Hear Me Out: An Ode To Passion Projects

There’s an adage about innovation I think about sometimes:

To succeed in anything, you can either do an old thing in a new way, or a new thing in an old way.

Doing an old thing in an old way means you’re competing with the established order. Doing a new thing in a new way, phew, good luck with that! True visionaries sometimes pull it off.

There’s a kind of game I adore but also confounds and frustrates me when I read it. They’re new things being done in new ways. Given how the indie scene worships at the altar of novelty, it’s a surprise how rare this actually is.

I’ll read a pitch and the first thing I’ll think is “what the heck?” And then I’ll read up on the details, the setting or the premise or whatever, and it’ll escalate to “what on Earth?!” Finally I get into the meat of the thing, the place where the rules, premise and setting come together, and I’ll be fully in WTF territory. I love it.

I love when a designer has to say “okay but hear me out” about their work. If it’s too unfamiliar, I feel alienated and bounce off it. There still needs to be an invitation, something accessible about what I’m reading. Then, sure, I’ll hear them out. Eagerly. New but not too new.

Runequest’s Glorantha is the gold standard of this sort of personal passion project. Deeply weird, very specific. You could play standard fantasy adventures with Runequest (among the first alternatives to D&D), but if you were doing things in Glorantha it was its own world. 

Hear Me Out games are still coming out, of course. There’s a whole lot more of everything, though, so they seem less common. This train of thought came to me after reading Wythe Marschall’s Stillfleet recently, which I’ll talk about more in a bit. After gnawing on how to describe these kinds of games, I landed on:

  • The settings are typically big, ambitious but also not “like” anything else. They’re an anti-kitchen sink. You just can’t easily use the setting to tell another kind of story or to play another game. Media touchpoints aren’t central to the pitch.
  • The premise is something divergent from “doing adventurer things.” Or if it is about being an adventurer, the reason is rooted in something specific. There’s some underlying reason or theme behind why characters take action in the world. 
  • The system specifically supports the premise and is firmly embedded in the setting. It doesn’t need to be unique, although they often are. Uniqueness is a personal judgment anyway – I’ve seen a lot of games in my time, and there’s very little new under the sun. I’m thinking more about specificity. Systems, like settings, where you couldn’t easily reuse them for something else.

Here’s a sampling of this kind of game from my shelves. They’re challenging, personal, and utterly unique. None of these qualities mean they’re good! You might not want to be challenged, or lack a playgroup ready to take them on. Their personal vision might not jibe with yours for some reason, aesthetics or politics or whatever. Novelty, I think, is overvalorized anyway. The most successful of these games are accessible, and the most critically “good” ones are the most distinctive. If you get both you’ve got a winner. The following are all winners in my book.


The setting

It is one hundred million years in the future. Twenty years ago a cosmic event closed off your vast alien space station community from a sprawling interstellar empire (that sprawls atop other long-passed interstellar empires, thousands of years upon thousands of years back in time to today). Now the cosmic event is over and you’re free to travel. But nobody uses spaceships or warp drives or any of that. Instead, you use a variety of wormholes to get from here to there.

If the setting “feels like” anything, Stillfleet is somewhere in the zip code of Farscape, Lexx and Red Dwarf. Technology can do whatever it needs to and be justified, aliens can look and act like anything at all, and the text throughout feels breathless and under-explained like episodes of those shows.

The canonical setting is the various worlds that are suddenly accessible again. But the real setting material is time itself, the hundred million years of history and all the overlapping technologies and cultures you can justify with it. There’s also a component of the future coming back to mess with the game’s present day. It makes literally any technobabble thing possible. The technobabble stuff is structured around five broad technical styles, and within those styles there’s a grade of how intense or specialized something is, from common consumer goods to highly experimental military tech. I thought it was a great way to quickly eyeball how to rank the stuff you invent, or invent stuff by getting inspired by what might be possible.

4 out of 5 WTFs – the book does a terrific job of pushing and structuring how culturally, technologically, and ideologically strange the universe could be in 100 million years.

The premise

You work for a spacefaring corporation modeled on the Dutch Indian Trading Company. They are all about excavating that hundred million years of history for profit. The Co., as it’s called in the text, is venal, greedy, and short-sighted. So on the surface it looks like you “go on adventures,” yes. To start, you either go dredge up valuable things out of hulks (the still fleet of ships from a bygone era that can’t fly anywhere anymore and just hang in the skies) and rocks (colonies and homeworlds of a thousand species, with Terra itself the crown jewel). So really the game is about how to live with yourself working for the fuckin’ greedy Space Dutch one hundred million years in an incomprehensible alien future.

There’s some good guidance for how to set up a “venture,” that is, an assignment from the Co. There’s a whole ritual of meeting with a refactor from the Co., who goes over the job requirements and whatever they think you’ll need to succeed. This is of course never enough, either incomplete, outdated or misleading information. So you pump your refactor for the real information, which you might get or not. And then you gear up and go do the thing, jumping through a wormhole off to who-knows-where.

It reads to me like the game relies not on the ventures being the most interesting bit of the game, but on receiving bad/conflicting orders from unreliable employers who don’t value your life. Eventually you may find yourself working for alien gangsters, tech-priests from the deep future, immortal superbeings from a fallen civilization, or a highly secretive competing Co. that probably is just as scummy as your Co. but in different and interesting ways. But in all cases, you ask the question: should I even be doing this job?

2 out of 5 WTFs – fairly straightforward adventuring to start, and unreliable bosses are familiar territory. The Co. is productively dysfunctional, with plenty of internal conflicts of interest to aggravate the characters.

The system

The interesting bit of the system isn’t in its resolution. It’s a pretty straightforward pass/fail thing, a die size versus a target number, where you can boost your roll by spending Grit. The real game is Grit management, which is how you power almost everything you’ll do. You’ll need to spend it carefully, earn as much as possible via advancement (a very simple “gain a level after every venture” system, marvelous, go play 20 times and max yourself out), and dig around for other ways to generate, protect, and enhance your Grit. It’s Grit all the way down.

There are a bunch of Co.-specific character classes plus a few types of employees the Co. finds useful but won’t hire many of. So a party of, say, five characters might have three or four standard jobs – rangers, scholars, that sort of thing – and one or two (at most) “weirdo partycrashers,” as they’re called in the text. And then there are, gosh, many many alien species you could be (humans are central, still, one million years in the future for reasons that may or may not be revealed in the text).

Now let’s talk about the Advanced Powers. 

This is, I think, the heart of the game. There are five lists of 20 powers arranged by function or theme: communications, physics, and so on. Then there’s the Hell Sciences, which is just hypertech magic. There are six lists with 20 powers each. What is that, 120 total powers to pick from? It’s bonkers, but it’s also very well structured. If I had to name a successor to the storied, troubled legacy of Palladium’s Rifts, it’d be Stillfleet

Every Advanced Power has its own rules and the occasional mini-game. Each one is very much like a Move in a PbtA game (with at least one plagiarized directly out of Apocalypse World, unfortunately). I think you’d either need a table of players eager to roll up their sleeves and figure out awesome “builds,” or be willing to be given whatever weirdo power the GM thought they ought to get next, or rely on the app to randomly generate characters and run whutcha brung. Advancement is pretty quick, so everyone will end up with a strange, wacky package of stuff that may or may not be embedded in a session’s fictional outcomes but are very much embedded in the strange, wacky setting itself. 

3 out of 5 WTFs – you have got to see some of the game-breakingly wild stuff on offer as you advance characters, uncover tech, discover alien races and worlds. 

The Wildsea

Get it on Itch.io

Or back the current Kickstarter and get the hardback! Also gorgeous.

The setting

Three hundred years after an eco-cataclysm has engulfed the world in poisonous living matter – trees, grasses, vines, slimes I suppose – sailors set out upon a sea of fast-growing, ever-changing plants. Humans are still a major species, but there are others now and they’re super weird: cactus-people, fungus-people, a hive mind of tiny spiders that dress themselves in clothes (or skin). There are others and they’re super weird too. The theme throughout the text is “look at how darned weird everything is! So weird!”

Besides the eco-punk aesthetics of the setting and characters, there’s a mystical through-line of spirits, restless ghosts, maybe even gods – or at least worship of the leviathan creatures (?) that lurk under the canopy. There’s a playable species of spirit-animated old world junk assemblies, for example. And there’s a technomagical concept called “arconautics,” capturing and employing weird stuff via familiars, alchemy, even incorporating it into your own body. This is all very colorful but also primarily expressed via fictional positioning: there aren’t any arconautical skills or abilities, you just say that’s how you’re doing things. There are weirdness-compatible classes (“posts”) that include sidebars about how to make them more arconautical in the fiction.

Interestingly, there are whole categories the designer has called out as optional and ignorable: spiritual, magical, and technological topics are called out and can just be straight-up disregarded! This points, to me, to the places where the setting vision is core and the game-able add-ons that aren’t.

Throughout the book, The Wildsea is self-conscious about its weirdness: strictly a stylistic observation and not a ding. The production and presentation reminds me of big ambitious ‘90s-era games that set out to Create A Transmedia Property: Deadlands, Vampire, Crimson Skies, and so on. The art and layout is absolutely top-notch, vibrant, clear, energetic. Great character portraits, great chapter openers that set the tone and style. 

4 out of 5 WTFs, by virtue of having very few media touchpoints. Like, the cactus-people feel like a callback to China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books, but that’s obscure-ish and, ew, novels

The premise

Gameplay is centered on being the wildsailor crew of a ship plying the wildsea. You pick a goal or focus for your crew (exploration, salvage, trading etc.), build a ship to support it, and head off having adventures. Society is broken up into settlements of varying size, either tiny outposts on the tips of mountains poking out of the plant life, or groups of rafts slung together anchored to some bit of old world detritus that might be stable, or even bigger cities build on, around and under mega-trees that dwarf the rest of the canopy. But the main point here is that there aren’t nations, not really. Just lots of small places to visit.

This is the most conventional bit of the game, adventurers going on adventures in a setting devoid of broader political or cultural conflict. 1 out of 5 WTFs

The system

This is where The Wildsea is the most interesting to me: it’s heavily inspired by Forged in the Dark, where 6s mean success, 4s and 5s are mixed successes, and 3s and less are misses. He’s stripped out the position/effect infrastructure for the most part, or just handed that over to the GM to make calls ex post facto. Honestly I wish it was a cleaner FitD implementation, personally, because I think it does what it does well. 

The standout resolution bit for me is how the game treats aspects – that is, traits, gear and companions, each one with a sentence or two of rules. So many rules! You get them from your bloodline (species), origin (upbringing or history) and post (job or class). These things each get tracks, typically two to five boxes long, and this is how you track your character’s damage. Fill up a track, and that aspect can’t be called on. You can also develop those aspects by changing their rules by shrinking or growing their track. Looking forward to seeing this advancement and evolution scheme in action. 

There are other interesting gestures in the rules: gathering and then risking resources to gain advantage on rolls, mires that represent emotional harm you’re susceptible to, drives that let you clear mire, gain resources, or advance in small and big ways, milestones you work toward to make substantial changes to your character. Lots and lots of little tweaks that add up to a heavily drifted FitD game. But drifted FitD is not the only, or even most important, innovation in this game.

Structurally it looks like the game borrows a lot from The One Ring: there are scenes, montages and journeys, and they all follow different rules. Scenes are about exploration, combat or interaction. Montages are sort of downtime-ish, a way to gloss over narratively broad ideas without having to hit any particular beats or dialogue – a way to take on larger tasks and projects. Journeying across the wildsea is its own minigame, with a preparation bit, encounters along the way, and your eventual arrival. Everyone has a role on the ship (helm, watch, engine and so on), and they all have moves and rules. Journeys are where you get to use most of the neat ship rules you worked out in/after character creation.

All this stuff, really, is how I run games anyway. I felt the same way about The One Ring! But it’s still nice to see laid bare like this. 

2 out of 5 WTFs for its heady mix of bits and bobs we’ve seen in other places, all under one cover and drenched in weird aesthetics. But I’m most curious to see if it all comes together as playable and interesting, and what emerges from this particular set of parts.

The Clay That Woke

The setting

Paul Czege’s game about minotaurs in a weird-fantasy setting is maybe the most WTF of them all. There’s a lot here, despite the book being a slender volume (particularly compared to the first couple mentioned). Buckle up.

There are two settings for this game. The first is the Dégringolade, an ancient city, the remains of a metropolis of a lost civilization. There are bits and bobs of details but hardly any canon at all; it’s really vibes guidance, to create your own Dégringolade. Huge statues, arenas, temples, enormous trees towering over everything, every location and tradition described in terms of the millennia they have existed. Hints of strange almost-familiar creatures. But this isn’t the kind of game where stats and facts are the most important thing.

The second location is the Jungle, which is literally everything outside the Dégringolade and encroaches into the city at every weak point in its walls. It’s real bad for humans, but it’s energizing and restorative to minotaurs. 

And where did the minotaurs come from? Four infant minotaurs were pulled from the mud of a river and all the minotaurs – a vast, male-only slave underclass today – are their descendents. How? Who knows! It’s not important.

3 out of 5 WTFs for deeply weird vibes but not a lot of detail. The book isn’t conventionally structured with a “setting” chapter and a “gear” section and so on, rather it’s a stream of consciousness as you move from setting overview to fictional interlude to character material to actual rules. I came away from my reading, years ago now, filled with a blur of impressionistic material.

The premise

Everyone plays a minotaur. All minotaurs share some characteristics: they’re all male, prohibited from having names (to start), trained/required to uphold a code of conduct called the Silence, and if they’re Silent long enough they may enter a dangerous – and contagious – state called frantic. If you’re frantic, you produce a swath of destruction en route to the jungle, where you’ll find your peace again and maybe talk to some gods. 

Since The Clay That Woke is about something, its about-ness is paramount to every detail of play. You aren’t adventurers going on adventures, you’re male-coded monsters (and oh boy there’s a lot of full frontal nudity in the art, there is no subtext here) living within an intolerable code: working for justice, never referring to women by name, forsaking want, burying your emotions. Of course the game is all about pushing those buttons. It’s Being Masculine, the RPG. But like…the challenges of being a man, not indulging in toxic masculinity.

5 out of 5 WTF. But hear me out! Games that are laser-focused on their theme and message can produce such interesting play. And Paul Czege is a proven creator in this space – if you haven’t played his classic My Life With Master, you’re in for a treat.

The system

The game doesn’t have a resolution system per se or is even particularly concerned about how characters do things, or their success in doing so. There are four kinds of minotaurs: leaders, philosophers, advocates and soldiers. Each kind starts with its own set of tokens, little wooden discs with symbols on them, and a sheet explaining how you spend and earn them. When you reach an inflection (a dangerous situation, violent conflict with beasts and NPCs, unnatural encounters, and arguments – and only those situations), you go to the Krater of Lots. A Krater is a bowl you’ll be pulling your discs (lots) from. You put in some chits, the GM will put in some other chits, you stir ‘em up in the bowl, and draw four. 

There’s a whole elaborate order of operations about how you spend those tokens afterward, but you have to take the first pattern that you’ve completed. Sometimes you’ll complete a couple, if you hit a small pattern of just two or three symbols. Outcomes aren’t mechanically specific beyond saying if an event resolves “in your favor” or if something worse happens. You might not even fulfill any pattern, which means instead you’ve had a foreshadowing of things to come but no resolution. The Krater of Lots is an oracle to be interpreted, a ritual to be enacted, not a system to be mastered or beaten.

I find the GM prep of the game another interesting bit of system. Specifically, the GM populates their Dégringolade with problems drawn from their own observation of our real world. So not existential problems like climate change, but more social and personal problems that nag at you. A prominent example in the book is an NPC called FriendBeast, who wants to be your friend but actually collects personal information about you to sell to others. You could take anything like that for inspiration: liberal circular firing squads become right-minded friends who start ruining each other’s lives on religious purity grounds, or transphobic activists become morality police who demand to become observers in everyone’s bedroom. Who knows! 

5 out of 5 WTFs. All the WTF. It’s very weird, very cool, utterly unlike anything I’ve come across before. 

Other Games In This Style

If you’re looking for other recent personal passion projects to explore, consider the following.

Heart and Spire

PDFs available through Rowan, Rook & Deckard’s shop at DriveThru

I totally intended to write more about this and I will in the future, but I’m already close to 4000 words! Next time. This anticapitalist fantasy duet is firmly in the Hear Me Out category. Wild, alienating setting, evocative playbooks, fairly conventional gameplay. 3 out of 5 WTFs overall.

Coyote & Crow

PDF available through DriveThru

Hardback available from the publisher

This Diana Jones-nominated sci-fi game of an indigenous/First Nations future where Europe’s rapacious colonization never happens has a terrific setting, a playable premise (characters are traveling marshals employed by a benevolent government), and conventional gameplay. 2 out of 5 WTFs, and it’s the most readily accessible thing on this list. 

Suldokar’s Wake

PDF available from DriveThru

Hardback available through Lulu

Another deep, deep fallen future setting like Stillfleet, Suldokar’s Wake is centered on a single planet with many layers of past civilizations under its surface. Everything about the game is strange, from its inaccessible-seeming setting (weird civilizations, but they mostly aim toward established fantasy tropes in the end), to its resolution system (fairly straightforward OSR-style play, but you have to internalize a whole new math paradigm of values you’re trying to not roll), to its compellingly WTF advancement system based around “graphs” of upgrades depending on your character type. Oh and you can go on adventures for the purpose of finding new graphs! 4 out of 5 WTFs, still thinking about what a session would even look like (and how to make its distinct character stand out from conventional OSR play). 


PDF available from DriveThru

Afrofuturist troubleshooters trying to make the galaxy a better place. Think Star Trek without the paternalism of Starfleet Command. Lots of interesting history leading up to the setting, an elaborate setting to cram into your head filled with factions and superstructures and psychic virii (oh my), very Afrofuturist. Straightforward stat (auras, in this game) + skills from a short-ish skill list, where your aura is also used to fire off nifty abilities (and lowers your stat, making it harder to do skill things). 1 out of 5 WTFs on the grounds of it being an eminently accessible setting and a straightforward system. Great introduction to the larger Afrofuturist tradition!


PDF available on DriveThru

You live in a vast, millennia-old space station that’s probably not what it appears. Characters are vagabonds, people whose memories are lost when they start play. Why have they lost their memories? Who knows! But the conceit is that you’re simultaneously working through your adventure while remembering bits and pieces of your past, Memento style. The setting of Nibiru is real weird, with lots of maps and descriptions of the station’s various regions. The game has a thread of Bronze Age aesthetics throughout; the region you play in is called the  Assyrian Vault, for example, its citizens are called arku and are ruled by a ruling council called the Tallaktu. And so on. The learning curve feels like a vertical surface to me! I’m not sure the game has a play premise per se other than to be an amnesiac exploring a strange place and trying to remember themselves. System wise you’re throwing fistfuls of d4s (the least loved die), but that’s not where the juice is. The real interesting bit is how you manage your mental status, ultimately leading to remembering things from your past while also collecting symptoms of deeper problems. 3 out of 5 WTFs, mostly for the setting sprawl. 


PDF available on DriveThru

You play children surviving in a city where all the adults have simply vanished. The conceit is that characters accumulate bile, a diegetic sort of poison that drives the kids to strive but also can enrage them and push toward a Lord of the Flies type scenario. The setting is way-spooky, an abandoned city constantly being rained on, populated by mind-reading creatures made from that rainwater that think scared kids are real yummy. The text pushes toward some real dark themes! If you want to (re?)live a traumatic childhood, Libreté has you covered. 2 out of 5 WTFs, where the Hear Me Out is “okay but what if playing a terrified, violent kid was fun, actually?” 

Maskwitches of Forgotten Doggerland

PDF available on DriveThru

This strange, beautiful book from Handiwork Games gained a bit of notoriety early on for being an art-intensive artifact that leaned into Midjourney-generated art that was then personalized by creator Jon Hodgson. There’s an all-human-made edition available but I got the AI one and the work is pleasingly weird and spooky. But that’s not the main reason to look at Maskwitches. Based on a very simple house system called The Silver Road, Maskwitches channels an unknowable stone-age-ish society set in a region we now call Doggerland – a real place! It’s the land that’s now under the North Sea, about which we know almost nothing. Kind of a shamanic take on Atlantis. Your character is a Maskwitch, a mystic protecting their community from spiritual threats. You’ve got masks, which you can gain and exchange and provide your powers, and amulets, which can’t be exchanged but are the main way you defeat spirits. There’s very little setting other than what’s conveyed through the unreal, dreamlike art of the book. Ethereal, strange, worthy. 4 out of 5 WTFs

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