This is it! We made it! These are the last three reviews from the pile of games I’ve been working through the past several weeks. As always, my caveat: these are reviews based on my reading, not play … although this week, Under Hollow Hills will get a deeper treatment because I actually have played that one a few times now.
Designer Michael Elliott describes this little eight-pager as “a single-player post-apocalyptic exploration RPG.” Haxen hits the mark admirably well and in a very, very compact edition. It also lists itself as based on Blades in the Dark and I have a harder time seeing that. It’s pretty compelling, though, and I’ve had a chance to play it for a couple hours.
The contrivance for your map-making is that you play a Haxen, folks who head out into the wasteland left behind by the “sorcerous rich” to bring back knowledge and salvage to your community. You pick one of five backgrounds, and those provide the teeniest bit of narrative color and fictional positioning to anchor your play. My first Haxen is Kazark, a Barbarian who uses “lasers & wires” as their edge (a Haxe) when they wander around. You also receive a prophecy from your commune of something you might witness. The procedures of the game left me with “flower mystery.” Weird, evocative, one more thing to hang my imagination on.
Haxen has a very narrow scope of activity but you always have a system at work as you play. There’s no real “free play” unless you’re narrating alongside the system to yourself, maybe in a journal. I thought about it! It reminded me a bit of a very, very simple iteration of what Starforged does (see my fiction work-in-progress, Echo Sedano, for an idea of what that game guided me toward). As you wander around a blank hex map, you’re either doodling new things onto the map or dealing with the thing you’ve just doodled. You can explore, overcome, move or aid when you interact with the map, and then those actions will in turn trigger other tables to look stuff up on.
The nifty dicelessness of the game comes down to the “rune matrix,” a 6×6 grid of three randomly assorted runes. Sometimes you’re instructed to mark off whatever rune you want, but sometimes you’re instructed to mark the next one in order, from left to right and top to bottom, if you need something truly random. The runes aren’t evenly distributed: there are only 6 “good” runes but 18 “bad” runes, so if you use up the “good” runes for “good” outcomes on your actions, you’re also making it impossible to end the exploration on a happy note. Your commune will only welcome you home with open arms if you’ve been very, very careful cashing in the “good” runes. But then you can also erase your marked runes for the next time you exit the wastes.
It’s not a “tight” game by any means, and once you start picking apart the rune matrix some of the magic kind of goes away. So…don’t be like me. Just let the fiction guide you and you’ll have a good time (right up to the moment your explorer gets disassembled by a feral nanite swarm). My barbarian, Kazark, traveled too deeply into the wastes — about a third of the hexes — and now he can’t take the Exit action because there aren’t enough runes left on the matrix to mark. So he’s going to wander off into the endless raging lightning storms, terrified after an orbital laser summoned forth by one of the sorcerous rich in their mountain fastness annihilated everything around him. Poor guy! Next one will be better off, I’m sure.
Haxen strikes me as a perfect little lunch-break activity. You can play for as long or as little as you want. You track a mix of permanent (ie things you’ve named) and impermanent notes on the booklet itself. It’s a really nice little package and well worth $5 at Drivethru. No weird formatting, you should be able to print and staple your own copy quite easily.
I am a huge fan of Ironsworn and Starforged, its sci-fi second edition. Doodling up an Ironsworn-based hack like my buddy Keith Stetson did with his western Badlands is high on my list. So when third parties release Ironsworn stuff, I always like to check in on what folks are doing.
Traveler’s Ironsworn, by Colin Klöcker, is a supplement that boils the game down to eight color-coded cards and, optionally, a version that works on your phone. I haven’t checked out the phone edition yet. The cards themselves are fine. I guess I’m looking at the reference book that Starforged came with, which is my gold standard for a portable-yet-complete reference. The dry-eraser character and other sheets, that’s good stuff and I wish I had something similar for Starforged.
What’s more exciting to me is that it also comes with eight additional custom reference cards. There’s some very nifty stuff in these cards: a bunch of new tables for Ironsworn: Delve, the dungeoneering supplement for the original game, a system for make more mechanically interesting foes including tags and a “challenge die,” some oracles for cooking up new Vows if you’re running short (read my Ironsworn breakdown to see what I’m talking about), and whole new ways to generate more detailed characters, settlements and cultures. There’s even a whole new setting, Haarland, that’s boiled down to a few paragraphs and tables. The references for the original game are good and useful, but the supplemental stuff is genuinely nifty. Recommended but I’m not sure how to buy the professionally produced materials. You can get a PDF of the whole thing on DriveThru and make your own.
Under Hollow Hills
I’ll instantly back anything and everything The Bakers put out. They have continuously pushed the envelope on what PbtA games can be, and even their wildest experiments are still eminently playable and engaging.
Bad Kickstarter habit of mine, and a confession: once I back a thing, I fire-and-forget. I rarely check in with updates until it’s gotten more than a year late. I might get curious about the holdup, or I might feel grateful that I’ve got breathing room before it arrives. Not Under Hollow Hills, though! I eagerly downloaded everything they released as it came out. Consequently, UHH was the last game I played at my last in-person convention early in 2020, OrcCon in Los Angeles. The lockdowns started a few weeks later.
The final text of UHH is in some ways much more than I had hoped for, and in other ways surprisingly…shallow, maybe? But that’s by no means a criticism. The premise of the game is quite specific: you are performers and crew in an old-timey magical circus that passes between the fairy and mortal realms. Think: Caraval, The Night Circus, Something Wicked This Way Comes. The tone throughout is perfect, a mix of whimsical and low-key menacing. Or, perhaps, simply alien. Fairies play by different rules than mortals. Being a fairy means you can play at life and death; being a mortal means insults might not literally kill you like it will a fairy, but a hilarious gag involving a giant hammer will definitely literally kill you. Even as your very closest fairy friends laugh and laugh.
An UHH game follows an outline: the carnival is going to perform somewhere, they will arrive and get the lay of the land, and then the performers will plan and then execute a performance tuned to the interests and needs of the time and place. Then they’ll move on to the next show if there’s going to be another . Someone described it as a fairyland Muppet Show when we played.
So…why would you want to play The Muppet Show week in and out over months, perhaps, of a campaign-length tour? Because the playbooks are just staggeringly provocative. If you have picked up fairy tale lore through Western-cultural osmosis, you’ll readily recognize the archetypes: the witch, the animated pot/broom/whatever, the jack-o-lantern, the unsettling and beautiful seer, and so on. Instead of PbtA-standard moves you get plays, as in “how are you going to play this?” Everyone’s a hustler and a con artist, and everyone’s got operatic-scale needs and entanglements because why would fairies do anything by half-measures?
I think, like all the Bakers’ best work, UHH plays best with players who are willing to be performative and loose with their characters’ emotions. Their Game of Thrones-inspired GMless game The King Is Dead, for example, is spectacular when you’ve got players who are eager to crank the melodrama to 11: huge emotions, huge betrayals, seething hatreds, all that. UHH’s theater-nerd melodrama arises from the intersection of plays and bindings. That is, moves and relationships. The bindings are both very hot and very specific. The Boondoggle Hob, for example, just grates against someone else in the troupe — explicitly for no reason at all! It’s just a thing they have to do. Gotta hate on someone. The Crowned Stag has a dalliance and/or a bad breakup in their bindings list. Probably the majority of interplayer interest emerges from these bindings — I mean, the shows they put on are great fun but the context disappears when the performers move on — but everyone’s got to be in on the joke.
There aren’t many rules-rules to the game beyond when and how to make your plays. Every playbook has four distinct plays and everyone shares ten obvious plays (ie the common moves list). There is no advancement other than a constant churn of descriptors that the characters are shifting between their summer and winter forms (or, for the mortals, their free and careful forms). What the game text has in abundance is lists, enough lists to choke the most avid OSR fan, and for very similar reasons. There are more than a dozen “occasions to perform,” each occasion has long lists of NPCs and backstories, outlines of events, and so on. You could play, say, the Betrothal playset a dozen times and never repeat a set of choices. A traveling magical wedding band.
As a one-shot, UHH is one of my favorites in the PbtA style. The performance cycle is nicely self-contained, the bindings aim the characters at each other in fun and immediate ways, the Occasions outlines are easy to work through in 10 minutes while the players pick playbooks. Show planning can take an hour but it’s a fun and productive hour at that: I had to nudge my players along because they were having such a good time planning the outline and beats of their bit. I’m very interested in what long-form UHH looks like when the circus goes on tour. I’m betting those bindings get deeper and more interesting over time, and you may see interesting threads between places and personalities on both the fairy and mortal sides of the setting.
One interesting bit that was added after my 2020 plays of the game was “circus power.” That is, once per performance, each character can exert the power of the circus itself. You might create some lasting change in the audience or a specific audience member. You might direct the circus itself on a new path. You might allow the place and circumstance to fully express itself through your performance. It’s all pretty abstract but also thematically meaningful. It gives the circus more teeth, makes it something more than The Muppet Show.
Anyway, hell of a game and a fun text on its own merits. Their stuff is always so weird and provocative. Under Hollow Hills is very high on my list to play long-form this year.