Welcome to Great Arkham

Great Arkham is a thief. One day you get out of bed, and you’re in a city you’ve never seen yet know intimately. You have a job, a favourite pub. You go about your day, and there’s something nagging at you, but you can’t place it, so you do your best to put it out of your mind. Most people live their entire lives in Arkham in this state of unease. What were you doing before coming here? Why did you come here? How did you come here? Isn’t there a life waiting for you outside?

This isn’t quite a review of Cthulhu City the campaign book written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and published by Pelgrane Press, though I’ll be gushing about it. Neither is this a review of Trail of Cthulhu, for which this campaign book is written, though it did its job remarkably well. Rather, this is an eulogy for a campaign that was meant to last a few months and instead grew in the telling to well over a year, drawing in other campaigns I’ve run and, no doubt, spilling into ones I’m yet to run. Just like Great Arkham, the “Cthulhu City” itself, it spread. There’ll be some spoilers, naturally.

Great Arkham is a prison. Take a train, it will be stopped by the Transport Police. Typhoid quarantine, they say. Take a bus, it’ll blow a tyre. Take a boat, waves will threaten to overturn it. Go into the woods, you’ll wander for days before coming back to Great Arkham.

Let’s start with a confession: I’ve barely read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s works. I’ve read about them, seen them implemented in games, but every game of lovecraftian horror I run is a tribute to a tribute. This hasn’t stopped me: I’ve previously run a series of very loosely connected brief campaigns of tremulus, which I named in my self-indulgent manner “The Nyarlathotep Trilogy”. Most of my players haven’t read Lovecraft, either. This was the first hurdle: Cthulhu City is a love letter to the mythos universe. Its most basic premise is “what if all of these stories and characters weren’t just in a shared universe, but in the same city?” Dunwich, Innsmouth, Kingsport – these are all districts of Great Arkham. Colour out of space and re-animators, Charles Dexter Ward and professor Armitage, they’re all here. But I barely recognize these people and monstrosities, they’d mean nothing to my players. The solution was obvious: just like Arkham had somehow absorbed all its source material, it had absorbed the characters from our previous horror campaigns, PC and NPC alike, living and dead. Only one of my players had an “oh shit” moment when they heard the name Charles Ward, but they sure all had one when they recognized the impossibly alive professor Mastodon Jones, followed by an “ohh shiiiiiit” moment when they linked William Robinson the owner of Chemical Works processing plants with Will the one-armed teenage veteran of the Great War and a priest of Nyarlathotep, the villain of the game in which Mastodon Jones was a PC.

Great Arkham is a time-space aberration. It is impossible. It doesn’t make sense. It has drawn not just people but entire places from different time periods into itself, and trapped them all in its maddeningly vague history.

Cthulhu City is an unusual setting book. It has strong themes, but leaves putting details together to the GM. It asks questions and offers suggestions for what the answers might be. What is Great Arkham, why does it exist, what do the black monoliths dominating its skies do? Up to you. Each NPC write up, and there are a lot, from named individuals to stock characters, offers three variants: Victim, Sinister, and Stalwart. Each location description comes with Masked and Unmasked options. Each district description starts with several brief scenes that might happen there. Everyone’s hiding something. Every place has a horrible secret. These are all bits of story one can plug into their game. They wouldn’t all fit into a single campaign, or a single city for that matter, but that works for Arkham. There is no canonical Great Arkham, they’re all real, as real as Arkham gets. In practice I rarely used these stories, beyond the key NPCs and locations, but I still greatly appreciated them. Not only were they fun to read, they offered examples of what could be, sketched out the space in which I could imagine my own weirdness.

Great Arkhaim is the embodiment of the American Dream. The city is rife with opportunities, all you gotta do is have your eyes and your mind open to spot them. All truly succesful men are geniuses, and all geniuses are mad. Embrace your madness and prosper.

While the city is drowning in mythos, the games set in it are still fundamentally about people. Many of the plotlines suggested in the book center on the people who were exposed to some aspect of the impossible and immediately tried to use their newfound knowledge to turn a profit, or otherwise benefit themselves. In other lovecraftian settings, mythos is often the end goal: mad cultists are summoning a vile god to end humanity, or a monstrosity is rampaging unimpeded. There’re plenty of mad cultists and monstrosities in Arkham, of course, but by and large the city is made up of regular folk who, while vaguelly aware of the wrongness of it all, go about their regular lives. To them, mythos is the means to their mundane goals. This was a refreshing shift in perspective, providing the “villains” with motivations other than “mad and wants to end the world”. Perhaps one had to drown the setting in mythos to allow for human elements to rise to the top.

Great Arkham is the best city in the world. It has its warts, sure, but what place doesn’t. Keep your head down, work hard, and you will have a decent life, what else could anyone ask for. And even if you do everything right and things still go wrong for you, well, life ain’t fair, is it. Not like the city’s to blame for your misfortune. Is it? Besides, where would you go, some big city where no one knows you? No, there’s no way I’d leave Arkham.

In an investigative campaign, it’s very important to track who knows what. In Ctulhu City, where no one knows the truth but everyone has their own perspective, that gets especially tricky. I decided early on to summarise this by having each significant NPC discuss the nature of the city with the PCs the first chance they get. This helped me keep in mind not just their knowledge, but their attitude as well, and demonstrate it to the players. The snippets interspersed through this text are such musings.

Perhaps even more importantly, the players needed to keep track of what they already knew. At my insistence, they started a session log, which, just like the campaign it documented, grew to monstrous proportions: in the end it stands at 135 pages. I also wanted to both demonstrate that the city didn’t revolve around the PCs and show how it reacted to their actions, as well as sow the seeds for potential future investigations. Arkham Advertiser was the answer to all of these: a newspaper front page I’d produce whenever felt right – you can find an example below. It also was fun to write, especially the ads. Next time I produce such newspapers, I would propably reduce the actual articles to only a couple of paragraphs of key information. And maybe put the saved effort into layout and proofreading.

Great Arkham is a city occupied. All of us close our eyes to this simple truth. We pretend everything is alright even as we sacrifice ourselves in service to its inhuman captor. We bear the chains willingly, because to question the nature of our unnatural society is to become an outcast. None of us are strong enough to resist this oppression on our own. We must rise up together and overthrow the ancient evil that is capitalism.

Another technique I used was inserting snippets of daily life in a city occupied by mythos into the game. Small scenes of weird menace that don’t lead anywhere. It worked great, in the sense that players immediately would latch on to them and spend entire sessions chasing down clues as fast as I could improvise them. They saw a teenager being chased by transport police toss his bag over the fence before he was grabbed. Not only did they recover the bag to find a map of Massachusetts where Arkham is a small town and Dunwhich is a separate village hundreds of miles away, they broke into the Arkham Sanitarium to save the kid. The kid, Alex, was looking for his sister, Carmen. And so it went.

Another time, a PC heard faint voices coming from her shower head, followed by the stench of rotting meat and finally maggots pouring out. Creepy but ultimately meaningless. Of course the PC looked for the meaning. This lead to people infested and possessed by maggots digging new groves in their brains, to metamorphosis, to a mothman trying to make more mothpeople. Along the way there was a high school football team called Mighty Mothmen, complete with a mascot, and a bit of emergency magic surgery involving an eye and a key after a PC donned said mascot costume and couldn’t take it off. Also Native American rock art depicting something very much like a mothman god found in the caves in Dunwhich woods. The mystery kept revealing new layers.

Great Arkham is wasted potential, just waiting for someone with a vision. It is in a unique position, sprawled across histories: there are many timelines, but only one Great Arkham. With it as our beachhead, we could make history itself bow before the Yellow King.

Turned out, the mothman behind it all was a mothwoman calling herself Camilla, and all the infested people were gathering for a performance at a graveyard. Which either tells you nothing, or makes you go “oh shit” yet again. I want to run Yellow King RPG some day, also by Pelgrane Press, and this seemed like a natural tie-in, Carcosa’s attempt to take over Arkham. Naturally, PCs got into the performance and became art students in end-of-19th-century Paris, the setting of the first part of YKRPG. They attended a masked graduation ceremony lead by Camilla, followed by a sea voyage to Great Arkham to spread the word of the Yellow King via art. While on board, PCs took part in writing the King in Yellow play (which they were already performing or possibly living), adding antagonists to the plot, and, with minimal prodding, styled these antagonists after themselves. So when they disembarked into the graveyard and the play was over, they were the characters they wrote, still opposing Carcosa. Were they investigators dreaming they were moths, or moths dreaming they were investigators?

To tie all this together, I had Alex reveal the “real world” he comes from, the one outside Great Arkham, was not the United States they assumed, but the United Empire of America ruled by Emperor Castaigne. That is to say, the world of Yellow King RPG. Up until then, the PCs thought they’d escape Great Arkham, now they weren’t sure there was anywhere worth escaping. To make matters worse, Alex and Carmen, on their way into Arkham, bought wormy peaches from a roadside salesman. Alex bit into one and spat it out, while his sister was hungry and ate a whole bunch. Did I say wormy? I meant maggoty. PCs immediately and correctly realized Carmen was the patient zero of the maggot-mothman infestation, making her the mothwoman Camilla they had just killed and buried with the help of Alex. Which would of course come back to bite them.

I describe all this is not just because I’m damn proud of the plot we ended up with, but because it grew from throw-away scenes into a monumental story arc that tied mothmen to Carcosa and its convoluted plot to invade Great Arkham by violating quarantine restrictions on fruit import, and that’s without even mentioning the pre-Arkham village of Nuveau Carcasson, a.k.a. New Carcosa, a.k.a. Newcastle district which has always been in Great Arkham after this story arc was resolved – can’t invade a city if you’re a part of it. Aaand I’m rambling again. In retrospect it is amusing I’ve felt the need to invent a whole new faction vying for control of Arkham in a setting already full of them, but this freedom to add to a setting is integral for it to be not just a fun read, but actually fun to use in a game.

Do you think people of the Dreamlands have their own Dreamlands? They dream, after all, just like we do. And if they do, do you think our reality is the Dreamlands to someone else? That would explain a lot about Great Arkham.

Once we’ve dragged past and potential future campaigns into the current campaign, it was hard to stop. We have a long-running Shadow of the Demon Lord back-up game, which we discovered was actually in the Dreamlands – one of the PCs picked up the Dreaming skill and ended up in the middle of a SotDL adventure. As a side note, this meant the Demon Lord is Nyarlathothep, a fact that changed nothing yet amused me greatly. When we inadvertently opened a portal to Unknown Kaddath underneath the Arkham city hall, I looked at my bookshelf and pulled out Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, a psychodelic heavy metal road trip game. Given that my understanding of Kaddath is limited to “weirder Dreamlands”, it was a great fit. Both even have mind-controlling cats!

Coup de grâce, however, came when I managed to tie Arkham Horror the board game into the campaign. As we delved deeper into the mystery of the nature of Great Arkham, this became a major piece of the puzzle, another perspective to which the PCs gained access. Locations on the board game map, we determined, were the black monoliths dominating the skyline of Arkham. PCs could enter through any of them and have a friendly chat with the entity they dubbed “the Gatekeeper” before exiting through any other monolith. All they had to do was draw a card corresponding to their new location and deal with whatever it said. This was an interesting improv exercise, translating board game cards with their wacky single paragraph events into a roleplaying environment. Some of them just say “a terrible monster appears,” and I did reserve the right to draw another event if the first one just didn’t work. Overall, they worked great as prompts, leading to some cool scenes we would never have had otherwise, including a spontaneous trip to the founding of Great Arkham.

Great Arkham is a dam. For centuries, it has stood betwen the mythos and the mundane. And just like any dam, it has a power all its own. Some would drain it, deny the divine, reduce Great Arkham to another forgettable city, perhaps to nothing. Others would open the floodgates and let the mythos through. Then there are those who quite like the way things are. Those who can draw upon this accumulated power.

The book suggests the following campaign concept: you start with street-level, individual mysteries, move on to investigating cults and other powers that run the city, then finally confront one or more of the big mysteries of the city itself. The Ritual of Opening/Closing is a convenient plot device that forces confrontation and ties the latter parts of the campaign together. Half of the various factions in Arkham would love to, given the opportunity, perform this incredibly dangerous ritual, ending the city and possibly the world one way or another. This works, but was the only part of the book that was a bit generic for my tastes. As the campaign progressed and factions and their motivations became more defined, their versions of the ritual and what it would achieve shifted. I still used the tried and true threat of cultists-ritual-apocalypse, but the individual apocalypses varied significantly. Church of Conciliator still wanted to invite Azathoth to Earth, with immediate and obvious consequences, but Yellow King wanted to use Arkham as a beachhead in reality conquest, and Necromantic Cabal wanted to incarnate a “human” god.

Arkham is an oppressive setting with a tangled web of conspiracies and otherworldly forces, it is inescapable and overwhelming. Scratch the surface of any mystery and you’ll find two more underneath, vanquish a cult and you’ll free up their opponents to advance their schemes. I tried to convey this by drowning my players in clues to pursue. At any time there’d be not just multiple avenues of research, but multiple distinct investigations they’d have to deal with, in addition to the aforementioned daily life occurrences. This combined well with time pressure as the central campaign structure: the PCs knew the time window in which the ritual was possible was rapidly approaching, even if they didn’t initially know when exactly it would happen, and we tracked every day in a 1937 calendar. For every subplot, I figured out the likely timeline of its development if the PCs did nothing, then put key dates into the shared calendar, coded after Mythos deities. The players didn’t know what “Byatis” stood for, but they knew it was coming.

As the result, the PCs ran themselves ragged, trying to battle a city’s worth of mystery and horror all by themselves. They were forced to triage. A friend left a cryptic message and hadn’t been seen since? Better hope he’s alright, the party’s putting out bigger fires. He wasn’t. Trail of Cthulhu/GUMSHOE, the system for which Cthulhu City was written, worked wonderfully here. In it, characters spend points they’ve assinged to skills to improve their rolls or get bonus effects. Some of these points replenish with a good night’s rest, but most only do between investigations. Critically, Stability (which helps one to not go insane, a useful skill in a lovecraftian horror game) only refreshed when spending quality time with loved ones. Which meant carving out crucial time to do so and making sure there were un-broken loved ones left who they could still face. This list grew quite slim by the end of the campaign.

I have to commend ToC for forcing us to come up with the list of NPCs that PCs rely on. Cthulhu City goes further and mandates we also list ‘entanglements’, who rely on PCs. This excercise was somewhat overwhelming during character creation, and would perhaps be better stretched out through the first investigation, but by the end of the campaign all these characters were involved and suffering for it. Likewise, multiple Pillars of Sanity were shattered and one PC even talked his way into destroying his own Drive, so all the prep was worth it in the end.

A direct consequence of the time pressure approach was how desperate the players were to use every hour of every day at their disposal. That’s largely the reason the campaign went on for so long: as we approached the ritual week, we went from covering a couple of days in a session to a day, to half a day. And the more attention to detail we paid, the more space I had to introduce more horrible twists. We nearly Zeno’s paradoxed the campaign into infinity.

Great Arkham is a mirage. A lie. A dream. It’s not real, is my point. Nothing here is real. No one. It is not real because it can’t be real. The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done. I don’t feel guilty. Why should I? Nothing we do here matters.

Just like (our version of) Arkham spreads through worlds and histories, so did the real world reach into it. We began the campaign near the end of 2019. In it, a fake pandemic is used to control the populace, authorities commit ritual sacrifices, newspapers lie to keep everyone docile, and masks are a major signifier of one’s allegiance to a sinister force. As 2020 went on, this fun romp through conspiracy theories became decidedly weird and at times even uncomfortable. The heroic investigators opposing these conspiracies sounded like real life raving lunatics in the daily news (and fortunately not many of our close relatives or friends). Even gaming gets complicated when living in interesting times.

Near the end I was worried it got to be too much. Too oppressive, too gruelling, too close to home. My players assured me they were fine. Having the backup game with much lower stakes, dark fantasy with constant threat of PC death though it may be, certainly helped. However, we all agreed we wanted to do something much more lighthearted afterwards. Still, at the end of the campaign Great Arkham remains. Which means it will undoubtedly spread into future campaigns we play. There’s now a permanent portal and a small Arkham outpost in the Ultraviolet Grasslands – we’ll pay them a visit when we get around to UVG. Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign is in the Dreamlands, so an arkhamite cameo is always possible. Yellow King RPG is already tied in. Maybe we’ll do Fate of Cthulhu with its time-travel shenanigans and actually “solve” Great Arkham. One thing is certain: all I need to do to terrorize my players is mention Arkham’s black monoliths appearing on the horizon.

Clearly such mad sprawling sandbox campaign is not the only way you could enjoy Cthulhu City. You don’t need to drag past and future campaigns into it, you don’t have to write fictional newspapers, or pull out the board game. But… you could.

Great Arkham is the answer to your prayers. Ever since you’ve learned of it, you sought more: books, movies, art, games, anything to sate your growing longing. It was just a game, merely a fantasy. A mythos. You called for it, with every unpronounceable name you learned you called for it, with every maddening detail you so eagerly absorbed you weakened your ties to what is, with every frightening daydream you reached out to what shouldn’t be. And it heard you. I heard you. You are home now, and you will never leave me. Welcome to Great Arkham.

When is a gold piece not a gold piece?

There’s a common assumption of interchangeability of OSR adventures and systems. Pick your favourite system, then draw from the vast array of adventures written for the vast array of systems (or just labeled as “OSR“). This works, for the most part, due to the unique features of the playstyle such as de-empasizing the rules and a core of shared assumptions. The GM can easily figure out how to represent the monsters and traps of a given adventure in their system of choice. What can just as easily go overlooked is treasure. A gp is a gp, is it not?

Turns out it’s really, really not.

Equipment lists vary greatly between game systems, and there’s never any thought put into actual economics of the fantasy worlds we inhabit – which is fine, that’s not what the games are about, and any attempt to extrapolate how those worlds actually function is futile yet hilarious (see the Dungeonomics articles). For my part, I’ve previously looked at what money are used for in games, and why they so often don’t “work”.

What we actually care about right now is the buying power of a gold piece, and how it differs from system to system. Real world has “Big Mac index“, so I’ve compiled a Ration index, the relative price of a week’s worth of rations, as it is a baseline item every adventurer needs, and therefore every system specifies. I’ve tied the computed value to OD&D, but it’s trivial to calculate a different conversion.

Without further ado, here’s a table of a bunch of OSR and fantasy systems I had or got my hands on. There may be errors (please correct them in comments!), as some of this was compiled from SRD documents and other information available online. Feel free to suggest other systems and their values, too.

SystemRation (GP/ week)Ration Index
OD&D51
AD&D 2e30.6
D&D 3 & Pathfinder3.50.7
D&D 43.50.7
D&D 53.50.7
Pathfinder 2e0.40.08
13th Age3.50.7
Shadow of the Demon Lord0.010.002
Dungeon Crawl Classics0.350.07
Swords & Wizardry3.50.7
Electric Bastionland35*7
Ultraviolet Grasslands102
Best Left Buried2**0.4
Knave0.350.07
Basic Fantasy102
B/X, OSE51
Labyrinth Lord1.4.28

*Electric Bastionland doesn’t have a price for rations, but it does have a “canned eel” for 2 new pounds, so I’ve extrapolated to 5/day or 35/week.

**Best Left Buried doesn’t have ration prices either, at least not in the core book. In the Beneath the Missing Sea adventure, which is how I’ve learned about this system, there’s a price of 2 affluence points/week for food (and 3/week for water, but the whole adventure is about a disaster zone, so we’ll ignore that component).

Two square meals a day is not all an adventurer aspires to, however. Full plate armor is a common high-end equipment. In some games, that’s the pinnacle an adventurer can achieve, in others you can start with a full set of armor, so it’s tricky to use for direct comparison between systems. Also included is the Ration-Plate index, a within-system comparison of prices, or how many weeks of rations a full plate suit costs.

SystemFull PlateFull Plate IndexRation-Plate Index
OD&D50110
AD&D 2e4008133
D&D 3 & Pathfinder150030429
D&D 450114
D&D 5150030429
Pathfinder 2e300.675
13th Age50114
Shadow of the Demon Lord250.52500
Dungeon Crawl Classics1200243429
Swords & Wizardry100229
Electric Bastionland10002029
Ultraviolet Grasslands150030150
Best Left Buried50.12.5
Knave801.6229
Basic Fantasy300630
B/X, OSE601.212
Labyrinth Lord4509321

With Ration index, three outliers stand out: Shadow of the Demon Lord and Dungeon Crawl Classics on the low side, and Electric Bastionland on the high. All prices are a game design decision, and the likeliest explanation for low prices of SotDL and DCC is that players in these systems aren’t meant to sweat the “small stuff”, they have demons to fight. On the other hand, the relatively high price of food in EBL serves to push PCs into adventuring, as debt is the primary motivation for starting PCs in that game. Or it would, if that system wasn’t so focused on minimising the rules it actually included living costs.

However, if starvation is an actual threat in a game, it’s usually because the party didn’t bring enough rations with them, not because they’re too poor to afford food. Unless you’re playing Red Markets, that is. The one exception here is Best Left Buried, which, despite having the Ration index of 0.4 (seemingly making rations more affordable than in D&D), has the lowest Plate-Ration index of 2.5, meaning a BLB character can get a fancy suit of armor for the prices of 2.5 sacks of potatoes. I suspect this is the combination of the relatively unexceptional nature of full plate in that system (that is, it isn’t something you aspire to, it’s just something you wear if it fits your character) and actual possibility of starvation in the adventure that provided ration prices.

Overall, the relative Ration index is only useful when converting starting level adventures. Full Plate index is perhaps more indicative once you move past that stage. As for the Ration-Plate index, it is mostly a curiosity. The lower the value, the easier it is to afford full plate armour in that system, likely indicating, as with the BLB example above, that it is a character build item as opposed to a luxury item.

What can we conclude based on this little collection of data? Only that one game’s GP has nothing to do with another.

Electric Bastionland

Bastion
The electric hub of mankind
The only city that matters

Deep Country
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.

Finishing a campaign

Roleplaying campaigns end all the time. Too bad they rarely finish. It took me years of GMing to actually complete a campaign, not merely see it dissolve. And I’m not the only one:

Twitter poll showing only 37.5 responders have had their latest campaign wrap up successfully

Far from a representative poll, certainly, but it lines up with my experience. Almost 2/3rds of campaigns don’t reach a satisfying ending. Why do campaigns fail, and how can we improve our chances?

A roleplaying campaign, traditionally, is a sequence of games with same players controlling same characters, with some sort of overarching plot. Anything that goes beyond a one-shot, basically. Finishing a campaign, therefore, typically means resolving this plotline (save the kingdom), personal plot threads PCs might have created or started with (avenge parents’ murder), as well as the majority of plot threads that came up along the way (whatever will happen to the goblin gardener the party had befriended against all odds and seems to care about much more than saving the kingdom or discovering the parents’ murderer).

There’s a plethora of ways to play roleplaying games, none of them wrong. It’s certainly possible to have a sequence of sessions with the same characters going on adventures that don’t have an overarching plot outside the adventures themselves. Perhaps you’re just playing through published adventures one after another, or running a hexcrawl. In that context, finishing a campaign could be as easy as deciding the characters have retired and opened a tavern together – or, more likely, have all perished due to a sereis of bad rolls and worse decisions.

I’m currently running such a campagin as a backup. However, most of the games I’ve ever run have been more, for lack of a better word, ambitious, even when I could not possibly fulfill these ambitions. Like many others, I began my GMing “career” with D&D. It took me a bit to be comfortable enough with the rules to make up my own adventures, but it turned out that campaigns were harder. A large part of that are basic storytelling skills, which take time and effort to develop along with other GMing skills and system mastery.

I often had the start and the end in mind, but no idea how to get from A to Z. And it was always “Z”, not “B” or “C” – a distant, pie-in-the-sky goal. Before we’d get anywhere near an ending, the campaign would fall apart. Ancient prophecies would go on unfulfilled, worlds unsaved, great wrongs unavenged, evil gods unslain. I kept imagining awesome, epic events, and never actually playing through them. I don’t think those were bad games, but they weren’t going anywhere, and I suspect it made it easier for everyone, myself included, to give up on them. It took playing in another GM’s game that actually wrapped up nicely for something to click. I ran a complete campaign that resolved to everyone’s satisfaction soon after. It wasn’t D&D, and it wasn’t a many-year epic, either.

That game was Dark Heresy, and we played through the entire campaign in about 6 months. Why does it matter? Well. I believe the basic structure of character advancement in D&D inadvertently sets its GMs up for failure, and breaking away from its paradigm helped me run a campaign with an actual ending. Paradoxically enough, after a few of these shorter finishable and finished campaigns, I was actually able to run a complete D&D 4e campaign that went all the way from 1 to 30 over 3 years, and had served as the basis for this blog for quite a while.

What’s the first thing you learn about D&D characters? They start at level 1 and go to level 20. First you fight goblins and skeletons, then demons and beholders, then dragons and… larger demons, I guess. You top it all off with a fight against some evil deity or maybe the tarrasque or some other world-ending monstrosity. That’s the implied campaign structure right there.

At a reasonable pace of 5 sessions per level up, that puts us at 100 sessions, or 2 years of weekly games. From purely pratcical point of view, that’s a huge commitment. And then there’s burn out and maintaining a semblance of a coherent narrative throughout. Still, over and over, I’d take aim at a grand finale, seed hints and prophecies, all the while throwing giant rats at the 1st level party.

Now, D&D doesn’t say you’re supposed to only play 1-20 campaigns. It just scatters the character progression charts and all the cool monsters, spells, and magic items before you, a field of very shiny rakes to step on. One solution would be to figure out the level range in which you want to set your game – the actual game, not the goblin-hunting build-up, unless that’s what the game’s about – and play there. Of course, that runs into the other issue: D&D is Not Very Good at high level play. It just gets more and more complicated and unwieldy, and the only way to mitigate that is system mastery by both GM and players. Which, in turn, requires lots of experience. But any group starting a campaign is likely to have players who’re new to the system or roleplaying games in general. So you start at level 1, and by the time the players are comfortable with their characters and the rules, the campaign has fallen apart. Catch-20, if you will.

I’m so fond of this joke, here it is restated in a punchier way:

D&D is complex at high levels, meaning one has to start at low levels and gradually increase system mastery of the entire party. But campaigns often end before you go all the way from 1 to 20, so you never get to play at high levels. That’s Catch-20.

Maybe you do want to start at level 1, to watch the characters grow from nobodies into mighty heroes, to bond with their fellow adventurers over a campfire, a found family that slays together and stays together. Some D&D spin-offs, such as 13th Age and Shadow of the Demon Lord, condense the levelling experience to only 10 levels, much more manageable. They also both suggest a campaign mode where players level up after every session. Back in my D&D days I rejected such ideas as “unearned”, whatever that meant, but the whole point of this article is to help you avoid my mistakes.

And then, of course, there are entirely un-D&D-like systems without character progression charts or implied campaign arcs to hold you hostage. Many, like Fate, Apocalypse World or Spire (and a whole host of others, I don’t mean to imply this is a modern phenomenon) are open-ended: you can keep earning advancements for your character for as long as you play. By removing the prescribed order in which you gain abilities these games also removed the unspoken campaign structure. The campaign doesn’t get needlessly stretched out to fit the implied arc. I’m particularly fond of the approach Heart took, a Spire spin-off I’m yet to play properly. In it, the most powerful abilities characters can get also end them, one way or another. An entirely different kind of implied campaign arc.

So, what are the actual practical take-aways here? I’m glad I asked. First and foremost: don’t start a lengthy campaign with people you’ve just met. Looking back to the poll for the reason campaigns end prematurely, group dissolution is far ahead. This is largely outside of GM’s control. Players may not get along with one another. They may want different things out of RPGs. Their priorities may shift, or life circumstances may change. Most of these are exacerbated by inviting new people you’ve never played with before. Which is not at all to say you shouldn’t do so, how else would you build a gaming group. Still, some or all of these players may drop out sooner or later. Since this is something you can’t control, you have to take it into account. So, when faced with building a new group, come up with a campaign that take weeks or months, not years to resolve. Use this as an excuse to try different games, there are so many good ones out there.

For that matter start with shorter campaigns yourself before you attempt something massive. Grow those storytelling and GMing skills. A few finished short stories are much better than half of a fantasy epic that gets abandoned – take it from someone with half a novel languishing out there on the Internet.

It’s hard to give generic advice given how many different kinds of campaigns and playstyles there are, but here are a few ideas. Figure out a manageable end and major steps on the way there, then hit them relentlessly. This doesn’t mean you should have a prescribed ending you steer your group towards. A common approach is figuring out what would happen if PCs do nothing, then seeing where they take the situation. The key here is maintaining momentum. Even if there is no “global” plot, there likely are individual stories PCs bring to the table.

If you do want to run a lengthy campaign, structure it like a tv series made up of several seasons, each its own arc and a satisfying hopping off point. They don’t know if they’ll be picked up for the next season, and neither do you.

And finally, and this is something I’ve constantly struggled with, use cool ideas as soon as you can, don’t hold them back for the climax that may never come. You will have more cool ideas later, you’re a GM, that’s what you do. But unless you bring your ideas to life at the table, all you’re doing is daydreaming.

Arkham Horror the Living Card Game

Campaign games are a hot new thing in board gaming. I’m quite a sucker for them, and judging by their performance on Kickstarter, so are a lot of other people. Since I’ve backed a few, I figured I might as well write about them. To kick things off, however, let’s take a look at a game with a more traditional publishing method: Arkham Horror the living card game. As opposed to Arkham Horror the board game, its progenitor. This is a minor annoyance at most, but it’s unfortunate Fantasy Flight Games came up with “Elder Sign” and “Eldritch Horror” for its spin-offs and reimaginings, then just gave up.

Campaign games?

What is a campaign game? Simply put, it’s a game with some amount of continuity between sessions: decisions made in one game carry over in some form into the next. Such games most likely include an ongoing plot. This is also how roleplaying games typically work, so it’s no wonder most campaign games can be described as boardgame-ified RPGs, with each player controlling their own character that grows in power between games. It’s not a particularly new idea: Descent 2e, out in 2012, came with a campaign in the core box. There’re most likely much older examples I’m simply unaware of. Progression is a great hook.

Legacy games, such as Pandemic Legacy, are a subtype of campaign games distinguished from the rest by permanent changes made to their components in the course of play. While Pandemic Legacy does give each player a character with their own abilities, and these characters do gain new powers between sessions, the core game is still the original Pandemic, far from an RPG in a box. Other legacy games, which I haven’t played, explore different genres as well.

It’s curious, then, that it took the fairly brief popularity of legacy games to reinvigorate campaign games, which have since gone back to emulating RPGs with great success. Gloomhaven is one of the early examples of this resurgence that I wrote about previously.

The inner workings of horror

AH is a scenario based cooperative card game with deck-building progression between sessions. Each player gets a character – an investigator – and together the players unravel mythos mysteries. Each such character has a deck of cards representing the items they may find, allies they may recruit, or skills they may master. This metaphor is card-thin, as scenarios range far and wide, and accidentally stumbling on your old buddy in a jungle temple is slightly implausible. Thankfully, immersion comes from the scenario itself, not the character actions. And the core of each scenario is a deck of encounter cards each player draws from at the end of their turn, containing monsters, obstacles, and other misfortunes.

Scenarios come with a set of location cards and instructions on how to arrange them, and a few Act and Agenda cards, tracking progression of mythos and investigators. As conditions listed on them are fulfilled, players flip these cards to read the advancing story and learn of their new objectives and threats. You win by getting through the Act deck. Should the Agenda deck run out before you manage to do that, the consequences will range from permanently injuring your characters to ending the world.

If you’re familiar with the board game version of Arkham Horror, most of this should sound very familiar to you. The truly ingenious part of the card game version is the way the encounter deck is constructed. Every card belongs to a particular set, with the core game providing generic sets such as Rats, Dark Cult, Ancient Evil, etc. Similarly, scenarios have their own themed sets of encounter cards. Scenario setup instructs you which sets to mix together to form the encounter deck.

Taken together, this makes every scenario a unique and highly thematic experience. While the core gameplay remains the same, the map, objectives, and threats all change to fit the story. One scenario you’re wandering the mistrustful Dunwich village, another you’re fleeing down a disintegrating train, or lost in another world. The designers do a fantastic job of making the scenarios feel and play differently.

Investigators facing these scenarios are quite varied as well. Their decks are made out of an ever-growing pool of cards split into six types: Guardian, Survivor, Seeker, Rogue, Mystic, Neutral. All but one character belongs to one of these types, meaning their deck can use any of these cards, and has access to some constrained set of other types. These constrains can get more fiddly than I personally like – hunting through hundreds of cards for a particular subtype a character can use is not that much fun. As you may have guessed, every character can use Neutral cards.

In my admittedly limited experience, not all archetypes are created equal. The core activities of the game are killing monsters and investigating – you have to do these to succeed. That’s what Guardian and Seeker are for. Mystic can do anything with a right spell, but is entirely reliant on them, so I wouldn’t play one in a 2-player game where there’s no one to pick up the slack should you fail to draw the needed cards. Rogues generate resources, card advantage, evade monsters (which is occasionally preferrable or easier done than outright killing them, but means you have to keep evading them), and are overall fiddly to play for the sake of being fiddly to play. Survivors, as their name suggests, are good at not dying. Which is great, but doesn’t really help them accomplish any objectives. 4th pick at best.

At the end of an adventure, players earn experience points based on their performance. These often introduce delightful tension between getting on with the main objective, or even escaping once it’s completed, and sticking around to get the precious XP by tackling tough monsters or fully investigating locations. This is one of the joys of campaign games: it matters not only that you win, but how you win.

These experience points are spent on buying more powerful cards. It is a very gradual process – you’ll get somewhere around 3 xp per adventure (the mini campaign in the core set is the exception, packing lots of xp into its shortened form), and a card can cost up to 5 xp. The total number of cards in the deck stays the same, usually 30 plus plot-related cards, unique character cards, and weaknesses. Oh, yeah, weaknesses are cool. Characters get one specific to them, and also draw a generic one. These fire off as soon as they’re drawn, and are always a pain to deal with. These are ongoing problems, objectives, or compulsions characters have.

As for the actual turn-by-turn gameplay, it is fairly straightforward. Characters get 3 actions per turn to spend on moving around, fighting, evading, and investigating, as well as drawing, gaining resources, and playing cards. Any test is resolved by drawing a token from the bag and adding to it the appropriate character stat, with the option to discard cards with a corresponding symbol for a boost. The game offers different distributions of tokens to adjust difficulty, but I’ve never bothered moving away from the default, it is evil enough.

The token bag also contains several tokens with special symbols that have unique effects determined by the scenario. Some campaigns mess around with bag contents, adjusting these special tokens. This hasn’t been particularly effective: in a highly thematic game, having one abstract mechanical effect be replaced with another abstract mechanical effect doesn’t do much.

Despite these quibbles, Arkham Horror is an excellent game, offering thematic, engaging, and tense experience. But this is a campaign game, and individual game sessions are only a part of the whole story.

Campaign of terror

To talk about the campaign side of AH, we have to talk about how it is sold. It is a “Living Card Game”, an invention of Fantasy Flight Games meaning every year they put out a box starting a new campaign, called “cycle”, with two scenarios in it, then every couple of months a smaller box with the next scenario, for a total of 8 scenarios. All of these contain character cards as well. Unique to AH, a couple of years after the final release in a cycle FFG puts out a “Return to” capstone expansion, with, essentially, patches to all scenarios in a cycle, offering yet more cards. As the name suggests, these releases are a good excuse to replay the cycle.

The Living Card Game model is a definite improvement on the traditional Trading Card Game model from the consumer’s point of view: you’re guaranteed to get everything for a sane price so long as you keep up with the releases. It was great for Android: Netrunner! For AH, things are more complicated. We’ll get to the practical aspects later, for now let’s focus on the game itself.

While each scenario can be played individually, I doubt many people buy random scenarios to play them on their own. I certainly followed cycles, playing through The Dunwhich Legacy, The Path to Carcosa, and half way through The Forgotten Age (then current events made in-person games more complicated). Bear in mind I’m simply unaware of any developments and tweaks to the formula further cycles may have introduced.

The LCG model means every scenario can only reference cards from core set and the first box of its cycle – the players may not have bought the ones in-between. Moreover, it means the plot can’t actually branch. At most you get a choice which of the starting two scenarios to tackle first, as they come in the same box. And you certainly can’t have scenarios that don’t occur at all in a given playthrough: people paid good money for those scenarios!

This means the campaigns are linear. There’re still consequences to the choices you make and objectives you accomplish, but these affect relatively minor things: a card representing an ally you saved, a modification to setup if you previously managed to kill a monster. There are attempts to vary this up. In Path to Carcosa, you track your belief/skepticism, which had significantly affected at least one of the scenarios in the cycle. Likewise, in Forgotten Age you track just how much you’ve pissed off the snake god, though not pissing off the snake god seems like the strictly superior option: basically, you have to avoid killing snakes or snake people get buffed, meaning you can’t kill snake people and have to avoid them, but you chose characters that are bad at avoiding monsters which is why you were killing snakes in the first place. We’ve had to give up by the second scenario in that playthrough and start over.

Scenarios themselves go to some length to be replayable. A typical example would be including two versions of each location and randomly choosing one during setup. Thing is, that’s the wrong kind of replayability. A location that works differently, or a changed layout, is great if you’re going to replay the same scenario immediately. Short of failing a scenario utterly and deciding to redo it, we’ve never done this. Rather, you’re much more likely to revisit a cycle a year or two later, perhaps once you got the “Return to” box, at which point you simply won’t remember any of these minor variations.

The main distinguishing feature of AH are the distinct scenarios, threaded together into a narrative. I can’t say we played the game for the gripping plot – the writing in Dunwich Legacy was terribly cliched, though improved in Path to Carcosa and Forgotten Age. It’s not the story, but the ongoing story that makes AH special. There are stand-alone scenarios you can get, to be slotted anywhere in the campaign, and they’re fine as far as scenarios go, but we couldn’t wait to get back to the main story.

You could play these stand-alone scenarios, or even any scenario from a cycle, on their own, and it would be a good experience. But by definition it would be a lesser experience than what the game has to offer. Moreover, since AH can be said to emulate RPGs in a board game format, it is fair to compare its scenarios to published adventures. You wouldn’t play through the same published adventure or a linear campaign of such adventures over and over.

Bottom line is you will have a lot of fun playing through a cycle, but won’t have many reasons to revisit it, other than maybe with the “Return to” expansion. And if you’re looking to get into the game right now, there are multiple complete cycles with the capstone expansions out there, and there’s absolutely no reason (other than monetary) to deliberately exclude them from your playthrough. Further undermining any thought of replaying a cycle is the fact that you could simply buy another one, fresh and exciting. The machine that is FFG keeps pumping them out. Which is where we get to the aforementioned monetary issues.

A cycle gives you 8 scenarios to play through, each can be done in about an hour (more with greater number of players). All in all, about 4 evenings worth of play-time. To get a complete cycle, consisting of the “deluxe” starting box, 6 scenario packs, and the “Return to” box, you’d have to pay $150 USD before shipping. The LCG model deliberately obfuscates this, what’s $15 every couple of months for a game you love. After a few years – quite a lot, it turns out. If you’re like me, there’s also the cost of card sleeves, which adds up over the hundreds of cards you’ll be dealing with. As far as money to hours of entertainment go, this isn’t a great ratio for a board game.

The practicalities of getting all these boxes are quite ugly, too. There is no way to get the entire cycle as a single set. Scenarios from past cycles are frequently sold out in various outlets, and for whatever reason this is not uniform: when looking at getting another cycle, I ended up ordering boxes from 3 different stores. Which means more shipping costs and more headache.

Overall, Arkham Horror the Card Game (ugh) is a fantastic game that I just can’t recommend without significant caveats. Maybe your tolerance for replaying the same storylines is higher than mine. Maybe you simply have more disposable income. Knock yourselves out, you won’t regret it. I, however, looked at the cost of catching up after missing a couple of cycles, and understood the true meaning of horror.

In a perfect world

The review part is done, here comes pure self-indulgence. How would I change AH to make it not just a great game, but a good product? Let’s take the business model of releasing a pack every couple of months as a given from up high. Each such pack has 60 cards in it, consisting of scenario and character cards. First, I’d separate these, alternating packs of character cards and scenarios. I realise currently the character cards are used to pad out the total count if a given scenario doesn’t need that many cards for itself, but it’s just cleaner that way.

With the freed up space, we’d be able to fit more scenarios into a single pack. Act and Agenda cards are neat, but their function can just as easily be fulfilled by a piece of paper, or, better yet, an app. More space found! Without getting too greedy, and with changes to the role of “deluxe” boxes at the start of every cycle we’ll discuss in a moment, we could fit 4 scenarios into a 60 card pack. This obviously means extra design work, but the behemoth that is FFG can probably afford the static cost of hiring more designers.

These 4 or so scenarios would form their own campaign, so that each pack would actually make sense as an individual product. And because they’re all sold in the same pack, this mini campaign could branch, e.g. scenarios 2 and 3 representing different clues you could pursue after scenario 1, with the order in which you do them affecting scenario 4. Not only have we doubled the amount of scenarios, we created a reason to replay them.

The core box, as well as the expansions that kick off a cycle would contain not just sets of encounter cards but locations as well, grouped by a theme that unifies a cycle, to be used throughout. We almost have that already: Dunwich Horror is backwards villages and woods, Path to Carcosa is urban adventures, Forgotten Age is jungles and lost temples. This is where AH’s approach to replayability, different versions of locations and the like, would actually work: if you can build 20 different versions of Arkham, it doesn’t matter that you keep visiting it in various scenarios. And if most of the cards a scenario requires can be drawn from this “generic” pool, we can focus on the unique cards that set it apart. In effect, we’re sacrificing a bit of scenario uniqueness for a lot more use.

In addition to these releases, there would be free campaigns regularly published online/to the app, that mix up existing sets from different releases, thus incentivising their purchase while providing further value to those who bought them. FFG already has some free individual scenarios online, so they’re moving in the same direction. And of course, if the locations are actually designed to be slightly more generic, it’s much easier for fans to create their own campaigns.

Hell, since we’re fantasizing, let’s go further. The approach of mixing up card sets to create a scenario could be extended to mixing up scenarios to create a campaign. Suppose each scenario has tags: city, village, temple, woods, journey, hunted, mystery, invasion, artifact, other world, etc. Then a campaign could consist of scenarios defined along the lines of “city + Cthulhu + scenario specific cards” tied together by plot. As more sets are released, the number of permutations would grow. Again, somewhat more generic scenarios, but a lot more replayable.

This is the crucial element that I believe is missing in AH as it now stands, its unrealised potential: while the characters get new options with each set released, scenarios and cycles remain static. The game gets wider, but not deeper. It could be so much more.

Dungeoncrawling by default

D&D is the “default” system many people use, for a variety of reasons, even if it really doesn’t fit the game. There’s a related trend I’ve come across, mostly in OSR: “default” gameplay.

I should say upfront I’m really not an OSR person. But I’m curiuos about it, and as part of this curiosity I got myself a few recent Kickstarted games: Electric Bastionland, Ultraviolet Grasslands, and Seekers Beyond the Shroud, as well as looked long and hard at MÖRK BORG. I’ll describe them in brief, see if you can spot a commonality between them.

Electric Bastionland is a game set in The Only City That Matters, currently going through electrification. There’s aliens from living stars walking the streets side by side with plush and wire mockeries, while Underground is an unreal space that connects everything and is populated by machines that just want to test people.

The characters are losers who failed at their previous careers (failed careers taking up most of the book) and now have to pay back their massive debt. Together they dungeoncrawl.

Seekers Beyond the Shroud is a game I couldn’t bring myself to play, and the first time I actually noticed this trend. It is a solo RPG, which is what initially attracted me, taking place in a modern day occult setting. The player is, unsurprisingly, an occultist. Learning spells, summoning spirits, going on missions.

Every day you choose a single thing to do, and there’s a very interesting mechanic where deterministic star alignment and the like makes certain activities easier or better at any given day. So you can plan your week ahead: make potions on Tuesday, perform a ritual on Wednesday, go on a mission using both of those on Thursday. I’m vague on details by now, as I’ve only read it once, and it was some time ago.

The missions, the meat of the game, are dungeoncrawling, mostly against regular humans. Ten or so skills for every kind of weapon were an early warning sign. There’s also astral missions, which I didn’t even get to, but I expect they’re dungeoncrawling against sprits.

I haven’t read MÖRK BORG, but here’s my understanding of it from the preview materials and some conversations about it: MÖRK BORG is a black metal artbook of a game set in a dying world. There is a random prophecy verse table that will eventually proclaim the end, and that’ll be that. Characters are scumbags trying to get theirs in the last days or years they have.

Together they dungeoncrawl.

Why do they dungeoncrawl? Nothing in the previews addressed this, and utlimately I decided against buying the book.

I haven’t read Ultraviolet Grasslands yet, as I’m still waiting for the physical copy to arrive. It is described as a psychodelic metal trip across a “vast and mythic steppe filled with the detritus of time and space and fuzzy riffs.” I fully expect dungeoncrawling to be the default activity as well, but there it does seem to fit better.

You may have noticed by now that I use the term “dungeoncrawling” very loosely here. To me, it’s the general ethos of a session being made up of a series of potentially hostile encounters (and it encompasses various other ___crawls). Indeed, EBL has some discussion on adventuring in the city, making every shopping trip an adventure, mapping out its transport lines and having encounters along the way, etc. Even though, unlike SBtS and MB, the adventures are not literally happening in a dungeon, the core gameplay remains the same.

In the one session I’ve had in EBL so far, the players didn’t want to fight anyone. Not because their characters had moral objections to violence, but because they were in the middle of a (the) metropolis, and were a failed newspaper intern, a failed urchin, and a failed lecturer. They ran, bribed, were detained and waited for release, and even when presented with a clear opportunity to attack their opponent absconding with the treasure they chose to trick him instead. It was a good session! It barely used the rules.

And I know, I know, that’s how OSR operates. The rules are light and only brought out when needed. But there’s a difference between not using the rules for fighting while avoiding the fight through cunning, and not using the rules for fighting while navigating tangled streets or dealing with power-mad bureaucrats. And there’s barely any other rules! Even character growth/change covered by the rules happens when you take damage.

EBL does have a simple structure for random event tables, and you could go far on those. So why aren’t there a dozen tables to start us off for essential city activities? There are several given as an example, of them only Engaging in Bureaucracy is something players would do to actually achieve their goals in the game (as opposed to Going Carousing or Ordering “The Special” – fun distractions). Of course, I’d also want to have some codified way for players to influence these random events, not just roll a d6, and there I go designing a system that would actually do weird metropolis gaming.

Having an in-setting justification for dungeoncrawling through the streets would have helped, I think. Bastionland doesn’t seem to be an active war-zone, after all. Unfortunately, EBL paints its setting in extremely broad strokes, a technique worthy of further examination, and doesn’t elaborate beyond “the city can be dangerous.”

We don’t have to play in Bastionland itself. We could go outside into the wide world of Deep Country where presumably any OSR module would fit in with little issues, and our disinherited socialites and failed avantguardsmen (best “class” name ever) won’t fit at all. At which point… why are we playing EBL?

This may sound like I hate EBL, and dungeoncrawling, and OSR, and fun. I really don’t. EBL is a fine game that does exactly what the author set out to accomplish. Presumably it’s exactly what the audience wanted, too. At the end of the day it’s my personal problem if a game is not doing what I wanted it to do.

Maybe it’s the other way around, and this is my personal blind spot. Maybe others are happily playing these games to their fullest without feeling like dungeoncrawling is the one thing they are supposed to be doing. Then again, here’s a really cool dungeon generator for MÖRK BORG.

In all these games and undoubtedly plenty more, it feels like the authors started with the default gameplay they know and love, and built a pretty setting around it without once questioning how they fit together or whether there is some other kind of activity that would also be fun to engage in, and expect the players to do the same. I wish I could.

P.S.: now I’m curious what a non-dungeoncrawling OSR game would look like, if such a thing even exists. Any recommendations?

The Facility

The Facility is a one-shot roleplaying game written by yours truly. You can get it, PWYW, from DriveThruRPG and itch.io. Yes, that means you can get it for free, I won’t judge. It is a body horror reverse dungeon crawl metroidvania. If that word salad of a classification didn’t scare you away but didn’t quite convince you either, read on.

The core mechanic of The Facility is unique, at least as far as I’m aware. Trouble is, the gradual unveiling of this mechanic is a part of the experience for players, so I don’t want to spoil it. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a GM and aren’t afraid of spoilers, but if not, you’ve been warned.

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Heretic

Another extra advance for Spire. This one’s doesn’t really introduce a new facet to the world of Spire, but offers a different way of interacting with its many deities.

You don’t always see eye to eye with your deity. You are still their faithful servant, but there’s some dogma, some divine dictate, that doesn’t sit right with you. Every time you expressed your concern, you were rebuked and told not to question the will of god. Well, your god is wrong, and you will make them see it.

REQUIREMENT: Have an ideological falling out with your deity.

REFRESH: Convince a member of the faith you are right.

Unlike other religious spellcasters, you don’t take stress when using divine magic. Instead, you gain a bond with your deity and stress is assigned to this bond. At the deity’s whim, abilities used in its direct service do not inflict stress. To clear this stress, you perform your duties as any orthodox priest would. Like other bonds, the GM rolls for fallout at the end of each session.

MINOR – HECKLED [Divine]. At an inopportune moment during the next session you run into hecklers in the streets. You are likely to be cursed out and spat on, though they aren’t brave enough for a physical altercation. Increase the difficulty of any check by 1 while being heckled.

MODERATE – TRIAL [Divine]. Your deity puts forth a trial for you to prove your devotion. The exact nature of the trial depends entirely on the deity, though it should take at least a couple of scenes and/or a non-trivial sacrifice to resolve. While the trial is incomplete, you deity will not help you – Divine abilities tied to this god simply don’t work for you.

SEVERE – APOSTATE [Divine]. A prominent religious figure brands you an apostate. Friends within the faith turn away from you, and enemies call for your head. Suffering this fallout more than once is likely to lead to an all-out holy war against you.

ADVANCES

LOW

HERESY LOVES COMPANY. Others reach out to you in secret to express their agreement. +1 Shadow. Gain two individual-level bonds with members of the faith who share your doubts. Unlike you, they aren’t willing to brave the ire of the church by revealing their heresy. Betraying their confidence will inflict d8 stress on the bond.

THEOLOGICAL DEBATE. Even the high priests fear your wit. Gain the Compel skill. When you try to convince the audience your opponent is wrong, do so with mastery. Bear in mind that publicly humiliating a priest is bound to have unpleasant consequences.

MODERATE

A MATTER OF FAITH. [Divine] Faith is a two-way street. Once per session, promise to your deity what you’re about to do is ultimately to serve them. For the duration of the scene, your divine abilities work as normal, with you taking stress instead of your divine bond. Furthermore, the size of the stress die decreases by 1 for this scene.

HERETICAL CHURCH. Your numbers grow. You must have HERESY LOVES COMPANY to take this advance. +1 Reputation. You found a separate branch of the church. Gain street-level Bond with your congregation, made up equally of converts and newly devout. You are barely tolerated by the orthodox church.

HIGH

SCHISM. [Divine] While you haven’t entirely changed your god’s views, they at least acknowledge you have a point. You must have HERETICAL CHURCH to take this advance. You are back in the good graces of your deity, meaning your divine abilities work as before. Orthodox religion begrudgingly agrees you are not a heretic but a reformator. People unaffiliated with you pick up the changed practices all over the world. Gain a district-level Bond with the faithful.

Usherer of the World Yet to Come

Extra advances for Spire. They’re very high-concept, utterly bonkers, and I’m unreasonably pleased with them. Even if you don’t intend to play Spire, and you should, it should be easy to follow this.

The World Yet to Come is neither a god nor a demon. It doesn’t have cultists or worshippers. It has usherers. It is an impossibility, and it needs you to make it possible. It speaks to you in death and offers rebirth. The conversation you remember is an attempt to understand that which cannot yet be understood.

It looked angelic, made of feathers and glow, but only when you faced it and only when it was still. When you tilted your head even slightly, or when it shifted, you saw behind the exterior. You saw the countless jutting blades made of merciless hard light that formed the beautiful visage. You stood immobile and prayed it do the same.

What is it? You remember it saying some called it Phoenix. It certainly likes avian metaphors. It is the World Yet to Come, and you can no more comprehend it than a chick within an egg can comprehend the skies.

What does it want? You remember it saying it will be born when the World That Is dies. It wants you to be the beak that pierces the shell and ushers in the new existence. You remember it asking if it is a perfect world you live in. You know your answer.

What does it offer? Birth.

What will it cost? Death.

You don’t remember if you agreed to be the usherer of the World Yet to Come, but you do remember dying. Yet you are here, in this imperfect world. Time to break its shell.

REQUIREMENT: Die. Dream of Phoenix. Be reborn.

REFRESH: Kill someone or destroy something with eschaton (see below), excising them from the World Yet to Come.

Usherer advances and abilities give you thin branching scars, like cracks in a shell, through which the light of the World yet to Come occasionally shines. Keep track of how many scars you have. Once at any time during a session, and whenever you use IT IS NOT YET TIME or IMMANENTIZE THE ESCHATON, the GM rolls a d10. If the result is less than the number of scars you have, you suffer a special fallout. Its severity depends on the number of scars you have. This fallout doesn’t clear any of your stress or remove any scars.

MINOR – LIGHT: [Scar] Your scars light up, shining even through clothing. For the remainder of the scene it is all but impossible for you to not draw everyone’s attention.

MODERATE – BLAZE: [Scar] The light from your scars turns sharp, shredding your clothes, then hot, immolating what’s left of them. For the remainder of the scene you blaze with the fury of a future world eager to be born. You are unharmed by this flame, which is not at all true for anyone next to you.

SEVERE – GLIMPSE: [Scar] You catch a glimpse of the World Yet to Come, and someone you’re looking at right now isn’t in it. You have to do everything in your power to excise them. If you fail for any reason, e.g. they die due to other causes, you immediately suffer 1d8 Mind stress.

ADVANCES

LOW

IT IS NOT YET TIME. [Divine] Your wounds close. Your body opens. Once per scene, clear d6 Blood stress. A scar forms over the wounds you had, replacing ruined flesh with light.

MEDIUM

IMMANENTIZE THE ESCHATON. [Divine] The future murders the past by your hand. Gather its light. Hold the blade. Usher in the new world. The cracks on your body grow wider – gain another scar. With a sweep of your hand, you can gather the light shining through these cracks into a blade called eschaton. The more scars you have, the harder the light, the sharper eschaton is:

1 scar: 1d3 damage, bloodbound

2 scars: 1d3 damage, bloodbound, piercing

3 scars: 1d6 damage, bloodbound, piercing

4 scars: 1d6 damage, bloodbound, piercing, brutal

5 scars: 1d6 damage, bloodbound, devastating, brutal

6+ scars: 1d8 damage, bloodbound, devastating, brutal

Eschaton disappears as soon as you let go of it. Take note of everyone and everything you excise using it.

HIGH

IT IS TIME. [Divine] You won’t be able to contain it much longer. The World Yet to Come will be born through you. The light shines brighter. Another scar forms. At any moment, even between taking stress and rolling for fallout, you can choose to shatter in a blinding flash of light. You die. Roll a d10. If the result is greater than or equal to the number of scars you have, the World Yet to Come is yet to come. Otherwise, you are reborn, scar-free and stress-free, in the same spot in the new World That Is.

The World That Is has never had anyone or anything excised with eschaton. The whole group should work together to figure out what that means.

The World That Is is not The World Yet to Come. It is an incremental step, an egg within an egg. Can you break through the infinite cycle of death and rebirth? Will piercing the Heart of Spire with eschaton release the Phoenix from its egg? Will it turn Spire itself into an eschaton, aimed to pierce the sky shell of the world?

Spire – the game must be played

Spire, or more fully Spire: The City Must Fall is an RPG by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor of Rowan, Rook and Decard (don’t ask which one is which). In it, players are dark elves living in the namesake megapolis, their former capital taken over by high elves, or aelfir. The game is about the struggle to free the drow from the yoke of oppression, fomenting a revolution the PCs likely won’t live to see. It is my favorite RPG in a long time.

Mechanically, Spire is a curious mixture of by now traditional narrative game elements such as failing forward and success at a cost with more game-y bits like plentiful player options and swingy lethality of conflict. There’s been many attempts at marrying story games to D&D. Dungeon World faithfully recreated D&D in the Apocalypse World Engine. 13th Age took concentrated D&D and welded improv bits on the side, hoping they take root. Spire takes a different approach. It is a story game that shanked D&D in a dark alley, made a mask out of its face, then showed up to the game night pretending nothing has happened.

The core mechanics are somewhat similar to Blades in the Dark, which I reviewed recently. There’s a dice pool, made up of d10s in this case, only the highest die matters, and the results are broken into the familiar range of critical success (10), success (8-9), success at a cost (6-7), failure (2-5) and critical failure (1). You get a die in the dice pool just for showing up, plus one if you have the relevant skill, another if you have the relevant domain, and one more if you have mastery. Difficulty ranges from 0 for most tasks to 2 for the hardest, and subtracts dice from the dice pool.

Skills are what you can do, while domains are where or to whom you can do it. Domains include Academia, Occult, Crime, etc.. Mastery covers specific narrow expertise, like a knack gained by obtaining the same skill or domain twice, but also represents magical aid granted by many spells. There are a total of 9 skills and 9 domains, and a starting character gains 2 of each, plus up to 4 total of either, depending on the choices made. This leads to well defined areas of expertise as there’s no gradation of skill or domain level – you either have it or you don’t.

Spire handles failure similarly to Fate, in that it doesn’t dictate immediate consequences for every roll. Failing forward is mentioned as a good GMing practice, but not required by the rules. Instead, failure or the cost part of a success at a cost results in the character taking stress. There are a whopping five stress tracks: Blood, Mind, Silver, Reputation, and Shadow. However, compared to Spire, Fate is downright cosy when consequences do hit. In Fate, players have control over taking consequences, and can choose to concede a conflict any time before dice are rolled. In Spire, there are no easy outs and the best drow can do is hope.

Whenever a character takes stress, the GM rolls a d10 and compares the result to the sum of all stress that character now has. If the roll is lower, the character suffers fallout – accumulated abstract stress coalesces into a tangible consequence. The total amount of stress determines the severity of fallout, minor (2-4), moderate (5-8) or severe (9+), while the type of stress the character has most of determines the type of fallout – there’s a sample list of fallouts of each type and severity. This isn’t a hard rule, as the GM is free to pick a different type of fallout if it fits better, and Blood Magic mini supplement includes a list of Occult fallouts, opening the doors for even more and weirder outcomes.

Minor fallout typically goes away after a scene, moderate fallout requires some effort to get rid of, while severe fallout permanently warps or ruins the character, if not kills them outright. At least suffering fallout clears some stress: 3 for minor, 5 for moderate and 7 for severe. This leads to a peculiar situation where players want to suffer minor fallout as much as possible – it’s not too bad, and certainly beats walking around with massive stress, just waiting for an anvil to drop. Other methods of clearing stress include actually spending time engaging in an activity that would help, like aiding your neighbors to remove Reputation stress, taking time off to clear all stress while the plot advances without you, and fulfilling the refresh condition of your class: e.g. engage in reckless excess if you’re a Knight. The grander the refresh, the greater the size of the die you’ll roll to clear stress. I don’t think my players have ever rolled higher than 1, no matter what die I give them.

As you can see, stress is deadly. Thankfully, many abilities give characters free stress slots in specific tracks that can be filled as normal but don’t count when rolling for fallout. Armor works similarly, offering free Blood slots which clear at the end of each scene. Keeping track of it all can get a bit fiddly, especially as the rules suggest the GM do it by themselves, only giving players a general impression of how much trouble they’re in. There’s a webpage that can handle this, but it lacks some important features like clearing armor slots or bypassing them due to magic or weapon property. In the end, I’ve opted for the more familiar mode where players keep track of their own stress, but that’s a matter of preference.

Stress is dealt randomly, from 1 for the most trivial things to 1d8 for something like being hit with a greatsword, so an unlucky character can suffer severe fallout after just one bad roll. This would appear to be a prime example of goblin dice – high variance rolls well suited for determining the fate of goblins, but misapplied to determine the fate of heroes as well. And unlike the similarly deadly OSR games, there’s no emphasis on player skill enabling characters to avoid ever rolling the dice in the first place. And yet it works in Spire, because while the characters are certainly not inconsequential goblins, they are not fated heroes either. They are drow: beautiful, competent, brave… expendable. Their lives are volatile and unstable, much like the city they inhabit. Always one roll away from turmoil.

“This is not a kind world,” the book says in the section titles Things To Know, right after introducing the reader to the setting, and I’d recommend reading that entire page out loud at the start of the very first game. “This is going to kill you.” But also “You are going to hurt people,” and there’s a way to avoid taking stress after all – have someone else do it for you. Instead of emphasizing player skill, the system emphasizes character choice. They could walk away, trade the fight for freedom for a safer life. Instead, they choose to stand up for their people – or let them take the fall. Illustrating this, the Firebrand, a quintessential revolutionary class, can gain an ability called Untouchable which allows them to transfer Blood fallout to a non-enemy NPC present in the scene. “Whether they willingly sacrificed themselves or you managed to get behind them in time is up to you.”

That ability is not the exception – character classes positively drip with flavor. Carrion-Priests with their sacred hyenas; Azurites, priests of the god of commerce who can buy literally anything; Knights, whose quests typically involve mystic pubs; the absolutely terrifying Midwives… If I were to list all the abilities I love, I’d have to retype half the book. Even abilities that mainly give free stress slots help paint a picture, like The Secret of Lucky Breaks the Bound can take, which gives them one of each of Mind and Reputation free slots, but also means they always have a little bit of liquor in their bottle, three cigaretes in their pocket, and a dry match. Oh, yeah. Bound are vigilantes with small gods in their gear. Think Batman who chats to batarangs.

By limiting the game to the eponymous city, Spire can make every class unique. Unlike D&D that has to be as generic a heroic fantasy as possible, unlike Apocalypse World that has a vision of its genre but leaves the world undefined, Spire is unapologetically itself. Turns out, confidence is appealing. The Knight is not an archetypical knight. They are a member of an ancient Order dedicated to protecting the Docks, long since devolved into drunken thuggery, the only ones still allowed to bear a greatsword in the city. The Vermissian Sage is not an archetypical sage. They’re a student of a non-Eucledian train system running under the skin of Spire, and the best ones learn to find their way into the Glass Library in its depths where ambient information condenses into books. There I go retelling the book again.

And classes aren’t even my favorite part. No, if I had to pick, it would be the way the game handles characters stepping outside the bounds of their classes. Spire delivers on the promise of prestige classes made all the way back in D&D 3e – reflecting the character growth and the roles they take up in the world. Join an organization, a religion, a cult, a ghoulish monster living under the streets, and you get access to the extra advances they offer, simple as that. You still have to earn these advances, so there’s very little reason not to be generous with these memberships. Characters gain the associated refresh condition as well, but they have to actually fulfill it to benefit, at which point they’re doing what they’re meant to – driving the game forward. As there’s no mechanical cost for characters to gain access to these extra advances, they are free to go wherever their story takes them.

Reading endless prestige classes in D&D always felt like looking at toys in a shop: they certainly seem cool, but chances of actually playing with most of them are almost nil. And so they sat there, gathering dust behind the thick glass of mechanics. Extra advances in Spire, on the other hand, are handed out like a razor-filled bowl of candy on a Halloween night. Put your hand in, see what happens.

As a side note, I already wrote one extra advance for my game, and have plans for a few more. Stay tuned.

All this talk of advances, but how do characters actually advance? By changing Spire. The greater the change, the greater the advance – they are ranked as low, medium and high. Reflecting the central theme of revolution and its uncertainties, it doesn’t have to be a change for the better. What does it mean to change the city? How do you cause change under an oppresive regime? That’s something the group has to decide by themselves. “Subvert, don’t destroy,” another Thing To Know, warns about futility of hasty violence. Killing a drug dealer poisioning their own kind may feel good, but there’ll be a different one on the same corner tomorrow. “There’s always another level.” Change too much, stand too tall, and the aelfir will cut you down.

The rules for advancement, elegant and thematic as they are, may be too smart for their own good. The inherent contradiction of wanting easy victories while striving for lasting change may reflect hard choices revolutionaries face, but is not great for players who have to choose between fun abilities now and success later. And sometimes they simply go for sessions engaged in personal conflicts or investigating mysteries, not changing the city. Or fight to prevent some horrorific plot, preserving the status quo. With so many awesome abilities to gain, it feels like a let down to not actually gain them. Maybe we’re not thinking like revolutionaries yet. Thankfully, it’s trivial to add other advancement criteria that fit your game, or simply give out a low advance every now and then.

What of Spire itself? We’re confined to the city, so interesting classes and functional mechanics won’t save the game if the city is not worth saving. At the start, I thought this was going to be a one campaign game. We’d play through one of the adventures on offer (more on them in a bit), see most of what there’s to see in Spire, die for the revolution and that’ll be that. Then I discovered more than half of the book is dedicated to the setting. There’s a lot more to see in Spire than a few sessions would allow. And it is worth seeing!

Spire mixes horror with whimsy, violence with joy, oppression with freedom. It is built on the foundation of familiar D&D cliches, with drow, high elves, demons, gnolls, and all things fantasy, so you won’t feel lost. Yet it is undeniably its own thing: aelfir always wear masks, drow hatch from cocoons, gnolls are renowned demonologists, and demons kill everything around them in the brief moment of existence within our world. There’s always a twist, an unexpected direction, a cool combination. A rotten unreal Heart buried deep below pulses throughout Spire, suffusing it with weirdness and terror. So of course drow used its energies to run trains. It didn’t go well.

The setting description is organized by the domain. As Spire resembles a giant skyscraper, it is split into layers. Each layer has its own unique character and mostly belongs to a single domain. As characters gain an extra die while within a domain they’re proficient with, location matters a whole lot more than in most other games. We place the absolutely gorgeous maps by Tim Wilkinson Lewis in the middle of the table, and the place gains substance, feels almost real. As a side note, together with the map of Sunless Sea, the walls of my room are now covered with imagined places I’ve visited. I’m more than okay with that.

It may seem counterintuitive to base a game focused on improvisation in a detailed setting. It’s certainly opposite to the approach other improv games I’ve played take. But Spire manages to be detailed without being confining. The book, full of information as it is, is just a glimpse into the vast megapolis. It contains a multitude of ideas to be thrown at players while leaving even more space in the margins to add our own.

The written adventures the game calls campaign frames function in a similar manner, or at least Eidolon Sky, which we’re about to wrap up, does. There’s the outline of the underlying plot, the plot threads PC can stumble upon and what they’ll find out if they pull on them, and a list of NPCs and situations that can come up. What you do with this box of toys is up to you. I’ve found it a great resource for running an improv campaign, stumbling in and out of the plot, getting distracted by everything else in Spire.

Finally, presentation and art style is not something I normally cover in a game. I appreciate it, just don’t have much to say about it. And while that remains true, I feel the need to mention the stunning full-page illustrations by Adrian Stone. It is a great looking game.

Spire offers an impossible cause, and dares you to hope. It invites its players to become revolutionaries, but doesn’t dictate what that means. Will your refresh the tree of liberty with blood of patriots and tyrants, or lead a senseless and merciless revolt? One thing’s certain: Spire will be changed. The city must fall.