Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: Itras By

Review: Itras By by Martin Bull Gudmundsen and Ole Peder GiƦver
Vagrant Workshop
Rating: ★★★★

Man oh man, this game.  This game is such a marvel.  I cannot really explain how much I am impressed with this book, given how you have 80 plus pages of setting notes, story seeds and a lovely cast of non-playing characters, followed by something like barely ten pages of actual rules, then the remainder of the book is lovely notes and tips on how to approach gaming, surrealism, and narrative.

This book is incredible.

I heard about Itras By on Google Plus, when I chanced upon someone talking about the game being available on Drive Thru RPG.  The words Surreal were part of the statement, which quite frankly caught my eye.  It is not often one finds a game that willingly embraces the term surreal.  And if any of you readers out there are Adventure Time fans like me, the idea of a surreal rpg being enticing should make perfect sense.

So What Is This Game?
Living Fiction.  I know, it sounds like an attempt to sound like high-art, but bear with me for this review and read on.  The game seeks to be living fiction, where players are co-writers of the narrative.  And while many games have approached their systems with that in mind (from John Wick's Houses of the Blooded, to Pelgrane Press' Gumshoe where its no longer a question of finding clues, but interpreting them), this game REALLY uses a system where giving the players narrative control means leaving them to interpret or give things a spin on things.    And since the game is set in the surreal city, you have a strange juxtaposition of 20s fashion sense with supernatural aspects that are taken almost without any oddness at all.  A close description perhaps would be Terry Prachett's Discworld having a lovechild with Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere after being inspired by The Prisoner and Terry Gilliam movies.

Sounds Strange.  What makes it Awesome Strange?
Too many things.  First you have an absolutely rich setting.  From locations such as Friday Street, which turns up north of a certain tower, but cannot ever be found on any other day but Friday, to concepts such as the Morphiciary, which believes "everyone should lead lives which one could tell stories and sing songs about, lives which are exciting adventures" to characters having dramatic qualities such as a dog's head, or a character whom Death visits from time to time (usually when you're about to die) but does not claim you, instead joins you for tea and a game of chess.

Crazy?  No, not crazy.
Surreal cool.

So, it is just the cool world...
Heaven's no!  The system even gets cooler.  Gamists and Simulationists will readily decry this game to be an incomplete and horrible one, but given how a character sheet has NO actual numbers or stats save for descriptive sections the player fills out, the system relies on two types of cards to handle resolutions and twists.

 
Characters are created with the following sections to be filled out.
1) Idea
2) Background
3) Dramatic Qualities
4) Personality
5) Intrigue Magnets
6) Supporting Characters
7) The other characters
8) Other details.

The game very openly allows the player to come up with dramatically powerful qualities if they so desire.  "This need not be a problem; it will only lead to them facing equally great challenges."  This mindset is one that I have always embraced in my games.  Hence I can have a player portraying a god-like Gentry while others are just Lost in a Changeling the Lost campaign.   Not having numbers means the players will have to narrate for themselves appropriate resolutions and challenges that they feel will be fun to explore as well.

Intrigue Magnets are an awesome concept.  They're basically a list of short, long and simple goals the character has which can become wonderful tools in tying players together.  Characters as part of character creation is another staple I've done in my games (I've always asked players to name "One person the character loves, cares for, or cannot live without.") and its good to see it here as well.

You were saying, two kinds of Cards.
Ah yes, the cards.  There are Resolution Cards and Chance Cards.
Resolution cards determine if you succeed in a task.  Unlike dice in most rpgs, players are expected to draw a resolution card only when you feel they are needed to add excitement to a scene.  While most games have dice rolls made repeatedly to build tension or drama, in Itras By, you are expected to only draw a card when you want a big random element to twist the events.

Why?  Cause rather than just saying you succeed or fail, a Resolution card can throw requirements or prerequisites for the result to happen.  For example, one card might read, "Yes, but... " and explain that you succeed but something unrelated goes wrong for the character, or someone the character cares much about. Another card might say, "Help is Needed" which explains the character understands she will need help from someone who is not in the current scene.   The cards become narrative catalysts that further the story along, and impose upon players a means to reflect the result in the ongoing narrative as well.

Sounds rather... random?  Well, they are, but at the same time, since they're not expected to be drawn for each and every action your character does, they're meant to be high points in the scene.  You don't draw a card just to fight an opponent in the scene, for example.  But rather, you narrate the battle, with its shifting tides, and when you finally want the climactic finish, that's when you draw a card.  Typically, only ONE Resolution card is drawn in a scene, and only if the previous Resolution card has already been resolved.

Chance Cards on the other hand, are the game changers.
Or rather, the scene stealers if one thinks about it even more.   All players can draw a Chance Card during a session.  Now, only ONE Chance Card can be played during a session, with the person who draws it being in charge of clarifying or interpreting the effect.  Chance Cards further support the surreal feel of the game setting.   Here's an example of a Chance Card:  Masquerade! For the rest of this scene, all players swap characters.  This includes the gamemaster.  Give your character sheet to the player at your right.

Now, this is the point I stop for a few seconds to let that sink in.   Yes.  You read that right.
And many other cards are even more awesome.   The rules also outright state that if the Chance Card turns out to be something the players don't enjoy, they can remove it from the deck for future sessions.

So the game... is crazy?
Surreal.   Creatively alive.  And players are encouraged to relish in this freedom.  And if ever as gamers you aren't certain of how to approach this game, a very generous list of Further Inspirations are even listed in the back.

A sample scenario: No.13, is included, giving players a quick taste of how Itras By can be like and to be quite honest, I'm already very excited to get a chance to run this game.  I feel it is a stunning achievement in creating a game that captures a surreal feel, without being a rules mess that distracts rather than encourages creativity (unlike a certain Fair Folk game that had so much promise but was so painful to grasp.)


Rating Breakdown:
Concept: Inspiring!  Disturbing! Intriguing!   While I'm sure there would be those who won't like such a surreal landscape and gaming approach, I definitely was one of those who did.
Crunch: Barely there.  And for certain, that will scare some people.  Two types of cards, with one played once a scene, and the other an optional card to play in a game.  But the liteness of the crunch is, in my opinion, a huge feature, and not an issue.
Layout: For a game that embraces the surreal, the book is very well organized.  Each chapter nicely flows to the next.  And my gosh, such a generous Appendix.
My favorite part: Chance Cards.  Yeah, I'm a sucker for role-playing challenges.  This won me over even more than the Resolution Cards.  I foresee allowing more than one Chance Card in a session.
What I wish was better: Dramatic Qualities.  I wish they had a longer extensive list.  Given they were including a scenario in Part Three, I could have done away with one or two of the sample characters, and instead had that many more pages worth of examples of Dramatic Qualities.    I know players are encouraged to come up with their own, but I would have loved to see a list of more, plain and simple.


Dive into a surreal game today.
Available at Drivethru RPG.
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