Looking back on last year, if 2017 taught us anything, it’s that we really need to spend some time looking at how we view issues of gender, and how traditional views on the topic—unexamined—can allow a dangerous and damaging status quo to survive and thrive.
The Watch is a game that examines gender roles and the dangers of failing to challenge traditional ideas about gender relationships, and frames that examination in an epic military fantasy narrative. It is a Powered by the Apocalypse game that was on Kickstarter last year, and entered full distribution at the end of 2017.
It has been a while since I put this disclaimer in place, but I feel like I should issue it here, once again—when I review a game, I’m looking at using the game at the table, and my ability to recommend it to a wide range of players for use. That is a separate measure than evaluating a game’s importance, or its value as art.
Appearance and Structure
This review is based on the final PDF version of the RPG. The PDF is 175 pages—this includes a three-page index and a two-page index specifically referencing the moves in the game. The book is in black and white, except for the accent color on the cover, highlighting the title in red.
The interior art is all line art by Claudia Cangini, and it helps to reinforce a consistent look and feel for the game. The art is clean and presents a wide range of character types in combat and at camp, which mirrors the flow of the game, following characters on missions and between them.
Before the Shadow and Preface
The initial sections of the game detail what the setting looked like before the current crisis that the PCs will be playing through, and then explains the premise of the game, in broad strokes. It also discusses gender, in general, and how it relates to the theme of the game.
The setting was—before the shadow—a somewhat standard fantasy setting organized into various clans, some of which had their own rivalries and grudges. The Shadow arrived, and forces the clans to work together to confront some uncomfortable realities of their existence.
There is a very clear discussion on the theme of the game. Gender identity matters. The Shadow acts most strongly on those that identify as male, and this pull is based on identity, not genetics. This is very important to the theme of the game, because it is very clearly stated that The Shadow is a fictional representation of the negative effects of toxic masculinity on a society.
Women are not immune to the Shadow, but those that identify as male have a much harder time resisting, which has led to The Watch, the military of the consolidated clans, being formed from the women of the clans. Males from the clans are kept away from the front lines, as the males taken by the Shadow are twisted, over time, into dangerous creatures.
No one is immune, but males must sit on the sidelines. The important aspect of this situation isn’t that “men are bad,” but that the women fighting to protect their society can’t afford to assume that some of them are “the good ones” until the Shadow is confronted and defeated.
This section gives a broad overview of the concepts that are common to many Powered by the Apocalypse games, such as rolling when moves are triggered, what playbooks are, stats, and the terminology used. If you aren’t familiar with these terms, playbooks serve as character sheet/character class hybrids that players can choose for their characters.
The chapter refers players to the X-Card, created by John Stavropoulos, as an example of a safety measure for use in the game. The importance of safety tools, and respecting the boundaries of players, is also addressed. Given that the game touches on topics of gender, the problems that arise from toxic expressions of gender stereotypes, war, and loss, it’s a very important piece to keep in mind.
Moves are triggered by the fiction. Players discuss what their characters are doing, and if those actions align with the description of the moves defined in the game, a roll is made, and the MC that is facilitating the game helps the player adjudicate what happens according to the roll.
The Watch has a slightly different way to track advancement—in addition to the more standard experience track it also has a Jaded track.
- Characters get experience for completing missions, or by using highlighted moves from their playbooks—this experience can be used to buy various expanded moves native to the playbooks
- Characters can also mark Jaded on their sheets when the war against the Shadow hardens them—they can take Jaded moves as the track fills up, but too many Jaded moves, and the character leaves the fight against the Shadow, one way or the other
Characters also track multiple states in the game to model the effects on the ongoing war effort, and the connection the characters have to others fighting in that war.
- Characters track weariness when the rigors of war get to them—when the track is filled up, or when the MC is willing to let them remove all their weariness, they make a move representing the effects of weariness on them
- Characters also track camaraderie to show how close they have become to other characters in the war effort
- Weariness is often used as a consequence of various moves, such as turning down a request from another player
- Camaraderie is used instead of the “Help” move of some other Powered by the Apocalypse games, spent to boost the roll of another character when they attempt to do something
- If a character has Camaraderie with a character that dies, and a PC performs the Delivers a Eulogy move, Camaraderie with the fallen can be converted to Experience or Jaded, depending on how each character wants to view their state when the Eulogy was delivered
I really like the economy that is set up with Camaraderie, Jaded, and Weary. They play into the feeling of an ongoing battle against oppressive evil extremely well.
Using Camaraderie as a currency for helping is more exciting, to me, than just having a help move, and it reinforces the need to rebuild more of it between characters. Being able to cash it in for advancement currency, and the fact that it can be gained with NPCs, gives PCs a reason to get invested in characters outside of the immediate circle of the PCs and their commanders.
Jaded is a well-executed double-edged sword, allowing a character to learn from their experiences in a way that also shows that they are getting worn down by that knowledge.
The only aspect of the rules, to this point, that doesn’t excite me, is highlighting moves for XP. While slightly different than highlighting stats in other Powered by the Apocalypse games, it is similar enough that it makes me wonder the same thing that I do in games that use highlighting for XP—what does this say about the fiction? XP for failure, saying yes to questions about events that unfolded, and completing mission goals all speak to reinforcing a genre or the core concepts of the game, but I’m not as clear on what highlighting some specific stats or moves reinforces.
Moves, Characters, and Playbooks
The next three sections of the book deal with explaining moves in more depth, explaining what characters in the setting look like, and give the specific details of the playbooks used in this game.
The section on moves will be familiar to someone that has played in a Powered by the Apocalypse game in the past, but it also summarizes the specific moves that are native to this game. The explanation of how moves work and how they are triggered is very clear. I’ve noticed, in the past, that some Powered by the Apocalypse games lean very heavily on using very similar terminology and expressions to the original Apocalypse World rules, and in some cases, that can lead to some confusion when a reader isn’t familiar with the original game.
In this case, while some of the terminology is used again later in the book, the introductory language is very clear, and the repeated phrases and terms end up being useful for consistency with other, similar games, but not too arcane for a new reader to pick up if this is the first exposure they have to a game using the same conceits.
Characters end up choosing from several clans, that may still be dealing with past rivalries, and can add complications to the effort to overturn the Shadow. They can also advance in rank, so that they can choose what order they approach missions in the overall campaign. Players are also presented with their own principles and agendas to keep in mind.
The game uses the following playbooks for the player character options:
- Bear—The fierce, protective, and maternal character
- Eagle—The glory seeking, high-ego character
- Fox—The mystical, spiritual character
- Lioness—The charismatic and inspiring character
- Owl—The sneaky troublemaker character
- Raven—The philosophical and potentially religious character
- Spider—The creepy, mysterious one that might poke around with dark powers
- Wolf—The aggressive, pack-oriented character
Some of the playbooks pick up some supernatural flavor, but powers tend to be more mystical and subtle, rather than overt and offensive. You can seek answers or travel through the spirit realm, but not throw fire and lightning around.
At the end of each playbook summary, there is an explanation of how to play the character, as well as some elaboration on how to use the moves specific to that playbook. I like the added context, but there are a few moves that feel like the actual move description could have been clearer, rather than being fleshed out in the explanation at the end of the playbook—mainly because it might not be obvious that there is more of an explanation of that move outside of the move itself.
The next section in the book, after the player facing information, is directed at the MC. This section details what the game is about broadly, then goes into the agenda and principles of the game.
While it is touched on earlier in the book, this section opens with a clear discussion that the game is about taking the standard fantasy trope of banding disparate people together to fight a great, powerful evil, and viewing that through the lens of the great and powerful evil being the patriarchy.
The MC agenda is spelled out, as well as the principles for running the game. For anyone unfamiliar with a Powered by the Apocalypse game, these are bullet pointed ideas to keep in mind to help reinforce the theme of the game and to keep it moving in the right direction. For each of the agendas and principles, there is a more detailed section explaining what those agendas and principles look like when put into action in a game.
Typical adversaries for the campaign are explained. This includes not just the being corrupted by the Shadow, but also traditionalists and ultra-radicals in the clans that might undermine victory against the Shadow. There is also a section where MCs will define the traits and specific goals of the Shadow, with the Shadow picking up more goals as the PCs get closer to defeating it. Those goals may make the Shadow more dangerous, but also more reckless, as it gets closer to losing its hold on the world.
The potential issues of running a game with the themes being employed is also addressed again in this section. It is stressed that the oppression being highlighted should not involve sexual assault—it’s about how aggression, systematic oppression, extreme competition, and status undermines society. There is also some recommended reading for better understanding and sensitivity about the issues touched on in the game.
The way the MC’s job is expressed in this section is clear, but there are some elements that I felt could have been streamlined. Instead of the traditional hard/soft move split (usually having something dramatic happen versus explaining to the players that something dramatic is about to happen, depending on the actions they take next), the text goes into separate explanations of moves split into the following categories:
I’m not sure splitting hairs and adding that level of granularity does much for running the game. In fact, a lot of new MCs in Powered by the Apocalypse games need to get used to the concept of making hard and soft moves, and the added layers that have fuzzy boundaries don’t seem to yield much additional value.
Principles, in many Powered by the Apocalypse games, are relatively few and concise. The Watch has 14 principles, some of which are fairly long. They aren’t easy to call to mind or quote from memory. Many of them feel as if they dovetail with one another, and some of them feel like general advice for running games, instead of things to keep top of mind for reinforcing the tone and pacing of The Watch, specifically.
If the MC is using the MC moves, as they are expressed, they will naturally do some of the things that are spelled out in the principles, which means some of those principles could be folded back into other principles. For example, “Keep Clan Politics an Ongoing Problem” is a principle, but one of the GM moves is “Bring Clan Politics into It,” so couldn’t we roll that principle into “Think About What’s Going on All Over the Nation?”
This section of the rules spells out how a campaign will work. Campaigns are split into separate phases, and are designed to show how the world changes as the Shadow is challenged, and how the stakes are raised as time goes on.
Each phase of the war against the Shadow has several missions under it. There is one mission that “ends” that phase, which cannot be undertaken until most of the missions on the list for that phase have been completed. This allows the players and the MC to decide if they want to tackle all of the missions, or just a majority of them, before brining that phase to a close.
There are mission specific moves that are described by the player that is fulfilling a specific role, and they describe how that character will complete an aspect of the mission. Complications can arise from a 7-9 on mission rolls, such as having something following the players back to their home base after they have conducted a mission—this will require them to deal with the fallout of those complications.
In the final phase of the campaign, there are more dramatic complications that kick in, and in the middle and at the end of the campaign, there are “Changing the World” moves. These moves involve the players naming something they want to see change in the world, and how they are attempting to change that aspect of the world. Their rolls will show if that change is happening, if it is happening globally, or if change is limited to individual clans and regions.
I love this structure for this style of campaign. It would have been easy to set up the playbooks and the world and the advancements, and tracking everything that gets tracked, and then just leave it up to the MC to play as long as they want to resolve the story. In this case, however, there is a structured progression with built in rules to model the higher stakes as the player characters get closer to saving the world. Some games lay out a lot of tools to play an epic campaign, but if feels as if you are missing some of the steps to get from the beginning to the middle. Here the steps are laid out as well.
If there is one aspect of this campaign structure that I wish were handled differently, it is the broad wording of the Changing the World move. I wish it had a bit more guidance on the kinds of social issues that might still be present in the Clans, outside of the Shadow’s influence, so that it’s not quite so wide open for the MC and players to need to invent problems to solve. Keeping Clan politics in the forefront, and as a source of friction might help to generate the fiction needed to make this move work, but examples and guides are always nice.
Final Thoughts, Appendix A, and Index The theme of this game is so important to modern society that it can’t be understated, but the way in which the theme is summarized for a fantasy setting makes it very approachable and understandable when mapped to standard fantasy tropes.
There is a nice rundown of how to cut down the initial character creation and setup to facilitate running The Watch as a one-shot game, explaining how to prioritize, cut out, and summarize the first session checklist provided earlier in the book.
There is also a separate moves index aside from the overall index, for quick reference.
Leading the Charge
The theme of this game is so important to modern society that it can’t be understated, but the way in which the theme is summarized for a fantasy setting makes it very approachable and understandable when mapped to standard fantasy tropes. In addition to the execution of important themes, the structure of how to run a war against an evil overlord in an epic fantasy setting is something that will be worthwhile for a wide range of GMs to look at.
The Fog of War
While the initial explanations are clear and on point, the specific MC advice gets a little muddy in the middle of the book, with some principles that don’t summarize as well as they could, and some expansion of what hard and soft moves are, without gaining much from that expansion.
Recommended—If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This game is worth checking out for a wide range of gamers. It addresses some very important topics utilizing tropes that are almost universally familiar. It uses Powered by the Apocalypse inspired rules in a manner that expresses the rigors of war, the progression of a campaign, and escalating stakes.
Let me know what you think of The Watch, epic fantasy warfare, and what you might want to see in upcoming reviews. I’ll look forward to your comments, and I hope to get the chance to discuss this and other reviews with you.