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Solo RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

RPG actual play: Thousand Year Old Vampire

I was going to do a Twitter thread while playing through Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV), a solo RPG by Tim Hutchings in which you’re an awful, awful vampire, but couldn’t figure out how to provide a meaningful content warning that would 1) persist and 2) allow people to avoid the whole thread while 3) still making it comprehensible. So here we are!

Content warning: violence, allusions to self-harm, gore, torture. Intended for a mature audience.

Also, this game is stunningly gorgeous and I highly recommend it. I posted about its beauty here on Yore; you can buy a copy from Tim on itch.io.

In this post I’m going to try to preserve the rapid-fire delivery of a Twitter thread because it suits the Quick Game for TYOV (one of its two modes of play) and my own inclinations.

Character creation

Your vampire is a collection of Memories, Experiences, Resources, Skills, other Characters, and the trait which identifies you as a vampire, your Mark. My first Experience is a character summary:

  • I am Garnier, son of Roland and Isabeau, born in southern Brittany in 14th Century France; I became a monk to avoid poverty but found strength in my faith

It’s around 1340 at the start of this playthrough; the Black Plague is just starting its grim march through Europe.

I also came up with three Skills, three Resources, and Characters — and four more Experiences, each tied to those people/things. Here are my starting Characters:

  • Melisende, a beautiful young woman in the village of Réconfort near the abbey; she visits regularly to transport wine made by the monks (mortal)
  • Brother Eudes, a beautiful young monk who is secretly my lover; he loathes himself for straying from God (mortal)
  • Abbot Roul, iron-fisted ruler of our abbey; he believes in harsh punishment for all offenses, no matter how minor (mortal)
  • Qadir, an ancient, withered, stick-like vampire who haunts the abbey’s library, feeding on the monks; it illuminates manuscripts in blood (immortal)

Resources are a secret copy of the key to the abbey’s forbidden book room, a love letter from Brother Eudes, and my personal Bible I am illuminating for the abbey’s collection. Skills are Conceal My True Feelings, True Prayer, Skulking About. My other four Experiences are:

  • Brother Eudes, at great personal risk, slips me a love letter during Mass; I feel truly alive for the first time
  • I press the abbot’s key to the forbidden book room into a bar of wax and carve a copy; my visits there are frequent
  • Melisende, to whom I am drawn, asks to see my illuminated Bible; I feel more strongly about my faith in God than I do about her
  • I sneak into the abbey’s forbidden book room for the first time and encounter Qadir, its eyes coal-black; it mocks my prayers and delicately slits each of my wrists

And finally, my Mark — Garnier’s “vampire tell”: The wounds in my wrists never heal, and must always be bound or blotted with cloth; I cover them with my sleeves and change the dressings often.

This is a game about surprising yourself, and forgetting

As you move through the game’s prompts (with die rolls determining where you land), each will fuel a new bit of your story and require you to create an Experience. Some will prompt you to check off a Skill or Resource; the game ends when you must do that and cannot.

You’re not in complete control of your character. You make many of their decisions, but not all of them; it’s intended to make you uncomfortable, and it works.

When you gain enough Experiences, you’re forced to discard your Memories — flitting through the centuries, you cease to be who you were. Although, cruelly, you may retain legacies of those memories: people you used to know, skills you still possess despite having forgotten how you gained them, etc.

I’m not going to write out a whole journal here, nor give away Tim’s farm — rather, I’ll try to give you a sense for how the game plays and feels by sharing what came of the prompts I encountered on Garnier’s journey.

Prompt me, baby

The first prompt is always the same supposed to be rolled, but I picked prompt #1: you kill a mortal Character close to you, and gain the Bloodthirsty skill. (Updated because Tim mentioned on Twitter that the first prompt is the result of a die roll, like all the others.)

I kill Melisende the next time she comes to the abbey to collect the wine, drinking the blood from her wrists the way Qadir taught me; I feel nothing

Garnier

From there, die rolls lead you forward or back through the prompts — and each prompt is layered, so if you land on it again you can pick a new layer to explore.

My second was about being exposed:

I am found out to be a killer, and convince Eudes to run away with me, lying to him about everything; we pose as itinerant monks — I am now Roland

Garnier, now called Roland

I put that one under my Memory about my beloved Eudes. Unfortunately, he got the next prompt as well:

Unable to live with our many sins, my beloved Eudes threatens to reveal me; I kill him, and drink because I hunger

Roland (Garnier)

At this point I have 2/4 Skills checked and 0/3 Resources checked. These are still Garnier’s salad days.

Decades later, Garnier has forgotten all about the abbey’s forbidden book room (although not about Qadir) and the Plague has largely ended. He blends in for many years. Until:

I sneak into a monastery and drain every last monk; I leave the last one alive for days, draining him and watching, and then steal all their gold

Garnier

A couple observations

In solo games I tend to create the biggest piece of shit I can think of and then see what it’s like to live their life. I want to be uncomfortable, yet also delighted — in a slasher movie sort of way — at my character’s awfulness. TYOV is very much my jam.

TYOV is also an evil game. It fucks with you. It fucks with itself. It fucks with its own rules. It places you in discomfiting situations and makes you proceed.

For example: A century or more has passed and Garnier is now on his fourth name. He has fled to a foreign land, a place where he knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. I have to write an Experience for that . . . but if I fill up my first Memory, the one which appears first in this post, that will put me perilously close to forgetting who I am.

I don’t want to fill that slot.

Which, of course, is exactly the kind of gleefully wicked friction TYOV is designed to create.

Checking in with Garnier

A couple of centuries have passed. Garnier now lives in Greece. He has renounced God, discarding his 200-year-old personally illuminated Bible — which I chose to destroy over the letter from Brother Eudes.

One: holy shit, that’s making me feel things.

Two: how did Garnier preserve any faith for 200 years of being as evil as he is?

By the 17th Century, I no longer remember being Garnier at all. I strive to live an unremarkable mortal existence to avoid detection. In addition to my suppurating wrist wounds, I walk in an animal crouch and see Melisende — my first victim, who I no longer recall — in half the people I meet. I have been ground down by what feels like the inevitability of time, the curse of immortality weighing on me.

I’ve been happy precisely twice in 400 years: When Brother Eudes (who I later killed) confessed his love, and when I slipped into a 200-year torpor and felt nothing.

As fate and chance would have it, my last remaining skill is True Prayer. I’ve met my progenitor, the impossibly ancient vampire Qadir, and found in him now a kindred spirit. Little more than Qadir’s protection (which I’ve taken as a Resource) stands between me and the final death.

TYOV’s mechanics are deceptively simple. The natural probability of the roll you make every turn tends to drive you deeper into the book (though you do backtrack as well, just less often). The deeper you go, the more the prompts trend towards an ending — or an Ending, if you prefer.

I hit my final prompt and said aloud, “Holy shit, this is it.” And I knew instantly just what shitty, terrible form this ending would take for Theodorus — the name Garnier adopted in the 1600s and will now keep, eternally in the thrall of Qadir, the vampire who made him what he is.

My final Experience was this:

I am Qadir’s thrall, only his protection, his care, can stave off the final death; I live only to live, feeling nothing save the desire to continue being, forever

Theodorus

Fuuuuuuuuuuck that’s bleak.

Friends, Thousand Year Old Vampire is extraordinary. I’ve played a ton of solo RPGs, and this one does things I’ve never seen before. It lays out its goals and accomplishes all of them; it’s rewarding and moving and disturbing to play; and at the end of my first playthrough I feel wrung out.

This game rocks.

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Solo RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Thousand Year Old Vampire is one of the most gorgeous RPG books I’ve ever seen

My copy of Tim Hutchings’ Thousand Year Old Vampire came in the mail, and daaaaaaaaaamn this book slaps.

AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!

That spot foil — the gold bits — looks like kintsugi. The stamps look so real I want to peel them off.

So subtle, yet so convincing

I opened the front cover and literally went, “What the hell, why did Tim write in this and why does it say $125 . . . OHHHHHH.”

Interior page spread

Every page is a work of art. The whole is a work of art. Thousand Year Old Vampire is a master class in how to make a print RPG book 1) look and feel amazing and 2) look like an artifact from the world it contains.

I’ve seen some gorgeous gaming books in the past, but very, very few are in this one’s league. If you want to know more, or buy a copy, hit up Tim’s itch.io page for the book.

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PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Takeaways from running Urban Shadows for a year

After running an Urban Shadows campaign for a year, I have a few takeaways to share.

One of my starting points with any RPG is “Does it do what it says on the tin?” Urban Shadows very much does what it says on the tin, and it’s a fantastic game.

1. After our group character creation session, I spent 1-2 hours turning the hooks, antagonists, and threads the players created into Threats, and I made debt tracker sheets and consolidated move lists for my GM folder.

That was the extent of my prep for the entire campaign.

2. Before each session, I thought about what had happened in the previous session, what the antagonists were up to (all noted on their clocks), and what the PCs had planned for the next session.

Occasionally, I wrote myself a sentence or two of notes so I wouldn’t forget stuff.

3. During the game, I took notes as often as possible without interrupting the flow of play. My group alternates weekly games, so with a two-week gap between sessions (and a shoddy memory!) notes are essential for me.

4. I also created an NPC Rolodex using a 3×5 index cards and a card box. Everyone important enough to name got a card color-coded for their faction with a quick description, notes, and a Drive.

This became unwieldy, and I may need a better solution when we go back to the game.

5. Likewise for my debt trackers. I left a half-page of room for each faction and they were totally full within a couple months. I should have had at least a full page, probably double-sided, per faction, and they should have been lined sheets.

6. Out of five regular players, three loved corruption, one avoided it like the plague, and one was somewhere in the middle. We retired two PCs around the one-year mark due to corruption, with a third just a point or two away from retirement.

7. My table included a mix of PbtA veterans, newbies, and folks in between. One thing I can confidently say that everyone loved about the system was how failures are handled. The whole table paused, excitement in the air, anytime a failure came up.

8. Using only player-created hooks, and logical outgrowths from those hooks, as toys in the sandbox produced an overwhelming amount of threads to keep track of. I regard this as a feature, not a bug; the Threats provided clear calls to action to mitigate option paralysis.

9. With 1/4 Threats fully resolved and another 1/4 on the ropes, we still have 2/4 of the original Threats in play after a year. This created a logical pause point to take a break from the game, and it should make picking it up again easier.

This is one of my favorite campaigns that I’ve run, and it’s a perfect fit for my preferred zero-prep sandbox style of play. Highly recommended!

I’m happy to answer questions about this campaign or Urban Shadows in general — just fire away in the comments!

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D&D Dice Miniature painting Miniatures Miscellaneous geekery Old school RPG community Story games Tabletop RPGs

A digest of smaller Google+ RPG posts from 2012-2015

With the impending shutdown of Google+ — my primary (and generally only) social network and outlet for gaming chit-chat since 2012 — I’ve been slowly making my way through stuff I posted there which, in hindsight, I should just have posted here on Yore.

Some posts stood alone, and should just have been Yore posts all along. I moved those over on their original publication date or on whatever day I happened to be working on them, whichever made the most sense.

But after doing that I was left with a little collection of posts that I like best in digest format — a sort of snapshot of some of what I cared about, tabletop RPG-wise, over the past seven years. It’s as erratic and unfocused as my overall post history on G+, so it feels pretty apropos.

Here they are in chronological order, lightly edited for clarity and to provide context.

February 7, 2012

High school wasn’t very helpful in figuring out who I wanted to be (better at sorting out who I wasn’t) but it was great for figuring out what kind of gamer I was going to spend the next 10-15 years being.

The past few years have made me reassess all sorts of things about how I game and want to game, but the past week or so — a full-bore nosedive into OSR games, hex crawl design, research, and the minutiae of D&D editions — has been mind-blowing and, I strongly suspect, formative.

I’m really curious to see where this leads.

March 22, 2012

This superb definition of hit points over on THE LAND OF NOD would probably have improved most of my D&D games in the past 20 years.

Hit points don’t represent anything solid or real or concrete in and of themselves. Rather, they are part of a complex calculation that boils down to this: “What are the chances that the next moment of mortal peril you experience will be your last.” That mortal peril might be a sword fight, a poison needle, a trap door … anything that might kill you. Most often, hit points relate to combat.

August 16, 2012

All three Engine Publishing books on Studio 2 Publishing‘s shelves at Gen Con (booth 419). That really never gets old!

January 17, 2013

I would love to replace my amethyst Armory dice set someday. The dice at the bottom are all that remain; the rest were chased under couches by cats and lost at friends’ houses while gaming as a kid.

Above them are the closest I’ve been able to get: an orchid Koplow set. They’re really, really close.

And at the top are my very first gaming dice, the d10 and d20 from Lords of Creation (from the very box they’re sitting on). I inked them with modeling paint and sprayed them with matte sealant, which was a pretty terrible idea.

Feb 13, 2013

I started collecting the FR series in 1990 or 1991; I have a vivid memory of reading FR9: The Bloodstone Lands — still my favorite in the series — in the auditorium as a freshman in high school. The arrival of FR8: Cities of Mystery today, more than 20 years later, completes my set of FR1-FR16.

For my money, this is one of the best series of gaming books ever produced, and these little volumes have been a source of inspiration to me for nearly as long as I’ve been a gamer. It feels funny to have them all.

August 25, 2013

After four years, Engine Publishing has a warehouse!

It’s still the office closet, but instead of working out of stacks of boxes (containing books) and moving huge “cheese wheels” of bubble wrap every time I need to ship a book, I can just do it. I have no idea why I waited this long!

December 15, 2013

I just found this while working on the basement. I think I made these in 2006 or 2007 (certainly no later, as I stopped running TT in 2007).

That’s probably the last time I had a business card, come to think of it. I always get less use out of them than I think I will, as much as I like having them.

January 8, 2014

With a hat tip to Brendan S for the idea, here’s a rough breakdown of my 2013 gaming purchases by the categories that sort of made sense to me as I went through them.

There are probably lots of ways I could have done this better, but hopefully I’ll escape the notice of the RPGSTPD (RPG Stats Tracking Police Department) long enough for you to observe my dorkitude.

March 6, 2014

I grew up shopping at The Compleat Strategist in NYC, first at the one on 57th and then at the one on 33rd. Much of my early formative gaming originated from one of those stores.

My friend Stephan just sent me this picture: Engine Publishing‘s two most recent books, Odyssey and Never Unprepared, on the shelf at the 33rd street Compleat.

That right there is blowing my mind.

March 6, 2014

Space marine terminator: “Brother Leopold, I found a flat spot on my armor!

Brother Leopold: “This space hulk will keep — let’s bedazzle the shit out of that flat spot. For the emperor!

Me: “Fuck you, I’m painting that red.

Five years after buying Space Hulk, I’ve finally started painting my marines. As you may have guessed, miniatures aren’t really my wheelhouse.

March 10, 2014

Lords of Creation (1983, designed by Tom Moldvay) was my introduction to gaming in 1987. I never owned its three modules as a kid, but they were all surprisingly cheap so I closed out the line on eBay/Amazon.

Revel in those covers! They’re totally fucking glorious. Plus, the “-akron” in Omegakron is Akron, Ohio and The Yeti Sanction is (as Brad Murray pointed out) a parody of The Eiger Sanction; this isn’t a game that takes itself too seriously.

April 27, 2014

Behold! For I am all of Spelljammer, and I am totally fucking awesome (and underrated).

I’ve loved Spelljammer since I first picked up the boxed set in 1989 or 1990 and moved my campaign there (as I did every time a new setting came out), and as of this weekend I finally closed out the line.

May 19, 2014

It’s 1989. A pimply-faced, floppy-haired Martin, age 12 or 13, was introduced to D&D a few months ago.

He’s standing in The Compleat Strategist on 57th Street in NYC, picking out dice to go with his AD&D 2e PHB, DMG, MC, and Time of the Dragon.

He picks these.

I knew if I was patient I’d eventually find the exact pack my first dice came in. I still have a few of the actual dice; some were stolen by cats or lost under friends’ couches. It’s like stepping into a time machine!

July 12, 2014

I first heard of Living Steel around the time I started gaming, when I was in my early teens. I picked up the boxed set and hardcover rulebook in college, back in Michigan (mid-1990s), and have been slowly acquiring the other supplements ever since.

Today I closed out the line.

It’s so not my kind of game mechanically, but the hook and the vibe and the guts of it are fabulous. I’d love to play it as written and using a lighter system someday.

July 31, 2014

I stumbled into collecting U.S. editions of Call of Cthulhu back in high school and have been slowly doing so ever since. It’s one of my favorite RPGs, and has been for over 20 years. I also enjoy the irony that until the forthcoming 7th edition its rules have remained basically unchanged for 30 years, making it one of relatively few games where there’s no compelling reason to own multiple editions.

Today I added an edition I thought I’d never see, the 25th anniversary edition (white hardcover), and thought that deserved a quick picture. Right to left, top to bottom: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, UK 3rd (also available here, so I mostly count it); 4th, 5th, 5.1; 5.5, 5.6, 20th anniversary, 6th softcover; 6th hardcover, 25th anniversary, 30th anniversary.

To my knowledge, I’m only missing two editions, and my odds of acquiring them seem poor: the designer’s edition of 2e, of which only 200 copies were made, and the “more limited” 20th anniversary edition (gold Elder Sign on the cover).

September 13, 2014

My desk, where I do Engine Publishing and Gnome Stew work, in the state it’s in about 50% of the time. The other 50% of the time there aren’t any piles on the end.

The piles are books I’m reading, need to shelve, need to review, or otherwise am currently using in some form.

November 17, 2015

From this excellent post about sales stats for RPG retailer BlackDiamondGames.com:

Also, because I know you guys like lists, here are our top 10 titles with the extremely high 17-40 turn rates:


1. D&D Next: Dungeon Master’s Screen
2. D&D Next RPG: Dungeon Masters Guide
3. Pathfinder RPG: Strategy Guide
4. Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Wait wait wait. What?! One of these things is not like the others.

Closing remarks

On balance, I greatly enjoyed my time on Google+. It had a huge impact on my gaming, from meeting my current Seattle group to learning about all sorts of cool products to making friends to changing my gaming philosophy over time.

But having gone cold turkey a month or so ago, when my gaming group stopped using G+ to schedule our sessions, there’s a flipside: I’ve found that I don’t miss checking G+ nearly as much as I thought I would.

That gnawing feeling of a social network needing to be checked, maintained, curated, and managed, and of needing to deal with the small percentage of assholes I encountered there (who consume an outsized amount of time and energy) — I don’t miss that at all.

Nonetheless, though: On balance, G+ was seven years largely well spent, and I’ll miss the connections and gaming choices it helped me to make. I’m taking a social network break, maybe for good, but I’ll still be posting here and I’m quietly active on RPGnet and RPGGeek.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

The cutting-edge Bullwinkle and Rocky RPG

Epidiah Ravachol posted about the Bullwinkle and Rocky RPG the other day (note: in 2014, when I first posted this on Google+), making the point (assuming I’m smart enough to have understood him correctly) that you can design the most cutting-edge game in the world but if you produce it in a context no one cares about, no one will care.

Bullwinkle and Rocky, published by TSR in 1988, is nuts. It looks like a story game before there were story games, and it’s packed with interesting stuff: spinners instead of dice, hand puppets, three versions of the game, cards as story prompts, and more. It’s pretty amazing how different this game is from most RPGs produced in 1988.

I never got into Bullwinkle. I didn’t watch it as a kid and it holds next to zero interest for me now. But this game is totally nifty.

And because, circling back, I’d guess it went over like a lead balloon, you can still find a copy in shrink for not much money despite it being 26 years old.

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PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Monsterhearts 2 is a scintillating jewel

Hot damn is Monsterhearts 2 a good book. (It’s also an amazing game in play, but right now I just want to talk about the book itself.)

It’s lean, without an ounce of cruft anywhere on its frame. It’s devoid of blather. This is a bullshit-free presentation honed by years of actual play, design chops, and feedback from others. It’s fucking beautiful.

It’s also packed with advice delivered in the best way possible for an RPG: conversationally but directly, with its intended audiences in mind. I love design notes and anything that brings in all the stuff that exists on the edges of the actual text — like intent — and MH2 makes so much explicit so well that it just rocks.

MH2 connects with me on many levels, some of them much deeper than most RPG texts. This is rare, and I appreciate it. But it’s also a fun game that hits so many personal high notes for what I like in an RPG, and the book expresses those things clearly and without pretension.

As a physical object, the book is equally great. I love simple hardcovers with gilt, so I love this. I generally hate dust jackets on gaming books, but in this size, and executed this well, I love this one. (It makes a perfect bookmark.)

This is one of the best gaming books I’ve encountered, full stop. It’s exactly and precisely what it wants and needs to be.

Huge props to Avery Alder.

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Solo RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

The solo RPG Seppuku: Fury of the Samurai is splendid

I love solo RPGs and samurai drama, so I was excited to come across Emanuele Galletto‘s Seppuku: Fury of the Samurai.

It’s a short solo RPG (5-10 minutes, depending on whether you write anything apart from your death poem), but surprisingly melancholy and impactful.

The only peace my bold but headstrong samurai found was with his male lover, Takeshi, who would have been my kaishakunin — affording me a final moment of solace — had I not blamed my lord for the rise to power of the vile Goro. Instead Goro was my second, and I regained my honor in death.

This was my death poem:

The blade is sheathed, now
Takeshi
The sparrow wages war against the wind
But Summer grows weary
And Spring follows Winter

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Skinchangers beta

I downloaded Levi Kornelsen’s Skinchangers beta, which is free, and holy crap is the list of inspirations right up my apple cart: Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Neverwhere (paid link) meet Buffy (paid link) by way of Fate and Apocalypse World . . . yes, please!

At first blush, it’s incredibly clever — and I love the minimalist, yet evocative, artwork. And oh, this core mechanic; it’s fantastic.

I’ll probably butcher it here, but you roll a number of Fate dice equal to your ability, using “-” results to cancel dangers (associated with each action) and “+” results to boost the outcome in specific ways. Blanks do nothing, and how you undertake the action (cautiously, boldly, covertly, etc.) changes what results you get to reroll.

Here’s the core concept from the intro:

You have met a powerful animal spirit. When you did, you were transformed and charged with a duty to the natural world. Those who desecrate the world are your enemies; this includes both mundane and supernatural foes. It is the supernatural threats, however, that you are best equipped to face, as nobody else is. You will seek out desecrated sites, battle monsters, and track down cults that draw their power by despoiling life. In this task, you will be joined by other Skinchangers, and aided by natural spirits.

From concept to mechanics, this is exciting. I need to spend some more time with it.

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Dead Friend and Two OSR Dungeon Crawls

I’ve added a couple new books to my list of my favorite free & PWYW RPG products on DriveThruRPG (covering about 3% of the 7,500+ products available) that are both so good that I want to talk about them here.

The first is Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy, by Lucian Kahn, which is a two-player RPG — one of my favorite types of game.[1] One of you plays a necromancer; the other plays the necromancer’s dead friend. It reminds me of Murderous Ghosts (which I love), and I can’t wait to try it.

In it, you place a ritual symbol in the center of the table, surround it with a ring of salt, move coins around, hum, make strange utterances — and try to pursue wildly opposed goals — like “bring your dead friend back to life” for the necromancer, and “kill your friend” for the dead. It’s a polished and fantastic-looking little game, too.

The other is John Battle’s Two OSR Dungeon Crawls, which provides what it says on the tin. Bland title aside, these are both fascinating dungeons. It would benefit from some editing and a nicer layout, but the content is delightful — so delightful that I dropped it right into my “I’d love to run these modules anytime” folder.

My favorite of the two is The Globe, which involves an enchanted snow globe, a tooth-stealing lich, a host of mummies, a truly terrifying variant of mummy rot, and some deeply creepy moments. It also includes something I’m always excited to see in any dungeon crawl: potentially campaign-shaking consequences based on how the PCs handle it.

[1] When I first started gaming, one GM and one player was the only way I played for a couple of years. In retrospect I don’t know why I didn’t try to link up the separate friends I gamed with, but the intimacy and tone of two-player gaming is so fantastic that it just never occurred to me.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Playtesting Elysium Flare: what drew me to this game

My online group just wrapped up our second playtesting session of Brad J. Murray‘s upcoming space-fantasy RPG Elysium Flare, and I wanted to talk a little bit about it. The current public playtest draft is v4, available for free on Brad’s Patreon.

Background

For context: Our sessions are short, and we’re talkative; so far, we’ve made three characters, their ship, and the association (organization) to which they belong. I’m the GM.

System-wise, Elysium Flare is Fate-based, but lighter than both Fate Core and FAE (and much lighter than, say, Fate 3.0). It also adds new elements, and so far the ones we’ve had contact with look like subtle changes but are actually quite impactful. More on that in a moment.

What’s awesome about Elysium Flare?

The setting is what drew me to the game, and I think it’s what hooked the other two players in my group as well. Broadly, it’s space-fantasy: there are starships, alien species, mystical arts, and psychic powers, and no one worries too much about why things work the way they do. On the soft/hard SF spectrum, it’s extremely soft.

But it’s the little things that make it sing.

Delightful species

For starters, this is a game where the playable species are sentient gas, robot, bear-person, bug, starfish, “grey,” and plain ol’ human. I waged a fierce internal battle between playing a gas (Orpheani) or a bear (Aukami), and wound up playing a starfish (Aarun) because they’re amazing too.

Physics galore

Into that mix, add one of the game’s tweaks to Fate: three kinds of physics. In addition to the physics we’re used to, faith and arcana operate as a separate set of physics (mystical), and psychic powers under a third (psychic); these also map to stress tracks, so for example robots (fabs) are solidly grounded in the natural, and have no tracks for psychic and mystical — they’re vulnerable to those types of physics. That looks like a little thing at first, but it turns out to be a really fantastic piece of game tech.

That allows for tremendous variety in characters, skills, stunts, ships, and throughout the setting. For example, our trio (the GM makes a character too, as a handy NPC and to facilitate Fate’s interconnected PC backstories) flies around in The Shrine, a literal ship-temple that once belonged to a fallen species; its engines are some sort of mystical power source, but the guns we bolted on run on natural physics.

Working for the man

The same is true of associations, the larger organizations to which the PCs are assumed to belong. By the point when these enter into the character creation process, my group had already settled on being scruffy space scoundrels operating alone; it felt dissonant to map that to a broader association. But after we created our ship, we revisited the idea and neatly slotted ourselves into an association of greedy antiquarians who needed a plausibly deniable “black ops” arm for acquiring artifacts.

That was in no way what we expected we’d be doing when we first sat down to make characters, and Elysium Flare is brilliant at facilitating those kinds of surprises. The way associations work is part of that: From a list of terms like criminal, military, commercial, and ancient, you choose three — any three. One is your remit, which has a complication aspect associated with it, and is also a skill; the other two are skills.

We chose academic for our remit: the greedy antiquarians. For skills, we picked criminal (we’re the shady arm, after all) and administrative, because — another surprise — we wound up creating white-collar space criminals, the sort more likely to roll up with forged codes that claim we already own the thing we’re there to steal. (We’re not Indy, we’re Belloq.)

One surprise after another

Elysium Flare is freewheeling in its approach (and charmingly conversational in its tone), and that carries through to every step of character creation. We made three wildly different nutjob characters, and somehow wedded them to one another, then to a ship, then to a purpose, then to an organization — and nowhere along the way could we have predicted where they’d wind up. I love that!

Before the next session I’ll use the system creation rules to gin up a star system, and for in-character play I’ll just poke their association’s complication and start in media res, with the crew of The Shrine rolling up on a world where there’s something they want to steal. I can’t wait.

There are some rough edges in the rules, as I expect from a game currently undergoing playtesting — but I’ve watched Brad iterate through several drafts now, and every time things get smoother.

If Elysium Flare piques your interest, check out the v4 playtest draft and see what you think of the game.