Deck the Halls With Indie Cred
As my clever and oh-so-attractive readers, you will recall that last column I promised "before Christmas, we'll be back, with what may become our new Yule Tradition here at Out of the Box Global Headquarters, a Stocking Stuffer Column devoted to a great heap of little indie games." Well, by our old tradition, that deadline slipped a little in the holiday ice, so I was obviously and retroactively talking about Russian Orthodox Christmas, which isn't for a week or so yet. Hopefully, next year we'll get our traditions across the Polish frontier, but this year before you take down those wreaths and lights, and before you spend all of Aunt Ruth's holiday check on fuzzy socks, you might want to take a look at some of these indie games.
As long-time readers know, and first-time readers will no doubt shortly guess, I'm a big fan of the indie game scene, most often shorthanded by The Forge, a bubbling elf-stew of creativity and personality devoted to tearing apart the RPG experience and putting it together garage-style. The Forge designers, and many other "indie" RPG builders, or the best of them anyway, are interested in asking not so much "how?" -- we know how, and we have since the mid-1980s or thereabouts -- but "how else?" "How else do you get people to collaborate on story-telling?" "How else can you create tension around the table?" "How else can you readjust the power balance between GM and players?" "How else can you read these dice?" "How else can you present, or understand, the RPG experience?" Me, I'm stuck with "how can I review seven games in one column?" For this column, you see, I'm aiming for quantity. I'm going to try highlighting what I see as the key innovation or notion that makes each game really worth looking at without hammering away at (or even much discussing) editing, or art, or stupid world design choices. These games have kind of a punk rock ethos about them; find the beat, pick a couple of chords, bang it out, and move on while the audience's ears are still ringing. Reviews, then, likewise.
AFK Not For Whom The Dell Tolls
Gary Pratt's The Code of Unaris (313 page two-color 4.5"x6.5"softcover, $15.95) is mechanically unremarkable for a diceless game; beat the target number and win. Where it intrigues is the reason it's designed diceless -- it's optimized for online chat gaming. (This also applies to the easy-to-consult-while-typing format, kind of a fat booklet around the size of a mass-market paperback.) The game itself is kind of a neat "fantasy game turns out to be ancient fantasy world" thing, with some filips as per normal. Production values are pretty high, and the level of thought in the rules meat (diceless games need lots of modifiers, or else it's just Fight 5 vs. the Orcs all night) is good. Maps by Eric Hotz are a sweet bonus; you can download them at the Goldleaf Games website.
Stolen Candy Tastes Best
Clinton Nixon is open about The Shadow of Yesterday (161 digest-sized pages, black-and-white softcover, $20), calling it "blatant theft" and indeed, there are rules and mechanics in here from Riddle of Steel, Over the Edge, HeroQuest, and Dying Earth, blended together in a "romantic fantasy" setting. This game comes very close to being a mechanical dream team, with a die mechanic crossed between Over the Edge and Unisystem, a d20 Feat-like "Secrets" system, and a resolution mechanic that explicitly dissociates "damage" from mere stabbing in favor of any kind of badness from lost self-control to humiliation to mere stabbing. (This is intended, methinks, to foster sex and romance as elements of play, always a worthy goal.) The real kicker for me is the sleek adaptation of Riddle of Steel mechanics into Keys that explicitly grant experience points for acting "in character" while allowing and rewarding a "moment of rejection" suitable for Grace Kelly in the last scene of High Noon, say. The setting I found mostly useful as pre-built mines for Secrets and Keys, but it's vivid enough for all that. This is a designer's game that rewards players, which is always refreshing.
Matt Wilson's Primetime Adventures (76 digest-sized pages, black-and-white spiral or perfect-bound, $15), from his Dog-Eared Designs, comes closer than any other game I've seen to actually modeling the experience of television. This is a good thing, and Wilson addresses the design issues involved well and clearly, but there's a little too much backstage business going on here for my personal taste -- characters resolve conflicts by comparing fan mail and budget, for instance. That said, questions of building a story arc, making decisions about motivation and scene direction, and creating character mixes and spotlight issues, go directly to the heart of the RPG experience as it is played. Learning what Matt Wilson has determined about those questions is well worth skipping Tru Calling for. And if you want to play a game about playing a game about TV, well, this is one to pick up for a whole season.
It's Raining Cats and Gods Out There
A relatively new entrant into Forge-style game production (though not to Forge-style theorizing and manifesto-ing), John (L5R RPG) Wick has joined up with Jared (octaNe) Sorensen to form the Wicked Dead Brewing Company, an RPG micropublisher. John has a couple of fairly interesting releases out, including one that I've wanted to see from him ever since he told me about it a couple of years back -- Cat (43 digest-sized black-and-white pages, spiral bound $15, PDF $8), a game pitting cats against nameless evils best referred to as Boggins. John's clever writing and mythic tendencies work to perfection in this small, elegant game. It uses his unexceptionable "Advantage" system -- roll dice, get successes against a target number, add dice for cool stuff you do or stuff you think might make your chances better. This doesn't really matter, although it fits the dreamlike, fairy-tale sort of setting well enough. Nine pages of "Fictional Facts and Factual Folklore" provide just enough grounding; there's some additional stuff left undefined in both rules and setting, but I'm sure John would call that a feature, not a bug.
Enemy Gods (59 digest-sized two-color pages, spiral bound $12, PDF $6) uses the same system, but I found its mythic touch less deft. John takes a really interesting notion -- you play both a God and a Hero, and if a question comes up in game and your God would know it, you can answer it without the GM. Heroes, meanwhile, have heroic flaws and Hubris, both of which can trip them up in play, although Hubris is (of course) more double-edged than that. Monster design rules, and advice for building pantheons, show up in the back. This much is grand Joseph-Campbell-channeling fun, but I'd have rather seen worked examples of existing pantheons rather than 15+ pages devoted to a fictional Wickian one. Still, the interaction between God and Hero, and within the Hero, is worth studying and playing with, and Enemy Gods is to be commended for one of the better and more elegant systems of god-level gaming around.
Set Phasers On Setting
Both of Annie Rush's RPGs from Wicked Dead Brewing shine as high concept: Run Robot Red (55 digest-sized two-color pages, spiral bound $15, PDF $7) is an RPG about robots on a generation ship gone just a little haywire, while The Secret Lives of Gingerbread Men (40 digest-sized full-color pages, spiral bound $15, PDF $7) is about -- well, it's about the secret lives of gingerbread men! (How cool is that?) Both feature a detailed resource-allocation character creation system, adding systems to the robots or candy decorations to the cookies to gain power, which adds flavor to the fun. SLGM uses the Advantage system, and is strongest in the story and concept area. Although the dreaded "what do we do now?" problem looms ominously, on the other hand, if you didn't know what kind of game you'd play about gingerbread men coming to life, why in Hell did you buy a game about gingerbread men coming to life? And you can eat the miniatures, when all else fails. Run Robot Red takes a very interesting step with the mechanics (roll d10s against a TN) by penalizing the robots for players rolling too well -- overt success attracts the Cel Trons (bad news), although you can conceal it by bleeding off excess power, which (of course) weakens you. It's rare indeed to see "Harrison Bergeron" levels of irony in an RPG, rarer still to see them ensconced so cleverly in the mechanics, rarer even still in a first RPG. With a tone combining humor and satire on Paranoia levels, Run Robot Red is a really astonishing debut -- Annie Rush is a designer to watch.
Next Time Next Year
Our next column will bow as early in January as we can manage to drag ourselves out of our hangover for, because it's all special and stuff. We'll do the annual Year End Roundup and Rundown of 2004, featuring the Coveted Outie Awards, which always bring a manly tear to the old eye socket. The column after that, we'll probably catch up on major 2004 releases we haven't somehow already covered -- among them a review of both volumes of Fireborn and of the new GURPS Fantasy, among other stuff. But that's all in the far-flung future year of 2005, so pop a cork or two and settle back until then.