A new game is coming to your skies, finishing up its Kickstarter pledges and getting ready for general release. Upwind a novel game in a lot of ways and I’ll admit that I hesitated before backing it. Quirky is alright but if you get too quirky you end up with something like Cairn which for me is quirky enough to be nearly unplayable. On the other hand you might get something like Paranoia which is a crazy but enduring classic. In the end it was an actual play called “The Three Beasts” put out by RPPR that convinced me to back it. Now that the beta version is out to backers I’m very glad that I did.
First off, let me give you the elevator pitch of Upwind: it’s a mix between Ralph Bakshi’s film Wizards and the more recent film Treasure Planet by Disney, and that mixture is written and directed by the minds at Studio Ghibli. Players are sailors and explorers in airborne tall ships that ply the wind between floating islands in a world with no ground. For some reason these “skyland” chunks of earth float between a source of blinding light (the Light) and a shadowed realm of darkness (the Dark). There used to be a planet here but it was blown apart in some ancient cataclysm that no one remembers. The motes of rock and trees are populated by the Kin, a varied race of elfin humanoids with various elemental affinities (called Potential), and the Dark is populated by the Children of the Dark.
I feel it important to say at this juncture that the names are not particularly exciting, and that this trend will continue throughout the rest of the setting.
You’re not playing a human in this setting but you’re not playing something very inhuman either. It’s a weird mix but it opens the door to enough variation that your players can feel free to describe their strange character in whatever fashion they want. Something this setting is missing to me, however, is a variety of races to pick from but I guess in a world of flying boats and drifting chunks of ground you have to cut back on the fantasy somewhere.
The Q System
The other reason that Upwind is so different is it’s game system. “Q” (which apparently stands for “quantum”) involves no dice but instead uses hands of playing cards. Deadlands uses playing cards (and poker chips) alongside dice but Q is all cards. Lords of Gossamer and Shadow (and Amber Diceless RPG before it) use a bidding system to create Attributes and then compare them, but it’s all points. Combine these two things, and you get the suit-matching, card-bidding, deck-building system of Q.
In most RPGs, you use your skills (dice or otherwise) to do something and then you use your skills for something else and string stuff like that into a scene. For Q, you have one exchange of cards that determines the whole direction of a scene and then you roleplay out the consequences. Aside from changing the scope of things (resource management over scenes instead of rounds) this frees you up to tell a story seamlessly. It’s more crunchy than you might be thinking (more on that below) but this shift in perspective might turn some people off.
For me, it’s a broadly-looking way to really invest people in interactions that sometimes you can’t get players to focus on. The whole thing starts with negotiating stakes. The player figures out what they want from a situation: maybe they want information on a smuggling ring, maybe they want to escape their pursuers, or maybe they want to successfully navigate to a remote outpost. The GM then counters with their stakes, picking a fun and interesting set of consequences commensurate with the player’s stakes. Sure you can get that information, but if you fail you’ve been made by the criminal gang. Yeah you can escape your pursuers, but if you fail you’ve pushed the ship too hard and something important snaps. Alright you can navigate to that outpost but if you fail this then you blunder onto the pirates you’re trying to avoid. This makes things very clear and cuts to the point of the interaction. There’s no forgetting what you are talking to this person for or retconning with “oh, if I knew he didn’t have the info I wouldn’t have talked to him.” I like it a lot.
After this you play cards from your hand and try to beat your opponents total. Your personalized Potential Deck has the suit determined by your elemental affinities while your Play Deck has the other three suits, plus a Joker. You start with a hand of six cards and you get new Play Deck cards all the time but your Potential Deck cards replenish slowly. You start bidding once you know the stakes and you can put down a number of cards determined by the skill you’re using (1 to 3) while the GM uses a number of cards based on the challenge level (also 1 to 3). You add up your totals and if you have a face card (jack, queen, king, or ace) you can “crown” it by drawing an extra card and adding the value to the card’s natural 10. When you can crown depends on what the card is: jacks for trickery, queens for wisdom and compassion, kings for directness, and aces all the time.
Whoever wins the bidding wins the whole thing and you describe what that looks like together. You can get a narrative bonus and there are also mechanical consequences like caches (cards set aside that you can add in when justified) or complications (new story elements that the GM can spring on you). The whole system takes some getting used to but not really any more than any other RPG system. It’s pretty fast and seems to involve a flurry of card trading and then a fun collaboration on crafting the scene accordingly. It’s quirky and different but with the whole thing laid out I can see the genius behind it too.
A game system is all well and good, but what’s the world like? Oddly enough, because of the strange nature of the setting, you have to start with talking about what that actual landscape looks like before you can get to all of the cultural stuff. In the friendly, civilized part of the skies there is constantly the Wind which blows from the Dark to the Light and then the Skylands that hang in the air and serve as homes for the Kin. Those skylands closest to the Light (known as the Arids) are baked and dry and unfit for life while those a little farther (the Uplands) away are warm and plentiful and densely populated. Farther down from that is the Dust, a swath of bits and pieces broken off from other skylands, which forms the border between the Uplands and the Lowlands (unsurprisingly the lower skylands). The Outlands are those distant skylands which have drifted farther away from the rest and then the Sky Beyond is uncharted territories. Below the Lowlands is the Twilight Frontier, the transitional zone between the civilized lands and the Dark.
So who lives in these areas? Well, there are ten kingdoms highlighted in the book as major players and a smattering of others as small-time governments that you can throw at your players and potentially burn to the ground without destroying the setting. You know the type. Binding them all together is the Explorer’s Guild which is half cartographic service, half knight errant brotherhood. It’s also the assumed affiliation for PCs, so that’s important too.
First up is the Kingdom of Verdant, which is your typical shining monarchy of science and castles. It’s the kingdom that gets all the good stuff from the headquarters of Explorer’s Guild to the Arch which is a super-powered magical channel, plus its in the beautiful Uplands. The Fortress Dominion is, in many ways, the Lowlands counterpart to Verdant: militaristic and rigid instead of innovative and visionary. The Bastion at the center is an impregnable fortress to protect from incursions by the Children of Darkness. It’s a real Gondor-Shire situation between these two.
This semi-pairing of governments continues through the rest of the chapter but not in an overt way, just in a way to provide lots of options. The Kingdom of Loft is a complex patchwork of Machiavellian politics and rich trade networks, while the Sovereign Domain of Bright is a theocratic realm perched on the very brightest edge of the Bright. The Soar Republic is a socially progressive and egalitarian state (though sort of in a creepy Soviet way) and Vault is a corrupt kleptocracy wedged between the Fortress Dominion and Loft (not a good location to be in). The Kingdom of Skyreach is a closed and aloof nation of wealthy traders but Horizon is a poor nation of adventurous and hardworking folk. The final two nations offer tons of opportunity for different reasons: the Regency of Dimm is a shattered land of dark shadows and black markets while the Spire is a mysterious relic that is the basis for the lodestones used to travel the skies.
While I wasn’t sure if I would like it, I’m really enjoying the fun approach to roleplaying that the Q System offers. It’s a fast and narrative design that offers some cool opportunities for your gaming group. Even if you don’t like the system, however, the setting is very different and fun with plenty of material to hook players. I’d definitely recommend this if you’re considering it.