The Independents: Sundown

Life on the road in Sundown is tough; you have to savor rest when you can get it. I’ve been a guest at the Ruelas homestead for the past week. They’ve treated me to hot meals, a bed, and have promised me a bag of coin if I can help them deal with their bird problem. They’re good folk, fond of the Fiendswatch even on a safe day. But today ain’t safe.

Welcome to Sundown, a game for monster hunters, transhumanist revolutionaries, and everyone in between. Get ready to leave our world behind and explore the beautiful and brutal land where still water flows deep and death waits behind every bend.

Sundown is a low tech science-fantasy game set in a captivating frontier that shares its name with the system. It’s the debut RPG of Grasswatch Games, a team of two magnificent queer disabled creators who have brought themes of belonging and becoming to the forefront. If you are looking for a rules-light game full of intentionality and charm in equal parts, this is a game to check out. Sundown’s main strengths are its deeply unique setting, its laser focus on themes of marginalization, and the care with which Grasswatch has baked a healthy table culture right into the rules.

Setting

When the thing attacks, I almost don’t notice it in time. There is a twinkle of red and gold in the tall grain field, and then a shrieking Sunplumed Murderbird leaps out, charging at the first moving thing it sees—charging at me. I’ve done this a hundred times though, and the beast isn’t fast enough to break through the spin of my blade. Its head drops ten feet from its still thrashing body.

There’s a place for you in Sundown, way out across the mighty sea. It’s a hard land full of monsters and menace, but it’s the kind of land you can call home. Whether your passion is making the world a safer place, exploring the dangerous wilderness, or just earning a bit of coin, there is something for you here. You can be who you want to be.

The setting of Sundown is something of a cross between low-tech science fantasy and the wandering heroism of the Wild West. There is no magic per se, but there are eccentric technological advancements that have proliferated everything from magnet powered hand-cannons to a plethora of mutations and body modifications. These physical changes are one of the main hooks for the Sundown setting. Scientists of Sundown can give you wings or scales, turn your blood into pitch, or enhance your body with the fiendish strength of the monsters that stalk the plains. Combat is usually close and deadly; blade and bow are common, though earn enough and you might be able to afford a gun. Most adventurers embrace the body-hacking abilities of science, and use their changes to mold their bodies to fit their will. This is a system and setting primed for weird adventures in a wild land, and highlights the personal, character-rich impact that adventuring through Sundown has.

The creatures of Sundown are uniquely suited to the deadly frontier they live in. You won’t find any goblins or trolls in here—instead you’ll have to face an entirely new set of spliced-together enemies. One of the common beasts you will encounter in the wilderness is the Crowdog, a bird-wolf hybrid which can mimic human voices. A more uncommon (and personally frightening) creature is the Eggtree, a fleshy, moving plant which spends most of its time being horrible and dispensing egg-sacs across the countryside. The monster with the most in-game lore is the Frogbeast, a bat-winged frog the size of a house who enjoys ambushing unwary adventurers on the road. There is an in-fiction short story included with Sundown which highlights these great croaking behemoths, and the heroes who fight them. Other notable baddies include Wingcats, Whipsnails, and the aptly named Sunplumed Murderbird.

Most of your time in Sundown will be spent in one of the colorful towns and villages that dot the landscape, or in the wilderness between civilization. Grasswatch Games has written an interesting collection of settlements, once again defying standard fantasy tropes. In Sundown you can find places such as Scholar, a town built in the ruins of an ancient city, dwarfed by the giant pyramid rising out of the nearby lake. Another town, Grasswatch, is home to the Fiendswatch—a super-powered monster hunting mercenary company. New Dignity, ruling place of the High Celebrant, is off-limits to everyone except members of The Church, one of the three religious orders that has made its way to Sundown from the mainland. There’s a town where residents mine for floating rocks, a woodland village ruled by a family of lumberjacks, and a fishing community alternatingly plagued by a cult that worships evil squids, and another cult that worships evil scarecrows. The Setting of Sundown is unique, evocative, and meshes incredibly well with the themes that the game brings to the table.

Gameplay

But even I get careless sometimes. I don’t expect the firebird to have a friend. A blinding shimmer of feathers with blades attached crashes into my back as I dispatch the first, and sends me sprawling. I slay this one too, but not before it can tear a hole the size of a dinner plate in my chest. I stand up, stumble, almost pass out. Black blood seeps out of me like sap, then stills. If it weren’t for my Pitchblood, I’d be dead. I crawl my way back to the homestead, ready for a long rest and a big dinner. Folks all around know Sylvia Ruelas makes the best damn fowl roast you can find this side of the sea.

Sundown is a rules-light, narrative-heavy game that relies on a single six-sided die to resolve conflicts. My impression is that this is a game focused on large, important moments rather than every single swing of a sword or every lie you tell. The resolution mechanics are simple and approachable: when you partake in a task with great risk and reward, the GM sets a difficulty from 1 to 9. Roll your d6, add 1 for every trait you have that applies to the challenge, and see if you pass. Interestingly enough, degrees of success matter in Sundown, a success of 3 greater than the difficulty is a critical success, and means you perform above and beyond your expectations, while a failure of 4 or more degrees is a critical failure, which bears more dire consequences. Larger challenges may take multiple successes to overcome, but overall it is an incredibly simple system meant to highlight your character’s unique abilities and equipment, and make every one count.

Traits in Sundown are freeform and creative. Instead of spending points on individual skills such as lockpicking or acrobatics, your character takes narrative titles of three words or less which describe something about their experience or proficiency. One character may take the trait Eyes Like a Hawk, to highlight their sharpshooter training, while another may label themselves as Overprotective, highlighting a different aspect of their past. Your six starting traits are generated during character creation by answering a set of questions about your past, including where you are from, what your occupation was, and who you have relationships with. The character creation system is very open-ended, but forces you to develop a well-rounded character who didn’t just pop up in a tavern one day, ready to hunt monsters. You are also allowed to declare a couple traits as Aspects, a special type of trait which represents physical changes that make your character unique. A character aspect of Eyes Like a Hawk might mean that not only are you trained as a sharpshooter, but you also had your eyes scientifically enhanced to see things miles away, while an aspect of Pitchblood means you are filled with sticky black blood that helps heal your wounds when you get in a scrap.

Character advancement is also easy to wrap your head around: as you do dangerous things, you gain Infamy, a currency which allows you to buy new traits, items, and upgrades. Infamy is both a currency and a pacing element—the GM can gate currency at a certain point to stop characters from becoming too powerful, and to keep tension and risk of failure in the game. All the same, there is a wide variety of loot and enhancements to spend your hard-earned Infamy on.

Conclusion

I think it’s best to highlight that the text of Sundown isn’t really focused on being mechanically revolutionary. This isn’t the game to pick up if you are looking for cutting edge conflict resolution or well defined ludonarrative harmony. Grasswatch sacrifices a bit of technical complexity to create a game that is uniquely approachable, and hyper focused on setting and theme. Sundown is leaps and bounds ahead of other games in the realm of exploring marginalized identities and creating a healthy table culture to play in. This is a game which has an entire section on gender, a setting with an almost aspirational view of how nonbinary people can fit into a fictional setting, and instructions on how players can use the game to explore gender in a healthy, respectful way. It’s a game that celebrates queerness, destigmatized disability, and wrestles with the sins of colonialism. Sundown isn’t a game for every table, but I think it will make any table better for engaging with it.

Sundown’s Kickstarter is already funded, and approaching its stretch goal of upgraded physical book quality. A PDF of the game will run you $15, and physical copies start at $30. While the rules are not publicly available, the prerelease version of the game I got to read is pretty much complete, and I think it is a quality product. There has also been a more in-depth first look review by Adam Koebel, one of the authors of Dungeon World, which digs even deeper into the actual text. If you are captivated by the themes and setting of Sundown, then I would highly recommend giving the game a look. The publisher can be found on Twitter at Grasswatch Games, and the minds behind Grasswatch are L A Wilga and Nova.


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