This week has been very busy for me for all sorts of reasons which I won’t go into here, but during the course of this week I have made time to read a detailed playtest copy of “Crestfallen”, a bronze age fantasy RPG which will launch itself on Kickstarter today.
It is fair to say that I get to see a lot of playtest documents; either through Kickstarter’s that I back, or through people looking for reviews on miskatonic.co.uk, or more commonly from people simply looking for some experienced feedback and an impartial, critical eye. Crestfallen came to me in a slightly different way. This time it came about through social media, and I actually asked to have a look by signing up on the games website and dropping the games author a note. I don’t do this often so I think it is important to say why I did.
Crestfallen grabbed my attention for a few reasons, the first of which is the setting itself. I haven’t come across anything with which to make a direct comparison in terms of story, and genre. Clearly its a fantasy game, but its roots are firmly placed in the deep soil of Bronze age history and what is known of the people of that period, their beliefs, lives and deaths, their challenging and brutal existence in a world of real awe and wonder. To use the authors own words Crestfallen is; “a game about man’s relationship to the natural world”.
The World Tree has been murdered, and Sky Father is dying. The natural world is unravelling and clashing against itself – natural and supernatural disasters are everywhere.
The characters that you will play in Crestfallen, cover a wide range of bronze age society, skills and outlooks. The possibilities range from Politicians, to Seducers, from Scholars to Death Dealers, the social spectrum is broad and makes for colourful, descriptive story led characters. These characters live in a world that they can’t fully understand, interaction with the supernatural are an everyday occurrence, magic is real, necessary and frightening. The magic of Crestfallen is based upon real research and interpretation of real world shamanism and druidism, it is not full of spell lists and quick fireballs. In Crestfallen the magic is largely ritualistic, it takes time and effort, can involve the participation of many characters, and it may not always work. Magic is part of the adventure not just a tool or weapon. Like many other other things in the game it is a challenge for your characters to overcome.
Speaking of magic leads nicely into one of the other key concepts of Crestfallen that I like a great deal. That is the carefully crafted “twin world” setting. (This is a concept that I have enjoyed in other games; for example Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, or the excellent reworking of the same for Terror Australis to give characters a chance to play in Alcheringa). Crestfallen takes this concept and uses it not as an alternative to “normal” play but as an integral part of the setting. Characters will experience the ethereal Otherlands first hand, piercing the veil themselves, or may be visited by spirits from beyond. You might even choose to have characters that are killed live on in the Otherlands as ancestor spirits, especially if they have unfinished business to complete before they can “move on” and be reincarnated into the world. The playtest document contained enough information for me to really get a feel for the Otherlands, its races, its flora and fauna, and I can see how future supplements or materials could really build upon this aspect of the game. Interestingly, I can see many areas of future development for Crestfallen, not to suggest that anything is lacking, in fact quite the contrary, there is so much in the concept that people will want to know more about it. Crestfallen and the land of Kerun has the potential to keep growing as your characters explore and survive and I think the authors have a really exciting opportunity.
Finally Crestfallen piqued my interest with its underlying story construct, a long term plot line that will influence your own story arcs, subtly controlling and influencing the characters lives and actions;
Kerun, the mortal world, is in the grip of a supernatural Ice Age brought about by the creator goddess – Earth Mother. Inside a sentient glacier simply called “The Ice” is a prisoner – the insane goddess Annwn. Like an animal chewing off it’s own limb to escape a snare, she is doing everything in her power to break free. When she does, she will break the world in half. She MUST be stopped.
I like this premise a great deal, it serves to emphasise that the characters are not fully in control, that there are events way beyond their direct influence but upon which their individual actions may have a bearing. I like to think that in a game of Crestfallen the characters relationship with Annwn would play out on many levels, with the characters largely unaware of their importance in her story.
It came as no surprise once I had read the playtest that Crestfallen has been in the works for a number of years, in fact as many as fifteen years ago it made its first real appearance. There is on the web already a good following for Crestfallen and in the playtest document this maturity is evident.
With that in mind I think it is worth taking a a moment to describe the book that I reviewed. It was an official playtest copy of a very advanced game development. It is already in a state that is both readable and playable and indeed I took the time to generate a couple of characters as a way to better get to understand the game – an approach I like to take – and in general the layout of the book made this very easy. The playtest copy was a pdf of just over 240 pages and is, as you would expect in a draft layout, missing some art items and with others clearly used as placeholders. It had comprehensive contents pages which made finding my way around very easy, there are also a lot of call outs/sidebar boxes which explain key concepts or provide expanded detail. It is also clear that this is a work of passion, a labour of love, and as such there are a few areas where it will benefit from that final editorial review as part of its publication. Sometimes its hard to see the whole picture when you are that close to the detail. Despite these pre-production foibles, the structure of the book was there to be seen and the integration with the Fate core rules is also apparent. That integration in itself is nicely done, this isn’t a couple of hundred pages of Fate core with forty pages of background layered on top, no – this is a complete game setting making the most of a solid creative commons based ruleset.
I admire the fact that the author has chosen to use Fate core. With such a “different” setting the temptation to try and create a specific set of mechanics must have been there, and like many projects it may well have got lost on the way. Recognising that Fate copes well with the challenges posed by the Crestfallen setting; the ritual magic, the spiritual world, the seemingly malevolent and intelligent weather, and the dangers of travel as things which need to be fought and beaten, the need to deal with whole communities or armies – all of these things can be managed within the constructs of Fate, with all but the addition of some specific guidelines or rulings which Crestfallen does in a well considered and practical way.
Crestfallen deserves to be a successful Kickstarter, to see publication and to reach a wider audience of gamers who I have no doubt will enjoy it immensely. As noted before the Kickstarter launched today (and you can find details here), you can also keep up-to-date with the game on the website www.whiterosegames.com, through Facebook and on Twitter.
We look forward to backing the project and more importantly to playing the game properly at some point in the near future, we wish the authors much success and hope that after reading this you feel like taking a look at the Kickstarter for yourself.