key into it), but otherwise? Essentially identical texts.
Hack is at the bottom of this hype list because it’s the least novel of the four. I’m sure it’s perfectly fine. If I get in the mood to play cyberpunk, I’ll probably roll it out at a convention for a one shot.
Okay, a confession: Free Spacer from Random Alien Games been on my nightstand a couple weeks and I cannot get through it. The premise of Free Spacer is that the characters play the crew of … well, I’m not really sure what. Free Spacers. Troubleshooters. Problem solvers. The game sells itself as a sandbox, but I haven’t gotten deep enough into the text to really see how that works. If it’s Crawford-style sandboxing, I’ll be excited! If it’s fill-the-whole-box-with-sand style, I’ll be…less excited.
The text, though, is making it nigh impossible for me to get through.
The rules seem very complete and detailed. Super detailed. Super duper detailed. It’s not crunchy, not really: the actual resolution of rolls is pretty simple. You build a pool of d10s that succeed on 5-9s (yeah, it uses the 0 as a 0) and d6s that represent threats and take away successes on 1-3s. Honestly I don’t know why there are two different sized dice, since they’re both generating 50/50 odds per die. They could be coins! Again I haven’t gotten that deep into it yet, so maybe there’s a reason. But when I say the rules are detailed, I mean there are just … a lot of implementations of those rules. Tons and tons of skills and systems, all of which fall back to that dice pool. The layout is also dense as hell. Lots packed onto every page and it’s all small type. Extremely thorough examples throughout. It feels like overkill.
Beyond that I don’t want to assert much more because I’m only halfway through the text. That puts me about a third into the “Crew Life” section, which has details about the crew’s patrons, their ship, how technology works — it’s a big setting dump and the setting has very specific things to say about a spacefaring future. I suspect, hope maybe, this is where the good stuff is.
The final section is broadly “game prep” and this is, I assume, where the sandbox stuff comes in. I hope I get there someday. This game isn’t at the bottom of my hype list because I feel like there’s a lot of promise buried under a lot of text.
Band of Blades
Band of Blades is the second full reimplementation of Blades in the Dark from Off Guard Games. Their first was Scum & Villainy, and it’s clear that experience gave the designers comfort in really pushing the design envelope of the Forged in the Dark model.
Band of Blades is a military-horror fantasy game in which the players handle specialist characters, grunts, and officers all at the same time. It’s low character monogamy, which can be a showstopper for some players. “Your” character will be your specialist, I think. But only two specialists at a time are ever sent out on missions, with the rest of the slots being filled by soldiers and rookies. Soldiers and rookies aren’t exactly faceless mooks, but they don’t seem like “your” character either. Finally, each player also has a Legion role — commander, marshal, quartermaster, lorekeeper, spymaster — which is a very clever reimplementation of the “downtime” phase you see in other FitD games. Basically, the various campaign-level decisions you’d normally be making for your gang in Blades/Scum/Hack are decentralized across those Legion roles. I don’t get the sense you really “play” those roles per se.
Another interesting innovation: to set up your particular campaign, you decide on which of three Chosen are traveling with your company of mercs. Chosen are a kind of demigod that handles campaign-scale threats, but can’t do the job of the Legion. So the Chosen you uh choose colors the kind of campaign you’re going to play: basic military, weird magicky, or “mighty deeds and direct assaults.” Not sure how that last one is different than the first one, honestly, but I’m sure it’ll reveal itself in play.
The other part of setting up your campaign is deciding which Big Bads — the Broken — you’ll be facing off against. There are three and your pick two. This also tweaks the game toward a certain vibe: body horror and technophobia, or mindfuck type psychological horror, or totalitarianism and depersonalization. Pick two! Whee!
Band is high on my hype list because it’s the biggest stretch of the Forged in the Dark model I’ve seen yet. It’s a tightly constructed campaign, too, intended to be played in about 10 sessions. That’s my upper limit in most cases anyway. This is the next game we’re running locally.
Free From The Yoke
I have a soft spot for Legacy from UFO Press, one of the most inventive of the Powered by the Apocalypse games out there. The secret sauce to Legacy is that, like in Band of Blades, you play at two different scales: the family/faction, and a specific representative of that family. This shift in perspectives was a tough on my home players, but it holds a lot of promise. Free From The Yoke, one in a series of Worlds of Legacy (Yoke came in the Legacy: The Next World Kickstarter and isn’t part of the bundle I linked there) is a stripped-down, fantasy focused version of that game.
The “Yoke” refers to the premise of the setup: each player runs a family that has recently achieved freedom from a foreign oppressor. This is modeled on the Golden Horde, when the Mongols invaded the Rus and squeezed tribute out of them. In Yoke, the oppressor is out of the scene but still a potential threat on the sidelines. During campaign setup, depending on which families you’ve chosen to play, you’ll explore what impact this oppressor had and what they left behind.
Another interesting twist in Yoke is that there’s an Arbiter character, which is basically king/regent/who’s in charge when the campaign starts. It’s a GM tool, because the Families must go hold court with the Arbiter each session to find out what the Arbiter demands of your family. The Arbiter also has an Agent, an NPC the players can use to help achieve their goals in the game. Using the Agent just gives more power to the Arbiter, though, which runs in conflict with the underlying theme of helping your family be free and powerful.
Free From The Yoke is at the top of my current hype list because it’s generational fantasy PbtA and that’s a target I’ve been trying to hit with my own designs for a very long time. It may not be right for my locals if they can’t wrap their heads around moving between the high-level abstraction of family play and in-tight focus of character play, but I’m still the most excited about it.