I have to admit, fantasy games come to the plate with two strikes for me. The ubiquity of Dungeons and Dragons, coupled with the large number of single-game players, means that fantasy games generally need to work twice as hard to do something interesting within the existing constraints of the genre. When I first read Good Strong Hands, I saw a game that leaned hard into a very broad, often repeated conceit: A great evil is corrupting the land and you, the heroes, must stop it. Couple this with light, fairly basic mechanics, and I didn’t really know if I was going to find anything interesting in this game.
Luckily, I was wrong. While Good Strong Hands is a rules-light game, and while it absolutely leans on a simplified view of good and evil, it takes this basic struggle and makes it the centerpiece of the game. The mechanics of the Void, Shadow and Corruption, force players to make tough decisions and place the voice of evil with the GM to play with as they wish. The game does want to see its players triumph, but the risk of falling to the Void is very real and a party will likely see at least one character lost to evil in a campaign.
Good Strong Hands, brought to us by NerdBurger Games who we last saw around here at CHG with Capers, takes place in a world called Reverie. Reverie is a fantasy world, one without much concrete definition outside the sorts of characters described in the playbooks: There are fey, like the brownies, fauns, and redcaps, there are humans, creatures like stonekin and woodkin, and several avenues to play talking animals, namely the wildkin and the paragons. I’ll discuss the playbooks a bit more later, but the clear intent here is to draw a palette across a certain swathe of fantasy tropes. Fairy tale may be too limiting, not quite right, but it’s at least a place to start. This is made more clear with the built-in conceit, the Void. Reverie is not exactly a place of moral grey areas, and the Void is the monolithic evil force which is threatening the land. Just like the characters and the setting, the details are left mostly up to any given table, but there are a few things established: The Void is evil, the Void must be stopped, and the voice of the Void can taunt or tempt characters at moments of weakness.
I’m stating this as non-judgmentally as possible, but Reverie is rooted in simple fantasy ethics. There is good. There is evil. Good must triumph, evil must be stopped. We’re talking Fern Gully, we’re talking Dark Crystal, we’re talking the original trilogy Star Wars (when Light was good, Dark was bad, and the corruption of the Galactic Senate wasn’t there to muddy the waters). Even Michael Moorcock’s Law and Chaos, which went on to inspire the alignment system for Dungeons and Dragons, is more sophisticated than this. And that’s not a criticism. Sometimes you want things to be simple.
Why I think this is important and interesting is because it helped me understand who this game is for. It’s an easy trap to think that games with simpler mechanics (more on the mechanics below) are aimed towards beginners or even kids, but for the most part I don’t think this is true (there is a sidebar for running Good Strong Hands for children but it suggests cutting back on what I think are some of the more compelling parts). Good Strong Hands is intended to tell stories which make the players think about their characters and their homes. I really do think the Jim Henson approach to fantasy, what you saw in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, is providing at least some of the inspiration. It’s not that we’re going to muck about much with ethics here, there is a great evil and the world we’ve created is under attack. The game is telling you not to concern yourself with what the evil is, where it comes from, or if it can be reasoned with, but rather to look at the struggles along the way to defeat it.
The mechanics of Good Strong Hands are basic, with some neat little bits. The core mechanic is a dice pool using d6s, where difficulties are determined by adjusting target number (4,5, or 6). Characters have four attributes which they assign with point-buy, which make up the core of their pool (an average attribute has a rating of two, so two dice). These pools don’t change much; a player can gain or lose a die for an advantageous or disadvantageous situation, and they can add one die to their pool by spending Spirit (or having another player spend Spirit to assist). In total, that means the pool won’t exceed its root attribute by more than two.
Let’s talk about Spirit, though, and the other two tracks that characters, well, track. Each track has ten boxes, though in some cases the length of the track may change over the game. The Spirit track serves as ‘hero points’ for the system; the two most common uses for Spirit points are to activate Talents and to give dice pool bonuses. The Skill track is the experience point analogue for the system, once it’s filled the character may choose an improvement. The Shadow track is the most interesting track, though, and it represents the attention the character gets from the Void. Fill up the Shadow track and the character gains a corruption, gain three corruptions and the character falls to the Void, leaving the campaign permanently.
You may be thinking that a corruption mechanic is hardly that interesting. What makes it interesting, though, is what happens when you get the dice involved. There are three results possible from the dice, which you’ve likely seen before: Failure is when the character earns no successes on the dice, Success is when the character earns one success on the dice, and Success with a Boon is when the character earns more than one success on the dice. These are all fairly typical, with Success with a Boon granting an extra positive effect (i.e. in combat the roll would count for an extra hit), but they also all earn a box on one of the tracks. A failure earns you a box on the Skill track as you learn from your mistakes (XP for failure, pretty typical). A success earns you a box on the Spirit track as you’re bolstered (Spirit recharges pretty quickly, good to know). A success with a boon earns you a box on the Shadow track, as the Void takes notice of your heroics. That is interesting. A corruption mechanic that demands engagement is, ironically, more typical in morally grey fantasy; the best examples I can think of of games with corruption mechanics that demand engagement at this level would be urban fantasy games like Urban Shadows and Vampire: the Masquerade. The shadow mechanic here is a bit more blunt about the seduction of evil, complete with the repeated advice that the GM speak to the characters directly as the Void. On a more mechanical side, Shadow is also brutally effective at ending characters; there is no way to remove Shadow once you’ve taken it other than by gaining a corruption, and removing a corruption after the character has already gained it is both expensive and permanently shortens the Shadow track. What’s more, there is even a suggested campaign structure (the ‘Three Phase Campaign’) which makes the characters gain Shadow even faster. This means that it’s almost always a good idea for characters to avoid taking Shadow, and the best way to do that is to spend Spirit to avoid taking Shadow when a Success with a Boon is rolled. Characters also gain Shadow every time they kill a sapient creature, which further drives the point home that these are stories about good triumphing over evil…but you need to be good.
The tracks and the dice drive the gameplay, but the characters are built out in playbooks, akin to many Powered by the Apocalypse games. While all characters have the same attributes, the playbooks provide a list of Talents which make the characters more unique, as well as Corruptions which are seductively powerful. The playbooks are species-based, though, and in all honesty that was a big place that I got 1980s fantasy movie vibes. Sure, the stonekin may remind me of Rockbiter, but the idea of how you assemble a party is more what I was thinking. While it’s not said outright, Apocalypse World’s notion of being ‘The’ playbook within the setting is implied, especially for the person who chooses the Human, who has come to Reverie from our more mundane world. Although Good Strong Hands does put forth the tropey ideal of a mixed party, the guidance in the game about choosing and defining characters as well as further defining the world pretty much always defaults back to the interests of the particular group playing the game and what they want their story to look like.
The storytelling section of Good Strong Hands is interesting because it completely departs from the dungeon and/or monster paradigm which makes up so much of fantasy. Like it did for the Playbooks, here Good Strong Hands once again lifts from PbtA and provides a clock-like mechanic for tracing the setpiece mechanical challenges within each of its adventures. Unlike clocks, though, these challenge tracks have specific conditions for marking each box in the track, and certain boxes are highlighted as milestones, at which point something happens. While these setpiece challenges may seem a bit scripted as a result, they provide a solid pacing mechanism that need not require a combat system to balance correctly. Not only does this make the challenge track portable for the GM, it also makes it easier to track player progress even if they’re doing something creative or unusual to overcome the challenge.
The stories themselves are aligned with the tropes we’ve seen so far, but they’re decently well done and walk the line between giving the GM enough context and structure but also letting the players figure out their own approach as well. There are 16 stories, adventures which would take up a session or two. There are also three trilogies, which each have three segments which are about the same length as the earlier stories, though a bit more complex. Each segment leads from one into the other to form a more complete arc, probably 3-5 sessions worth of play. The leads from one segment of a trilogy to the next are a bit more linear than some of the content within the stories, but still serve as good worked examples of plot arcs. There’s a lot of good material here, and even if a GM didn’t want to stick with pre-written material the number of examples of challenge tracks make it much easier to prep an adventure or two that provides the appropriate feel for Reverie. In addition to the straight story material there are some additional resources in the GM’s chapter, mainly about magic items and monsters. The magic items section is interesting in its intent, as the game steers you away from the buff-driven magic items of classic D&D and more towards MacGuffin-style items from books and movies, things with limited but potentially plot-bearing use. The monster section reiterates the discussion of killing sapient creatures and backs that up with a number of potential non-sapient bad guys that can be struck down without consequence. The Void-aligned creatures is a section of particular note; several of the Void-aligned creatures have avenues by which they can be saved from the Void, which provides a really neat combat alternative for these powerful monsters. The Void Scion, though, is the Void incarnate, and has PC-level access to Corruptions and abilities, making it a truly challenging foe.
What surprised me about Good Strong Hands is that, underneath a game championing fair play and good triumphing over evil, is a system that makes playing hardball not only easy, but the default. In an interesting way, Good Strong Hands fits, mechanically speaking, closer to games like Twilight:2000 and Torchbearer where using the dice is something that comes with risk, sometimes a lot of risk. That said, couching the Shadow mechanics in this whimsical setting with a lot of opportunities for player input and investment is pretty clever. The game is setting players up to struggle, but also giving them all the opportunities they need to build something they want to struggle for. If you want the vibe of an 80s fantasy adventure movie, but maybe aren’t looking to pick up a licensed game like Labyrinth: the Adventure Game, then I’d take a good hard look at Good Strong Hands.
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