The Ennies are today? Well, this year has certainly zoomed by. I should say what I have to say before the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG scene monopolize the conversation. When I looked back on the games of 2021 I found an odd mix of stuff. The quality of material coming out nowadays is quite amazing. We are really spoiled right now when it comes to indie RPGs. Someone needs to tell you about them: why not me?
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming exist to highlight truly standout RPG books. Unlike previous years I had a strong sense from the start what books I’d end up picking. As usual there are some real gems in my honourable mentions, so don’t sleep on those either!
The books in contention arrived at my doorstep, or digitally in my inbox, during 2021. That’s a long while ago now, I know, but that’s really my only rule with these awards and I will stick with it. Will the categories be the same as last year? Read on to find out!
Gus continues to put out some of the best adventures in the OSR. He’s spent the last however many years really going full-on nerd when it comes to dungeon crawling, and his adventures are all the better for his deep thinking on this topic. There is much to love about Gus’s Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier. As with Prison of the Hated Pretender, an honourable mention from last year, there is the occasional editorial note for new (or old!) DMs to better understand how to go about running these sorts of adventures. I love these snippets. The book features great art, also by Gus. He also did the layout. A real renaissance man!
If you’ve been burned by Games Workshop and their bloated and expensive rule sets then Space Weirdos will be a breath of fresh air. Space Weirdos is a nice and simple skirmish war game. I watched the game come together over the course of the pandemic, Casey sharing early drafts in my not so secret 40K discord server. I play tested it a few times over the course of the pandemic. Thanks to ZineQuest he did a very DIY print run, commissioned a cool cover, and added some solo rules. The game feels like it’s gained a lot of traction over the course of 2022, finding a nice audience of fans. If you have a handful of minis and some time you can and should be playing this game.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2021: Cartel by Mark Diaz Truman
Hold up: this isn’t an OSR game. Yeah I know, but the heart wants what the heart wants. I picked up the ashcan version of Cartel at the end of 2016. Over the following years Mark would develop the game into something really compelling. A scandalous game about the cartels and the drug war that has you playing the compromised people that make it all go: drug kingpins, petty gangsters, corrupt cops, complicit spouses, etc. The best Powered by the Apocalypse games feel like engines propelling the players forward, and I would say Cartel is one of the best Powered by the Apocalypse games. I’ve played the game several times now, and each time has left me wanting to play more. This game has likely been overshadowed by the success of Magpie’s other games, but it’s too good to ignore. I really love Cartel, and hope more people check it out.
Normally I start off with some jab at the Ennies, but this year is too garbage to take cheap shots at anyone, least of all the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG scene. No, we should be positive and celebrate when we can. These are dark times.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming exist to highlight truly standout RPG books. Each year it is a battle to whittle down my long list of books to a short list, and that short list down to the 3 books that will claim the accolades and fame. These choices are never easy. The arguments I have with myself are fierce. Still, this work must be done, because for reasons I can’t remember anymore I decided I’d only call out 3 books each year.
The books in contention arrived at my doorstep, or digitally in my inbox, during 2019. Before the Pandemic. A life time ago! Other than that it’s really the Wild West with these awards. Will the categories be the same as last year? Read on to find out!
Is it appropriate to give an award to someone I play D&D with here in Toronto? Of course it is: this book is great.1 Michael has collected all the one page dungeons he has made over the years—the ones with the cool isometric maps—redone the layout to make them all the more wonderful, and thrown in a bunch of extra tables and setting material and monsters and so much more to round out what would already have been an excellent book. This thing is dense and full of adventure. Great for campaigns or gaming emergencies!
Best Settings and Adventure: Patrick Stuart and Dirk Detweiler Leichty for Silent Titans (with layout by Christian Kessler and editing by Fiona Maeve Geist)
Silent Titans is really quite incredible. Patrick’s writing, Dirk’s art, and Christian jamming the art and writing together have resulted in a really stunning book: pretty enough for a coffee table! The world Patrick describes and Dirk illustrates in his abstract style is so thoroughly weird and unique. I was worried it was perhaps too weird: how do you even run this thing? But no, that was a foolish concern! I’ve been running this adventure straight from the book! It’s worked out great. The world we were promised.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2019: Zombie World by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman
It had to be Zombie World. I love this game! I’ve been obsessed with it for ages now. Zombie World is not really a book, I suppose. Like a game from days of yore, it came in a box with cards and markers and play mats. No matter! Zombie World is such a simple and well executed game. At its core it’s just another Powered by the Apocalypse game, but somehow all the bits and bobs that make the game come together so perfectly. It’s the most OSR Powered by the Apocalypse game. You heard it here first! I’ve ran it a handful of times and it was so effortless and enjoyable. Zombie World is the game you should all be playing. Yes, you!
All my love to Mork Borg by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr; Girl Underground by Lauren McManamon and Jesse Ross; Dirk’s Mystery Zine (that would became Super Blood Harvest) by Dirk Detweiler Leichty; The Demon Collective Volume 1 by David Shugars, Camilla Greer, Comrade Pollux, and Mabel Harper and Fungi of the Far Realms Alex Clements and Shuyi Zhang. Mork Borg has a special place in my heart for being such a wonderful OSR throwback, but with some fucking blinding and beautiful graphic design.
I fought the urge to give all the awards to Warcry. Games Workshop didn’t disappoint. Chef’s Kiss Emoji. Painting miniatures is keeping me sane while the world implodes.
I’m not sure you will ever get impartial judging with these awards. Is that something people even want? I assume not. We already have the Ennies where we decide awards using the power of aggregation. ↩
Last year Magpie games kickstarted their new Powered by the Apocalypse game Zombie World, a game by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman. This weekend at Breakout Con I managed to run the game for some friends—new and old. I ran Zombie World twice, both off the books “hallway” games. I mentioned to Mark Diaz Truman I was going to print and play with the PDF (which went out to Kickstarter backers a while ago) and he sent me a demo copy they had on hand.1 I hadn’t a run a game in almost two years, and I’ve never run a PbtA game before. I was nervous!
I didn’t prep for either game, and both games worked fine being played totally off the cuff. The dream! I ended up flipping over the illustrated population cards when I needed to come up with a new NPC. (I’ll try and make an online generator for spitting out zombie world NPCs in the future: that would be handy.) When things were meant to get worse, I would usually sit on the move till I had a good sense of when or where to mess with the players. I am not that familiar with how people normally run these games, what the cadence is for calling for moves versus just letting players accomplish things, etc. I found myself often asking players if they agreed with my choices, or if I was being a dick. Ha. I had fun running both games, and I learned a bit in both.
The first game was set in a prison. I had one player who was always ready to draw from the Bite deck when the need arose.2 So the group’s simple mission to search for food and some supplies turned into a series of unfortunate events that ended with my cousin bitten by a zombie, who later later turned and killed bit another player, leaving a third player to kill them both, while the forth fled away in the darkness. The two surviving players returned to the prison to find it fallen to infighting, which is where we ended things. The flow of the game felt quite natural. The pace of success and failure worked really well.
The second game was set in a hospital. Michael, who played in the first game, reprised his character. We decided he arrived at this hospital with the survivors of the prison. This game started with the group being told there might be a zombie on the loose in the floors of the hospital above them. I escalated things from there because of some failed moves. The characters were quickly on a mission to purge their hospital of zombies. I felt I got a bit more tripped up on who would draw for what in certain situations in this game.3 I hate reading rule books mid game, so just went with what I thought made the most sense, and that worked out well enough. This game ended with the players trying to flee up onto the roof while running from a swarm of zombies—no one died! After the game one of the players, Stephanie, made what felt like a really helpful suggestion that likely would have made the game flow a bit better. She thought I didn’t include enough downtime between the moments of tension or action. This would have given the players more of an opportunity to interact with one another and with the NPCs.4 If I had simply had some of the NPCs in their enclave push back against their plan it might have shifted how the game played out. In this game the players didn’t get a chance to reveal their traumas or past, nor play up their various relationships. The way I was running the games was maybe too close to how I’d have run a D&D game. I should watch some zombie films or replay Last of Us to remember that the real monsters in the zombie genre are other people!
I love the rules and structure of this game. I suspect people will hack it or remix it for other genres. I can imagine someone doing a “Grotty D&D” version, where you replace the bite deck with an ignoble death deck and call it a day.
Character creation was super fast and produced these really interesting people (eg. crotchety priest turned enforcer, a psychotic prize fighter turned xenophobic cult leader). Character creation is quick because you are just dealing out some cards. The slowest part is people talking about the relationships they might have—you deal cards between players to facilitate that. If characters die it’d take seconds to get them back in the game because you wouldn’t do that step again. Death is always on the table in this game, you are fighting zombies after all. I might declare this game to be the most OSR of all the PbtA games. It feels like its in that same headspace, anyway.5
The 2d6 dice rolls of your typical PbtA game are turned into a deck of cards: 6 Misses, 3 Edges, an Opportunity, and a Triumph. (This spread is a bit ‘tougher’ than the 2d6 distribution would yield.) The cards also work well because there are moves (like helping/hindering another player, going on point, foraging, etc) that involve drawing additional cards from that deck. You know how many cards of each type are in the deck, so can think through how helpful or not that will be. Drawing from the deck felt a bit like a ritual. There was a bit of a pause and some tension while people picked their cards and flipped them over for everyone to see.
There is a separate deck for seeing who gets bitten by a zombie. Unlike the “2d6” deck this one isn’t reshuffled. You draw a card and see if you are safe, threats escalate, or you are bitten. Players know there is one bite card. Each player that avoids it is making it more likely for the next player to draw.6 Everyone knows that card is coming, soon. A good source of tension.
I really liked Zombie World. I haven’t run a game in ages, and this felt incredibly easy to run. I took it out of my bag Friday afternoon, we made characters quickly, and just started playing. That it’s all cards really feels like it changes the whole dynamic of the game. This feels like the sort of game you could trick people into playing RPGs with. It sounds like my real copy should arrive in June, which is when I expect the game to go on sale. Keep your eyes open.
I also realize thinking back that I am trained from running a lot of old-school D&D to often treat all the social interaction as something managed by player skill. (“Yes, you were convincing, the NPC does what you want!”) In this game some of those interactions are also meant to be possible pivot points for the action. I would often have NPCs do what the players say because it sounded like a convincing plan to me. Or players would “open up” or “get in each other’s faces” without having to draw and see how that interaction gets complicated. ↩
A close contender would be the absolutely amazing The Warren. Perhaps the only thing really holding it back from claiming that title is that it’s a game about rabbits. ↩
This reminded me of the “trap” card in Kingdom Death monster. ↩
One thing that falls outside the usual discussions of gaming style is the amount of distance any given group or player has towards the game in question—which I think is a shame because I think a giant part of the fun is the distance and, one way or another, I feel like the design of, say, Vampire, D&D-as-marketed-to-adults, D&D-as-marketed-to-kids, Rifts, and Dogs In the Vineyard all imply different levels of distance. Or, perhaps more accurately, the way they’re talked about implies different levels of distance.
I suspect that when a lot of people say they don’t purposefully want to inject heavy “relevant” themes into their games it’s not necessarily because they play to escape reality, but because—like me—when they play they never escape reality, and so any “theme” always remains at a distance. Injecting a theme which one was genuinely conflicted about into this style of play would be, in some way—for this kind of player—trivializing it. — Zak Smith—from a 7 year old blog post1
As I mentioned in my post about Cartel, “These Apocalypse World games are at their best when they help the players navigate what might be unfamiliar territory for them.” These games also seem at their most challenging when they push into areas you don’t expect games to go. To my surprise, I found Night Witches—a game about sexism, death, hopelessness and sometimes hope during WWII—really compelling. It’s not the sort of game I normally play. More so, when I first picked it up it struck me as an odd subject to turn into a game. Acting out the lives of women in this hopeless situation seemed like it could be disrespectful.
Playing Night Witches made me rethink some of my thoughts around these “serious” games. Night Witches seems engineered to push the stories it tells in a particular direction.2 This can help keep serious matters serious. As I mentioned in my review, it’s quite likely your campaign of Night Witches will feel unrelenting and nihilistic, punctuated by brief moments of joy when you shoot down some Nazis. The gears of the game turn a certain way. The game feels respectful of the story it is helping you tell.
Velvet Glove is an Apocalypse World hack where you and your friends play a group of racialized teenage girls living in 1970s segregated small-city America—phew. (I picked it up because it sounded interesting and had a cool cover. I have fast become a fan of these overly specific Apocalypse World hacks.3) I’d say it has some thematic overlap with Night Witches. When I first saw Velvet Glove I had the same sort of knee-jerk reaction I did to Night Witches: should I be playing this game? I’ve played plenty of women in my D&D games4, but in the sorts of games I end up playing in the fact you are a playing man or a women is often immaterial. Or, at the very least, I usually play the same sort of genderless adventure person. Not that i’m adverse to playing a game where I’m asked to take on the role of a racialized women, but can I do that experience justice.
Night Witches feels like the safer game to play because we are so far removed from the experiences of a WWII Russian fighter pilot. You can invest a lot into the people you play in that game and feel safe knowing you probably won’t be called out for “doing it wrong”. There is a distance between you and the women you’re playing. Velvet Glove hits a lot closer to home. The racism and sexism it’s talking about are very much alive today. It’s likely you know people who deal with the problems Velvet Glove touches upon. As such, playing the characters in Velvet Glove feels like it could be more fraught or difficult. The challenge for game designers making these sorts of games is trying to introduce enough structure to the game that you gently nudge the emergent story in a particular direction. (It’s one way to try and understand and criticize these games.)
Velvet Glove and Cartel feel like they come from a similar headspace. They both seem to be a way to talk about how people make hard choices when put in positions where they have limited options. (And perhaps more obviously they both feature protagonists that aren’t White.) Of course, the games diverge in some obvious ways as well. The crimes and delinquency of your teenage girl gang will pale in comparison to the crimes of the cartels. It’s a totally different world. It’s easier to sympathize and empathize with the characters in Velvet Glove. Mark Diaz Truman likely wants us to feel the same way about the characters of Cartel, but for most people that will be a much bigger leap. Mark could have chosen many different topics to tell his story about Mexicans, but he settled on the drug war. (It’s interesting, complex, and exciting, after all.) He outlines both the struggle and ambition of the game he wants to make in an interview he did recently with Brie Sheldon:
Cartel issues a fundamental challenge to the gaming industry through its mere existence: it forces a mostly white audience to consider what it means to be Mexican, without the distance of metaphor or time. In many ways, my game design has been an effort to live up to that challenge, to take seriously the idea that white folks who might not have close relationships with Mexican people might sit down and play through a few days in their lives, not as a joke or a farce… but as a compelling drama.
When I saw this interview with Mark this passage caught my eye. (It’s what prompted this post.) Games can lean on the distance of time or the distance of metaphor to help make players feel comfortable playing roles that they might otherwise be uncomfortable playing. (For example, Night Witches uses time, and Monster Hearts uses metaphor.) It feels like Mark is touching on something similar to Zak’s comment above. Half the D&D games I play are filled with amoral murder machines straight out of a Jack Vance novel. These games don’t often feel edgy or complicated because you are so far removed from the characters you are playing.
You can’t mention Cartel without someone else jumping in to tell you glamourizing the Mexican cartels is despicable.5 This looks to be the most common complaint about the game. The archetypes the playbooks of the game represent aren’t distant or fantastic: they are grounded in reality.6 Mark could tell his story about the Mexican drug trade using allegory (the cartel are the dark elves or some such nonsense), or he could push his story backwards or forwards in time (Cartel: 2120). As players you might be able to avoid dwelling too much on the reality of what you’re playing. But this seems contrary to everything Mark wants to do with his game. His goal—as he notes often—is to push people to play roles that might be uncomfortable for them. He wants people playing Mexicans.
When talking about his game Mark often talks about the Wire. One of my favourite characters on that show is Bodie, a real fan favourite. The thing is, that dude shot Wallace in the first season! It’s one of the most heart breaking scenes in the show. The Wire isn’t glamourizing anything about the drug trade. I’m not sure Mark can produce the Wire of Powered by the Apocalypse World hacks—that’s a high bar to reach!—but it’s not inconceivable that you can produce something very good about violence and drugs and all that bad stuff. There is value in understanding the systems that produce the situation in Mexico today. To pretend it’s all bad people being bad is stupid and simple. There are all sorts of ways to tell that story. Mark chose to make a game.
“You play members of the cartel” may actually be sufficient to make some folks sick to their stomach, no matter what Mark has done to make it clear these characters aren’t good guys. That’s a legit critique.
So … I don’t think that’s a legit critique.
The fact anyone is making a game about the cartels is going to offend some people on principle. If you don’t want to play that game that seems like a totally reasonable response. I can imagine a lot of games I wouldn’t want to play. You probably can too. While I am sure Mark can convince people their understanding of his game is incorrect, no one obligated to engage with Mark to understand where he’s coming from. It’s perfectly fine to think a game is gross and leave it at that. Games aren’t for everyone and this game is likely no exception. But your distaste for a game isn’t a critique: that’s just a personal preference.
All of the games I’ve mentioned in this post could be offensive to people. Sometimes you might agree with what the person finds offensive. Other times not so much. (Some people are moaning about sex fluid elves right now when talking about 5e, after all.)
An argument can be made that no game can do this particular subject justice. And an argument can be made that this particular game isn’t doing its subject justice. But someone needs to make those arguments. My random thoughts above are one way to talk about games like these. There are probably other, better ways, as well. (I mean, what do I know? I play D&D!)
All of these games exist because people didn’t pick up and go home for fear of offending someone. This is likely true of most compelling art.
If I wrote this article now I probably wouldn’t have started with a quote from Zak. But here we are. I still think it is a good quote. Buyer beware, anyway.↩
I do think as players we are ultimately responsible for whether we are trivializing someones experience or not when playing a game. Jason Morningstar isn’t there to tell us off. He can only do so much. ↩
The scene around Apocalypse World is interesting in that it seems to produce these games that can only be described as “very specific.” Not to take away from Apocalypse World—which is god damn fun—but its premise is reasonably pedestrian: it’s the end of the world, we’re all fucked! (And fucking each other.) But from that game you end up with “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a Russian fighter pilot from the all women 588th Night Bomber Regiment” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a confused queer teenage monster” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a teenage girls battling white male hegemony”. That seems like such a leap! The brain trust on Google+ had a lot of good thoughts about why this might be the case.↩
My random character generator generates women 50% of the time. It also spits out disabled characters 25% of the time. Don’t say I’m not doing anything for representation in the OSR. ↩
Which is true: you shouldn’t glamourize gang violence. ↩
In a Reddit Ask Me Anything someone showed up to ask (with much sarcasm) whether the game would include moves for disposing of bodies in acid, something the cartels do. Mark replied the game already does. Ha! ↩
Ross Rifles is a brand new RPG from Dundas West Games that is still in development. It was the last game I played at BreakoutCon, and the first game of the convention that I had never played before. The session I was a part of was run by one its creators, Daniel Kwan. (Daniel is notable for his work running the RPG program at the ROM for kids, his podcast Curiosity in Focus.) Ross Rifles is like D&D, but the dungeons are the trenches of the First World War.
The quick start rules of the game are available now, but the game is very much still in development. The version I played at BreakoutCon has diverged a little bit from the game described in the quick start booklet, and I as I write this Daniel is play testing some new morale rules. They hope to have the game ready to be kickstarted at the tail end of the year. Still, the quick start rules capture the core of the game, which I suspect won’t change much over the coming months.
Ross Rifles is an apocalypse world hack. The quick start is a bit rough: I think it might not be easy to follow if you haven’t actually played the game. The booklet could likely be reorganized to better explain the game and how the various changes to Apocalypse World work. A brief overview of how the game plays and moves from phase to phase would be helpful. With Apocalypse World games you have your agenda and principles and all that noise. I think it’d be good to put some of that down on the page for people who want to run a game of Ross Rifles themselves.1 That said, the game’s rules are quite straight forward, and it doesn’t drift far from the core of Apocalypse World, so playbooks in hand I suspect most groups will manage fine.
Ross Rifles was fun. It plays like a good war movie. We began with our arrival to the front line. Players can play Sergeants, Corporals, and Privates, each described in their own playbook. The game will look similar to anyone who has played a Powered by the Apocalypse game. Some changes of note: characters have a harm track and a fatigue track, with 4 harm indicating death, and 4 fatigue indicating shell shock (which impacts your ability to things)2; each character can gain vigilance points they can spend to do particular actions or impact the fiction of the game (like call throw a grenade, call in artillery, etc); each character can gain ground that represents their forward position on the battlefield. Gaining Ground and moves you trigger by spending your Vigilance points are generally how you succeed at the missions your soldiers are assigned.
After settling in we were greeted by our commanding officer Stan Ho and tasked with searching for and retrieving the camera from a downed German spy plane which crashed in the No Man’s Land. This mission required a majority of our group to gain 3 ground, and that one of the players triggered the Fall Back vigilance move. We spent some time trying to get organized: cleaning our guns, studying maps, surveying the region from the ‘safety’ of our trench. There are moves you trigger while in this phase that might grant bonuses for the later phases. In our case, we mostly flubbed rolls and accumulated shock/fatigue.
Flubbing rolls also meant Daniel collected Threat tokens, which he could later spend to fuck with us, basically. This was one of my favourite parts of the game. It’s like the inverse of mission points in Night Witches. When a player rolled low they would sometimes be presented with the option of succeeding anyway if the DM gets a threat token. As he slowly collected tokens the tension around whether we should eat the set backs from our rolls ratcheted up.
We were ready for action and ventured out into No Man’s Land.3 The moves here are all about making your way forward unseen through all the muck and craters and barbed wire that pock marked the front. Our brawniest private began things by crawling over to cut through some barb wire blocking our path—and rolled snake eyes. So he was stuck under the wire, which remained uncut, and could hear the approach of two German stormtroopers. The rest of us tried to lay low and get in a good position to shoot the troops. (This time we rolled well.) We waited for an artillery strike to provide some noise and light and took out the troops. Our private managed to cut through the wire and we began our advance. My character managed to make it to the camera first. Success! Or so we thought: it was a trap.
We were now under fire, the third phase of the game.4 Here the game shifts to charging forward, trying to circumvent craters, barbed wire, and other obstacles, shooting at your enemies (as they shoot at you), and getting up close and personal with whatever weapons you have on hand. This part of the game was exciting and fun. It’s where the rest of our team managed to make all their ground as they ran to save me from the German machine gunners that had me pinned down and some storm troopers that were making their way to the crater of a plane I was hiding behind. A few of us took some wounds as we were shot and beaten, but in the end we prevailed. I was rescued and we fell back (and so succeeded at our mission).
We played through another short mission and called it a day.5 It was a fun session. I found it all really interesting, as well. I have to wonder if they’ll be able to some how transplant all that knowledge of its creators into the eventual game book itself. I don’t know much about the First World War, so the game felt compelling just from an educational standpoint. The game is very fast to get going. Unlike a lot of other Apocalypse World hacks, you don’t spend a lot of time up front building out the game world or the relationships between all your characters. The setting is set and your relationships are what come out of play. Daniel runs the game with children, and I suspect a lot of how it was designed is to make playing and running the game as straight forward as possible. I think they’ve succeeded quite well in that regard. I’m looking forward to where they end up going with this game.
Magpie Games does a good job with their pre-release versions of their games. They have a good structure I think everyone should copy. (You can grab their “ash can” editions of Velvet Glove, Cartel, The Ward, and Pasión de las Pasiones as PDFs to see some great examples of quick start rules.) ↩
In the game I played Daniel had merged the harm track and the fatigue track. There are now two spots for shock, and 3 spots for physical harm. When you fill up both your shock spots you now roll for shell shock. When you fill up all the harm you’re dead. ↩
The quick start rules call this part of the game “Over the Top” (of the trenches). ↩
The quick start rules call this part of the game “On Patrol”. ↩
I’m skipping over our side trip to find a European beaver to make our mascot because I don’t think it was really core to the main experience of the game, but obviously that was fun. ↩
You’ve got your hands on the ashcan of the full game, a preview of Cartel that’s got everything you need to sample the game before it’s released next year. — Mark Diaz Truman, Cartel “Ashcan Edition”, 2015.
Cartel is like D&D, but everyone is a drug trafficking Mexican gangster. The game is an engine to produce the sorts of stories you see in Breaking Bad and Narcos. Like other Apocalypse World games the mechanics look to push you towards eventual calamity. I suspect like Breaking Bad you would play a game where your hijinks are funny till they’re not.
The game doesn’t drift too far from the general the core of Apocalypse World’s rules, so for most players familiar with the rule set it should be easy to jump into. The genre the game emulates is a lot more accessible than some of the other (particularly niche) Powered by the Apocalypse games I’ve picked up. I think it’ll be an easy game to get into. You’ll recognize the archetypes the playbooks describe: the dirty cop, the naive spouse, the “cook”, etc. The most notable changes to the rules (that I picked up on, and really, what do I know?) is around how you gain experience and advance your character. I am a fan of the change: each playbook has thematic options for how you advance that encourage you to play your role. (And, when you get bored of your experience objective you can move in the opposite direction to cancel it out and pick a new one.)
When I first picked up the game my friend Gus brought up something that’s always on my mind with these Powered by the Apocalypse games: are they making light of a serious topics?
I’m not sure how I feel about a game that romanticizes the Mexican Drug War. Though I want to be a cleric of Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte when we play. … I find Latin American and American pulp narco-fiction to be pretty damn creepy and exploitative (El Marginal and Sicaro both, and also yeah Netflix’s Narcos) already, and I wonder how beer and pretzels tabletop can do better. This is sort of why I like my fantasy games and moral play to be a bit more removed - give me Carcossan cannibals, not Los Zetas. — Gus, 2016.
Moments after Gus asked the question fellow Torontonian and BreakoutCon organize Rob chimed in with a link to an old Gaunlet podcast episode where Mark discusses this very topic with Jason Cordova. Jason is a lawyer and had previously worked with people affected by Mexican drug trade. His initial feelings about this game were pretty strong (and negative). (This interview takes place a year after he first encountered the game, so his views had cooled a fair bit.) Their conversation on this podcast is really fantastic. It’s probably one of the best episodes. (So rare!) I’ve been looking forward to the game since listening to this interview.
These Apocalypse World games are at their best when they help the players navigate what might be unfamiliar territory for them. You can see in the playbooks and the writing and everything that orbits the game thus far that Mark’s really put a lot (of himself!) into this game: exactly what I want from my games that are “like D&D, but …”.2
I have so many half written blog posts I should finish. What’s the point of a blog if you don’t write anything, right? At least this post is more topical, now. ↩
Players, don’t get too attached to your characters, because the game isn’t about them—the game is about the warren. Individual rabbits are cheap and the continuity of the warren is everything. Death is explicitly on the table and will occur as the fiction demands, so breed early and often. Your kits are your legacy (and the pool from which you will probably draw your next character).
Think of the game as a generational saga rather than an heroic narrative. Although your characters may well be leaders, poets, and scofflaws, they are still at the bottom of the food chain in a world determined to kill them. Perhaps their children can finish what you so bravely started. Generational play is great fun, and having a strong connection to the warren as a living community pays great dividends over time. You’ll start to care about its health and goals, and build a mythology around the exploits of previous generations. And, despite all these lofty assurances, in the end making up a new rabbit takes only minutes. - Marshall Miller, The Warren.
The Warren is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about rabbits—picture Watership Down.1 I’ve tried to play it a few times with my daughter, though without much success. My daughter is a scaredy cat. She doesn’t like games with conflict or danger.2 Most RPGs aren’t particularly interesting without either.
The Warren is full of writing I could imagine being pulled right out of an old-school D&D book. Stories about rabbits are often stories about survival and horror. Watership Down is very much in this vein. Your rabbits struggle against the world, and many will die so others may live. One can picture running some real meat grinder games playing a by the book game of The Warren.
I’ve wanted to run a session of this game with people closer to my age for a while now. Bully Pulpit Games has published several “playsets” (basically very terse setting documents) to help kickstart games of The Warren. They’re all quite good, but sometimes it’s fun to make your own.
Of course anyone can do anything he likes with Carcosa. There is no One True Wayism about Carcosa, nor is there an “Official” Carcosa. My attitude towards my creations is that of Gary towards D&D in 1974, not Gary towards AD&D in 1982. — Geoffrey McKinney on Dragonsfoot
World of Carcosa is a playset for The Warren that is set in the doomed world of Carcosa. If you have been reading this blog you know it’s one of my favourite settings for D&D. I’m not sure what the Venn diagram is for people interested in Carcosa and people interested in a game about rabbits. Perhaps it’s very small. This is for my people!
I haven’t had a chance to run this playset yet. Buyer beware!
A brief recap of one of our games: “I thought my daughter might like a game about rabbits. She was sent out for carrots and narrowly avoided an owl! That was too scary, though, so she decided she’d just play the predators and the rabbit she made is now a turncoat working with the humans after eating a soup that made her evil.” A few weeks later I tried playing with her again: “In this session she is searching for cutie rabbits to also convert to evil. She also travels in an invisible bag carried by her human friend so foxes and owls can’t get her.” ↩
My second day of BreakoutCon began with a game of plain old Apocalypse World. There are many games built on top of the rules for this game I often forget that underneath them all there is a game about playing horny people in the post-apocalypse. Our game was based on a one shot adventure written by Baker to introduce people to the game—his Keep on the Borderlands, I guess.1 At the start of the game we were asked if we wanted a game that was gonzo or serious. I think we were all on the fence and so ended up with something in the middle.
I wasn’t fussy at all about what class I played, so I let everyone pick their playbooks first (classes in Apocalypse World) and I picked the last one, a Skinner. My character was a hot singer whose gender was ambiguous, dressed in some haute couture whose origin and continued upkeep was unclear. You get to pick two moves when you start. I picked one that pushed my Hot stat to +3 and another move that sort of charms people who see me perform my art (singing). And then we started asking each other questions.
Apocalypse World has rules for building relationships between the characters that are great and seem like the most interesting innovation in the game. Each class has a series of questions you ask. Other players chime up to answer, granting you a history bonus with that player’s character. By the time everyone has asked their questions you have a web of interconnection between everyone at the table. Too heavy for the sorts of of OD&D games I play where I make characters in a few seconds and refuse to name them till they survive the session, but on the whole this wasn’t an onerous process at all. For games like 5e where you are likely to create characters you hope to have stick around for a while these sorts of mechanics should be stollen whole hog. (I can imagine questions for each of the classes in D&D.) This is the mechanic to steal from this game, not that 2d6 business. That’s pedestrian in comparison. Before the game had started there was already a little heat.
The set up for this one-shot involved everyone getting a letter that told them a little bit of the action and asked them to roll and see what the current deal was, a custom Apocalypse World move to start their game. These letters introduced additional backstory and adventure hooks. The hard holder failed their “love letter” roll so our game began with us trapped in our hard hold, surrounded by an enemy gang, with things looking bad for us. Also, a rival faction inside our compound split off and holed themselves up. Also, there were a bunch of spies working a against us inside the compound. Also, the mud flaps, weird fish people we were trading with, were suffering the effects of a highly contagious disease. Also, the worlds psychic maelstrom was fucking with several of the NPCs (and myself). Also, a whole other bunch of stuff was happening. I appreciate that there was lots of things for our characters to latch onto and explore, but it meant that a lot of the interpersonal adventure hooks we figured out earlier never really came into play. It was comical how zany and hectic the opening situation was. (Also, the villains name was Ambergrease, which I love.)
Unlike D&D where you usually adventure as a group, in this game all the characters were usually off doing their own thing. Everyone was running around trying to figure out how to make sure things didn’t explode. This felt a bit awkward at times: there were often long gaps between a player being called on to narrate what their character was getting up to rolling to see what was going on. We’d all listen to what the Chopper was doing, or the Angel, or the Brainer, and then wait for things to circle back to us. I personally don’t mind this: I liked being able to relax and listen to what was going on around me. There was always something going on.
The tone of the game was quite different than that of Night Witches. Failed rolls lead to more complications, but in Apocalypse World proper success would often be just that. My character began the game with a +3 Hot. This is pretty sweet, and made any actions I needed to take with my Hot stat an easy success. The starting stats in Apocalypse World (in contrast to Night Witches) produces fairly competent characters from the get go. My Skinner was amazing at being Hot. It was unlikely i’d fail if called on to roll against that stat. This encouraged me to deal with problems by using my ample hotness whenever possible. I don’t think this is that unusual: D&D and most games with stats will reinforce your character’s roles and personality by incentivizing moves that require a particular attribute. With this game those situations where we were pushed to leave our character’s comfort zone were usually more interesting, because these end up with the failures or partial successes that produce interesting plot twists. Night Witches scales everything down, and you can produce a lot of strife and conflict that’s also very quiet. With Apocalypse World to generate that same level of conflict felt like it required a whole lot of action to be going on. One thing we didn’t do in our one shot that I suspect would result in people choosing to use their less amazing stats is the rules for marking stats and advancement. The DM and the player you have the highest history with each mark one of your stats. When you roll a highlighted stat you mark experience. In this way the game can encourage you to not just use sex to get your way.
Apocalypse World looks to focused on producing narratively interesting situations. The problem solving in the game will usually require you to make one die roll, that leads to another, and another, and another. In the book they refer to this as moves snowballing. Trying to minimize how many rolls you need to make to accomplish your goals might be the approach to the game more tactically minded players take when playing. (How do I work the situation so my Skinner can seduce this person rather than threaten them with violence.) As far as I can tell you don’t give out bonuses for coming up with an amazing plan that ultimately requires you shoot someone, though perhaps the steps that lead up to you shooting someone might set things up so that you don’t need to roll to make that shot and execute them. There is a different sort of player skill at work. That said, my guess is people are playing Apocalypse World because they care more about interesting narrative than “winning”.
By the time our session was wrapping up we had maybe wrangled enough food to survive and held off the rival gang, but were likely in the midst of being overrun by infection disease and evil brain control. It was a fun game, and I’m glad I got a chance to finally play Apocalypse World.
I’ve had the book for several months now, having backed the Kickstarter. There is a lot to love about Apocalypse World even if you have zero interest in playing the game and think everything I’ve said thus far sounds dreadful. The book is worth owning for the DM advice. The book presents one of the best summations of how to run a sandbox game. (The Warren takes that advice even further) There are some OSR products I’ve seen recently that do a good job here, but I suspect many were inspired by how Apocalypse World presents its advice. The book is very practical in how it talks about running a game. The tone is conversational.2 The advice is direct. You do this and then you do this and then you do this. These are things I think other game publishers could learn from.
That said, I don’t think this is a good book to learn how Apocalypse World games work. Both Night Witches and The Warren do a better job of explaining the rules to their game (and games like them) than Apocalypse World does—in my opinion. Of course, Apocalypse World is a much heavier and more complicated game. Each playbook is quite different from the next. There are lots of moving parts in the game. (You can ignore what you find complex and the game will chug along just fine. We looked to have ignored a fair bit while playing our one shot.) The second edition book I own includes advice for hacking the game, which is likely also of interest to people who are game nerds.
Sometimes the tone is too conversational. “You are hot and you do this fucking thing you hot person.” The way the book talks to you can be annoying. It flies too close to the sun. I both write, talk, and sound annoying: there isn’t anything wrong with that. ↩
My first game at BreakoutCon was a session of Night Witches. Night Witches is an RPG written by Jason Morningstar. For those not familiar: in Night Witches you play Soviet fighter pilots in an all women bomber unit. The game was totally different than anything I usually play, and my first time playing a Powered by the Apocalypse World game. That first game was so captivating I ended up playing again the next day (continuing the action where things left off). I was positive about the game after reading it a couple years ago. Reading a game is miles away from playing a game. I feel I have much more to say about this game now.
Our session opened with a somewhat involved character creation process: we described our characters and answered pointed questions about their history as the DM narrated our travels to the front. (An example question is, “Why does the NKVD already have a file on you, and how did you get around that black mark to join the regiment?”) This added a small bit of colour to each character and helped differentiate what would otherwise be 4 generic Russian air women. My character was “the Raven”, which seems like the jerk archetype in Night Witches. When I play D&D my characters are usually generic adventure person until they starting doing something interesting. (At which point i’ll fold that stuff into their character.) I began this game with a rough sense of what the character might be like, which was useful since Night Witches is a game primarily about social interaction. Beginning the game with a blank character would have made playing difficult. When presented with conflict each player had a different approach they would take, coloured by the basic personality they had fleshed out during this in-game prep. As with D&D my character’s personality evolved through play: by the end of the second session my Raven was a full on Mean Girl.
As mentioned above, Night Witches is a Powered by the Apocalypse game (an Apocalypse World hack). Briefly, this means that the core mechanic of the game is rolling a 2d6 to perform certain actions. On a roll of 10+ you succeed: fantastic. On a roll of 7-9 you succeed, but some number of things will go wrong. Anything else is a failure: it’ll be bad. Night Witches plays with this formula a little bit, to great effect.
Night Witches is split into two phases. During the day you wander around base and interact with your comrades. At night you fly bombing missions against the Nazis. At first glance it might seem like the night missions are the important phase, but the bulk of your play will take place during the day. The night missions are a fairly structured mini-game: you roll to see if you find your targets and roll to see if you hit them. Complications in the mission might change this general structure.
The attack run move is a good example of how Night Witches rarely lets you “win”. Here are the list of complications when you make that move:
The damage to the target is not significant and it is your fault.
You fly through a storm of flak (triggers Enemy Fire).
A plane in your Section is damaged, GM’s choice.
You and your fellow airwoman are Marked.
On a 10+, normally a great success in Apocalypse World, you are required to choose 1 from that list. I can tell you from playing the game that all of those options suck. It’s easy to come back maimed or dead after a night mission.
The game does provide one way to help you succeed at night. During the day some of your moves will let you add points to the mission pool, which you can spend during the night to increase the results of your dice rolls. The consequences of failure during the night are so steep that trying to build up a mission pool is an important part of the game. This is what pushes you to act during the day. More so, getting these mission points is usually one option out of a few you pick on a successful roll. You will often sacrifice something to get them, which further drives conflict in the game.
A perfect example of how this works is the “Act Up” move. During the day you are going to be dealing with assholes: commanding officers, chauvinists, the secret police, etc. Your natural reaction as a player is likely to argue when someone starts an argument with you. In this game you are playing a women knee deep in a sexist society so it’s complicated. Whenever you act up you need to roll a 2d6 to see how things go:
Make someone do what you want.
Ensure that there are no consequences for Acting Up.
Add one to the Mission Pool.
On a 10+ you get to chose 2, on a 7-9 you get to choose 1. So, even rolling high you are faced with a tough choice: will you make a personal sacrifice to add to the mission pool? So much of the game is structured like this. As you play you end up picking up complications with each roll, success or failure. This is what ends up making the day phase interesting. You aren’t just loitering on a base with your buddies.
When I wrote about the game last one of my concerns was with how gamey it might feel.
Action is free-form until you do something that would require you making a Move. These are the pivot points in the game. Moves are specific: you eyeball someone or act out. There are a handful of moves each character can perform. The analog to characters classes in D&D are natures in Night Witches: someone has the temperament of a hawk, or an owl. Natures grant additional moves characters can learn as they level up. In this way the game feels similar to 4th Edition, with its discrete list of powers. I’m curious if this feels as stifling as I found it with 4th edition. Are players who are good at eyeballing going to constantly try and give everyone cut eye to get their way? (Maybe I just played 4e with goofy players.)
This didn’t feel like a real issue in our game. I thought the game played fairly naturally. We would all play to our characters strengths, for the most part. I was worried this would result in weird behaviour, but in play it generally meant the mechanics pushed our personalities in certain directions. The characters with high luck were brash and insubordinate, the characters with high guts were more likely to use their feminine wiles to get their way. I thought it worked well.
This game begs to played over several sessions. You develop all these relationships—friend and enemies—over the course of play. When that first game ended I really wanted to keep playing to see what would happen next. I think as a one shot the game might feel a bit unsatisfying.
As I have noted it’s a tough game. I can’t imagine how an air women from the first session would make it all the way to end of the war. Your characters have 4 harm—hit points—and when you use all 4 up you die. That’s not that hard to do. As you rest during the game you can reduce your harm. On the other hand your character also has 12 marks, which are permanent. Certain moves will ask you to mark one off. Another way to die is to pick the “Embrace Death and Face your Final Destiny” mark. After a few sessions that last mark is going to start getting harder to avoid. (My character ended the 2nd session with 4 marks.) I wonder if the game starts to feel unrelenting and nihilistic as your run a long campaign. (Perhaps that’s the point?)
Night Witches is an excellent game. It’s well thought out and put together. Of course, you have to be interested in playing a game about soviet air women or it’s likely going to disappoint no matter how well designed it is. I thought it was a neat game when I first read it, but playing it helped me appreciate that it is in fact a fun game and not just a cool art project or stunt. If you are going to play one game about Soviet women in an all women bomber unit during WWII make it this one.
Remember that the purpose of your prep is to give you something interesting to say when the next session starts. Remember that your NPCs are just not that complicated. You’re not holding back for a big reveal. You’re not doling events out like you’re trying to make your Halloween candy last until New Years. All your threats have impulses they should act on and body parts leading them around, so for god sake, have them act!
— Apocalypse World, pg 121, Vincent Baker
I am reading Apocalypse World by Vincent and Meguey Baker, which seems appropriate given the current state of world affairs. Sometimes I find the way it is written annoying, while other times I appreciate its direct and casual manner. On the whole the book is great and the advice scattered throughout can and should be picked up whole hog and used in your most oldest of old school D&D games. Apocalypse World tells you how to run a sandbox game without ever calling it that. The book seems quite revelatory, while managing to not take itself so seriously.
When I was running my Carcosa game I had a lot threats in the wilderness so subtle and so slow moving my players would often not bother investigating to see what was going on, or would get bored of the investigation and move on with their lives. Their biggest enemies were the Jale Slavers, dirt bags who kept on showing up in random encounter rolls, and The Dominant Reflection, an insane Bone Man sorcerer who they had inadvertently set free in the first session, and his cult. These two groups were antagonistic. Trying to deal with them was a clear and obvious goal. After they displaced the The Dominant Reflection the sessions that followed were in an awkward place where they was really only one enemy in play: they were on good terms with most everyone else they interacted with.
In hindsight I should have been far more pushy and straight forward with all the groups I had in play during that game. My Snake-Men from the distant past never once showed up in the game directly because I thought of them as ‘boss monsters’ to be encountered later. The players would see the aftermath of their actions, or stumble upon their army of Carcosan Zombie Men wandering the wilderness, but I never really gave them enough clues to indicate what was going on. Similarly I had a cult North of where the party spent most of their time, but because the party never ventured North after the early sessions this other faction just sort of sat fallow “exploring” a megadungeon the party didn’t care about anyway.
The advice I’ve quoted above seems simple and good. There isn’t much point preparing stuff just to have it sit fallow. Your NPCs Machiavellian plots are probably quite lovely, but I suspect at the table simple and direct action is likely just as much fun to play.