It has been well over a month since I’ve been able to run a session of Mythic Bastionland and my schedule being what it is, I don’t know when I will have the time and energy to run games online again. Instead, I thought I’d do a sort of post-mortem on the four sessions I did run (the fourth, sadly, was never written up).
Overall I am really enjoying my time with this system. It is fun, evocative, and more people should play it so Chris can get more feedback and support in developing it. In this post I am going to emphasize the critical, because I think my earlier playtest reports speak for themselves in terms of the basic solidity of the game.
I also want to underscore that I tried to run these sessions “naively”. That is, I employed wherever possible the most literal and strictest interpretation of the rules as written as I could manage. While I recognize that one of the advantages of TRPGs in flexibility in how to implement their rules, I don’t think that flexibility should excuse a flimsy core.
Finally, the reader is asked to remember that this is still a game in the relatively early stages of its development. Having seen the evolution undergone by Into the Odd from its first days as a PDF floating around Google+ (it used 6 ability scores! And modifiers! And attack rolls!), I can speak firsthand to how deeply Mythic Bastionland is liable to change as it develops.
What has been working?
The prep structures are easy to grasp, well integrated, and make preparing sessions a breeze. I want to underscore this point: I really think, or at least hope, that this game is going to change the conversation about prep in the OSR. These structures are not perfect, not universal, but they are deeply functional in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen before. In private, I’ve talked about my dream of an OSR RPG you can just pull off the shelf and play like a board game, with little or no prep. (This dream, incidentally, was put into my head by my early experience playing Into the Odd.) If Mythic Bastionland is not that game, it’s as close as anything has ever come.
PCs are interesting and have connections to the world. Starting off with fun titles and powers gives players something to build on as they start to explore their character. Their knightly status provides them with a degree of social weight, even when they’re petty knights errant, and helps clarify how NPCs will treat them. That status and its accompanying code has also resulted in players thinking a lot more about their PCs’ social identites and reputations than I’ve seen in other OSR games. Your mileage may vary, but personally I really like this. It’s a refreshing change from the wandering freebooter and I appreciate that it comes with a certain moral weight.
What has not been working?
I’m unclear on when to use Luck rolls. They are very open ended as a mechanic and I found myself using them almost exclusively for task resolution. Saves came up very rarely, partly because the circumstances tended not to be severe enough to be in the spirit of a Save, and partly because I like the oracularity of the Luck roll. This is not a bad thing per se: Luck rolls are good for compensating for gaps in prep and tend to move things forward, but I’m unsure whether this is how they are meant to be used.
Travel isn’t quite coming together for me. An earlier version of the travel rules worked in food and water scarcity, the need for adequate shelter, and a tight-ish action economy that required players to decided between travel, rest, and various tasks. This worked reasonably well in my opinion, although in practice the resource management aspect was pretty trivial and didn’t add much. The later versions more or less sidelined the resource management stuff and rolled tasks into the extant travel structure. In my experience, players have often had more opportunities to perform tasks than they can find uses for, which eliminates the time management aspect as well. This left a lot of the procedure around travel feeling a little weightless. This was putatively an intentional tradeoff to shift the emphasis towards Omens, Myths, and site-based interactions. In practice though this left travel resolution feeling a bit pointless, especially because…
I don’t know what to do with all these hexes. This is not to say that there is too much empty space; The realm-building guidelines provide a very strong skeleton for interesting situations, and the framing of PC goals is good adventure fuel. But whereas it is pretty clear what a GM is to do with Shire, Holding, and Myth hexes, I’m less sure of what is intended for the hexes in between.
For me, the primary blockage comes from the intersection of three parts of the text: the travel rules, the creative sparks, and the improv guidance. It has a bunch of little sparks at the bottom of each page with landmarks, terrain features, NPC bits, etc., which the GM is expected to riff on in developing hexes. But when this riffing is meant to happen is not indicated in either the game’s prep guidance, nor does its improvisation guidance encourage doing much with these on the fly:
When faced with a question not answered by a rules, notes, or procedure, you improvise.
Anything too beneficial or too harmful creates the feeling of an arbitrary world. Instead, describe something that does at least one of the following:
- Evokes the flavour and themes of the area and its inhabitants.
- Indulges their senses. […]
- Reinforces something that they’ve already learned about this place.
- pg. 12
In a game that otherwise seems to lay out all its pieces with a great deal of purpose, the wilderness hexes feel like an afterthought. The game seems to run great without these hexes keyed, but it does raise the question of why travel should be so granular, or what kind of outcomes the author intends for these rules. As it stands, I often chose to just breeze past unkeyed hexes, because it seemed like a waste of time to put more resistance between the PCs, their objectives, and whatever Omens they may encounter.
Catching Blows/Onslaughts… Meh? As with the hexes, I struggle a bit to understand what this mechanic wants. For one, the dice math is a bit hard to get one’s head around: They trigger when the highest damage die shows its highest number, but wouldn’t that mean that the more powerful the attack, the less likely to pull one of these off? How does using multiple dice of different sizes impact the odds? For a game where calculated risks and planning are generally encouraged, these feel very hard to plan around or anticipate. They also sit uneasily alongside the rather ambiguous reference to what you might otherwise call “maneuvers” in some systems:
These effects are not limited to Onslaughts, but here they are granted without risk and without use of an action.
- pg. 8
This raises more questions than it answers – namely, how you accomplish the effects of Onslaughts (dismounting/disarming, driving back, or restricting movement) without the use of an Onslaught or a bespoke feat. In my playtests I made rulings from other discussions of ItO-derived games (require a save from whichever party is in a worse position to see if the maneuver works; if it doesn’t the the defender gets an advantage).
A further quirk: In the playtest, Zedeck’s Nasus scored an Onslaught against his opponent, the Titan Knight, in the middle of a joust. This was the first and only time a player had rolled one of these. Zedeck suggested he might unhorse the Titan Knight, but the rules indicate the effect “should not be so impactful as to instantly end the combat,” which in the context of a joust would have been the case. I instead ruled the Titan Knight was knocked loose in her saddle, which would have given Zedeck the upper hand in the next round – except had she rolled some very high damage, ending the fight before that round could begin. The result of the joust was a loss for Nasus which, under a slightly different interpretation of Onslaughts, would have been a tie. I don’t know that one is preferable to the other, as it was a good character moment either way, but it did leave me wondering whether my interpretation fit the spirit of its intent.
I hope the critical nature of the back half of this post hasn’t disuased anyone curious from trying out Mythic Bastionland. I want to reiterate how much good material I think it contains. It is already very mature and enjoyable to play, and is the first think I think of these when friends talk about getting a game going once I have a little more time. The setting and world-creation stuff are singularly actionable in a way I don’t think we’ve yet seen in this space. My criticisms of certain structures and mechanics come in part from how excited I am about this game’s overall vision, and my desire to see it clarified.