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Rebel Crown Review

There have been a lot of Forged in the Dark games, taking on a wide range of topics within the same procedural structure introduced in Blades in the Dark. Some of the earliest, beyond Blades in the Dark itself, were Scum and Villainy and Band of Blades. Beyond moving the genre away from the alchemical industrial punk setting of Duskvol, Scum and Villainy and Band of Blades both introduced something new into the mix of Forged in the Dark games–an endgame.

The game I am looking at today shares the concept of an endgame for the campaign. In tone and genre tropes, it occupies a position somewhere between Blades in the Dark and Band of Blades, as you play a dispossessed heir and their retinue, fighting to reclaim territory so that they can retake the crown from their usurper uncle. The mechanics of the game measure how close you are to having the power to claim the throne.

The Lists

Rebel Crown is a lean PDF compared to some Forged in the Dark games, coming in at 66 pages. This includes a thanks and acknowledgments page, but most of the document is devoted to specifically presenting the game, rather than summarizing it.

The book is single column in its layout, with a few black and white line drawings with appropriate images of weapons, armor, coins, and various figures. There is clear header formatting to denote separate topics, as well as clearly laid out examples of clocks and other game mechanics.

Concepts

The game has as its core assumption that one of the players is the claimant to a throne that has been stolen by their uncle. The other players represent characters loyal to the claimant, the claimant’s family, or characters attempting to better their position by supporting the regime change.

The setting is a kingdom split into multiple provinces, with individual domains within each of the provinces. The kingdom itself owes fealty to a greater Empire, and characters will be making a starting domain after picking what retinue playbooks are in play.

Mechanically, the game doesn’t drift too far from the core assumptions of other Forged in the Dark games. A character has a number of dots in an action, and the character describes what action they are using to perform a task. The GM then states the position and effect of that action.

For anyone not familiar with Forged in the Dark games, position explains the severity of failure, while effect explains how effective a success is. Progress is often tracked on clocks, so greater effect usually means more pieces of the clock filled in. Different levels of position might mean the character has minimal danger, serious consequences, or potentially disastrous effects if the character fails.

The game’s play loop is organized into a cycle of Recon, Sortie, and Downtime. Recon is the phase where the group gathers information on what they are going to do, the Sortie is the action of executing a plan to gain Income and Renown. Downtime is where the group can take actions to advance “off-screen” efforts and recover, and the faction clocks of other organizations advance.

One difference from other Forged in the Dark games is Crisis. When a character fills in their stress boxes, they don’t immediately leave the scene. Instead, the character decides if they want to take a final action with increased effect before collapsing or pull themselves together and press on. Pressing on means the character can’t resist consequences. Once characters resolve their crisis, they gain a Scar, and when a character marks their fourth scar, they must leave the retinue, and cannot go on any longer.

Another difference is Buying Time, a means of taking an action when a clock is about to fill in, which splits the last section of the clock into two, stalling off the consequences just a little bit longer.

Retinue

The Retinue includes the following playbooks, with the Claimant being required for play:

There is a list of houses and backgrounds on each of the playbooks, defining the circumstances of the characters in the kingdom, and their connections to one another. Characters then assign action dots and pick a special ability. They also pick a Solace (something to do in downtime to help destress, similar to vices in Blades), friends and rivals, beliefs, and drives.

Like other Forged in the Dark games, each playbook has a list of equipment that they can check off in a sortie to have the proper equipment to do the job at hand. In a departure from some Forged in the Dark games, however, characters can mark additional gear by marking off coin, retroactively showing that the character invested more in this sortie.

Domain

The Domain gets its own character sheet. Initially, it represents the holding that the Claimant has. The conditions for reclaiming the throne are spelled out on the sheet. There are places to mark the advancement of time, and the various provinces and locations are listed on the sheet, where the characters can mark off other holdings claimed, and what those holdings add to the overall effort.

Phases of Play

Although gathering information is part of many Forged in the Dark games, Rebel Crown frames it as a special phase of play, and doesn’t limit it to randomized rolls. Instead, there are several questions the players can ask, to get more information on what they may be attempting.

The approaches to the sortie are defined as:

The approach is coupled with the objective of the sortie, and those objectives are defined under these categories:

Obviously, some approaches are going to be more awkward than others, but this is a game where you play to find out. Characters may want to besiege a location to secure a promise of allyship, or to ransom the location for goods. Objectives all have a list of their “payouts,” in coin or renown. After the sortie, the group checks on Unrest, and when Unrest reaches 9, Imperial Ire is triggered, where the Empress demands something of the group or passes a judgment upon them.

Unrest can also trigger Entanglements, which are local troubles, below Imperial attention, but still enough to modify your status with various factions, or cut off some of the player’s options unless they are directly addressed.

Running the Game

Running the game details information on Levies, Battles, Foe, and Fallout clocks. Attempting to perform actions against a higher tier challenge means that a clock will have more sections added to it, making it more difficult to accomplish.

Levies can be sent out to perform sorties on behalf of the Claimant, rolling their quality in dice to see if they can properly address the issue. They may also come into play in the Battles portion of the game.

Battles represent wider, larger-scale combat, triggered when characters determine they are going to war. A battle has a field clock, foe clock, and fallout clock. The field clock represents the troops on the field. The Foe clock represents enemy commanders that the PCs must deal with directly. The Fallout clock is the clock tracking how much damage and disruption are at play after the battle is over.

This section wraps up with about a half-page discussion of safety, discussing Lines and Veils and the X-Card. In addition to this section, safety is referenced in a section discussing when character objectives may clash with one another, reminding the GM to use safety tools to make sure character disagreements don’t spill over into player disagreements.

Kingdom

The Kingdom sections detail the setting where the game takes place. At first blush, the game appears to model a medieval world at war, but this section introduces more fantasy aspects, primarily the constant presence of wraiths, the spirits of the dead, who are failing to move on to the afterlife. Due to the number of restless dead in the kingdom, lethal force has been frowned on, for fear of generating more of the spirits.

There are three kingdoms affiliated under the rule of an Empress. The Empire itself is now dominated by the religion of the God of Paths; the god tasked with transitioning spirits to the afterlife. The Church of Penance posits that failure to properly placate the God of Paths is what has led to the ubiquity of the wraiths. Wraiths themselves can have different tiers of power when encountered. They are not often susceptible to weapons but might be banished by rituals.

The different provinces are broken down and described in this section. They show what benefits the Claimant gets from seizing that province, what tier that province has, who rules it, and what factions are active in the province.

Individual factions in a province might be less powerful than the province level itself but may provide different benefits. What factions the characters interact with can change the story significantly. For example, siding with warring miners and allying with exiled witches is a much different story than negotiating with current rulers to become a vassal by agreeing to crush a rebellion.

Endgame

This is a single-page summary of what the retinue must do to declare their endeavor successful. If the Claimant is ever taken out of play, the game ends. Characters must complete 2 of the following 3 conditions:

In addition, the retinue must kill, capture, or banish the usurper from their throne. Given the different ways that two out of three of these circumstances can be completed, this gives the group some flexibility. For example, doing favors for various rulers and the Imperial throne might get the Claimant the throne with less “conquering,” or the character could go on a rampage of subjugation and missions to enhance the core holding, forcing the Empress to recognize the character.

If the group is successful, they make a Coronation roll, which is an action signifying their approach to life after claiming the throne. There are four prompts that the character might receive, to shape the end of the story.

If the players fail, they roll a Catastrophe roll, which similarly measures how the end of the story is reached. The higher the roll on Catastrophe, the more the character might hold on to some semblance of what they initially wanted to accomplish.

Raise the Banners
 I really like the core system of Forged in the Dark games. The system really does seem to work best when you have forward-moving, mission-based setting assumptions, and reclaiming a lost throne works very well for this. 
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This game sits nicely between the spaces carved out between Blades in the Dark (multiple factions acting for or against your group, potential politically advantageous missions) and Band of Blades (military, acquisition, and survival). It’s also flexible enough that if the tone of those games is a little too grim, you can always play this game at least attempting to keep the high ground in reclaiming the throne. The book itself does a sound job of summarizing a Forged in the Dark game in a short space and presenting a compelling setting with plenty of story and mechanical depth for the game.

Sound the Retreat

While I like how well summarized the core rules are in this book, it’s hard for me to approach this as someone unfamiliar with Forged in the Dark games, and this book spends a lot less time explaining actions and how multiple actions might be used for the same goal. While I’m sure there are going to be a lot of players that can pick these rules up and run with them, with their clear presentation, I can also picture some players having a hard time absorbing some of the more lightly addressed aspects of the rules.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

I really like the core system of Forged in the Dark games. The system really does seem to work best when you have forward-moving, mission-based setting assumptions, and reclaiming a lost throne works very well for this. It’s a bit paradoxical, but while I think Rebel Crown may not deeply examine the mindset behind the rules of Forged in the Dark games, and this may not make it for everyone, I also wonder how many people that bounced off the larger Blades in the Dark or Bands of Blades might absorb this game, with its slightly less involved and atmospheric setting, and its quicker summary of the core rules.

There is a fun, clearly laid out setting, and if you are a fan of Forged in the Dark games, you should have some interesting rules and structure to examine in this game.

Do you have a favorite game that is goal-oriented, or that has a clearly defined end condition, despite being a more story-based RPG? Does it make it more or less attractive to know that the game has an end state provided in the rules? We want to hear from you below in the comments!