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Saturday 26 September 2020

[Free RPG Day 2020] LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020

Now in its thirteenth year, Free RPG Day in 2020, after a little delay due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday, 25th July. As per usual, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases, which traditionally would have been tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Again, global events meant that Gen Con itself was not only delayed, but run as a virtual event, and likewise, global events meant that Reviews from R’lyeh could not gain access to the titles released on the day as no friendly local gaming shop was participating nearby. Fortunately, has been able to gain copies of many of the titles released on the day, and so can review them as is the usual practice. To that end, Reviews from R’lyeh wants to thank both Keith Mageau and David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3 [https://www.fanboy3.co.uk/] in sourcing and providing copies of the Free RPG Day 2020 titles.

LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020 is a little different. Published by 9th Level Games, Level 1 is an annual RPG anthology series of ‘Independent Roleplaying Games’ specifically released for Free RPG Day. LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020 is a collection of fifteen featuring role-playing games, standalone adventures, two-hundred-word Roleplaying Games, One Page Dungeons, and more! Where the other offerings for Free RPG Day 2020—or any other Free RPG Day—provide one-shot, one use quick-starts or adventures, 
LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020 is something that can be dipped into multiple times, in some cases its contents can played once, twice, or more—even in the space of a single evening! The subject matters for these entries ranges from the adult to the weird and back again, but what they have in common is that they are non-commercial in nature and they often tell stories in non-commercial fashion compared to the other offerings for Free RPG Day 2020. The other differences are that Level 1 includes notes on audience—from Kid Friendly to Mature Adults, and tone—from Action and Cozy to Serious and Strange. Many of the games ask questions of the players and possess an internalised nature—more ‘How do I feel?’ than ‘I stride forth and do *this*’, and for some players, this may be uncomfortable or simply too different from traditional roleplaying games. So the anthology includes ‘Be Safe, Have fun’, a set of tools and terms for ensuring that everyone can play within their comfort zone. It is a good essay and useful not just for the fifteen or so games in LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020.

The difference in LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020 is that it carries advertising. This advertising is from its sponsors, but it gives Level 1 an old-style magazine feel.

Level 1 opens with the odd. Kira Magrann’s ‘Moose Trip: a game about moose who eat psychedelic mushrooms’. It turns out that as part of their idyllic life in the human-occupied wilds of Montana, Moose actually eat psychedelic mushrooms to get high. Which is what they do in this game and then they engage in relaxed conversation about how they feel and their emotions. It includes twenty different ‘Mushroom Feelings’ and offers a short but relaxed, reflective game.

Density Media’s ‘A Clan of Two: A two-person storytelling game’ is inspired by Shogun Assassin or Lone Wolf and Cub. Whether as an assassin and his son on the run from the Shogun or a bounty hunter protecting his bounty rather than taking him in—see Midnight Run, one player takes the role of the protagonist, a warrior without peer who will adhere to a code. This might the code of Bushido, code of chivalry, and so on, but he will have broken part of the code and gone on the run. The other player takes the role of both Game Master and seer, that is, the baby of the baby cart assassin or the bounty hunter’s quarry, as well of the world around them. He will both roleplay this character and the world. ‘A Clan of two’ uses a table of descriptors and prompts derived from the I Ching to push the story along and to see how the world reacts to the protagonist’s actions. This gives a nice balance between player agency and setting, the player able to roleplay free of rolling dice, whilst the Game Master can focus on the setting and interpreting the results, but together telling a story.

Designed for one player and no Game Master, ‘Dice Friends’ by Tim Hutchings is a one-page game in which stories are built around dice to represent characters and their lives and adventures. Mechanically very simple, there is no genre or setting to this game and beyond some dice dying and some dice leaving, there is little in the way of prompts in the game. Its brevity means that the players need to have strong buy-in to the game and will need to work hard create the world in which the dice/characters live and leave or live and die. The lack of a hook and the need to build the whole world means that despite it being easy to pick up and play, ‘Dice Friends’ may well be too daunting for some.

‘After Ragnarök’ by Cameron Parkinson and Tyler Omichinski, is a post-life, post-apocalyptic roleplaying game of Viking adventure and legends! The player take the role of the Einherjar, the great heroes destined to feast and drink in Vahalla until Ragnarök. That day has come and gone, and with the Gods dead, the Einherjar remain, but with Valhalla decaying, they decide to set out and adventure for the great drinking halls which are still said to exist. This is a roleplaying game in which the Player Characters start out as great heroes with Legends that they create, but as they face Jotun, the great hounds of Hel, and worse, they will fall in battle. However, when they die, there is a chance that their ‘Legends’ will ‘Fade’ and so lose their legendary capabilities. This is much more of traditional roleplaying game, a heroic game of fighting against the dying of the light—that is, the dying of the Player Characters’ light.

Oat & Noodle’s ‘Sojurn’ is a second one-page game for one player and no Game Master. This idea is that the players are leaving on a journey and take three objects with them, such as a mask, an imp, and a key, and when they return from the journey, something has changed. This is another one-player game in which the player is prompted to tell a story, but with actual prompts and an implicit genre, is much less daunting than the earlier ‘Dice Friends’. ‘Breaking Spirals: A single-player RPG inspired by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy’ by Cameron and Colin Kyle is also for one player and no Game Master, but is more complex in that it presents a reflective, self-help game as a tool for active meditation and perspective. To be honest, it is more exercise than game, for although steps can be taken and there can be a sense of achievement in going through the process, there is no sense of winning in traditional way or of a story told. Not that there necessarily has to be either, but the lack either makes it an exercise rather than something to be played.  

‘Bird Trek: A game about raptors in space’ by Maarten Gilberts & Steffie de Vaan is a co-operative game of sentient raptor birds in space who as a flock to steal things, but must make its annual migration from Caldera to Frigia via several moons. Many of these moons are strange and growing stranger every year, making the migration more difficult and increasing the likelihood of the flock’s hunger and exhaustion grow. This is a storytelling game about survival and loss as well as exploration and just as well could have been set between Africa and Europe as it could outer space.

In Graham Gentz’s ‘In the Tank: Roleplaying the life of an Algae Colony in a Tank’, the players take on the role of aspects of algae living in a tank. Individually they control aspects such as width, cell, green, and so on, but together they control it collectively. Their aim is achieve sentience and to avoid death, but from Moment to Moment, they must respond to complications, problems and stimulations from inside the tank and outside the tank—the latter often at the hand of ‘The Dave’. Exactly what ‘The Dave’ is, is up for speculation—tank owner, laboratory technician?—but the Dave Master creates the Complication and the Algae responds to it. Successfully overcome a Complication and the Algae moves closer to sentience, the player with the successful means of overcoming the Complication becoming the new ‘Dave Master’. As a game, ‘In the Tank’ is likely to escalate into sentience and success, or spiral into death and disaster, the point being that either result is acceptable, and it is the story told along the way that matters.

‘Love is Stored in the Elbow’ by Corinne Taylor is a single-character, multi-player in they explore the relationship between emotions, memory, and physical touch. It includes solid guidelines as which parts of the body and what emotions the players do not want to include in their game, and after randomly assigning the agreed upon emotions to the accepted parts of the body, take it in turns to narrate a memory involving an emotion and its connected body part. This can build on, but not negate previous memories, but once done, the players will have created a lifetime’s worth of memory. Potentially silly, potentially adult in nature, this is a nicely done story told through a life.

Midsummer Meinberg’s ‘Graveyard Shift’ is a three-player game about the alienation of working late at night for minimum wage. It explores poverty, family obligation, dead-end jobs, loneliness and alienation, and also drug use as self-medication—so it involves obviously adult themes. The players take the role of the worker, his family, and three customers on a single night and face the drudgery and complication that this brings. There is some excellent roleplaying potential in this situation as the Worker is ground down by his situation and the humiliation he suffers in dealing with difficult customers and the demands of his family all the whilst want to quit.

The fourth one-page game is ‘At Least We Have Tonight’ by Matthew Orr and it again suffers from needing a strong buy-in by the players. Up to eight of them roleplaying slaves aboard a Roman trireme, who at the end of the day recount its events—the moments which broke the toil, such as the song we sang or an injury suffered, what their life was before ship and what ambitions they harbour for life after—if any. It is all quite dispiriting and will either fall flat because of the lack of engagement or descend into melancholy if the players do develop something from the prompts given.

‘Bad Decisions’ by Scott Slater, Michael Faulk, and Jeff Mitchell is a horror game about those moments when a character does something foolish—go into the basement alone, pick up hitchhikers, read the wrong book, et cetera. It is played in two phases. In the first phase, the players take it in turns to narrate the story, pushing the characters into situations where bad decisions can be made, and then rolling to see if they narrate the terrible outcome. In phase one, the results are mild injuries only, but in phase, the story escalates and the players bluff against each other to see which of them survives. The outcomes of the bad decisions in this phase are always fatal as the monster is revealed and chases the characters through the woods. Death is also sudden, nasty, and foolish. Slightly fiddley in its use of the dice, ‘Bad Decisions’ has a wealth of genre conventions to draw from.

Ty Oden’s ‘Hellevator’ is design for a large group whose characters are stuck in a cursed elevator with a devil. The devil seeks to kill or convert everyone in the elevator, whilst the humans must identify and eliminate the devil in order to avoid being corrupted or killed—and so escape. Fortunately, the devil can only use his infernal powers in the darkness. Essentially, this is a LARP, a variant of Murder in the Dark or Mafia or The Resistance played in a six-foot by six-foot space, the Devil player eliminating players in the darkness with a firm touch on the shoulder, the survivors denouncing the devil—or human, if wrong—in the light. The game is obvious into its inspiration, but more interesting in its optional devils which add variants. Another issue of course is that the players have to be happy with playing in the confined space, if only simulated.

‘Mesopotamians:  A little game about undead warrior kings making it big as a rock and roll band’ by Nick Wedig is a bonkers set-up, but undead ancient kings on a tour is not an unenticing one. As their tour progresses, it must deal with concerns like money and fame, but at every town face other issues such as why the townsfolk dislike them, what criminal plot do they accidentally get involved in, or what they are squabbling about in UTTRATU, the Econoline Van that is their tour vehicle? The aim here is to increase value of the Concerns and so win, and this is done by rolling dice at Crisis Points, aiming to find a dice with results of eight or more. As much as this is a great concept, the rules are not very explained and it could have done with an example of how to handle a Crisis point.

The last game in LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020 is ‘Savage Sisters: Heroic Women Against a Barbaric World’ by Adriel Lee Wilson with Chris O’Neill. Inspired by Xena Warrior Princess, the Player Characters in ‘Savage Sisters’ forma Sodal, a group of powerful, female warriors. Together the player define the rules of the Sodal and each define their Savage Sister. During play, the players take turns as the GM—the Grandmother—to relate tale as they sit around the fire on eve of a great event, such as a battle or a birth or a wedding. When faced with a difficult challenge, a Savage Sister’s player rolls her die to match one of the numbers listed for the test—which can be a books, boots, blades, or bones test. If the Savage Sister succeeds, then she maintains control of the narrative, otherwise the Grandmother takes control. Ultimately, the Soldal is doing two things. One is facing tests to try to improve its destiny—represented by a pool of tokens. If there are three or more tokens in the pool, all test rolls are made at advantage, otherwise the Sodal is suffering despair and Savage Sisters roll at disadvantage. The other is to tell tales whose subject matters and details are determined before the game starts by answering a few questions and then randomly assigned to the players. It could have been better organised and the set-up clearer, but ‘Savage Sisters: Heroic Women Against a Barbaric World’ is probably the most open ended of the games in LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020 and is worth revisiting again.

LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020 is a slim, digest-sized book. Although it needs an edit in places, the book is well presented, and reasonably illustrated. In general, it is an easy read, and everything is easy to grasp.

LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020 is the richest and deepest of the releases for Free RPG Day 2020. There is something for everyone here, from postapocalyptic warriors to midnight shift workers, and any one of the games in the anthology will provide a good session’s worth of play. Not all of the games are of the same quality though with perhaps the best and the most interesting being ‘A Clan of Two: A two-person storytelling game’, ‘After Ragnarök’, and ‘Graveyard Shift’ with ‘Mesopotamians:  A little game about undead warrior kings making it big as a rock and roll band’ being something that needs a bit more development. Despite the variable quality of its content, of all the releases for Free RPG Day 2020, LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020 is the title that playing groups will come back to again and again to try something new each time.

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