By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 14 November 2018
“It’s okay to write in your book. It’s what the margins are for.”
I had to stare at that line for a moment. I knew about this pitch before I read it in the book, but I still had to stare. The idea of writing in a book is already a tough thing to consider for a librarian, but the concept of writing in my RPG books almost felt blasphemous.
Yet that line is found in the intro to Plunderlight, a new RPG by G. Michael Truran. While the margins aren’t vital to gameplay, they are one of the many interesting things tucked away into this game of Dark Fantasy.
Writer’s Notes & Disclaimers: A PDF copy of Plunderlight was provided by the writer, G. Michael Truran, for review. This does not in any way influence the rating of this review.
The product is an “ashcan”, and is therefore currently incomplete. The writer has informed me that changes are already underway based on the content of this review and additional feedback. Opinions of the product may change as the product nears completion.
The version reviewed was v1.0.
This review was written to fulfill a request by a Patreon backer.
Plunderlight is a dark fantasy roleplaying game, set in the late 15th Century at the tail end of the “Dark Ages” and just before the early stages of the Renaissance. Gutenberg’s printing press is new, and in that century, muzzle-loaded rifles, spectacles, the parachute, and whiskey were invented.
But Plunderlight isn’t about inventions. It’s about a group of ambitious individuals who have nothing (or possibly lost everything!) and are railing against the despotic powers of the world. It’s a game of desperation, of making deals with powers (mundane and supernatural) beyond your own, and working with your compatriots as they try to gain the means to better their standing.
This game calls titles such as Castlevania, The Witcher, and Brotherhood of the Wolf as inspiration that colors the setting of the game.
Additionally, the game promotes the idea of writing in the margins. If that’s not radical enough to be added to the pitch, factor in that it is offered as a decolonial medieval fantasy RPG that is both flexible and hackable.
==What You Get==
In its current form, Plunderlight weighs in at 146 pages, with black-and-white text with orange accents. The book is currently without artwork; the blank pages within the document are placeholders for upcoming art.
It is meant to be printed in a booklet form, making it a “digest”-size product (much like Fate Accelerated or some of the editions of Savage Worlds). Even with this printout approach, it has copious margin space.
The game is rather light on the necessary requirements: you just need a pair of d10s (preferably 5d10 per player), some character sheets, and this digest-size rulebook. Done.
I also think that a tarot deck, with the court cards and Major Arcana after 10 removed, could be a way to go diceless (and therefore make a more lightweight kit) without skewing the roll variance.
Personally, I’m a fan of how the narrative flow of this game blends with the mechanics. Like Fate and Apocalypse World, narrative elements tied to your character and their gear can impact your results. Instead of being an arbitrary end result or flat affect, the process is a discussion among the table. The GM doesn’t always have final say, which gives the players an opportunity to properly invest themselves into the shared narrative instead of resorting to “What gives me the most pluses?”
Even though this sort of thing could theoretically lead to problems, a mechanic is already in place to keep it in check. Instead of a back-and-forth “Here are your bonuses and here are your penalties,” this shared narrative sets Edges and Setbacks, with the end result leading you to roll no more than five dice at a time, with keeping the two best if it was beneficial to you, or the two worst if it wasn’t. It’s very much like D&D 5th Edition’s Advantage/Disadvantage system, but with extra dice involved and relying on not only what’s on a character sheet and related effects, but active discussion among the table.
This very setup opens the doors for the hackability of this game. While I’m not entirely sold on the idea of dropping Fate Accelerated at the moment, Plunderlight has the potential to be in the running here. Mechanically it’s easy to pick up, hacking it is a breeze (just swap out some Skills, add in Kits/gear, and make some new Traits), and it’s got enough narrative to keep the roleplayers busy while the rollplayers are throwing the bones.
Between the simple mechanics, the open-ended setting (with some useful tips to build you own on the go with the group), and capturing a proper feel for a dark medieval fantasy, Plunderlight has some solid foundation to build from. I found it to be a welcome game, as it’s not quite a Universal System, nor is it set to a specific campaign; it’s more like “This is the kind of feel this game presents, play in your own setting, but here’s everything you need to hack it for what you need.”
With all of this in mind, the margins are rather useful for this very reason; it’s like the book was designed with the idea of turning it into your own version of the game. As a design tool, this was a brilliant choice, and adds a certain degree of additional value to the game in a printed form.
As a reminder, this product is currently provided as an ashcan, and is undergoing changes. The author, G. Michael Truran, has stated he is reviewing playtest reports and reviews like this one for additional feedback. The issues I have may be moot points once the product is complete.
That said, to the problems!
From a readability standpoint, I am not too keen on the selected font. While it is interesting and has that nod to an “old tyme” feel (as it was based on a font cut by Nicolas Jenson around 1470), I find some of the flourishes to be a bit annoying and therefore a bit more difficult to read. Showing this to someone with ADD or who deals with dyslexia (or gods forbid, someone with both!) may lead to some frustration. The author has stated that this is something that is still being decided upon, and an alternative may be used in the final version (as well as a “reader friendly” file).
The game overall play like Blades in the Dark: a scene (job) is set, you narratively handle the job, you spend your money and free time on what’s needed (gear, progression, etc), and then repeat the process. Thing is, like in early versions of Shadowrun, you slowly become penalized the more you have available: rolls are made to see if there’s Pressure placed on the party, forcing a diminished return with regards to Free Time (and therefore, any sort of progress), and therefore limits progression. Granted, you need to have a lot of cash on hand for the penalties to really kick in, but it is still something I’ve never been afraid of. I dislike penalizing players being successful, and that kind of approach just goes against my style of gameplay. Granted, some groups enjoy this type of gameplay, so your mileage may vary.
Speaking of progression: while skills are only rated 1-5, there are forty-two skills (42 skills!!!) within this game…and that’s before hacking it to add more. This emphasizes that gritty fantasy feeling, but some skills (such as Bows and Crossbows) are different when they have related uses. While there are synergy bonuses available via the Tag system, it is a bit of bookkeeping when there are that many skills available. It can also be a bit disheartening as a starting character is only skilled in six of them: one at +3, two at +2, and three at +1. This means that, if you have an disgraced Veteran with officer training, you’ll be able to get get a single weapon skill (note that a shield is a weapon), Reading, Soldiering, Strategy, Tactics, and Writing. This completely removes the wearing of heavy armor, any of the various social graces (such as Charm or Seduction), or even any of the physical talents you’d expect (like Endurance).
And trust me, this doesn’t even bring up the issue that any type of spellcaster has to face…
Additionally, I’m not too receptive to the difference between the regular skills and the “learned” skills; for example, Bows (use and maintenance of a bow) is a “learned” skill, but Iconography (recognizing omens, knowing obscure signs and symbols in a religion, etc) and Crossbows (use and maintenance of a crossbow) are not considered “learned”. I just found it a bit odd, considering the nature of these skills. The author did note that he is debating how best to handle this (and we have discussed some changes), so this entire issue could be a moot point in the final draft.
Again, this is just a personal preference, but I find that skill setups and progression mechanics like this tend to be more hassle than what they are worth for the table.
Honestly, I’m having a bit of a love/hate relationship with the equipment section. On one hand, it tries to codify the various equipment that one would expect to use in combat in that era, from the various forms of armor to the largest of hand-held weapons, each with an assigned cost.
But yet all equipment is created equal. If it is viable, you can tag it for an Edge if it’s good or a Setback if it’s bad, but as written, this can be an issue. For example, it is up to the table to determine if the weapon would grant an Edge, Setback, or no effect in the circumstances of the scene, but this is a slippery slope. The book openly states that peasants with poor equipment cannot stand against a knight, and in the description of an arming sword that the weapon would have issues against a knight in armor. This basically means that each piece of equipment has an intrinsic cost to be paid (in Lucre, the currency of the game) with benefits that are going to be variable at best, based on the understanding of the equipment and how it can be used. I’m not sold on it as written.
I’m having a similar situation with the Sorcery section. Magic in this case is handled rather simply: have a Relationship (rated 1-5) with an Otherwordly Power, and you have spells you can unlock based on the purviews of the one granted your power. There’s a list of spells you can buy (with one “freebie” to start), and in the current iteration, there’s one “weakness” with each Power with regards to available spells.
From there, it’s…not as nice.
Using a spell marks a point of Obligation to your Power, and once you reach a rank equal to your Relationship with that Power, you are now under an Obligation to them. This means that, at character creation, you are able to use one spell before you are under an Obligation to your Power; you seriously start the game with a Relationship to that Power rated at 1. You start off being severely limited in the number of spells you can cast (one to five, based on Relationship), and this is also limited by the number of spells you know (again, at chargen, that’s one, with thirty total spells available). After you cast your allotment, you won’t have access to magic until an Obligation is fulfilled (usually at Downtime), and until then, it can act as a Setback on any roll the table/GM agrees to (and I can only imagine what a vindictive GM could do here…).
I think it needs to be balanced out a bit more, as it is quite the investment to have access to magic (a Talent and related Skills),
That said, I’m iffy on how the spell selection works. While keeping the spell selection limited, we get that proper grim, Dark-Ages-Europe feel: hidden knowledge hidden in grimoires and requiring massive research. This also codifies how magic works in a simple manner, removing issues of decision paralysis that plague most spellcasters in other fantasy RPGs involving dragons and plundering dungeons.
Even though it’s fitting, and the mechanic for spell effects are very GM friendly, it is a bit frustrating as the spells are basically the same across the board (a Primal and a Dark Power both have the same Influence effects available), and every Power technically has access to all types of magic except one, which reduces the appeal for me; why be “different” if it’s all almost the same? I’m in the middle here, but I do lean toward not liking it out of personal preference, especially with so much of the narrative discussion going on here with this sudden odd restriction. I think if there were a few more spells and further restrictions (and flavors) for each type of magic, I’d enjoy it a bit more (but other may love it as-is).
I may have to write up a hack and try it out; spells unique to each Power, with generic spells across the board, or a designated limited set of spells based on the Power. Hrmm…
I’m also dealing with a love/hate feeling with the progression mechanic.
Progression in Plunderlight is handled during downtime. Lucre is used to buy a week of time, and each day can be spent to handle various “Free Time” activities, ranging from the simple shopping around to building up your contacts to learning new abilities.
On the up side, it’s rather straightforward, and there can be progress made each time the group has the money to spend. This can make progression move at a decent clip if everything works as planned, and it is also a mechanic easily used for other tasks (like inventions, research, and more).
On the other hand, it’s all a matter of the dice. If you are unlucky with the dice, you could spend an entire week of Downtime (seven rolls) without getting a single Hit. If there’s enough Lucre at the table, you might have to deal with Pressure roll, meaning days of progress (and therefore, one or more potential rolls) can be lost.
Essentially, I like that it’s gritty, shows that feeling of being on the run, and that getting better at something takes time and effort, but the luck end of things is a bit of a turnoff for me. I know some groups absolutely love this sort of thing, but mechanics like this have always been a turnoff for me (as my luck can be pretty crappy when it matters).
Finally, there’s the art…or rather, the lack thereof. I can’t really give the game points for art that doesn’t exist, but I don’t want to detract from it, so it will ride in the middle.
==What’s Coming In Version 1.1==
As this product is still an ashcan, I gave the author the opportunity to read the review before it went live with the hopes that the input would be of use.
We’ve had some conversations about my concerns and talked shop, and I was given a peek inside of what’s in store.
In short, I was told that there was some feedback from playtesters and other enthusiasts like myself, so there’s a number of tweaks and additions to be expected, namely:
- New Content: A section on Alchemy
- New Content: A “How to Hack Plunderlight” section
- New Content: Historicity, Safety, & Calibration (a “don’t be a jerk for historical accuracy” section)
- New Content: An index of safety tools
- New Content: An appendix of medieval names
- Game Change: Revisiting the magic section and making revisions
- Game Change: Tweaking the Hits mechanic (easier successes)
- Game Change: Removing the “Learned” skill descriptor
As you can see, there’s a lot coming to version 1.1, and most of it is thanks to input from playtesters and those who bought the book and provided feedback.
I’ll be honest, this very situation gives me hope for the product (and why I think it has the potential to have a higher rating once the product is done): unlike other RPGs I have reviewed and given critical input on, and unlike some games I have playtested in the past, the author here actually listens to input from fans and players and strives to make it a better product. While the game can’t get those golden 5 Buns in its current state, the type of support and willingness to make a better product earns G. Micheal Truran a degree of respect that I cannot rate in buns.
As the dust is still hanging in the air, I’m going to have to hand Plunderlight 2.5 Buns.
While Plunderlight brings some interesting elements to the table, I feel that it is a bit too off for my tastes. This is partly due to being incomplete and still not quite balanced, and partly due to my own reaction to the current mechanics. It’s not a game I’m going to be running at the moment, but it could change as the mechanics are better fleshed out and the book nears its completed state. It shows promise, but it needs to be smoothed over a bit and have the bugs worked out.
That said, knowing what I know of the author and his work, and his willingness to make a better product based on feedback, this game could easily reach the 3-3.5 bun range once it’s cleaned up and has some proper art to support it. Again, easily reach those ratings.
If you have enjoyed games like SIGMATA, Fate, Blades In The Dark, or Apocalypse World, while also enjoyed the feeling of dark fantasy like that of Zweihander, then you’ll feel right at home with Plunderlight. You’ll find elements and themes from of these games, but with some tweaks that make them feel more welcoming to new players.
Basically, if you like narration, dark fantasy with plenty of grit, and the leeway to tell the story you want, you can’t go too far off with what we have offered in Plunderlight.
If you want a mechanic that is a little more codified/stricter, or something that is complete and won’t change anytime soon, you’ll want to give this a pass.
Plunderlight is currently available in it’s ashcan form via the Bad Qual itch.io page. As of this writing, the book is $10 (or more), and is currently without art. After completion, an artless version will be made available for free, while pre-orders will have updated versions available as they finish, culminating in the final edition (including art).