Children of the Fall (Story Game)

Children of the Fall (Story Game)

This RPG clocks in at 150 pages, 1 page front cover,1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 3 pages blank, 2 pages of brief index, leaving us with 142 pages of content, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), which means you can easily fit 2 – 4 pages on a sheet of standard paper.

 

It should be noted that this game contains a ton of resources and supplemental material, but I’ll get back to that later. The rules-components and main meat of the supplement constitutes 78 pages, and genre-wise should by considered to be a story-game, i.e. it emphasizes cooperative storytelling over rules and emphasizes a shared narrative experience that is mostly beholden to dramaturgy.

 

Okay, while it saddens me, I guess the following needs to be stated in advance:

 

Unlike many folks who enjoy OSR-games, I am not one of the guys who loathes story games – the somewhat arbitrary and ego-driven schism in the roleplaying community, courtesy to misbehaviors by individuals and competing ideologies touted as monolithic truths, has not touched me, and if you’re looking for a condemnation of either type of game, you’re not going to find it here. I am rating this on the merit of its genre and what it tries to achieve. If you need another analogue that is not steeped in the Pen & Paper context, I’d state that comparing a story game to a tactics-driven one like PFRPG or a primarily player skill- AND rules/luck-driven one like, for example, Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry , would be like comparing Sonic the Hedgehog with Dear Esther. And yes, I consider the comparison to be this patently absurd, as they are two wholly different things, different genres, different experiences. While personally, I enjoy both, there is never a wrong way to game and if you dislike either with a fiery passion, that’s totally fine! As a reviewer, it’d make no sense to rate Sonic the Hedgehog based on the same categories as Dear Esther and vice versa. Same goes for games

 

All right, that out of the way, let’s dive in!

 

Children of the Fall is first and foremost a post-apocalyptical survival game, one wherein the dynamics of groups of children are explored. As such, it is important to note that a mature gaming group with similar tastes and taboos is something I’d recommend. While I can inflict, for example, really dark and messed up stuff on my players, because they’re my friends and I’ve known them for ages, I wouldn’t do the same for strangers. If in doubt, it may make sense to follow the advice of the game and use X-cards or similar signs to “pause” the collaborative game. Children of the Fall is intended to be GM-less, which means that everyone’s a player, and everyone’s in charge of a single character.

 

Instead, every player around the table takes turns directing a scene that the players will engage with in-character. The claim of the book that GMless play prevents railroading is an obvious fallacy and example of the kind of opinionated designer-commentary inserts that I personally do not like, though the zero-prep aspect that is listed next (which imho is a significantly more important point!) very much holds true. Children of the Fall does not require players to prep for the game in pretty much any way. As far as scope is concerned, the game suggests that it works best for 4-6 session mini-campaigns, though it imho works just as well as a bleak one-shot, if everyone knows what they’re doing.

 

The basic premise of the post-apocalpyse reminded me of the Veitstanz in the German cult roleplaying game “Engel”, in that, over the course of a short period of time, all adults began to succumb to something. In the case of this game, that something would not be a hyper-advanced disease (though it certainly can be that!)…but the outcome is what matters. The outcome, plain and simple, is that all adults became “The Fallen” – a cadre of bloodthirsty maniacs. “They never speak or blink…” though, with the latter, by necessity of biology, meaning that a supernatural cause must be involved. Otherwise, you know, their eyes would dry up. The Fallen are bloodthirsty and dangerous, grinning maniacally, and they are basically super-evil monsters. Think of them as rage-zombies minus decaying flesh, plus Joker-grin and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what they are. The process is ongoing, mind you: Between ages 16 and 18, everyone becomes one of the Fallen. How is humanity not instantly dying out? Well, the Fallen continue to procreate, and their kids, left by the wayside, are not immediately eaten, potentially allowing surviving kids to rescue infants and the like, though considering the challenges of raising a kid, much less the challenge of doing so in a post-apocalyptic world will probably in the long run eliminate the human species.

 

Every players controls a kid between the ages 12 and 18, and since the event has wiped out all adults, a Cure, if there even is one, is not a feasible option; the cause of the apocalypse is not really noted either, which, while obviously providing a good blank slate to project stories upon, could be considered to be a weakness of sorts. Not every group consists of particularly original thinkers or brilliant, genre-savvy individuals, so having a few outré suggestions, or perhaps a generator of ideas for a cause, would have been nice. The world is pretty much one of scarcity, with resources a primary concern for all non-Fallen, and water, for example, becoming an ever-more sought-after commodity.

 

The game begins with Session Zero, which experienced roleplayers can pretty much handle within 10 minutes or less, though the game does suggest taking 45 minutes to an hour. It is here we determine the time since the fall, with 6 days, weeks or months given as sample time-frames. The game has no classes or the like, instead using a so-called playbook as a character sheet – basically a bullet-points-kind of summary. The playbooks are included in the massive “resources”-section noted before, and the game, beyond the fully-filled out pregens, sports 13 playbooks in the back. These consist of 2 pages each, featuring 3 character questions that are customized for each playbook. Every playbook corresponds to a specific archetype, with the questions tailored to the respective archetype of the character. The troublemaker, for example, sports the question “Why do you never get caught?”, while the leader is asked “Who truly deserves to be the leader?” I am very ambivalent regarding these questions, as many of them are, quite deliberately leading, and while it is easy enough to replace them, it is one thing to be aware of. A blank sheet for more experienced players is included, and frankly, I’d strongly suggest using this one if you’re going to try to play for longer than a one-shot.

 

The second page of the playbook-sheet is more interesting, providing a check-board of relationships, where you can fill out whom you’re jealous of, suspicious of, etc. This one is pretty handy indeed and allows for the quick and painless creation of social dynamics within the collective of characters, which is, unsurprisingly, known as “tribe.” The playbooks also sport a checkbox-series – “Trauma and Downfall.” A downfall is a narrative prompt for a negative event that can happen to the character during play, but before we get back to these, let us examine how the game is played.

 

As mentioned before, the descriptive duties are shared in an alternating circuit, which means that one player is designated as the active player – the de-facto GM of the scene who describes everything. Said player MUST be in the scene. Now, system-immanently, such a rotating circuit works best for games wherein all players adhere to the “thespian” type of roleplayer, and this pretty much holds true for the whole game: Rules-lawyers and min-maxers who get their best kicks from rolling  critical hit probably won’t derive much satisfaction from this RPG. I’d also go so far as to state that the game works best when all players share roughly the same skill regarding descriptions and roleplaying – it may sound snooty and snobbish, but I know for a fact that most folks I’ve ran games for aren’t as good a GM as myself, and particularly those who lack a lot of experience “behind the screen” may well find themselves to be in a position where the lack of narrative experience unintentionally generates railroads…but more on that later.

 

Active players circle, and the other players, i.e. those that don’t describe/determine the scene, are basically the reactive players….or, you know, they’re just…”players.” Like in most RPGs. Anyhow, terminology quips aside, you’re probably asking yourself where the game comes in. Well, right now. Each player starts the game with 2 Story Points. During another player’s active scene, you can hand said player a Story Point to add a complication to the scene. “Complication” would here be the term to designate the form of any type of challenge, from snapping ropes to electricity turning off. Complications are resolved by rolling 2d6. Their values are added together, and the higher, the better. Sometimes, you get to roll 3d6 and choose the 2 best results. 8+ means that the complication is avoided, 7 or less means that it happens and that the active player marks down a trauma point. The introduction of a complication, which should be bad, but not catastrophic, and it may not influence a character’s actions directly.

 

Once you have accumulated 3 trauma points, you erase them and mark down one of the downfalls in the playbook, each of which may only be selected once.

 

The second core mechanic herein would be Determination. Each player has one point per session; they don’t accumulate, but they do refresh. This point may be used, you guessed it, to roll 3d6, discarding the lowest result, instead of 2d6.

 

Thirdly, each player has a Helix point. These behave pretty much like Determination in that they don’t accrue, but do replenish between sessions. Helix points are basically “get-out-of-jail-free”-cards, in that they allow you to change any die roll, which means you can theoretically avoid almost any complication. Almost any? Well, yeah. If you rolled snake eyes (two 1s), you can only, RAW change the outcome of “any single die roll”…and that would, even if you change one of the 2d6s that came up as 1s to a 6, you’d still arrive at 7…and face the complication. Other players can explicitly not stack on top of another helix Point to cancel the effect just triggered…okay, but could they help out and mitigate a snake-eyes example? The rules, and the example provided here, alas, do not make that aspect clear.

 

If your character dies, you either get a replacement, or may play the character in flashbacks when it’s your turn. Either is a choice, as the game has no game-over state. Dying is always a choice consciously taken due to dramaturgy. Thus, while players can potentially heap pile upon pile of complications on a given player, there is no “griefing” strategy that is particularly effective, and the player will have a metric ton of story points. This pretty much enforces that “what goes around comes around” and maintains a kind of balance, but also means that there is necessarily no excitement inherent in the rolling of the dice. All tension derives from the collective narrative, but there is no external threat, no loss- or win-scenario. In fact, considering the genre and type of game this wants to be, this is most assuredly a feature, and not a bug.

 

Death being always a choice ties in with another aspect, and one of the most vocally recited (and valid) points of criticism for games that follow the collective narrative paradigm, namely that they are contingent on a constant breaking of immersion on a narrative level, as the implementation of complications, death etc. need to be renegotiated in the narrative. That being said, this issue is system-immanent and thus will not influence my final verdict.

 

This already constitutes the entirety of the rules required to play this game, and the book then proceeds to give some pointers to play the respective different archetypes and the game, description, and mentions the importance of the “remnant” a cherished thing held on to from before the fall. These may or may not tie in with the final narrative aspect that needs to be filled in, namely the secret that every character has. The tribe is assumed to have a home-base, the Haven, which is drawn on a sheet of paper, with extensions that are decided upon/explored being noted down. The tribe-sheet notes a shortage or one thing, a surplus of other things, immediate and long-term threats and the hierarchy, which is likely to undergo changes – obviously.

 

Missions, i.e. adventures, are supposed to be dangerous, exciting and the like, and several key questions allow the group to hammer out the details of a particular scenario, providing some guidelines there. Beyond the playbook and tribe sheets mentioned before, the resources section also contains mission sheets, tribe sheets, and a so-called campaign path, which suggests a sequence of theme-wise general tasks that the players can develop into missions, a rough skeleton of a campaign, if you will.

 

We also get 4 pregens (with sheets already filled partially in) and a sample tribe-sheet, and the pdf concludes with 1 page design notes (and one page chapter-header).

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting, on a formal level, are surprisingly concise and well done – I noticed no serious accumulation of glitches. On a rules (few though there may be) perspective, I was a bit astonished to see an aspect that, in spite of being so extremely rules-lite, needing a clarification. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard, and the pdf sports plenty of really nice, high-quality b/w-artworks. Utterly puzzling to me would be the absence of bookmarks for the pdf-version. In a book of this size, their omission constitutes a serious comfort detriment.

 

Gareth H. Graham’s “Children of the Fall” has an amazing premise; post-apocalypse and kids? That is a recipe for interesting and diverse challenges, dark themes and an exploration of childhood and existential fears through a novel lens. The book works by juxtaposing the innocence usually associated with childhood by those more likely to succumb to nostalgia’s rose-tinted glasses than I am, with the abject and brutal nature of survival in a hostile world. There is roleplaying potential galore here, and Children of the Fall can work well as a story game.

 

That being said, at the same time, I have a couple of issues with this book in its function as a story game. This may sound odd, but “Children of the Fall” may be too permissive in its focus for its own good. The Fallen are an interesting, if not particularly novel twist, but…well. That’s pretty much about it. “Smiling cannibal rage-zombie minus zombie” on its own does not necessarily make for a compelling narrative, and the book puts the burden of pretty much the whole world on the group: World-building, capabilities of the Fallen, etc. Now, this can work well, but it can also result in some unpleasant forms of tonal whiplash when the narratives envisioned by different players simply don’t mesh with one another. I maintain that providing different “play-modes” for the Fallen and more information on the actual world would have added greatly to the appeal of this game. Not every group will consist of brilliant auteurs with visions that complement one another, and having your great idea ruined by having horror-clichés spliced in by a less inspired player can be frustrating and to the detriment of the entire gaming experience. With the inclusion of optional leitmotifs and a kit to make them, the game would have a stronger common base-line.

 

As an example: If we introduce “occult” as a common baseline, we could determine as a “rule” that, to just name one example, the Fallen may not enter uninvited into the place where someone sleeps. During a scene, a player could enter the complication that the person has to be sleeping *right now* – not an easy task when their fists are hammering at the door. In such a scenario, sedatives would become very valuable…and so it goes. The Fallen in such a scenario could also have magical abilities. If they’re infected humans, they could have heightened senses…or behave like the cordyceps-infected beings in “The Last of Us” – blending these in a viable form that satisfies all participants, though, would be hard. In short, a couple of template leitmotifs/global rules for how the world operates would have been helpful. A list of childish concerns and behavior patterns, some flaws and talents – nothing that *needs* to be strictly codified, but any form of optional detail would have enhanced the value of this book as a DIY-kit.

 

My second major criticism pertains that the system as presented herein is always a zero-sum game that, in a for me puzzling manner, fails to address the narrative potential of the most important “character” of the whole game: The tribe! All complications and story points spent only pertain, as written, the individual player characters; since death is optional and since story points are essentially traded around, the central tension of the game derives from the interactions of players that complicate the lives of each others PCs, while the characters themselves trade spotlights. In short, the central narrative tension forms between player characters and players due to different reasons, creating a kind of narrative distance/disjoint. In an out-of-game context, this is subsumed in the experience of the tribe as the gaming group; but what about in-game? The concept of the tribe and its importance is acknowledged in the questions and potential traumas of the respective playbooks, but as itself, the tribe is just a backdrop, a name without substance, when it would have offered the most -rewarding aspect of the game’s narrative.

 

The reconciliation of a kid’s intrinsic selfishness and the need to survive and belong, the need to form bonds, makes for the strongest narrative impetus of “Children of the Fall”, one enhanced by the post-apocalyptic backdrop in stark lines. And yet, in a puzzling manner, the collective of players, of characters in a game focused on collective narration…is not an entity. Does not matter, apart from the relation in which the individual characters are situated within it.

 

Let me give you a couple of examples: What about taboos and violating them? If, for example, a player character is caught violating one, that could present an interesting angle that could have, temporarily, repercussions, like a loss of determination or helix points. Perhaps, a character is caught by another, and must decide on whether to silence or intimidate the character that caught them?

 

Perhaps, a majority-vote of the tribe could take away a helix point or add a determination point for tasks? Perhaps being afraid or scared of another member would make it impossible to do certain things? With a bit more “engine”, the narrative aspects could be vastly enhanced here. Let’s say there is a pool called “tribe points” – this pool can be accessed collectively and spent like Determination or Helix points – but the pool is contingent on the cohesion of the tribe. Helping a fellow PC, saving someone, defeating a threat – the like could provide a tribe pool. Every member would then be allowed to spend the point in whatever way a situation demands it. This simple addition would provide a simple reward mechanism for the act of springing complications upon fellow players. Instead of being annoyed by a complication and getting a zero-sum point shifted around, it would be a *chance.* Every obstacle and danger faced would be a way to get another point that can help yourself…and all your friends. This makes getting into danger actually something to be glad about.

 

Similarly, it’d simulate the feeling of success and growing bonds by virtue of shared experiences something that happens both in- and out-game. Similarly, it’d be possible to provide a death-reward mechanic for players that elect to have their character die, as the memory of the deceased strengthens the bonds of those that remain: “I still remember Laura’s sacrifice, as she held them off…” On the flip-side, it would allow a selfish character to perform selfish acts at the cost of the tribe pool, but for temporary gain. (Let’s say, a permanent boost to Determination…) This would reward the disruptive element in group dynamics that is so popular in pretty much all post-apocalyptic scenarios. If the latter were implemented, a “breaking” of the tribe as one possible scenario (say, when tribe points reach 0 due to heated discussions after a dangerous mission – see Walking Dead etc.) could make for an awesome low point before a new hierarchy is established, new bonds formed. And it would automatically provide ample reason for why one *wants* to be in a tribe…

 

So yeah, for me the most interesting angle here definitely was how the group dynamics of children would interact in a post-apocalypse. And that… falls by the wayside.

 

Don’t get me wrong: This is good to depict a post-apocalyptic frame-work. Not a setting, not setting-guidelines, a very basic framework. But it is this attempt of being all-encompassing, of never settling on a theme, that makes the whole “children”-angle fall flat. The concerns of children differ from ours, and as presented, the player characters are defined by archetypes that could just as well be grafted onto adults. The martyr sheet, for example, notes for traumas and downfall: “Reason to fight; Fear takes over; Self-sacrifice for a cause.” The character questions, similarly, don’t reflect a particularly childish point of view. The whole “children”-angle is a very thin coating that easily comes off under scrutiny.

 

I maintain that the tribe as a kind of ersatz-family in the absence of wholesome adults could have provided a vastly more engaging and rewarding narrative tool for a story game, one that could have helped develop this somewhat underdeveloped aspect of the game.

 

Which brings me to my verdict: “Children of the Fall” will not convert anyone, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a story game, and a soli, very basic skeleton to develop your narrative upon. It does its job as a facilitator of a collective narrative experience well, and it offers some nice options. However, it also never transcends being a very basic toolkit, a skeleton without any meat on its bones, for your narrative. Any dressing and conflict resolution between different visions need to be tackled by the group.

To reiterate: As a story game’s starting point, it works. However, as a *specific* story game about kids in a post-apocalyptic context? Well, there it falls utterly flat of what the premise deserves. This is not a bad game by any stretch, and I certainly wished I could have rated it higher. For me, as a person, this did nothing – I could have whipped out a more complex base engine on the fly, and where I would have needed both a narrative baseline or inspiration regarding the kids-angle, I got none. If you’re looking for more than a baseline to craft stories from, then consider this a 2-star dud. To reiterate: I get what this tries to do. I just don’t think it’s particularly successful at what it attempts.

However, as a reviewer, I am going to rate this on the premise that this, to me somewhat bland generic nature, is actually intended to provide the maximum flexibility for groups to explore. I wanted to like this more than I ended up doing…but with the slight formal tarnishes and those missed chances for deeper immersion and narrative facilitators, I can’t rate this higher than 3 stars.

 

You can get this story game here on OBS.

Endzeitgeist out.

 

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About Endzeitgeist

Reviewer without a cause