Review: Spectres of Brocken

when advertising this game to my friends so i could get someone to play it with me, i, with nothing but affection, referred to it as “gundam: three houses.” you play in two phases: in the academy phase, you play students learning how to be mech pilots; after a timeskip, you play the conflict phase, where your characters meet again for the first time in years on the battlefield. it uses the no dice no masters system as a base, but eschews tokens and instead has you work with a word bank, which some moves let you borrow from and change: you set words to help establish tone and themes, and add to the bank as you go on. this is a very bare bones explanation of the thing, because to be totally honest, i didn’t completely jive with it, but more on that later. 

but seriously i’m never gonna get a better gag in here than “gundam: three houses”

the concept for spectres of brocken is really strong. the prompting helps support it really well, too: the moves, scene prompts, and especially the character building does a lot to help keep its intended themes moving. you get four character traits: a conviction, an impulse, a potential, and a flaw. you start the academy phase with only one of these, and certain moves let you fill in more of them as you play and your character discovers themselves; if you have any blanks left by the time the conflict phase rolls around, you get to decide what to use. 

i played a one shot of this that ended up turning into a three shot. having it turn into a two shot was not terribly surprising—the game is set into two phases, and even recommends exactly where you should pick back up if you are cutting it in half—but the three shot was kind of an accident; we just wanted to play so many more scenes than was recommended because we were having such a good time with the premise and our game! that said, the vast majority of our game ended up being freeform rp—which is fine, but means we weren’t really doing much with the system. we kind of struggled to find places for the moves, and especially the word system, which resulted in us just kind of skipping over it. 

pros

  • the concept of this game, even though it is more or less literally fire emblem: three houses in robots, is really strong. all of the writing and prompting serves the themes and touchstones it’s aspiring to really well and makes it easy to build a world 
  • like i said, absolutely love the character building system; i think it’s a really unique take that, again, serves the core themes very nicely, and it was a lot of fun to work with 

cons

  • we ended up struggling to use the word bank system (and, as such, most of the moves) with any consistency; i think i can count on one hand the number of times we used words as a group over the course of 10+ scenes 
  • i don’t think there’s enough to tie in the mechs with the characters. admittedly i’m coming from a place of not being particularly into mecha (or sci-fi in general), but we ended up playing most of our scenes outside of mechs because we just couldn’t really think of what to do with them 

would i play it again

maybe? i played their free preview, and i’m curious to see what they end up doing with the full version now that their kickstarter has ended, but i’m probably not curious enough to spend money on it. if someone else invited me to a game, i’d probably give it another whirl, but it would have to go really well for me to play a third time. 

get the game!

spectres of brocken is by aaron lim. you can get a free playtest kit on itch, where you’ll also eventually be able to get the full game once it’s completed! 

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Review: Pokémon Tales

Pokémon Tales: A collaborative storytelling game set in the Pokémon universe.

full disclosure: i’m friends with the person who wrote this game, but this is one of those instances where i found and played the game first, and then became friends with its creator. still, i don’t like shilling things without being completely transparent about my potential biases! 

we all live in a pokémon world (PO-KAY-MON) i wanna be the greatest MASTER OF THEM AAAAALL

pokémon tales is one of the many, many takes out there on a pokémon ttrpg. unlike many others, it eschews statting each individual pokémon and their moves and types and abilities—and indeed, statting just about anything at all—in favor of focusing on the storytelling aspect of the whole thing. using the no dice no masters/belonging outside belonging system as a base, pokémon tales isn’t really a game about pokémon battles; it’s a game about what life in the pokémon world looks like. think of it as running on a logic more closely to anime than games: you aren’t going to pick movesets for your pokémon, you’re just going to do the things it makes sense for that pokémon to do. it has instructions for gmed, gmless, and solo play. the major mechanic, for those of you unfamiliar with no dice no masters, revolves around tokens: in a gmless game, everyone involved pushes along the scene and builds the world together; for adding details, introducing problems, playing the world around you, or otherwise contributing to the scene, you earn a token, which you can later use to solve problems. 

i’ve played one-shots of pokémon tales a couple of times! it’s surprisingly easy to just pick up and run with. one thing i think really helps is that instead of picking through playbooks, you just sort of build your character from a few aspects: their trainer class (lass, hex girl, ruin maniac, etc.) and a list of possessions. their possessions might be literal things like an old map, a professional camera, or a nice hat; personality traits like a need to care for others, a can-do attitude, or a grudge; or things that they have even if you wouldn’t strictly call it a possession like a legacy to live up to, a twin brother, or a winning smile. i really like the possessions-as-character-development system; i think it’s a way to express overarching ideas as well as subtle details. 

even with setup, a pokémon tales game is pretty easy to condense into just a couple of hours, but i’ve played longer sessions when we’ve wanted to linger on more or certain scenes or ideas. the battle and contests systems, which provide a little more crunch than no dice no masters usually does but i still wouldn’t dare call crunchy, can draw things out, but you can just as easily resolve instances where these come up with tokens if they aren’t actually things you want to spend a lot of time focusing on. despite playing a character whose main goals revolved around battle, i happily played a one shot where we resolved actual battles with tokens and descriptions, and didn’t mind skipping the system to actually play them out blow-for-blow at all. 

pros

  • amazing prompts for setup and scene building: as is true of many no dice no masters games, there’s a certain amount of active push required, but i find that it’s way easier for people to push in pokémon tales because there’s a good amount of structure for it, so you’re less likely to get hung up so bad you can’t regain lost momentum 
  • i really can’t sing the praises of possessions as a major character sheet component enough; i just think it’s such a good and fun way to build a character

cons

  • to this day i don’t really understand battles. keeping track of type matchups and positions and how moves affect them is surprisingly difficult for me! while i don’t mind it in theory, i think this is potentially theoretically too much crunch for people who like no dice no masters games

would i play it again

i’m planning on running a one-on-one campaign for a friend and we’re going to be using pokémon tales and let me TELL YOU i cannot WAIT 

get the game!

pokémon tales is a creation by iron echo games, and you can get it for free on itch. you can also join the discord server

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