Immortal beings returning to a home long left behind, discovering what’s remained and what’s changed. Treason and death on a long march to safety. A curse, a tree, and the pages of a journal documenting the whole self-inflicted tragedy. Extreme tactical joy-giving (’tis the season, after all). It’s time to cap off 2020 by taking a look at a wide variety of indie tabletop roleplaying games – each of which you could enjoy on their own, sure, but until the end of the year you can get 25 games in the Ind of the Year Bundle!
The Bundle has three tiers: $10 will get you six games, $25 will get you an additional six, and $50 will get you all 25 games (24 tabletop RPGS and one video game, actually). Now, full disclosure: you can find some Cannibal Halflings lurking in the crowd. Thomas and I both have an entry in the $50 tier – but you can check out The Spider and the City and QUILL.exe: Transmissions from the Black on your own time to find out what your beloved CHG writers have been up to. I’m going to be focusing on the other games that getting involved in this introduced me to – if it’s still December 2020 when you read this, you can take advantage of the Bundle, but after that you’re still going to want to give each of these games a look.
“You are an immortal being able to travel through space. You left your home once you were of age, just like those around you. In your travels, you met new people and new places, those experiences shape who you are. Even when the path was met with hardship, you had the will to keep going. But now you miss home.
Maybe it’s okay to go back.“
Brought to us by Naïve Star (Mayara Barros and Igor B. Batista), Saudade is a map-drawing narrative game for 1-6 players. Saudade is a Portuguese word defined as “a feeling of deep longing for something it is to miss intensely, but it most often than not a positive feeling, a certainty that what is no longer here will always be with us.” With immortal beings returning home to see what remains, what has changed, and what the future holds, it promises an emotional experience, but not a fraught one.
Aside from the ten-page-game itself you’ll need some blank paper, something to write with, and a deck of cards. Setup is handled by each player marking on the map where they land on their old homeworld, something they see (a geographical landmark of some kind), and something they remember (something from the past that is still standing).
The game then plays out across three acts, gradually filling in the map with more details. In the first the characters are exploring their surroundings, drawing cards to prompt what they mark on the map and what they describe (an Ace means your childhood home is still standing, while a 2 means a new sentient species has made this their home). The second act involves the characters building something for the future, either improving something that is already on the map or creating something new, with cards determining how long the projects take and what kind of impact they have. The final act has a new generation coming of age and getting ready for their own journey, with our immortal beings deciding whether to get involved with the preparations and whether or not they stay or depart afterwards.
Part world-building exercise, part creative writing, part cooperative storytelling. It’s a fun exercise even as a solo game, although I do think it would shine a bit more with multiple players; the ability in Act 2 to help or hinder the projects of other characters doesn’t get to carry the same weight if you’re practicing creative cartography solo.
On its own you can get Saudade for $5, and you can get it as part of the Bundle’s $50 level (which give the game an individual cost of $2, if you do the math).
“This tabletop roleplaying game is inspired by the popular friendship wrecking videogame “Among Us”. Because, you know, if you’re willing to sacrifice a friendship to a game, might be better if you make it extra memorable and say goodbye to that friendship with a narrative flair!”
Nuno Teixeira didn’t just write Werewolf-In-Space-The-Video-Game-The-TTRPG. Yes, there are traitors hidden among the innocent, and yes people are going to die horribly while the paranoia ramps up, and yes the game ends with either the traitors all dead or the victims wiped out. But there’s less random murder in Electrical and more prompt-driven narrative storytelling – interspersed with, yes, some random murder.
You’ll need some six-sided dice, an opaque bag to put them in, and a token of some kind along with the rules to play. For setup, you put the same number of dice as there are players – 4 to 6 – in the bag. You then put two more dice – traitor dice – in the bag as well; it’s not stated outright, but you’re going to want to be able to tell these dice apart from the rest. Players take turns picking a die out of the bag and looking at it in secret. Drawing a normal die means you’re a Survivor, drawing a traitor die means you’re a Traitor. There are now 0-2 Traitors in the game – time to start playing!
There are four Scenes in the game, each playing out the same way in terms of rules. A Leader is elected by the players to run the scene (they’re the one who gets the token). They fulfill Scene Requirements, which are a bit of mad libs to set up a scene such as “You are in an unfamiliar place. It’s a ___ with a very peculiar ___” or “No more ___ – fear urges you to ___.” Next, starting with the Leader, players take turns answering the Scene Prompts, like:
- “You find something useful. What is it?”
- ” (Other player) eyes you suspiciously. Play it.”
- “Desperation. You resort to ___.”
Once all the prompts have been dealt with, each player rolls a d6 in secret, and then everyone takes turns announcing their result; Survivors have to answer honestly, while Traitors can lie. The number of odd-numbered results determines what happens – nothing, the group chooses someone to die, or the Leader dies. Dead characters can still play (“perhaps they are now an (un)friendly ghost”), although they skip the dice-rolling and murder part. Everyone gets to talk about who they think the Traitor is, then a player narrates the end of the scene and how they move on – until they reach theoretical safety, and either celebrate their survival or succumb to still-living Traitors.
With the deaths being somewhat random, and even the death of the Traitor(s) being no guarantee that the killing will stop – a group of all Survivors is simply in the hands of the capricious dice gods – Traitor! actually isn’t very well equipped for friendship destroying, it’s own jokes aside. Instead you get to tell a story of paranoia among a dwindling party as safety beckons in the distance, probably without throwing your phone across the room because you can’t figure out the card swiping task.
As mentioned, Traitor! is for 4-6 players, but 4 might be the sweet spot – it means everyone will get a chance to be the Leader, and most of the scenes have four Prompts to work with, so you won’t have to double up.
On its own you can get Traitor! for $3, and you can get it as part of the Bundle’s $25.00 tier.
The Chained Oak
“Each day you will attempt to chain the oak so that its branches can not fall.
But beware. One storm can undo all of your hard work and tear your tree from the earth. Destroying your family in the process.
Each evening you’ll sit with your journal. Thinking about what you’ve done and writing eulogies for those who have died because of your callous frozen heart.”
As the story from Alton in Staffordshire England goes, the Earl of Shrewsberry was traveling home one night when his carriage was forced to stop by a strange beggar women appearing in the road. The beggar asked for a single coin, but in his greed the Earl heartlessly rebuked her. The woman laid a curse on the Earl, telling him that whenever a branch from a nearby oak tree fell, a member of his family would die. The Earl didn’t believe her . . . until it happened, and the Earl ordered his servants to chain up the tree in a way to prevent any more branches from falling. The Chained Oak is a single-player journaling game from Starshine that puts you in this story – as the Earl.
You’ll need a deck of playing cards, a single six-sided die, a way to keep a journal, ten tokens, and some table space. You draw 25 cards and lay them out face down to build your tree on the table, a ‘trunk’ of seven cards in a vertical column and six three-card-long branches (two branching off from the third card up, two from the fifth, and two from the seventh). Once you’ve got the tree set up you can flip the cards face-up. The goal of the game is to survive 10 storms (hence the tokens) with at least one branch of your tree still intact. Spoiler alert: it’s not going to be easy.
Each ‘day’ you draw a card from the deck. The card will provide you with a prompt for writing a journal entry (“Why didn’t you give the beggar money? for a 2 and “How many more days do you think you can survive?” for an Ace, for example), which you’ll be using later. Right now, you compare the card you just drew to your tree – if your drawn card has the same suite as a card in the tree, you can place the drawn card atop it as a ‘chain’ – you cannot stack chains on top of one another. Next, you roll that d6. Less than five, no storm, carry on. 5+, you roll the d6 again, and draw that many cards from the deck. You compare your drawn cards to the tree, and if any of the cards match by face value, the relevant card is removed from the tree. If it instead matches a chain, the chain gets removed, sparing the tree card underneath it from the blow. Then place a token next to the tree.
If a branch has become disconnected from the trunk, it falls. If all three cards of a branch are removed, it has fallen. If a card gets removed from the trunk, everything above it falls – and yes, this means that if the first, second, or third card from the bottom gets removed, it’s Tree Falls Everyone Dies. Shuffle all the cards that have been draw or removed back into the deck, then draw a number of cards equal to the number of branches that have fallen. These cards will give you information on which family member(s) died as a result of the curse you brought upon your family (a 2 of Diamonds means you lost a parental figure who was a scholar, while a Jack of Spades means your cousin the writer has perished). Then you write your journal entry using the prompt and including a eulogy for each of the deceased, and a new day begins. This continues until all the branches have fallen – you have failed, your family is doomed, the tree will regrow and collapse as many times as is necessary to slay everyone you care for – or ten storms have passed/ten tokens are next to your tree and at least one branch remains, meaning you may be able to make amends and free your lineage from the curse.
This is by no means a happy game: The Chained Oak is about well and truly rubbing a character’s face in the consequences of their own callousness and the futility of their efforts to avoid those consequences. It tells an interesting tale, however, and the allure of that long-shot of hope that you’ll weather the storm is a compelling challenge.
On its own you can get The Chained Oak for $7, and you can get it as part of the Bundle’s $25.00 tier.
“You’re part of an elite joy-giving task force. Your mission is to acquire a target, study their need, find the suitable solution, and deliver the goods without a trace.
Welcome to the Yule Army.”
The heftiest of this particular Ind of the Year quartet, Secrets of the Masquerade‘s Yule Army is also the most traditional in terms of design – there’s a party, there are stats, there’s character advancement, there’s a
game master Story Leader, and most importantly there’s not a singular guided experience to be had, with adventures of your own creation hitting the table. After all, making the world a better place without looking for any reward or recognition certainly sounds like it could be a long-running campaign.
Enter the kind-hearted and determined Squad of Specialists who will be our player characters. The Yule Army is very secretive in order to preserve the magic of their good deeds, and while the characters might not have succeeded in catching a Yule Army Squad in the act they at least got themselves noticed and recruited. Each Specialist has varying ability across five Archetypes: Know-it-all, Jock, Streeter, Weirdo, and Chatter. A Specialist will be Great at one, Good at two, and Bad at two. Specialties are specific things a character is good at, more specific than an Archetype (Sneak, Chit-chat, Make Puppy Eyes, etc. you’re inventing your own) and thus useful if they can be brought to bear – each character starts with one Exceptional, two Great, and three Good.
When a Specialist attempts something, they roll a d20. Actions can be classified as Easy, Normal, Hard, and Impossible, and these difficulty monikers determine what number you’ll need to meet or beat in order to succeed. However, how good you are at doing something also comes into play. For instance, a character who needs to sneak into a house to plant a gift under a tree and who is Exceptional at Sneak doesn’t have to roll at all if the Story Leader says it’s an Easy or Normal difficulty, and will need a 7+ for a Hard and a 10+ for an Impossible. If they were merely Good at Sneak they would need a 7+ for easy, 10+ for Normal, 15+ for Hard, and will outright fail at Impossible.
This moving X-Y axis of difficulty is a little finicky for me personally, although it makes sense – if you’re good at something it’s easier, if you’re bad at something it’s a rough time. I’d advise printing out the page that has the Difficulty vs Rank chart on it for everyone, or write up some index cards or something, so figuring out what you need to roll can run a little smoother. There are also some optional rules, like Natural 20s and 1s, and even suggestions for playing without dice or difficulty ratings (i.e. rock-paper-scissors).
Being a part of the Yule Army means going on Operations, each of which has a Target. You’re going to need to observe the Target to find out what they really need, first; it’s joy-giving, not gift-giving, so while getting someone a physical present might well do the trick the objective may be a fair bit more intangible. Several example Operations are given, and options floated for what to get the Target range from warm slippers to simple companionship, from car repairs to the trust and love of the Target’s children. Once you’ve figured out what kind of joy delivery system you’re going to use, you then need to get it, and then you need to get it to the Target with them being none the wiser as to who is responsible. After every successful Operation a Specialist can gain a rank in a Specialty or gain a new Good Specialty, and after every five Operations they can instead gain a rank in an Archetype.
SotM describes Yule Army as an ’empathy tool’, and hopes that it will inspire the players to make someone else’s Yule better in the real world. Let me put it this way – if CHR Episode 4 was being recorded this year instead of last one, Yule Army would have been my holiday gaming recommendation. Good thing I can recommend it now, though.
On its own you can get Yule Army for $2.49, and you can get it as part of the Bundle’s $10.00 tier.
Four great games out of a total of twenty-five . . . that leaves a lot of games unaccounted for. And there’s that pesky #1 in the title of this article.
Give these games a closer look, and until 12/31/20 consider getting them as part of the Ind of the Year Bundle 2020. If you need more convincing (or if it’s the future and you just want to check out more individual games), swing by later in the month as I continue to bring back more Ind of the Year gems from the depths of the Indie Frontiers!
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