Hello and welcome, welcome. It’s been a busy year! So let’s go over it all. Please read to the end, where I announce the launch of my Patreon. 🙂
2019: Games Played
My two main themes of 2019 were fewer, longer runs at home and more conventions. I usually only make two conventions a year, but in 2019 I was able to squeeze in Dreamation, the Arizona Game Fair, New Mexicon and RinCon. That’s a lot of slots. More on that later.
Here’s what I played, in ascending order of my personal algorithm of fun, novelty, thought provocation, and overall value. This is my algo, not yours! There were also some ties.
B/X Essentials + The Dark of Hot Springs Island
I keep a toe in the OSR waters because I think a lot of what’s happening there inevitably impacts storygames, and vice versa. I got to play The Dark of Hot Springs Island using the B/X Essentials rules (renamed Old School Essentials, Kickstarter is shipping now) at New Mexicon this year. HSI is really interesting, and much more elaborate than I was expecting. The GM-facing book is packed with amazing resources for semi-randomizing encounters in a freakish sandbox, and the player-facing “field guide” is a great way to feed the players weird, unreliable, and sometimes conflicting in-game information.
B/X is…B/X. No-frills old-school D&D. I’m starting a B/X game with my 8 year old, and that’s going to be crunchier fun than she had with No Thank You, Evil!, but it just doesn’t do a lot of the things I like in a game. My HSI experience did get me thinking what it might be like to play it in a different engine, like Forbidden Lands or Torchbearer.
Seco Creek Vigilance Committee
Seco Creek is a one-shot freeform scenario with rules focused on gaining and losing status with four broad social groups in an Old West town. Each character has some existing relationships – they’re already law dogs or known criminals or whatever – and then there’s some customization you can do as well. I’ve run it twice now, and in both cases we felt like the scenario succeeded largely despite the system, not because if it. I had a really hard time keeping up with the gains and losses of chits, which is a major GM function. I think it’d be a gas to play this scenario out via Dust Devils at some point.
In a world filled with so many late-generation PbtA games, Dungeon World is starting to show its age. I sat at a very nice table with friends at RinCon in Tucson to play this, and the pleasure of familiar rules and a friendly table was real. DW’s low placement on this list is mostly due to how good many newer games are, many of which would not exist had Dungeon World not paved the way.
I had such high hopes for this game: a sprawling fantasy hexcrawl built on Free League’s Zero Engine, the same thing behind Mutant: Year Zero, one of my favorite games of all time. Nobody has really replicated the awesome success of MYZ, and Forbidden Lands fell kind of flat here. This is largely, IMO, due to the weak campaign it came with. That said, I keep thinking about it as a great tool for running other settings. Like The Dark of Hot Springs Island, or the Trilemma Adventures Compendium that should be arriving around now. Good game, bad campaign, it’s still on my shelf.
Stone Age (playtest)
This is a Forged in the Dark game being worked on by World of Dew’s Ben Woerner. It’s exactly what you think it is: a band of pre-Bronze Age folk doing stuff for their tribe. It’s got a neat meta-setting that’s wide open to a more mystical, Glorantha-style game. He’s also come up with some interesting innovations on the FitD chassis, in particular a new method of dealing with Devil’s Bargains. I’m a little over FitD right now, having just completed a Band of Blades campaign, but I’m keeping my eyes open for this one.
Consider supporting Ben Woerner’s Patreon!
Legacy’s Jay Iles came up with this very nifty little two-page RPG for a sad robot design jam over on Itch. Got to play it for a bit at the Arizona Game Fair and it was super provocative and interesting! The fact I’m still thinking about its satisfying little loops is a good sign. I’m an Iles fanperson so anything she does gets a second look.
Swords Without Master
This was a bucket list storygame I got to knock off the list at the Arizona Game Fair. Sat at a table with five people, which felt cumbersome for this kind of game, but it was well run and we ended up with some nifty story bits. It’s much more meta about story creation, nearly a pure story game, than I was expecting. I don’t know what I was expecting, though! Maybe something more like In a Wicked Age or something. Anyway, SWM is super interesting and eminently hackable: the new edition of With Great Power is modeled on it, even. I definitely thought long and hard about whether it was worth hacking for some little projects I’ve got cooking.
I’ve run this at home and, poorly, at a convention this year. I think it’s a hoot of a little game. You play smol-but-fierce goblins that belong to a tiny town of other smol goblins. The game itself is a best-of pastiche of mechanisms liberated from Psi-Run, Blades in the Dark, Burning Wheel, Macchiato Monsters, gosh, ideas from all over the place. The designer hasn’t gone out of his way to obscure that fact, which is good for someone like me (and probably you) who can fall back on other games’ experiences to help figure out some of the vague bits. Two hacks have already come out for it and I’m excited to give each a spin at cons next year.
Band of Blades
We played the entire campaign this year, eleven sessions total I think. It was good, and in some cases even great, but it was hard for our group to play to the end. The game is very grim – you’re playing soldiers beating a hasty retreat from an implacable foe – and there are some frustrating mechanical and transactional elements. The book isn’t super well organized, although a searchable PDF saved the day in most cases.
I guess my bottom line is that the game felt like it promised an experience about the horrors of war but delivered a chillier experience about logistics and troop management. It’s a low-monogamy game that otherwise feels pretty conventional, with players jumping between one of several characters throughout the campaign. This is a design feature of Legacy as well, and I wish I could find players who hooked into low-monogamy play as strongly as I feel like you could hook into it. I wrote about this game extensively this year.
This year’s theme at RinCon in Tucson was the “weird wild west,” which inspired me to dust off my favorite old Forge-era storygame. Dust Devils definitely shows its age, here, fifteen or more years after its release. The players are tasked with seeking out the hottest possible conflicts, which to my younger players in one of the games was incomprehensible. It generated a lot of nostalgia for when I was trying to figure out how to run and play it the first time, too, way back in 2006 or so. I ran it twice at Rincon: first game was for a table of older indie-curious dudes, second was a command performance for the Magpie kids after the con. Both super fun games, but gosh a lot of facilitator lifting. I have a new appreciation for how much help I get from games of the last five years.
Space Wurm vs Moonicorn
The one-shot version of this game has been in my convention go-bag for years. I most recently got to run it at Dreamation in Morristown, New Jersey. February 2019 feels like a lifetime ago, given the torrid pace of this year’s news and life. I remember this game starting with a strong table, but two of my players had to drop for a medical emergency, leaving me with two great players and not enough cross-action to generate the good play-juice. SWvM relies a lot on inter-character tensions, and with just two players, it really wasn’t possible. I still love this game and think it deserves so much more attention than it gets, but because it sits atop Dungeon World it, too, is starting to show its age. If you have any affection at all for psychedelia or pulp sci-fi, do yourself a favor and track this game down.
Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne
I love me a good freeform cry-fest, and Witch delivers on that front. It’s a GMless talky-talky game, with four players comprising the party of medieval dudes escorting the fifth player, the Witch, to her death in Lindisfarne. You play through several chapters of the trip along the way, with emotional stakes slowly escalating as everyone works toward answering their characters’ secrets. The Witch player follows different and more elaborate rules, though, and we don’t found out if she’s even guilty until the denouement. It’s totally manipulative, and it’s arguable how ethical it is for the game to impose emotional manipulation that is only revealed near the end, but I thought it was strong as hell. Would play again! And I would plan on a softer landing post-game.
I’ve had two chances to play this game about Regency romance now. For whatever reason, I’m a huge Austen nerd and have way too much Regency romance in my head. No idea how it got there but boy do I love the genre and style. Good Society is a tricky game to talk about! There’s very little game qua game, for one. Most of its procedures are not mechanized or randomized. The game’s killer app, for example, is that a couple times each session the players go through an epistolary (letter-writing) phase. This not only reflects the genre, but it’s a way for the players to surface all those unspoken yearnings and looks and all the stuff that’s readily obvious on screen or page but kind of hard to express at a table. Personally I think it’s super-weird to read indiegame Twitter talking about using Good Society for any and all gaming, but what do I know? I’m old and stodgy.
The King is Dead
I got to play my favorite Vincent Baker game this year twice, which makes 2019 a heck of a good year in my book. The King is Dead is a sexy, melodramatic game that evokes the beats of Game of Thrones and other political fantasies. It’s GMless, with scenes passing around the table and mediated via mini-games in small books each player has. The books are symmetrical (although I’m thinking hard about what asymmetrical books might look like!), and there’s a ton of consent and care baked into even the most fraught situations.
I’ve played TKID maybe six times now, with the first couple just teaching me what the games do and what makes for hot scenes. The last four times I’ve been able to play with an eye toward the tactical aspect of the game, which involves manipulating a hand of cards via the scenes you choose. I think the game shines with players who’ve had a chance to play it more than once, who may be a little less shy about chewing up scenery.
Magpie’s Zombie World has been percolating for a couple years now, but they finally delivered this year. Because of my regular attendance at the indie-friendly southwest cons, I’ve gotten quite a few plays in during its development. It was such a pleasure to play at a table run by someone other than a co-designer, using the actual finished product and not playtest materials and mock-ups. Zombie World does a lot of smart things to speed up setup-to-play time. It’s great at driving players toward each other and not the unifying threat of, you know, the zombies.
I recently came into possession of my previous favorite zombie game, 2008’s Zombie Cinema, and it was fun to see how the form has evolved over the past decade.
I ran a half-dozen sessions of Urban Shadows with my home group this year. I love the game but every time I play, I learn from a new mistake that changes the way I run it next time. The first time I ran it, we ignored/misused the debt economy. Last year, I made the mistake of letting the characters be fish-out-of-water folks new to their city. This year it was letting everyone’s storylines and action drift in such a way that nobody was ever in anyone else’s scene. It just sort of…happened, and I didn’t realize it until it was too late.
Magpie announced Urban Shadows 2nd Edition at GenCon this year, so I might just let this one rest a year and see what they have done to tweak and tighten. I might even play it right next time!
Whatever my neutral/cool feelings may be toward OSR style play, I adore the work Sine Nomine’s Kevin Crawford has been turning out. I’d heard a lot of positive hype about Godbound for quite a few years now, but a game about demigods that uses D&D? Really? Ugh. I was so wrong! The vast majority of Godbound happens outside the OSR framework, and in fact if the players find themselves engaging with that d20, something has probably gone terribly wrong and they’re about to suffer. All the other stuff, from how divine power is structured, to the range of abilities, to advancement, to the way the game fractally expands from local threats to global ambitions, awesome.
My breakthrough, I think, was embracing the “rulings, not rules” style of this kind of play. I like rules and I like how modern rules drive interesting, unexpected play. Rulings-not-rules is culturally and practically quite a different transaction. I wouldn’t want to play this way forever, but embracing it was a revelation.
Our game ended only because our pantheon decided they couldn’t be a pantheon any more, and Godbound is not a game about gods going to war. I would happily, eagerly run or play this any time. It’s got me jazzed up to take another look at his Stars Without Number game again (although it is much more reliant on straightforward OSR style mechanisms).
The One Ring
A couple very good convention friends of mine convinced me to spool up a long, slow campaign of The One Ring for whenever we find ourselves in the same place. We’ve played several times now, dragging locals in as guest characters at every opportunity. We’re playing through the Ruins of the North campaign. Our two central characters are a Ranger and a High Elf, both brokenly powerful and badass and all that. So far they’ve made it through the first two adventures, leaving Mirkwood over the Misty Mountains and finding themselves in the foothills of Angmar.
I was looking forward to the second edition of The One Ring showing up soon, but it looks like we’ll all be waiting a bit longer for that. That’s fine, I wasn’t looking forward to re-spending a bunch of money.
I’ve run this freeformish larpish game from Burning Wheel creator Luke Crane several times ever since I got it, but this year was the first time I got to play. It was fucking amazing. I played the aging patriarch of the family that has come together to receive the inheritance of the former patriarch, who has finally kicked the bucket and has a lot of stuff to give away. I loved the physicality of moving around a big space, literally embodying my character, being too big in small spaces, roaring and grumbling, all of it. It got me much more interested in seeking out more of what’s happening in larp, which I think I’ll do if I get to a more larp-friendly convention in 2020.
I would totally play Inheritance again, because having seen the game maybe five times it’s been five wildly different experiences. That’s some good design.
Masks: A New Generation
My last game of the year was finally getting to play in a campaign of Masks. It’s such a smart game. A lot of its best features only show up over time as the characters advance and relationships evolve. Personally, I’ve always greatly preferred this mode of supers play (With Great Power is similarly concerned with relationship over physics), and the teen supers angle is a terrific alibi to be melodramatic and non-strategic. It was also a chance for my best friend to run a game, which he hasn’t gotten to do nearly enough, and that was such a pleasure. Given the mix of other games we’ve played this year, I appreciated anew the help these newer games provide. I don’t know that he’d have had as a good a time if he’d needed to do the ongoing prep work of, say, Godbound or a Space Wurm vs Moonicorn campaign.
This was, for me, a busy year for gaming conventions. Four felt like a lot, but also not enough if you know what I mean (and I think you do).
I last went to Dreamation in 2016, and it was big then. It’s too big for me now, I think. I mean, it’s run very nicely. The various groups and grouped off in their own spaces, indie gaming gets a bunch of little breakout rooms (I’ve never seen another hotel with so much small meeting space). So many of my online gaming friends are Midwest-to-East Coast, so it’s a great way to see a bunch of folks. Hard to describe the difference in vibe from the other big indie-friendly convention I’ve attended, Big Bad Con.
Arizona Game Fair
The Arizona Game Fair started as a boardgaming convention, added the big D&D/Pathfinder ballroom space, expanded into more conventional roleplaying, and this year stretched into indie games. Apocalypse World co-author Vincent Baker was even a guest of honor, which looked pretty hard on him. Poor guy works and works, even when he was sick. Anyway, this event has a ways to go before it’s “good” for my kind of gaming but their hearts are in the right place, and I’ll help however I can going forward.
New Mexicon continues to be my “home” indie gaming convention. I go every year and make it a road trip with my gaming bestie, podcaster, designer and all around rad dude Jahmal Brown. Albuquerque is easy to fly to, so I encourage everyone in storygame land to try and make it to this event at least once. Attendance is in the low hundreds, meaning you can actually meet everyone and not worry about that FOMO cloud sitting over your head as you realize you just can’t spend enough time with anyone.
Consider backing Mad Jay on Patreon! And check out his podcast, Diceology.
RinCon is held in Tucson, Arizona every October. It’s my mental template for “good mainstream gaming convention” in terms of size, organization, offerings, general vibe. This year was its second year of offering an “Indie RPG Arcade,” their local spin on Games on Demand. Facilitators pitch games at the top of each play slot, so you don’t know in advance what’s going to be offered. I pretty much lived in that space, shrinking a 500 person event down to a 30 person mini-event within it, which is good for my head and heart. Fingers crossed they’ll continue to grow the Arcade, because it’s my gaming sweet spot and a good con just 90 minutes away is great.
State of the Slack
Alongside this blog, I also co-moderate the Indie Game Reading Club community on Slack. I had to figure out what platform to live on with the collapse of Google Plus, and it was a decision I could only make once, you know? Discord is all about (video) gamers but it’s also a chat platform. Facebook is…problematic, largely because a lot of my online besties don’t go there. Twitter is a nightmare. I went with Slack because we can post long things and thread the responses. It’s also sealed behind hand-delivered invitations; it’s not a public space. This article about The Dark Forest theory of the internet explains why this was the safest and most productive way to proceed.
The Slack is very good. We have 232 folks in there as of today, with probably 100ish active users and everyone else occasional lurkers. Over the past year, I discovered these folks really want to talk about stuff besides gaming with other folks with whom they share gaming. Gaming at its best has always brought people together. So we have mini-channels about cooking and books and music and parenting and e-sports.
If you want in, email me. If I don’t know who you are or if your social media is hard to research, I’ll want to talk a bit about the space. Eventually we’ll run into folks who have irreconcilable beef. It’s my personal dark forest, it won’t be part of my Patreon, and hand curation is the best I can hope for, I think. I’ve got terrific help in there, too, between co-moderators and community outreach folks I trust.
Given the nature of the internet, this Slack won’t last forever. I know that. Maybe down the road we’ll move to a forum? That would help us overcome the free Slack’s limitation of being able to see only the last 10,000 messages. On the other hand, I feel like there’s some value in allowing old stuff to pass into the past and let ourselves forget.
Top 10 Posts of 2019
This was the first year of the Indie Game Reading Club residing on its own blog and managing my own Slack community. I’ve learned a lot since we left the pleasant, shallow, warm waters of Google Plus:
- Controversial topics generate a lot of heat. The Tyranny of Excellence was by far my most popular post of 2019. I regret only that my words were weaponized by folks who should know better. I don’t like being quoted and spun out of context, and social media Internet is largely context-free, so I’m going to be more circumspect going forward.
- Big titles get big audiences. I mean honestly, if the main thing I cared about was audience numbers, I’d definitely be writing about D&D. But I care about other things! And sometimes those other things have bigger audiences than I’m accustomed to. Band of Blades (Evil Hat) and Godbound (OSR darling Sine Nomine) generated a ton of traffic, and I assume that’s because those games have bigger fan bases than most of what I talk about. My Forbidden Lands posts continues to generate a surprising amount of traffic. This is the main reason I’m launching my Patreon before the end of the year: so I can keep writing about the things I care about without the pressure of writing toward larger audiences.
- My pieces probably run too long, according to conventional wisdom about the blog business. I’ve been advised more than once to break my bigger pieces into smaller chunks, maybe releasing them across several days. This is mostly a logistical challenge, not a creative one, but it also strikes me as being more meaningful if I ran ads and needed eyeballs. Which I’m not doing.
On that note, here’s the top 10 posts of the Indie Game Reading Club 2019:
- The Tyranny of Excellence
- 50 Lessons About Roleplaying (my personal favorite post of the year)
- Band of Blades and Recompiling Code
- Clocks: Forged in the Dark’s Underappreciated App
- Band of Blades Position/Effect Cheat Sheet
- Godbound and Tradsplaining in the Late Twenty-Teens
- Band of Blades: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
- Good Faith and RPGs
- A/B Testing: The One Ring vs Forbidden Lands
- Forbidden Lands: Session 1
In conclusion: Please Support My Patreon
If you like what you’ve read over the past year, or are just now learning about what I do via this post, please consider backing me on a monthly basis on Patreon.
I have realized, over the past year, just how much time and energy my work takes. It’s good work and I’m proud of it! And I would like to try and cover some bills. Or, at the very least, get closer to breaking even. There are hard costs associated with running the blog: I just spent a couple hundred just on annual WordPress stuff. And never mind the time and expertise
Thank you for your consideration, and I hope you have a great year of gaming in 2020.