It is probably no secret at this point that I enjoy games that have mechanics derived from Apocalypse World. I am often stunned at the variety of play experiences that can come from a very similar set of mechanics. Even games that approach similar genres can often bring out very different aspects of that genre based on a few cleverly worded moves.
The game I’m looking at today is Turn, by Brie Beau Sheldon. It is a game about shapeshifters in a small town, and while you may think that tells you a lot about how this game plays, in many ways the emphasis is on the “small town,” and not the “shapeshifters.”
This review is based on the PDF version of the game. The PDF is 158 pages long, with black, white, green, and grey color. Pencil drawings illustrate the book, and the bold splashes of green serve to highlight text and images in the sketches. Sidebars and essays are shaded in grey, against the standard black and white text.
There is a two page index, a two page summary of the author’s Script Change safety tool, and a page of special thanks, which also lists several of the game’s playtesters. Each chapter starts with a thematically appropriate piece of original poetry.
Introduction and Some Things to Explain
The beginning chapters give an overview of the types of stories that this game is hoping to evoke, the core assumptions of the game, and the game mechanics used to do so. Players will be taking the role of shapeshifters in a small town. The shapeshifters are not tied to any existing lore, and this is an important point. The conflict in the game is less about having an animal form that will do things you don’t want to do, so much as it is about being something more than people may be willing to accept, and the tension between the comforts the closeness a small town provides, versus the difficulty in being truly different than others.
While there are many essays in the book that revolve around the topic, because I like to show my biases early and up front, the essay on “Why Small Towns?” is really one of the reasons I felt drawn to review this product. The game is an exploration of why small towns can be both comforting and terrifying, and why its hard to fully shed those aspects of a small town that speak to you. I grew up in a town of 600 people, and feeling the tension between not quite fitting in, but still loving the familiarity, and missing the town from time to time, is something I can keenly feel.
In addition to the most familiar aspect of similar games (2d6 + stat, three tiers of resolution), Turn has a few aspects unique to the game. Characters track Exposure, which is how well others around them notice how different the character is, and Stress. While a character never acts against their will, when a character has a full Stress track, they shift to their other form. Exposure can be positive or negative, which may alter how a character’s special nature is received by those that find out about it.
Characters can also add a Turn die to their roll, if they can justify some aspect of their character that calls for it, and they take stress for doing so. The unique rules often called “Moves” in other similar games are called “Struggles,” because they represent the ongoing stress of juggling multiple natures and managing exposure with the locals.
How Shapeshifters Work and Your Town
The next section of the book elaborates on what the game setting is, and what it is not. There is a deeper exploration of shapeshifters in the actual setting, and how they are intentionally not tied to any real world tradition or mythology.
The interesting dichotomy isn’t that the PCs are the only shapeshifters, but that often there are family lines of shapeshifters, while at the same time, shapeshifting isn’t a thing that most people acknowledge. This means there can be some multi-level societal maneuvering, and for animals that are especially social and also have a structure, this can add yet another layer.
Characters create families, add some traits to them, and connect those traits to a town. Towns have specific themes that emerge, and players create mundanes (NPCs from the town) that are tied to them. Characters track exposure with their connected mundanes, as well as with the town as a whole.
How to Play Turn, Human Roles, and Beast Archetypes
This section contains a discussion of Player Purposes, what is often called agendas in other games with similar mechanics. These stress finding balance, setting goals, and exploring the town.
Creating characters involves picking a Human Role, and then a Beast Archetype. The Human Roles are:
- The Beastborn
- The Heir
- The Late Bloomer
- The Lover
- The Organizer
- The Overachiever
- The Showoff
The Beast Archetypes are:
Humans have their own “moves” called abilities, while beasts have “powers.” Humans have stats called Habits, while beasts have stats called Instincts. All of these have an absolute rating, and depending on the struggle being triggered in the fiction, that absolute value might be a bonus or a penalty to the roll. This means that while a character always remains in control of themselves, some tasks are less complicated depending on the character’s form, and if the habit or instinct is a benefit or a bane to the task at hand.
There have been other Apocalypse World derived games in the past that use the structure of “add this to this” instead of having a singular playbook, and in many of those cases, I haven’t been as satisfied with the results as I was with games that had a singular playbook. In this case, I love how the interplay between the person and the archetype drives the story, and it is a really clever bit of design to have the absolute value work for or against a character depending on the context of the roll.
Town Manager Guide
The game moderator in Turn is known as the Town Manager. This section has advice on Town Manager Purposes (the principals of the game), as well as how to manage the information created by the players. Because characters generally don’t come to harm, and can accomplish what they set out to do, the main move that the Town Manager is performing is to assign consequences.
The consequences are broadly described as assigning stress or exposure, revealing secrets, putting town characters in danger, causing damage, shifting relationships, and changing lifestyles. In addition to the general advice, there is a full page, 13 step list of items for a session zero of the game.
Characters move towards their goals by filling in segments of a progress by for complex tasks (not unlike clocks in other games). There is also a gossip phase at the beginning of the session where the Town Manager can introduce potential plot hooks that may or may not be picked up on by the players. Advancement is based on season progression, and seasons progress when multiple characters complete complex tasks.
Now, as we’re about to talk about the long term resolution of Exposure, comes all the gut punches of the game. Exposure is marked as positive or negative. Tallying the positive and negative exposure creates a score to roll when an Exposure track is maxed out. Characters can gain exposure with town characters, animal groups, and with the town itself.
Depending on the Exposure roll, a acquaintance might revile the character, grow distant, or accept them for who they are. When it comes to the town, the stakes are much bigger. The lowest result with the town can have very bad consequences, while the median result can mean that the character is tolerated, but not loved, in the town, once their secret is known. If their resolution gains the best possible result, they may be accepted by the town.
When it comes to getting the worst result when filling your exposure track with the town, the options are different degrees of exile or violent resolution.
I don’t think I’ve often had a game where, upon reading the “end state” of the game, I had such an emotional reaction. It really struck me the finality of some of the results, especially in light of the broader context of the game. The importance of either changing hearts and minds, or never being able to go home again, but reaching a point where nothing would ever be the same, really tugged at my heartstrings, even without playing through a campaign.
The final chapter of the game is a summary of Brie Beau Sheldon’s Script Change tool, which in my opinion is one of the best tabletop safety tools you could ever hope to employ. The language used to explain the tool is a little more canted towards how it can facilitate playing Turn, specifically, but I can’t help but gush over this as a great invention.
If you have never seen it before, the tool effectively creates easy to recognize signifiers for pausing the game, moving through content without adding details, or restarting a scene to edit out problematic elements.
Positive Exposure While I can’t say that everyone will have the same reaction to explanations of small-town life, Brie Beau does an amazing job with their essays, and I think it’s worth the purchase just to read them.
I really enjoy how this game uses elements that might seem familiar to tell a very specific kind of story. The tenor of the discussion on small town life and both the positive and negative aspects spoke to me, and the way that the game mechanizes tracking acceptance or rejection is very well done. The absolute values that can be utilizes as negatives in certain circumstances is clever design, and this is possibly the best use I can think of for “add X to Y” playbook character creation.
I have a hard time objectively judging this, so the degree to which the small town struggle to fit in, versus an outsider’s nature may not be as universal to those that didn’t grow up in a small town. While I think it is a great approach for what it is trying to do, for those that are accustomed to the presentation on other Apocalypse World derived games, the terminology and expression of the rules may not feel in line with what has become more standard.
Recommended—If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I can’t help but recommend a game where I got emotional just reading the possible resolutions for a campaign. While I can’t say that everyone will have the same reaction to explanations of small-town life, Brie Beau does an amazing job with their essays, and I think it’s worth the purchase just to read them. Additionally, there are some very clever mechanical tricks to do some novel things with a tried and true formula that wouldn’t be bad for anyone to examine for future development.
Have you ever gotten emotional just from reading the rules of a game? Has any game really spoken to some element of life that is a key component of your personal development? Do you want games to pull on your heartstrings? Let us know in the comments below—we’re looking forward to hearing from you!