Tonight we begin Godbound, an OSR-adjacent sandbox demigod adventure game from Kevin Crawford (Sine Nomine Publishing). It’s been on my try list for several years now, but its OSR-ness sits in stark contrast with what usually gets played here at IGRC World Headquarters. Other than its D&D substrate, though, I’m not persuaded it shares much with anything else in the trad/OSR play space.
Okay sure, you get 6 stats. There are saving throws. You roll a d20 sometimes. But the premise of the game is that you’re literally divine. If you’re rolling dice, that means you’re facing something your divinity can’t just ignore. A lot of this is the illusion of scale, right? Dungeon delvers don’t roll to swipe rats out of their way in a corridor, either.
The killer app of the game is that every character is “bound” to three (or more!) Words of Creation. These are big, meaty concepts that underpin the game world: Death and Sorcery and Cities and Journeying and Fire, whatever. There’s a good list in the core rulebook, plus a bunch more in Lexicon of the Throne. There are also rules for creating more Words, but we’re sticking to the lists in print for now. The Godbound have various Gifts related to these Words, and can perform broader Miracles given enough time and power. There are also rules for invoking larger-scale, permanent changes in the world, attracting worshipers that provide more power, and eventually ascending to actual godhood.
Reading and preparing for tonight has put my go-to home-game mode of play under a spotlight. A lot of what I run these days is highly collaborative, or starts from an undefined, or lightly defined, place that’s super-easy to improvise into. Honestly? I’ve gotten a little lazy with old-timey prep. I’m very good at improvisation.
I’m going to be using Kevin’s Ancalia: the Broken Towers setting book. While Godbound is very much designed with OSR assumptions in mind – most specifically, that folks will pull rules bits out and plop them into their own campaign setting – it comes with a super juicy campaign setting of its own. Ancalia is a cartoonishly awful hellscape: 90 percent of the region has died, zombie hordes everywhere, cities gripped by alien entities and madness. If this were the ground-level reality of play, it would be unplayably grim. Luckily, our protagonists have the power of the gods themselves to make things right.
The one habit, or maybe expectation, I’m most keenly aware of is that I’m expecting the game itself to provide a tight holding environment for the characters. Being a largely trad design, though, this isn’t addressed at all by the game. The game is there to provide a model for characters projecting power into the world; there is no social or spatial context. So it’s on the players, before play, to work out why they stick together. The game says a group of Godbound is a “pantheon,” but there’s almost no mechanical or social incentive to care about that. I know my players are really unpracticed in this. And the game, being about world-changing power, is not really a good fit for “adventurers at liberty to make their fortunes, oh look a map to a dungeon” mode (like we just did last week with Goblinville). I suspect a lot of tonight is going to be me asking provocative questions and helping build a tight web for everyone to live in.
Why am I running Godbound anyway? This isn’t very indie, is it?
First off: Sine Nomine is most definitely “indie” in terms of creation, control and distribution. I kind of wish Crawford was a bit less indie to be honest: he doesn’t hire an editor and it’s obvious. The writing is enormously colorful but there’s also just too much of it. Getting through the text as a procedural document is a chore. But back to the “indie” question: it is, but it’s not a storygame by anyone’s definition. I’m not a huge fan of definition fights but I’m coming around to trying to disentangle “indie” from “storygame” more regularly.
As to why I’m running it? I’m looking to explore the sandbox environment of the game, mostly. Godbound, and all of Sine Nomine’s games, bills itself as a sandbox game. Well, that idea is awfully loose, which is fine! I have very little urge to hammer at any particular definition. The one I’m working with is: no plots, a world that exists outside the characters, reality that reacts to the characters in a consistent way.
I’ve seen many takes on how to execute a sandbox, and some are better fits to my creative talents than others. I really enjoy the connect-the-dots creative space that a good set of random inputs will provide to me. That’s good (lonely) fun. What I like less is tables without any eye toward thematic or canonical cohesion.
So far I’ve generated a couple adventure ideas from Ancalia, a couple crises from the Sixteen Sorrows supplement, and a Ruined City (again from Ancalia.) I think the idea is to have some stuff in your pocket to drop into place as the characters wander around looking for things to do in the beginning. Later, when they have plans, I can do more focused prep because by the rules they tell me what their plans are next week. It’s such a simple gesture. I’m looking forward to holding them to it, although our gameplay social space usually involves at least one player racing home before they turn into a pumpkin (he’s got an early job).
The results I got from the adventure seed generator are decidedly mixed. It’s a Mad Libs style table, with 20 seeds comprised of Protagonist, Antagonist, Thing, Place and Twist blanks, and some broad situation tying some or all of those things together. My first one, for example, reads:
”Two Protagonists are fighting over a Thing or Location, but the object or place is actually somehow self-willed and in control of the situation, making others fight to see which of them is the stronger wielder or tenant.”
That’s interesting! And it turns out, it’s pretty hard to build out from. I mean it’s not impossible or anything, the table isn’t “broken,” it’s just a matter of practice. I think, as we develop a feel for the game, these will get easier for me to generate.
The big thing about the adventure outlines is that they exist completely apart from the interior life of the characters. It’s very episodic, right? Four godlings wander into a situation and, because the game compels them, they figure out what to do about it. This is a long way away from character-driven storygaming, and I’m not sure my players are ready to shift priorities. Guess we’ll find out!
The crisis generators seem more immediately useful, because they create complex backdrops against which to play. Like, whatever else the godlings are up to, they also have to contend with this other bullshit. I rolled up two, an Infested Ruin and an Awful Curse. Those are definitely going in my pocket because it’s easy to see future uses for them. It’s more organic, to my mind, than “someone runs up to you with a problem, how do you solve it?”
My favorite generator, though, was the Ruined City stuff. This is different than a more descriptive “ruins” generator in the core Godbound book. The Ruined City tables are in Ancalia, and generate a pretty compelling setting with a couple good guys and bad guys, a setting twist, stuff like that. Again, it’s backdrop rather than “adventure.”
More coming in a couple days, after we set up and play tonight. I’m going into it feeling pretty good, but also worried that requiring my players motivate themselves for external reasons won’t be fun or popular.
Bonus content, since I seem to attract these folks when I talk about their games. When I write about a trad, OSR, or trindie game, roll 1d8 on the table below…
|1||Partisan: the Partisan tradsplains by describing your gameplay in contrast with their own. Which is definitely better than yours. It doesn’t matter if their description is factually inaccurate; it’s the contrast that’s important. The Partisan always wins initiative and always spends its first turn defining your local situation out from under you.|
|2||Gut Burrower: this tradsplainer will latch on and not let go until a successful Block and Ban spell has been cast. Until then, it will burrow deep into your content, years back if necessary, seeking sweet meats in the form of imperfect arguments and incomplete examples.|
|3||The Passive-Aggressive: the assault on your post will appear only in a different venue, where you have incomplete scouting and no saving throws. Ambush by 1d4 other, different tradsplainers will occur in the next week.|
|4||The Ancient One: this tradsplainer uses displays of age to cow its prey into submission. These displays come in many forms: references to decades of play, systems mastered, conventions attended, “Lake Geneva,” and vast beards.|
|5||Reader: rather than ‘splaining from personal experience, the Reader’s attack comes in the form of Platonic ideals formed while consuming and memorizing the game’s text without any actual play context. Since all play is local, the Reader argues, the only true source of power is the Rules As Written, as well as its attendant library of errata, supplemental materials, and screencaps of discussions had with an Actual Designer (see below).|
|6||Actual Designer: rare and exceptionally puissant in various attack forms, the Actual Designer ‘splains gaming from knowledge contained within their very own minds. This knowledge need not ever have appeared in this or other realities. The Actual Designer’s attacks are frequently aspirational, having never been tested in battle. Actual Designers are attended by 2d10 other tradsplainers prepared to fight and die in service to their dark master.|
|7||The Night Circus: gibbering hordes of psychotic fiends bent on destruction, the Night Circus can appear anywhere and at any time. They are frequently directed in secret by Actual Designers or Tastemakers (see below). The Night Circus’ greatest power is in deflecting and absorbing attacks on their masters. The Night Circus cannot be beaten, only subdued a short while via overwhelming force inflicted on the controlling entity.|
|8||Tastemaker: these bloggers frequently overestimate their power and influence, but grow dangerous if they’ve acquired a Night Circus. A Tastemaker may also share characteristics with Ancient Ones, Actual Designers, Partisans, and Passive-Aggressives. Individual Tastemaker ‘splaining attacks grow in power relative to the attack’s likes and retweets. Beware the Hot Take attack, especially when amplified by the Night Circus.|