The electric hub of mankind
The only city that matters
It stretches forever
The long shadow of our past
In the Underground
Machines undermine reality
Aliens are here
From beneath the Living Stars
You have a Failed Career
You have a colossal debt
Treasure is your only hope
Electric Bastionland is a self-described “particularly fast” roleplaying game by Chris McDowall, a sequel/refinement of the author’s Into the Odd system. The book doesn’t discuss this in any way other than the “Deeper Into the Odd” subtitle on the cover, and I haven’t read ItO, so the exact relationship between the titles shall remain a mystery.
The system is minimalist to the extreme, but rarely to its detriment. The rules take up 3 whole pages, including very optional stuff like detachments and structure damage. The quote from the start of the book summarises the game’s approach well: “Electric Bastionland’s rules are written to be as fast and simple as possible. The true joy of play often exists in situations that arise outside of the rules,” which is a nice way to describe the entire OSR approach.
The rules themselves are a mix of old(school) familiar with some interesting twists. Characters have 3 attributes: Strength, Dexterity, and Charisma. Whenever they do something dangerous, they roll a save with a relevant attribute – a simple d20 roll, if they get less or equal to the attribute, they succeed, no difficulty modifiers. Armour acts as damage reduction, which is quite handy because there’re no attack rolls, either. If you get attacked, you’re taking damage. There’s a nuance here: targets are declared at the start of a round, and out of all the damage dice rolled against a single target, be it from multiple attackers or a circumstantial bonus, only the highest value is used. So when a bunch of attackers gang up against you, you’ll suffer for it, but won’t be instantly killed. The same is true for monsters, too: if a monster has 7 hp, the party all doing 1d6 damage can’t get lucky and bring it down in a single round.
Once your hitpoints are reduced to zero, the rest of the damage is taken out of your Strength. After each such hit you make a Strength save to avoid critical damage. Critically damaged character can only crawl until they receive care and rest up, and will die in an hour if left unattended. Characters also die if their Strength is reduced to zero. While the rules don’t explicitly state this, the gameplay example provided shows NPCs acting under the exact same rules. Which worked fine when the party faced an enemy or two at a time, but became a major pain to track when dealing with a bunch of weaker enemies at once.
Hit points come back with a simple 5 minute rest (which is a cause for a random encounter check), while ability loss requires an overnight stay in a hospital – and that’s for free, for a resonable fee you can get a near-instantaneous fix.
Overall, this sounds like a nasty death spiral: get into a fight, take damage (and enemies aren’t going to miss!), lose Strength, fail a save, drop. In practice, however, combat is suprisingly forgiving. Unless the enemy is dealing craptons of damage or your Strength is particularly low, a PC won’t be killed outright, merely knocked out. “A dying comrade presents a more interesting tactical choice than a dead one,” explains the book. It’ll take the entire party losing a fight for them to die.
Should you take damage that puts you on exactly zero hp, you suffer a permanent scar, the only mechanical way of changing up your character. The amount of damage that brought you down acts as the index value for the scars table, with a total of 12 entries. Out of these, 6 can change the maximum hp (if you roll over your current maximum hp), 3 cause some other permanent change, and 3 are purely short-term, like being hobbled until a fix. Only one scar causes a rerol of an attribute, likely reducing it.
The scars PCs get will almost always be from the start of the table. A character starts with 1d6 hp, meaning they’ll see the first few scars over and over, and have to live long enough to even get to 7+ scars. And even once they do have 7+ hp, they still have a good chance of getting a 1-6 scar from consecutive hits. It is perpexing, then, that while scars 1 and 2 force a hp reroll on 1d6, and 5 and 6 do the same on 2d6, 3 and 4 result in aforementioned hobbling and a smashed mouth, both of which entirely go away after a visit to a medic. I’d have expected a relatively rare event (we’ve had one or two scars per session at most) to be more impactful.
Character generation is extremely simple, and this is where the game shines. To make a character, roll 3d6 three times to get your attributes. Consult a table with your highest and lowest attribute to find out your class, or, rather, your failed career. Each failed career consists of a sentence or two describing it, an illustration, some sample names, starting equipment, and two 1d6 tables on which you roll. These tables tell you a bit more about the character: typically one of them will be a unique possession while another will be some further clarification of your function within the career at which you failed so disastrously. The roll on the first table also determines how much money you have, while the second roll determines your hp. Minimalism!
There’re over a hundred of these failed careers, and they take up most of the book. These unique and colourful characters you create in 2 minutes are the reason to play this game. A few examples:
Lone Stargazer. Pocket telescope, cuff-pistol (d4). What’s the best thing you’ve seen? A rift into an undersea nightmare: all sea creatures hate you. What has all that time alone done to you? The eye you close when peering into your telescope has completely fused shut.
Amateur Amputator. Bonesaw (d6), ether. What unsettled your patients? Your sense of humour: take a book of anatomy jokes. What else did you bring to work? A hook in place of your off-hand.
And my favorite, Avant Guardsman. Flashy uniform, knife (d6). What made your unit different? You have a somewhat trained Attack Bear (7hp, d8 bite). What else? You were stitched into your uniform. It can only be removed by destroying it.
Again, there’s over a hundred of these, and they’re all a delight. They’re also the main source of information about the setting, the faces of people you will meet within Bastion and what they do there. This is the approach to worldbuilding the book takes: extremely broad strokes and a scattering of wild ideas. You won’t find any maps or timelines here.
Instead, the book offers general guidelines by which you should create your own Bastion an adventure at a time, and then actually run it. These are only a few pages, but they do their job remarkably well: versions of Bastionland created by different GMs will no doubt drastically differ from one another, while still remaining recognizably Bastionland.
This is where the game, surprisingly, is related to Apocalypse World. Just like AW it has strong opinions on how it’s supposed to be run and it communicates these ideas through concise principles, but it extends these principles to worldbuilding as well, intertwining the two. For instance, here’s one of these principles:
WHEN THE PLAYERS WANT TO FIND A SPECIALIST
○ Give them a second, unrelated speciality.
○ Give them a characteristic counter to their job.
○ Put them in a complicated situation involving another character.
It is similar to AW “Name everyone, make everyone human” principle mixed with “Put someone in a spot” GM move, with additional emphasis on the self-contradictory nature of Bastion.
One day I’ll write my “OSR games are just story games telling a specific story” magnum opus, and you’ll all be sorry.
The entire Conductor’s Guide chapter is fantastic. Not only does it contain solid guidance on running EBL (or any OSR-style game), but also a procedure for mapping out routes in a place resulting in an adventure at the end of the process.
It does rely on a few stated assumptions. As written, the party will be going on expeditions somewhere dangerous looking for treasure they heard about – dungeoncrawling is the default activity. They will be chased by a rival after the same treasure. They need the treasure to pay off their debts. Collectively they owe 10,000, while a single session’s take will be 1,000 plus odds and ends. A character death will set them back same 1,000 in administrative fees. It’s a good hook to get the party into the game, offering a basic structure to the entire campaign.
However, this is where the minimalistic approach lets the game down a bit. Since debt as motivation is mandated, I’d have liked to see a bit more on it: how much you’re expected to repay each adventure (better yet, a discussion on how to choose this value), a few tables for debt holder’s reactions if you fail. Unnecessary? Maybe, but so are the values already given. Everything in any book is to be used or discarded in service of the actual game, and it’s always easier to discard or modify such extraneous subsystem than to come up with one from scratch.
Another area that is lacking are oddities. These are not-quite-magic items of Bastionland, quirky and occasionally useful. And that’s basically all we’re told. There isn’t even a random table for inspiration to help come up with them. Maybe there was more on this in Into the Odd, but that’s of no use to me with only EBL in my hands. I’ve struggled with this area of the game, which had an unfortuante knock-on effect that soured my overall impression of the game.
Other than scars, oddities are what changes your character, outside of pure roleplaying. There are no levels or any other kind of mechanical progression, instead the PCs are meant to get changed by the weirdness of the world around them. Well, scars are not that impactful (even though the book itself repeatedly calls for everything to be made as impactful as possible), while oddities are handwaved away and as a result were fairly rare in my game – and to be frank, a weird one-use item is hardly character defining. Which meant the characters didn’t change all that much: in ten or so games, one increased her hp to 12 with a lucky roll, another befriended a gas alien creature that was largely forgotten about, while the third just broke his legs over and over.
The novelty of a weird character with funny posessions wears thin after a couple of sessions. Which would be fine if they kept dying and being replaced by differently weird characters with different funny possessions – that’s the main selling point of the game, after all. But they just didn’t die! Because characters dropped but didn’t outright die, even risky choices the party made didn’t result in getting a new character join them. That is, until they ALL dropped in the same fight, but then the campaign was over with a TPK and we moved on.
Bottom line is I wouldn’t use EBL for another campaign, even a brief one, because characters, for all their wonderful oddness, grow stale. Maybe I’m just bad at running OSR games, but I’ve been using the approach in some of my games for a while now, and at some point one has to give up on the imposter syndrome. Or maybe I’m bad at running EBL in particular, and not inflicting enough weirdness on the characters. That’s where more rules, tables, guidance, anything, would have come in handy. But of course that would go against the main guiding principle of the book: minimalism.
If not campaigns, then what about one-shots? Yes, I can certainly see myself pulling out the book when the regular game falls through but we still want to do something that night. But there’s a catch: the otherwise great advice on preparing an adventure EBL offers still takes a couple of hours to implement. You need to come up with an encounter table or two, a bunch of locations and what to do there, tie it all up in some semblance of context. Players can roll their characters in two minutes, GM still needs to prepare quite a bit. Meaning I’m much more likely to pick up something like Don’t Rest Your Head or (I’m hoping, haven’t read it yet) Agon instead and run them with a few initial ideas and zero prep.
I would love a companion book to EBL that took the core concept of a 100+ strange classes and applied it to adventures. An illustration, a core idea, a couple of tables for random encounters and complications, rinse and repeat until pages run out. Something more concrete to draw upon, to sketch out an adventure with a few rolls in a few minutes then build it up as time allows.
That’s what this game does, over and over: it makes you imagine a lot more than it gives you, for good and ill. EBL is a smart game, well worth the price of admission for GMing advice alone. It’ll give you a unique party in minimal time. Its rules are simple and quick. There’s a lot to love here. But for all the good things about Electric Bastionland, I don’t know when I’d actually use it.