Q1 Reviews (Part 2 of too many parts)

Last week I hit the first three of too many games that have arrived, quite suddenly, on my doorstep. This week I continue working through the pile. I’ll keep going until someone stops me.

Apocalypse Keys

Apocalypse Keys is a PbtA-based game inspired by Hellboy/BPRD but over the years of development has grown into something much bigger, stranger and honestly a lot more fun. You play Omen class monsters working for a secret organization called DIVISION (it’s a complicated backronym) in a world full of magic, weird technology, parallel universes and all that. Omen class monsters have the capacity to become Harbingers, which are the big bads that threaten the world, over and over again. You won’t be surprised to hear that being an effective Omen class monster and beating Harbinger ass more or less guarantees you will eventually become the next Harbinger. And so the cycle of world-ending violence continues.

The mechanical innovation author Rae Nedjadi has introduced is that rather than the typical miss/soft-but-complicated success/success bands you get in most other PbtA games, instead you’re rolling a miss/success/oh-shit-you-succeeded-too-hard range. You do this by directly cashing in Darkness Tokens every time you roll. No stats! Sometimes you roll too well and/or spent too many Darkness Points and badly overshoot your intended effect.

Every playbook has its own method of generating Darkness. And if you hold on to too many of them after you make moves, you also probably do something bad. Oh and you’re also getting closer to becoming a Harbinger all the time by unlocking Ruin moves (think Corruption from Urban Shadows). The design is unsubtle and clear and eminently playable.

My big takeaway from looking through Apocalypse Keys is that it’s a delirious froth of exciting playbook moves designed for maximum chaos as they crash into each other. You’re either doing grievous damage to others and the environment, or creating melodramatic moments with those around you. Everything is dialed up to 10 all the time.

The campaign system involves unlocking the secrets of an as-yet-unrealized apocalypse by discovering Keys to understanding it. The GM prepares a Mystery Codex at the start of the campaign, an outline of some horrible crisis. But there’s no set answer, and the players will use their Keys to formulate a theory of how to confront the crisis through play. If they’re fast and lucky enough they can keep “the door” from opening. If not, they have to face the Harbinger behind the crisis, and then it’s a boss fight. There are five sample Mysteries and plenty of rules for how to create your own.

Looking forward to rolling this one out at a convention but it’s the kind of title I’ll bet will have a lot of tables offering it.

Blade Runner

I have been a fan of Free League’s Year Zero Engine for many years now. Our Mutant: Year Zero campaign was one of the best games of my life, Mutant: Genlab Alpha was pretty good, Twilight: 2000 is outstanding and I’m hoping to do a deep dive on it at some point, Coriolis is breathtaking even if some of its systems are wonky, Forbidden Lands is my favorite not-D&D adventuring party game, Vaesen is very promising (although my short experience with it was a little flat).

And then there are the licensed YZE games, about which I’m having a harder time getting excited.

To be fair, Alien: the RPG is actually a pretty fun romp. But what you get is a faithful treatment of the movie Alien and/or Aliens: either truckers or soldiers. The first priority is strong fidelity to the license, not necessarily providing the tools to explore the underlying ideas of the setting/license on your own. Their upcoming campaign frame, Building Better Worlds, has me excited all over again because yes I do want to see plain old colonists and science nerds freaking out and getting eaten.

Which brings me to Blade Runner: the RPG. As one of the biggest fans of the movie you will ever meet (and we’re getting thin on the ground as the movie and its fans get older and sensibilities evolve), I can imagine a pretty exciting Blade Runner game. I’m not sure the core rulebook hits the target that, for good or ill, I brought to my initial reading of it.

The killer app of the Blade Runner iteration of the Year Zero Engine is the parallel, sometimes competitive, economies of the game: Procedure Points and Human Points. Yes, that’s right, you’re either good at being a cop or being human. Like the movie, the game is by no means copaganda. (NB: If you think Blade Runner valorizes police, you’ve badly misinterpreted the whole fucking point and please learn some media literacy skills.) You get Procedure Points for getting clues, stopping crime, generally doing cop things. You get Human Points for human things: making connections, feeling things, and critically (if you’re playing a replicant cop, because the game is set after Blade Runner 2049) failing to pass your baseline test. And then you spend those points on different things at different times.

The rest of the YZE system is more or less the same as you find in Twilight: 2000 and onward. Oh and they rate things as “A/B/C/D” — just like in Twilight: 2000 — but they’re really d12/d10/d8/d6. I didn’t like replacing numbers with words in Fate and I don’t like it here either. Not a reason in the world, other than color, to do that.

Cop/human is a pretty provocative tool. (I’m gonna write more about provocative tools in the very near future!) But the rest of the book is 90% setting material, timeline, fake media and, sigh, some gun porn. There is a very slender chapter way at the end of the book that talks about how to create a Case File, i.e. a scenario. And that’s fine I guess. There are some random tables and a general structure, as well as excellent mystery-solving advice that says mysteries aren’t about putting together clues and solving puzzles, they’re about human interactions and consequences with the mystery as the backdrop. If everyone would get on board with that, that would be swell.

The fact of the matter is, is that the core rulebook is real thin on actual rules. There are some neat sections about Los Angeles in 2049. There’s a nice timeline laying out why Nexus 8s (the Dave Bautista models) are on the loose and why your team is tasked with hunting them down. It’s all there. But there’s just not much there there.

Then I get to the boxed Starter Set and man…I feel like I need to recant everything I just said.

Free League has been moving to this format, and I just don’t know what to think about it other than “I’m going to be so poor.” Their core rulebooks feel a little incomplete these days, because they assume you’re getting the Starter Set as well. I also felt this way about Alien: the RPG: the box comes with the dice and the cards and the tokens and the maps. You open up this delicious toy box and it’s like heck yeah, let’s go on a bug hunt! But without all those gewgaws? Ehhh…it’s a little flat. Twilight: 2000 I think was the beginning of this, although it’s only a boxed set. Going forward, I would not be surprised if this is just what you have to buy into if you’re gonna play a Free League Year Zero Engine game: plan on getting the box and playing what it comes with.

The Blade Runner: the RPG Starter Set is impressive as heck as an RPG production (but get the physical box, the cards and dice are worth it). There’s a condensed rulebook that contains everything except the setting material and “how to create a Case File” chapter. Honestly, it’s all you need if you’re gonna play the Case File it comes with. There’s a stack of cards, a stack of maps, some dope dice, pregens, props! I’m not exaggerating when I say the presentation is on par with Invisible Sun here. The table presence is almost overwhelming. And you don’t need-need the rulebook but also the GM kind of does for the setting and history sections.

While the core rulebook left me thinking I might maybe do a one-shot of this game at some point, the box left me actively considering a campaign. Electric Dreams, the Case File in the box, is the first of what I think will be a three-part campaign series (much like the campaign in Alien: the RPG). It’s an effective marketing thing and I kind of resent how it turns a $60 rulebook in a $110 investment if I want the “full experience.” Then again, I’m $220 in on Alien: the RPG at this point as well (the core book, starter box, colonial marines book, and the Building Better Worlds preorder that will deliver in October). It works. And I hate it.


Honestly? I didn’t know what I was getting into when I backed this Kickstarter. It is far weirder and cooler than I expected it to be.

Heironymus, by Laurie O’Connel and 12 Pins Press, is a Forged in the Dark-adjacent game about medieval people escaping an abstract, existential astral entity known only as The Follower. They do this by hex crawling through paintings by medieval painter Heironymus Bosch. I shit you not. Let me say it again: it’s a FitD-based hex crawl through paintings.

The contents of Bosch’s paintings are dense and weird, which honestly? I’ve seen worse sources of inspiration for OSR-style hex crawls. So yeah, if your band of travelers stumble upon the nun with a trumpet up her butt, that might be an actual and literal musical nun. In fact it’s probably just that, with whatever context surrounds how she might have ended up with this instrument inserted into her body cavity. Or it could be inspirational and symbolic. GM’s choice. But the game wants you to get real fuckin’ weird with it and just see where it takes you.

The playbooks, such as they are, are printed on bookmarks and have room to doodle in “moves” you can earn as you advance across these paintings. There are six — King, Priest, Artisan, Alchemist, Scholar, Poet — and they represent broadly medieval archetypes related to institutions, classes and authority in the European feudal state. There are four skills, there’s a simplified position/effect type evaluation, you can take a Devil’s Bargain to get another die, there’s Stress. It’s all pretty straightforward FitD. It’s just the weird and unhinged setting that really sets the game apart.

I have a long standing affection for Bosch. Here’s my ancient, bleached out print of The Garden of Earthly Delights, perhaps my first bit of home decoration ever purchased. Shout out to my fellow Gen Xers who will all remember Z Gallerie.

What struck me hardest about this weird and beautiful book is that there are very, very few art projects in this end of the indie world that are on par with the weird and beautiful work that’s so prevalent in OSR spaces. The only other one on my shelf that jumped out at me was Casketland, a PbtA-ish game that is intensely weird and personal and very artistic. Not sure it actually works! But it’s artistic and provocative. I wish there was more of this kind of experimentation in these kinds of indie games.

Next week: Avatar, Desperation and Claw Atlas!

4 thoughts on “Q1 Reviews (Part 2 of too many parts)”

  1. I’m with you on Apocalypse Keys and Bladerunner. Backed both, regret neither.

    AK would definitely be a great time with a group who is willing to explore the feels while hurtling toward the end of the world that one of them may cause. Even the one shot with strangers that I played was fun, based largely on the system mechanics themselves.

    I’ve played and GM’d BR 5 times and I’ve found the investigations to be a lot of fun. I’ve used the random detail generation table that you mentioned to fill out some home-brew narratives, and they have added quality narrative crunch. I’ve found that building out an investigation similarly to the Gumshoe system (with Core clues, etc) is the way to go for me. BR can be very evocative of that cyberpunk/noir/neon-in-rain feeling, with the attendant downbeats so I think it definitely hit the mark. Hundred percent agree on the Starter box. It’s definitely massive and amazing and the place to start. I hope Free League continue to publish those.

    Thanks for sharing your view of games. I enjoy hearing perspectives of game i’v played and especially those I haven’t!

  2. I found that’s a challenge to make worthwhile. If memory serves, when I GM’d I used it to give one of the players a hallucinogenic, dreamlike nudge to open up the case.

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