What happens when you throw together gangsters, cowboys, barbarians, samurai, steampunk and wire-fu and set the blender up to 11? Well, the potential for some truly eccentric, quirky or downright insane characters, and the award winning High Plains Samurai from Broken Ruler Games!
There were some cool things that happened in the wake of the ENnie awards. One was seeing a bunch of our favorite games from the last year do so well. I was particularly happy to see one of the most interesting concepts I had run into, the demo of High Plains Samurai: Legends, win Gold for Best Free Game, a category I had the chance to cover before the announcement. Even cooler, the nice folks over at Broken Ruler offered us an advanced review copy of the game, an offer which we could hardly pass up. So here we are, able to offer a review before the game’s official release. There’s a lot to dive into.
The first thing I have to mention is the system mechanics, drawing heavily from the Screenplay RPG which serves as the framework for a few of Broken Ruler’s settings. These mechanics are unlike anything I have ever seen before, and it makes for an interesting gameplay experience. High Plains Samurai is less of the tabletop gaming that I began with, and is closer to the rule-less story roleplaying on internet forums where I had some of my first Play by Post experiences. One phrase used by Screenplay is to call it a “Co-operative Storytelling Game”, and that seems to perfectly sum up what we have here. Yes, there are dice rolls, and ways to manipulate things to an advantage, but the goal isn’t to make your characters more powerful: it’s to tell a story, one that you and presumably others would be interested to hear. And to that end, you start by collectively deciding the type of story you want to tell.
The setting notes mostly remain the same: the old Gods have left this land, giving their all to prevent it from the scourge of their father, Chaos. Five warlords hold power over the land in an uneasy balance, positioning themselves on opposite sides of the great Wastes. Barbarians raid from the North, swarming whoever they can find. In the East, the Ministry of Iron salvages the technology of the glorious ages past, bringing it back in piecemeal steampunky contraptions, ruling through a theocracy. In the West the City of Lights is a den of overwhelming poverty and scum and villainy of every type, ruled over by a crime lord. To its South is a dense jungle, beautiful and toxic in equal measure, where a society of warriors are diligently trained and disciplined. Finally, in the Southeast is Serenity Falls, a city of gunslingers and lawlessness. In between them stretches the Wastes, where only a few are able to hash out a living.
But apart from those details, players and the GM (the “writers” and the “director”) really have a lot of leeway in how they can tell that story. This is good practice in a lot of gaming setups, as it helps get everyone on the same page as to tone and style, but HPS offers a series of prompts: are you going over over the top anime or a more subdued novel pacing? What technology level do you want to set for the general environment? What themes do you want to cover? What maturity rating do you want to give?
The setting details are nice, but you can really choose how you want to focus it. Do you want to keep focus on the post-apocalyptic nature of the setting and make survival a trial in and of itself, where you need to deal with scarcity? Do you want over the top wire-fu monks fighting steampunk mecha? Do you want to be a band of young hopefuls looking to break the cycle, or a grizzled crew who just want to survive to the next week? There is enough flexibility for all of these options to be viable, and the versatility is an appealing feature for me.
As for the mechanics…well, they are a bit tricky. I am probably not going to do it justice, but I am going to try to explain it as best I can. Players build a number of characters based on details of where they would have come from, and the basic role they would embody. Every turn as they try to resolve what happens, players paint the scenes with details and build a skill they call a “potential”. As you build a number of details of the scene, you add them up and select a die that is based on your potential, and then extra modifiers based on details of the scene, both good or bad. Then, you roll against a difficulty check for a “complication roll”. One interesting phrase is “dice rolls are not used to attempt success or failure,but as complications”. Depending on whether or not you make the difficulty level, you have success or failure, but depending on the roll being odd or even there will be a complication that swings back in favor of either the player or the NPCs. This can manifest in a few ways. Perhaps you succeed in shooting on target, but a bodyguard stops the shot…or conversely, you miss the shot, but in doing so you reveal where a hidden defender has been laying low.
I am probably overly reducing the complexity, but in terms of the balance of the book, the mechanics are a small part. Much more of the book is details of the setting, and stories that can be run. Story reigns supreme . . . and that’s not a bad thing. Min-maxers might not like it, but it might be perfect for people who like the storytelling aspect. In fact, it might be a perfect fit for Play by Post settings, as there is already a large amount of story building and detail going into the post. Naming details is even easier when you spell them out in the text itself.
All in all, I think that High Plains Samurai has a lot of adaptability and flexibility, and can be used in a lot of formats. I am not crazy in love the mechanics, but I love the story facing aspect and I would be curious to see how this pans out in a one-shot, or if it is hackable to other cinematic systems, such as Fantasy Flights Narrative Dice System. Either way, I was happy to get an early look.
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