Dark Fantasy is more than just dying messily. While the genre does stand in contrast to “High Fantasy” in that way, there is more going on than just added mud and blood. High Fantasy and Swords and Sorcery are typified by great power, heroic character arcs, and the grand struggle between good and evil. Dark fantasy does highlight the violent aspects of pre-industrial society, but also contrasts itself from other fantasy genres by making sure that morality is represented by shades of grey, and that any quest for power comes with a price attached. The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power brings forth a dark fantasy world of the players’ creation. What makes it pop for me is not just the violence and the superstition, but the intrigue and mechanics behind it. The game sets character against character with ease but also puts these characters into positions of power over one another, encouraging jockeying and scheming right out of the gate. This Powered by the Apocalypse game turns Apocalypse World into Apocalypse Westeros, where otherworldly threats sit right alongside petty vendettas and power-grabs.
Like all PbtA systems, The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power (SCUP from here on out) is built around Moves, with each require rolling a 2d6 to resolve, adding an attribute score and potentially a situational modifier. A roll of 10 or above means a complete success, a roll of between 7 and 9 means you got some of what you wanted or your success came with a cost, and a roll of 6 or below means that you missed and it’s time for the GM to make a Move against you. These Moves are divided into those which any character can use, and Moves which are specific to given Playbooks, or character types. The Playbooks here are mostly archetypal in the same way that Playbooks in Apocalypse World are, with a few new additions. The Gauntlet is akin to a Gunlugger, and The Crown is akin to a Hardholder, though in the fiction of this game, The Crown can be quite a bit more powerful than the Hardholder is in a typical Apocalypse World game. Similarly, The Spur is like the Chopper and The Bloodletter is like the Angel. The more interesting and unique playbooks include the Black Hood, a roguish character who can steal and sneak, and the Screw, a torturer who can hurt people and extract information from them. Then there are the magical characters.
The Adept, the Hex, and the Beloved are all magic-using classes, which is a fair expansion from other PbtA games. The Unspeakable Power is the core magic-causing force in the game, and its exact nature depends on what the players decide in setting creation. While the Move “Whisper to the Unspeakable Power” is modeled after the Apocalypse World Move “Open your Brain”, it gets much more interesting from there. “Harness the Unspeakable Power” is a move which allows for much more active (though still subtle) effects which the Unspeakable Power grants. Beyond that, each of the three Playbooks above (the only ones which get the ‘Harness’ move) also have the option to take other Moves which open up magical attacks, teleportation, or even bringing unspeakable creatures into the world. Of course, the consequences of a potential miss on any of these moves could be dire.
While SCUP does a solid job of building a dark fantasy magic system, what really makes the game pop are the systems for intrigue. First, every character starts the game with a Faction, and a number of Honor within that Faction (one or two to start). Factions provide resources to the characters within them, but also make requests of them. Beyond having the obligations of a faction, the fact that every character must start in a different faction means that considering allies and rivalries is on the table from the very beginning. But it gets better. Many Playbooks either give the option or require that the character have a Patron, someone who has hired them or otherwise has controlling influence over them. In a lot of cases, it makes sense that this Patron is another player character, making the character-to-character relationships that much more interesting from the outset. As befits the nature of the game, the moves which allow characters to gain a steading, followers, or a militia are highlighted, so each player knows which Move from another Playbook to take if the opportunity arises. Even though the game uses the Apocalypse World framework of only having one of each Playbook, the game clearly wants to encourage power struggles and keep The Crown, The Spur, and The Beloved from getting too comfortable.
Advancement in SCUP is mostly like Apocalypse World, with stat highlighting serving as the primary engine. However, there are two other ways to gain XP. The first time every player uses one of their Honor Moves (to engage with their faction), they gain an XP. Also, each character has three entanglements. At the beginning of each session the GM highlights one entanglement, and if the character does what the entanglement requires during that session, they get an XP. The advancement in SCUP is deliberately slowed, with entanglements and honor moves only good for one XP per session, and highlighted stats only good for one XP per scene. If you do get to the end of the advancement arc, though, there is some interesting stuff waiting for you. After unlocking the second tier of advances, a player may choose to take an end of season move. These moves unlock particularly dramatic and grisly ends which serve to put a dramatic cap on a character’s arc. Like in Monsterhearts, once an End of Season move is triggered, the “season” ends and each player gets to decide what to do with their character.
There is one more unique thing about SCUP which deserves to be called out. Like all PbtA games, SCUP uses a combination of player collaboration during character creation and a session zero mechanic to help the GM build a unique world with minimal to no prep. What SCUP adds to this is a step that happens before character creation, Mythology Creation. Using a highly delineated outline, players put together a myth that represents events of the past that shape the worldview of the setting. The process is not free-form; there are limited options for each stage and there’s even the choice to roll a die if you can’t decide. Despite the initial structure, the options for each myth are endless as your group must flesh out the details once you’ve decided your core sentences and know the basic concept of the story. Mythology Creation is a great boon for a fantasy PbtA game, as it immediately grounds the setting creation to a more limited palette, something quite necessary considering how broad fantasy can be.
What do you get when you put it all together? A dynamic and dangerous fantasy world where everyone has allegiances and agendas. Looking at this game from a GM’s perspective, I think I’d just need to give one push to really get the game rolling. Provided everyone comes to the table ready to make characters with strong motivations, the intrigue in SCUP can likely run the game for you, only requiring a GM to sit back, cackle gleefully, and play the role of the ineffable Unspeakable Power. Maybe throw a threat or two in the mix just to make things interesting. The willingness for the designers of SCUP to turn up the PvP potential may make some gamers cagey, but to me it’s a great choice to really take advantage of the scaffold that PbtA provides to tease out interesting and complicated relationships.
In my mind, it’s taken a surprisingly long time to get a real turn at fantasy in PbtA. Dungeon World is specifically aimed at D&D, and other attempts (I’m thinking Fellowship and AW: Fallen Empires) are similarly narrow. The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power builds off of the PbtA framework lightly but smartly to create a fantasy game that both clearly comes from Apocalypse World but also does its own thing. While Zweihander works brilliantly for the essentially “medieval noir” of something like The Black Company or The Witcher, SCUP is what you want for Game of Thrones, with characters pursuing their ambitions and getting at the throat of anyone who gets in their way. For intrigue, ambition, and dark magicks gone awry, I can’t think of a better game to try than The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power.
For your reference, Tyrion is The Voice, Cersei is The Crown, Jon Snow is The Spur, Varys is The Lyre, Melisandre is The Hex, Ramsey is The Screw, Arya is The Black Hood, Bran is The Adept, Danaerys is The Beloved, Jamie is The Gauntlet, and Sam is The Bloodletter. Have fun!