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.   

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