While visiting my home country of Chile I finally got to run a game after over a year of not doing so. The players involved were my friends P (our host), E and J. The decision to get together was relatively short notice (motivated in part by my need to return a pot to P’s wife before I left the country), and the gathering not very long as it was a week night.
The game in question was Electric Bastionland, the companion/sequel to Chris McDowall’s Into the Odd. (I will refer to these games as “Bastion games” from now on, for my own convenience, although it is not a standard terminology for them). The adventure I ran was a module by McDowall called The Droner House, which he ran as an “actual play” and then posted to his website.
I had wanted to try out this game(s) for a long time, and I chose this particular module because I think it the best introductory Bastion adventure I have encountered, despite not being formally released. Also, watching the “actual play” footage gave the material an additional didactic element.
Since the bulk of the games I partake in are now online (as I live abroad), I had begun trying to come up with maps and visual material to run this in a virtual table top. I know many people play online through video or even voice chat only, but my particular group is used to VTTs and maps for online play, and I think it would be a hard sell to run an online game without these visual aids. So, when the chance came up to run it in person, it felt very liberating to just run it with the printed notes, a mat to draw on, and some minis for visual/spatial reference.
About the Game
Bastion games are very simple OSR designs that strip the “dungeon game” down to a few core components. You have three stats/saves (Str, Dex and Will or Cha), HP (“hit protection), armor (0-3 damage reduction) and an inventory that can eventually include Arcana, aka magic items. The flavor of their settings is tilted towards the alien and the bizarre, with a healthy dose of humor, without being so silly that comedy is the only available tone. The rules, while leaving ample rule for GM interpretation, are very clear and well thought out on what they do cover, and I must admit that one of my main draws to this game was they way it handled attack rolls: you don’t roll for attack, you just roll for damage. As a long standing critic of separate roll and damage rolls, I had never encountered a solution as elegant as this one. Another well done detail is making good on the promise that HP aren’t meant to represent physical harm, something that other iterations of the Dungeon game often just tell you and let you figure out on your own how to actually do. On Bastion games, your HP refresh easily and often, but any damage that they can’t absorb goes directly to your strength, and that represents actual, physical harm.
Character creation involves rolling for stats , HP and money, and then getting assigned a starting character based on rolled results. In Into the Odd you compare your HP with your highest stat to get one of 60 possible “starter packages” which are mainly about gear, with some occasional flavor. Electric Bastionland on the other hand provides 100 very flavorful “failed careers”, based on your highest and lowest stat, which are then further specified by your starting money and HP. Lastly, while in ItO there is an unstated assumption that you are a treasure hunter out for fortune, EB explicitly sets the group to start £10,000 in debt to a relentless creditor, defined by the youngest player’s failed career.
J rolled a Sanctioned Executioner who dealt with his guilty conscience by writing angsty poetry, and whom apart from his executioner rifle also wielded a very threatening but actually useless staff. He rolled a lackey: Neva, a dominatrix that provided another way to deal with his executioner guilt.
P rolled a Human Unionist (who only joined the Human Union after being denied entry to the Dead-Blessed Union), and who had a day job as a teacher, thus he got a whipping cane to go with his top hat and sash. He rolled a lackey: a very strong street urchin who was his apprentice.
E rolled a Master Blender, who used to work blending cat food for Checkle’s Choice until he produced a bad batch that resulted in his firing, sending him out into the world with nothing but a stirring oar and a tin of poisoned cat food. He did not roll a lackey.
They were collectively £10,000 in debt to The Psycho-Pack, which had at least arranged for them to have a slow, one word per minute telepathic link among themselves.
Of note is that the only thing the player’s decided was the nature of their lackeys (an option for smaller groups wanting to tackle more dangerous expeditions), but every other detailed was determined by their stats, HP and starting funds.
The Droner House setup assumes that the players’ creditors have arranged for them to get looting rights to the eponymous house, schedule for demolition in three days. The incentive is quite straightforward: anything they loot will count against their debt, and anything above ten thousand pounds they get to keep for themselves.
With character creation gotten out of the way in less than 15 minutes, we were off to the races. The whole setup felt very nimble. J appreciated not having to make any decision for a change, but P was more ambivalent about it. They both used their rolled backgrounds to color the lackeys they rolled. E, who did not roll a lackey, did start working a little spiel about “what really happened at Checkle’s Choice”, and how the poisoned batch wasn’t his fault, into every conversation.
On the Conductor end, The Psycho-Pack readily suggested how to present the debt holder (a telepathic, mind controlling squid perched on top of a fashionable young man’s head, effectively wearing him as a suit) during the opening scene.
Behind the Scenes
The Droner House is, of course, not empty. Besides being haunted by the Droner sisters, who succumbed to a cult’s influence many years ago, it has all kinds of undead, demons and a few golems keeping watch over actual treasures in the house. The specifics of the situation are not detailed, just implied by the recurring themes of drowning and burning, supported throughout by many incidental details (ocean themed decorations, damp walls, chimney smoke, etc).
The party arrived in the neighborhood the Droner house was located in and, after some cursory inspection of the adjacent buildings including a brief social interaction, decided to go right in, alerted to unexpected presence in the house by a very active chimney and some visible lights. From there, play proceeded like a dungeon crawl: the players entered a room, I described it, they’d ask questions, I’d clarify, they’d take action and/or move to the next room. If they made a ruckus or took their time doing something, I would roll for a random encounter. If they asked me something I honestly did not know how to adjudicate, I would ask for a luck roll.
Beyond the formal rules and procedures, I tried to stick myself to running the game as the author suggests, in the game rules but also in his blog:
Which if you don’t want to read I will summarize as “being very forward with information, presenting meaningful choices, and being very clear about their impacts”.
One thing the module provided was a lot of incidental details that, as far as I could tell, were not actionable but meant to suggest the aforementioned themes. I decided to described all of these detailes even though they were in some ways distracting. For instance, on this room:
12: The Landing: Hub, Breezy
Shelves with Ornaments: Black Dogs, Polar Bears, Aromatic Oils, Scented Candles.
Bloodstains on Walls (look like something was smashed against them)
Players immediately started inspecting the ornaments expecting something to happen. My reaction to that was to very quickly suggest nothing special happened after every such exploration, effectively steering them back to more fruitful explorations.
On the other hand, these details did create an atmosphere that helped sell the desperate nature of the enterprise: this was an obviously creepy place the party could not afford not to loot.
In contrast, another very sparse room description indicates:
Bullshit Vault 1: Fake golem rigged up to electric charge.
This I interpreted as a trap. I described a motionless golem. When asked, I described it being bolted to a base on the floor, which I eventually described as having a cable connected to it. When the players tried to dismantle it to sell its for parts, I decided a Dex save was in order to either get 1d4 or 1d12 damage (because, as it happened, they used their metallic staff rather than their wooden oar to try to knock the golem down).
E, who has been reading about the OSR recently, did a lot of poking around, carefully describing looking for odd looking cobblestones, checking for loose steps on the stairs, etc., to which I mostly just replied by cutting to the chase about what he did or did not see.
Overall, I felt that by being very forward with information, including communicating clearly and early when an approach was not going to pay off, and only requiring a roll to avoid the harm of clearly dangerous approaches, the analysis paralysis of the dungeon disappeared and the game moved forward pretty quickly. I really liked it, and I never felt like I was relinquishing my role as the threatening environment they found themselves in.
As it happened, primarily by chance, the party quickly found itself in the house’s actual treasure vaults during their first foray into it. After some rooms fitted with traps, they arrived at actual vaults being guarded by functioning Golems. These were formidable oponents by Bastion standards, with 2 points of armor, 15hp and “blast” attack.
However, because J’s player had a pretty good rifle, and I made the call that these Golems only got activated on the players entering the or after their first attack, getting past them proved less challenging that I would’ve expected: Their strategy was to begin each fight by having J shoot the Golem from outside the room, which in some lucky cases immediately disabled them, and in some it meant that the actual combat begun with an already pretty hurt Golem. In retrospect, I would probably decide differently about Golem behavior in light of those facts.
Some things to note:
1. J had a rifle because he rolled low stats, so I believe this gave him better starting equipment (I have not checked how balanced the 100 failed careers are, but my understanding is that usually low stats get better gear).
2. There was also some degree of luck, as the Golems could’ve downed the whole party once or twice.
3. It is a Bastion design choice not to bother itself much with ammunition tracking. If it did, this approach would’ve been much less effective.
Overall, for whatever reason, the level of difficulty of combat felt very satisfactory: nobody died, but it always felt dangerous. After their last fight and with our session time running out, they decided to leave the house and get some much needed rest.
Electric Bastionland did not disappoint. Its rules apply very deterministically to some aspects and rather vaguely and GM fiat friendly to others, and that balance is well adjudicated for the style of game it seeks to be (something about catacombs and magical lizards). The fluff is as lean as it is rich and suggestive. For this first impression, the game really impressed me by not abandoning me for the sake of “getting out the way” nor suffocating me for the sake of “giving me the tools I needed”. It rather felt “just right”.
In preparing to run it, I had consulted Chris McDowall’s blog a lot, and other sources external to the core book. I can’t tell if I consider that fact a bug, or a feature.