And now for something completely different! Once in a while, I am asked to pimp a respective KS of a particular company or provide an advance-review – more often than not, I refuse on the grounds of rules not feeling final enough. But sometimes, I am positively surprised by the commitment the creator exhibits – this would be one such case, in which I received a Beta-level, almost finished version of the game in question, complete with printed cards (important, since those can be a bottleneck and mostly intact layout, artwork etc. with only a few placeholders. In short, enough information to actually play and cover the system in an informed manner.
So, the first thing to discuss would be the fact that the game’s goal is quick and easy gameplay. In order to play, you do not need much – you need 3 players (including GM), though arguably, you could just one-on-one with these rules. You need Gatekeeper cards and tokens, both of which I have received – the tokens are sturdy cardboard and should withstand serious punishment/play, while the cards are pretty much standard small deck size (you know, cards smaller than Poker-standard – you probably have encountered those in some games!). Two pouches or cups are required (Yes, I received finished pouches as well – that’s another potential bottleneck in production down) and the game uses d6s and works best with a white board/miniature grid and minis.
Now, we begin with character creation, which is pretty simple – Each player gets to pick one card; after that pick, each player gets two skill cards, 2 strike cards, 2 spell cards and 2 item cards. Full player choice is also an option, though that approach will take time. The system knows two basic resources – loot and fey dust, both of which have their own visual icons – a player begins play with a total of 3 such currency tokens. The player can freely choose which currency tokens he receives – all loot, all fey dust or any combination thereof. Loot is used for purchasing new items and stuff, while fey dust is the currency of enchanting objects and learning new spells. A brief 2d6 array of one-sentence character backgrounds is included and a similarly easy 2d6 table allows you to make connections between player characters, fostering some roleplaying interaction – it is pretty evident that these particular aspects can easily be expanded upon with dressing, custom concepts, etc..
You may have noticed that I so far have not even mentioned the concept of a character sheet – there’s a reason for that: Instead, each player’s character is represented by the cards. The cards are divided in half: The cards on the table are the character’s stance, whereas the cards on the hand are…well, the hand. For an uneven total of cards, the respective card is put on the table, tilted and tucked under a card of the stance so that only one of its icons shows – this is called half-a-card. When you play a card, you replace a card from your stance with one from your hand, changing the configuration of the character in question, if you will – this constant flux is known as “stance-dance” in the game.
Cards show two icons, one on the left and one on the right, so this half-a-card mechanic, while seemingly odd when I describe it thus, actually is pretty self-explanatory. These icons represent what you’d call attributes, but they also are roleplaying facilitators – a total of 6 such icons exist in the game.
Smiles denote flair, confidence and charisma and, in combat, each smile reduces hits taken from spells by 1.
Boots denote speed, balance and discretion and in combat, they increase the steps you may take each turn by 1.
Shields represent endurance, willpower and compassion and reduce the damage you take from strikes by 1.
Clovers stand for perception, luck and wit. In combat, you can mark a clover to halve an incoming attack (round down) and move 1 step; 2 clovers may be marked to completely negate an attack and move 2 steps.
Swords denote fitness, might and valor and increase the hit you inflict with strikes by 1.
Books denote knowledge, laziness and logic and increase the hit you inflict with spells by 1.
The two currency icons can show up on injury and item cards – on item cards, Fey dust cost is required to unlock the full potential of the item – you pay the cost and commit fey dust tokens to it.
The combat situation is pretty simple – you roll the 2d6 and assign them to an icon on a card of the current stance. If you have multiple icons of a type, you may commit your dice both to them: While you can only commit on die to one card’s icon, if you e.g. have two cards with swords, you can commit one die to the first sword card, one to the second. The icon is increased by the result shown on the d6. For example, if you place a die reading “3” on a boot and have one boot icon, you are instead treated as having 4 boot icons. Non-combat tasks can be achieved by freely shuffling the stance and examples for combinations are presented – picking a lock is, for example, a combination of smiles and books. These represent an abstraction that took a bit getting used to, but once you have established precedence for such tasks, it works. The difficulty of tasks that require checking in the first place ranges from 7 to 10+ – all simpler tasks are automatic successes. The system also suggests some narrative degree of success/failure paradigm and notes that failure changes the situation – so we have a bit of failing forward aesthetics here, but not to the extent that you’re bound to win somehow – instead, things just change, keeping the proceedings dynamic. Non-combat tasks may be used instead of taking an action.
Initiative is simple: All players begin and roll their dice in the dice phase, ebginning with the first acting player and then goes clockwise round the table, alternating between players and enemies. The GM, just fyi, uses other rules. More on that later. Ties are resolved by clover icons, then icons, then coin toss. During each turn, a player may exchange one card from his stance with one of the hand, engaging in stance-dance – which is relevant when hit.
On your turn in combat, d20-players will feel right at home: You get one move and one action. Diagonals are treated as regular movement. A move means you move 3 + boots steps, with each step denoting one square. Attacks via strike or spell target all creatures in the respective strike or spell blast and inflict Sword minus Shield or Book minus Smile value, respectively. Any excess value not absorbed by an enemy’s defense is a mark: A mark is one of those tokens and is put on one of your card’s icons, replacing the respective icon. If all icons are covered with marks, you flip them over, one by one, showing the blank back side of the token – this is known as a scratch. Once all icons of a card are covered in scratches, you lose it from your stance; items covered in scratches are broken. If you have all scratches, you can’t act, are out of the fight, and must draw from the injury deck – if that does not kill you, an enemy creature can use its action to coup-de-grâce you. Injury cards must remain in the stance – which brings me to a tactical element: When you stance-dance, marks and scratches on a card replaced are gone. Committed dice are freed and may be relocated and bonded items thus entered may be enhanced via fey dust expenditure. It should be noted that, as per the above notes, that players may mark clovers to dodge attacks, halving their effects (or negating them, if you mark two clovers. Reduction from smiles or shields is applied first before halving.
Line of sight is simple, though, depending on whether you play with squares or hexes, it’ll be slightly different – yep, the game supports either and that extends to the area of effect of respective attacks. While the game does state that it is possible to run it sans grid, I’d strongly encourage you to use a grid – it is, in spite of being relatively rules-lite, a tactical game and theatre of the mind doesn’t work as well here. Triangular and circular blasts and affected fields are all concisely presented. Nice, btw. – the system does provide for the means to engage in aerial combat and covers alternate means of locomotion like swimming etc.
Now I already mentioned injury cards – so let’s talk a bit about healing: Removing a mark costs one mark of healing, removing a scratch takes 2 marks of healing…and wounds incurred by the injury deck cost a nasty 4 marks of healing. If injury cards specify magic healing as a cost to pay off, then the group can pitch together to make the injury go away when resting; replacement cost on an injury denotes that you require professional help from the Golden Men Guild to cure the injury. Death, however, is permanent…but there is one final resort: If a character has a bonded item or Voice card, he may instead draw a Geas card – if they accept the terms, they become Fomorian, a mutated, shunned being…but they live, heal all injuries and wounds, and escape death. However, these compulsions are very serious and getting rid of them will take you out of adventuring for quite a while. Faerie apotheosis may similarly be something that happens to a character, but also carries its specific challenges – it is in these aspects that the RPG aspect shines through strongly. The system also accounts for pets, just fyi.
Now, I already noted that the GM plays by slightly different rules – since the system’s goal is to streamline gameplay a lot, GMs don’t roll and commit dice – instead, they just add the +3 cheating bonus (official term!) to all icons, except when defending. Handling groups is similarly a rather streamlined and easy to run process, allowing for the sacrifice of individual members or mounts, for example, to avoid marking. The cool aspect here is that the system allows you to easily generate really big monsters with various limbs and zones, each of which can have its own cards and marks – the rules provided for these are concise and examples, from tentacles everywhere that hamper movement from one zone to another, to being really hairy etc. can be found. So yeah, the system can be used to generate Shadow of the Colossus-style gigantic boss battles.
Now I did mention cups, right? Well, after each encounter, fight or not does not matter, the characters may draw a token from the good cup: If you did find in-game some fey dust, you keep drawing and take that one and as a default drawing until XP is taken can be resorted to. It largely depends on the GM how exactly to enforce this aspect – if surprising wealth etc. are part of the story/assumptions, the system can easily be tweaked…or the respective tokens just handed out. Retraining rules are similarly simple and concise. Oh, and in case you’re a packrat, it should be noted that fey dust should not be stockpiled…carrying too much of the stuff has nasty consequences. Fey dust, however, can also be placed on items, bonding them to you and enhancing their performance. Now, obviously, the aspect of character advancement and tokens thus means that…you kinda still need to have a character sheet. You have to track your improvements, tokens, marks and the like…but granted, this is a system-inherent issue. It’s still something to bear in mind if you’re like me and prefer prolonged campaigns over one-shots.
Beyond these basics, the system also features concise rules for vehicles that are based on the icons already established. Oh, and know what: Siege weapons hurt. You do NOT want to be hit by them. The relatively easy simplicity of codifying vehicles also extends to organizations, who have ratings in the respective icons, with assigned meanings and a couple of flavorful examples provided.
The system as I have i in my hands, also features a default city – namely Oroden City, the twilight jewel, which not only features a nice map, but also notes on important local houses and power players in the region; and yes, the book does extend its reach beyond that, with the pillar steppes inhabited by giant mantises and similar fantastic locales to be found. While I wasn’t too thrilled to see Atlantis and Tir na nOg on the regional map, that’s ultimately a matter of taste.
The setting presented also discusses the origin of the species and the Voices – what children perceive as imaginary friends and most adults later forget; the strange and enigmatic forces that similarly intervene with geasa. Hearing voices is required for fey dust manipulation and, indeed, magic is often the result of being able to hear more of them…sanity and magic do not get along too well. From dragons to kobolds and orks, there are a lot of races covered and, depending on the complexity and focus of your game, you may well want to use the optional rules presented for them.
The final chapter provides a basic adventure set-up for the GM, copious advice on how to handle the game, when not to roll, being fair – a feasible collection. The system also includes full color blast templates you can print out, a handy appendix of pregenerated names and goals if you’re stuck and an excessive index.
Now, as you know, I don’t rate WIP-files, so you won’t see a final verdict here. However, I do hope you’ve received a sufficiently in-depth impression of Ilya Bossov’s Gatekeepers RPG – it is an interesting system that plays quickly and fluidly. The stance-dance is an interesting concept and GMing for the system is relatively easy. Explaining it similarly can be done pretty much in 5 minutes, introducing concepts as you go. The base mechanics are so simple, they fit on one of the small cards – how do I know this? Well, there’s a cheat-sheet card! The presentation of the rules-language is concise and precise, though there is one aspect that should be clarified a bit more precisely, and that pertains the cups. At least in my version, I think their function should be explicitly explained sooner. As a whole, though, the system is elegant and interesting, particularly for younger audiences or new roleplayers, since the lack of hard math requirements and optimization make it easy to just play. At the same time, theatre of the mind fans should be aware that this very much *is* a tactical game and that, while it can be run sans grid, it imho loses some of the surprisingly tactical appeal of its combat without grids.
You can support the Gatekeepers RPG here on Kickstarter!