The Independents: Seven Wonders

How did the children from Narnia cope with adulthood?  How does a dystopian society rise, and how does it fall? What happens in your village when the heroes are away? What would you sacrifice to save your family? Who protects your home when you’re not looking? What’s it like to voyage into a black hole? What do heroes talk about on the eve of a decisive battle? Seven questions need seven answers, and seven story games provide them. This time out The Independents are going to be exploring a wide range of themes, settings, characters, and framing devices as we check out the story roleplaying game anthology Seven Wonders from Pelgrane Press!

Now, Pelgrane Press isn’t exactly a small fry company, so usually anything they created would end up in the Editorial section, but Seven Wonders is a little different. While other people helped with art, playtesting, and even design each of the seven games within the book have a single writer, and going by the writer biographies most if not all of them are active in the London Indie RPG meetup scene. What you’re getting here is, essentially, seven mini-articles for The Independents whose subjects happen to be conveniently located within the same binding. So, the only thing to do is see what each game is about and what they have to offer!

When The Dark Is Gone

Created by Becky Annison, When the Dark is Gone follows the heroic children from many a fantasy tale . . . after nobody believed what they’d been through, they’ve all grown up, the trauma has set in, they’ve repressed their memories of magic, and therapy is required. Using a modern day setting, WTDIG has 1 organizer (the Therapist) and 3-4 players (the Clients), and estimates an average playtime of 2-3 hours.

The game starts off by creating a list of subjects that the players and Therapist don’t want to have at the table, banned topics on account of them being too personal, uncomfortable, or outright painful. Character creation involves the usual basics like name and current occupation, but the meat of it is that every character has some sort of psychological disorder, close relationships with two other characters and a secret they’ve kept from each, something they did to hurt their relationships that has landed them in therapy, a redeeming quality, and one sketchy memory of the magical land of their childhood that all characters share. Other than that, everyone contributes ideas and phrases to do with the magical land until there are a total of ten, and then the session begins.

WTDIG is a ‘fully immersive’ game, so everything at the table once play starts is meant to be said in-character. The characters talk through their problems, confront one another over secrets, and try to make a breakthrough in both their forgotten memories and their current problems. Interestingly, the Therapist’s job is not that of a traditional GM; they are expressly forbidden from actually creating facets of the story. Rather, their job is to ask questions that draw those facets out of the players. For an example, the Therapist shouldn’t phrase something like “Are you angry at Shamyla now, after what she did to you?” That’s a yes or no question and not a good prompt. Instead ask “How do you feel about Shamyla, after what she did to you?” That’s something the Clients can dig into, and it doesn’t put the thought of being angry most prominently in their heads.

When the Dark is Gone is, far and away, the toughest of the games in Seven Wonders to play in terms of content. Mechanically speaking there’s a lot of support built in, tons of advice on how to overcome the general challenges of story games and those of WTDIG in particular, and there even two playsets with ready-to-go characters, details for the magical land, and therapist notes. But those playsets deal with heavy stuff. Every character in them, and by extension every other WTDIG character, is a hot mess who’s done a lot of things to hurt the other characters . . . but they each have their redeeming qualities, and they might just be able to turn it around. It’s definitely not a game for everybody, but it’ll certainly make an impression.

Rise and Fall

Created by Elizabeth Lovegrove, Rise and Fall puts the players into a dystopian society, playing multiple avatars of several different character archetypes as they explore how such a society comes to power, thrives, and eventually collapses. Using a dystopian setting created by the players, RaF is GM-less and for 2-5 players with one of them acting as the Facilitator to help keep things moving, and estimates an average playtime of 3 hours.

RaF setup is in three stages. First, because by the nature of the setting things are going to get a little dark, you decide on Lines and Veils: subjects which are completely off-limits and subjects that can occur in-world but happen ‘off-screen’. Next you setup the world, deciding exactly what kind if dystopia we’re dealing with (Real-world present, near future cyberpunk, high fantasy, etc.) and a few key ideas to start off with; you might decide that the dystopia involves a military takeover, food shortages, and information control, to pull some examples from the list. Finally, each player picks an archetype: a type of character that they will be playing. Archetypes should be able to cover characters from the entire range of the dystopia’s timeline, as well as people as low as the gutters and as high as a faction leader. Each of these characters is an avatar of a chosen archetype, and players will take on the roles of several avatars over the course of the game. A Warrior archetype might have avatars such as a rookie soldier, a military commander, and a war hero, for example.

Actual gameplay is broken up into four phases: Rise, Established Order, Fall, and Aftermath. The basics of what you are doing is asking questions about each phase of the dystopia, and playing out scenes between avatars that answer those questions. A player asks the question, and picks two other players to answer it. The players in the scene can set it (will it be in high, low, or mixed society) and create the avatars they want that fit the scene, and act out the scene until the questioner feels the question has been answered. The questioner than records any new important information onto the sheet tracking the key ideas, and that information then becomes something later scenes can build off of (the key idea of ‘No Money’ might be revealed to have been caused by an economic crash, or there might be a fragile black market trying to make up the difference). For every phase each player will get to ask at least one such question.

Once the dystopian society has fallen, the Aftermath phase gives the players a brief glimpse into the world after the regime falls. Rather than play out a scene, each player gets to answer a short question for a single avatar of their archetype (or one of their archetypes, if there were only two players). The question can be asked of either a living or a dead character, and they generally revolve around what’s gotten worse or what’s gotten better.

While you’re definitely playing roles, and the stories will be interesting to tell, Rise and Fall strikes me as less of a game and more of a creative exercise. The vibe of playing archetypes and avatars instead of a singular character, and the way the world-building essentially never stops as you ask and answer questions about the society and its history, all comes across as a study in creating a dystopian setting. Which, hey, I think that’s pretty awesome! It’s certainly coming at things from a unique angle, though.

Heroes of the Hearth

Created by Stiainín Jackson, Heroes of the Hearth is not about the adventurers that go off to fight the threat encroaching upon the kingdom; rather, it is about the people they leave behind. HotH uses a Fantasy setting, is GM-less and for 3-5 players with one of them acting as the Facilitator to help keep things moving, and estimates an average playtime of 2-4 hours.

The first stage of HotH is the world creation stage, where the players can decide what the threat bearing down on their world is, who or what actually leads it, what the geography of their land is like, what their own village is like, and how exactly their village bid farewell to their heroes. The second is character creation and involves choosing one of several pre-made characters, each of whom has some connection to one of the adventurers who has gone off to fight. Characters consist of that relationship, two Bonds to other characters chosen from a list of five (ex: ‘This person knows a secret about you.’), a Question the player will try to answer through play (ex: ‘What are you afraid of?’), and a Strength and Weakness Tally (more on those later). The characters come with gender-neutral names, so they can be played any way you wish to.

The meat of the story is in the Introducton, three Acts, Climax, and Epilogue as the players tell the tale of people left behind by the standard protagonists. Each Act moves in stages, starting and stopping with prompts. Act One, for instance, begins properly  by asking each player to say one thing that has changed since the heroes’ departure a month ago. Once that’s done, each player gets to frame a scene featuring their character, drawing in bit NPCs and other PCs as appropriate, to show how life in the village is proceeding. The Act ends with another prompt, a messenger arriving and promising to convey letters to the adventurers, which the players can then describe the contents of.

At the end of each of the three Acts the players perform a Strength and Weakness Test: each player comments on how they think every character (including their own) behaved during the act. Were they strong? Did they give into weakness? For each such comment the player will put a tally mark in the Strength  or Weakness Tally as appropriate (a character in a three player game, for example, will add three tallies to their sheet every Act).

The story proceeds as things get more dire, the messages stop coming, the character Questions get answered, and the Threat closes in. Upon reaching the Climax the Threat arrives at the village. Every character counts up their Strength/Weakness tallies and divides each by the number of players to get their points. If the majority of characters have more Strength than Weakness points, then the characters are more likely to survive, and may even win in the fight to defend their home. Other way around and the leader of the Threat shows up; even if individuals survive, the village is doomed. Either way, players take turns narrating events that occur to their characters when the Threat has arrived, spending Strength/Weakness points to do so (with the different points leading to different events).

When all the points are spent and all the events are resolved, the smoke clears and the players talk a bit about the village’s situation before getting to narrate an epilogue. Maybe the adventurers return after the battle, maybe your character didn’t make it, but either way the story has come to an end.

HotH strikes me as one of the easier games in Seven Wonders: each section of the story is framed by those prompts which can get the creative juices flowing, the bonds are solid, and the relationships with the adventurers provide plenty of material. The game also works hard to create the right atmosphere and level of creativity: the X-Card is on the table, the ability to tell someone to Do It Differently when you don’t like where they’ve gone with the story is an option, and you’re encouraged to ask for more details. The game also leans heavily into the mentality that ‘playing to lose’ can be a rewarding experience: just because your character wracks up Weakness points and maybe even perishes in the fight doesn’t mean the story can’t be fun to explore.

Heroes of the Hearth is unique in that it has a (complete) second game mode: Thus Will Shine the Dawn takes place not in a fantasy world but in a small village in Nazi-occupied France in World War II. Much of the pace and mechanics are the same, but it’s a very different angle.

Acceptable Losses

Created by Tova Näslund, Acceptable Losses is, like Rise and Fall, a story of a dystopian society. Rather than track the lifetime of that society, however, Acceptable Losses focuses on a single family, how they endure their circumstances, and how they sacrifice for one another – or strike out on their own, leaving the others to fend for themselves. With an established futuristic dystopian setting AL has 1 Game Master and 4 players (no more, no less), and estimates an average playtime of 2-3 hours.

The  premise of AL is that the characters are the four siblings of the Witkin family, living in a self-sustaining but dystopian building capable of holding hundreds of thousands of people. The higher the floor you live on, the better your social class. An ‘employee of the month’ gets to move up a floor, those who fail to fulfill their work quota get banished downwards. The Witkin siblings are currently living on a maintenance floor, not the best place to live, but they’re facing an imminent eviction. There’s one way to save a single member of the family through a marriage, but everyone has hard decisions to make.

As the broad setting and several central NPCs are already established, setup largely involves getting into details: each sibling has a location (the police department, a bar, the external wall, and the upper floors) they’re associated with and are asked to flesh out. The players can detail the Witkin family apartment. Upon being given one of the four sibling characters, each character establishes a relationship with each of their other siblings (you think one sibling is a bad influence, you idolize one of your siblings, which sibling has always been able to tell when you’re lying, etc.). Those central NPCs are fleshed out a bit more by asking the players questions, and then play begins as the family prepares to celebrate the impending marriage with the Torrez family.

Once that dinner is concluded (if it even happens), it is up to the GM to frame scenes going forward. They can place scenes within the maintenance floor or out on the external wall as characters work, and are tasked with pushing the key concepts of the game: family bonds, poverty, and oppression. As the eviction looms closer, a good AL GM will ratchet up the tension, introduce conflicts, and use those character relationships to put characters in hard situations.

Conflicts, both between players and between a player and the GM, are handled using resolution cards. In both situations a player who declares that they are engaging in a conflict (which usually is social in nature, but there can be exceptions) and states their intentions in doing so draws a resolution card. The cards dictate success or failure, but also circumstances. One reads “Yes but . . . your success draw unwanted attention.” Another reads “No, but . . . one of your relations is strengthened as a result.” What makes it interesting is that the player drawing the card doesn’t read it; they choose another player to hand it to, and that other player reads it and narrates the outcome of the conflict.

The game continues until five days have passed, and the eviction takes place (whether or not the wedding has gone ahead, and any other events over the course of the days, is up to what the players decided; nothing can stop the eviction). Like with a conflict, each player states their intention for what they do after the eviction . . . and draw and hand a resolution card to another player to find out what happens. The book recommends that even after this epilogue that the group has a Debrief session where players can talk about the game, to come down from any emotionally heavy content that came up during play.

Acceptable Losses is, page-count wise, the smallest game in Seven Wonders. It’s also one of the most restrictive: you have to have four players, you have to play the siblings (unlike, say, HotH or WTDIG there are no blank character sheets available), the large facets of the setting are well-established, and there’s a small cast of NPCs already in place. That also makes it one of the most straightforward games to play, however. While it doesn’t have an Act structure like some of the games, the established aspects of AL provide a very solid framework to play within, and there are a number of suggested scenes for the GM to try. It’s a game with a very interesting story; while some other Seven Wonders game encourage ‘playing to lose’, the Witkin family as a whole is going to lose no matter what. It’s just up to you to decide what they can do despite that.

Small Things

Created by Lynn Hardy, Small Things brings us the charming story of small creatures making sure that the Big Things (people) are kept safe and warm in their Houses. Using a Wallace-and-Gromit-ish version of 1930s-to-mid-1950s Britain as its setting, ST has 1 Caretaker for an organizer, is for 3-5 players, and estimates an average playtime of 2-3 hours.

As ST deals with the day-to-day life of a House and its inhabitants, setup first involves picking what sort of house the story takes place in: an Old House that’s seen better days, a Modern as Anything place that seems almost as if nobody lives there, a Country Cottage with outbuildings for Things to hide in, and all sorts of other options. At the Caretakers urging the players decide what the House looks like, how neat or messy it is, the emotional atmosphere of the place, how the Small Things got there, and whether or not Things From Outside (the mischievous rivals of the helpful Small Things) are lurking about. Next everyone creates the Family of Big Things (and maybe some Small People) who call the House home, such as how many of them there are, their age and status, whether or not any of them cause problems, and if there are any pets.

The actual Small Things that the players play consist of very simple pieces: a Moniker they go by, a core concept (i.e. they look after the houseplants), some Abilities (they always have Climbing and Hiding, plus two more related to their concept, i.e. Talks to the Shrubs), and a personality. Personality gets established through a series of Defining Questions (what is your Small Thing’s particular mannerism, what makes them see red, what’s the last thing they did to help around the house, etc.) that the players ask one another; there’s a handout for the Caretaker to give them. The players ask a number of them determined by how many players there are, and the Caretaker asks a few extra so that everyone had to answer four.

From there you jump right into telling the story! The players describe some things their Small Things are up to in the Prologue, before the tale proper starts, to get into character and set things in place. The Caretaker chooses or asks the players to choose what kind of story to tell (Cousin Herbert is coming over, and every Big Thing is all a flutter over it), and things proceed through a three-act structure as the characters get involved, things pick up and get more difficult, and the problems get resolved. Challenges are overcome through narrating them out, using the Abilities of a Small Thing or with multiple Small Things putting their heads together to solve the issue. There’s a fair number of ideas lying around for the Caretaker and players to use, from animals (dogs are helpful, but sometimes messy), to troubling Big Things (Collectors like to capture Small Things and put them in jars), and the Things From Outside (when you lose your keys right after you put them down, that’s a Thing From Outside hiding them on you).

Small Things is the most light-hearted, quirky, and quaint game within Seven Wonders. I keep coming back to my first descriptor, charming. It’s also the most freeform of the games; unlike the others, the Small Things aren’t attempting to resolve a specific plot or kind of plot but are creating their own, and its three-scenes-per-three-acts structure is a lot more loose. That might actually make it more difficult to play than some of the others, but there are particularly useful sidebars and appendices for ST, along with a very helpful Example of Play. Also, unique to the book, I think you could get more than one session/story out of a House and its Big and Small Things, whereas the other game are usually quite . . . final.

Nemesis 382

Created by Alex Helm, Nemesis 382: The Point of No Return chronicles the tale of a crew of explorers on the edge of a black hole, who must decide whether or not to take the plunge for science and discovery even as things go wrong and interstellar phenomena wreak havoc. Using a hard Sci-Fi setting, N382 is GM-less and  for 3-5 players with one of them acting as the Facilitator to help keep things moving, and estimates an average playtime of 3-4 hours.

N382 tells the story of the Albert Einstein III, a vessel whose crew has just completed a 20-year-long journey in cryosleep in order to explore one of the last remaining mysteries in the universe: what happens if you travel into a black hole, specifically the supermassive black hole classified as Nemesis 382? There’s not much setup to do in terms of the world, but the first question that must be answered is what kind of tone the game will take: serious sci-fi horror (think Even Horizon, hopefully with fewer daemons), off-the-wall space shenanigans, surreal transhumanism? The players also need to decide if they’ll know all the secrets the characters are keeping, or if they’ll be playing their hands close to their chest.

Characters consist of a role (one should probably be Captain), place of origin, name and appearance, reason for joining the mission, and who they left behind. Following that the players determine what their relationships with the other characters are like, and it’s important to note that those relationships don’t have to be both way: Character A might genuinely look up to Character B, but B might consider A to be a suck-up. Each player also decides whether or not, at the start of the game, their character actually wants to go through with the mission.

The story these characters go through is presented in four acts, followed by an epilogue. The first is Awakening, where the character emerge from cryosleep, and proceeds like any other story game: scenes are narrated wherein characters deal with the imminent mission, one another, and the things they’ve left behind. Act 2 is Crisis, and this is where N382’s unique mechanic comes in: a deck of Crisis cards. Each player draws several of these cards, each of which represent something going horribly wrong with the ship or among the crew as gravity begins to warp on approach. Notably, they can be put into play at any time, but each player can only resolve one card at a time. Act 3 is Phenomena, where both the Crisis deck and the Phenomena deck come into play as space-time begins to go runny at the edges. Act 4 is Even Horizon, where even more Crisis and Phenomena cards come into play, characters can die, and at the end everyone must decide whether to venture into the black hole for science or turn away in failure to spend 20 years traveling back to Earth. The Epilogue narrates a scene for every character, no matter what happens, and the players can compare their character’s opinion of going to the black hole at the beginning to their final decision.

Nemesis 382 is at its most interesting the more things go horribly wrong for the crew, and while exploring how that changes their opinion about the mission. The various Crises and Phenomena really could fit a variety of tones, as well: the Walking Dead Phenomenon could be deeply disturbing as the zombies claw their way through the ship in pursuit of the survivors, but if Chief Engineer Phil simply returns to work as if nothing has happened despite missing half his head and creeps out the NPCs, that could be hilarious. The two decks also make the game quite replayable; even if you’re using the same tone, it’sunlikely that any two games of N382 will have the same problems crop up.

Before the Storm

Created by Joanna Piancastelli, Before The Storm see our players take the role of the band of heroes who are going to have to fight to save the world . . . as they sit around the fire the night before the final battle, looking back on their adventures and saying what needs to be said before it’s too late. Almost the opposite end of the Fantasy genre spectrum from Heroes of the Hearth, BtS is GM-less and for 3-5 players with one of them acting as the Facilitator to help keep things moving, and estimates an average playtime of 4-5 hours.

BtS strives to play through an entire fantasy campaign in a single evening, starting with the chapter or session right before the end and flashing back to events throughout the story. The premise is thus: the Stormsworn have already overrun the kingdom of Andar and are closing in on Iriya; they’ll arrive with the eclipsed dawn. The characters went on a journey to acquire the Sword of the World to defeat them, and are now waiting for their arrival. Going around the table the player help to define the setting a bit more by filling in the blanks on the Setting Sheet, such as what powers the Stormsworn wield, what the Sword of the World actually is, and a VERY broad description of what the quest was like. Everyone then puts their heads together to decide what to encourage at the table (Dragons!) and discourage (a chance to preemptively use the X-Card, basically).

BtS uses a standard deck of playing cards, and they first come in during character creation. Each player gets eight cards from the deck, and can then discard them to buy options from four lists: your character’s rank, how they’re known, what they’re passionate about, and what they value. Face cards are wild. Once that’s done all the cards go back in the deck, and you put it aside as the players can choose: their name, kingdom, history, reason to strive for victory, strong belief (based on their passion), a character whose belief they disagree with, and character about whose value they know a secret. Making that disagreement known and coming up with and revealing that secret during play can each earn you a point of Destiny; those will come into play during the Final Battle.

The ‘current day’ of the story takes place in Castle Iriya the night before the battle; the Sword of the World is in hand, there’s nothing left to do but to wait, and the heroes talk amongst themselves, The actual gameplay goes in rounds, and the story leaves Castle Iriya when a player asks a question that triggers a flashback, such as “What made you join up with the rest of us?”, “When did you fall in love with another character?”, and “What have you sacrificed in the struggle against the Stormsworn?” When you do that, you draw a card and show it to everyone; in the first round you then give that card to whomever you asked the question of, but in later rounds you can choose to do that or keep the card for yourself and give the other player one of your other cards. This is important for the end of the game: characters with a majority of black cards will survive the final battle, while those with a majority of red will make the ultimate sacrifice for the world. Every card you give out shapes the climactic battle.

Face cards also mean a mark on the Battle Chronicle. More on that in the Final Battle.

Once the player asked the question has described the flashback scene, the game returns to Castle Iriya. The player who did the asking can ask the question again, or can use what they’ve learned in the flashback to say something else in-character. The answering character then responds with whatever they would say in front of the others at Castle Iriya. Point of order: while the players known what happened in the past, that doesn’t mean that all the characters do, unless the answering player included them in the flashback. Thus, whether or not to answer truthfully here at the end is up to the player.

A round continues until everyone has the same number of cards, meaning that everyone has been asked a question and described a flashback scene. Play continues until everyone has five cards. Conflicts along the way are mostly resolved by talking them out, but there’s a little flowchart that ends with flipping cards if the conflict can’t be resolved any other way. Once everyone has those five cards, dawn arrives and the final battle begins. The Facilitator reads through the Battle Chronicle, reading through every marked stage; the more that were marked over the course of play, the worse things get for the heroes. After every line of the Battle Chronicle, players may spend a point of Destiny to trade cards, potentially saving or damning someone if they change which color is the majority in a hand. 

Once the Battle Chronicle is finished, everyone picks a card from their hand, and a player draws one of those five: black means the heroes have triumphed, red means the Stormsworn have won. Every player then describes an epilogue for their character, win or lose, alive or dead, and the story comes to an end.

Before the Storm offers a new look at an old story, something that’s always worth exploring, and its mechanics of character survival and final victory are particularly interesting. The book points out that (and this really caught my eye) it only takes one red card among that final five for there to be a chance of the heroes losing; it thus might just be the case that, if black cards are slim on the ground, the players must spread the black cards out to save the world, costing the entire party their lives.

I kind of want to run BtS and Heroes of the Hearth in the same setting, now that I think of it. Only question would be which to play first.

Story games can be both the easiest and most difficult type of roleplaying game to play; they have a very limited learning curve when it comes to mechanical rules, but can be quite challenging for newcomers to roleplaying or veterans who have grown accustomed to the structure more mechanical games provide. What helps story games overcome those unique challenges and draw in players is when they’re interesting.

Every game within Seven Wonders brings something new to the table, a genuinely unique type of story that would be difficult and maybe even impossible to pull off well in any other sort of system. This book is a diverse batch of ideas from a great group of up-and-coming writers, and even just reading through the book myself has caught my attention. Any one of these games would be worth taking a look at; getting seven in one package is one heck of a bonus.

You can find a PDF version of Seven Wonders on DriveThruRPG for $14.95. You can get a physical version (which includes a PDF) for $29.95, along with a bunch of free downloads like character sheets for some of the games, at Pelgrane Press’s own site.

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