It’s been a long minute since my last blog post, and since one of my goals heading into the new year is to post more here, what better way to start than with the traditional spree of end of year posts! This one is all about the RPGs I’ve played during 2023.
I’m leaving playtests and sessions of my own games off the list – this one is purely games made by other companies and people. I play in two groups, sometimes as a player, sometimes as the GM. I am a bit of a magpie when it comes to RPGs, I like to read them, I like to play them, I like new systems and settings, new ideas and ways of doing things. A few years ago one of the groups I play in talked about running mini-campaigns – 5-10 sessions of one game, and then rotating games and GMs. Perfect! Surprisingly, this year I ended up playing in and running a few lengthy campaigns. Two are done (for now at least), while one is still on-going.
Phanta, by KeganExe, was one of the longest running campaigns I played in this year. A post-apocalyptic game with light rules and an engaging setting. I really enjoyed the rules set for Phanta, it’s simple and it works: roll 2D6 (3 if you are skilled), add two dice together, and check what you got. This is one of those systems where you can fail, succeed with a cost, succeed, or succeed with a bonus. I like those sorts of systems a lot, and Phanta does it well. What I particularly enjoyed about this game was the intimacy of the setting. You are part of a small community, in a world that feels large, dangerous, and both familiar and unknown.
The sense of community and intimacy in our campaign of Phanta was in equal parts due to the game system doing its job, then getting out of the way and allowing the story to happen. To the campaign we played, Lonely Souls, having been written to bring the relationships the characters develop within the communities in the game to vivid life. And to the fact that the campaign was GMed by it’s author Megs, who did a wonderful job of bringing her vision of the world of Phanta to life.
All told I like Phanta, and I think anyone running the game should do themselves a huge service by picking up Lonely Souls – it’s a great campaign!
Alien, by Free League, is almost the polar opposite of Phanta. It’s a big game, by a big company (in the TTRPG world at least), set in a famous and well established IP. We didn’t play too many games of Alien, so my opinions are limited. It’s a system I would probably like to come back to. One of the over-riding things I remember about this game was that it felt dangerous and difficult. Characters often struggle, and the dangers of fear, panic, and failure are ever present and pervasive threats. These are elements that sit perfectly within the context of the setting, and I think the game does an admirable job of bringing the world and tone of the Alien franchise to life.
All the game groups I play with play online, and for Alien we tried a new VTT: Foundry. Learning a new game, through a detailed VTT like Foundry was almost too much, and I felt that engaging with the OS was often pulling me out of the experience of the game itself. This is no negative comment on our excellent Alien GM, who managed to express the horror and palpable danger of the setting well, but just part and parcel of learning something new. A massive hats off to our GM for this – well done navigating a detailed VTT with a new game Will! I think revisiting Alien with or without Foundry would be interesting. On the whole I enjoyed the game, but I’m not sure I’d like to play a long term campaign using the system.
I’m not a huge fan of horror if I’m being honest; zombies, vampires, cosmic horror, I don’t usually find these sort of settings particularly interesting. I’m more than happy that other people love them of course, they’re just not my cup of tea. Imagine my surprise when I found myself actually enjoying Vampire, I mean, my character (an erstwhile musician called Note) still tries to be the good guy, and only reluctantly engages in the darker elements of Vampire-hood (it’s the reluctance that counts right?). But no. I actually enjoyed this game. Vampire has been around for many years, and 5th edition is, I’ve found, a lot of fun. Roll a pool of D10s and count the successes, hunger swaps skill dice for hunger dice, and too many 10s on those is never a good thing. The system is tried and true, and it works well.
With all of that said, a huge part of my enjoyment of Vampire stems from our GM – who has created a whole ‘current era’ Vampire setting in Melbourne, with all the factions and power players vying for position and prestige. This has been our second venture into Vampiric Melbourne, and it was a lot of fun. Vampire was also the second of our longer running campaigns for 2023. Normally I like to swap games and characters, try new and different things, but I know that when we revisit the Baron of St Kilda, I’ll be happy to be playing Note again. Hats off Rino, hats off… When we return Note’s Keytar will be ready.
‘Die alone in space’ seems to be the refrain that guides Mothership. I’ve already established I’m not a huge fan of horror, but this game is well thought out. I prefer systems where the characters feel more capable, but I appreciate the design decisions that have gone into Mothership – and what I like more than capable characters, are games that pick a lane and lean into it. Mothership does this in spades – it’s a game that knows what it wants to be, and the game system is thoughtfully geared toward enabling that sort of play. I like that a lot.
Mothership is a percentile based system, and the game is engineered so that you have a reasonable chance of success at those things your character is trained in, but fairly low chance of success at everything else – it fits the vibe of the game very well. The current game of Mothership I’m playing in is my second foray into the system, and I am enjoying it. Here’s to unlikely but hopelessly optimistic goal of surviving a few more sessions!
I love the setting of The Expanse, a gritty sci-fi world of warring factions in our own solar system. It’s great! This is the game I am currently GMing, and I’m enjoying it quite a lot. Roll 3D6 – one of them is a ‘Stunt’ die – if the total plus your ability is equal to or higher than the difficulty you succeed. If any are doubles and you succeed, you get stunt points equal to the number on the stunt die to spend on extra cools things.
The system works well, though I find it a curious mix of light and heavy. Light in that there are areas that the system chooses to deal with without going into a lot of detail (weapons and equipment for example), and heavy in that there are areas where the system chooses to add detail (operating in different gravities, stunts, investigations, and relationships for example). It’s a curious mix because it feels like a light system, but one where the designers have chosen to dig a bit deeper on the areas they feel accentuate the setting.
On the whole I am enjoying the Expanse. I like the stunt system, but there are a lot of stunts to choose from when you do get stunt points, and they can often feel quite situation specific. I’m not sure whether I would prefer a lighter approach to stunts – something like the way advantage works in Fantasy Flights Star Wars series of games – but it is a neat system. I imagine with more play the players will get to know the stunts available, and particularly the ones they like to use, and that might make the system feel a bit smoother.
One thing I’ve come up against with the Expanse is that the setting – one in which the characters can spend quite a bit of time on board space ships – can feel a little rail-roady. Unless the ship is operated by the characters, they are bound wherever the ship is headed, and they can’t really get off if they don’t like it. It’s thematic, for sure, and it is probably an issue that rises from the way I have run the games so far and the adventures we have played; something worth considering. Still, it’s been good fun!
I wrote above that all the games I’ve played this year have been online. We’ve used Roll20, Foundry, Google Docs, and voice chat over Discord with real dice rolled on our own respective tables. I’ve enjoyed trying some different platforms this year, but my key take-away has been that whatever platform we use, I tend to prefer something light – some art or a map to set the scene, but eschewing too many tokens and too much tracking – it starts to feel a little like a video game at that point, and not my thing. This probably reflects the sort of game systems I tend to like as well…
Aside from some one-shots and sessions/mini-campaigns of games I have written or are developing, these are the games I have played in and run in 2023. Some big rule books and detailed settings, and some smaller games with lighter systems and more tightly focused settings. It’s been a good year: a mix of shorter mini-campaigns of 5-10 sessions, and longer 20+ session campaigns. There aren’t any games I would say that I would rather not have played. Moving into 2024 I’ll be continuing to run The Expanse, and continuing to play Mothership. What else awaits in the new year, well, only time will tell!