Mini-Reviews for August 2020: Electric Bastionland, Liminal, Vaesen

Here’s what I’ve been reading this month. These are (relatively) short reviews! Ideally I’ll run these at some point in the future. Are you interested in seeing a deeper dive about any of these? Let me know in the comments.

Electric Bastionland

Chris McDowall’s Electric Bastionland arrived on Kickstarter with lots of hype from folks whose opinions I respect. It’s based on Into the Odd, one of many OSR games/frameworks, and I like to keep up with what’s going on in OSR-land, so I backed it. The author does a really nice job of laying out the game’s goal at the end of the book: “Electric Bastionland was written to be a roleplaying game that anyone could play.” Having gone through the whole thing a few times now, I think that goal is aspirational at best. Besides, literally every RPG is an RPG that anyone can play (other than the actually broken ones).

The book, as a product, is notable in a few ways: minimalist text (nearly every procedure and subtopic is broken down into bullet points), generous spreads, and starkly evocative art. It looks and reads differently than anything else on my shelf.

The premise of Electric Bastionland is that the characters came from failed careers, now belong to a party that owes someone a lot of money, and regularly get leads on heist-able treasure somewhere in or around a surreal city called The Bastion. The debt is specifically $10,000, which implies to me that you’re meant to play until it’s paid off. The someone is determined by the youngest player’s career.

The majority of content in the book is career spreads, and setting emerges from which careers (there are 100!) are in play. There are rough aesthetic guidelines for the various established locations of the game – the Bastion (a vast, ever-changing surreal city – I couldn’t help but think of Invisible Sun here, all the way down to the 1920s aesthetic), Deep Country (everything outside the Bastion, representing backwards-thinking communities), and The Underground (a meta-location filled with intelligent machines that connects the Bastion to everywhere else, including Deep Country and The Living Stars above).

My tl;dr is that Electric Bastionland is 90% aesthetic guidelines, 5% thematic guidelines, and maybe 5% (or less) rules. There are evocative bullet-lists for each major setting, and there are strong implications of how your Bastion looks based on the characters in play. A Bastion in a game with a Science Mystic, Masked Horrorist (wut), Tuk-Tuk Driver, and Traveling Show-Person is going to look much different than a game with a Disinherited Socialite, Lone Stargazer, an Underground Weirdo (how do you fail at your Underground Weirdo career?), and a Canal Nomad. If the creative challenge of making those things make sense against a (mostly) blank slate sounds like your jam, you will love this.

As far as structured play and play advice goes, I feel like there’s just not that much there there. This is probably my own preference for other schools of indie gameplay and design talking, I’ll cop to that. But I feel like Chris’ minimalist approach is too minimal for folks who aren’t already steeped in play, and in particular in OSR play. He nicely restates some big OSR play advice ideas: talking is better than rolling dice, keep asking questions, sneaking is better than fighting. But that advice is rooted in an even larger assumption: play is about characters overcoming obstacles in an environment created by contextualizing weird aesthetic inputs.

Is that model the most welcoming for folks who have never played anything before? Is an indebted Tuk-Tuk driver more accessible than an armed wanderer looking for trouble? Normally I wouldn’t even bother asking that question, but it’s a core goal of Electric Bastionland. I mean, it might be! Whatever additional social context exists among the characters, or the characters’ connection with wider society is entirely up to the taste of the players but gets no mention in the book. This is a game about obstacles, not situations. Other than the core situation of owing someone a lot of money.

There’s other rip-roaring rhetoric baked in, like “rules are false idols” and “this book is designed for the game table, not the library.” To his credit, Chris puts his money where his mouth is: the barely-there rules are easy to ignore so, yeah, you can’t go looking to them for answers. The big spreads and bullet points really are a nice way to take in lots of ideas quickly. Other rhetorical claims are harder for me to see in the game text: make the players feel welcome, break the barriers that stop you from having fun at the table, your table should be warm and inviting. All worthy goals, for sure, but nothing about the game itself gets me there.

Are “make impactful choices” and “be nice to each other” useful advice? It makes me wonder who needs this advice. Who isn’t making impactful choices? Who isn’t being nice to each other?

Liminal

Paul Mitchener’s Liminal slid under my radar when it first showed up. In fact I had backed it on Kickstarter and, to my shame, un-backed. But I’ve got a retail copy in my hands now.

Liminal is about folks caught between the mundane and magical worlds in the United Kingdom. It’s not a universal modern fantasy game like Urban Shadows; the game is specifically a love letter to England that is diverse, proud, and loves its wholesome baking shows. It’s more Dr. Who than Danny Boyle in tone.

The holding environment of the game is the Crew, to which the characters all belong regardless of their background. Deciding on the Crew’s goal is part of the setup, and there’s not a pick-list to choose from. Instead, there’s some general guidance, things like being supernatural investigators, or fighting a shared enemy (there are many factions already baked into the setting), or working with a faction as a deniable asset. The Crew then takes on cases, which are all what you might imagine: investigations, helping folks, righting wrongs, cool supernatural special ops. Crew-making is its own minigame before the game starts.

The rules bit of the game is pretty trad with some trindie bits: skill tests against challenge levels with a chance at critical success or failure. That’s fine, functional, unremarkable. Happily he’s included specific rules about failure! I cannot fathom why failure rules continue to be special and nice, and not just an expected part of success/failure based game design.

Being a supernatural game, there’s of course magic. The list is pretty much what you’d expect: blessings and curses, illusions, and so on. Spells spend a fungible resource called Will, which everyone has and can regain by engaging with their Drive. It’s a very straightforward cycle.

What stood out for me was the extensive, flavorful take on Spooky-But-Not-Miserable-England. There are lots of factions at work in the game, everything from rich-family wizard schools to secret police departments working the werewolf beat. Probably half the book is dedicated to setting ideas and locations and critters and flavor, flavor, flavor. And the character concepts are spot-on for that Dresden Files/Constantine/The Magicians vibe, with academic wizards and knights from secret ancient orders and mundane investigators who have seen too much.

It’s a modest, attractively produced game filled with charm and clear, directed play. You could certainly piece together something similar on your own, probably, using Fate or adapting Urban Shadows. The killer app, I think, is for the folks (like me!) who have tried and failed to wrestle this game together out of disparate bits of World of Darkness games. It’s all in one place, crew management and case creation and a dedicated, narrow focus on those thing.

Vaesen

Vaesen, Free League’s newest Year Zero Engine game, features a 19th century monster hunter society headquartered in Castle Gyllencreutz in Upsala, Sweden. The setting is historical-ish; they’re not picky about when during the 19th century you’re operating. It’s the horse-speed travel, no computers and phones, the lack of all modern conveniences that’s important.The castle bit of Vaesen follows Free League’s formula for your party’s shared enterprise/headquarters, much like the Ark in Mutant: Year Zero. As the monster-hunting society advances, you “discover” new elements of the creepy abandoned castle you’ve inherited: a hidden library filled with occult knowledge, a fish pond that calms you before you head out to investigate a mystery, a Difference Engine to help with the calculations to add new stuff to the castle.

The monsters you hunt in 19th century Sweden are fairy-tale themed, drawn from Johan Egerkrans‘ book Vaesen: Spirits and Monsters of Scandinavian Folklore. There’s a slight Cthulhu By Gaslight vibe to the cycle of play, with special fear rules and long-term damage to your mental well-being, but the threats aren’t cosmic or existential. It’s an angry farm fairy terrorizing the family that works the land, a witch no longer respected by the community she’s always served and protected, a bridge troll whose livelihood dried up when folks stopped crossing its bridge. The Vaesen are monstrous, but they always have a human-caused reason they’ve crossed over from fairy tale to menace.

Character creation looks like other Year Zero Engine games: pick an archetype, pick from a series of 3-bullet lists, define a relationship with the other player characters, done. The pick-lists are nifty! You choose a motivation (a roleplaying guideline), a trauma (helps color the world as weird and supernatural, the event that gave you “The Sight”), and a dark secret (which earns you XP if you engage with it, and gives the GM something to poke you with). You also start out with a memento, which helps you recover from conditions. It’s nice, compact, straightforward.

Instructions to create the mystery you’ll investigate are thorough and detailed, from the inciting incident that draws the society’s attention, to atmosphere-creating advice, to the step-by-step list of what will happen. The investigation is not on rails, not exactly; it’s more a rough to-do list to remember to receive the invitation, prepare for the journey, describe their arrival in this strange new place, and so on. The detail level here looks terrific, very helpful if you’ve never put together an investigation game. And tables, so many tables. You can procedurally generate nearly every aspect of the investigation if you enjoy the challenge of piecing that together.

Vaesen is a squarely trindie game. If you’ve played other Year Zero Engine games (Mutant, Coriolis, Tales from the Loop, etc., you’ll get the gist of how the game works here. It’s a simplified system, like Tales, with just one “kind” of die you’re rolling with an opportunity to reroll, if you’re willing to take a condition (physical or mental, depending on which stat you’re rolling against). It’s not risky, it’s costly, and recovering from Conditions is time-consuming but not difficult. I don’t have a sense of how disruptive a Condition actually is, but I assume it really only applies during the scene in which you’ve received the Condition. There’s a nifty bit where low-level injuries give you a defect (a small penalty with a description), while very high-level injuries will give you an insight (a significant bonus, should you survive). Otherwise? It’s party based play with a GM responsible for prepping an adventure and normal adjudication duties.

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