RPG Review: Blades in the Dark

a georgian george clooney, a ghost whisperer, word-confetti
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Quinns: Remember last month when we reviewed Tales from the Loop, the charming sci-fi RPG of bicycles, bottle rockets and 1980s theme songs? Today we’re going to look at the other new role-playing game that’s been turning heads among my friends, and we’re going as villainous as Tales from the Loop was innocent.

Blades in the Dark is a game by John Harper, who you might remember from Cynthia’s review of superb free RPG Lady Blackbird. But while that game was an improbable 15 pages, Blades is 336 pages. By comparison, it's his opus.

Which is very good news if (like me) you’re a fan of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora books or the heist genre in general, because Blades is a game of playing regency-era criminals. Oh, yes. This is a scoundrel simulator, and whether you want to play a crew of classy vice dealers, some down-and-dirty brawlers, or even a worrisome cult is simply the first of one million entertaining decisions that you'll be making.

Blades in the Dark also offers a vast, seductive backdrop to your escapades: The haunted city of Doskvol, which will be familiar to anyone who’s escaped into the gloompunk of videogames like Thief, Dishonored, Sunless Sea or Fallen London.

This is going to be a long review, and not just because this is a huge book. You see, not only is Blades the most fun that my friends and I have ever had playing an RPG, it’s also like nothing I’ve ever played.


RPG Review: Tales from the Loop

heart-burst, thriller-made, pool-hides, english-feels, pastoral-slice
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Cynthia: Omg! I think we might have an RPG blockbuster here, Quinns.

Everyone's talking about Tales from the Loop, the game of roleplaying young kids in a 1980s that never was. It’s got everything you need to play out your own version of Gremlins, E.T., Stranger Things, or any movie where kids hurriedly pedal their bicycles to save the day (but should probably be home before dinner).

And who wouldn’t want to play a kid? Adolescence is amazing, and I'm not just saying that because I spent months teaching middle school Algebra. All the hormones, and discovery, and bravery, and adventures, and confusion… it's perfect RPG fodder. The question is whether Tales from the Loop successfully unites ‘80s nostalgia and middle school feels with good science fiction mysteries.

Ok, I confess. I teared up more than once while playing it. What did you think?

Quinns: I’m going to be very British and delay talking about my emotions so I can squeeze this in above the cut: I think Tales from the Loop is a cool, clever, beautiful book, but the real reason I want everyone to know about it is that it might also be the easiest experience I’ve ever had being a Games Master.


RPG Review: Lady Blackbird

wrg snargles, top fruit, pints of cream, juicy specificities
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Cynthia: Everyone, I have a little secret that I want to share with you. Ok. Maybe it's a decently-sized secret. Maybe it's not that secret at all. MAYBE it will change your tabletop gaming life.

DON'T TELL ANYONE, but some of the best roleplaying games out there are not available at your local retailer. Thanks to the magic of the internet, they're completely free.

These irresistible blossoms of RPGs can suddenly appear on Twitter or Reddit only to vanish within a few days. Sometimes they'll quietly bloom on a designer's Tumblr or publisher's homepage. A few older ones thrive quietly in the dark places of the internet to be occasionally plucked by some intrepid RPG gatherer who brings them back into the light. There's even a contest-fed bouquet of 200-word RPGs out there, as Quinns and Paul mentioned in a recent edition of Games News. The brightest flower of all these lovely free RPGs, however, is Lady Blackbird.


RPG Review: Trail of Cthulhu

a cardboard graveyard, nipping terrors, scary geometry, a fulfilling ravaging
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Cynthia: It is a little known fact I accompanied Paul Dean during his fearless investigations into the horrific Mythos Tales affair earlier this spring. I witnessed some of those same horrors, unearthed dark revelations couched in official documents, grappled with non-euclidean maps, and ventured alongside him into spaces where our accustomed rules of time and space seemed to break down.

None of that prepared me for the bizarre investigations that I commenced upon my return to Minneapolis –– investigations that continue as I write. Therefore, while I still retain enough of my mind to write, I find it imperative to tell you all this:

There is no Lovecraftian mystery game as engrosssing, as well-crafted, or as much sheer fun as Pelgrane's roleplaying game, Trail of Cthulhu.


RPG Review: The Firefly Role-Playing Game

Befuddled with love, a leaf on the wind, feminine wiles, stabbed!
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Cynthia: The television show Firefly, one of Joss Whedon's series, has wriggled deep into the shared geek consciousness since it aired in 2002-3. Phrases such as "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal", "I can kill you with my brain", and "Yessir Captain Tightpants" now serve as entry passwords into secret geek spaces, flashes of color that we use to recognize each other in the wild. As much spaghetti western as science fiction, full of Chinese swear words and sexually-charged tea ceremonies, Firefly had Buffy's wit and black humor, Dollhouse's dark maturity, and something else that characterised neither: freedom. Five stars' worth of planets, moons, frontiers, and open skies.

In other words, if you haven't yet watched Firefly, you need to get on it.

But enough of that! The real question here is whether the Firefly roleplaying game is any good.

Readers, friends: yes. Yes it is.


RPG Review: Numenera

A sentient saw, a song from aladdin, a giant map, seriously you gotta see this map
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Cynthia: Imagine rising to the top of a valley and discovering the above vista: green hills, snowcapped mountains, seemingly pristine waters, and an obelisk, tens of thousands of years old, humming with magical (or mechanical?) power. You could be the first to learn all of its secrets, or simply find out how it works, and harness its power. And that could be just the beginning of your earthly adventures.

For this uncanny place is our Earth, far, far, far into the future, after our civilization and seven others have climbed, peaked, fallen, and been rusted over. More than one alien invasion has occurred, and more than one alien species has mingled genes with humanity. A new civilization has arisen, but hasn't really gotten past the middle ages. The perplexing debris of past civilizations, from humming obelisks and transdimensional portals to enchanted amulets and portable CD players, is everywhere. The people of earth call these weird objects "filled-with-power-things": numenera.

Welcome to the Ninth World, the setting of Monte Cook's Numenera. I would say, "come on in, the water's fine," but it's probably filled with flesh-eating microdroids or laced with bubble-gum flavored psychotropic drugs or something. But forget the water, there's so much here. This place is so ancient, and vast, and tremendous. Let's explore!


Review: Mouse Guard

RACCOON ANXIETY, OXYTOCIN, THE GORDON RAMSEY OF MICE
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Cynthia: There's something extra lovely about roleplaying games in the winter. Where I live in Minnesota, going outside can often be quite deadly, so I prefer to huddle around a table with friends and food and drink. The problem is, being trapped indoors makes me crave adventure.

But there is one RPG that this winter has been mollifying my seasonal adventure disorder and warming my heart just like a good cup of hot chocolate with whiskey in it warms your body. That game, my dear readers, is Mouse Guard. So grab your weapons, fluff up your fur, tweak your whiskers, and tap into your anxieties about owls, weasels, and raccoons. You're about to undertake great and perilous deeds for the sake of all mousekind.


Review: Ten Candles

these things are true: the world is dark, and we are alive
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[Introducing RPG columnist Cynthia Hornbeck! As a former Utahn, temporary Minnesotan, PhD dropout and current public school teacher she is radically overqualified for a job with SU&SD. Please, nobody tell her.]

Cynthia: Hello, dear readers! I'd like to invite you all to accompany me to the end of the world, and to your death. Don't worry! I assure you that you're perfectly capable and prepared for the end – as it manifests in the phenomenal indie storytelling game Ten Candles, that is.

Ten Candles is a flexible, firelit game of "tragic horror" designed by Stephen Dewey and published by Cavalry Games. And I'm so totally in love with it. It's many scenarios take place in a variety of apocalypses where thick darkness blankets the earth and an evil force known as "Them" threatens humanity. Oh I know, there are plenty of post-apocalyptic games out there, and I imagine you're all raising your hands to ask what's so special about this one. Well, let me show you. Because what's special about Ten Candles is pretty much everything.


RPG Review: The World Wide Wrestling RPG

adequate crabs, building heat, the wrestler whisperer
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[Everybody, please welcome back freelance writer Jon Bolding, who tackled the highly-recommended game of Orleans for us. This time, he's covering one of his favourite RPGs.]

Review Soundtrack: Beat the Champ by The Mountain Goats

Bolds: A siren call of my youth. The gravel-voiced radio or television announcer chanting “Sunday!” and pointing you at an arena of legends. A contest of champions. A wholly made-up, entirely absurd, totally fixed contest of champions. If you did not grow up with it, if you’re just a roleplaying game enthusiast, well, I have an experience for you.

In an entirely approachable, well-laid-out 160-page volume, World Wide Wrestling gives you a set of rules that drive you into a world of entertainment and drama, screaming and spandex, costumes and camel clutches, masks and monsters. In the game, players are archetypal wrestlers - working people who play a role in a show, but also have to live their own lives. It adapts well to either small-scale independent wrestling or the big, media-frenzy contemporary wrestling that gave birth to people like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Hell, allow me some contradiction: I think it’s so precisely designed that it reaches beyond the world of wrestling.


RPG Review: Torchbearer

stay hydrated, you'll never be fresh again, serious triumphs
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Hilary: Torchbearer is a dungeon-crawling role-playing game.

So what? There are a lot of dungeon exploration games in tabletop roleplaying. It's the genesis of the genre, and most of the big tabletop RPGs people are familiar with are of this style. One of the things that differentiates Torchbearer is its heavy emphasis on the crawl. While other games are focused on getting loot, fighting monsters, and generally being completely badass adventurers, Torchbearer is about attempting to get loot and deal with monsters, while being completely worn down by the dungeon experience.

It turns out exploring dangerous unknown environments while lugging a bunch of heavy gear and trying to stay hydrated and rested and fed is really, really hard! It turns out there's only so much space in your backpack and your habit of checking over every room you enter sometimes gets you into trouble and it's hard to avoid getting cranky as all hell when you've been stuck wandering around dank passageways for hours without any snacks.