Jahtima, a new book in my mail via FourRogues. (Between them and Ratti Incantati my RPG spending has become … well more, anyway. No regrets!) I saw book and was intrigued: an RPG about hunting monsters in early “medieval” Europe, which is currently what I am interested in. The graphic design is quite pretty or bold at times, but maybe also gonna give you a headache? This isn’t a novel, though. Maybe a headache is fine if you can find the page quickly.
In a plot twist of sorts, the #TorontOSR has been playing more narrative games of late. (You can call us #StorYYZ, of course.) We recently wrapped up a 4 session arc of Cartel, which prompted some interesting discussion in our Discord. In a double plot twist, Paul T, who you may recognize from storygames.com, was the person who ran the game. He has somehow been sucked into the #TorontOSR, and joins us often, like some sort of ethnographer. Paul writes way too much and just throws it into the ether. A waste! So I have taken his words and shared them below (with his permission, of course). The conversational tone below is because it was part of a conversation. I thought this was an interesting view into how to think about playing so-called story games. The emphasis below is my own: this was maybe the idea that jumped out at me the most.
Choosing Left or Right
In any game, there are important decisions to be made, which push things forward to move us towards escalation and resolution. Part of player skill in these endeavours is a) being able to identify which decisions are important, which are arbitrary, and which are both, and then b) making them so the game can move forward.
In an OSR game, very often that’s “do we go left or right here?” Good players know when it’s a meaningful decision and when it’s an arbitrary one (so you can just flip a coin or whatever), and play accordingly. Move the game forward—it doesn’t go anywhere unless you choose a corridor, bub.
In a dramatic game, though, those spatial decisions often/generally don’t have any weight or importance. What really matters is morality, theme, and character drive. That’s where the game doesn’t do anything if the players don’t move. Especially if we’re trying to play on a short time frame (as happens if you play a handful of 2 hour sessions online: it’s basically an extended one-shot). So it’s important to identify those crucial points, and make a strong move on them. Strong means dramatic, important, or resonant.
In an OSR game, failing to choose left or right when there’s no real info to go on will just stall the game. In a dramatic game, similarly failure to decide whether you hate your mother or whether you want to poison or sleep with your rival will stall the game. The GM has tools to push things along, but the game doesn’t really “go” until the players take strong positions on those things.
And often, like left or right (especially in a short-form game), they are arbitrary, so you can go with your gut. However, it’s important to pick one, make it strong, and make your choice quickly.
There are two main ways this happens in dramatic games:
The player thinks about the story as an author, picking something that excites them or the people around them.
We set up a pregnant situation, usually with the player heavily involved and bought in emotionally, and then in play the player can think as the character and react passionately and instinctively. Follow your gut and react powerfully from the mindset of the character.
You know when you’re playing a character and suddenly you just know that they hate this new person who appeared? You don’t even know why, it’s just clear as day to you? That’s the feeling. The second way is generally more exciting (for me, anyway) because it’s visceral, but it requires some setup. You build a situation with that potential energy in it already, get excited about it, and then dive into character and play from the gut. This means driven, passionate characters, and a situation which puts pressure on them.
This is very exciting in play! A form of unconscious authoring which is both powerful and moving. However, when the conditions for it do not exist (as often happens in more short-term play), you have to make a choice: help the game move ahead by making the first move.
A good player in this style often makes bold moves like this. It can be complex or nuanced, or it can be simple, like announcing that you feel a certain way when an NPC is introduced (“Oh, a noble! I hate all nobles, and, by extension, hate this guy with a totally irrational passion”). It’s like playing White in Chess - there’s no battle yet, but you’ve got to advance a pawn and start one.
Next time you see a movie or TV show, note how the writers do this. Why’s Batman so angry? A criminal killed his parents.
In our Cartel game, I was happy when Sofia and Alvaro took a strong stance and made a move by choosing to kill her husband and his boss in order to take over the family. That’s what allowed us to reach a sense of conclusion and forward motion. Nice!
That’s an angle on it, anyway. Questions, comments, criticism are all welcome if anyone wants to discuss! — Paul T, March 24th, 2022
I bought two games that feel like they exist in sharp contrast to one another. The first was Skorne, an OSR/FKR game. It was a $3 PDF I printed at home and folded into a zine. The second is probably the most famous Belonging Outside Belonging game at this point, Wanderhome, which arrived at my door in its fancy coffee table book form.
One player is SKORNE the devil prince: commander of demon rulers and their armies. The other players are renegades, part of mankind’s insurrection against the darkness that reigns. Overthrow the evil Tyrants. Free chained captives. Fight to the last man.
That’s all Skorne has to say about what kind of game you’ll be playing. What else is there to say, I suppose? I already know what I’ll do with this game. Anything else the author has to say is wasted words.
To be honest, it feels rare that an OSR game tells you explicitly what it’s even about. LotFP’s Rules and Magic opens like so:
Roll 3d6 for each ability score (Charisma, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Strength, Wisdom), in order, and record them on your character sheet.
The book jumps right into the action.1 Of course, I never struggled trying to understand what I was going to do when I picked up that rule book. I knew, somewhere deep in my brain.
Wanderhome, though. What the hell even is this game? I asked my friends:
So is the source of conflict in Wanderhome dealing with nature and the traits of the people you meet? Am I thinking about this all wrong? Like some totally different paradigm I need to get my head around.
A friend replied to tell me the obvious: it’s a game about going places and meeting people. Whether there is conflict or tension is besides the point. The funny thing is, Wanderhome tells you as much right from the start. Again and again, really. The introduction is long and poetic and detailed. The art is beautiful and evocative. You can picture the Miyazaki movie unfurl in your head.2 Still, I found myself thinking, “but why?”, in a way I never do with D&D-a-likes because I have so deeply internalized what those games want you to do. Someone reading Wanderhome without any of the baggage of playing other RPGs will likely intuit what it’s about with ease.
The easy thing to do when you come across a game outside your comfort zone is to dismiss it out of hand: “how is this even a game?” Personal preference turns into condemnation. I try and make an effort to understand where games are coming from. The experience of playing games further afield from my tastes has at times been revelatory. Approaching a game on its own terms with an open mind doesn’t mean you’ll end up liking it. There are many games I read and bounce right off. That’s fine, not all games need to be for me, not should they.
I’m looking forward to playing both of this games. I’m sure i’ll have much more to say.
LotFP’s rulebook starts this way because it was originally part of a trio of books, a Tutorial Book that would introduce players to the game, and a Referee Book that further solidfies LotFP’s approach to gaming. Divorced of its siblings when turned into a hardcover, the Rules and Magic book ends up feeling almost aggressive or exciting: this is how you make a character let’s go! Something I really love about that rulebook, actually. ↩
Miyazaki minus all the violence that exists in his movies: ha! ↩
In 1975 Gary Gygax wrote an article describing a simple approach to creating a campaign world over 5 weeks, which you could then expand upon through play: like God intended. Ray Otus took this article and expanded on its ideas to create a structured work book with concrete steps for each week and his own example of creating a small campaign setting. Recently Dungeon Possum posted about his plans to go through this process. This got me interested in doing the same. I am keen to create a basic-ass fantasy setting. I normally gravitate towards Gonzo He-Man nonsense. Playing Dark Souls and Demon Souls over the last year has me interested in Arthurian fantasy—by way of a confused Japanese man. And so that’s what I will go with. We’ll call it Misericorde for now, until I figure out the names for things in this setting.
Every so often Nate will pop into the discord we’re both in to chat about his super-high level D&D 5e game: it’s totally bananas and inspiring. He made this off hand remark about the Red Dragon in his game:
The red dragon Vlaurung lives in a palace in space and is the consort of Tiamat.
One of my favourite parts of Dark Sun was that there was a singular Dragon: it made the monster more mythic in my mind. Sean felt the same way about making monsters unique:
I feel like almost any game could be made better by taking the monster manual and just writing The before every monster.
And then Brendan reminded us that he figured this all out many years ago: Sui Generia.
Some creatures feel like they maybe aren’t as nice a fit for this treatment, your D&D mooks: kobolds, orcs, goblins, etc. Alex suggested “the Goblins being a single band of six (6) named assholes is as good as if not better than a monolithic Goblin.” Chris followed up, “I feel like you could have The Kobold, but still have a Kobold society that he’s built down in the mines with stolen children or whatever and the kids all paint themselves blue and make shitty traps or whatever else kobolds do.” I love it.
This feels like such a simple and compelling way to create a unique setting from a collection of very common elements. You could pick 10 of your favourite monsters and create a unique world for you and your friends. These conversations always have me thinking about running OD&D again.
I didn’t want this conversation to disappear into the ether that is random peple on a random discord, so here we are. Blogs are for remembering.
Patrick and Scrap are currently running a Kickstarter for the follow-up adventure to Deep Carbon Observatory, Demon-Bone Sarcophagus, so now seems as good a time as any to talk about their work. I like seeing them succeed. When I first reviewed Deep Carbon Observatory I had the following to say about Scrap’s work:
Scrap Princess’ illustrations contribute to the overall tone of the book. I find her work is so frenzied and terrifying. Maybe that’s not the right word, but there is something about how she draws that I find really visceral. I don’t know anyone else that draws like her.
All these years later, I still don’t know anyone who draws like her. How does she even draw?
A few years later she would draw another favourite picture of mine, a picture of madness from Veins of the Earth. (Such an incredible book.) The picture feels like an evolution of the giant. I asked Scrap if that was her intention and she said, “Nope. (Other than its horrible and in a cave?)”
People will often denigrate Scrap’s art as scribbles. Which, on the one hand, sure, but there is clearly more going on. I don’t scribble this good. These eyes are piercing. The line work of her drawings feels frantic. It has an energy that feels charged. On Twitter, Warren D summed things up nicely: “I always emotionally respond to Scrap’s art before I finish consciously visually processing it; ‘feel’ it before I ‘see’ it. Most WotC art I see quickly and feel nothing.”
Fire on the Velvet Horizon is likely peak scribbling Scrap, but maybe also highlights what you can capture in such minimalist drawings. The history of that project is interesting. While Vein of the Earth was stuck in the miasma of layout and production, Scrap and Patrick worked on this monster book. Scrap mailed Patrick drawings and sketches, and he would turn them into monsters.
The thing about Velvet Horizon that gets overlooked, constantly, is that I chose a wide range of drawings to send to Patrick, and that variety included extremely loose sketches, more developed drawings, stuff I thought was bad, stuff I thought was good. Then whatever he responded to , he responded to, and that drawing would then go into the book. However there’s like a few entries where what he responded to was such a bizarrely small and brief drawing that I chose to draw a new drawing to go on that page, but I believe in every case the responded-to drawing is also on there too. There’s a few where the drawing responded to was something in the margins or on the back of another drawing, and I hadn’t even expected those scribbles to be up for consideration. That was all part of the experiment of that book.
I asked Scrap if she was like Picasso and could draw perfectly but decided that was boring. She laughed in my face. (Well, virtually.) She then went on to say:
Trying to get the hang of basics does inform my scribble style. It’s been an ongoing process of trying to draw conventionally or at least do the basics, turning out bad ugly drawings, but in the process of improving that skill, my gestural style improves as well.
Why does she draw the way she does? We can just ask her:
What has made my drawing looking like how it does is that I really struggle with the basics, especially anything informed by methodicalness and close observation. At some point in high school me and a friend were drawing our own illustrations on a print out of fairly broken fighting game rpg someone had downloaded from the early internet. I was trying to draw conventionally and it was turning out bad, and he was just going for it doing these crazy scribbles and they turned out amazing. Even when they didn’t look like what they were meant to , they still were hilarious. It was at that point that I realized if I just cut loose and scribbled and then tried to turn it into something , it would have much better results.
Veins on the Earth and her later books feature a bigger variety of types of art, but everything she does is always more abstract and impressionistic than your typical RPG drawing. The Blink Dogs and the Anitpheonix from that book are a couple of my favourite examples of her not-scribbling style.
Scrap isn’t active on social media, but that doesn’t mean we should Forget about D.R.E. This post mostly exists to share some of her art, and maybe introduce her to people who weren’t around on G+ when she was more active in “the scene”. To get back to where we started, enjoy this picture from their latest Kickstarter.
Patrick and Scrap are currently running a Kickstarter for the follow-up adventure to Deep Carbon Observatory, Demon-Bone Sarcophagus, so now seems as good a time as any to talk about their work. This is easy to do, as I’m planning on running Deep Carbon Observatory (Remastered) tomorrow, it made its way from the UK to me via my brother after a good long while. When I first reviewed DCO it was simply from having read it. I have more thoughts now as I prepare to run the module and talk to other people about their experiences doing so.
From a “usability” standpoint [the original DCO] is middling to poor. The maps are hard to read, the info design is unambitious. But Patrick knows that good storytelling is a way of organizing information by sheer virtue of being interesting enough to remember. Honestly I think it’s a shot across the bow of most conventional wisdom on module writing. — Alex Chalk
Patrick instructs you to read the whole god damn book before you run the adventure. Maybe this is actually a really obvious thing to do with a book, but I think a lot of thinking around information design in modules is rooted in the ideas coming out of the one-page dungeon contest: you should be able to look at a particular spread and have all the information you need to get the job done. The remastered edition brings this sort of thinking to DCO, but like Silent Titans, there are key facets of the module that won’t reveal themselves to you till you get to the end of the book. In DCO Patrick coyly describes the backstory for the module with the sub-heading, “in case of Speak with Dead, use this.” This timeline is exactly the sort of thing that you’d find in the introduction to a typical OSR module.
Patrick wants you to approach understanding a module the way he does: by reading the whole thing. You’ll need to read it all at some point anyway: why not at the start? And so I did, and then felt some panic about how I would even run all of this. There is so much going on in DCO: there are the Crows, the Witch, a cannibal cult1, so many NPCs, the dam and its golem guardians, the actual Deep Carbon Observatory, etc, etc. Jesse Abelman told me to chill out: he ran the module straight from the book!2
The layout of the [new] book was great, I could easily find anything I needed so I barely did any prep between sessions. That said, I’m not surprised it was easier to run from the first edition than expected. I had the same experience with Silent Titans. I think Patrick is so good at creating juicy gameable situations and encounters that everything else almost doesn’t matter. Whatever difficulty there may be in stitching those things together because of how the book is designed is balanced by the actual content. — Jesse Abelman
Jesse’s experience mirrors my own using Silent Titans. DCO feels like there is a bit more going on across the whole module, so I’m curious to see how it plays tonight. With Silent Titans I would lean on Patrick’s writing a lot to describe the scenes, sometimes reading his prose straight to the player. (Some real OSR blasphemy, I know.) Alex mentioned doing the same to me when he was running DCO: “Another thing I’ll say about DCO is I often struggle to improvise description, but I felt I was able to tune into its voice and channel that in describing situations.”
Patrick and Scrap’s books are sometimes maligned for being more art project than gaming artifact.3 I asked Patrick about this and he felt while Scrap and him can sometimes be quite out there and imaginative, they are both keenly aware that what they are making is for a game. If one of them forgets, the other will remind them. Reading their works you can see they are fixated on the game, in a way I sometimes feel other OSR writers forget: things are gonzo, but in the service of nothing.
Judging by my own bookshelf, a lot of adventures are written, read, and never played. As someone writing modules, it’s likely important to appreciate this fact, and try and make something that manages to be compelling even if it only ever sits on a shelf. But there is more going on here: solid adventures inject their ideas into your head as if they were your own. DCO is easier to run because its elements are so compelling. The writing is not simply fanciful or an attempt at post-modern storytelling: it’s all in service of the game.
Cannibalism features heavily in seemingly every book Patrick writes. What does it mean? Can you psychoanalyze a man via his adventures. A topic for another blog post, perhaps. ↩
The conversations around Fire on the Velvet Horizon sometimes felt like they missed the point. Each of those monsters is an adventure. They are all clearly designed with the game in mind, even if Scrap and Patrick aren’t smacking you over the head with hit dice and encounter powers. ↩
Gradient Descent is a 64 page full colour zine: it’s a very dense 64 pages. Like all good OSR books it opens suggesting how you might use this adventure, from the basis of a campaign to something to simply hoover up ideas from. Luke explains some basic procedures of play and how the module works and then we jump right into things. There is an AI, Monarch, that controls a massive space station called The Deep. This is a huge factory complex, abandoned by its corporate overlords. Next we learn about what orbits the Deep. My Mothership campaign had the players begin in The Bell, a small retrofitted thruster that serves as a safe haven for people exploring the station. There they met a small coterie of NPCs who can help kick things off. As part of a larger campaign I would have had them try and cross a blockade to reach the station, and perhaps make friends with Commander Kilroy, another NPC with goals they might help achieve. Along with some “monsters”, these are the things outlined first. Then we move onto the “dungeon” itself, which makes up the bulk of the adventure. The Deep is huge. There are several floors, many sections, and a web of interconnections. It’s a complex and interesting dungeon. In a twisted way you can almost picture what the factory would have been like in the past. Finally the book concludes with a table of random artifacts, some super science. The back cover of the module is an “I search the body” table.
The art by Nick Tofani is wonderfully moody, often creepy. A perfect fit for this module. I would share it with my players often. Jarret Crader, the man behind all your favorite RPG books, did development editing. With a module such as this, I suspect no easy feat. Finally, Sean McCoy did the layout, and it’s a real chef kiss emoji.
The book continues a long tradition of really strong graphic and information design that feels like the most standout feature of the Mothership line. I see a lot of the design cues from one page dungeons at play here. The adventure is laid out with the two page spreads of the zine in mind. You can likely run each section of the dungeon with minimal page flipping. When I was running the adventure, from a PDF, I would normally only need to jump to the sections about the androids, ghosts in the machine, or monarch. If I had the zine in my hands I’d put some post it notes there and that would be that.1 There is so much information this book is trying to get across, and it does a remarkable job at doing just that.
The descriptions in this dungeon are terse. On the whole I think this is a positive, and is what allowed me to run my games straight out of the book. It takes you seconds to read what’s going on in any room the players have walked into. For example:
The square in the title indicates this is a large industrial scale space: you should imagine a large factory or warehouse. In my head when I read this I pictured something akin to rows of corn. To avoid being licked would take some dexterity or creativity. The scene is both horrific and cold: there heads on stakes, but everything is artificial.
What now? Again this is a huge room, but I found it harder to imagine what its deal might be, where the loop of glass was going, and what it might be for. I know you might use sand for cleaning or scouring in a factory, perhaps for making glass, but I couldn’t quite picture what Luke wanted me to take away from this scene. I do like the phrase, “a whisper magnified to a roar,” though. In a space where you maybe expect to hear the clanking and crashing of a factory, this suggests a different sort of noisy space.
Most of the time there is enough for you to improvise on top of, especially for you pro-star GMs. I’m not sure i’m quite there, so I found myself describing rooms as “large industrial spaces” a lot, or falling back on analogies of Toyota factories. I should have watched some old films and made some dungeon dressing tables. I think if there was more space that would be a nice addition to the book: examples of what these alien industrial spaces might look like. A small table of ideas might be all it takes to help cement a space in your head. I would not want to see the descriptions of the rooms themselves expanded: improvising poorly is better than discovering well into play you forgot something important buried deep in some multi paragraph description of a space. I suppose the module is really trying to get straight to the point with everything it presents. We don’t have pages and pages of backstory about The Deep. If you read the module you’ll have a good sense of what’s up, with enough space for you to inject what you want. The module is flavourful: it paints a real picture of this strange alien space, certainly at the macro level.
The Deep is split up into 11 discrete interconnected sections. This doesn’t feel like a dungeon where the intention is to fight your way through it, so level 6 isn’t more ‘difficult’ than level 1, just different. The levels vary in size, but playing online most of the meatier ones took a few sessions each to explore. I initially tried to runs the game like a traditional dungeon crawl. I was going to think about rations and light and all that nonsense. I drafted up some houserules for overloading encounter rolls to track more aspects of play, but in the end I dropped it all. I found it awkward. I am not sure that you can simply map that D&D style of play straight onto Mothership. Stress seems to be the resource you want to worry about in the game. Occasionally room descriptions in Gradient Descent will suggest players gain stress or make stress saves, but I think something more systematic that encompasses the whole module would have been a good addition. Dungeon exploration rules that tie into the stress mechanics of Mothership would be excellent. This is certainly something I will think much more about the next time I run the game.
The Bell is presented as an obvious home base. When I ran my Carcosa campaign the players generally ended each session back in the safety of a town. This way we could rotate new players in if needed week to week, which is generally what happened. The tone of this Gradient Descent campaign would have felt different if I also required the players end each session retreating back to safety—to the Bell or some particular sections of the Deep. This feels more in line with the ethos of a megadungeon campaign, as Gus outlines. You push into the space as far as you can until you must finally fall back. You are hunting for short cuts, trying to understand the geography, making friends with factions to find new safe havens, etc. With the short online sessions I was running I didn’t think this would work. The lack of a clear resource management side to the game also has some impact here: there isn’t a need to return if you don’t really need to resupply. The sessions we played ended up primarily being about exploring the weird space. We would pick up where we left off each session. And that’s perfectly fine, to be honest. There is enough there for it to be a fun experience, but you can do that and much more!
If I could go back I would have certainly prepped more! I am out of practice running games. This module is so well put together it fools you into thinking you can pick it up and just play. (And to be clear, you can, as I have just noted. Ha!) I just think I could have run a more compelling campaign if I had put in a bit more effort. I can picture something stronger! Mind you, no one is or was complaining: the players seemed to enjoy themselves and I certainly did. But maybe there are some lessons for you to do better than me:
I kept the antagonist AI Monarch in the background for much of the campaign. I figured a creature such as it would see the players as ants, and largely ignore them. Which is all well and good if it was behaving like a god. But I didn’t really do much there, so they didn’t face much conflict from the game’s primary antagonist. I could have made its presence more known, indirectly in keeping with my original vision. Ominous messages, security androids giving the players cut-eye, and all that.
There is a whole element of “am I a human or am I a robot” that I didn’t lean into. If you are running the game I would have some coterie of regular rival NPCs who are also exploring The Deep, and who may or may not be the mysterious infiltrator androids. I had NPCs I had drafted—and then didn’t really use! But why?
There is a lot you can layer on top of the dungeon and its contents. NPC parties and factions are a big part of megadungeon play, and to get the most out of this module, I really recommend you think about these things up front, and as the players encounter the various factions of the dungeon. Luke has several factions called out explicitly who are adversarial with one another, like the Android groups on the second floor. There are a few other big groups that aren’t called out as factions, but could be treated as ones. (Off the top of my head the Androids hidden away in the Dis/Assembly floor.)
This sort of advice would have been good to include in the procedures of play that open the book. I think a much longer section on how to use the book most effectively would be great for new DMs, and honestly old ones like me. I’m not sure running a megadungeon is quite the same as running a normal dungeon, and so a few words discussing how you might approach things differently would have been great.
Overall my gripes are far outweighed by the creativity on display. In these Covid-times I had lost my energy when it came to playing RPGs, but reading this adventure really grabbed me and got my excited about gaming again. Most importantly it did what it said on the box: I ran this giant dungeon crawl for several months with the most half-assed of prep. This is the stuff dreams are made of: truly wondrous.
The Ennies are in September? I need to remember to not set my clock to the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG scene. Fear not, the awards you care about are beholden to no gaming convention, large or small. 2021 zooms by and was honestly kind of a garbage year as well. These are still dark times, but perhaps a little brighter, thanks to the power of science at the very least. And certainly in terms of RPG books 2021 is shaping up to be another good year. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming are here to make sure we stop and take notice of those books that were published so long ago you might ask yourself, “Why is Ramanan talking about them now?” Each year I create my short list of contenders, the books I think stood out over the entirety of the previous calendar year. Then I argue with the selection committee for months about which 3 books are those most notable in a field where there are many notable books. There aren’t many rules for these awards, but if there is one, it’s that there can only be 3 books.
“Players don’t need to read the rules if they don’t want to. They are simple enough to be learned during play.” Chris McDowall gets right to the heart of it with his followup to Into the Odd. Electric Bastionland is minimalist and terse. D&D stripped to the bone. The game is described in a handful of pages. The rest of the book is setting by way of backgrounds. They are funny and flavourful. The book concludes with advice for running the game: equally well done. The sort of gaming advice you can pick up and take with you elsewhere. Direct and to the point. Pragmatic. It’s quite impressive. The book like the game is beautiful. Alec Sorenson has done an incredible job bringing the setting to life.
I was a member of Luka’s Patreon at its inception. He would post his art on G+ and I liked looking at all his drawings so it seemed like a natural thing to do. He would mail out updates to his setting, which I might skim, but would mostly file away to read later. Except that later never came until the book arrived at my door. What a wonderful and imaginative setting. I feel like you can flip to any random page and be presented with some amazing science-fantasy. Like all good OSR visionaries, Luka did all the writing, art and design for the book. Incredible, right?
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2020: Gradient Descent by Luke Gearing, Nick Tofanni, Jarrett Crader, and Sean McCoy.
I am in the middle of writing a review of this adventure. I ran it the moment it came out, and again as part of a longer campaign. In a year when I was so demotivated when it came to tabletop gaming, Gradient Descent got me out of my rut, excited to play, and then facilitated my playing by making an adventure that was so simple to run. The braintrust at Mothership HQ asks the question, “Can you fit a megadungeon in a small zine?” Yes, apparently you can. Luke Gearing has delivered the goods. Sean McCoy has done a fantastic job of presenting such a complex space in a way that you can run straight from the zine. Really strong graphic and information design continues to be the most standout feature of the Mothership line. Jarrett Crader did the editing on the book, I assume no small feat given how dense the book is. Finally Nick Tofani’s art is wonderfully moody, often creepy. A perfect fit for this module, I would share it with my players often. Gradient Descent is the good stuff.
Kingdom Death is a game where you can be playing spectacularly, and then roll a 1 on a random table and lose your star survivor. Frustrating, certainly, it’s happened to me! But, it can also be memorable and fun. I remember with much amusement Evan losing our best survivor to a bad roll on the Dark Dentist settlement event during our first campaign. Coming at the game with the mindset of an RPG player I find the randomness of the game’s story events enjoyable. When it works well, it brings the setting to life. But, if you are coming at this game with the perspective of a more serious board game player, these events are likely going to frustrate or feel half-baked.
A lot of the meta-game in Kingdom Death seems tied to mitigating and minimizing how the randomness of the game might effect you. The more you play your meta-knowledge about the game increases. You know what weapons to bring on a particular hunt that will work well against a particular monster. You know which survivors you’ll need to bring because they might be effective against some nemesis you’re facing. People learn what settlement events exist and groom survivors to handle them or take the fall as need be. You know what story events are coming up and what you might need to prepare to avoid dire results. Kingdom Death becomes a game of minimizing risk divorced from any ‘story’ that might be emerging through play.
In the past I’d have argued approaching the game with this mindset feels like it’s missing the point. The random death and destruction all feeds into the aesthetics of the game. The game is bleak. Your characters all end up maimed or dead. There is a steady level of attrition and death the game wants you to experience: and it is trying very hard to make sure you experience it!
The thing is, Kingdom Death is really hard. There is a real tension between the RPG side of the game and the tactical board game side. To really succeed in the game you do need to meta-game. You fight each monsters several times, and while the fights will generally be quiet different, you will always learn something useful to help you next time you face them. Beyond that, you need to be so careful with how you spend your resources as you only have so many Lantern Years to build up your settlement and survivors before tougher Nemesis monsters show up to try and take you down a peg. There is no winning this game without a lot of really serious strategizing. You certainly won’t make it far if you aren’t trying to make the optimal choice each step of the way. The game design feels like it encourages this behaviour. Some of the final fights are so tough if you haven’t been on the ball the entire time you’ll likely lose.
I have been playing my recent solo campaigns with a real eye to win. But I will still lose a survivor on the hunt and shake my fists and message my friends to lament their death. It’s still fun! It all shapes the story of my settlement. But, I know not everyone agrees here. When people criticize this game from a game design and mechanics perspective, this feels like the area they hone in on: “The hunt table is too random and stupid.”
But if you don’t mind being eaten by a giant worm once in a while, I think this game is pretty great.