One of these, Blackout, I want to do a whole post on. That PbtA game of women aid workers during the London Blitz has stuck with me more than any other rpg this year. It’s criminally under-exposed and I’m still thinking about how smartly its mechanics shape the story. But I’ll come back to a full review of that later. Here are my other three runners-up:
I ran three “action” melodramas this year: Hearts of Wulin, World Wide Wrestling, and Pasión de las Pasiones. I’d never watched telenovelas; I’m more familiar with K-Dramas. Like some, my previous exposure had been parodies. That made me nervous—but the game provides the right balance of support and guidance to help you evoke genre tropes without making fun of them.
Pasión de las Pasiones has several pieces of game tech I adore. You roll based on the answer to dramatic questions. Experience comes from an imaginary, but highly specific home viewing audience. You can cheat death but have to choose from a menu of consequences. There’s a Twin playbook. Your characters can revel in solo soliloquies about their problems; then the home audience can shout at the TV with what they should do next.
I ran four sessions of Pasión from Magpie’s ashcan version. I borrowed a couple of tricks for it from other games (using “previously on” bits at the campaign start and “next time on” bits as epilogues). PdlP expanded my sense of GM moves. My favorite moment came when a player failed a roll and I cut away to a scene with Player 2. As my hard move, Player 1’s beloved showed up to betray them to P2. The move was visible to the audience but not the characters. I know others GMs do that, but it wasn’t something I’d realized explicitly before.
Pasión was also one of the most fun games to prep for as well. It sent me down a rabbit-hole trying to work out telenovela story and setting elements. Though obvious in retrospect, I learned about the mind-blowing variety of non-Mexican telenovelas. I also learned just how white-washed the entertainment industry could be, even in Latino countries.
PdlP also highlights a lesson we ought to take away from 2018 for RPGs: when you get diverse voices creating games, you get new stuff (Cartel, Harlem Unbound, Orun, Mutants in the Night, Thousand Arrows, Bastion, The Witcher, and more). This year saw lots of retread products, some doubling-down on outdated concepts about race. But it also saw a ton of new directions.
I recorded both of my series. If you’re curious, you can check them out here. PldP’s designer Brandon Leon-Gambetta said nice things about them. He’s been a consistently generous voice in rpg design.
I love off-kilter superhero concepts and I grew up in the 1980’s. So Unmasked was like catnip for me. Created by Delta Green originator Dennis Detwiller, this setting for Cypher system has been seriously overlooked. It’s weird and freaky, like X-Men meets Stranger Things meets The Lost Room.
In Unmasked you play a teenager who has suddenly become aware of a strangeness in the world. Objects have begun to resonate for you—nonsensical things like a cassette single of “The Power of Love,” a broken Barbie doll, a box of permanent markers, a Trapper-Keeper, etc. Eventually you gather enough of these objects and inspiration strikes. You’re compelled to create a mask from these things—a hodge-podge and half-baked headpiece. But when you put the mask on you transform into something else- a superhero with a completely different identity and appearance.
After that you find others like you—some friends and some foes. But the mystery remains as to why these things have resonance and where they came from. More objects appear with new powers and Masks begin to hunt for them. Behind the scenes other forces work to stop or seize control of the Masks. It’s a dynamite concept and we got a great story out of the four sessions we played of it. You can check those out starting here.
The setting book has ideas on how to run it in several different modes: horror, teen angst, pure superherodom. It has some good material on the 1980’s although I’d like more. Much of the book’s given over to the Cypher mechanics. Unmasked has an “explanation” for the events, but it feels a little mundane and you could easily play with that.
One of the best ideas the game has is the complete split between the teenage self and the superhero self. Different characters may have different interactions with their other selves. In our game, some got mask pairs got along while others felt forced and compelled. I’d love to revisit this with another system. You could mash up Masks: A New Generation and Monsterhearts 2 to create a dynamic and cool campaign.
I love me some high fantasy. Given the chance, I’ll always take Anglekite, Iron Kingdoms, and Glorantha over Lamentations, Witcher, and Pendragon. 13th Age scratches that particular itch. I spent years running fantasy with both Rolemaster and GURPS, but I skipped out on most D&D after 1985. So I’ve never had a particular attachment to d20. But 13th Age still works for me.
Part of it comes from its cool setting tech like the Icons, which I’ve discussed before. Part comes from how completely different each class feels. 13th Age doesn’t overwhelm me with levels—we have ten. You get to the top and that’s it, but that final rung’s a doozy. By that point you’re throwing around Epic feats and powers, changing the landscape and battling the baddest foes in the bestiary. (That’s a side delight I hadn’t considered before now. In most fantasy games I’ve played you’re not going to see that many things from your monster manual. 13th Age’s power arc means even in a shorter campaign, you’re going to work through diverse opposition.)
But more than anything else, 13th Age forgives. I don’t mean it’s easy on the characters. My fights still drain their resources and push them to the wall. Instead I mean it’s easy on the players. Like many other games, it ditches the obvious things like encumbrance. But it moves past that. Range is easy—close, nearby, far. Skills are just backgrounds. You swap out builds and choices with a Full Rest. The rules don’t gotcha the players. They can change approaches in mid-campaign. Most PCs don’t make major changes, but it always feels good to know you aren’t being punished for a lack of system mastery.
There’s a lot more. For example, the escalation die has completely spoiled me for any other d20 based system, even Godbound. But for all of 13th Age’s streamlining and corner cutting, it isn’t a story game. It’s a clean, smartly tuned trad game. Combat’s still at the center of the rules and a fight’s going to take a while, but it’s going to be satisfying.
OK, if you’ve made it this far through the post, you get to hear about a few games which didn’t live up to expectations or hopes. As I mentioned above, in March I ran Cypher system, a full month of it. I hoped I would dig it but I didn’t. Cypher has an odd mix of story-gamey ideas and trad resource tracking. The weirdly specific character building feels neither flexible nor evocative to me. It shares the problems of other games with multiple damage tracks, compounded by their role as a resource for taking actions.
I also think I’ve finally thrown in the towel with 7th Sea. I’ve run it now fifteen times—with the standard setting, Khitai, and The Crescent Empire. Each time I’ve approached it with excitement. And each time I’ve come away frustrated by the actual resolution. The roll and spend mechanics—which seem like cool concept—just don’t work with how I approach running situations. 7th Sea has a strange inflexibility in switching approaches mid-stream, leads to player action imbalances, and feels wonky outside of combat. I’m sure lots of people are getting amazing play out of this system, but it doesn’t work for me and that makes me sad. At least I have given it a fair try.
Note: a couple of people have asked me for a simple, clear overview post on Hearts of Wulin and I’m working on that for next week.
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.