My love story with atmospheric RPGs

29 Mar

When I started this blog, I didn’t realise how true the adjective “slothful” would ring. Seven months elapsed between my very first and only entry and this one. Oh well! It’s never too late to get back on track, and as I was more feeling like writing a blog entry than actually saying anything relevant and mind-blowing, I’ll start from the base and talk about the games that have changed my perception of the roleplaying game hobby in its entirety, not just in terms of game design but also in terms of social dynamics.

However, I won’t dwell too much on systems although they’re an inherent part of what makes a game appealing to such or such players, or be a real turn off to a good chunk of other RPGers. So let’s start with a category of games that has taken a big importance in my life as an roleplayer: atmospheric RPGs, games that create an ambiance, an atmosphere to the point of falling in love with some of them, such as the three I’ll comment below.

Let’s then start with what I’d call atmospheric games, RPGs that create an ambiance which is as important as the game objectives themselves.

Les Chroniques des Féals: I must admit that for a long time I was kind of biased toward the French RPG industry. I didn’t feel like I was the good target audience for our national production. And I discovered Les Chroniques des Féals. Adapted from Mathieu Gaborit’s eponymous trilogy of novels, the world underwent a full development for the RPG and the dark atmosphere of impending doom from the novels was increased hundred-fold. The first time I played this game, as a player, I knew I had found a one-of-a-kind gem, the RPG I would eventually come back to for years. I truly fell in love then.

The characters are mimetics, people blessed by their gods, the Féals, formidable creatures inhabiting the W’Orld and who watch over the people they had chosen at the beginning of time. Pegasi, Phenices, Griffins, Dragons, etc. are neither myths nor beasts to be disposed of, but are subjects of worship and provide gifts to some they decide to bless. Mutations ensue, and although they become closer to their gods, and are revered for that, they also become outcasts. But the actual threats come from the Carrions, dead people fighting off death through the power of Bile, and the Nothing, the actual end of all things set to occur real soon, and the enemy that the characters will be pitched against, eventually.

What Les Chroniques des Féals taught me was to install an atmosphere of oppression around the table, and to drive my players to work together beyond their cultural and ideological differences. But most importantly, this game actually taught me that you could instill a real poetic dimension into your scenarios, an aspect that dramatically participates in bettering my narration and storytelling skills. It was indeed real love at first sight!

Monsterhearts: I’m not a bitlit fan, nor am I into teenager literature. I don’t think I’ll ever willingly watch one of those movies or TV series with sparkling vampires. However, I truly believe that Monsterhearts is the kind of narration-based RPGs that deserves some real praise for how it shifts game objectives.

In this game, you can play high-school teenagers who are actually monsters, and who hide for fear of being treated differently. Their urges are often what drive their actions, such as the need to belong somewhere, sexual desires, but also personal angst, and everything that most of us went through when we were kids.

So what Monsterhearts truly taught me was that looting treasures, unfolding thousand-year old conspiracies and heist might well be fun, but playing a “normal” teenager was as well. It created a real window to my past, but also to a world that surrounds me. We tend to forget that what mattered to us back when we were teenagers kind of determined and forged who we are now. Basically, Monsterhearts made me even more tolerant of difference than I assume I already was. In a way, it may well be the kind of game that could make people better.

Night’s Black Agents: To be honest, I came a bit late to the GUMSHOE games, but for a long time I had been looking for a game that could provide me with all those sensations I really enjoyed back when I was a kid playing the James Bond 007 RPG and discovering all the movies at the same time. Then thanks to a timely Bundle of Holding, I discovered THE game and THE system that would actually provide me with everything I needed to run spy stories with the supernatural twist of my choice.

Basically, Night’s Black Agents allows you to play “burnt” agents who are pitched against a “Conspiracy” orchestrated by vampires in the background. But there’s more than meets the eye here! This game is a real toolbox that enables the GM to create their own Conspiracies, their own vampiric societies, and more importantly, their own vampires with the origins they want. This game is basically hard-boiled investigation with bloodsuckers behind.

Like both games above, I really fell in love with Night’s Black Agents. It showed me how a point-spend system could drive narration and action both at the same time. But the unexpected quality I’ve found to this game is that it also drives me to search for geographical and historical details of the countries and regions the agents will be thrown into. And this combination of entertainment and education is what makes the difference to me. Knowledge through bad-ass action? Who knew?

As a last word, I’d like to say that there are many more games that would fit to the “atmospheric RPGs” category as I’ve tried to describe above, but the three games that made my shortlist were really the ones that changed my opinion on some aspect of our hobby, but which are making me a better GM and a better RPGer as well.

Our hobby is like any other one, there are strands within it and its users and consumers prefer one aspect over others. To me, narration but also providing an entertaining story to my players are primordial. I don’t expect any of my players to become storytellers though, I just want to offer them the means to experience exceptional games but also some tools to be pro-active parts of these stories, and these three games are just the perfect tools for that.

Next time, hopefully not in seven month, I’ll discuss another aspect of the RPG hobby that has also changed the way I GM and play: “improv games”.

Links to the RPG Geek database:

Les Chroniques des Féals
Night’s Black Agents

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Posted by on March 29, 2014 in RPGing


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