The past weekend I attended Big Bad Con in Northern California. It’s a convention that heavily favors small press and independent RPGs. So, it’s an excellent place to find people who are up for just about anything and try out games you’ve wanted to play but just haven’t been able to pull together.
The first game I ran at the con was Broken Tales. It’s an Italian game about heroic versions of classic fairytale villains fighting villainous versions of classic fairytale heroes across 18th Century Europe. Aesthetically, this is totally my thing. It’s also one of those games that feels the need to make the PCs members of a group who go out on explicit missions. In this case that group is called The Order and they work for the Papacy. Yes, this is the game where Captain Hook works for The Pope’s personal strike team.
I should note that the game interprets “fairy tale” very broadly. It includes material from Arthurian Myth, 1001 Nights, even Alice in Wonderland and the Oz books.
In this game the PCs were: Baba Yaga the Child Witch, Garou the Old Wolf, and The Astonishing Pied Piper Without a Name. They were sent out to investigate a series of savage animal attack in the French village of Durfort. The title of the scenario was Red-hood Iskra a take on Little Red Ridding Hood (I was using characters and a scenario provided by the game itself).
So, here’s the deal: Elizaveta had her daughter Iskra out of wedlock and was a source of shame. So, when Elizaveta had a chance to marry a noble named Gerard, she deliberately sent Iskra out into the dangerous woods to die. However, instead of being killed Iskra was taken in by Greskar a werewolf who also made her a werewolf. When Iskra didn’t come home her grandmother Anastazia died and now haunts the woods trying to find a way to save her granddaughter. Iskra and Greskar (with his pack of ordinary wolves) are basically laying siege to Durfort to get to Elizaveta and take revenge.
I was kind of impressed with the game’s scenario prep advice. It very much focuses on backstory, motivated NPCS, colorful locations and a collection of flexible trigger conditions that cause escalations. I was then disappointed because each of the provided sample scenarios also include a classic pre-plotted Scene-By-Scene version. The book tells you not to use them unless you just can’t function without that structure. Seems like an act of cowardice on the part of the writers. But it’s easy enough to ignore those.
Where I was skeptical was the game’s resolution system. The GM picks a target number which is typically 3, 5 or 7. NPCs actually have a fixed target number prepared in advance. Iskra and Greskar for example both have a target number of 5. That number can then be adjusted by +/- 1 based on whether the NPC’s core descriptor is fully in play or has been thwarted in some way. A descriptor is just a short phrase that summarizes the core of the NPC. For example, when dealing with Greskar in full vicious wolf form his target number is likely going to be 6 (+1 from his base 5).
Similarly, PCs have three descriptors of their own. When they are acting, they start with 1 base success, but if what they are doing is in alignment with one of their descriptors, they start with a base of 3. Note: These are full successes, not dice. So, in theory an easy action (TN 3) vs. a character acting in accordance with one of their descriptors (3 successes) has already succeeded out of the gate.
Just meeting the target number results in a success with a cost, exceeding the number by 1 results in an ordinary success, and exceeding it by 2 results in a success with an additional advantage. The way you get additional success is either by spending Soma points (of which you only have 5 and also typically need to spend to activate powers you have called Gifts) or roll six-sided dice. The interesting this is that each die you add basically generates a success on 2-6, however if ANY of them come up a 1 the whole thing fails.
Notice that this creates a called-shot system. The player decides which of the three success levels they’re going for and picks up the necessary dice to make up the needed difference between the TN, TN+1, or TN+2 and their base successes plus Soma expenditures. After that, it’s all or nothing. They either don’t roll a one and get that exact success level or they fail entirely.
The reason I was skeptical was that the differences to make up are generally in the 2-4 point range maybe one or two more if you’re shooting for success with advantage and from having played The Pool I know the odds of rolling a 1 in that range is kind of low. It kind of felt like the system was flinching from failure in favor of encouraging players who want to play it safe to go for the success with cost level, after all there’s a mission to get done.
But it turned out in practice that the called-shot plus press-your-luck with an extra die or two for better success combination felt pretty tense at times. And those 1s do show up at the most unfortunate of times. Poor Baba Yaga got trapped in a tree when some nasty wolves tore her flying broom to pieces.
A particularly interesting moment came near the end. You’ll notice one of the PCs is a version of The Big Bad Wolf (Garou) but this Litte Red Ridding Hood based scenario still has The Big Bad Wolf in it (Greskar). So, this confrontation happened near the end that evoked a kind of Gothic duality, as Garou and Greskar faced off. The other two PCs were off trying to stop Iskra and her mother from murdering each other.
Garou and Greskar were both down to their last wound. Greskar had already seriously injured an NPC named Vincent (former huntsman and Elizaveta’s personal guard). Garou and Greskar had been fighting in wolf form and I kind of just had this moment of inspiration. I had Greskar transform into a human, pick up Vincent’s axe and say, “Let’s finish this as men.” Greskar then came at Garou with the axe.
Garou responded by grabbing and dragging Vincent as a human shield. A few interesting mechanical things happened at this point. Greskar’s difficulty dropped from 6 to 5 because my choices had moved him out of the strengths of his wolfy descriptors. Garou was still operating at base success count of 3 because of descriptors relevant to massive strength and the like. So, Garou’s player only needed to make up 2 points to hit succeed with cost. There was a moment where the player and I kind of looked at each other both acknowledging that the cost was likely going to involve Vincent. So, Garou’s player only picked up two dice and sure enough neither came up ones and poor Vincent died by the blade of his own axe. Who’s the real Big Bad Wolf now?
In play, I was pleased to discover that the sliding in and out of descriptor application combined with the call-your-success mechanic was more dynamic than I had originally suspected. Overall, the game was pretty cool and I wouldn’t mind playing it again.