Bargain Bin Gaming: The Aether Sea and Hocus Focus

We’re trying something a little bit different this week. Previous installments for The Independents have covered a couple of free to play or “pay what you will” games, such as The Agency and the Ennie nominees for Best Free Game, and I’ve found these to be really insightful. A lot of time and effort goes into making these games, and it is really a wonder that it’s possible that they can be distributed free of charge. It was to my surprise to find that there really is so much out there available to prospective gamers. They are sometimes expansions, or skins of a preexisting system, but with a preponderance of SRDs available on the internet it’s quite possible to get a game going, and free games have a way of just kicking off an idea that helps get people around the table. It is in this vein that I would like to check out free (or very cheap) games that can be easily acquired for a quick game night! And it just so happens that our good friends at Evil Hat have some really nice Pay What You Will and Free games!

The Aether Sea

Developed by Edward Turner, The Aether Sea is one part Lord of the Rings and one part Firefly, formed into Fate Accelerated mechanics. The overall story is that a world of fantasy one day grew too powerful in magic, with each species continuously at war with each other, and the whole lot of them began to lay the entire planet to waste to the point where it was near uninhabitable. Just as things looked dire, a human put together an operation taking contributions from all species creating the first aethership: a craft capable of escaping gravity and surviving the aether beyond. Even more impressive, the man did so while accomplishing a truly impressive feat: getting all the parties to sign over the patents to him. Not only did his invention allow the races to flee the dying planet of Homeworld, it made him fabulously wealthy and helped form a Hegemony of core planets which act as a central government. Players are travellers throughout the aether, trying to grind out a living.

One of the first downsides is that this game does require access to or familiarity with Fate Accelerated, as it doesn’t provide any information about how dice rolling works, and doesn’t really flesh out the concept of Aspects. If you know how it works, then you are fine. I do enjoy the somewhat guided nature of the character creation system.  The ideas of High Concept and Trouble are the same, but like other fantasy games, you choose a race. While you aren’t bound to that race’s stereotypes, each has a Preferred Approach from among the six Approaches from Fate Accelerated. For that approach, any roll that comes up as -1 or below as the final result is treated as zero. As the game puts it, “It’s not that a favored approach is something you’re especially good at, it’s just something that’s hard for a creature like you to fail at too much.”

After that, players build an Aspect that relates to where they come from such as “Hegemony Heir”,  and one for their Ship such as“Doesn’t Look Like Much But Got It Where It Counts”. I especially like the Ship aspect of this creation process. As Seamus discussed, having a place feel like home to the party is a big deal, and this mechanic really ties characters to that ship and makes players invested in it. The ship is also built with aspects too, furthering the tie to players.

My biggest problem with the game is that there isn’t really a lot of motive force provided by the system itself. They do have a beginning adventure, but the overall structure doesn’t have a guiding push to action. Most games offer an immediate start to the problem clock: D&D has gold and levels to gain, PbtA games help jump start events by building the game, and Blades in the Dark feels out the type of crew that players want to be, and gives the GM a running start. Even Traveller, one of the most open ended systems that I have run across offers a pretty clear direction: you need to pay off your ship. I don’t really get that in Aether Sea. The Hegemony are vaguely officious and overly bureaucratic but there isn’t anything in particular that is sinister, and by starting with the ship free and clear there isn’t anything immediate for the GM to throw at players.

Hocus Focus

On a lighter note, Evil Hat also produces a Dresden Files themed Fiasco playset by the title of Hocus Focus. It’s more of an add-on, but it tickled me a bit and I was curious to take a look to see what the game was about. The overall premise is pretty close to the original: a bunch of flawed people come up with a bad plan that falls apart in dramatic fashion, and a story is formed by your relationship to the people there and an incident that turns the situation on its head called the Tilt. The difference? The Tilt is Harry Dresden, to quote a character in the books  “Gandalf on crack and an IV of Red Bull, with a big leather coat and a .44 revolver in his pocket”, and the players are all the monsters, fey and otherwise clued-in predators that prowl Chicago.

As is standard, a lot of the connections, drives, and complications are determined by a six sided dice roll, playing along in rounds as things are set to spin out of control. It’s mostly basic, but there is a nice touch included with the return of the “margin notes” from DFRPG by characters of the series. Billy the werewolf game designer is at it again, and Bob and Harry are happy to snark about bad guys and Harry’s poor lucky when getting clients. The playset is light, and you certainly can’t run Fiasco with it on its own, but it gave me a smile, and if I was in a DFRPG game and we didn’t meet quorum it would be a great stand in.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this new segment. If there are any PWYW or Free games you would recommend that we review, let us know in the comments or on Twitter @HungryHalfling and @WHalfling.

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