Small But Fierce: Four Reviews for March 2021

I thought it’d be a nice break from our most recent encyclopedic monstrosity to take a look at four surprisingly compact, recent-ish releases. I haven’t played any of these! These are strictly reviews, not critiques.

Rebel Crown

Available at Itch.io

At a perfect-bound 63 pages, Rebel Crown by Michael Dunn-O’Conner and Eric Swanson is the most compact iteration of a Forged in the Dark style game I’ve ever seen. Formally this was part of ZineQuest 2, even. And what a very nice “zine” they created.

Rebel Crown is even more in the boardgame/rpg liminal space than Band of Blades: you go into the game with the very explicit goal of getting a claimant to the crown on the throne, by any means necessary. The victory conditions to achieve this are explicit and mechanical. The pathway to make it happen, same.

I think, having powered through Band of Blades, I’d have a much better grasp of how to let a game like this breathe. It’s got all the standard FitD trappings: you go on missions to achieve specific goals, you have downtime between those missions, you’re constantly aimed at improving your domain (turf) by. Six regions make up the default setting, each with a slew of interlocking factions and situations (as well as an expansion, Serpent & Oak, that provides two shorter versions of the game), But there’s an explicit endgame in view, too.

Didn’t think you could do a FitD as a pamphlet but I think they did. Much of the compactness comes down to no discussion at all of the six playbooks and other reference documents. It’s a bold move! Hopefully those docs are complete enough that you don’t really need it. I could see future blog posts fleshing them out a bit down the line.

Arcana Academy

Available at Itch.io

I picked up a misprinted hardcopy of this cute PbtA game by Jordan Palmer and boy am I glad I did. Arcana Academy is Hogwarts with the VIN plate removed, featuring students exploring mysteries at magic school. It has a “for kids/families!” vibe to it but, other than the fact that you play children, it’s pretty clear you could stretch the game to handle something more adult, like The Magicians.

Arcana Academy achieves its 80ish-page size by stripping PbtA way, way back. There are no playbooks, for example: Instead, you have three Traits that give you +1 to rolls when you invoke them, and spells (duh) that are like super-Traits that evolve over time but otherwise just position the fiction according to their description: If the spell lets you talk to animals, then that’s what it does (and you’ll get a +1 to manipulate them, just like if it was a Trait). It’s very straightforward and flexible.

To me the more interesting bit of Arcana Academy is its robust system for social relationships to evolve under stress. Your connections can either deepen or fade away, and much of the game is spent on spending Sway to get characters to do things. It’s very social-intensive play, but you’re also only allowed three connections.

Play orbits around mysteries, and there are good guidelines for creating those. The mystery provides all the impetus for characters doing things (although I suspect lots of drama can be had just by dealing with your rivals and friendships), and provides structure to 6- missed rolls. It comes with a default setting, Warwick Academy, in case you don’t want to go through the trouble.

Little Monster Detectives

PDF available at DriveThruRPG (affiliate link)

I backed this for my daughter and her friends. In Little Monster Detectives by Patricia de Blas and Alvaro Corcin, the eponymous detectives — who can be the players, not necessarily invented characters — have to either chase off or help the monsters in their literal home or outside. The GM role is the “senior detective” and you actually play along in their investigation, while also facilitating stuff.

The rulebook, which is full-color, glossy, and absolutely gorgeous, comes in at about 100 pages. It’s mostly laid out like an old-timey newspaper with little notes taped to the pages, coffee-stain rings, all that. It’s quite nice to look at, and my nine-year-old devoured it in a sitting.

The game itself has a clever little “curve on a single die” thing going on: if you’re scared or injured, you take the lowest of three d6es, and if you’ve got an appropriate tool you take the highest, otherwise you take the middle. A 1 is always a miss and a 6 is an epic success, otherwise you’re rolling against a 2/4/6 target number. How have I not seen this dice rolling trick elsewhere? It’s great.

The killer app of the game is the array of props for the kids. Every character gets their own “field notebook” they then mark up with their achievements, or stickers handed out by the senior detective after the investigation. There’s little tokens, a “senior detective screen,” just…lots of bits and bobs.

Their DriveThru page indicates the game was designed with therapeutic goals in mind, that is, kids who are afraid of monsters in their house. Mine isn’t, but she’s going through a “scary/eerie” phase right now so we’ll be playing toward that. I’m not sure the elaborately produced English-language edition is available from Spanish publisher Nosolorol yet.

Cobwebs is a compact little boxed set from Adam Vass of World Champ Game Company. It’s solidly in storygame territory: three players rotate between three game-function roles to construct an ever-more-implausible story of a conspiracy surrounding a missing person. The rulebook is a tight, small 68 pages (the whole box is like 6” on a side), but the game’s interesting texture is in the nice props: a big cloth map that serves as a drop table for die rolls, a fancy little turn tracking token, tiny chrome skulls that track “threat,” and the rulebook itself, which, honest, it’s nice and grungy and very zine-y.

Cobwebs’ gameplay eyeballs like other games in this category: lots of prompts to put your apophenia to work making sense of random-ish inputs. One interesting bit is that the three players are expected to advocate for their own theories throughout play, pushing and pulling and compromising. I do like the invitation to make the conspiracy wild, too: there are several premade setups to play through, and they range from Ringu-style j-horror to a stuffy manor mystery to time-travel loops. The disappearance angle, in every case, is just the excuse to start exploring and building out the conspiracy that led to it.

The theatrics of the presentation make Cobwebs a totally worthy con game. I’m looking forward to bringing it along for the next time we get to play with strangers in rooms.

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