Monday, September 28, 2020

REVIEW: Electric Bastionland

One of the most welcome developments of the old school renaissance is an expansion of the borders of "fantasy" beyond dungeons, dragons, elves, and dwarves. A good example of this is Chris McDowall's Into the Odd, released in 2015 through Lost Pages. Though firmly a game of treasure hunting and exploration like so many fantasy RPGs, Into the Odd puts its own unique spin on it by imagining a world of depopulated countrysides and sooty cities resting atop a network of vaults and tunnels. It's an industrial, turn-of-the-20th-century take on fantasy that is at once weird and yet wholly recognizable. 

Electric Bastionland, available just as a PDF and as a sturdy hardback book, is a sequel and expansion of Into the Odd, describing "the only city that matters," the eponymous Bastion. The book begins with a striking précis of the game's focus:


The electric hub of mankind

The only city that matters

Deep Country

It stretches forever

The long shadow of our past

In the Underground

Machines undermine reality

Aliens are here

From beneath the Living Stars

You have a Failed Career

You have a colossal debt

Treasure is your only hope

Electric Bastionland (hereafter EB) begins with a chapter on its rules, which are very close to those of Into the Odd. Characters have three randomly generated ability scores – Strength, Dexterity, and Charisma –as well as a failed career. A character's failed career is determined by reference to a table that cross-references the character's highest and lowest ability scores. There are 94 possible careers, as well as 6 more that can only be obtained if a character would otherwise have the same career as another character, in which case a percentile roll is then used. These careers are the heart of EB and take up 200 of the book's 333 pages. I'll write more about them in a moment.

The rules chapter, including the overview of character generation and an example of play, is only six pages long. This should give you a good idea of the kind of RPG EB is. There are also 4 pages of equipment, running the gamut from arms and armor to animals, servants, vehicles, and property. Everything is laid out cleanly and clearly with evocative black and white art by Alec Sorensen.

The chapter on failed careers is, as I previously noted, extensive. Each of its 100 entries is presented as a two-page spread. Each entry includes an illustration. some sample names, and a series of random tables that provide some details about a character's past. The entries also include starting gear and, more importantly, a potential creditor. EB assumes that each player character group begins play in £10,000 in debt. The holder of the debt is determined by the failed career of the youngest player. Thus, if the youngest player's character was a Fringe Investigator, the creditor is the White Apricot Cable Cars, while if the character was an Expelled Lamplighter, the creditor is Jovbon the Prosthetist. This debt gives the characters a shared history and starting motivation for the campaign, which I think is quite clever.

Failed careers serve another purpose as well. Each one is an example of minimalist world building that helps both players and the referee (called the Conductor in EB) in understanding the world of the game. The Pie-Smuggler reveals something about the economy of Bastion, just as the Machine Whisperer does about the city's weird technology. In a similar fashion, the creditors introduce individuals, groups, and factions of power and/or influence in Bastion. None of these details gets much exposition; in most cases, it's simply a name and a short descriptor. Thanks to McDowall's expressive writing – and that of contributors such as OSR notables Arnold Kemp, Zedeck Siew, and Patrick Stuart – these brief descriptions drip with both flavor and inspiration. It's glorious and, taken together, they paint a far better picture of Bastion and the world it occupies than would have pages upon pages of traditional exposition.

Characters in EB are treasure hunters. Their initial goal is to find valuable items in some far-off and dangerous locale and bring them back for sale (thereby lessening their debt). These locales might be somewhere among the bustling, smoky streets of Bastion itself or in the vast, machine-riddled Underground beneath it. There's also the largely abandoned Deep Country, home now only to those who have rejected the progress Bastion offers. This structure isn't all that different from that of Dungeons & Dragons or indeed most fantasy RPGs, so it should be immediately intelligible to anyone familiar with those games. Where EB differs is in its specific contents, mood, and esthetics. This is not simply D&D for the Electric Age but something unique, with its own spin on game and setting elements that are nevertheless immediately recognizable. I think this simultaneously helps make EB accessible and highlights its idiosyncratic approach to the common heritage of fantasy RPGs.

The remainder of the book – just shy of 100 pages – is the Conductor's Guide, which is focused on helping the referee prepare game sessions. As with most of the book, this section largely consists of a combination of random tables and brief but piquant descriptions that sketch out the odd world of Bastionland and its inhabitants, dangers, and treasures. It's a very clever approach, striking the right balance between overbearing direction and pleasant ambiguity. McDowall's prose masterfully exemplifies this creative tension throughout the book, resulting in a section that is both a lucid guide to running the game and a pleasure to read. This is equally in evidence in a series of short essays on various aspects of the game, such as "People are Everything," "The City as an Adventure Site," and "Decisive Combat." Taken together, it's one of the best referee's guides I've read in a roleplaying game in a long time. Referees of more traditional old school games could learn a lot from its advice.

There is no doubt that, for many players of traditional fantasy roleplaying games, Electric Bastionland will be a hard sell. The setting is deliberately odd and far from the pre-industrial, Conan-meets-Gandalf-to-fight-Dracula faux medieval world so commonplace in the hobby. Fortunately, McDowall has provided a free PDF preview of the game to look at before purchase. If you're curious about the game but uncertain if it would appeal to you, I'd recommend downloading it. For me, though, Electric Bastionland is, if not quite a revelation, a reminder of how much more expansive even dungeon delving fantasy can be. I found it both well done and inspiring and I suspect others will too. 

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