28 February, 2018

Relics: What would I do differently?

+Steve Dee's game Relics is a curious beast. It straddles the line between a traditional game and a story game.

On the traditional side, there is a GM, an agenda for the characters for pursue, a skill system where a randomiser determines the outcome in a fairly traditional "Fail/Success-at-a-price/Success" pattern, then improves chances of success if an appropriate skill can be applied to the task at hand, and then it applies a system where characters improve over the course of playing ongoing sessions.

On the story game side, the skills used are generally freeform, the world develops organically through the interaction of the player group, and the characters are defined as much by their relationships with one another as they are by anything else.

There's a few games trying to unite this divide between traditional and story games, but so far I haven't seen many that do it well without a dedicated set of driving rules that hone in on a specific niche or genre. A game like Blades in the Dark come to mind, where the specific elements connect the fields of games only at the point of the heist genre. Relics could be about heists, but there's nothing specific in the rules that dedicate the game to that genre. It could just as easily be about political intrigue, adventuring archaeologists, occult conspiracies, or investigation. The openness of the game is both a blessing and a curse, it's like giving someone a blank sheet and telling the to draw a picture... some people will revel in the freedom, while others will suffer from option paralysis. It's one of those games where there needs to be a discussion up front to provide a couple of guard-rails to stop having four players all tugging at the potential narrative in four different directions.

The closest game I can think of as a comparison is Paul Tevis's A Penny for My Thoughts, which has a similar system of awakening a character through memories provided by other players, and a system of ensuring everyone gets a chance to awaken through limiting how far ahead certain players can get with their accumulation of memories. In that game, there are a variety of facts and reassurances, and a series of different questionnaires that guide the story in some way. If we go back to the blank page analogy, each of these play aids provides some lines on the page that can't be erased or manipulated, they prompt a specific genre of memory unfolding, where examples might include "Jason Bourne"-styled spy hinjix, Cthulhu mythos investigations, or simply limiting things to the mundane world. The same game is instantly flavoured according to that idea that restriction breeds creativity.

Since the inherent mechanisms of the game work with a Tarot deck, there is a lot of potential I can see in the game that hasn't so far been exploited. So one of the only other things I'd seriously consider with the game is modifying the use of the Major Arcana cards. At the moment, a Major Arcana requires a redraw, unless you have a skill, in which case it counts as a success. Personally, I'd go with the idea that every major arcana brings with it a redraw, where the next card determines success or failure (and if a following major arcana is drawn, it is ignored and drawn again). The Major Arcana flavours the outcome of the skill attempt in some way related to the card, upright for a success, reversed for a failure. Of course, this throws out the statistics when assessing rate of success and the difference made when a skill is possessed, so maybe I'd run with the idea that not possessing a skill offers a play a single card draw, while possessing a relevant skill offers two cards drawn (where the player can choose the better result, but any Arcana drawn as a part of the attempt still count toward flavouring the outcome).

As it stands, the game is fairly sturdy, and certainly more serviceable than a lot of games that have received praise an adoration from various circles in recent years. It really feels like it's almost there, and with the right group it could be great, but with a group that isn't quite right, it could do with a couple of extra guides and prompts to help them along, and make it more user friendly.

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