The optics, they’re bad.
So…I indulged in a lot of retail therapy when the lockdowns started. I backed many games. Too many, one might argue. But if you’ve ever participated in a crowdsourcing campaign, you know how it diabolically gives you multiple serotonin hits: first when you back it, later when you spend the money, every time you get an exciting update, when they charge for shipping, then the tracking number, then actually receiving the thing. It’s a tiny bit like a gift-giving holiday to yourself over and over.
It turns out I gave myself a lot of gifts. I’m sure many of you know the feeling. You also know that supply chain struggles and multiple shutdowns in China meant that a whole lot of projects got stalled out. And now here we are, the first quarter of 2023, and a veritable avalanche of games has started pouring into my house. And even though I told my spouse, the reality of it didn’t really land until box after box, envelope after envelope, started arriving.
I haven’t had time to play everything that’s showed up, but I do want to talk about what’s arrived. It’s too much to do at once, so I’ll break this up across several installments. As always, these are reviews from reading, not play. (And, yeah, I’m still doing this sort of thing, even though my Echo Sedano fiction project has been a ton of fun and you should be reading it.)
So, going from left to right, let’s begin.
City of Winter
Sort of a sequel to Ross Cowman’s Fall of Magic, City of Winter is another storygame built around a scrolling scene-setting device, narrative prompts, and jaw-dropping table presence. You “can” play these kinds of games online, but this style of game I feel like benefits so very much from the physicality of the thing. The map has texture and color that does a lot of lifting to convey vibes.
City of Winter is a bit more mechanically elaborate than Fall. In addition to the scroll, there are several decks of cards, a second, more static city map, a die, and a separate city location that appears to move in the course of play. The focus is generational this time: as players move from location to location, they’re drawing cards keyed to each location that represent traditions. Later, they put those cards into play to show how their characters are changed by where they’ve traveled. Every character is also marked by their age, and will eventually die in the course of play as the years tick over.
Besides the cards and the scroll, there’s also a flat, non-scrolling map of the city itself. Once the family arrives in the City, they’re exposed to the City’s particular traditions as they explore their new home. Since it’s not a scroll, I think you’ll feel the static-ness of the City’s locations. There’s even a moving location printed on its own card, nifty and mystical.
City of Winter looks thoughtful and reflective and I’m very much looking forward to playing a campaign of this with the right crowd.
Atlas of the Latter Earth
I think I’m not alone in reading and buying OSR material more aspirationally than practically. To be clear, Kevin Crawford’s work clicks best with me, and I have put his stuff to use in other, non-OSR games. But other than a run at Godbound a few years ago, I’ve been buying his books with little hope of running them as-written. Atlas of the Latter Earth is on that list.
My favorite Sine Nomine book is Stars Without Number, revised edition. I ran a short campaign of SWN many years ago, but my GMing style just doesn’t gel with his OSR house system. The sector generation, though, that gave me terrific Traveller vibes. Traveller was the first RPG I personally owned, way back in 1980 or so, so I’ve always had fond feelings for the format.
When he released Worlds Without Number, the fantasy version of SWN, once again the aspirations bubbled up in me. The faction game from Godbound and the setting creation system from Stars? Gorgeous, love it. It’s been a few years and other indie shinies keep distracting me.
Atlas of the Latter Earth is a complete setting book for Worlds Without Number. Honestly, I’m not sure how best to use it since my personal interest in WWN was in generating my own setting, my own factions. As an example of a fully functional deployment of a WWN game, Atlas is nice to read. WWN, straight out of the book, is not generic fantasy mind you. It defaults to fallen future fantasy, real Dying Earth or Suldokar’s Wake vibes. On those grounds, Atlas is a fine example of the form.
I mean, to be clear, Atlas is as good as anything Crawford puts out. It’s lavish, thorough, probably more raw ideas per page than you’ll ever be able to use. His setting, extra rules, monsters, all of it: chef’s kiss, no notes. Pleasantly old-school layout, which these days comes as a surprise to me given the preponderance of elaborate layout showing up in the OSR space these days. But actually using it, I think, means you’re barely using WWN at all. At least not the world-building stuff, which, well. Why bother, the world is built: thirty eight distinct regions/nations, any one of them ripe for loads of gaming. And it’s built more carefully than what I’d do.
If you’re reading this and feeling frustrated at my ambivalence, imagine how I feel! For real though, if I ever do pull together a WWN game, I’m going to need to think long and hard about what to leave out of Atlas more than what I would want to include. Personally I find the process of creating a bespoke setting and rules and table best practices exhausting to think about. Maybe it would be less exhausting if I had an eye toward setting up play for years, not sessions. It’s a big cultural gap between the OSR and indie worlds, I think. I could be playing a complete game of, say, Apocalypse Keys all in one book! Or I could spend months tacking on bits and bobs of rules from a dozen takes on the D&D meta-framework to create a just-so edition that won’t make any sense at all beyond the half-dozen people at the table.
Yeah…that does sound pretty good, doesn’t it? Hilarious and exhausting.
Come with me if you want to live…in circa 1998 design land.
I confess, I love The Terminator franchise and time travel in general. Seen the movies, seen the TV show, I’m all in on the big Arniebot and the whole twisty-turny alt-future timeline that sort of makes sense if you squint hard enough. The first two movies are one of the few places I’ve allowed myself the pleasure of nostalgia. So I bought the RPG when it showed up on Kickstarter, right in the middle of a slew of other time-travel stuff I also backed.
The Terminator RPG from Nightfall Games is, to be sure, really fun supplemental material for fans of the movies and show. There’s a good breakdown of the timeline and setting details, endless pages of technical breakdowns of every kind of robot you’ve ever seen on screen, bios about the major characters. And it’s a game I just can’t see playing.
System wise there are few surprises. The game bowls straight up trad alley: skill tests versus target numbers, some variation of success and failure types (messy, solid, exceptional, etc.), an elaborate combat system, gun porn. You know the game design I’m talking about, if you’ve played any sort of trad game since the 1990s. Kind of perfect, really, given the era from which the first two movies came out.
Besides gradients of success and failure, the most forward-looking rules in the game are about “hope points,” a hero point system where you get points for top-tier successes and bottom-tier failures. There’s a big menu of stuff to spend your hope on. Seems fine? I do like the range of options, they’re all cinematic and fun.
Yeah…this didn’t spark joy for me. Maybe it’s because I can envision such an interesting game based on the Terminator premise. What The Terminator RPG needs, really, is strong guidance on how to design compelling scenarios that leverage what made the movies special. Yes, sure, the movies featured terrific stunt work and bravery in the face of an implacable machine. For me, though, the excitement was the potential of the present being in dialogue with the future: what happens if Skynet does the thing? How will Skynet change if you defeat a version of it in the present? None of that is in this game. There is literally no chapter or writing at all about what makes a good session in this game, or what campaign might look like. What it does have is campaign seeds and a few scenarios.
The Terminator RPG was my most retail-therapy-y purchase of this batch. I still page through it to look at robots. And the accompanying campaign book, written by a lot of different folks with very different voices and organizational approaches, has a few nuggets if I really wanted to throw together a game.
Next up will be Apocalypse Keys, Blade Runner, and Heironymus.