Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Mutant: Mechatron is Back in Print!

 Not only is Mutant: Mechatron back in print at a normal price at Free League Publishing, but a new book in the Mutant: Year Zero series is announced as well titled Mutant; Year Zero - Ad Astra. Mutants in space! 

It is possible that you are in the same camp I am and know why this is a moment for celebration, but if not, then know this tale: Several years ago in the before-times of the pandemic Mutant: Year Zero arrived on the scene with much surprise, and I was fortunate enough to grab it with all the cool bells and whistles back when Modiphius was distributing. Over time Modiphius and Free League parted ways (though recently that has changed again), and Free League books became tough to find, especially if you didn't back the Kickstarter. In short order I missed all three sequels (Genlab Alpha, Elysium and Mechatron). Last year one of the reasons I resumed collecting and then deep-diving into Free League books was due to a happy accident when my wife and I uncovered a trove of a gaming shop in Florida that had more gaming tomes than I had seen in years. Years! Among the many books I snagged there were all the books I was missing for the Mutant Year Zero lineup except one: Mechatron. Heck I even got the card deck....just not the book. 

It turned out it had a really limited print run for the Kickstarter and had never been reprinted. Mechatron was going for $400+ on Ebay auctions for the only three copies available anywhere (and I bet those sellers are wishing they had lowered the price just a bit now). I secured the PDF easily enough, but using the PDF is just not practical for me, I'm an old Gen X gamer, and my embrace of electronic books does not comport well with gaming tomes, it's just a problem with our generational model...we need that book in our hands to make the magic happen, plain and simple. 

So with this new announcement Free League has at last course corrected and is steering the Mutant Year Zero brand back on track. Celebration time! I have ordered my copy, time to wait patiently for it to arrive. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part XVIII: Electric Bastionland

Electric Bastionland - Deeper into the Odd

$19 in PDF on itch.io 

$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 stat....so 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)....so 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. Plus...as 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 just....so 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!