In the past I’ve talked a lot about wanting alternatives to the assumed “adventurers for hire” mercenary campaign. There are alternative frameworks for campaigns (I wrote up a few some time ago) but if you want a high fantasy, wild adventure game that includes thoughtful, positive stories from the start, you should check out Good Strong Hands. You can back the game on Kickstarter to get it as soon as Craig at Nerdburger Games (maker of Capers and Die Laughing) finishes but he sent me a pre-art manuscript copy to look over. To put it bluntly, it’s fantastic.
A campaign of Good Strong Hands is about both beauty and loss. It take place in the world of Reverie, a pastoral land of dreams and quiet lives which is left purposefully unformed for you to create on your own, but there’s also the Void. This is a faceless, formless horror that wants to simply unmake the world of Reverie and destroy everything your characters love. This means that, like another fantastic upcoming game Descent Into Midnight, this game walks a knifes-edge existence between magical wonder and emotional horror.
While this isn’t a Powered by the Apocalypse game, I think it’s safe to say that Craig at Nerdburger Games was inspired by that system in this game. Your character’s defining type is one of ten different folk who come in playbooks that contain unique abilities. I’d like to see a little more of the PbtA model with some adjectives and questions to get you thinking, but the breadth and beauty of the folk of Reverie is really great. Brownies are tricky, stealthy fey who are also master crafters, fauns are friendly, musical folk beloved of animals, while imps are dark and grim little creatures. Pixies are tiny fey with swift wings who can fight back fear and slyphs are also flying fey but they are taller and slimmer with wind powers. Redcaps are the classic violent little gnomes, stonekin are earth elementals, and woodkin are like dryad-ent amalgamations. Wildkin are described as “half fey and half small, woodland creature” but seem like tricksy little hengeyokai to me. Humans are just like you and me (probably) and in fact come from Earth, using some magical pathway to reach Reverie.
There are other creatures in Reverie as well, with names familiar to D&D aficionados. These run from magical beasts like basilisks, dire animals, skeletons, and oozes to sentient creatures like dragons, giants, phoenixes, selkies, unicorns, and wraiths. While combat of any kind is a foreign thing to most folk in Reverie, killing a sentient creature is especially horrific and stains your soul. One thing that I love is that there are no evil types of creatures. While there are some in Reverie who succumb to the Void’s promises there are no “universally evil” beings and any who serve the Void can be saved by heroes. Sometimes the Void makes Scions that look like familiar creatures but are really autonomous void-stuff, but even these are unique bits of the one enemy and not like “dark elves” or some other nonsense.
The system for Good Strong Hands uses a pool system decided by four Traits: your physical abilities as body, your mental abilities as mind, your social abilities as charm, and your inner strength as heart. These have typically have ratings 1 to 4 and determine how many d6s you roll for a check, and the GM determines a Target Number from 4 to 6. Any die that get the Target Number or higher is a “Hit” and if you get at least one Hit you succeed at your thing. Scoring more than one Hit means you succeed and then some with extra Boons available to bolster your situation. Getting a Boon might mean an extra bit of information, advantage on a Trait check, insight into consequences, etc.
There are also three Tracks which serve as both mechanical resources and measures of experience. Each track has ten checkboxes (though you can increase or decrease this to your taste; there’s a sidebar of great advice) and filling all the checkboxes means some big change for your character. Skill is your knowledge and learning, and when it’s full you advance your character. You check off a skill box every time you fail a Trait check, meaning that failure actually leads to growth (a mechanic I love from games as varied as Masks to Call of Cthulhu to Invisible Sun).
Spirit is the second track and it indicates your magical energy. You mark Spirit when you succeed at a Trait check with one Hit and through engaging with your community, and then you spend those boxes to power magic and Talents. You can also spend Spirit to avoid marking the third track of Shadow which indicates how the Void is influencing your character. You mark Shadow when you get multiple Hits on a Trait check to balance out the Boon, which is meant to simulate the temptation of the Void. I think you can refuse those Boons to avoid the Shadow but I’ll admit that this feels a little tense to me. You want to succeed but not too much? It seems like a narrow edge.
Talents have been mentioned work like feats and are determined by your folk playbook. Every playbook starts with three Talents that each type of folk is good at (fauns can talk with animals, are experts at one type of performance, and are very charming, for example) and then a list of other Talents to choose from when your Skill track fills. Magic Talents (unsurprisingly) let you do magic stuff but once you have a magical ability with a keyword, you can do Minor Magic in that area anytime. This is an exercise in storytelling but basically when you can describe it with your magic then you can make a Heart check instead of another type of Trait check to do something magically. For instance, fauns have that Talent about performing which is listed as “magic: emotion.” If a faun was trying to make a Charm check to win someone over, they could use their magic to roll Heart instead. Or maybe they roll Heart instead of Mind to trick someone into making an angry mistake, or a Heart check in place of Body to… well, see there’s the limit of this thing.
On the flip side, if your Shadow track fills up then you empty it and pick a Corruption, which are obviously no good but they also are cool abilities in themselves. To continue the faun example, should they gain a Corruption they can gain a hypnotic song to plant suggestions, summon a horde of vermin with their music, or (truly horrifically) force one creature to keep dancing forever. Dark stuff. Using a Corruption typically requires you to mark a new Shadow box but really nasty stuff (like the fauns’ Endless Dance Corruption) can have you mark permanent boxes which means your whole Shadow track shortens. Getting all three of your folk’s Corruptions means you’re a horrible Void creature and no longer a PC.
Lastly, failing a Trait in a combat situation or a harrowing scene means you can take one more more Condition (another sign that PbtA played a role in this game’s development). There are two different series of Conditions which are each increasingly bad. On the emotional track there’s Afraid, Rattled, Terrified, and Unconscious while the physical track has Exhausted, Injured, Broken, and Dead. Actually, this seems more like World of Darkness than PbtA but that’s not a bad thing. You use the worse of the two tracks for determining penalty so if your only Exhausted (-0) but also Terrified (-2) then you have a -2 to all your checks.
I know I spoiled it at the beginning, but this is a great game. There are some things that I might adjust for my game but Craig has already built in “dials” for that, changing up game mechanics to make it darker, more heroic, etc. Best of all, the book finishes with fifteen different adventure outlines, complete with NPCs, locations, challenge mechanics, and more. All of them are small, solvable adventures but you could string them all together to a fantastic campaign and many of them end with cliffhangers just begging for extended play.
This game falls into an unintended pattern of games that I’ve reviewed lately, games that are as joyful and fun as they are engaging. Games like Draculola and Golden Sky Stories can by light and fluffy games for simple fun or gaming with kids, but they can also tell poignant and powerful stories. Good Strong Hands might need an older audience than those other games (existential dread isn’t for every kid) but it has that same vibe of a game you can play in an afternoon and feel good about it. This isn’t to say that Good Strong Hands is a kids game (whatever that means), but even adults want to feel happy. I don’t know about you but I’m all for uplifting stories these days and the Mephling and I will be pulling out Good Strong Hands very soon. If you feel the same way (maybe minus the Mephling) then check out Good Strong Hands on Kickstarter before the campaign wraps up!