Mini Reviews for July 2020: Shinobigami, Hit The Streets, After The War

I’m going to experiment with something new here: short reviews of things I’ve been reading, once a month. I’m not done with my deep dives! But this will get more information out there about the staggering array of indie titles. It’s also a chance for you to vote on the title you’d most like me to critically dive into in a future month. Just leave me a comment here, on Twitter, or on the Indie Game Reading Club Slack.

This month features all physical games I’ve gotten from Kickstarters recently. Of course “recent” doesn’t mean what it did pre-pandemic, does it? These are the top of my TBR stack.

Shinobigami

This is a surprisingly small, dense book. Shinobigami opens with a replay, a very Japanese scripted playthrough of the game with manga-style illustrations. It’s like half the book. I confess I only skimmed it.

The game’s angle is that the PCs belong to different ninja clans in the modern world. You play through a one-session scenario in pursuit of some agenda for your clan (literally called The Prize). Might be a scroll with ancient wisdom, or a sacred relic, an NPC, or any other MacGuffin you can dream up. “Modern world” is also loosely held here: it could be new cybernetic technology or an AI or something as well. There’s an overarching setting conceit, and it’s basically the World of Darkness (“World of Shadows” here), only with ninjas instead of vampires: vast conspiracies, an ongoing war right under everyone’s noses, monsters everywhere threatening mundane humanity.

The scenario can be cooperative, or a two-sided battle, or an anything-goes battle royale. It’s a prepped GM thing, and the scenario is resolved at the end of the session. I feel like having an explicit goal makes this very easy to just run with. No idea what characterization looks like within play, though.

Character creation is very crunchy and mechanical, with various abilities (called ninpo) that interlock and synergize. I think the first time you play you won’t see much of that, but the second go-round will get some very clever builds. But…yeah, it’s a “builds” kind of game. There are attack, support, and equip(ment) ninpo, and then each clan gets its own list as well. Finally everyone gets an ohgi, a secret technique known only to your character and kept secret from the other players. There’s also an advancement system called Merit that lets you cash in earned Merit for handy virtues, and take on additional flaws in play that further bolster your Merit. While the game is played one session per mission, you play your characters through multiple missions.

Shinobigami is a straightforward, even old-fashioned, skill-based game: you roll dice against a GM-set target number, and either succeed or fail. It doesn’t have anything to say about what fails look like, which is disappointing. I assume various indie techniques, like “you face a complication” or “don’t roll again until the situation changes” are applicable to make it a bit more interesting. The very novel killer app of the game is the grid on which the skills appear, with blank spots between skills. When the GM calls for a skill to be rolled, you count the skills and little blanks between a skill you do have and the skill being called for, which becomes a penalty to your roll. Taking skills also fills in the blanks to either side, making the number of spaces you count go down Clever!

An image from the replay. The little kawaii characters appear in a PDF that comes with the game as well, tokens to use during the combat game.

Combat is a more elaborate minigame than straight skill use, of course, because you’re ninjas. The big twist is the Velocity System: there are six columns, numbered 1-6, indicating your “plot.” No idea why it’s called that. Anyway! Everyone in the combat secretly picks a number on a d6 and hides it under their hand. You reveal, and put a token on the Velocity chart matching your number. Attacks happen from high to low, easy enough, but your number is also the fumble number: the earlier you go, the more likely you are to fumble. Pretty cool. The difference between numbers also establishes an abstract sort of “range” for ranged combat.

Because it’s a translation from Kotodama Heavy Industries (who also brought us Tenra Bansho Zero and Ryuutama), they offer advice to localize what can feel like a weird tabletop experience. TBZ and Ryuutama both feel, to me, like they’re 30 degrees “off” what we think of in terms of conventional play culture and assumptions, and a few small tweaks can help modernize (Westernize, let’s be honest) and streamline play. Or you can ignore the advice and work out the experience for yourself.

Hit the Streets: Defend the Block

PDF available at DriveThruRPG

Hit the Streets: Defend the Block

Gauntlet online ultra-GM Rich Rogers’ first game design, Hit the Streets: Defend the Block is a neighborhood-level supers game. Think Daredevil, Jessica Jones, the whole Defenders lineup. Hit the Streets won BAMFsies (popular vote and judge’s spotlight) and a 2020 ENnie (Judges’ Spotlight and popular vote winner).

The book itself is nice and compact, an attractive full-color 105 pages. The art is all very 4-color comics-style. For such a slender volume, it does a great job of presenting information spread-by-spread (for which Electric Bastionland, which I will talk about later, has been lauded recently – note that Hit the Streets…hit the street months earlier). There are only a couple places where text blocks flow to another page. I really wish more games would do this! I love the graphical presentation.

I mean who doesn’t want to play a pink jackal?

For perfectly good genre reasons, the game is team-based: players conceive of their supers in terms of the team, starting with agreeing to a purpose for the group (retired heroes, ex-villains, heroes for hire, etc.), continuing into each character’s team purpose (leader, den mother, strategist, jerk), and ending with relationships among members. Then you do the same, kind of, to establish a Rival Team that makes your life hard: super villains, or a different hero group. Finally, you establish details about your neighborhood.

Character creation is refreshingly straightforward for a supers game: you decide if you’re better at being normal or being super, divvy up values across six stats, and pick a couple powers (most of which are enhanced versions of your stats, with some color/explanation/fictional positioning). You also start with a random amount of “Spark,” an economy that reflects confidence and gets worn down through play. It’s dialed way back from Champions-level detail while also being more specific and constrained than Masks: A New Generation.

Sessions play out in a conventional way, with the heroes overcoming neighborhood problems. Players roll against target numbers set by the GM (the number of 4-6es you need to roll in a pool of d6es, Burning Wheel style) while sometimes risking your Spark (the number of 1s you roll, up to the difficulty you were facing). The dice pool is easy to build: mode (normal or hero, 1 or 3d), stat (1 to 3d), team role (1d if you’re fulfilling it), one of your powers (2d if you’re using it), and finally Spark can be converted to dice, as many as you want. State a clear intent, make a single roll, and you’re done with the conflict.

Spark is the central bit of the game. You gamble it away on conflicts, you lose it if there’s Tension (that is, the roll is meaningfully dangerous in some way), and you earn it back via charity, neighborhood patrols and team bonding. It’s a nice, simple way to keep focus on the stuff that actually matters in the game. If you ever hit 0 Spark, you’re out of the session.

There’s a simple advancement scheme based on earning XP from dealing with your normal obligations (family or job or whatever), and supporting your teammates. Your normal/super mode and stats can all be improved, and you can eventually buy more powers. That’s it, that’s the whole game mechanically speaking.

While the mechanisms and economies of the game are stripped back to functional first principles, I think the good stuff is in the GMing section. Here, Rogers has solid-gold advice. Most of it is applicable outside Hit the Streets, too: ask tons of questions about the character choices players made during creation, think about the characters in context with their setting, and so on. He’s got some good ideas to make the game more mechanically nuanced as well, by establishing good-enough and holy-shit-great difficulty levels for single rolls, or setting up conflicts that need more than one roll to resolve, and so on.

The best bit, in my opinion, is that the game has strong opinions about the themes of street-level supers stories: specifically, corruption and financial disparity. He provides lots of prep ideas for creating problems for the team and individual characters that orbit these two themes.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to giving this one a spin even as a one-shot. It’s theme-driven rather than physics-driven, which I love, and it’s great that it hits different notes than Masks.

After the War

After the War, by Hugo nominee Alasdair Stuart and Genesis of Legend founder Jason Pitre, came out many months ago and I’ve been struggling with how to talk about it. My takeaway after my first read-through was that it’s a sprawling work of fiction and world building with the slenderest thread of mechanics running through it. A closer read has changed my mind a little on that.

A roomy layout makes a book such a pleasure to browse.

It’s a beefy book, at 355 pages. The art is black and white, all very nicely done. The layout is clean, easy to navigate, probably best in class at this point for a book this big. Of those 355 pages, easily 200 pages of it is fiction, mostly presented as in-game documents, interviews, all kinds of found-footage type stuff. Another 100 is play advice, necessary for a game with so much required collaboration. Maybe 50 more pages are (many) lists of character and setting choices. I could probably type all the rules-rules on one page.

All that fiction is in service to presenting the premise of After the War, and it’s a doozy. There’s been a catastrophic war throughout the galaxy against a memetic virus called The Song. The hand-waving behind The Song is super interesting! Something about a vibration emitting from the very fabric of spacetime that overwrites sentient species’ free will, converting them into a vast hive mind called The Great Choir. Cool cool cool. It’s finally beaten by a counter-song engineered by humanity called Tormenta, which basically did the same thing as The Song but instead of enforcing unity, it created hyperviolent monsters out of people and then killed (most of) them. The game is set, well, after the war. The setting is a graveyard planet where the war’s survivors are trying to hack out new communities while hints of both The Song and Tormenta threaten to re-emerge and characters grapple with their wartime experiences.

I need to talk about how the book works at this point. So those first 25 pages spell out the timeline of the war, right? The next 35 pages are spreads of interviews with survivors. It’s all well written, and maybe there are even some NPC ideas in there. But it’s really just an extension of those first 25 pages.

Character creation is pretty easy, mostly just coming up with an origin (which conveys two traits), your war story (and two more traits), and your profession (for your last two). Lots of choices, and it feels kind of lifepath-y. Then you create a pair of Beliefs (Burning Wheel style) and that’s it. There’s also a group setting-creation step, comprised of a settlement type (each with four questions), industries (each with an NPC), relationships between each PC and one of the NPCs, a little map-making game (I love these!), and a quick explanation of how each PC found themselves in the community. It’s a GMed game, but this process does a good job highlighting the themes everyone’s interested in exploring. Later, the GM does a bit more prep on their own, specifically filling out five other settlements around the planet. None of the other settlements want what the PCs want, of course.

While there is a GM, it’s on the players to collaborate on what scenes they want to play out. The GM is tasked only with setting up “the platform,” that is, an initial situation and setting. A different player defines “the tilt,” an incident that drives the action. Then a third player sets “the question,” a compelling element you want to explore in the story. Once you’ve got a platform, a tilt and a question, all the players decide to opt in or stay out. Then you play out the scene until you’ve answered the question. I have no idea what that feels like in play! Feels like you get interesting vignettes perhaps more than plot through-lines. There’s some useful stuff for the GM to help work out interesting situations by evaluating history and current relationships, but when the GM only sets the platform, I’m not sure how they bring those situations into play.

Games that democratize conventional GM duties put a lot of creative onus on the players. There’s a lot of good advice in After the War for the players on how to handle all these duties. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether players will actually read them. Getting players to read rulebooks is like pulling teeth, but maybe the audience for After the War is self-selecting for indie nerds who love this stuff. I can tell that the particular division of labor this game requires is pretty novel, though, so expect a learning curve.

After some instructions to the GM, there’s another 100 pages of background material. Some of it’s obviously useful, some of it less obviously so, but all of it is interesting. It’s a lot to read. That’s followed by a pretty detailed example of play (much like the Replay in Shinobigami, above).

My takeaway, again clarifying I have not yet played After the War: there is a lot to read, a pretty small footprint of a system with some novel twists to the conventional RPG transaction, and lots of what appears to be freeform storytelling punctuated by infrequent but one assumes impactful rolls. My first read left me feeling like the book mostly existed to showcase the setting, but going through it again for this article I feel like there’s more system than I saw the first time. If you’re in for a heavy read (all those survivor stories in the beginning of a book are downers!) and theme-intensive collaborative gameplay, give it a look.

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