Most of the role-playing games I know are based on the assumption that players take on the role of heroes (adventurers, investigators, etc.) and the gameplay should focus on these heroes. The game settings contain a wide variety of dynasties, guilds, gangs and other organizations, but their roles are usually purely narrative. In this three-part series of posts, I will discuss a few systems in which organizations also play an important role at the level of game mechanics, i.e. the rules of the game. You will find two fantasy games, one post-apo and one sci-fi.
This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, but an overview of a few games that have caught my eye recently and have a lot in common. If I get to know more such games – maybe I’ll write a supplementary post.
What do these games have in common?
They are all descendants of Apocalypse World, which means they belong to the dynamically growing family of narrative RPGs known as Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). In the case of SCUP, the relationship with Apocalypse World is very close, the rest of the games have more unique solutions. In all:
- The setting of these games is described in a very general way. Players and the Master of Ceremonies (this is what the Game Master is called in most PbtA) should meet at the so-called session zero and together create the world (including key factions), Player Characters (PCs) and the most important Non-Player Characters (NPCs).
- The key element of the mechanics are Moves. What are they? Let’s discuss one of the SCUP Moves as an example:
WHISPER INTO THE UNSPEAKABLE POWER
When you ask a question of or seek guidance from the supernatural, roll+Arcane. On a hit, the MC will pick one of the following:
†† You have a brief vision.
†† You hear a faint voice.
†† You have a curious sensation.
On a 10+, The Unspeakable Power will provide clear insight to you on the guidance you seek. On a 7-9, The MC picks one:
†† Your insight is vague, frightening, or confusing.
†† The Unspeakable Power learns something you might not want it to know.
†† The Unspeakable Power whispers a threat back to you.
This Move is triggered whenever PC seeks advice from Unspeakable Power – this is its so-called trigger. Who or what exactly this Power is – this should be determined during session zero. The player should then roll two dice (2d6) and add to the result the Arcane value, which is one of his character’s five Stats, usually between -1 and 3. If the result is greater than 6, the MC decides whether the PC experienced a vision, heard a soft voice, or experienced some other sensation. If the result is 10 or more (a strong hit), Unspeakable Power provides the Hero with clear directions. If the score is 7-9 (weak hit), the MC chooses one of three complications: clues are unclear, scary or confusing; The Unspeakable Power learns something the PC would prefer to hide from it; Unspeakable Might threatens PC. What if the score is below 7? The MC then uses one of his Moves, which usually means serious trouble for the PC. However, as I wrote in the text “Simulative and narrative role-playing games”, it does not have to mean that the action failed – the PC may be as well successful, but something bad happens, not necessarily directly related to the action taken.
- In PbtA games, MC never rolls the dice (e.g. to determine if the NPC has managed to do something). In many cases, such as in combat, the success or failure of a NPC depends on the result of the opposing PC’s roll.
- In all these games, some Moves are available to all Characters (called Basic Moves), while others are only available to some.
- The common thing about the games discussed in this text is that each of the Characters belongs to a different faction. And since factions’ interests may conflict with each other, there is a risk that the Characters will turn against each other. All these games, however, contain solutions, thanks to which a possible conflict between the Characters will rather have the form of undermining the rival’s reputation rather than a literal murder.
- A common feature of these games (as well as many others from the PbtA family) is that while the full rulebook has to be bought, on the authors’ websites you can download for free a set of handouts, including in particular playbooks (which act as a character sheets and also describe their Moves, along with the available developments) and the so-called MC agenda, i.e. a set of the most important principles that an MC should follow. For a person who already knows the specifics of PbtA, these materials tell a lot about a given system, in some cases they may even be sufficient to run a given game.
Let’s move on to the description of the first game. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce….
The Sword, the Crown and the Unspeakable Power (SCUP)
SCUP is a dark fantasy game. Its authors, Wheel Tree Press, drew inspiration largely from the works of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. As both gentlemen are among my favorite fantasy writers (the latter is definitely underrated!), this alone was enough for the game to catch my attention.
Who do we play?
Each player chooses one of the 11 playbooks, i.e. the equivalent of a class from other systems:
- The Adept – sorcerer(ess), who can control the chosen element or teleport people or items (these are Moves available only to the Adept). The right choice of advancements can also make Adept an extremely effective negotiator.
- The Beloved – priest(ess), who can, for example, command a group of devoted followers or give birth to a monstrous creature like Melisandre from Asshai.
- The Black Hood – rogue, who can, for example, poison someone, commit pickpocketing or free themselves from bonds.
- The Bloodletter – a medic with certain Dr. Frankenstein or Qyburn traits. Besides healing, they can… upgrade people (sort of).
- The Crown – ruler. While creating this Character, you also create their Stead, which has its advantages (e.g. a well-trained army) and disadvantages (e.g. the population is lazy and drunken). At the beginning of each session, while their rule is secure, the player makes a roll the result of which determines the current state of the Stead. Other possibilities of this Character are, for example, issuing an arrest warrant.
- The Gauntlet – a fighter. Can ignore wounds or face an entire squad of enemies alone (as described in the report from my first SCUP session).
- The Hex – a witch. For example, they can take on someone else’s appearance and cast curses on others.
- The Lyre – an artist. They can incite crowds and captivate their audience.
- The Screw – torture master or mistress. They can extract information from others as well as force them to make the desired statement.
- The Spur – commands an armed pack. Like the Crown, they determine the strengths and weaknesses of the pack and also make rolls to check the level of discipline in the group. They also have increased ability to intimidate others.
- The Voice – the ruler’s advisor. Character clearly inspired by Varys. They can get information from their spies and spread rumors.
The character’s development is as follows: in certain situations (there is no MC discretion here!), PC gains advancement points. Whenever five of them are collected, they are reset, and at the same time the player chooses one of the advancements stated in the playbook. The available options include: raising some of the character’s Stats (which significantly increases the chance of getting a good roll result), taking one of the Moves available for a given playbook (up to three, not counting the three with which the Character starts), taking one of the Moves from other playbooks (up to two). Thus, a fully developed Character has eight Moves at their disposal, in addition to the fourteen which are available to everyone from the start, and additional ones that can be introduced by MC. Interestingly, some playbooks have even nine unique Moves, so it is impossible to “max” them. Then, playing the same playbook again can be a very different experience. The character possibilities mentioned in the above description of the playbooks are their unique Moves.
As with Apocalypse World, one of the unique Moves of each playbook, available from the beginning of the game, is the so-called Sex Move. It activates whenever PC has sex with another character – PC or NPC. For example, the Gauntlet may sense the danger threatening their lover and come to the rescue, ready for combat. Sex Moves evoke huge (excessive, in my opinion) emotions in some players – they may be disappointed with the information that during the 4 SCUP sessions in which I participated in 2019, they were not used even once.
Factions and Honor
When creating a Character, each player also creates a faction to which the PC belongs. This could be, for example, a mage guild, a religious organization, a gang, or an artist association. The key element of each faction are its Benefits, e.g. magic powers, secret knowledge, contact network or wealth.
An important element of the game are also Honor points, which the MC awards PC for acting in accordance with the interests of their faction and takes them for acts harmful to the faction. Honor points can be spent, among others to increase the effectiveness of persuasion or threats (by Character naming their faction), and to gain access to the resources mentioned above.
Some Moves have different effects on PCs and NPCs. For example, if the score is 10+ on “Persuade with Levarage”, the NPC accepts the offer. The PC, however, is free to decide, but the player who made the offer may award his interlocutor an advancement point as a reward for accepting it, and in the event of refusal – make the interlocutor roll the “Refuse an Obligation, Duty, or Debt” Move (using up to 3 Honor points increases the success chance of this roll). A score of less than 10 may result in a -1 penalty on the next roll, or damage to the refusal PC’s reputation. Carrot and stick in all their glory!
One of the tasks of the MC in SCUP is to create Threats, the equivalent of the Fronts in Apocalypse World. They can take very different forms: individual antagonist, cabal, pestilence, natural or economic catastrophe, and hostile supernatural forces.
Fights in SCUP are risky and Characters are quite fragile – each can take 5 Harm before dying. The fallback option is to accept, instead of any number of Harm, a permanent debility meaning -1 to one of the Attributes. However, this option can only be used 4 times in a Character’s life, unless the party includes Bloodletter.
You can download SCUP playbooks from the authors’ website.
Wheel Tree Press has its own Discord server, where you can find e.g. fan-made playbooks for SCUP, including a vampire.
I think the SCUP is best for a 5-15 session campaign.
A huge advantage of SCUP for me is that the language of the rulebook is clear and understandable, in contrast to the overly stylized (in my opinion) Apocalypse World.
When it comes to the SCUP’s disadvantages, in my opinion it has the least attractive illustrations of the games discussed in this series, and moreover, on some playbooks there is definitely no space for notes (including entering acquired Moves from other playbooks). Nevertheless, I had a great time playing it and I hope to come back to it! And what do you think about it?
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