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.


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.

GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Time Travel is neat

I’ve got time travel gaming on the brain, and haven’t yet found a time travel RPG that hits exactly the vibe I’m after.

Epidiah Ravachol‘s Time & Temp is at the top of my shortlist to play, with the excellent Timeworks setting from Fate Worlds: Worlds in Shadow running a close second. But those both do specific things (nothing wrong with that!), and I’m after something more open-ended. It may become more specific as I think about it more, but for now loosey-goosey is good.

I want to pack my brain with interesting, RPG-oriented time travel stuff, and whenever I’m that mood the answer is usually GURPS. In this case, GURPS Time Travel (paid link), by Steve Jackson and John M. Ford.

Like GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link) and GURPS Illuminati (paid link), which I’ve written about on Yore, Time Travel is a toolkit.[1] It takes one huge enchilada of a topic and comes at it from several angles, teases out the best bits from each angle, and gives you the stuff you need to put it back together how you like.

The book provides a default campaign setting, and it’s a good one: Timepiece agents vs. Stopwatch agents, each group trying to ensure the survival of their own timeline, with lots of clever details. For example: Time travel “windows” are always about 8 months apart, so sometimes you need to go back too far and wait for your moment; and whether history can be changed depends on whether an agent observes it, so there are delightfully perverse incentives to walk away from problems so you can take another run at them later on.

In a (parallel) world . . .

One of those angles, dimensional travel/parallel worlds as an alternative to time travel, wasn’t even on my radar until I started looking into (and then bought) this book. It features many of the best bits of time travel — alternate worlds, ahistorical elements, fish out of water — without all the brain-burning paradoxes and temporal physics.

There’s a whole setting in Time Travel, Infinite Worlds, which delves into dimensional travel, and the topic gets quite a bit of attention in the book. It also got blown out into a much bigger book (which apparently also reprints some of what’s in this one), GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link). That one’s on the way, and I’m excited to read it.

TPS reports

One of the tools Time Travel offers is a form: one for time travel games, one for dimension-hopping games. Here’s the time travel version:

That’s just handy! It covers a host of common questions — the stuff everyone at the table will ask — while also rounding out some corners, establishing a solid baseline, and piquing the group’s interest.

It also makes me want to know more. What’s the Recency Effect? What’s a Temporal Snarl? Those both sound awesome! (And yes, they’re both covered in the book.)

I’m not sure what I’ll do with it yet, although that Fate bookmark peeking out the top isn’t an accident. I think Fate (paid link) would be a great fit for a time/dimension travel game, particularly since I can lean on what’s already in Timeworks.

Whatever I do with it, Time Travel (paid link) is a great starting point. It’s my favorite kind of GURPS book: the kind that fires my imagination, gives me new ideas to chew on, and provides the tools to implement them — all in a tidy package of reasonable length.[2]

It’s also dirt cheap, at least at the moment — I paid $6 for my copy, and it’s in fine shape.

[1] All of my favorite GURPS books are toolkits.

[2] Nope, leaving that one alone. Noooothing to see here.

Tabletop RPGs

Risus gives me the warm fuzzies

I’ve had long rulebooks on the brain lately[1], which has been making me think about S. John RossRisus RPG. Risus makes me happy.

It’s also really short. How short? Here’s the first half:

…and here’s the second half:

Yep, Risus fits on the front and back of a single piece of 8 1/2×11 paper. It’s also free.

The version in those photos is designed to fold into a booklet, but I was tickled by the idea of making a free, one-page RPG super-durable, so I laminated it (with thick, stiff laminate — not the floppy stuff). It’s like a plastic tank now, suitable for bathtub use.

How’s it work?

Risus hums along on the core mechanic of clichés: free-form character traits which express many things about a character in just a few words. Aspects in Fate are similar, as are skills in Unknown Armies (and probably lots of other games I can’t think of at the moment), but Risus builds the whole game around clichés.

Spread 10 dice across clichés you make up on the spot, add a sentence or two of description, and you’ve got a complete Risus character. Maybe you pick:

  • Space smuggler (4), my primary cliché — the one that best defines the character
  • Hotshot pilot (3)
  • Fast talker (2)
  • Reluctant good guy (1)

If you can tell who that’s supposed to be, I’ll chalk it up as a personal success. But the important thing is that it’s a clever, robust, flexible, and above all simple engine for powering a full-fledged RPG.

Not a one-trick pony

Risus is a multi-genre RPG, and it’s got an undercurrent of humor that I love. “Undercurrent of humor” might make you think it’s not suitable for non-funny games, but there’s a ton of versatility baked into its minimal rules. “Fits on a single page” might suggest it can’t hold up to long-term play, but two decades of Risus players would likely disagree.

Enter The Risus Companion, which isn’t free, but is worth every penny of its $10 asking price. I bound it with a copy of the core rules, just to have it all in one handy package.

When I think about rulebooks, or new-to-me RPGs in general, one question I like to ask is, “Can Risus do this?” If Risus can do it, and do it as well as RPG X, do I really need RPG X?[2]

It might seem odd to have a 64-page companion to a four-page RPG; it certainly seemed odd to me at first. But it’s a fantastic book. (The Companion also taught me that Risus is pronounced “REE-suss” (as in Latin for “laughter”), not “RYE-suss,” which, years later, still hasn’t corrected my internal pronunciation — I always think it as “RYE-suss.”[3])

The Companion unpacks the Risus rules, delving into each of its components and highlighting all the different ways you can use them. One of my favorite examples is defining a character by the absence of relevant clichés, like Mrs. Butterbread, world-famous detective:

  • Kindly grandmother-to-everyone (4)
  • Bothersome fussbudget (3)
  • Small-breed dog enthusiast (3)

Risus encourages creative use of inappropriate clichés: If it doesn’t fit the situation, but you can creatively justify it in play, you get better results. Mrs. Butterbread is herself a creative example of taking that notion to its logical conclusion, as she can only solve crimes through peculiar means.

The book is full of stuff like that. Couple excellent content with the fact that S. John Ross is one of the most concise, clear, and entertaining writers in the RPG industry, and both Risus and The Risus Companion are a joy.

It’s a put-it-in-your-Go-Bag game, sure — but it can be a lot more than that. It stands on its two tiny, free, stick-figure feet, and the Companion unpacks the everloving shit out of how much potential is contained in its four short pages.

[1] Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition is really fucking long, no, it’s REALLY fucking long, and DCC RPG in 18 pages.

[2] I also like to substitute Fate and ask the same question again.

[3] See also drow rhyming with “cow,” which sounds way cooler than drow rhyming with “throw” . . . but “throw” is how my brain internalized it, and “throw” it shall ever be.

Comics Tabletop RPGs

Atomic Robo is really good

Atomic Robo is awesome. You can read all of it through that link, as webcomic; it’s also available in print (paid link). Written by Brian Clevinger, drawn by Scott Wegener, and colored by Ronda Pattison, Atomic Robo is an angst-free, punchy (and punch-filled), pulpy romp — a comic where “I punch it with SCIENCE!” makes perfect sense.

I love pulp, I love robots punching stuff — it’s a mystery to me why I didn’t check this out sooner. And seriously, that link? This isn’t a bargain-basement, I-can’t-draw-or-write-but-it’s-free-so-why-not affair — Atomic Robo is polished, professional, and just happens to be free.

Beautiful and well-written

(From the story “Pyramid Scheme,” which starts here)

I see a bit of Mike Mignola in Wegener’s artwork, which is a good thing, and the artwork and coloring complements Clevinger’s humor beautifully. I looked for a sample page that would sum up that humor and showcase some of the series’ appeal, while also not spoiling anything, and settled on this one (from the first story):

The rules the creators follow really come through, too. I mentioned #1, “No Angst,” but I also love #5: “The Main Robot Punches A Different Robot (Or Maybe A Monster).” If that’s not your jam, you know it right up front.

But Fate, there’s more!

There’s also a licensed RPG, powered by Fate Core and available in paperback (paid link) or PDF. It’s a standalone volume, including all of the Fate rules you need to play.

I read a few reviews, checked Amazon, and ordered a copy with same-day delivery so I could read it on a trip. It looks amazing, both on its own merits and as a take on Fate Core, and I can’t wait to tuck into it.

Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs


After posting The Thief, the fourth game I designed, I started thinking about the third, Storylike. I designed Storylike for my daughter, Lark, for New Game Day 2014, and we played it with my wife, Alysia, and our friend Jaben.

I came away thinking it probably needed some work, but a year later I haven’t done that work. So why not put it out there?

I’d probably design it differently now, but in cleaning it up to publish I realized that that’s not a bad thing — Storylike reflects what I wanted out if it in 2014. It’s a snapshot, and a playable one; we had fun playing it. I might tweak it someday, I might not.

My design goals for Storylike were:

  • Create an RPG for my daughter, age four, that plays quickly enough for her attention span but which includes some traditional RPG trappings. There are dice, you roll them to see what happens, you have “hit points” (sort of), and the game has a “strong GM” role. It plays in about 30 minutes.
  • Use as many of the standard polyhedrals as possible, as she’d just bought a set of her own. (Storylike uses d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12).
  • Make it easy to tell which dice are which on the character sheet, since she was still working on her numbers at the time.
  • No math, just compare results, because addition doesn’t come easily to her yet. Every roll is one die vs. one die, high die wins (players win ties).
  • Encourage creative thinking, teamwork, and perseverance. Storylike does this through Talents, which require creativity to apply; dice odds, which incentivize helping; and Problems, which anyone can have and which need to be overcome.
  • Assume the GM can improvise a short game on the spot, and don’t provide advice for doing so. The GM was me, so for good or ill the game assumes I know what I want to do with it.
  • Fit the whole thing on one page. It’s two pages if you count the character sheet.

The odds of success also tell you quite a bit about the game:

These odds incentivize players to help each other (which increases your roll to the next die type) and to try to use their abilities (d4 is the “I don’t have that” default, and gives the worst odds), but the odds are always tilted in the players’ favor thanks to players winning ties. The possibility of failure exists, but it’s not rampant; that felt about right for my kiddo.

My favorite things about Storylike are Problems, Hidden Talents, and the visual character sheet. You can tell that the latter wasn’t designed by an artist, and that I created it in Word. Anyone with a drop of design talent could sexy it up in just a few minutes.

I like Problems because they’re so flexible. They can be injuries, sure, but they can also be conditions like Afraid, Embarrassed, or Dazed. Problems were inspired by stress and consequences in Fate, but they distill that combination of tracks and aspects down to a single mechanic for the sake of simplicity. Hidden Talents are similarly flexible, and they also signal that characters should develop during play.

If you try out Storylike, I’d love hear what you think of it. Enjoy!