Gnome Stew 2020 Roundup
In a normal year, if someone were to summarize everything they worked on in the previous year, they would do it fairly close to the end of the previous year, instead of almost making it to February before that summary appears. Then again, the year we’re talking about is 2020, so I’m not going to hold myself to unrealistic standards. I’m stringing words together, so that’s something right there.
In January, I looked at an interesting spin on the monster hunting genre, one heavily influenced by Edgar Allen Poe, and set in Jacksonian America. This game is as much about exploring your own character’s coarse impulses as it is about stopping the monsters that they encounter.
In February, I took a look at Infinite Galaxies, a Powered by the Apocalypse game with a space opera theme. The core game supports a setting with pilots, smugglers, sapient automatons, and monks who learn how to manipulate supernatural powers. The tone is very pulp oriented.
Also in February, I reviewed Fate of Cthulhu, the first game to use the restructured Fate Condensed rules. It replaces a gamification of mental health with encroaching corruption, which introduces an element of body horror. There are multiple timelines corrupted by different Great Old Ones for multiple campaigns.
Spectaculars is a game that I wanted to nominate as one of the best games that got disproportionate scrambled by 2020. I was about to start a face to face game with my local group around the time that everywhere started announcing pandemic lockdowns. This is one of my favorite supers RPGs that I’ve encountered, but part of what works so well is the interaction of the physical components for building and tracking characters.
In addition to Spectaculars, in March I also looked at Bite Marks, another Powered by the Apocalypse game, but in this case, it’s a game where everyone portrays members of a werewolf pack. The playbooks are based on the role the character plays in the pack. As someone that always tended towards werewolves over vampires, I appreciate this approach to werewolf roleplaying.
In April, my first review looked at Tactical Tokens, dry erase tokens that can represent characters from medium to gargantuan size. Over a year ago, I was wishing for this kind of product for face to face gaming, because the flexibility of these tokens means you no longer need to worry about having “the right” miniature for an encounter or even a genre.
This was a tricky review, because I received an early copy of the game that was not marked as being “pre-release.” There were a number of issues with the rules as they were released at the time. My group had a fun time playing this game, but the power curve felt heavily against them, and the review version I was provided was missing some important information on supernatural abilities.
In May, I took a look at a setting published by Green Ronin. The Threefold setting is a showcase for the Modern AGE ruleset, with characters traveling back and forth to different realities. Threes are present in multiple ways, from three types of realities, to three power sources, to three cosmic forces driving all of the conflict across the universe.
In June, one of the products I looked at was Harlem Unbound, a supplement for Call of Cthulhu that was previously self-published by Chris Spivey. This new edition added more information and reorganized the layout of the book. It is a treasure trove of historical information and perspective, as well as a great Call of Cthulhu campaign book. For anyone that caught Lovecraft Country at the end of the year, this is a great product to explore.
In June, I also looked at #iHunt, an RPG about gig workers that get their monster hunting jobs from an app. The real key to this game is that the game is as much about surviving in a hostile economic climate and learning the harsh realities of modern life as it is about fighting supernatural creatures.
Moving further into the summer, my next review examined the Shotguns and Sorcery RPG, using the Cypher System rules as its base. It’s interesting in that it uses a 30s-ish noir vibe, but does so through the filter of standard high fantasy tropes. That said, some of those high fantasy tropes carry some baggage with them.
July also saw my review of the Quest RPG, which reverse engineered a lot of D&D tropes and filtered them through much more narrative mechanics. I just finished running a campaign using this game system, and I have to agree with my original assessment . . . there is something compelling about the game system, but the abstraction makes it tricker to implement in a manner that feels impactful.
My first review for August was a bit of a departure. I usually keep my D&D reviews on this blog, using the Gnome Stew platform to give wider exposure to less exposed games. I made an exception here because having one of the principal creators of a setting having the ability to publish a major setting expansion without waiting for the IP owner giving the thumb’s up on a new product.
When I received my copy of Fiasco in August, I had me second entry on “games I wish didn’t have to come out during a pandemic.” This is a modified version of the original game, relying on setup decks, with a much faster means of starting and managing the game.
While I read through Kids on Bikes, I never did a formal review. In this case, those same core rules were repurposed to tell stories about kids going to a magical school and having supernatural adventures. The subsystems play with concepts core to the tropes, like wands and brooms, and do a much better job than the inspirational material at being inclusive.
The Sword Chronicle system is the baseline game system upon which the A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying game was built, but in this instance, it’s removed from the IP and built up to handle a more tradition high fantasy setting, with dwarves, elves, and ogres playing the political games with humans. It’s a very interesting system, but one that is heavily weighted towards more mechanics for large scale warfare than any other aspect of the game.
In October, I got the opportunity to read through the Cortex Prime core rulebook, an absolutely gorgeous book with fantastic formatting and layout, and the tools to rebuild and modify any version of Cortex that has been previously published, such as Smallville, Leverage, Firefly, and Marvel Heroic.
Alice is Missing is a tells a very specific story, with some fascinating variable storytelling prompts, which involve revealing different cards based on a timed structure, while all of the participants respond and interact with one another through text messages. It is a great example of pushing the boundaries of how roleplaying games get you into the mindset of the roles you are portraying.
In November, I took a look at Rebel Crown, a Forged in the Dark game that falls somewhere between the tone of the original Blades in the Dark and Band of Blades, with characters portraying a band of people trying to restore the lost throne of one of the players. One by one, they attempt to retake various provinces, gaining new resources along the way.
Here it is, number three on my list of games that I really wish didn’t need to release in 2020, Disposable Heroes is a PBTA game with a twist. Characters pull a card with a character and a specialized move on it, and attempt to deliver packages is a city that lives at the crossroads of all kinds of science fiction and fantasy tropes. If you die before you deliver the package, you pull another card and keep trying, hoping the person that hired you for the delivery doesn’t get upset and turn into a bossfight.
My final review of 2020 was the Talisman Adventures RPG, based on the venerable fantasy board game of the same name. The game is a solid example of how to translate boardgame like mechanics to RPG form, while also pushing the feel a bit away from epic fantasy and slightly more towards grim fairy tales. It also features player facing mechanics and discrete rules for a variety of scene setting situations.
But Wait, There’s More
These were just my review articles on Gnome Stew for 2020. I didn’t include other articles, including my first impression articles because, well, I wanted to actually be able to finish this overview while it was still January. There are also a few other articles that reprinted reviews which you can find on this site as well.
Here’s to another year of Gnome goodness, and while you are checking out my reviews there, make sure to look over all the other gnome goodness from my fellow gnomes.