Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Monday, 15 August 2022

[Free RPG Day 2022] LEVEL 1 – volume 3 2022

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 GamesLevel 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 games presented in the pages of LEVEL 1 – volume 1 2020 and its sequel, LEVEL 1 – volume 2 2021, which was published for Free RPG Day 2021, but for any roleplaying game,

LEVEL 1 – volume 3 2022‘The Free RPG Day Anthology of Indie Roleplaying Games’was made available on Free RPG Day in 2022 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 ‘myths and legends’. The issue is thus about forging great tales that will live through the ages and remembered long—or not—after the the protagonists have died.

LEVEL 1 – volume 3 2022 opens with Gabrielle Rabinowitz’s ‘The Victor’s Tale’. In this roleplaying game, great heroes face off against mythical monsters, like Beowulf versus Grendel or Hercules versus Lernaean Hydra. Their tales are well known, but what if the monsters had won? What form would their tale take? Designed for two to eight players, but really working best with two, since the game works around confrontations between the ‘Monstrous Hero’ and the ‘Heroic Monster’. It is a simple dice game in which it is possible to steal dice from each other, gain divine favour or even great luck, the aim being to reduce either the might or the will of the opponent. Both winner and loser narrate the result of each bout, but ultimately, the winner of the whole confrontation narrates the final outcome, and the loser’s narration is lost. This is a effective twist upon who is the hero and who is the monster, exploring the concept of the victor writing the history.

If ‘The Victor’s Tale’ gets the anthology off to a good start, it stutters with ‘Battle of the Bards’ by Dustin Winter. The problem with this song-writing game is that the mechanic for determining who wins the actual Battle of the Bands is a simple die roll to see who rolls the highest. It undermines all of the effort made by the players to each create a bard, decide on their bard’s look and musical style, and then randomly determine the length and theme of their entry song. If instead the game is about creating and performing songs, then why have the ‘battle’ aspect to it all? Consequently, ‘Battle of the Bands’ feels half-finished and unpolished.

‘sunlight… a feverdream for an unwilling god and a devoted saint’ by quinn b. rodriguez is an exercise in dialogue about the relationship between a reluctant god and a fervent devotee. Thus, it is more a series of prompts rather than mechanics, but they are effective and the format could easily be adapted to other genres. For example, between Doctor Who and one of Companions. ‘Judas, a dinner party’ is a dinner parlor inspired by the Last Supper and is intended to be played by a large group at a dinner party with multiple courses, with one player as the Host and the other as guests. Designed by Loretta Brady, Skylar Bottcher, Gianna Cormier, Glenn Given, and Samantha Sinacori, the aim is for the Host and another player, known as the Queen of Hearts, to be sat together at the end of the meal, whilst everyone wants to prevent this. Of course, everyone knows who the Host is, but only the Host and the Queen of Hearts know who holds that role. Then between each course, the Host asks two guests to exchange places and the guests altogether agree upon two guests to exchange places. The result is a hidden identity, semi-hidden movement game. Although there are notes on hosting and suggested courses, the game neither matches the anthology’s theme nor is necessarily all that interesting, and what marks this as being different to other hidden identity is the dinner party. The question is, do you need a parlor game with your multi-course meal or a multi-course meal with your parlor game? Especially when the hobby is saturated with hidden identity games?

In comparison, Steffie de Vaan’s ‘Wights’ is focused and sees Wights, descendants of the ancient Wight Wives, who are the downtrodden and the demonised of today’s society, who form a coven to protect themselves and others against the worst of society and its injustices, as well as the supernatural. It is a game of protecting minorities of all kinds, whether through Race, gender, or sexuality, and whether they are facing a band of transphobic thugs or their leader who turns out to be a minor demon, the Wights have the advantage in that they can perform supernatural feats by night. Although more a traditional design, this is a light, but engagingly driven roleplaying game about both activism and protecting communities even by those who would normally be persecuted.

Graham Gentz’s ‘Old Gods of Media’ picks up the anthology’s theme to greater effect, in the players take the roles of gods whose lifespans may last ages or just an age. They are gods of ideas that reach to every man and woman and child, perhaps to find a place, perhaps not. They may be a ‘Cartoon Caregiver Who Wants to be Real’ or a ‘Terrifying Ruler Who Teaches’, whose Brand Awareness will fluctuate over the span of time and it is this that they will track as they attempt to gain cult status. Over time, they will adapt to the prevailing media forms, and this itself is where the roleplaying game becomes interesting in this storytelling game.

‘One Night at Bain House’ by Monica Valentinelli is another one-night affair, but a more interesting and playable game than the earlier ‘Judas, a dinner party’. The Player Characters are guests at a surprise costume ball, which turns out to be the revenge of monsters tired of being hunted. They turn the Player Characters into monsters, but which? Their aim is to determine which monster they are, exploring the house to reveal further secrets, expose invisible threats which plague all of them, and eventually find the cure. The game is diceless, so can be played anywhere with the losers of any actions temporarily taking over the role of Game Master to handle threats. It is also intended to be flexible, so it could be a co-operative game or an adversarial one, and so on. Overall, one of the more detailed and explained designs in the anthology. 

‘Maenads: A Savage Sisters Sheathe’ by Adriel Lee Wilson is an option for the Savage Sisters roleplaying game. The Maenads are actors, acrobats, singers, and performers of daring feats who travel the land performing and entertaining, whilst also ferreting out secret injustices which they put right. This puts a colourful spin upon ‘Savage Sisters: Heroic Women Against a Barbaric World’, which can be found in the pages of LEVEL 1 - volume 1 2020. ‘Vessel’ is another two-player game. Designed by Kyle Ott and Desks and Dorks, one player takes the role of the Vessel, perhaps a family figure or a reformed criminal, whilst the other is the occupying Entity, an Alien Implant or Eldritch Parasite. They take turns being the Game Master as the other attempts to achieve a goal, so the game swings from the ordinary to the outré and back again. Throughout, both will be forced to evaluate the other and the relationship they have with each other. The result is that they create two entwined stories in an odd, almost sitcom-like buddy movie. 

Naturally, ‘Gods of Rock’ by Patrick Watson & Nat Mesnard of Oat & Noodle Studios turns up the sound to eleven in a post-apocalyptic confrontation between two classic rock (music) gods who have been friends and enemies forever. The confrontation switches between duel and performance and back again, in far more effective fashion then the earlier ‘Battle of the Bands’. Dare Hickman’s ‘The Slate: A Game of Creation and Destruction’ is a storytelling game of creation of a world, populating it, filling it with life, destroying it, and so on. It is a short, one session game which progresses to a Final Judgement, an enjoyably sweet exercise in creation and destruction. It is difficult to describe ‘The Stars Were Many’ as a game exactly. V. R. Collins’ design is a solo game in which the player races to save the falling stars from their constellation. It is all done to a time limit in which the player draws cards to plot the movement of his stars to get them into alignment once again. It can be best described as more timed puzzle than a game.

Alexi Sargeant’s ‘To Wield the Blade of Ages’ has an enjoyably mythic quality. The players take the roles of Claimants to the Blade of Ages, come before the Swordkeeper to state their case as to why they should wield it next, as well working to undermine the claims of their rivals. Each Claimant will extoll his virtues and his glories, whilst also having to explaining the other claimants’ reports of your poor conduct and actions. The Swordkeeper will interview the claimants in turn, handing out Merit and Dishonour dice as he sees fit. These will eventually rolled, with the results from the Dishonour dice cancelling out those from the Merit dice, and the Claimant with the highest result not only being awarded the Blade of Ages, but also allowed to influence narration of how the other Claimants are remembered. This is an engaging game of competitive storytelling with the Swordkeeper also pushing back at the Claimants’ tales of their heroics and should prove entertaining to play.

Lastly, Jim Dagg’s ‘Insubordinate’ bills itself as “An antifascist science fantasy RPG inspired by Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and XIII.” Consequently, it pretty much wears that influence on its sleeve (or is that in its spikey hair and extraordinarily large blade?), so it is very easy to buy into the set-up and genre if you know the inspiration. The players take the roles of resistance fighters standing up against the all-powerful Dominion, which has decided to subvert, control, and leverage an Ancient Power to gain its power over the world. The players get to design characters using different battle styles, black elemental or sabotage spells, white protective spells, and techniques which include practical skills and tricks. The game is played as a series of missions, broken down in acts representing different hurdles the Player Characters have to overcome or defeat or avoid. ‘Insubordinate’ lends itself to campaign play and really should have the players humming the victory music at the end of every battle.

LEVEL 1 – volume 3 2022 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 most of it is easy to grasp. It should be noted that the issue carries advertising, so it does have the feel of a magazine.

As with previous issues, LEVEL 1 – volume 3 2022 is the richest and deepest of the releases for Free RPG Day 2022. Not every one of the fifteen games in the anthology explores its theme of ‘myths and legends’, but for the most part, the fifteen are interesting, even challenging, and will provide good sessions of roleplaying. Some though are not interesting or even playable as a game, but the good outweighs the bad—or the uninteresting. Once again, despite the variable quality of its content, of all the releases for Free RPG Day 2022, LEVEL 1 - volume 3 2023 is the title that playing groups will come back to again and again to try something new each time.

No comments:

Post a Comment