Monday, September 18, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XVIII: Electric Bastionland

Electric Bastionland - Deeper into the Odd

$19 in PDF on 

$60 in print+PDF on Exalted Funeral

I actually found Electric Bastionland before I snagged Into the Odd. Chronologically this is a sequel to the latter, with Electric Bastionland taking place roughly a century or so after Into the Odd, moving the technomantic steampunk era of Bastion to the electric age. Despite the book's large size, it's probably only maybe twice the word count of its prequel; the game is heavy on illustrative art, a black-and-white minimalist design that is at once evocative and well-done, without being too abstract. The tonal consistency of the tome is welcome.  

The System: It's the same core mechanical design as Into the Odd, which is a system that appears now in quite a few other games. This system is defined over six pages which includes to pages of examples. For a refresher, you roll three stats (strength, dexterity and charisma in this case) on 3D6, then hit protection (HP) on a D6, some cash and equipment in hand, and then a failed career (about which more in a moment). When you roll to succeed (a save), its roll low with modifiers. When you fight, you go right to rolling damage and applying against hit protection. When that is gone, it goes to stats and bad things are immediately likely to happen if you fail a save. Very basic system, the same one in many other zine rpgs (Into the Odd, Liminal Horror, Old Skull Publishing's trilogy of RPGs, etc.)

The main variation in the character generation is rolling a failed career. This is similar to a profession or background as in other variations on the system, but your choice is based on looking at a chart and comparing your highest stat to your lowest yeah, players who want to choose what they play are out of luck here without spending a nontrivial time rolling up new stats to get just what they want. (Yeah, I have a player like that lol). In addition to your low and high stats determining failed career, your D6 in cash and your HP roll determine other details.

The failed careers are just that: something your PC is or did and of course wasn't so good at for various reasons. Each entry provides a visual reference and four distinct items to jot down on your character sheet, one for special equipment, your debt source, and then two variable details based on your starting cash and hit points. It's very important to note that most of the book is failed careers: 220 pages, to be exact! In a sense, much as with Troika! before, Electric Bastionland informs you of a lot of its flavor through this inexact process. Unlike Troika!, EB provides an additional 95 pages of guidance and setting material for the GM (called the conductor here) it's not all purely in descriptions. Also, unlike the other game, EB's careers have a greater level of consistency for the setting; in other words, there is most definitely a setting here, and it has its own internal logic to follow.

Some examples of EB characters for you to consider, noting that these are 100% random, and names are from the suggested choices by career:

#1 Pearl; Starting Stats: STR 10 DEX 13 CHA 11 HP 4 Cash 2 - Rural Tax Collector. Has a taxman's pistol. What did the tax office provide you with? An ornate baton. What do you hate most about Bastion? Bureaucracy - you have a portable shredder.

#2 Bushka; STR 10 DEX 9 CHA 8 HP 3 Cash 2 - Professional Gambler, who owns a slug gun and a pack of gum. What's Your Game? - one-car bluff, take a pocket full of tiny mirrors that stick to any surface. What did you win? - Anti-Matter Key, when placed in a keyhole it utterly annihilates the door and itself.

#3 Risper; STR 14 DEX 14 CHA 6 HP 4 Cash 6 - Urbalist (you're both into herbs and urban stuff, I think), a saber and three doses of hallucinogenic herbs. What do the walls tell you when you're herbed up? You can put some fragments of the wall into your ear to know a trivial fact about a being (if any) that calls this place home. What do the floors tell you when you're herbed up? You spit on the floor to learn the name of the person who thinks they are in charge.

So yeah....that's a modest sample of what characters can look like in EB. One item I left out is the debt. Each group starts 10K in debt to some group of individual. Each career has a source of this debt, but the determining factor as to who that debt belongs to is based on who the youngest player at the table is. 

There are a lot of interesting failed careers, and seeing any of them will be down to the fickle nature of the dice. The careers strongly suggest that Electric Bastionland is very much a cyberpunk game, just with less cyber (sometimes) and more of that electric part. It's what a steampunk world might one day look like with the onward march of science. we shall discuss below, this is the direct sequel to Into the Odd, which means there's a lot more going on in this strange world to inform it, too.

The Setting: Bastion is the future of the same city from Into the Odd, now much advanced and with at least a century (or more) since its predecessor. Where Into the Odd evoked a quaint sense of victorianism and rugged exploration of an unknown world and the underground, the Bastion of EB is a dystopian, sprawling nightmare and the book conveys this by primarily giving tools and instructions on how to design your own city. It covers Bastion, the world outside called the Deep Country, the world below (underground) and then the mystery of the Living Stars. 

Before getting to the setting I should mention that the conductor's section provides a complete set of rules to build a scenario, including a macguffin for the PCs to pursue and a range of  ideas on setting up encounters, events, threats and choices for the group to make. It's only a few pages but its some incredibly brilliant stuff, worth reading for anyone who would like to see an elegant process outlined for a GM to use for any system, not just this one.

Similar to the Conductor section, each region overview provides a range of charts, ideas and concept points to use in building your own take on Bastion, the Deep Country and the Underground. Notably absent from this book is something from Into the Odd, which includes a bewildering array of artifacts you can find; here it is mainly a discussion on setting the treasure for your group with a chart of six examples.

The Inhabitants of Bastionland comprise entries on the people of Bastion, things called Mockeries (animated stuff given life by the technomancy of the city), Machines, which manage the underground and may or may not be the instigators behind the ever changing city, then the Aliens, which appear to visit with enough frequency not to be seen as extremely unusual, even though they are. Finally there are the Monstrosities, creatures made not born and ultimately too destructive or threatening not to have to resort to lethal force to exterminate. The rules for each group here is primarily providing guidance on making your own unique types of each group, rather than giving you a concrete stat block.  

The last 40 or so pages of the book are the Oddendum, which contain optional rules, a lot of discussion by the designer Chris Mcdowall on how he runs games and feels they should be run, and a number of sections on example content for specific campaign ideas. This is really interesting reading because Chris has some interesting takes on game design and running games. His one page on Big Impact is especially interesting reading, as it argues that allowing PCs to make a save against a risky effect simply diminishes the impact of the effect. I can't argue with this logic; I just ran my Saturday night D&D game and yeah, it's easy to see monsters once known for being tough opponents cave like a house of cards in the 5th edition system due to the fact that saves are mainly an efficient way for PCs to (usually) sidestep consequence. In a nutshell, the Big Impact argument as framed here is that saves get in the way of the interesting stuff, and the interesting stuff is where consequences and decisions come from. So don't have a "save to resist becoming a fish-man" effect...just have the PC turn in to a fish-man. The logic extends to other player-driven actions, as well: its about impact and consequence. I can see some counterpoints to it, but I can deeply empathize with the core conceit, which is that sometimes bad things really should happen, because the results make the game more interesting.

The Supplements: I don't know of any supplements for it, but EB is part of a subgenre of games powered by the same system, so the cross-compatibility exists. It is by far the most robust of the games within this niche, so consider that. You won't run EB right away, for example; it's going to require a bit of time to sit down and assimilate all this info and design a scenario.  There is also a blog out there (located here) which you may be able to scour for more ideas and content.

Who is this for? Electric Bastionland is an interesting experiment and pushes the indie/zine rpg format into a more mainstream product, at least on the surface. Underneath it is loaded with interesting ideas and useful tools which, even if they don't directly translate to the game or genre you want to use them for, will still inspire you toward thinking about new ways to approach setting and scenario design. I think this game could prove to be fun to play for a lengthy campaign or three with the right group, and a GM who could craft the sometimes specific and other times vague elements of Electric Bastionland into a more concrete setting of their own. It definitely provides plenty of basis for inspiration, and I suspect that playing in the campaign of the author is probably an amazing experience. So yeah....get this if you want to see something that manages to be neat looking, artsy, functional and innovative all at the same time, even if you only use it as a springboard for inspiration in your own preferred setting or ruleset.   

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XVII: Troika! RPG

Troika! RPG (Melsonian Arts Council)

$30 at Exalted Funeral

I've gotten behind in September. Time to catch up!

What it is: Troika! is a reimagining of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy game system (the one made for tabletop multiplayer gaming, rather than the solo game books). It's not only a restatement of that game system's mechanics, but a completely new envisioning of the game world, now represented as a bizarre space-fantasy with what are arguably no limits in terms of its scope of imagination. In reality, there are some limits....unless you are deeply into the "yes, and" level of improv which is so heavily catered to by many of these indie zine rpgs. Troika! is also fueled by an exotic art style that evokes turn-of-the-century (19th century) art conventions in books such as Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz, eschewing any more conventional style of gaming for this fairly unique, surrealist style. 

The System: Troika! is at its core AFF and anyone who knows AFF will feel at least somewhat comfortable here. What's interesting about Troika! discussion online is people complaining about the roll under system and other basic elements of the game such as initial random stat generation, which are completely logical elements on an OSR style game system that is not D&D derived, but still very much a traditional style of play....the many critics (including those who "like the system, but...") try to find equitable workarounds for non random stats or roll under vs. contested roll-high mechanics. I am not sure why this is an issue for so many, other than that the Troika! edition of these rules is essentially a very traditional old-school approach wrapped in the sheepskin of an artsy improv RPG aimed at high-concept, imaginative tale-telling as opposed to the original purpose of AFF, which is gritty solo dungeon delves without too much book-keeping.

What Troika! does strangely is initiative. Without looking back in my copies of AFF I am reasonably sure that the token system of Troika! is not what AFF did. In Troika! you determine initiative by assigning colored tokens (beads, poker chips, cards, dice, whatever) by foes and allies and throw them in a pot. You pull from this pot until you get the "turn ends" token and start over. It's in concept sort of neat, but in reality it's a horrendous pain in the butt, and can lead to odd situations where long pulls from the pot are of tokens only for certain (usually GM) enemies and such. For a game based on one of the original ultralite RPGs, its needlessly cumbersome and potentially weird in an unfun way. I noticed someone released an alternative initiative system based on cards for Troika! on Drivethrurpg, so I suspect I am not the only one who dislikes the initiative system (okay, a large Reddit forum is also dedicated to working around it, too).

Ninety percent of Troika! is not rules or mechanics at all, though: it's character types, which you can roll randomly for on a D66 to determine your Background. The backgrounds are evocative and interesting reading for the players, but ultimately necessary for the GM because almost all of the implied setting is embedded in these background descriptions; there is no other GM guidance on the world beyond what is inferred here and in the meager sample scenario. Later books such as Acid Death Fantasy take a similar approach and also ditch the core book setting entirely (sort of), meaning that if you are the sort of GM who likes a section that helps you out, Troika! is maybe not the ideal game for you. 

In any case, backgrounds give you an evocative description that alludes to a weird world, some possessions, skills, and a special trait. Some examples of base backgrounds include some very interesting and at times extremely abstract descriptors, best exemplified by quoting from the text. For example:

Cacogen: You are Those-Filthy-Born, spawned in the hump-backed sky lit only by great black anti-suns and false light. Your mother was sailing on the golden barges or caught in some more abstract fate when she passed you, far from the protective malaise of the million Spheres. You were receptive to the power and the glory at a generative time and it shows in your teratoid form.


Demon Stalker: You stake your reputation upon your ability to hunt and kill demonic creatures and those who break bread with them. Goat men in the wilds or the Angel cults of the slums, all need to be driven back off the edge of the map and onto the shores of chaos.


The Fellowship of Knidos: Mathmologists honour the clean and unambiguous truths of mathematics and coordinate them with their observations of the multiverse. All things can be measured and predicted with the application of the correct mathmological ratios, those methods applied to penetrate the ethereal surface and glimpse the fundamental numbers below.

And in case it isn't obvious enough that Troika! backgrounds are expansive, here is one more:

Zoanthrop: At some point in your past you decided you didn’t need it anymore: you found a Zoanthropologist and paid them well to remove your troublesome forebrain and elevate you to the pure and unburdened beast you are today

Those are all backgrounds for the same world/multiverse of the spheres. There are 36 such backgrounds, ranging from the familiar to the completely ephemeral. Sometimes literally! The backgrounds are generally  simultaneously neat and also filled with questions for which few or no answers are forthcoming. So when I say that Troika! is designed around the Imrpov playstyle, this is what I mean! No two games are going to be quite alike, and your enjoyment of the game will be inversely proportionate to the level of contribution you and your players are willing to engage with on the fly.

The Setting: Troika! has an implied setting when you read the backgrounds and sample module. It's a multidimensional world of Ptolemaic nature (perhaps), crystal spheres or something similar, working in a realm which seems to be a city lying adjacent to or amidst many different aligned worlds. Magic is a thing, but steampunk, technomancy and other dalliances may also exist. Physics as the real world knows it may not exist, or maybe it does and no one interprets it right. There are a lot of things to worry about, and in general if its existed in a fantastic tale somewhere, it probably exists in Troika! At least--that's what I got out of it. The sample module is especially vexing to me as it implies a great city, as is alluded to, an takes place in a fabulous hotel filled with weird encounters. It has, to its credit, a dreamlike quality, but maybe not always the good kind of dream; sometimes it feels like the bad dreams induced by food poisoning, too. Who knows! The bestiary is similarly vexing and oddly stated, as are the backgrounds, filled with suggestions of a world envisioned like a dadaist painting, filled with interpretive shapes that could mean everything or nothing. A page or two stating that Troika! is a realm of dream might have been all I needed for this to make more sense to me, but then it might have been a bit more plebian than its hidden goal of randomized exoticism. 

Despite that sense, I think it's an admirable effort in creativity. It's much disorganization in the conceptual space is a burden for many when you're trying to conceive of a coherent plot or setting for an RPG, and from what I have read this ends up true for many, who find it suited at best for short term one-shot game sessions as a result; the inherent incoherence makes it hard to expand beyond surface level experimentation. If you like verisimilitude in your gaming, know that Troika! is in defiant opposition to your will.

Support Material: Troika! has some decent support. I don't have any of it in print, but did grab some in PDF. There are some sourcebooks from Melsonian Arts Council which are (without having dived too deeply) just as eerie and abstract as the core game. I like Acid Death Fantasy, which is a Troka! powered post-apocalyptic setting that provides a more concise initial world overview before diving into myriad backgrounds and creature...enough to hang the mental coat on, if you will. 

Who is this For? Well, right off the bat I doubt any traditional Advanced Fighting Fantasy fan will find Troika! to be to their liking, if the main goal is an old-school and well-defined fantasy gaming experience. Troika! will appeal if you want to embrace OSR rules and a highly unstructured but evocative improv play environment. Troika! does not borrow (yet, that I have found) from the extremely focused and utility-driven style of module design seen in OSE, Mothership or other systems so the module content I have seen is a bit oddly traditional, but its still fairly brief in approach so shouldn't pose much issue. I concede that a lot of this book, despite in principle being of a design bent I should really like, left me mildly discomfited, again as if I had awoken from a disturbing dream brought on by food poisoning. It does not, needless to say, motivate me to run it. But...Acid Death Fantasy is really cool, and I think I could be tempted to give that a swing. Just need to house rule out the nightmarish initiative system!

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Savage Flayers - Mind Flayers in Savage Worlds and the Warlords of Lingusia Era


The Hyshkorrid

A savage denizen of the Underworlds of Lingusia

Savage Flayers, a Monstrous Wild Card For Savage Worlds Adventure Edition Fantasy Companion

The Hyshkorrid are conquerors of the psionic mindscape, travelers from distant universes, and telepathic masters of manipulation. Though few in number, these cephalopodic humanoids dwell in the depths of the Underworld beneath the shifting Sands of the Hyrkanian Deserts and the Mountains of Madness (the Slithotendan Mountains). The few scholars to interact with them say the hyshkorrid are obsessed with the observation of the mad god Slithotep, though perhaps not in a reverent manner, but they do worship Thasrik, the insectoid god of control and domination.

Hyshkorrid feast on the brains of sentient beings and use their potent psionic powers to lay waste to small armies. They are not physically adept at battle so usually prefer to dominate an opponent first to make their attack certain.

Attributes: Agility D8, Smarts D12, Spirit D10, Strength D6, Vigor D6

Skills: Academics D10, Fighting D8, Intimidation D10, Occult D8, Psionics D12, Stealth D8

Pace: 6, Parry: 6; Toughness: 9 (4 from psionic deflection)

Edges: Arcane Background (Psionics), Power Points X2 (+10 PP), Extra Powers X3 (6 powers)

Power Points: 20

Powers: All powers have a psionic/mental trapping; a typical array of powers include: Blast – Psionic (3 PP base cost), Confusion (1+ PP), Disguise (2 PP), Farsight (2 PP), Invisibility (5 PP), Mind reading (2 PP), Mind Wipe (3 PP), Stun (2 PP), Telekinesis (5 PP)

Gear: robes, masking hood, usually 1D3-1 magic items (potions, scrolls, rings, wondrous items), one roll on special chart below

Special Abilities:

Brain Extraction: STR+D6 damage, 2 AP. Hyshkorrid are incredibly proficient at extracting a brain from a humanoid skull. If a target is reduced to incapacitated by this attack then the hyshkorrid will use its next action as a Finishing Move; the brain is extracted and eaten. An extracted brain immediately restores 1D4 psionic power points.

Psionic Immunity: Hyshkorrid are immune to mind-affecting powers of psionic or magical nature that impact the mind (such as mind wipe, confusion, etc.)

Psionic Armor: Hyshkorrid have perfected the art of telekinetic deflection and gain +4 for toughness due to this trait. If a hyshkorrid is somehow caught unawares this bonus cannot be applied.

Natural Telepath: The hyshkorrid can only communicate via telepathy at will within 120 feet. For 1 PP it can extend the range to 1 mile for a minute.

1D10 Items on the body of a Savage Flayer:

1 – A necklace of grown coral wrapped around a tiny crystal ball showing the image of an eerie cosmic landscape

2 – A hideous holy amulet to Thasrik, the scorpion-like god of domination and control

3 – A carefully folder flayed skin of a humanoid species with a zipper attached to the back

4 – A locket which opens up to reveal a windable watch and the painted image of a blonde woman of Imperial descent; behind the clasp is a carefully folded note: “To my beloved, whom I shall devour last.”

5 – A clutch of what look like marbles but are squishy like eggs, and against a strong light you can see tadpole like beings swimming within

6 – A mimir skull of a kobold imbued with Smarts D8, Common Knowledge D8 and Academics D12 which can speak on any subject but only in draconic or aklo languages.

7 – A belt of threaded shrunken heads, all of gnomes, which begin to animate and laugh hysterically when touched by anyone who fails a Spirit check.

8 – A small, murky globe of swirling coppery color which speaks strange and hideous chants in aklo when held by an unprotected hand, and requires a Spirit check at -2 or the bearer experiences sudden terror and must roll on the Fear table.

9 – a backpack with a folded-up, small animated skeleton of a goblin, which functions as a servant that can carry out three word commands

10 – a tiara of platinum and diamond that looks worth 1,000 GP but if worn immediately requires a Spirit check at -2 or the wearer’s mind is overwhelmed by the commanding presence of the god Thasrik; a new save can be done once per day to break the spell

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Troika! Sale

 It's only for 48 hours and I just got the email notice, but Melsonian Arts Council is marking all their PDFs of Troika! RPG off 90%, so if you are in the least bit interested in this system its a good time to check it out. Link here.

I haven't reviewed it in my Indie/Zine RPG series yet, but really need to. Troika! Is mechanically related to Advanced Fighting Fantasy, but deviates in some strange and interesting ways (and in a really obnoxious way with how it handles initiative determination). If you are a fan of weird fantasy/science mashups, planar adventures, the AFF engine and highly improvisational play based on implied settings, Troika! is probably right up your alley. I'll review it next.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XVI: Death in Space

Death in Space (Free League Publishing)

$36.62 (currently) at Free League (print+PDF)

Information Link

Character Generator

What it is: Death in Space is part of the Stockholm Kartel array of games which all owe their origins to Dark Fort, the predecessor to Mork Borg. As such, Death in Space has mechanical parity with Mork Borg, Pirate Borg, Vast Grimm and anything else based on the same core mechanical conceits. Unlike these other games it is not entirely fair to consider it a Mork Borg-based system as Death in Space most decidedly breaks that mold and sets out to do things differently.

If I had to characterize Death in Space in one sentence, it would be something like this: it's an attempt to make a rules lite pick-up-and-go game system which manages to walk a line between pragmatic space opera survival and existential horror, all while providing enough base material to run a lengthy campaign. Death in Space can, like its relatives, work as a one-shot or beer-and-pretzels game, but it actually is meant for something longer, and emphasizes rules that encourage long-form campaign play. So while yeah, you can easily lose a character in Death in Space, the game does not necessarily assume that is how it's all going to go down.

The System: The best way to see what sort of characters are generated in Death in Space is to go click a bit on the character generator, available online (see link above). Your base PC has four stats: body, dexterity, savvy and tech. You have a range from -3 to +3, like in Mork Borg, this time generated by rolling 1D4 twice and subtracting the second roll from the first. You have secondary stats such as hit points and your defense rating. Unlike in Mork Borg, defense rating can go up or down here based on your armor choice, which is otherwise a static modifier and does not reduce incoming damage (so an armor class system, basically). You also pick an origin, which defines what sort of entity your character is in the game, and a variety of background/personality/quirk charts to roll on to flesh out your PC. 

Origins help greatly in establishing theme for the players. The Carbon are spaceborn and most comfortable in zero-gee environments. Chrome are essentially android vessels for ancient AI. Punks are humans as we understand them, tinged with rebellion and anarchy. Solpods are humanity slowed down by the liberal use of cryopods to prolong life and explore stellar phenomena that transcends any one life time. The last two are the most profound: Velocity Cursed, who have travelled at FTL between the stars one too many times and their bodies are beginning to "glitch" in and out of existence, then the Void, who are so profoundly changed by visions and exposure to the depths of space that they have lost their minds and possibly their humanity. It's like Dr. William Weir of Event Horizon is a good starting point for a character concept!

As important as your PC is, the even more important element in Death in Space is the hub, a ship or space station which serves as the base of operations for your group. The game provides some lengthy but still rules lite mechanics for building your choice of hub, which will in turn either be mobile (a ship) or stationary (resting possibly in the Iron Ring of the setting), which also in turn dictates some of the expected themes of your campaign. Like your PCs, the hub will have its own background and quirks. For example, a starship hub could be that it holds "A DNA-locked black box, which has never been opened," on a ship in which "an eerie transmission periodically blares out over communication lines and speakers with strange periodicity." So....possible material to explore and riff off of, right off the bat. 

Death in Space does not use Omens as Mork Borg does, but introduces Void Points instead. In the DiS universe the Void is a palpable threat, a possible manifestation of cosmic threat that is devouring the universe, but it also has mutational and bizarre effects. A PC gains void points when they fail tasks. These can be accrued (up to 4) and used to roll with advantage (what it sounds like) or power mutations. You get mutations through advancement (which in DiS is an XP-purchase based system), misfortune, or occasionally when the void begins corrupting things. If you fail on a check with advantage after spending a void point you have a chance of experiencing void corruption. This can entail some gruesome body horror effects or worse. 

Yet another key element of gameplay is the condition of the PCs' hub and the never-ending need to keep up on repairs and maintenance. This is a drive to encourage the group to explore and salvage the many, many wrecks in the default setting of the game. The rules here feel a tad "non rules-lite" to me but only in a minor way. 

In combat, unlike its sister games, DiS has the GM rolling for enemies in combat. Likewise, enemy stat blocks are a bit more complex (in the most modest way possible), to reflect the need for a tiny bit more granularity. There's a rather funny "true death" table in the combat section as well; players can narrate their deaths when they perish, or you can roll on the table to find out how the PC "really" died. I admit, most of the time it feels to me like the table is going to be unnecessary, but the results are so amusing that it is easy to imagine some players going for it just to see what "really happened!"

There is a section on starship conflicts as well, about four pages, based on range bands for abstract resolution. It's mainly aimed at providing for an efficient resolution mechanic that helps complicate the story, but if you happen to have Vast Grimm and want a decent starship conflict resolution system, I suggest cribbing it from Death in Space. 

The Setting: the next half of the book is setting content. The core setting is the Tenebris System, which is an ancient, overly worn and used star system with a wealth of useful worlds that have over the eons been drained of many resources. The core conceit of the setting is everything is old, worn, and nothing new is being manufactured anymore; this is a salvager society. A war left much of this and countless other systems devastated, divided and depleted of resources. Travel between systems is hard and costly, and ships line up to use the bridging buoy that marks the safest jump point out of (or in to) the system. While you can travel to other systems, the core book for DiS focuses exclusively on Tenebris System and its travails. 

While Death in Space does suggest a lot of horror and grim stuff will befall a group of PCs, the truth is its more of a setting for a dark scifi experience with a wider range of scenarios and events. The creeping threat of the unknown "void" is part of it, but many more weird and unpleasant things can befall a group, from something as simple as rival salvagers or pirates to something as horrifying as a dark cult summoning eldritch horrors.

Much of the base action happens around the planet Gliess Galo, where the Iron Ring can be found, a vast ring of debris in stable orbit. The debris is countless millions of prior starships and space stations from the endless settlers, belters, salavagers, miners and corporates who have come and gone from the system over endless generations. A hub station could be situated here easily. The book includes an introduction to one such larger station in The Ring along with an introductory scenario in which the PCs get engulfed in local politics-with-pistols.  

In addition to the core setting content are about fifteen pages of charts to roll on for creatures of the system, things corrupted by the void, encounters and threats in space and so forth. The back of the book includes a contractor/NPC generator as well as some modular ship design rules that allow the PCs to build up on and make their hub more effective over time; building up the hub and becoming more powerful agents in the system is a major end goal for the PCs.

The Supplements: so far one official supplement has been announced, but for most content you will want to look to for PDF support. Unlike, say, Mothership, Death in Space does not have as rabid a following (possibly because it does require a bit more time to sink in the details of its setting and play focus). The unique white-on-black technical drawings that make up a lot of DiS's character are extremely distinct and articulate, and unlike Mork Borg (which can use graphic design to put lipstick on a pig, if you will) it takes more talent to ape the art style and feel of DiS. Not as many 3PP are going to want to bother, I hypothesize.*

Who is this for? Death in Space requires a bit more time and effort out of a group than its sister systems. You can start a basic game quickly enough, but the majority of DiS is designed for campaign play, and you will get the most mileage out of it if you approach this with the intent of running at least 5-10 game sessions with it. I actually have a keen interest in doing so, and will report more on the experience when it finally happens.

Outside of that, I think any SF RPG fan would be incredibly happy to secure a copy of this book, with the caveat that despite some of its setting elements it is still firmly in the space opera subgenre and not really a hard SF treatment. It's a lush and incredibly well illustrated tome with excellent graphic design, though as usual be aware that the text is entirely "white text on black background" so you have been warned. 

In contrast, I suggest that Mork Borg fans may find Death in Space a bit much, as it is ultimately a more traditional style of RPG play, even if it still manages to be almost as rules lite. If you are mainly looking for a "pick up and play" game I suggest Vast Grimm's Mork Borg but with space trapping. Death in Space is more like.....Classic Traveller, but with a unique and spicy flavor (and easier rules). 

*After typing that I realized that the metric ass-ton of 3PP output for Mothership puts the WRONG stamp to my hypothesis.

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XV: Vast Grimm

Vast Grimm (Infinite Black)

Web Resource

$34.99 in print at Infinite Black

What it is: Vast Grimm is one of several game systems powered by Mork Borg as a core system, but providing an independent and customized version of the ruleset for a complete different hideous and unpleasant universe....this one in the far future at the end of time, where a cosmic elder force is devouring all of known space. Your players roll up a mess of very grim and unpleasant characters who seek a way to escape this doomed universe before it is devoured entirely, and them with it. Sound familiar? It should! It's a very efficient reimagining of Mork Borg in a wretched apocalyptic science fiction setting.

Vast Grimm is not by the Stockholm Kartel, so it has its own style and vibe going on, but it does show how the very distinct and specific formula of Mork Borg can essentially be reskinned and plugged in to any other setting, as long as you are embracing the weird and disturbing as you do. It is also worth noting that Vast Grimm has excellent graphical design and art standards, possibly the best of all the books I've looked at, rivaling Mork Borg, Death in Space and Pirate Borg as the best looking books in this subgenre.

The System: So I talked about the mechanics of Mork Borg before, and that information applies here as well in many ways. Vast Grimm uses the same stats, and some items such as omens are retitled Favors, but essentially still work as points you spend to influence play elements. In Mork Borg you have scrolls, which is its magic system of sorts. In Vast Grmm you have Neuromancy, which lets you use Tributes, that are either hacked (bad) or encrypted (good), and are essentially programming effects that have wide ranging effects and may or may not feel like magic due to corruption from the Vast.

The really interesting thing is seeing how far Vast Grimm goes in emulating the core conceits of Mork Borg. When I get around to reviewing Death in Space you will get to see a sharp contrast, as that system does not take Mork Borg and plug into it like a template or shell; it takes the core system and then breaks it in subtle ways. Vast Grimm takes Mork Borg and goes for a hard reskin. The character classes are fine examples, where each class reflects a miserable sod in this universe. You have the MAnchiNes, who are cyborgs, usually ex soldiers, who have noteworthy features such as hideous mechanical claws; there are The Lost, who practice neuromancy in isolation until they cannot escape the Vast Grimm's presence; the Twisted Biochemist, the Treacherous Merc,  the Emobot, the Devout, and the Harvester. You get the theme.....this is a world of mutants, cyborgs, survivors and the transformed. 

Where Vast Grimm shines is in its application of the Vast Grimm itself, and specifically the wyrms, which are the beings through which the Vast Grimm changes and converts all around it. The wyrms are parasites, and each one can have a different effect on its host. It is likely, even inevitable, that PCs will get infected as many monsters in the setting have a high chance of being infested and passing it on in any melee encounter. Once infected, the wyrms change the host, sometimes for better, other times for worse. It is probably worth mentioning at this point that there is a lot of squicky body horror going on in Vast Grimm; PCs are rarely going to be pretty or even identifiably human at times. 

Vast Grimm includes a lot of subsystems for SF specific stuff as well, such as a random table for determining the group's space ship. This is another contrast with how Death in Space does it, which spends a lot of time making the hub craft/station an important part of the PC's journey. In Vast Grimm it's treated much more simply, though and you pretty much have hit points, how fast it can go, and a list of potential weapons the ship is armed with that have no ammunition. No damage stats for these weapons are given, though some of the monsters in this game are definitely starship-sized threats, so I am a bit surprised on that.

Another SF-themed subsystem is pharmaceuticals, because of course in a crapsack world like Vast Grimm drugs are gonna be a thing, and the drugs of this campaign all come with weird potential side effects. There are 13 monstrous encounters in the book (as well as 6 wyrm subtypes), and more specifically for the introductory scenario in the back. The most interesting of the monsters is the Grimm, transformed end-stage results of parasitic infestation, they are the endpoint of humanity as the Vast conquers and devours all. 

The Setting: Being a reskin of Mork Borg, Vast Grimm has created a suitably wretched universe, now in space, and defined a rough area of play in the form of a corrupted star system (called The Verse), with a (short) discussion of each of the ten or so locations at which things are likely to happen. The Verse is really just a corner of a much larger implied setting (similar to Death in Space), but it also suggests that no one can really escape The Verse....this is the solar system, and everyone is stuck in here with the Vast Grimm. As time progresses, there is a chance the Vast gets closer to overwhelming all, and you check to see if the Prophecies of Fatuma come to pass, revealing new just like in Mork Borg. 

The background on the setting, perhaps not unlike Mork Borg, is also a little confusing. There is the legacy of the enigmatic Fatuma, who prophesied the end of the world around which a cult has started. There is some event involving the Six who become They, which is always capitalized and never clearly explained, perhaps to lend mystery to it all or to vex the GM, or maybe to allow for creative freedom of interpretation, but either way it seems that (to me) the Six become They and in turn become the Vast, which unleash the wyrms, to create the Grimm. Or something like that. In the meantime, in a solar system somewhere humanity finds itself at the razor edge of extinction as a result, and there is a rumor of a fantastical Gate which generates a wormhole to another universe called the Gate of Infinite Stars. At the start of the campaign the GM secretly rolls to see which planetary body/location on the system the gate can be found, and if the PCs are lucky they might find it and either escape to a new universe or bring the inevitable destruction of the Vast Grimm with them. This is kind of neat....its a direct end goal for the PCs, and provides a long term arc for any campaign.

The rest of the setting is, similar to Mork Borg, inferred by the design and the descriptive elements. If you want a reference point for this universe, I am reminded of sources such as Heavy Metal magazine, the Metabarons/Incal universe, Alien Resurrection, The Fifth Element, and about half of the really schlocky scifi movies of the 80s. 

The introductory adventure in the book is a decent way to bring new players in to the setting, and provides plenty of exploration as the group seeks a piece of the Gate of Infinite Stars on the derelict research vessel Conundrum, which suddenly starts broadcasting its location. The race is on against other raiders and salvagers to find the relic before it is too late. Decent oppositional forces, a neat map to explore and several mysteries make this scenario worth playing.

The Supplements: Vast Grimm has several supplements so far, all from Infinite Black (here). "Adventures in the Volatileverse" is a magazine they publish with two issues out so far featuring new scenarios and content, and there is also a very nice GM's screen of comparable sturdiness and size to the Mork Borg GM screen. Indeed, the quality of the game is on par with its fantasy counterpart, and to be admired. 

Who Should Buy This? Well, it's fairly obvious to state that if you like Mork Borg and like the idea of an SF rendition of that game, then Vast Grimm is a no-brainer. If you are maybe put off by Mork Borg but still like the idea of a rules lite SF setting in a crapsack universe, I think you will find a lot to enjoy here. Unlike Mork Borg the Vast Grimm rules are more coherently stated; either that, or I am just getting used to reading these zine RPGs now and not noticing the vagaries of their design anymore.

Vast Grimm is an exceptional production, though, so if you just want a neat looking book this is totally it. If you have any interest in writing an RPG like this, its probably worth checking out Vast Grimm to see how they did it, and to also contrast it against how Mork Borg did it. Both systems effectively weaponize the concept of random tables and design, and use the economy of information to hint at rather than outright state the nature of their game worlds. I think in that sense Mork Borg is slightly better, if only because the weird future of Vast Grimm builds on some core conceits that are not entirely as clear as they might need to be for the SF setting it is in. 

Still, in the end, if you are only looking for a couple of these rules lite artpunk style RPGs to buy, I'd put Vast Grimm on my "must get" list. In many ways it is better than the closest competitor, Death in Space, which actually manages to be more involved in its own setting, but is also a more stoic approach to the weird future; indeed, while I can see running a long campaign with Death in Space, by contrast in Vast Grimm I can see it being an excellent grab-and-go approach to play, without needing so much to worry about; just generate a haunted space station or a twisted research base and you're off and running. In that regard Vast Grimm excels, much like Mork Borg in catering to a short form play session with long term potential, and I really like that. 

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Indie/Zine RPG Interlude: Organizing Zine RPGs by Underlying System

Consider this post me organizing some of my thoughts on the indie/zine RPG review process I've been going through. 

As I've been reviewing the many various rules lite, indie-driven, zine RPG styled game systems out there it turns out there are really two or three dominant game systems. Some of this is due to the origin of many of these games, which so far cluster around the Stockholm Cartel via Free League Publishing, through Exalted Funeral, or through Old Skull Publishing....all of which tend to lean on common systems for their products. But there are outliers, and for many of these Exalted Funeral or Free League may publish and distribute, but the developers are all over the place.

Anyway, I thought it might be useful to provide a short overview of which systems are related and/or cross compatible either by design or by virtue of their common systems. They break down as follows:

Powered by Into the Odd Mechanics

I am not 100% sure but I think Into the Odd is the best title for the system, though it may have first been used in Electric Bastionland (or the original Into the Odd). This system has been used by several designers for several genres:

  • Into the Odd 
  • Electric Bastionland
  • Screams Amongst the Stars
  • Running out of Time
  • The Dead are Coming
  • Liminal Horror

...I searched to see what else might be powered by this system and was not surprised to find a reddit thread on the subject (here), which lists no less than 12 other systems with the ITO engine, only three of which I mention above!

Powered by Mork Borg

Deliberately meant to be rules-lite, part of Mork Borg's charm is an obsessive focus on randomized characters and setting content, along with basic rules with lots of character "development" through emergent gameplay and survival. The very open game license has opened it up to other genres given similar thematic treatment, including:

  • Mork Borg
  • Forbidden Psalm 
  • Death in Space 
  • Pirate Borg 
  • Vast Grimm
  • Frontier Scum (I do not have this, but have been told it is Mork Borg powered)

Powered by the Old Skull "Adverb Noun & Adverb Noun" System

I don't know what else to call this one, but it deserves a spot. The only games using this system are by the same author through Old Skull Publishing, but they are each really decent in what they do. I already reviewed one, but have a lot to say soon about the others:

  • Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells
  • Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells
  • Dark Streets & Darker Secrets

The Tunnels Goons Micro Game System

So far this category consists of Tunnel Goons and Dead Mall, but may have others out there. Noted for being basically a game that fits on a sheet of paper.

The Mothership Universe of Games

Mothership is a single game system, but it holds a special spot as it has by far the most supplemental and hackable content out there in both print and PDF. You can find a lot of weird scenarios and mods for Mothership that would ordinarily qualify as their own game systems otherwise.

Unique Systems (So far)

These all are really simple and lite, sufficiently so that they may bear mechanical commonalities, but ar otherwise operating in their own space. So far this includes:

  • Into the Zone
  • Liminal (the simplest system with the most complex scenario generator I have seen yet)
  • Ultraviolet Grasslands 2E
  • Scoundrels
  •  Zyborg Commando RPG
  • A Grim Hack (arguably this belongs in an adjacent category of "Warhammer Fantasy RPG retroclones")
  • Dancing with Bullets under a Neon Sun

The Enigma of Old School Essentials

This system arguably deserves a spot in the indie/zine RPG scene because it bridges a gap between OSR retroclones and the style and feel of the contemporary minimalist/artsy style of readdressing how a game must present and communicate its rules and scenarios to players and GMs for use. OSE, despite being the best retroclone of classic D&D so far, is also the most stylistically devoted to this new wave approach to minimalist design and extremely straight forward mechanical interpretations. of this list today, I feel it probably deserves to be on this list, as its own system in the indie/zine RPG scene, albeit with the caveat that it also fits on the adjacent list of OSR retroclones that also spring out of the indie and fan developed movement.

The Fighting Fantasy Origins of Troika!

Troika! is quite familiar to Fighting Fantasy fans, so I am including Advanced Fighting Fantasy here even though its not, itself, an indie/zine RPG, demonstrating that its not so much the game system that dictates how you get this designation, but how you use (and present) it:

  • Troika!
  • Advanced Fighting Fantasy
  • Triune (maybe? I don't have it, yet)

...there may be others. I feel like there must be.

The Rest

There are still a lot of systems out there I haven't tracked down, couldn't muster personal interest in, don't yet know about, or can't find print editions of. Some I really do want to find, but I have my cash limits into how many $100s of dollars I want to send to Exalted Funeral every month!  

Friday, August 18, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XIV: Forbidden Psalm

 Forbidden Psalm (K.R.D. Designs)

$40 in print 

What it is: breaking the "RPG" part of this series directive, Forbidden Psalm is a miniatures game based on or more accurately fully compatible with/adjacent to Mork Borg. It uses Mork Borg's rules and setting as the springboard for a fast-paced kitbash-powered miniature skirmish game. By coincidence or design it also serves as a useful resource for short scenarios, monsters and locations/ideas for use with a more traditional Mork Borg campaign. 

The System: Forbidden Psalm takes the core conceits of the Mork Borg game system and translates it into a miniature battle game. The focus is on small teams, usually of about 5 models, who get a stat block which is slightly truncated/streamlined from the Mork Borg RPG counterparts, but not enough that you can't directly use content here with the RPG.

For example, Forbidden Psalm units pick a stat array instead of rolling, and get a set number of hit points. You don't worry about class, and focus only on relevant equipment. Units each get a random flaw and random feat instead of a class or other traits. Each player (and the game includes scenarios for just one player with a team of five vs. monstrous threats, for example) rolls up five units this way.  

Forbidden Psalm introduces movement and positioning rules, typical of miniature games but perhaps useful in Mork Borg as well if you want to use minis and terrain. We're not talking a lot of rules here, though...Forbidden Psalm does technically spend relatively dense 4 pages on combat which is more pages than Mork Borg spends on all its rules. 

Actual play in Forbidden Psalm is fairly straight forward: each player builds their squad, then you pick from one of ten scenarios and follow the instruction set to play through for an identified number of turns and goals. You then go to the campaign "between session" rules to see if survivors grow in power and the injured live or die. It allows for a way to play Mork Borg without a GM, for one, by conforming the setting to miniature wargaming, but it also makes for a fun approach to the artpunk death metal setting as a battle game, too.

The back of the book includes some printable standups for minis, but also has a section and examples on how to kitbash with inspirational suggestions. This is a phenomena I was only aware of from my wife, who likes occasionally kitbashing minis for painting. This is probably a good section for gamers interested in Forbidden Psalm, because outside of some Mork Borg minis that I think were only available through a Kickstarter, the only way to use minis in this game will be through a bit of cannibalization.

The Setting: Honestly, Forbidden Psalm doesn't waste time reiterating the Mork Borg universe, instead cutting to the idea that you work for the enigmatic wizard Vriprix, who seeks the mysterious Forbidden Psalm to stop the encroaching darkness of the end of the world. Your team of fighters have a noble cause, you see, though it is also driven by a desire for wealth and power accrual. Each of the ten scenarios in the book provide some locations you could adapt to the RPG easily enough in this regard. It also includes 11 monsters, as well as some scrolls and omens that, while aimed at the miniature skirmish side of this equation, can probably be used with the RPG with minimal adaptation as well.

Graphically it looks good, like a proper Mork Borg supplement, though it is ever so slightly more organized and easier to follow/read. 

The Supplements: I see on the developer website that they have a bunch of supplements, but the only one I have so far is "In the Footsteps of the Mad Wizard," which is an expanded campaign book for Forbidden Psalm featuring a sequel to the campaign in the core book, as your adventurers cheated out of the mythical Forbidden Psalm by the mad wizard Vriprix, chase him to the city of Dawnlight, a ruined edifice of suitable mystery and mayhem for the setting. It includes new rules, 20 new monsters as well as a monster generator aimed at Forbidden Psalms, and a 17 act campaign that also includes a base of operations (the Hogshead Inn) and rules on 3-4 player play. Some more kitbashed miniature examples are showcased as well. The campaign includes RPG-focused expository text, so they seem to assume some people will cobble the skirmish campaign into a proper RPG campaign as well and offer the tools to do so. This supplement ultimately adds a lot of value to Forbidden Psalms, and motivates me to get the other expansion books they have released (looks like seven or so, though not all are in print).

Who is this for? Honestly, Forbidden Psalm will be a fun addition to a Mork Borg fan's collection. It's also a useful game to have if you want desperately to play Mork Borg but maybe can't find a proper group, as it allows for some solo and two-player play without needing a GM. It does require using either stand-ups or miniatures on a minimum size 2'X2' table and you will need to print out or create the maps for play areas (the bulk of the maps are fairly simple to use/make though). And if you don't like the idea of playing it as a skirmish game, this is a wealth of useful stuff that is mechanically cross-compatible with traditional Mork Borg. win!

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XIII: Rascals

 Rascals (Caradoc Games)

$12 print+PDF on Exalted Funeral

What it is: a short sci-fi themed heist-driven RPG in 35 pages, powered by a deck of cards. Rascals is something of an oddity in the indie zine reviews I have made so far in that it uniquely deviates from pretty much any RPG I have experienced, diving deep into card game territory, while still alleging it is an actual RPG. I imagine it can and is played by those who love it as such, but if you are not overly used to card games, this game is probably going to feel completely off to you on many levels. Unfortunately I am one of those where the concept of card game based mechanics is just a bit too much for me; the level of card involvement I am able to handle is of the Savage Worlds variety (so, cards are useful tools for randomization and initiative, but not mechanical drivers). Rascals takes the idea to a whole new level. 

The System: Rascals is driven by two decks of cards, one for the players, who will get a hand of five cards and a set of rules on how to play the cards based on their character role, and one deck for the house, which is the GM. You have something called hustle, which powers special actions, lets you discard and redraw, and is also your damage stat. You also have insight and a set of special card playing abilities based on your player role, which might be the brain (mastermind), the face (swindler), the muscle (fightr) or the stick (driver or thief). For example, the muscle can spend a point of hustle after all cards in a challenge are revealed to draw another card and add it to his existing card. Stuff like that. It's not very intuitive for me, so I will draw these examples (pun intended) from the book to demonstrate that which my poor non-card-minded-brain finds unfathomable. 

Once you settle on your role you can start with one trick, which is a way to play a card for effect. Example: a brain may take "Grand Strategist" which lets them pull the top four cards on the House deck and reorder them as desired and replace on the deck. It's...interesting. I am getting weird shades of the early nineties when everyone I knew was suddenly into Magic The Gathering and any other of the myriad card games in existence. It is possible, I bet, that someone really into a game like MTG might find Rascals rather simple and easy to grasp, maybe. 

Task resolution involves the House assigning difficulty and then that determines how many cards are drawn. Players draw cards in accordance with the ability under task, and presumably can call on their tricks to influence the result if appropriate. There's a good 3 pages on how to perform these action and challenges and interpret the cards. 

 It goes on like this; this is a card game powering an RPG. If that sounds cool to you, I suggest you check it out, but Rascals hurt my brain in a way none of these other zine RPGs even came close to (for the most part). So rather than try to bitterly wrap my head around it I am going to concede its an interesting concept that seems like it might work for the right group, but I am not going to be in that group.

The Setting: Rascals has about 3 pages in total on its setting, which is a cluster of 234 star systems which only recently ended a brutal conflict. The  player characters are the elite special agents and spies of this conflict, now technically retired, when only a few short years later a new and threatening plot brings everyone back together. In addition to the brief intro to this setting there are about five pages of card-driven randomized details for creating a conflict. It provides enough info for a good House (GM) to improv into it. Aside from that....there's some minor info on ships, gear and weapons, but atypically for most scifi it is largely vague and deliberately not given as much mechanical importance. 

The brief setting in Rascals would be a good starter outline for a Traveller or Mothership campaign, or even a concept that could be fleshed out in Death in Space. It's the foundation of this game system, of course, but most of the Rascals rulebook is about explaining the card mechanics...the bulk of the setting is purely a suggestive outline. 

Supplements: I have seen at least one sourcebook/scenario for Rascals on Exalted Funeral, but that is it. 

Who Should Buy This? I have not, obviously, thought of playing this game as the card-based mechanics are just anathema toward what I want out of an RPG. The card-based approach is just too abstract and unrealistic for my tastes. I might be willing to try it if someone else ran the game, but I sincerely doubt I would be able to get in the right mindset; the card mechanics are just too specific in their approach, and I may just be too old a dog for new tricks. But that said, I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from checking it out if the card mechanic concept sounds interesting to you. There are gamers out there with a much more methodical, technical mindset than my own, for whom the abstract card mechanics may make more intuitive sense, and this system might very well appeal. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

The Handled Gaming Device Phenomenon - Two months in with the Asus ROG Ally vs. Steam Deck vs. Switch OLED vs. Switch Lite vs. BackBone

 I have written a bit about my time with all these handhelds, and one thing has become clear to me: I am not nearly enough of a handheld gamer to have much care or concern for them in the long run, and I should save my money going forward. My limiters on enjoying handheld games boil down to, in no particular order:

You Need Lots of Leisure Travel Time:  I travel a reasonable amount in state, but even when traveling rarely have the sort of free time it takes to pull out a handheld gaming device and play with it (and hey, I imagine every time I will have that sweet, sweet free time, but it's not nearly as often as I would like, it turns out); most of my travel is consumed by work related connectivity, it turns out.

This problem is not fixed by handhelds, but it does mean your handheld experience only needs to be as convenient as the actual time available. That means that, for example, if you only have 10 minutes free to play something light, you only need a device that accommodates short and easy play. 

When it comes to quick and portable, any of these consoles could be loaded with short quick-play games, but the king of the pack is either the Switch lite or the Backbone (a device that turns your phone into something approximating a handheld console), with the Switch OLED being a solid contender as well. Hauling a Steam Deck or Asus ROG Ally around to play Asteroids or Pac Man (or if you're hip and modern, then Dead Cells or Blashphemous) seem like overkill. 

Tiny Screens are for Young Eyes: My eyesight as I get older is just not as good with tiny screens. This does mean that really good tiny screens with clear resolution, readable text, and decent colors are more important to the experience, though. I know of others my age with distinctly bigger eyesight issues than me, so I imagine some of these handhelds would border on useless.

Of the devices I mentioned, I would say the Steam Deck and Switch OLED are great, chiefly because most games designed for the Switch account for small screen play (there are a few obnoxious exceptions). Steam Deck requires good judgement on what you load, but also has that magnify feature that is AMAZING. Switch Lite is an eye strain unfortunately, even though I love my tiny Switch Lite for its portability. Asus ROG Ally actively hates your eyes, but its higher resolution is very nice. If it had a magnification option like the Steam Deck does that would be much nicer....but its real problem is the tiny Windows 11 interface that is a pain in the ass. 

Get a Grip!: Form factor is super important; third party products such as Hori's Split-Pad Pro attachments capitalize on this because they know plenty of adults have Switches and need something that feels comfortable to play with. To their credit, both Steam Deck and Asus ROG Ally are very comfortable. So the Switch models lose out here, as they sacrifice ergonomic grips for portability and other features.

It Needs to Be Easy: the handheld is essentially a mini console, and its not something most people want to troubleshoot the OS on when you are flying of traveling somewhere with spotty internet. I am specifically calling out the Asus ROG Ally here, as its Windows 11 operating system has caused me no end of trouble diagnosing random crap that only Microsoft could be the cause of. The Backbone one is also a bit of a problem, unless you pay for their optional but useful Backbone app which helps make the product more useful, especially for streaming. The fact that so many ioS and Android games don't always play nice with it is a downside. So for Easy look to the Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck (unless you do a lot of modding in Linux on Steam Deck, in which case Nope.)

It needs to not Overheat: The Asus ROG Ally overheats. A lot. It's bad enough that it impacts performance at times, and its placement of the MicroSD slot is adjacent to a major vent, so sometimes the device works fine unless you are trying to run a game off of the MicroSD slot. This is just bad design, and after two months with the Ally I've decided that problem alone changes my relationship with the device from "I love it despite and because of Windows 11" to "I grudgingly put up with this dysfunctional relationship because its the device I can play Destiny 2 and my Epic Game store products on with the greatest ease." I have never had an overheating issue on the Switches or Steam Deck. FYI I have had an overheating issue on my iPhone 13 Mini but that's pretty rare. 

Final Verdict:

Asus ROG Ally is not worth it, unfortunately, unless you are willing to put up with its many problems with Windows 11 being suboptimal, its overheating, and its lack of a coherent user interface for travel (it tries with the Armoury Crate thing, but fails).

Steam Deck is worth it, as long as you don't dive down the Linux rabbit hole too deeply. or if you like doing that, then its a must-buy!

Switch OLED remains the most versatile device, as long as you don't mind being stuck in the available library of games. Rumor has it a new Switch will come out next year, so YMMV though. 

Switch Lite wins for the ultra-portable element, but it loses for being hard on the eyes and not ergonomic. It also can't be modified like the OLED as the controller portions are not joycons, and are permanently attached. 

BackBone One wins as being most portable, but I find the entire "gaming on my phone" experience, even with a decent controller, to be suboptimal and disengaging; it just ain't fun for this old guy. 

That said, I still find simply pulling out the old gaming laptop to be a perfectly viable solution, especially if you expect most leisure gaming time to actually be in a hotel room. So....yeah.

A Brief 8/20 Update Since I wrote this: Everything I said above is still 100% valid, but I feel it worth mentioning that in the last 9 days I have done most of my handheld gaming on the Asus ROG Ally and that is primarily because the games I am currently focused on are either best to play or can only be played on its handheld environment (Destiny 2, Diablo Immortal, Diablo IV, Outriders...which I owned on the Xbox store and not Steam). I also have been dabbling in Assassin's Creed Odyssey on the Ally. I can't play any of those game on the Steam Deck, for the most part, without diving deep into the Linux environment and spending a lot of time trying to make some of them work. So...for purposes of my own circumstance, I guess the issues with the Ally are worth putting up with just for the broader range of games I can access alone.