Indie Gems – Rise and Fall (2016)

Rise and Fall

Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300Designed by Elizabeth Lovegrove and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series.  The second of these is a game by Elizabeth Lovegrove, titled “Rise and Fall”.

The introduction begins as follows.

Dystopias come from somewhere, and they go somewhere. They appear because someone is able to convince others that they are reasonable, and they disappear because someone is able to exploit their weaknesses. They rise, and they fall.

 This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

The core loop is a straightforward question-exploration-interpretation cycle, which proved its utility in Microscope scene setting.  As players, you cycle through a series of scenes that explore the dystopia. One person poses a question and picks out two characters to play through a scene that seeks the answer. When the scene is done, you write the answer down on the central ideas sheet. You continue to add more details to this sheet during play, which creates a compelling artifact.

You repeat the same process for each scene, with the role of questioner rotating around the table.  The first third of the scenes explore the rise of the dystopia, the middle third explores its operation, and the last third demonstrates the collapse.  This game stands apart from many others, though, by explicitly encouraging generational play. Each player doesn’t have a single fixed character, but rather they embody a persistant archetype such as “Artist”, “Matriarch” or “Warrior”.  During play, you create new individuals who fit in both the archetype and the society at that time, discarding characters freely.

I am fond of this game, but I feel that it is a tad understated and restrained. The framework of the game would be robust enough to handle much broader and more complex stories than the base scenario.  When I get the opportunity to run this game, I plan on hacking it into a 3-session experience, so that we can dedicate more time to explore each of the three phases of a society. I feel that this game has too much potential to be limited to a single session.

Indie Gems – When the Dark is Gone (2016)

When the Dark is Gone

Designed by Becky Annison and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series.  The first of these is a game by Becky Annison, titled “When the Dark is Gone”.

This game starts with an excellent summary that I will steal outright.Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300

Imagine the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They visited a magical land, fought battles alongside talking animals and centaurs, and won a war against a powerful and evil enemy. Then they returned home, no-one believed them, and they were back to war time rations and maths homework.

What does that feel like? How did they live with the memories of what they saw? Did they end up in therapy?

This is a game about children who went through a fantastic ordeal in their youth which traumatized them. It’s an emotionally gripping and ruthlessly compelling game about a group of broken people, trying to fix themselves.  Each player portrays one adult with a psychological disorder stemming from their childhood heroics. The GM plays the role of the Therapist, charged both with the safety of the players and in encouraging productive exploration of the character’s issues.

The game is only about 40 pages of content, but it offers some of the most robust GM guidance and support that I have seen in any game.  It explains the role of the Therapist to listen and reflect back, and not to judge or create. It asks the GM to establish an atmosphere, ask open questions, allow players to choose their story, share spotlight time, maintain the pace of the game, and maintain the focus on the characters. It teaches participants on how to improvise, incorporating the advice from works such as Play Unsafe, Impro, and variety of other larp sources. Last, but most important, it offers tools for safety so that the obvious sensitive topics can be addressed.

For players, this seems to produce very emotionally rich gameplay.  Each character is defined by a psychological disorder, two cornerstone relationships with other player characters, dark secrets associated with those relationships, and one redeeming feature.  It’s a simple list of ingredients, but they do an excellent job of creating a cohesive and dysfunctional group of adults, bound to each other by their common trauma. The game tells you that your characters is hurting, and asks you to explore what part of their childhood fantasy ordeal caused this pain. It offers a chance for catharsis and healing, and the emotional Bleed off this game should be significant.

I look forward to bringing this to the table. I just need to acquire some Turkish Delights first.

Indie Gems 2 – Dream Askew

Dream Askew

Designed by Avery Mcdaldno and published by Buried Without Ceremony

Available at

A queer enclave in the apocalypse

Roleplaying games have a power in them. They invite you to embody the lives of others and discover what challenges others face. They allow peoples to express facets of their own identity in the safe companionship of friends.  They foster greater understanding in a multitude of ways. Dream Askew, from Avery Mcdaldno, does all these things and more.

On the surface, the game seems to be a simple derivation of the classic Apocalypse World. Avery had done a great deal of design in that space with projects including the amazing game Monsterhearts as well Simple World. Avery gives a compelling pitch for the game on what makes this particular iteration different from the core conceit of Apocalypse World:

Imagine that the apocalypse didn’t happen everywhere at the same time. Instead, it happened in waves. It’s still happening in waves. You were hit recently. You’ve fallen out of the society intact. You’ve found others who you can relate to, and you’ve banded together with them to form a queer enclave. Gangs roam the apocalyptic rubble, and scarcity is becoming the norm. And just beyond our everyday perception, howling and hungry, there exists a psychic maelstrom.

Dream Askew is a game about post-apocalyptic lives. It’s a game that queers the post-apocalyptic genre, exploring how the apocalyptic process could impact our sexuality, genders, livelihoods, experiences of marginalization, and experiences of liberation.

On first glance, it seems only to drift or a reskinning of the core game to enrich the queer elements of the setting. It’s only upon peering into the game in more detail that the true brilliance begins to shine.

As a player, it’s a fascinating experience. It’s a consensual game design from its core, giving the participants plenty of options and encouragement to create messy situations but allowing them to opt-in. If something diverges from the desires of the participants, each of them has “win buttons” that allow them to overcome those obstacles. The very nature of the system encourages communal decision making, watching other people’s boundaries, and taking care of the other people at the table.

It is a GM’ful game design, with each player portraying one main character and one situation – an aspect of the setting. One person may be “The Tiger”, the badass individual who leads a gang to defend their people and seize what the community needs. That player could also portray the Psychic Maelstrom situation, controlling this antagonistic force against their fellow players. Avery gives guidance on which situation elements are directly tied to each of the playbooks, so that you avoid having the Tiger controlling their own gang. Considering the strong GM focus of game powered by the apocalypse, this is fascinating.

It is a diceless game design, with a series of different fictional moves available which are custom-designed to fit each individual playbook. These moves are classified in three different tiers of effectiveness. Strong Moves are potent victories and solutions to problems, and you must spend a token each time you use them. The Tiger might have a strong move of “Say the right thing to extinguish someone’s fear and bolster their confidence” or “Calmly watch on as your gang reacts for you”.  Normal Moves are mixed results that continue the action or change the situation without resolving things, not requiring or providing a token. A Normal move might be “Take action, leaving yourself vulnerable” or “React by drawing a weapon”.  Weak Moves provide you one token each time you use them, and these almost always cause trouble/drama for the character. Example weak moves could be “Trigger the memory of a past trauma” or “Ask ‘Which character’s motives should I second-guess right now’”.

It’s functionally a beautiful, diceless, Gm’less mix of Apocalypse World and Fate Core.  I encourage all designers to explore Avery’s magnum opus at the link above.

Indie Gems 1 – Misspent Youth

We are in a golden age of creator-owned and independently produced roleplaying games. Countless creative designers, from all walks of life, have created beautiful rpgs that explore important issues through play.  The true innovation in games, like in all media, comes from the little-known gems. These small games are often overlooked in favour of the bigger games on the market, but they add something vital to the hobby. I hope to shine some light on these gems, so that they can be discovered anew by designers and fans alike.

Each of these bite-sized reviews describes the game overall, what kind of experience it offers to the players, and what new game design tech it offers to designers. It’s only a small taste of each of the games in question, but it should be enough to get started. Now let’s get to the games!

MissMisspent Youthpent Youth (2010)

Designed and published by Robert Bohl

Available at

Misspent Youth is a game of teenage punk-rebels in a f*cd up future dystopia. It’s a game with a GM who portrays the brutal Authority who is killing, consuming or perverting something that matters in society. You build a dystopia that reflects on real-life bullying behaviours, then portray teenage characters who stand up to oppose it.

Misspent Youth is the most punk RPG I have ever read, and it is glorious. The characters find ways to exploit the various systems of control and bypass the iron grip of the Authority. As they struggle, they may be forced to sell out some of their characteristics in order to succeed, losing part of themselves in the process.

When I last played this game, we made a dystopic Authority who was controlling and limiting art. When a bit of creative graffiti, and some of us were accused of doing the artistic crime, I was put on the spot and fell back into my own dysfunctional defense mechanisms against bullying. I felt like my younger self, and it gave me space to consider my own youth more deeply. It was highly engaging for me as a player.

For a designer, Misspent Youth presents some beautiful pieces of game design technology. It offers a very compelling yet focused procedure for creating a dystopic society. It reinforces bleed to further the emotional foundation of the ideal game experience. It uses a relatively strong scene structure to great effect, encouraging a coherent story emerges from the player contributions. The layout is also a fantastic case-study in user experience and interface design, reinforcing the themes of the game beautifully.

Check out this indie gem, if you get a chance!