The Sundered Land: The Doomed Pilgrim in the Ruins of the Future

The Doomed Pilgrim in the Ruins of the Future is one part of the Sundered Land collection by D. Vincent Baker, available for about USD$5. One of the first games to be designed specifically for forum play, it is rules light narrative game, nominally Powered by the Apocalypse, and reverses the typical GM/Player roles.p19cc3aam710hm1bba99e19oa1rsc7

Shiny Bits

As a PDF nano-game, there’s not much to dig into here. Like the other games in the collection, each is laid out on a two-column page. There’s a photo-edit illustration that hints at a possible setting and what might lurk there, and that’s about it. For people to whom it’s relevant, the body font is readable and the columns flow from one to the next so a screen reader should follow them correctly.


The game leads off with a recruitment message that a GM can pretty much copy-paste verbatim, with small adjustments to take into account the particulars of the forum. The example uses “Google+” verbiage like “I’ll +1 it” so it’s on the GM to change that to “Like” or “@reply” accordingly.

Prep involves choosing from short lists some details about the Setting, Enemies, and the Pilgrim character. Setting choices are limited to brief but evocative place names like the Jungle of Bones or Jaggedlands, but nothing is said about what any of those actually contain. Likewise, a suggested opposition might be “the encamped army of a king who has sworn vengeance upon me.”Characters have two things, also chosen from a list; in my last game, one was “a vast and deadly patience,” (whatever that means!) Deciding what any of these entail is left to the players & GM to discover in play, none of them are backed with Tags or bonuses or additional rules, they’re just hooks to hang description on.

The Gameplay mechanics are very prescriptive. GM, if this happens, do that. Ask one of these questions. Eventually, when we need to go to dice, roll this and say one of these things. You could go off script or break the rules, but that would be missing the point, I think. Everything given in these rules aim to build up a solitary person on a bleak journey, who will face a few small setbacks and then a nearly-insurmountable obstacle. A nice, tidy, dramatic arc.

The kicker here is that while one person facilitates the game, it’s the players who have the most control of the direction and outcomes. I’ve used the term “GM” so far to refer to facilitator, but in truth it’s everyone else who takes care of the usual GM stuff – describing the world and threats, most importantly.

“You, my friends online, play the world. Your goal is to see me to my doom, instead of safely on my way.”

What a delightful way to both invite people to play and coax them into the role of antagonists.

In Play

I’ve ran multiple session of the Doomed Pilgrim across a wide variety of channels: text message, facebook, google+, Reddit, Discord (a persistent IRC like chat), and RoleGate, and it works really well in most settings. Reddit is a poor fit, though: it tries to sort by magic algorithms, so if you attempt it you should put a link to the thread sorted chronologically in the header. It’s worked to draw in authorly friends because of how low-threshold participation is. Newcomers and outsiders can just read the recruitment post with the player rules, skim to get up to speed, and add a post. If they get distracted it’s fine, there’s no guilt in stepping away from the game and letting everyone else finish.

I’ve also had the chance to participant as a player voice, going as far back as one of the first public games on Google+, and in a variant called Atop a Lonely Tower. As a player Doomed Pilgrim doesn’t give me quite the same payout as a traditional arrangement game, perhaps because of the sharing-nice with everyone else in the GM-full role. But the first plays piqued me to this weird thing Baker was cooking up – and in that, it worked incredibly well.


You’ve got to get at least one play of this, either as the facilitator or GM-full player role, at some point. It’s a great throwback to freeform chat/forum roleplay and offers lots of room to adapt to different settings.

Run it as a Prologue to a fantasy campaign you’re starting next week to fill in some last worldbuilding ideas.

Run it in the downtime between realtime sessions of the other Sundered Land games.

Post the invitation in the Facebook group for the boardgame club you’re trying to butter up to play an RPG.

Hack it down to the bones and use it to build up a whole new asynchronous, many-and-one game.


Related: (Another pack of games inspired by TSL)

e3ac2737-0f40-4ebc-a03a-199898dc11e9-428-000000679114eb5eMeguey Baker (the author of Psi*Run) has also hosted a few plays of something called “Psi*Run: The Chase” where players all say what’s happening as the wolves close in around a telepath on the run. Check out both the original game & dig up the The Chase plays on google+



Death House

pic2950981[1]What’s it for? Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed, for the Ravenloft gothic horror setting

Price of admission: Free

Format: 12pg PDF

Summary: Coinciding with the Curse of Strahd release by Wizards of the Coast, they also published the introductory chapter “Death House” as a standalone adventure. It was prominently available at that point but for the life of me I can’t find it on the WOTC site and it takes some search-engine work to pull it up. Currently, it’s available here.

Death House is suggested as a way to take 1st level characters up to the suggested level 3 for the Curse of Strahd arc. It also serves as a way to promote the full book and the optional tarot-styled Tarokka Deck employed in the full adventure.
The adventure: I’ll try and steer clear of any spoilers that might ruin the story but, of course, you’ve been warned. Adventurers are spirited away into Ravenloft, land of goth-er than thou grimness and darkness. They find themselves in a small burg about a quarter-mile square, with a scant few buildings described and the rest hidden away for paying customers.

Of course, the town’s not the point and The Mists of Ravenloft <cue organ music> roil around to block off whatever needs to be excluded, like the “Please return to the mission area” warnings in video games. The real raison is the House, where you find two spooky kids crying and consoling each other. “There’s a monster in our house,” they say, “we can’t go home until it’s been chased off.” As is often the case in D&D missions, it’s the understatement of the day.

There’s also the DM-snickering-behind-their-screen bullshit that’s woven into a lot of D&D:
Trapdoor: A trapdoor is hidden in this room. It can’t be detected or opened until the characters approach it from the other side. Until then, Death House supernaturally hides the trapdoor.

Ugh. Thanks Obama.

Inside the house there are several floors with many well-described rooms, dripping with shadows and woe and weird nope-ness in the details. It’s also loaded with “I hope your DM isn’t an unreasonable jerk” throwback old school gotchas. Exploring the house is divided into a few stages, each with a thread-the-needle bottleneck that’s blocked by a specific skill check. If you don’t nail it, you’re stuck wandering the halls waiting to slowly die of starvation. (There’s something to help you with those skill checks, but guess what, it’s tucked behind one. Great!)

Gripes done for now, moving on… the rooms provide progressively darker clues about the origin of the House and its later connection to Strahd. Eventually you find yourself in a dungeon complex below the house. I have no idea why it needs such a sprawling, superfluous construction, but eyyy. Got to store the traps and undead somewhere.

So by this point, the party’s been automatically advanced to Level 2; they’ve got a few more HP and abilities, and that’s a good thing. Assuming they’ve survived the gotchas, and the ghoul/ghast beatdowns, the dungeon might just throw a CR6 monster at them. Considering what they’re going through for those darn kids, sometimes I wonder if falling on the spike traps would be a merciful death. The other top Google hits for this adventure are all “How do I not kill the party?” forum threads – enough said.

Anyway: If you don’t mind pulling a few punches you can avoid the instant lethality of some areas, throw the players a break with the skill checks to keep them moving – there’s plenty of adventure here but no need to drag this out into more than a handful of sessions. And while the house is too damn big for it’s own good you can pare down by half the “nothing happens here” problem by excising extra broom closets, powder rooms with sheets hanging over hat racks, dungeon rooms that are just bonus corridors. Problems a plenty, as I’ve highlighted, but so much promise in the story they can discover. Just be sure to keep the good atmospheric stuff – highlight everything quirky and creepy that you want to maintain, moving it to others rooms if needed – in and pay mind to pacing.


Price of Admission: PDF $5 , $12 printed via DriveThru

Pop this open right quick and follow along, okay? PDF character sheet / rules helper.

Bottom line up front: So take Dr Who but make it a woman Doctor and instead of a Timelord, she plays the cello. Pit her chosen teenage companions against the Maestro of evil, Tchaikovsky, who shreds guitar and uses ninjas to enact TIME SHENANIGANS.

Also, dinosaurs in tophats crash the premier of Hamilton.

This is a super silly game through and through, but anchored on a solid telling-a-story framework. What randomization is needed is taken care of with smile-worthy mechanics like Rock-Paper-Scissors and origami fortune tellers.

Shiny bits:

Quirky candy-striped design throughout the booklet that looks and feels like a kid’s coloring book.

There’s a section that addresses Accessibility for the movement-impaired. That’s a responsible consideration!

Character sheet fits a comprehensive rule summary.

Best. Randomizer / resolution techniques. Ever.

Under the hood:

The game is divided into five discrete phases, or Acts, which help frame up a tidy story arc no matter what kind of craziness happens.

Phase 1 is mostly in the hands of the game leader – the Conductor – and helps breeze them through the Lonely Fun aspects of game planning. An outline for an evil speech is laid out, players and Conductor contribute possible ideas to throw “in the hat” and as the monologue is delivered, ideas are drawn to fill in. If you’re thinking about improv games, you’re on the right track.

Phase 2 helps create the characters – relationships are shuffled up to connect each character to the one on the player’s right.

During Phase 3, each player gets to pick an action scene where the kids will help Time Cellist fend off the Maestro’s army of ninja clones and stop one of the Mayhems. These scenes are about the kids overcoming fears, trying hard, working together, and all that. They’re not about whether one manages to punch a specific ninja, though. Resolution is handled with Rock/Paper/Scissors, the lead player squaring off against the Conductor. If the player wins, progress! If the Conductor wins, the ninjas pull off some of their Mayhem plans. Oh, and if they tie, here’s the kicker: a Time Paradox-dox-dox-dox happens.

What that means is that something absurd happens… the Hindenburg drops in for a textbook landing right in the middle of the Coliseum, the Founding Fathers get in the way while trying to use a Selfie Stick, or, yeah, top-hat t-rexes. This right here looks pretty darn fun, but could get wayyyy out of hand depending on how creative everyone gets.

So, here’s where the writing style really rocks and gets to the heart of what many games just assume. There’s good direction to make sure no single action can end the scene outright (you can’t just say, “I’m going to grab back the pen that they use to sign the Declaration of Independence”), each has to be a small part of it. The text walks the Conductor through this stuff that’s usually taken for granted – set up the scene, push for the conflict, how to resolve it – like an improv theatre textbook.

After each player’s had a scene in the spotlight it’s time for THE BIG SHOWDOWN in Phase 4. WITH THE MAESTRO HIMSELF. And since Time Cellist is all about the trappings of silly childhood games the showdown is played out with rounds of slapjack. Every time a jack is slapped (as per the standard international rules of slapjack), the winner says how they (character or Maestro & ninjas) tilt the battle back and forth, until cards start running out. A player without a deck is eliminated – LOST IN TIME AND SPAAAAACE – unless there are tokens remaining to allow the Time Cellist to perform some fantastic rescue. Players also have the chance to sacrifice their character to stop another character from being LOST, too. It’s all rather heroic.

BUT WAIT. One more thing. So remember when the Mayhem scenes were happening? For each of those that the Conductor/Maestro/ninja side won, they can call in a New Rule during slapjack. Slapjack can already continue indefinitely and this opens another door to break it.

Anyway, back to the good stuff. Once the big climactic battle that Team Cello is guaranteed to win, one way or another, is done then everyone not LOST will be around for Time Cellists after-school-special speech. “Hurray, girls, you did great! The Maestro wasn’t able to complete his evil plans thanks to your smarts, and your newfound patience, and your getting over a crippling fear of balloon animals!” Then everyone figures out an afterword using a “cootie catcher” fortune teller, even those that got LOST IN TIME AND SPACE. Their scene just ends up surreal interpretation of the oracle:

“You know what would be funny? We established that Billy really likes to dance.I think it’s 1987 and we fade in on a young kid watching a Madonna video on MTV.

As they’re showing the row of background dancers behind her, the camera pans over and we see Billy, now a teenager but still dressed like a cowboy, with a big smile on his face dancing up a storm.”

Back matter: appendixes cover how to play the various games & make a cootie catcher oracle, ideas for relationship connections, and there’s a sweet list of time paradoxes that you could lift for any gonzo game.

Wrapping up: For such a simple game at heart, there’s a lot of little moving parts. Granted they’re giddy fun moving parts and not something lame, like damage-type-versus-armor-type tables. The rules start big and handwavey but then zoom in on things that really do matter. The game promises very little prep but asks everyone to bring knowledge of a time period.

Overall, I’m really torn. There’s a lot here that’s exciting so I don’t want that to be lost. And it feels like an awesome game to run for kids… Pick whatever they’re studying in History/Social Studies, or the setting from a movie they liked, come up with goofy shenanigans, play some card games, and one-up their favorite cartoon.

Message in a bottle: Callisto by VSCA

Check out Callisto! It’s available as PWYW on DriveThru

When I first saw Brad J. Murray posting on Google Plus a few years back about his forthcoming game I came to it with a handful of preconceptions. Lots of dice (like Hollowpoint) or a straight take on a pulpy genre, like he did for sci-fi (diaspora). Maybe a wargame with character arcs. What I experienced reading the “1.0” version of Callisto was one of those “ah ha!” moments where you recognize someone is presenting something unique or upending something familiar so that it looks completely different. If you remember that forest temple in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that rotates 90 degrees so that you’re running around on the wall, that’s the sort of disorienting feeling I got as I dug into the 20-ish pages of Callisto.

Callisto was in a state of “Living Beta” when I first dived in but was already complete and iterations just distilled it.


This seems like a perfect place to begin, since this is one of the aspects of Callisto that’s been overhauled since the “1.0” version. An “Age of Sail” setting was intrinsic to the first set of rules and while the theme didn’t grab me, I could understand how it informed the original rules. By the most recent update, the wording now uses the Age of Sail Navy / Army as a worked example for how a referee could configure their game. Otherwise, I’ve played in both a low fantasy game and a high tech one situated on a space station.


This is where I was completely caught offguard! The system involves almost no mechanics, no randomizer and very little direction from the Ref once it’s in motion. Everything needed for a character might fit on a Post-it note, like the hippie-est of storygames, but it somehow still manages to evoke the seriousness of a game of Diplomacy.

The rulebook is, as I mentioned, only about 20 pages excluding covers and credits; most of that is clarification for the Referee (borrowing a term from wargaming heritage, that of a truly neutral 3rd party to adjudicate on behalf of the rules). The Referee’s creative responsibilities are front loaded: discus with the players what kind of game will be played and summarize it in a few Tenets, draw a map with some Locations, create a list of Characters who each have Roles, Contacts and a few Resource dials and the most significant aspect, their Narrative Authority (or Authorities), and finally coordinate everyone by some sort of messaging system representing Letters.

Some example Tenet sets might be “17th Century Europe,” or “Hard Sci Fi plus warp drive and a few sentient alien races,” or “post-apocalypse; magic is real – it’s ritualistic and brutal.”

The map only needs to be detailed enough to show relative position and have some evocative labels. The Character sheets might be as sparse as “Pegula (Orc), Sword-and-Shield of the Empire,

travels with a Large Army and has great Wealth,

Goals: Quell the Lizardfolk Uprising, Retake Orc Homeland”

Once the game is in motion, the Referee steps back and checks their inbox daily for new messages – everything sent between characters is CC’ed (if using email) or otherwise sent to the referee – and they compare what’s being said in the letters to the character’s Narrative Authority. Anything said outside of their Authority might be true, but could be a simple rumor or a strategic lie, anything covered by their Authority becomes fact. The Referee distills this down into periodic (AM/PM, daily, 48-hour) news posts that reflect the most interesting version of the truth.

Let’s say Ariani sends a two-page letter describing her compelling victory at sea over Benjamin to a few other players. She doesn’t have Narrative Authority over “Deciding the outcome of Naval Battles” but it’s still great, and unless challenged by someone else’s letter it should spread as a strong rumor in the news. If Caleb – who does have that Authority – writes in a letter about Ariani’s victory, it becomes truth. Were he to flippantly write it off as her force being outmaneuvered and routed, however, her letter becomes lies spread to save face.

This could feel disenfranchising for some players, especially if they feel like their version of the truth makes the best story. The challenge here is to be able to operate at three levels: a Character who is trying to “win” by achieving at least some of their Goals, an in-the-thick-of-it Player who is aware of the significance of their words because of the distribution of Narrative Authorities, and a 10000-foot-view Player who is willing to see their character lose standing mechanically and fictionally when their words are revealed to be merely their own interpretation of events.

The majority of the rulebook is focused on how the Referee can guide their players as painlessly as possible. For what it’s worth, “Write letters to people whose addresses you have; letters full of action that falls both within and outside your Authorities. If you need to lie or ask me a question, please do so. Oh, and don’t spam.” summarizes 90% of the player-facing core rules, but invites even more questions than a thick rulebook would. The author tries to address many of those questions but quite a bit of it is left to the Ref to reassure their players, “Yes. Really that simple. Really really.”

Toward the end, Callisto includes guidelines for framing your own setting with different Powers (Narrative Authority and otherwise), different resources, and ways to represent Locations on maps. For Age of Sail – plug in the Navy & Army rules, give lots maritime routes. For game in space you could use a hex-map of systems created just the way you would for Traveler. Exploration? Military focus? Suggestions for handling both of those – and the reinforcement that Callisto is not built to simulate the conflict itself.

Fit & Weight

I’ll start this section with what it won’t fit: No matter how you play Callisto, be ready for a longer-term game, it simply won’t work as written in an evening or a day or even a weekend, set your expectations more in terms of weeks or months. It won’t play “face to face” and it isn’t designed to, but I don’t doubt that an adventurous group could hack that – picture the backroom dealings of Diplomacy and then the referee pulling everyone back to the main table to announce a round of News.

But if you’ve got a large-ish group (say, 8-15) of people interested in playing that can put on their “author” hats for a half hour during lunch or before bed to write some notes, you’ve got your crew. Busy adults often cite lack of time and an aversion to overly-complex rule sets as barriers to (re)entry to the RPG hobby, so Callisto might be a way to reconvene a former gaming group or a few friends who travel too often to set up a regular game night. It also fits the niche of “internet friends” from social networks, forums, or IRC.

Writing, Artwork & Layout

There is still some work that could be done in future “dot” updates (e.g. “2.1”) to highlight key rules – callouts among the conversational text, terse wargame-style outlines, Fate Core bookmarks. Anything in this vein would be helpful even for a same so mechanically simple. The font is easily readable and the pages have a weathered-paper look. I’m usually a fan of plain-text-on-white, but the thematic relevance far outweighs my minimalist preferences. Ah, but I’ve left the best part of the presentation for last: the gorgeous and evocative cover painted by Juan Ochoa – who I hear is also collaborating with the author on other projects.

Message in a bottle

If you’ve ever thought “Yeah! Wargame! Wait, this tome is the rulebook? Oh hell naw.” this might be the way for you to tell those grand-scale stories. If you’re jet-setting every week and only have a few days here and there to deal with real life at home, this asynchronous format might be what fits into your timetable. If you really like counting your troops, maxing your stats, and activating mechanics but you don’t care about purple prose, Callisto probably isn’t for you. But no matter your initial impressions, spend a few minutes to read it. It might be the quirky game that puts the wind in your sails.

Preliminary Survey: Charted Areas

The Charted Areas is a free download meant to accompany The Quiet Year by Avery Alder and is available on the Buried Without Ceremony.charted areas

Theme: This expansion hints at, but does not limit players to, a few regional themes. Urban/Subterranean, Oceanic/Seafaring, and Coastal starter maps are included.

Price: $0, which puts in range for all but the most frugal geeks.

Artwork: Maps are hand drawn by Tony Dowler, whose old-school hatching reminds me of Dyson Logos’ work. Some art is repurposed from the original book and ties it together nicely. The maps and symbolic illustrations used to mark them are evocative on their own and easy to match up with the Abundances / Scarcities they correspond to; they also hint at further places to explore and threats lurking just beyond the first mapping pass.

Length: This booklet only includes 3 maps, and I would have liked to see more. This isn’t a criticism – I just enjoy the cartography that much! I’d love to have a folder of these maps on hand to lay out for a Convention game.

Replayability: Unless you’re going to play with completely different groups, I’d suggest only using each of these maps once or re-arranging the elements. The Abundances and Scarcities will shape the story as much as the landscape will, so by shuffling them you may be able to re-use the maps for another game with the same group.

Overall: If you’re going to play The Quiet Year, I highly recommend at least taking a peek at these. The Charted Areas provide a good sense of the scale a community should take on the map and provide some excellent starting ideas if you’re just cherrypicking ideas. And if getting the session off to a quick start is important, choosing one of these maps will help shave 10-15 minutes off the beginning and provide enough structure to prevent early meandering.

Space, Business Card Sized: Vast & Starlit

Epidiah Ravachol’s nano-sized storygame Vast & Starlit provides a framework for spacefaring tales using a very conversational, interactive system. Originally the game was only available in person or by sending the author a doodle and return postage, but more recently it’s been included in game bundles like the eponymous “Epimas” holiday set.

As an RPG it pushes the limits of rules per square inch to the limit, compressing everything down to a few double-sided business cards. Compared to the groundbreaking business-card format joke game “Hit a Dude” with its two rules (1. Hit a dude, 2. Play passes left), Vast & Starlit packs a hefty cargo into its 2 teensy pages (plus outside cover images).

The built-in premise introduces the characters as escaped prisoners who now find themselves in control of a starship. After that brief and open introduction, the author is hands-off about the setting specifics; everything from here out is created by the players either through question-and-answer or a clever procedural generation subsystem. Players ask one another a handful of questions to frame their characters, ideally using charged questions that imply deeper meanings, like “What would we lose by not listening to you?” instead of simple ones like “Where are you from?” The attention turns to the commandeered vessel, again using questions make the ship almost a character unto itself. “How is it temperamental?” for example, leaving more cosmetic details to be filled out later as needed. Rules for creating alien species, cultures, and environments are tucked in here too – yes, the stuff sourcebooks are made of, all summarized in a 3-step procedure where you start with something familiar and incrementally weird-ify it.

Players each step up into the Director stance, suggesting scenes with characters in locations dealing with whatever’s happening. Very loosey-goosey at first glance, but there’s still mechanics that spin up: the main characters in the scene are the focus/foci (ooh, proper Latin use!). If they attempt something Dangerous or Difficult, a player at the table is supposed to call it out. Depending on who is attempting it (non-focus or focus character) the action either fails during the scene or you cut away to something else, leaving the scene to percolate and build suspense, then return to resolve it and incorporate consequences from other players.

Writing, Artwork & Layout

The background of each card is sourced from NASA public domain images and while it is pretty to look at, it becomes visually overwhelming. Teensy micro-printed fonts in alternating swaths of white-on-void, black-on-orangegreen gradient, or blue! outlined in yellow made it damn near impossible for me to read the game. At this point, if I hadn’t heard such good things about Epidiah’s work (“That Jenga one” Dread and the game/zine (S)words without Master) and the company he keeps (Vincent & Meguey Baker of Apocalypse World and PSI*Run, Nathan Paoletta, etc) I probably would have just closed the file and moved along.

I ended up extracting the text for myself and that saved the day for me.

Fit & Finish

So, first off, the form factor gimmick is excellent. This was one of the first games I’ve come across to explore the “Your game is not a book, it is a…” problem and it reaches a few good solutions on the way. Fitting rules for Q&A character generation, scene resolution and procedural world generation into a booklet would be challenging, but Epidiah succinctly fits everything he needs to say onto 21 square inches. It introduces challenges to readability in a trade off for portability.

The game itself provides enough of a framework to hang a story on, but requires a bare minimum of players (rules calling for a 3rd player to weigh in preclude 2-p games, at least if you’re following the letter of the law) and pulls constant input from all those players. Vast & Starlit on its own doesn’t cover conflict resolution or equipment but a set of expansions (Bodies in the Dark, Renegade’s Technical Manual, & Stellar Atlas) cover those seemingly necessary aspects, and introduce more setting material.

I’ve watched a forum game come up with some compelling characters and setting details and then peter out from pacing issues. As an outsider, the feeling of “Okay, now what?” built quickly in the posts. So much of the game hinges on a player asserting something and then looking to the players left & right of them to confirm/alter/deny that detail. Playing face-to-face or at least in a continuous, low-latency medium like email or chat strikes me as a mandatory consideration.

Short version:

Vast & Starlit probably wouldn’t be my choice of a first foray into storygame, or of space game, or even of nano-game now that I’ve had a closer look. But that said, I thoroughly enjoy this game from a design point of view and appreciate the possibilities it packs in. I’d really like to lay out the four cards of the complete set (base game and expansions) and spend an afternoon building utterly bizarre aliens, frakking and/or fighting, hacking engineering technology and reversing the polarity of the ion fluctuators while we’re on the run.

Three warp capacitors out of five, overall – but it’s easily in my Top 10 Tiny Games list.