Roleplaying games have been tied to fantasy literature since the original Dungeons and Dragons boxed set started to circulate in 1974. Many people see the heroic fantasy influences of Tolkien’s Middle-earth books, but the original play style (adventurers trying to get rich, famous, and powerful) is much more inspired by grittier fiction, like Leiber’s Lankhmar stories or Howard’s Conan.
Tolkien, Leiber, or Howard, the focus of much fantasy roleplaying has been on adventurers, in an adventuring party, taking on challenges from a shared perspective. Most fantasy roleplaying looks at the how the party tackles traps, monsters, and puzzles, and how they spend their rewards. While there have certainly been games that focus on politics and economics (Dungeons and Dragons had a whole setting dedicated to this principle in Birthright), that style of game isn’t always what springs to mind first and foremost when gamers discuss fantasy roleplaying.
In the modern era, writers like George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie have written popular fantasy stories where the protagonists aren’t really heroes (in the modern sense), the world is gritty, and the movers and shakers of the setting can make decisions that affect entire societies. While there is plenty of one on one swordplay, there are also coronations, wars, espionage, and vast criminal empires.
The product I’m looking at today, The Sword, The Crown, and the Unspeakable Power by Wheel Tree Press, is a Powered by the Apocalypse game that takes its cues from authors like Martin and Abercrombie when it comes to the focus of play.
Reading the Signs
This review is based on the PDF for The Sword, The Crown, and the Unspeakable Power. The PDF is 295 pages, and includes a single page index at the end. Normally, I would throw in how long supplemental material like the rules summary in the index are in this section, but . . . we’ll get to that.
The cover is in color, in reds, oranges, and yellows, and the interior of the book is all in black and white. There are “illumination” style boarders and chapter headings, and the artwork is stylized, taking its cue from various medieval cultures across the world. The layout is easy to read, with clear headers and a single column format.
Introduction and the Basics
The introduction is very brief, and mentions the original Apocalypse World, as well as a host of games that inspired the design and tone of this game. In fact, the book spends more time discussing game inspirations than addressing the media that has shaped the genre that the game is attempting to emulate. If you weren’t sure what this game is attempting to bring to the table, the concept is pitched as “a fantasy game, but where politics is more important than adventuring.”
The Basics walks through the core mechanics common to most Powered by the Apocalypse games, and touches on some specifics of this game. This includes how a group moves the scale of things like harm taken or inflicted up or down, the character classes, tracked resources like barter and honor, and patrons. There is also an outline of what happens in the first session of play.
Moves and Character Classes
While the basic structure of how a move works was laid out in the previous chapter, the Moves chapter spells out what all the basic, peripheral, and honor moves do. The character classes section lays out the different types of characters available to players in the game.
One thing that often comes up when looking at Powered by the Apocalypse games is “what is the general move for avoiding something bad,” and if that move isn’t obvious, you may need to adjust your thinking on how to present threats. In this case, there is an obvious move that covers this territory, called Face Duress.
The basic moves in the game are:
- Face Duress
- Threaten with Force
- Engage in Combat
- Persuade with Leverage
- Study a Situation
- Study a Person
- Whisper to the Unspeakable Power
Whisper to the Unspeakable Power is an interesting move, because it’s the “supernatural” move for people that aren’t supernatural types. The character classes that interact with magic have their own specialized moves, but this move is for characters who do things like saying “I’d sell my soul for X,” or “for all the things you have done to me and my family, I’ll call a curse down upon you.”
The Peripheral moves are:
- Patron Move
- Help or Interfere
- Taking Harm
- Market Move
The patron move is a move to determine if you are still on your patron’s good side. Help or Interfere will be familiar to anyone familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games. Taking harm is similar to other moves where you might have a secondary effect beyond just the harm your character marks, and the Market Move determines how easy it is to find something you are looking for.
Honor moves are moves that interact with your honor score, and include the following:
- Do You Know Who I Am?
- Call on Your Faction
- Refuse an Obligation, Duty, or Debt
There is also a section with moves clarifications. This struck me as an odd choice for organization, since the moves chapter had in-depth discussions of the moves with examples. If there are further clarifications, why not roll those into the actual expanded move explanations?
In the Character Classes section, we have the following characters detailed:
- The Adept
- The Beloved
- The Black Hood
- The Bloodletter
- The Crown
- The Gauntlet
- The Hex
- The Lyre
- The Screw
- The Spur
- The Voice
They are roughly organized into the titular categories, with classes that lean on martial power under The Sword, classes that lean on political power under The Crown, and classes that lean on supernatural power under The Unspeakable Power.
I love the stylized images of the various classes, and my favorite visual cue in the whole game is using a hand to represent how much harm a character can take, with players drawing a line through each finger as they take harm.
Each character class has a section on relationships, where you determine how the characters know one another. Unlike some Powered by the Apocalypse games, these relationships only direct you to inform a player of the connection, without a follow up question to add context or details.
Each of these classes has a sex move. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, that’s a move that triggers when the character has sex with another, and it’s a concept introduced in Apocalypse World. Given the genre, it is very appropriate, but I’m still a little wary of some of the moves. Not because of what triggers them, but because so many of them can be used antagonistically, against other PCs. While entirely appropriate for the genre, it is another thing that reminds me that we haven’t had a safety talk integrated into the text at this point, just a referral to the safety section at the end of the book.
While we’re talking about safety—The Screw is specifically a character class about torturing people for information. I’ll be honest, I loved Sandan Glokta, the torturer from the First Law books. He’s sarcastic and ironic, and the comic relief is almost a necessary element to be able to stomach the character in the first place. I’m not sure how well that plays out at the table, and I almost wish there had been a more general “Inquisitor” playbook that was equally good at threatening economic or social well-being.
Mythology Creation, Patrons, Factions, and Honor, and Weapons, Armor, Gear, and Tags
I’m grouping these chapters together because they have a lot to do with how the Master of Ceremonies and the players work together to define the world. Each chapter has some bullet pointed lists to walk the MC and players through the questions they should be answering, and what they need to have in place at the beginning of the game.
Since the text alludes to The Unspeakable Power being something dangerous or malevolent, I had expected the source of power to come up in the mythology creation. This is more about establishing what the prevailing culture believes to be the defining elements of history and folklore.
PCs that aren’t at the top of their faction’s answer to patrons, and everybody has a faction. These both relate to how a character gains, loses, and spends honor. Additionally, a character may have another PC as a patron, and there are rules to determine the difference between an NPC patron and a PC patron.
Weapons, armor, and gear get assigned various tags to determine what they are and how narrative elements around them might be manipulated.
Advancement, The Master of Ceremonies, and Threats
Advancement explains how a character earns advancement points and how they can spend those advancement points to get access to new moves and advanced moves. The means of advancement are:
- Rolling a Highlighted Stat
- Using an Honor Move
- Triggering an Advancement Point from A Class Specific Move
Each class has a list of entanglements, and each session the MC will choose one of those entanglements as active. I really like that, because the entanglements are tied to the class and what that class’ “story” would be. Using an honor move only triggers once per session, but it relates to the PC choosing to bank on their reputation. Then there is rolling a highlighted stat.
I’ve never been a fan of highlighting stats in Powered by the Apocalypse games. I understand that it can mean that other players are asking you to tell stories where those stats are important to your character’s development. In practice, given that these games are very “fiction forward,” it feels odd to highlight a stat, when assigning a move comes after determining what the character is doing.
The End of Season moves are all very emblematic of the twist of fate elements that happen in the source material that inspired the game. In most of them, you are essentially picking how your character will exit the game, and what kind of countdown you are tracking to see when that happens. These are one of the best tools to reinforce the tone of the genre, and I like the flavor in them, but since all of them are optional, and separated from the basic information and the character classes, I worry that it’s easy to forget about them.
The MC section gives solid Powered by the Apocalypse advice, and spells out MC moves and details agendas, but I feel as if the agendas could be a little more pointed than they are. Making life interesting, dealing with adversity, and paying for what you get make sense in a lot of genres, but it seems like in this genre there should be a bit more “wondering if it was worth the cost,” and “giving up one thing you love for something you think you want.”
The examples make it clear that player versus player situations are expected in this game, but there isn’t a lot of meta-discussion on managing that. There are mechanical explanations of what moves mean when used against PCs versus when they are used against NPCs, but it feels like a little more discussion could have been centered around how to deal with a game where PCs are expected to thwart one another and have conflicting goals.
The Threats section gives you a series of bullet points to help you detail the adversaries that will challenge the PCs over the course of a campaign. These are some useful questions to help flesh out not just what the threat will do, but what it wants, and why it wants that thing. This section is a good reminder of what makes a good threat for just about any game, not just this one.
Odds and Ends and Play Resources
This is section contains several essays on playing the game in different ways, in different settings, and on the inspiration material for the game. It also contains an appendix on safety. This organization feels a little odd to me.
When I read RPG products, I read them front to back, every page, while taking notes, and then refer to sections that I might have highlighted in my notes. But that’s my process, and I’m also reading these products for review. I’m not sure that the average player, when they read an RPG product, assumes that an appendix or an essay is relatively integral to understanding the game. It’s a “bonus” aspect of the product that might give more insight, like the extras on a Blu-ray. They might be fun and informative, but they aren’t the core essential experience.
In this case, the inspirational media and its tropes, the expected play style, and the very important section on safety, are all part of this section. This section is good, I’m just concerned that the way this section is labeled, it may be skipped over by people that pick up the game for the first time. This section not only dives into the inspirational media more fully, it also makes it clear that the expected play style may not only put the PCs at odds with one another, but it might mean that they don’t directly interact with one another for several sessions at a time, meaning that the expected play experience is like running multiple smaller single player games in the same setting.
It isn’t just the Odds and Ends chapter that has more integral information in it, however. Play Resources looks like it is going to be a table friendly resource summarizing the moves and various checklists for at the table play, but it also contains multiple example settings for the game, which I think are important to examine to get a good feel for what the game should look like in use.
Seizing the Crown
There are a lot of strong individual tools for running a political fantasy game using the Powered by the Apocalypse framework. The tracked resources make sense, the bullet points make the process for assigning details very clear, and various visual flourishes, like the finger based harm tracking, are great. The checklist for creating a mythology and detailing a threat would be broadly useful even outside of this game.
A Wedding of Sanguine Coloration This game has the tools to emulate political dark fantasy, and it has some nice checklists to help you flesh out your setting’s history and adversaries, but it may take a little bit of work to connect those tools in a satisfying manner.
In several places, the naming conventions go for practical over evocative. Safety discussions need to happen more often, and in a more integrated fashion. Influences and expected play arcs don’t come into play until late in the book.
Organization decisions had me scratching my head a few times, such as adding clarifications to the moves after the detailed discussion of moves, and mentioning that weapons should be detailed in a similar manner to harm moves for the Unspeakable Power in a later chapter, instead of rolling that into the character sheets. There are a lot of individual tools that could be tied together a little more tightly, instead of occupying separate spaces in the game. A lot more guidance could be added into the game for players being widely separated and directly acting against each other’s interests, other than simply explaining how that works mechanically.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
This game has the tools to emulate political dark fantasy, and it has some nice checklists to help you flesh out your setting’s history and adversaries, but it may take a little bit of work to connect those tools in a satisfying manner. This isn’t a game where you can read a few obvious key sections and get it to the table, because the organization distributes the important bits all around the book. If you are drawn to the political side of the game, and not the “nobody gets a happy ending” aspect of the inspirational media, there may be other games to check into as well.
What are your favorite dark fantasy games? What kinds of mechanics help to reinforce that genre? Let me know in the comments, and feel free mention new games you want to see reviewed in the future.