Role-playing games are rooted in rulesets which provide a simulation to help determine what happens in-game. In most traditional games, this simulation is, in broad strokes at least, based on physics; the game provides rules intended to reflect a world which players find consistent and believable. In many recent indie games, the simulation is based on narrative; the rules define what happens next based on what makes the story either adhere to a given narrative schema or, in some cases, just more interesting. What about the middle ground, though? What would it look like if a game were simulating tropes rather than physics, but of a setting rather than a storyline? It would look an awful lot like Electric Bastionland.
Electric Bastionland is a game written by Chris McDowall which is the spiritual successor to his earlier game Into The Odd. The Kickstarter campaign wrapped up roughly a year ago and the book made it into distribution towards the middle of this year. While I’m not exactly on the ball with this game re:production schedule, I picked it up after seeing it start to appear on a few ‘Game of the Year’ lists that are wont to appear in December. I’m glad I did: Electric Bastionland takes the ‘mechanics-as-setting’ framework of games like Troika and Mörk Borg and adds a bit of needed heft. While the Failed Careers of Electric Bastionland will draw inevitable comparisons to Troika wherever you go, the robust and grounded GMing section shows you how to make the city of Bastion at your table in a way you’ll actually be able to execute on.
Electric Bastionland is, by rough definitions, an OSR game. The 1d20 mechanic and abridged attribute list (Strength, Dexterity, Charisma) pair with simple monster stat blocks to approach the OSR gold standard of adaptation, making all sorts of early D&D (and other) material easily portable. Although the injury/advancement (yes, you read that right) system of ‘Scars’ is fascinating, the sum total of the mechanics fit on one page, without much thought or consideration given to simulating anything specific. Unsurprisingly, the game does evoke the same sort of setting-forward and in-character problem solving approach that is espoused by OSR standard-bearers these days. Beyond those broad philosophical strokes, though, Electric Bastionland is not trying to be D&D in any way. Electric Bastionland is about the city of Bastion, the Deep Country around it, and the Underground beneath everything.
It’s made clear at multiple points in the book that Bastion is not a fixed vision of a city. Rather, it’s a city so large and convoluted as to be unknowable; you can get lost like it’s a forest, transit it like a subway network, or plunder it like a dungeon. There are a few fixed points: the city, as the game’s name would imply, has electricity, specifically electricity early on in its technological life when it’s still a marvel and everything is being made electrical without regard to practicality. There are Oddities, strange artifacts which only hint at the city’s strange and/or arcane past, and Mockeries, wooden simulacra modeled after animals, aliens, or even people. The few touchstones come together to imply an urban setting that’s roughly Art Nouveau or Art Deco in aesthetic, but with a lot of tropes borrowed from earlier, Victorian ideals. There’s a whole lot of leeway, of course, and much of that comes from the breadth of the Failed Careers.
The Failed Careers are a mechanical equivalent to Troika’s Backgrounds, and similar to Troika the Failed Careers make up the bulk of the Electric Bastionland text. Given that Troika came first, the Failed Careers would have to be at least written to Troika’s standard, if not better…I will not play favorites here, but I will say the Failed Careers are *at least* a match in quality and do the mechanic justice. There are a few elements that are improvements over Troika as well; first there are a few random d6 tables, unique for each Failed Career, that add an extra bit of individuality and spice to each character. Second is the debt mechanic. Each Failed Career has a party they are in debt to, but instead of each player getting a debt, the Failed Career belonging to the character of the youngest player specifies the debt for the whole party. It’s a big debt, 10,000 ‘New Pounds’ when each character starts with 1d6. But, just like that, you have instantaneous party cohesion and an instantaneous reason to go searching for treasure. And that’s pretty much the guidance the GM (here called a Conductor) has at the start: the characters are looking for a treasure, it’s located somewhere dangerous but interesting, and there is a Rival who is also pursuing it. Go. It sounds simple, but so few games actually provide such a clear starting point that can get a novice GM through an adventure. When it comes to advice for the Conductor, though, that’s not all…far from it.
Everything you need to run Electric Bastionland is contained in a 3 page section called Preparing The Game. It boils down every element that the game contains into a series of three-item bulleted lists, and it is brilliant. This might not seem like a big deal, but when you consider that the entire three sourcebooks of D&D Fifth Edition don’t manage to contain this information (I’m serious, D&D hasn’t had complete dungeon-keying mechanics for at least the last three editions), it’s a major boon for making the game playable. While ‘Preparing the Game’ is a major victory from a technical documentation sense, ‘The Odd World of Bastionland’ is the section that truly makes me want to run and/or play Electric Bastionland. The setting is presented with five core principles (which each have their own three bullets): A World Without Maps, A World Without Timelines, A World of Oddity, A World of Danger, and A World of Possibilities. From there, we go into describing the three elemental subsettings of Bastionland: The City of Bastion, the Deep Country, and the Underground. These sections are all absolute gold, giving you starting points for what’s going on within each subsetting, how to draw maps of each subsetting, how the subsettings behave, and what sorts of creatures and encounters they’re stocked with. Most of these descriptions are delivered in (you guessed it) three-bullet lists, but it’s a perfect amount of information and, given what the book intends to deliver to the Conductor, paragraphs are quite unnecessary. My favorite part of each of these sections is the guidance on maps. There are instructions provided on how to make boroughs of Bastion or different sections of the Deep Country or the Underground, which all boil down to drawing squiggly circuits with two different colors of pen, pencil, or crayon. As much as that sounds simplistic, follow the instructions and you will have a map full of hooks, one you are going to cover with notes (the game’s preferred mode of Conductor note-taking is right on the map, which I appreciate) as the game goes on.
Speaking of notes. There are so many random tables in this game, and they are clearly written by someone who knows that random tables are fun, a notion which is profoundly absent from many more self-serious games. Beyond direct inspirations to help you color parts of the setting, there are tables for signature cocktails, stylish hats, and the appearance of tunnels. I love the tables here. I love their contents, I love their length, and I love how many of them there are. Tables like this are important to games that are so setting-centric because, let’s be real, your players will end up someplace you haven’t prepped; even the prep makes this inevitable (principle one of Bastion: A World Without Maps). Encouraging you, both at the front end and the back end, to make something up and scribble it down is exactly what you need for a setting that’s made at the table. This is hardly the first game with a lot of random tables, and across the OSR random tables are often used for the same purpose. What makes these tables interesting is that they’re tied into the intent of the game more closely; push away the OSR trappings and Electric Bastionland is, first and foremost, built on ‘Play to Find Out What Happens’. The Indie and OSR movements overlap strongly in intent and philosophy, and Electric Bastionland serves as a wonderful example of learning good lessons from both groups.
Electric Bastionland makes me want to play it, but that’s not all. Electric Bastionland also shows me how it should be run, providing more guidance and direction in its Conductor Resources than pretty much any other game I’ve read this year. Like Cortex Prime, Electric Bastionland lavishes the bulk of its mechanical effort on the person running the game, and the result is that it’s just more accessible than the other games it gets compared to. Combine that with the meaty and evocative Failed Careers that players will readily be inspired by, and you have a winner. The setting is weird, the mechanics are light, and the Conductor is well-prepared. Come get lost in Bastion…you won’t leave the same.
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