Now in its fourteenth year, Free RPG Day in 2021, after a little delay due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday, 16th October. 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. Of course, in 2021, Free RPG Day took place after GenCon despite it also taking place later than its traditional start of August dates, but Reviews from R’lyeh was able to gain access to the titles released on the day due to a friendly local gaming shop and both Keith Mageau and David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3 in together sourcing and providing copies of the Free RPG Day 2020 titles. Reviews from R’lyeh would like to thank all three for their help.
In 2020, the most radical release for Free RPG Day was LEVEL 1 – volume 1 2020. 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 consisted 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-shots, one use quick-starts, or adventures, LEVEL 1 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. LEVEL 1 – volume 2 2021—‘The Free RPG Day Anthology of Indie Roleplaying Games’—was made available on Free RPG Day in 2021 and once again provides some fifteen different roleplaying games of varying sizes, subject matters, and maturity in terms of tone. Once again, the volume opens with the same guidelines on safe play, consent, lines and veils, and so on, all useful reminders, especially given the subject matter for the issue, which is ‘Masks’. The issue is thus exploring questions and ideas about identity, different roles, and revelations (or unmasking).
LEVEL 1 – volume 2 2021 opens with Nat Mesnard’s ‘Ball of the Wild’, in which all of the animals shall go to the ball, but not as themselves. Instead they go as glamorous, crossdressing, speciesdressing dragged up attendees who bring all of their flamboyance and their joy as they participate in contests of dance, fashion, makeovers, lip syncing, comedy, and acting. Inspired by RuPaul’s Drag Race, this gets the anthology off to a good start with a layering of roleplaying upon roleplaying, before coming to a close with an unmasking. This is followed by ‘Once This Land Was One’. Written by Alexi Sergeant, this is a short storytelling game of cities attempting to survive following the Cataclysm and ultimately competing against each other. More timely and more in keeping with the anthology’s theme is Whitney Delaglio’s ‘Tiny Tusks’ in which half-orcs come together to talk about themselves and their families. This encourages the players to get behind the supposed perceptions of half-orcs and upfront states that the game is “…[A] self-indulgent game about being biracial.” What this means is that players can explore what for most is an unfamiliar experience through the mask of fantasy.
MV’s ‘Let’s wear masks & hide from humans’ is a vampiric game for two players. One takes the role of the City, the other the Vampire. Both are hiding behind masks—the City between night and day, the Vampire between a Human and a Vampire face. The Vampire hunts for victims to drain of the blood he needs across a city that the City player builds and is subsequently changed by the Vampire’s predations. Ultimately, this will culminate in the Vampire attempting to sneak into a Grand Ball where another immortal, vampire hunter, the city mayor, or distant family is also in attendance, and the Vampire may be unnoticed, captured, or identified, but escapes. ‘Faeries on the Run’ by Helena Real is a dark twist upon the changeling myth and the fae exchanging Human babies for their own. The players take of the roles of the changelings, each with a powerful Façade and magics of a Faerie Domain, who are hunted by the Humans who grew up in Faerie. Designed as a one-night affair of pure survival in which the Player Characters—in and out of game—taking place from dusk to dawn, this a horror game using simple mechanics in which the Player Characters must balance the sometimes need to use the powers of their Façade against the loss their human face and thus revealing their true nature and being banished back to Faerieland. Joel Salda’s ‘Heavy is the Mask’ is the second city-themed game in the collection in which unseen individuals—the Masks—who can be an Artist, Diplomat, Innkeeper, or more, work to build and shape the future of a city. From round to round, the players take control of these Masks and narrate how they attempt to solve problems and issues caused by the unclaimed Masks and created by the players in turn. This is an engaging storytelling and city-building game which could even be used to create a city’s history for another game.
‘Getting Away With It’ by Adam Bell is more complex than the previous entries and requires the use of a deck of tarot cards rather than a standard deck. It is about loosely affiliated supervillains in a long-term struggle against a league of heroes. Primarily, each villain is pursuing their own master plan, but can interact with the plans of their evil cohorts and of course, can sometimes be thwarted by a do-gooding superhero. This has plenty of scope for storytelling, but consequently requires a lot of input by the players. The complexity continues with ‘Friends on a Walk’, the contribution from Tim Hutchings, the designer of the ENnie award winning Thousand Year Old Vampire. This is a procedural game in which the players create and explore a tableau of changing scenery as several characters go on a walk. It is played silently, and that combined with the point-by-point of the way the game is presented and it feels not a little sterile. Mara Li’s ‘Restoration’ is a two-player game in which one player is Veteran returned from the Great War with an injury to his face, the other the Artist charged with creating a Mask which will restore his features. Based on the movement following the Great War to help restore damaged veterans’ faces (detailed here), this is a short game with the potential for personal intimacy and emotion as it does involve one of the player’s face. It does require a photograph and potentially some artwork too, as well as strong degree of trust.
Jonathon ‘Starshine’ Greenall’s ‘We Are The Order’ is about cultists, their rituals, and their masks. The players take the roles of Detectives undercover infiltrating The Order’s grand party with the Game Master as the Cult Order. Rituals are part of the party and so the Player Characters have to perform them even as they conduct their undercover operation. Unfortunately, the rituals have an almost brainwashing effect, turning The Order’s strongest critics into happy members, seemingly without resistance—and that means the Detectives. This is an interesting adversarial game in which first the Game Master is against the players and if one of them defects, then the player against the others. In ‘The Ascent of Todd’ by Michael Faulk, the players are faced by a terrible choice. They have travelled far to ritually destroy an ancient MASK, but their friend Todd has put it on! The players need to decide if their characters will try thwarting Todd or continue with the ritual. The powers and strength of an unthwarted Todd grow and grow, ultimately to the game ends and the ritual cannot be performed. The game comes with four pre-generated characters and can be played solo or with up to four players. This the game to play in remembrance of that one player who invariably did the most inappropriate thing at the most inappropriate time. In Josh Hittie’s ‘Death Mask’ the players take the roles of Revenants protecting Tomb City unsure of why they are bound to it and what lies beyond… As they explore Tomb City and protect it from Aberrations, they will uncover truths about it, strengthen their Reliquary or Fracture their Mask until they either become an unholy saint bound to Tomb City or their spirit is freed and they move toward the light…
‘The Chaos Café’ by Tim McCracken is about robots who think they are humans. Not just robots, but ‘Wrecks’ who and emotionally unstable and prone to giving into one single emotion, who have each set themselves three goals in life, such as ‘List out date ideas’ or ‘Work out self-doubt’, all whilst occasionally suffering from random acts of chaos. Players take it in turns to be the Game Master in this slice of silicon silliness, focusing on one Wreck with the others as possible NPCs. Lysa Penrose’s ‘Coven of Crones’ is about crones protecting the Loom of Destiny despite it having been broken and thus damaging your ability to do magic. They undertake mortal missions at any point in time and space, but their capacity to do magic is not only limited on the mortal realms, it causes chaos too! This is modelled with Spell Tokens which are flipped to become Chaos Tokens, and then back again when the Game Master uses them to cause mayhem about the crones. A balancing act is required between the two, but towards the end of the mission, the Game Master should be using and flipping more Chaos Tokens to ensure that the crones have the Spell Tokens to achieve their objective. Ultimately ‘Coven of Crones’ is about how the Player Characters succeed rather than if they will. Jack Rosetree’s ‘Skeletal Remains’ is set in world where everyone is undead and the Player Characters are skeletons attempting to fill in time when they have no objectives, but only memories. This is an interesting idea, but it is underdeveloped as it does not effectively bring the memories into play and acknowledges the lack of motivations for the characters by then offering three story ideas.
Maxwell Lander’s ‘Vis-a-Visage’ is a two-player game in which each has an opposing goal or opinion. Each character has a goal, a weakness, something that he will not compromise on, and a tell. This on the top half of the sheet, whilst his physical details and contacts are on the bottom half. This divide is because the players will swap the bottom halves of the sheets with each other. What this means is that each player will be trying to achieve a mission hindered—and sometimes even helped—by their characters looking like each. Essentially, the Player Characters Face-off until one has achieved his goal and then wants his face back to replace the mask he is currently using. The included character sheet is definitely needed to fully explain the game’s set-up. ‘Tooth or Truth’ by Dawn Metcalf is a game about building trust in which the characters answer questions truthfully—the aim of the game, or get drunk, and the drunker they get, the greater the chance of their swallowing a tooth. Presumably the tooth is in the drink, the rules are not quite clear on this. It is designed as an in-game drinking game and a means of developing and further roleplaying the Player Characters. The default is for Dungeons & Dragons, but ‘Tooth or Truth’ could be adapted to any rules or setting. It comes with twenty-five questions of increasing maturity, but it is easy to replace them. Playing this live would be another matter… Lastly, R.K. Payne’s ‘STALAG 14’ is about allied prisoners of war who have allowed themselves to be captured in order to conduct missions of sabotage, disruption, and disinformation deep inside of Nazi Germany, inspired by Hogan’s Heroes, Stalag 17, and The Great Escape. Instead of escaping, the Player Characters are using the tunnels to get out, complete their missions, and get back in. They take the roles like Medic, Fixer, Conman, Scrounger, Grunt, and Snitch and have Story Points which can be used to modify dice rolls or buy off stress. Mechanically, more dice are rolled depending upon how dramatic a scene and any doubles rolled means that a character has failed and suffered Stress. A Player Character can suffer a maximum of two Stress, whereas NPCs only one. Complete with a mission generator, ‘STALAG 14’ is intended to be a light-hearted game, more action-orientated than an accurate depiction of the war.
LEVEL 1 – volume 2 2021 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. It should be noted that the issue carries advertising, so it does have the feel of a magazine.
As with LEVEL 1 – volume 1 2020 before it, LEVEL 1 – volume 2 2021 is the richest and deepest of the releases for Free RPG Day 2021. Not every one of the fifteen games in the anthology explores its theme of masks, but for the most part, the fifteen are interesting, even challenging, and will provide good sessions of roleplaying. The standouts are ‘Ball of the Wild’ and ‘Tiny Tusks’ as these nicely explore to issue’s theme to its best. Once again, despite the variable quality of its content, of all the releases for Free RPG Day 2021, LEVEL 1 - volume 2 2021 is the title that playing groups will come back to again and again to try something new each time.
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