You are small people who walked into a big war. The Doomslord’s forces were gathered in the Broken Land, and your fellowship unexpectedly played a key role in the Doomslord’s fall. Now, laden with stories to tell and burdens to bear, you set off on the journey home. But the Doomslord’s Hunters are still out there, and it’s a long way to walk. Let’s see if you can make it Back Again from the Broken Land with a storytelling game of small adventurers and a journey home from Cloven Pine Games!
Created by Alexi and Leah Sargeant, Back Again from the Broken Land was part of ZineQuest ‘21, crossing the finish line this past July. The inspirational material is pretty obvious: ‘small people’, a dark lord, a fellowship, the title. To say that this is a Tolkien game with the serial numbers filed off would obviously not be entirely inaccurate. However, it would miss the point of the game’s creation, which came up when asking Alexi about what sparked the idea to make this game design journey there and back again.
“The very first inkling of the game came from a Twitter meme circulating among game designers, where we post the meme and ask others to suggest characters for us to write PbtA-style moves for. I was asked to write a move for Sam Gamgee. That exercise got me thinking about what aspects of Tolkien’s work are underrepresented in RPGs. Leah and I soon started talking about what a game would have to look like to capture some of the quieter and more emotional moments from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The core structure of Back Again—Burdens, Stories, and the journey home—emerged quickly from that brainstorming.”
Back Again is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, with the bones of its mechanics being familiar: 2d6 plus or minus a stat to get degrees of success or failure, moves that act as mechanical funnels for narrative actions, playbooks to pick up, that sort of thing. Those playbooks are relatively straightforward as these things are measured in the wider PbtA space: each has three stats (Swift, Keen, and True) which usually have an array of +2, +1, and -1 distributed among them. Other than that, playbooks consist of Burdens (unfinished business that still weighs the character down), a unique move, some description and flavor options, and some story ideas to pursue.
Some of the playbooks map pretty decently to the source characters. The Haunted (by guest designer Meguey Baker!) feels very much like a late-journey Frodo, having a Heart to Heart to voice worries and burdened with unfinished business. The Bodyguard seems to follow in Samwise’s footsteps, with I Can Carry You being about throwing yourself in the way to save a companion from danger or despair. That being said, how did they get some of the more unique ones, like the Imposter, and what was the overall playbook design process like?
“In fact, elements of my Samwise move from that Twitter meme design challenge are still present in the Bodyguard’s special move. Other playbooks arose from thinking over what kind of Burdens we wanted characters to be grappling with—so the Shepherd feels the pressures of leadership, while the Turncoat wonders if they’ll ever be truly free from their complicity with the Doomslord. As for The Imposter, all credit to our [other] guest designer, the wonderful Epidiah Ravichol! When I first asked him about contributing to the game, I suggested a couple playbook possibilities. He shot back with one of his own, The Imposter, and we agreed it was the best idea. It doesn’t have an exact precedent in Tolkien, I’d say, but I always love seeing how it plays out—and it brings a new type of Burden (the stolen identity of a folk hero) to the story as The Imposter tries not to be found out.”
Burdens and Stories are the real heart of the game, both mechanically and narratively – most moves interact with at least one of them. Characters start with 2-4 Burdens, some named (wanderlust for the Wayfinder, a warning shared too late for the Stargazer) and others unnamed. While the final goal of the journey is to reach home, another goal is to name your other Burdens (figuring out what’s bothering you, basically) and clearing named Burdens as you take the weight off your shoulders.
Stories are either part of a move, told before making a roll, or the result of one, and there are several different types. When a move tells you to, you pick a prompt from the list provided for each story type and build off of it. Each can be played out as a flashback, a short scene, or even a little montage. Stories of the Journey look back at your adventures up to now (how you got that lingering scar, the place you traveled through where you were tempted to stay, the irritating habit of a companion that you’ll secretly miss). Stories of Home reveal more of the destination waiting for you at journey’s end (a creature comfort you secretly brought with you, a saying from home that took on a new meaning through your adventures, the person you hope hasn’t forgotten about you). Stories of Doom, however, are for when the Doomlord’s Hunters catch up with you (you narrowly escape thanks to a gift you were given, the Hunters capture you and twist you to their purposes).
Homeward Bound Moves are the first half of Back Again’s basic moves, covering the ‘relatively calm’ travels toward home. Several do not actually require any sort of roll: Name A Burden does exactly that, Gaze into the Distance simply asks questions of the GM to gain information, Pull Together lets characters take unnamed Burdens to allow another to reroll a die, and Buckle under the Weight dictates how a character reacts to reaching their maximum of five Burdens (they don’t take it well, generally). Chart a Course moves you along the map, requiring a Story of the Journey and rolling off of Keen. Negotiate an Obstacle also sees you do exactly that, rolling off whichever of the three stats is the most appropriate. When you Share a Meal the character cooking tells a Story of Home and rolls off of True, potentially clearing one or more Burdens.
Peril Moves, the other half of the moves available to all travelers, are for when the Hunters or some other great danger come upon the group – a possible consequence of failed Homeward Bound Moves. There’s a version of Pull Together here as well, although the GM gets the final call as to whether or not it’s possible. Defeating the Hunters? Not an option. If you Run you roll off of Swift, with the result determining how many and who among you make it away safely. Hide is best done by the Keen among you, and a 10+ result is the only way to unlock more Stories of Doom. That’s right, ‘unlock’, because if you Make a Desperate Stand to buy time for the others to escape, you have to tell a Story of Doom or fall to the Hunters. Unlike other Stories their prompts are single-use and crossed out, and you only start the journey with two unlocked.
The Hobbits ‘only’ had to face what had happened to the Shire upon their return, so why was it important for the game to feature a group that weren’t merely seeing what had happened over the course of the conflict, but are actively pursued by its remnants?
“We wanted the victory over the Doomslord to be important, but not final. Genre stories often let us project the questions of our day-to-day life onto a larger canvas. We all face questions of when to show mercy, especially when trust has not been fully restored, but few of us see the fruit of our decision in such high relief as Frodo confronted by Gollum on Mount Doom. Thus, the Hunters remain, and still give chase, because the fight against the Doomslord and other forces of darkness has to be fought every day, sometimes in the epic, smoky haze of a volcano, but more often in the fog of quotidian concerns.”
Back Again is listed as the ‘Full Edition’ on itch.io, and that’s because there was an original version of the game published in Codex: Home. I asked what, if anything, changed between the two versions. In a more general sense, what changed between initial idea and final product?
“We were thrilled that Codex published Back Again from the Broken Land in its original form. The warm reception for the Codex version is part of what inspired us to expand the game into this full edition. The expansions include tweaks and polishing to central elements of the game like basic moves, as well as major additions like three more playbooks, a whole second journey path, and a lot more support for the GM. I’d say the overall design journey has been about playtesting and iteration. We added starting named Burdens to each playbook because we were getting feedback that players wanted more examples of what a Burden’s name could be. We had to “nerf” the basic move “share a meal” because, in its original version, it cleared too many Burdens on a 10+. It’s still an important move (what’s more Hobbit-y than camaraderie around food?) but it clears a maximum of three named Burdens.”
The GM can choose one of two paths to send the fellowship along, each with six locations. For those keeping track at home, that means a full journey in Back Again could be resolved in as few as five hits using Chart a Course, making the 1 of the expected 1-3 sessions quite doable. Each location has some building blocks: a question that can be used to flesh it out, a type of wound that the conflict with the Doomlord inflicted on the land or the people here, and some example encounters for the characters to experience.
Once your character has made it home, you narrate a short epilogue for them. You start with a Story of Growth (a sword is forged into a tool, a song gains a new verse, a Gift is passed on to someone new), and if you were able to clear all of your Burdens you can tell a second Story of Growth. For every uncleared and named Burden you must add a Story of Amends (an orphan is taken in, a fire does not go out in the night, a secret is confessed). For every uncleared and unnamed Burden you must tell a Story of Isolation (a love is turned away, a part of the wilderness is avoided, a wound from a Hunter festers). Fallen members of the fellowship still get to participate in the epilogue, perhaps from the perspective of your hometown’s other inhabitants.
Still, I was curious if there was any advice for what a player could do if they fall quite a bit away from the epilogue. To gain a better understanding of the game, I also asked for a deeper dive into the Stories of Doom and their consequences.
“If you’ve run through all your available stories of Doom and you have to face the Hunters, you fall to them (“…or else tell how you fall prey to the Hunters”), and the GM should feel free to weigh in about how this goes down. The Doom economy is a scarce one, because it should always feel like a bit of a miracle to get away. No matter how much they’ve been through, the small adventurers will never face the Hunters from a position of strength. All that being said, it’s also the job of the GM to not bring the Hunters into play too often—it’s like in a horror movie where you only rarely see the monster, but the hints and creeping dread leave you simultaneously desperate to avoid it and desperate to finally see it. (Hence the GM Principle “Have the Hunters turn up rarely and be terrifying when they do.”)
If an adventurer falls early on in the story, I would probably ask the player if they’re interested in picking up another playbook and joining the party at the next site along their path home. Our heroes have been on a big adventure, and they may have been parted from a friend or two along the way. If we were closer to the end, or the player wasn’t interested, I’d make sure to turn to them when asking paint-the-scene questions, so they’re still helping to author our tale.”
What’s next for Cloven Pine Games?
“Alexi has a number of Powered by the Apocalypse games in the works, for which Leah is serving as a first-line playtester: Autumn Triduum, about nuns defending their convent from the forces of darkness; Checkpoint Midnight, about supernatural operatives juggling loyalties in Cold War Vienna; Plutonian Shards, about a spaceship crew skirting the law amidst the shattered remnants of the dwarf planet Pluto; and Vow of the Knight-Aspirants, about Arthurian squires questing into a dark fairy tale wood to prove themselves worthy of knighthood. Playtesting for Knight-Aspirants began this year and has been very exciting. We may seek to publish the game in the near future, perhaps partnering with an established publisher!”
Final words for our readers?
“Learn more about all our projects, and sign-up for updates on our in-development games, at https://cloven-pine-games.itch.io/. And subscribe to Alexi’s Substack (Murmurs from the Cloven Pine) for monthly roundups of games he’s played or run along with game design musings.”
Back Again from the Broken Land won’t give you a long campaign, but it’s got a good length for a limited one, and is excellent for a one-shot night or a convention game because of the simplicity and emotional punch of its rules. Correspondingly, it won’t give you Samwise storming the Tower of Cirith Ungol to save Frodo, or Merry riding with the Rohirrim. If you want the ‘epic’ moments of the Lord of the Rings, there are other games. What it will give you is longing to see Rose Cotton again, smoking with a friend on the shattered walls of Isengard, a king saying that you bow to no-one, a wound that drives you to sail west, and other ‘great stories… the ones that really mattered.’ That makes it a great game, indeed.
You can get a PDF copy of Back Again from the Broken Land for $12, or a print version (bundled with the PDF at your discretion) for $20, so however you want to acquire it you won’t need a dragon’s hoard to afford it. You can actually download the playbooks and reference sheets from the itch.io page for free, and you can also find a Google Sheet for playing online and links to some actual plays there.
Lay down your burdens, tell your stories, and come Back Again from the Broken Land to avoid doom, cope with isolation, make amends, and grow as a ruined field is replanted.
Thanks to Alexi for answering my questions!