You had heard the whispers for a long time: someone up high was on the take, and people who stepped out of line had a habit of vanishing. The town had been a hive of villainy long enough, what was a couple more people on the take…but things got stranger. There was a buzz on the street and strange rumors: people vanishing and returning a bit off, politicians showing up dead and eaten from the inside out. But it was none of your business until she walked in…she had legs for days, just not in the way you thought…and her idea of biting your head off turned a bit too literal for your taste. Before, you might have chalked it up to a bad client, but now…now you’re in too deep and if you’re not careful, you’ll be left as just a shell, a reminder of your former self, an . . . Exuviae.
What is exactly going on? Well, in the Exuviae the seaside town the players live in is the home of an insect cult conspiracy. All insects are smarter than the average human, from the ants building a nest in your backyard, to the army of cockroaches in a filthy apartment…and don’t be surprised if that army of cockroaches becomes indistinguishable from a single human, empowering lumbering shells so that they can walk among us. The insect cult has their own factions and conspiracies, and their own human shill to help their aims, but goals are purposefully murky, rife for backstabbing, red herrings, and dames with something to hide (only, you know, compound eyes or extra legs) .
I have a weakness for all things noir, starting from the cheesy noir of Bill Waterson’s “Tracer Bullet” storylines in the Calvin and Hobbes comics of my youth. As a result, I have found myself drawn to a lot of games that have a noir feel, such as the Dresden Files and City of Mist. However, these tend to be more “action noir”. Exuviae is unique in how it causes the story to unfold. I hesitate to use the word “mechanics” to describe the rules, because usually that means there is a type of machinery to have quantitative results that allow a planned encounter to develop. This machinery is what GMs typically use to construct an encounter and offer a challenge, while players use it to construct a character that they think will handle certain challenges well.
Of course, this can run into difficulties no matter what type of adventure: GMs can have problems scaling the difficulties, to the point where it’s impossible for players to succeed , causing them to be teased with the idea that they are missing something they don’t have the capacity to uncover. Alternately, players sometimes completely blow through a challenge that the mystery depends on, or immediately suss out a secret that was supposed to be the complication. It’s a challenge facing all mechanical systems, but while a GM can often improvise in other genres, that challenge is more difficult here because the whole point of a mystery is to uncover the truth. If it’s already found, what next?
Exuviae completely bypasses this by being a pure storytelling game. Characters are given background and players answer a few questions to offer their motivation and what levers they can push on, but there’s no such thing as skill points. The GM comes in with no defined mystery that needs to be solved, and part of the fun and the challenge is making one up as the players go along. As such, the setup is meant to bring in nongamers to the storytelling without getting bogged down in how optimal a character they should be. Characters are encouraged to not be professional detectives, but ordinary people who have uncovered something . . . something eerie and icky lurking below the surface of their coastal town. As players make their investigations, they choose to codify “truths” of what is happening, in which they make a discovery and decide what is true. It’s the GM’s responsibility to keep the story on something of a track, and keep tying in previous elements to make an interesting conspiracy. But this leaves an important question: how do you decide what happens next?
Play progresses in an interesting ruleset that uses a deck of playing cards in something loosely based on solitaire. Face cards are removed from the deck and the remainder are shuffled together. Three piles of four cards are dealt out to act as “exuviae”, and three cards are dealt as the “conspiracy”. In the real world, the word exuviae refers to the leftover exoskeleton from a molt, but in game the phrase refers to a clue that the insect cult has left behind: a pair of glasses made for compound eyes, or a gin bottle full of writhing maggots that move to the nearest person, or something else interesting players have come up with. When players investigate one of these, they flip over one of the cards in the pile. When they try to investigate something else, the players flip from the rest of the deck. The card number functions as a die result, but with a limiting factor: in theory, a die can come up 20 at any point, but there are only 4 aces in a standard deck, and only an Ace can resolve a task that the GM rates as “challenging”. This means that players can succeed on those tasks four times in a game, but if they are keeping count on the cards that have been played they may be able to gauge their luck better.
For every challenge the GM assigns a difficulty, and adjudicates the result depending on the card drawn. Generally speaking, the more difficult a task the higher a number needs to be drawn to succeed entirely, and you’re more likely to get a mixed result. If the drawn card is the same suit as any in the conspiracy, or the same number as any of the suits, it can be added to the Conspiracy. If not, it goes into one of three waiting piles in front of the players called the “Grip”, where unplayable cards are stacked on top of each other. If, as the variety of suits or numbers in the conspiracy grows, the top card of the grip matches the number or suit, it can be pulled off the top of the stack. However, only the top card in these three piles can be played, meaning that players need to strategize how they store cards that they turn over that aren’t immediately playable, as it might lock a playable clue until the card above it is freed.
As play progresses, and more cards are added to the Conspiracy (specifically a new suit comes into play), face cards are shuffled into the remaining deck, reflecting the danger that the players are getting in by kicking the hornet’s nest (possibly literally as well as figuratively). When these face cards are drawn, the insect cult has gotten directly involved and interrupts what you would have been successful at.
Here is where I run into one potentially game stopping issue: there are no rules for ending the game, either in the rules or in the “how to play” video the developers put out online. In theory, I suppose that it’s the GMs job to tie things together into a satisfying narrative conclusion, or some kind of stopping point, but I don’t see any support on how to do so. For such an interesting and innovative system, it seems to leave people hanging for when they are trying to stick the landing.
The rest of the rather short rulebook (38 pages) is background details on the workings of the cult, and how the creatures operate, as well as a couple of details to help get into the noir theme (such as some cocktail ideas). In the end, it’s a rather short rulebook for a mostly systemless game, but it results in a ruleset that has taken repeated rereading to get something of a handle on, and I still anticipate some difficulty in trying to wrap up the game. This is probably the biggest learning curve and stumbling block for new players, but I still think the game has promise once you get an experienced storyteller to run it.
You can get yourself a copy of Exuviae: Relics of House Dragonfly on DriveThruRPG.
Thanks to creator Sean Smith for sending us a copy to review!
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