About 7 months ago, a group of us (4 players plus myself as GM) started playing a relatively new game called Fallen (Perplexing Ruins). The game is presented as a “baroque and grim” fantasy rpg which takes place in a time period analogous to the 17th century. My attraction to the game was that it seemed to offer an interesting mix of rules—old, new, borrowed, blue—along with a creepy, dark setting. Another appeal was simply its novelty, there was not much material aside from an itchio jam and thus it was wide open. Although the game can be played by a group (like what we are doing), it was clearly written with solo play in mind.
The core mechanic resembles a pbta-style 2d6+mod system, with a tripartite outcome (success, mixed, fail). There are no classes and all characters are assumed to be human. Any character may choose to practice magic, but they are not required to. I would classify it as a “low magic” game. The interesting thing about the magic is that there is no predetermined effect (no spells in the conventional sense) but players can describe whatever effect they want but the damage is determined by a dice pool. The magic is a good example of the level of abstraction in the game. The players and GM are expected to fill in a lot of details. Characters have attributes which may boost rolls, along with skills which may also boost rolls. Combat rounds require two rolls (plus initiative) where the player rolls for attack and then defense. Characters may earn further benefits as they increase their rank (akin to levelling). Some of these benefits resemble class-like benefits but are not restricted by any class designation. The game does not use a conventional HD system but instead has a “rank” system that follows dice increase (rank 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20). The game also employs usage and gear die to reflect the depletion of supplies and equipment wear and tear.
The game’s setting is a dark analogy to the Euro-American 1700s (gunpowder but no electricity). The provided bestiary is small but contains common legendary creatures, undead, and wild magical beasts. It also encourages you to create your own and provides tools to do so. I created a regional map which was sparsely detailed to emphasize the need to explore. We started in the largest city, which was provided by the author in a supplement known as Hilgraab. Much of the game is driven by hooks (“whispers”) and well as list of NPCs with goals and desires. As GM, I chose to emphasize factional conflict (mostly competing religious sects) as well as a reoccurring conflict between science and superstition.
Medium and Style
The medium of play has been online, using a VTT and zoom. The game lends itself to a more narrative style. The rules encourage you to “lead with the fiction,” so that is how we have tried to play it. Generally, I have found playing online to be challenging in more traditional dungeon-style games. Admittedly, this may sound somewhat grognard-like (I am in my 50s and grew up with handwritten maps and pushing books back and forth) but I find that, just as rules matter, so do mediums. Online play structures the game in a particular manner in terms of interaction, makes the sharing of some types of information easier, but makes other types of sharing more challenging. I have also noted that it seems like VTTs slow aspects of the game down (what do I have to click on?), while at the same time placing a higher priority and quickly moving through other aspects (more hand waving). In the case of this game, this was less an obstacle because the game mechanics and style (intended for solo but easily applicable to groups) lend themselves to theater of the mind. Much of the supporting material comes in the form of prompts which can be either be expanded upon by the GM or offered to the party.
We have had 4 players consistently. One player has a significant amount of solo gaming experience, but this is his first group play game. Another is an experienced GM. The two others have some limited rpg experience. At the beginning of the game, we used a supplement to have each person determine a random profession and then assign their stats. Character creation is loose. The players all essentially let their profession to a great extent shape their character, which has been fun and interesting. Vallamar is a nail maker and has played his character as an out of work craftsman turned rogue, Ludolf is a clockmaker, the resident intellectual and the face of the group, Barnabas is a sawbones, playing his character as a grouchy version of Hawkeye Pierce, and finally, Evelyn, a midwife and wonder worker with social insight.
We are about 7 months into a weekly game. This session started by wrapping some of the details of the last adventure. The party had been exploring caves in the countryside and had to come to discover (or suspect at least) that at some of the NPCs they had been encountering were “duplicates”—the product of some sort of bizarre fungal reproduction (think the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The party chose to return to the nearest settlement (a small town named Ganston) to report their findings to the local University for further study. One of the interesting mechanics in the game is that overland venturing, exploring and investigating, are handled by rolling the dice, which makes the game open to a fair amount of variance and allows the GM (myself in this case) to step out to a great degree and largely offer rulings or general descriptions on how to interpret the rolls. Exactly what failure means can vary, but often it means that the players receive “fear”—which applies a negative modifier to all rolls until the fear is removed. It can make for some tension and overland travel interesting.
The group found the town to be under siege by local religious authorities (these NPCs—a Monsignor and a Priest– had been featured earlier and are a continuation of an ongoing theme of religious conflict). These authorities were rounding up religious dissidents as well as suspected religious artifacts and subsequently left town. The party decided to follow them with the intent of robbing the artifacts and possibly freeing the dissidents (the party up to this point have not been “heroes” in any conventional sense but largely self-interested, only occasionally humanitarian).
The party devoted a significant amount of time to planning how to steal the artifacts (keep in mind, they are not 100% sure what they are stealing). As a GM, I mostly just listen during these planning sessions, making mental notes of what aspects of the plan might lead to possible conflicts, the need for rolls, or NPC reactions. When it seemed like the party was ready, I then will ask some clarifying questions, mostly about the order of operations and confirm who is going to do what. In this instance, the group was sending Ludolf to do the preliminary scouting (not sneaking but intending on being so obvious they would not detain him as he was presenting as a weary traveler). An investigation roll would be appropriate here but given the plan I opted to have him hold his roll. I have been trying at times to create opportunities for greater dramatic tension and having players roll out of sync with the event but instead when the event has its impact. In this instance, whatever information Ludolf gathers (which may be useful, not useful, accurate, or not) would not have an impact until the later characters sneak and use this information. As a result, Ludolf “gathered information” but its impact would be rolled later. Barnabas crafted a chloroform like drug (also a delayed roll—will it work or not?) Vallamar and Evelyn subsequently snuck into the camp, with this information (theoretically number of guards and location) and drugs (which may or may not work). In this instance, even though Vallamar and Evelyn are breaking into the camp, all four players will be rolling to determine success. Let’s just say—it did not go as planned! Next session will presumably start with rescuing Evelyn!
….don’t fix it?
In general, I would say the players enjoyed the game (they keep coming back!). I have also enjoyed exploring a new system and have found GMing in a manner which is much more “loose” and subject to a lot of variability to be a great experience. I have never explored solo play, but I did find that thinking about the game from that perspective as good mind fertilizer for group Gming. I find the online format to somewhat challenging because I find body language to be a major form of communication and often helpful in determining when to insert myself or when to sit back. For whatever reason, I am more comfortable with silence in group settings than on zoom where I feel pushed (as the GM) to fill gaps. As a practical matter, it isn’t always obvious to whom comments or questions are being directed, and therefore I tend to assume it is me—which may not always be the case. I have been working on resisting this. It is also interesting when one has players with varying experiences. The most vocal player has been the solo player—who approaches the game very similar to how one might play a solo game—he is extremely detail oriented, and one can tell that he is constantly imagining every component of every scene. The second most vocal player is the experienced GM. He is very good at picking up interesting sub plots or stories and his character is hilarious. The other two players are more reserved and look to the others for leadership. I have observed this dynamic at the table before. I try to give everyone opportunities, but not everyone takes them. Even with that, all the characters are interesting and have developed their respective niches.
Any thoughts or comments are appreciated.