So, I’m running an RPG for a couple of friends in the States (online, on Discord) who expressed interest in trying out an RPG. One of the players has done a little gaming; the other is a complete newbie. I decided to go with Electric Bastionland (or PDF here)because I was eager to try a system this stripped down and simplified. It seemed like a good introduction to the hobby, and has a setting that’s… well, different enough to sort of confound expectations.
Electric Bastionland is effectively the 2nd edition of Into the Odd; I never played ItO, but I saw its rules and setting and thought they were a cool, interesting take on the project of boiling down old-school D&D to its bare minimum. I don’t know whether its creator, Chris McDowall (blog here), thinks of it as an OSR game or not—is nu-SR a thing now? Or have we not decided what we’re calling that weird garden of games grown from the corpse of older editions of D&D but which have opted not to self-identify as OSR?
Anyway, when I saw the Electric Bastionland kickstarter, I checked it out and immediately backed it. Now, I backed a lot of Kickstarters at the time, but this is one I really didn’t regret. Which is a little funny since it’s over 300 pages long, but also has a ruleset you can fit on a single A4 paper.
Yeah, no kidding. Well, sort of. The core rules can (and do) fit on a single A4 paper. (Check out the free edition here.) The “failed careers,” though, are much longer: they’re over 200 pages of the book. If you’re familiar with Troika, it’s a similar idea: it’s a game without character classes, and you instead generate characters with specific abilities and equipment—the better your hit points and starting cash, the worse your gear (but you never start with enough cash to pay for wherever you’ll be sleeping tonight). There are almost no rules for character advancement: a character’s ability scores or HP might change if they’re scarred (i.e. hit exactly 0HP) and survive it; they might pick up more gear or gadgets along the way. Or they might get crushed under the wheel of the—let’s call it what it is—adventuring gig economy.
The setting is mostly implied through the ridiculous “failed careers,” which is something I’m very interested in: games that imply setting, but don’t define it, a bit like giving groups a wireframe schematic of the setting but leaving it to the players and Conductor (GM) to fill in. (My first experience with this sort of design was in Blades in the Dark, and it left me very interested in the approach, which I much prefer to the heavily-frontloaded “Lonely Planet” approach to setting design.)
Prep for the game is gloriously simple. Everything in the game has only a few stats: STR, DEX, CHA, HP, and whatever damage its attacks do. If a stat is not given, an average score (10) is assumed. In other words, even designing a unique monster is relatively trivial. Look, I’ll make one up right now:
Ourshibou1 (Inverse Owlbear)
DEX 16, 7hp, d4 claws.
- Extremely thoughtful and incredibly verbose conversationalist.
- Perches on rooftops in cities, watching over humanity.
- Becomes angry and violent when it is too well-fed.
That’s quick and dirty, but you get the idea. (On the idea of “inverse monsters,” see here for examples and an explanation.)
This means that stocking an adventure even with 100% unique creatures is… easy! It’s really just assigning HP and one or more unique stats, and thinking of an unusual (or not so unusual) attack and some traits. While I do love me some random tables—and boy, do I—I’ll be honest: I love simplicity too.
The other thing is that it provides good GM advice. As fun as the Troika rulebook was to read—at least till I got to the rules section—I was left wondering, “Okay, but what does a game run with this actually look like?” Now, I feel that a lot with games, even games where this is explicitly explained, but I didn’t really feel that way with Electric Bastionland. I think one reason is because McDowall provides a lot of his GM advice in simplified, easily digested bullet point lists, just principles rather than detailed and lengthy prose trying to evoke the feel of the game or explain over-complicated mechanics.
Anyway, all of this is to say that Electric Bastionland’s shaped up to be a good game. I’ve decided I’m going to post basic game logs here, both because the story that’s emerging from play is fun, and because writing stuff down helps me keep track of things.
It should go without saying that if you’re playing in this game—you know who you are—read no further to avoid spoiling any secrets for yourself.
So, we generated characters on Discord. My players used a character generator to create stats for three characters each, ignoring the randomly generated failed careers. (I looked up the Failed Careers using the chart in the book.) We ended up with:
- Nujanai, a slightly frail failed Human Unionist (he worked as a steeplejack, but politics was his thing) with an iron pick and a bomb, as well as a top hat and sash.
- Fermi, a reasonably tough failed Mixologist who was armed with a few bottles of booze, a bottle of nerve agent, and his wits. Seriously, no starting weapon.
I let them choose one of their discards as a henchperson for the party, and instead of generating her using the henchperson rules, I used the PC rules. We ended up
- Emmeline Grippelash, a tough failed Urbalist with a sabre and the ability (when herbed up) to stuff bits of walls into her ears to learn secrets of one creature living in the place, and the ability to stare into the shadows cast by the light of a candle and see the path of the last person to pass that spot.
The entire group was in debt to the Masterphagers, a secret society of people who swallow things and had (at least) taught the entire party the secret of safely swallowing anything first-sized or smaller… but who will soon be sending rhe leg-breakers if they don’t get the £10,000 that the player characters collectively owe them.
A few days before the first session, I gave them the gist of the starting conditions: they’re broke, they need work ASAP, and they woke this morning together in a rented room to find someone had nailed (literally nailed) an envelope to the door. In side the envelope, a note with their names, the amount of their debt, and the word “SOON.”
Then I presented them with a couple of options in terms of adventure-for-hire jobs being advertised:
- A local medium was offering people money in exchange for spending the night in a “supposedly haunted house.”
- A newly established local university in their neighborhood, The New Guttershine Academy, was advertising “handsome pay” for anyone who could salvage some books from the long-abandoned nearby Buttonsnemp Researchery, which has stood abandoned for more than a decade since the infamously secret “Footjelly Disaster” that supposedly occurred there.
I assumed they’d go for Option 1—less hazard, especially when you think about what the “footjelly disaster” might entail in a “researchery,” but somehow they were more concerned about actually getting paid, and figured a university would be likelier to actually pay up than some fly-by-night medium. (As if universities cannot be fly-by-night as well!)
So on the first session, I spent a little time just explaining a little about Roll20, and then the adventure began.
The trio made their way through Guttershine, past a band of Mockeries protesting the Human Unionists on one side of the street (and Human Unionists mounting a counterprotest on the other side of the street), and a line of Mockeries begging for “work or goodies,” until they reached the entrance to the campus for The New Guttershine Academy.
They were pleased to discover that academy’s Library Acquisitions and Properties Oversight Steering Subcommittee was still meeting with applicants for the salvage job in an easily accessible hall, and still hiring. They went into the hall and led to where they could address their committee. A young academic—seemingly despised by most of his colleagues—named Thackeray. T. Tintapan asked them to provide the details of their bona fides.
They did so, or, rather, convinced him that they were generally unqualified, but nobody would miss them if they never returned from the expedition. They were handed a list of books to retrieve from the Researchery, along with a mimeograph of a badly hand-drawn map. The explanatory text on the book list offered £50 per book, except when a different price was specified on the list. (Note: every book on the list except two had a different price specified—almost all specific prices were a lot less than £50.)
After handing them book list, Tintapan called for a recess and the subcommittee meeting halted. Tintapan left the room, but others—an odd and diverse cast of academics in robes—quietly dispensed a couple of rumors and side-missions to the characters: one young man named Dr. Pibswaint informed Fermi that the entire salvage mission is pointless, as every book in the list is available from other libraries or secondhand bookshops in town, but that the agreement would be upheld if they did salvage the books.
Meanwhile, a strange professor named Dr. Ennzlaffen (who looked about ten years old, but spoke with an old woman’s voice—she was very offended, or perhaps just evasive, when asked her age) claimed to Nujanai that the man who’d just walked out absolutely could not really be Tintapan, for he was too young where Tintapan had been an old man when she’d started her academic career; she intimated that any evidence to prove the man wasn’t Tintapan would be worth far more than even the entire book list, and that if the characters could secure it she’d make that worth their while.
Thus informed and hired and confused, the characters made for the ruins of the Buttonsnemp Researchery, once more passing the yet-more-strenuous Mockery protest and Human Unionist counter-protest they’d seen earlier. The ruins were a familiar spot: they’d never explored them, but they had passed them on the way to a certain sandwich shop. It was a large ruin—just the front of a building, built into the side of a hill, covered with greasy old tarpaulins, with some kind of large piece of fallen machinery protruding out through the smashed wall.
They sneaked in to find the room was lit by pale green electric lights. It wasn’t the sort of electric light common in Bastion today—it had an old-timey feel, some greenish reactive gas in the bulbs with an extremely long half-life that was still lighting up the room.
They began by inspecting the large piece of machinery, which they’d taken to be a telescope, but discovered it was… well, they weren’t sure what, but what that it was a large stone cylinder clad in metal, with a human-like face on one end, frozen in a silent, eternal scream.
They poked around the room a bit more, and quickly found that the floor was scarred by… something? It looked like perhaps something molten, or maybe something secreting a stone-melting acid, had crossed the room and felt a weird melted (but now solidified) gouge in the floor, from one corner of the room to a doorway at the other end. There was also a double door that was locked, and behind which the voice of a woman speaking could be heard.
Searching the room, Nujanai found a book and some sealed envelopes in the drawer of a desk in the corner of the room. Excitedly, he opened the book, hoping they’d earned their first probably-not-£50, but then found it was an old collection of erotic etchings not on the list. He shoved the book into his pack, leaving the letters where they were.2
Fermi found a narrow, low, crawl-able tunnel that seemed to have been either melted or eroded out of the rock surrounding an unaffected metal pipe connecting some machinery in this room to somewhere else in the facility, but before investigating that, they decided to investigate the unlocked doorway at the far end of that gouge across the floor.
It let to a (similarly unsettling, melted-or-eroded) stairwell that led to a small control room full of mechanical computers. The stone floor and walls were melted, with several skeletons partly immersed in the re-hardened stone. However, from one of the corpses, Nujanai retrieved a gold medallion with a logo and some faint engraving on the back, and a gold ring, also faintly engraved. (He didn’t bother to read the engraving on the medallion or ring. If he does, he’ll discover something interesting and kick himself later on.)
They discovered, on their return to the first room, that someone had left a large black warhorse tied up outside. (It was neighing in annoyance.) That freaked them out: someone else might be here now! They decided to get a move on, and Fermi quickly took to the crawlspace. This was supposed to be creepy, but mostly I just reminded him that the walls were melted and he wouldn’t be able to move quickly if he needed to. They emerged at the far end of the tunnel in a small cave that, like the tunnel, seemed to have been melted from the stone itself, and didn’t match anything on the hand-drawn map.3 That said, it had an exit, so they could continue on through the tunnels and hopefully reconnected to the Researchery complex.
The small cave seemed essentially empty at first glance, but they did find a few more items of jewelry among some bones half-melted into the rock—not all of it easily retrievable, but they did get an unremarkable silver bracelet from one corpse—and a tin box half-embedded in the stone. When they forced the tin box open, they found a couple of books from the list:
- The Unmappable Underground
- A Guide to the Economics of Caravaners in the Ultraviolet Grasslands
- The Chancer’s Guide to the Gambling Hells and Dicing Dens of Bastion
The first two books were on their requisition list. (One of them—the second—is even worth £50! In the third, there was a letter on university letterhead (with a logo matching the medallion Nujanai found) from some unknown professor to President Thackeray T. Tintapan, congratulating him on his impending retirement after a long and illustrious career in research.
In this chamber, they also had Emmeline use her herbs and stick a few bits of the wall into her ear. She learned that one of the creatures that lives in the ruins is “an enormous mistake.” She also pulled out one of her birthday candles and lit it, staring into its shadows, and found that whoever had last passed here had gone north up the sole tunnel out of the chamber, so the group went that way.
They they proceeded on northward, and found themselves in a large room where the “melting effect” had clearly deformed what seemed to be a room on the map, marked “Lab.” Whatever had melted the room, its effect had been profound here: it looked like a cave formed of erosion, except from some iron stairs clinging to one wall, and a steel door set into a wall. Detritus from the lab abounded: a half-melted sign warning against “Admixture of the Red and the Bl-“, more skeletons half-embedded into the melted stone, and the shattered remnants of what seemed to be four tall glass containers. Nujanai and Fermi picked through teh bones, and found… something resembling an eye, except it was mechanical, and seemed inert. (Nujanai pocketed it.)4
Emmeline mounted the stairs, after pausing to pull something off one of the skeletons whose remains were draped over the bottom stairs, and then peeped through the keyhole of the steel door. She gasped in shock…
I’ll follow up tomorrow with the rest.
Yes, I can’t help but sneak in a language joke, even if my French has long ago abandoned me.↩
Too bad. They were, er, colorful “love” letters from Tintapan to two students and a secretary at the Buttonsnemp Researchery: prime blackmail material.↩
The hand-drawn map is incomplete, of course: it’s based on stuff a student or visitor would know about, and more importantly is missing things any professor would know about; ah, yes, the rumor they heard about Tintapan not being the “real” Tintapan is, of course, correct.↩
It runs off bioelectricity. You have to pop it into an empty eyesocket for it to work. What does it do? Eh, I’ll figure that out when the time comes.↩