Review of Low Stakes by Craig Campbell (Art by Ashley McCammon)

RPG lite for the creatures of the nite

Alex G. Friedman

TTRPGs usually start with a founding fictional text they are trying to turn into gameplay. Lord of the Rings, Interview with the Vampire, Call of Cthulhu: Each of these spawned their own games. In modern times, we expect the systems that have arisen to answer these fantasies to be able to cover the new fantasies we conjure for each other. Yet, fiction tends to find or adopt storytelling styles that don’t neatly fit into our TTRPG systems, even as these systems expand and broaden their concepts. (My friends and I were briefly obsessed with capturing Mystery Men in TTRPG form, with some success.) So I can understand why, faced with creating a wholly new game or attempting to live the What We Do in the Shadows fantasy in Vampire: The Masquerade, Craig Campbell and his team opted for the former. Thankfully, they were successful.

Low Stakes is a GM-less rules-light RPG with a heavy emphasis on improvisation and story structure. It runs smoothly with a group of four adults with above average reading and improvising proficiency in about two and a half hours. For the purposes of this review, I played sessions with two different groups of four adults who varied widely in terms of familiarity with the source material* and TTRPGs.

Low Stakes weighs in at 34 pages. These are divided into a lean 14 pages of setup and rules, 10 pages of character options, and 10 pages of story options (seven episodes and instructions to build your own). The game does not assume that players are familiar with improv games, so the rules begin with a concise breakdown of that concept. The rules can be read or described very easily in 15 to 20 minutes, characters can be created in five, and the story outline is best determined by a few rolls of the dice. Within half an hour of being handed the book, a group should be ready to play. Materials required are pens, paper, and a fistful of D6s. 

Low Stakes is a delightful book in both PDF and print-on-demand formats. The PDF reads well on a phone, tablet, or e-ink reader. The print-on-demand book is an inexpensive softcover, but the paper quality is high enough that I was able to repair a minor spill on an interior page with a little soap-and-water dabbing, no harm done. McCammon’s art is charming and presents a diverse cast of weirdos. Five of McCammon’s illustrations are present here, and while I always like more art in a book like this, it feels well populated enough due to the book’s layout. McCammon’s aesthetic is cute, textured, humorous, and packs plenty of pathos. Low Stakes is well laid out and well edited. My only complaint with the book is that it lacks a spine and will get lost in most physical displays. That said, McCammon’s cover art stands out very well in digital libraries.  

The character options and storylines support a much broader scope of play than simply running a derivative retelling of What We Do in the Shadows. Rules are included to play as a human, vampire, psychic vampire, werewolf, ghost, and spellcaster. There is an “other” option for any other horror story trope or beast you might invent. Storylines present account for sitcom scripts that fit within two standard deviations of the collected bell curve of 20th and 21st century television. It would take a group roughly 15 hours to play through the content provided. In our two playtest games, one featured a Lady Bathory-type vampire and her variously creepy housemates dealing with a plumbing disaster (bathing in the blood of virgins generates a lot of laundry). The second featured a witch running a taxidermied bird-themed B&B haunted by a couple of flighty ghosts and a would-be murderous butler. We enjoyed both games immensely and by halfway through the second we had mastered the rules. 

Gameplay in Low Stakes involves managing a couple of resources and once-per-game actions during improvised scenes with the objective of trading the upper-hand over other player character’s actions for better outcomes at the end of the story. While it is largely GM-less, certain game mastery duties are traded as part of the power trading gameplay cycle. Every player will generally get to act in every power dynamic role during a session as long as they play their resources when given the opportunity. Anyone with a basic understanding of television storytelling will find that the gameplay naturally flows with the storytelling framework of the game, usually with humorous and rewarding results. The most difficult part of the game is remembering to use your Confessionals, moments where your character speaks candidly to an imagined audience in order to shift the dynamic of a scene to your advantage (or gain resources). Representing resources physically with pawns or coins is usually enough to remind players to use them, but if your table forgets, it won’t break the game. The fun is in the structured improvisation and weird characters. If your TTRPG table collectively has a couple levels in Bard, you’ll find yourself in for a fun creative structure to play with.

Low Stakes is an excellent game presented in a well-dressed package. At its PDF price point, this game is a steal. NerdBurger Games has a real winner with this game and I hope it finds its audience.

*One of my players had not seen the WWDinS and I tried to explain: “It’s basically The Odd Couple but with vampires.” She replied that she had no idea what The Odd Couple was (the reference being older than the Carter administration), and I had to fumble around for an example of the format from the past decade. I settled on The Big Bang Theory (early seasons) and then promptly crumbled into Boomer-vampire corpse dust, as though exposed to the aging influence of a thousand suns.  

Review of The Anatomy of Adventure by M. T. Black

An easy-to-recommend handbook of practical scenario design blended with an indie writing career retrospective. 

Alex G. Friedman

Students of writing and design absolutely crave practical composition advice. I personally remember trying to explain as much to a professor or two during my graduate writing programs. As a neophyte, I was under the impression that if I could just follow a step-by-step guide to finish a first novel, regardless of quality, I would glean the core structure of the process. From there, I figured, it would become a skill to be honed instead of a feat to aspire toward. These days, as a professor of English myself, I see both how absolutely accurate and witheringly naive my scholarly desires were. In The Anatomy of Adventure, M. T. Black is largely successful in distilling classic TTRPG design within an accessible, entertaining essay collection. 

The Anatomy of Adventure collects ten essays about the composition, publishing, and marketing of independent D&D 5e compatible adventure content. For fans of his popular D&D 5th edition adventure line, he provides very specific behind-the-scenes examples drawn from his own library of works. Even if you haven’t read his modules, Gen-X and elder-millennial lifelong fans of D&D and other old-school TTRPGs will be treated to some tasteful nostalgia about the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons era of gaming. Those with less of a background will have picked one up by the time they finish this book. The classics provide a context for Black’s writing and business advice. It’s a fun choice that also reinforces the legacy of the hobby. 

Legacy is present in many of these essays. Black’s first essay, “Goblins in a Cave,” is about his beginnings writing adventures as pastiche projects. He describes the design and play of the famous module The Keep on the Borderlands. Black goes to lengths to explain how important “copying what you love” is to getting started as a module writer (a phrase he borrows from fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, very career forward my dude). In the third essay, “Nightmare in Amber,” Black traces the legacy of his own adventure Shadows on the Long all the way back to ideas first lifted from Clark Ashton Smith’s pulp fantasy stories by TSR author Tom Moldvay. Black’s scholarship really shines here due to his awareness of the shoulders upon which he built his career. 

These essays encourage the reader to invest in their own careers as well. Aside from practical writing advice, the fourth essay gives readers real insight into how Black has successfully marketed his work. He includes his own early missteps as well as his breakdown of his own sales and marketing numbers, down to his spreadsheets and experiments in bundling products. Another essay describes practical dungeon design with randomly generated elements. Another details incorporating interactivity within your dungeons. The Anatomy of Adventure could easily serve as the text for a junior year college course on writing adventures. If the right people read it, that scenario may actually come to fruition. M.T. Black has even written an expanded reading list to accompany his TTRPG essays on his blog.

Overall, The Anatomy of Adventure is an easy book to recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in adventure design. Even veteran players who just want a peak behind the curtain will be educated and entertained. Pick it up on his site or on DriveThruRPG. 

An Incredibly Brave and Necessary Review of Wendy’s Feast of Legends

Editorial by
Alex G. Friedman

MA, MFA, human rogue 5

One would be right to question whether an in-depth review of Feast of Legends is merited over a year after its publication. After all, it was just a marketing and promotional gambit that met middling initial success and was quickly forgotten amid half-hearted cries of ‘silence, brand.’ But perhaps Feast does deserve further examination for a few reasons, the plainest being that it was the first attempt in a long time by a truly mainstream brand to occupy the space and attentions of the TTRPG community.

This represents a formerly unfathomable situation—a major fast food corporation pandering to us. In essence, we have guests. What sort of hosts would we be to ignore this friendly intrusion? What would it say of our manners if we were to deny Feast of Legends the sort of deep and substantive review we’d grant to White Wolf or Kobold Press?

Feast of Legends is a stripped down war-game/lite dungeon dive turn-based TTRPG with a large variety of minigames. The game was designed by Matt Keck and Tony Marin “and others,” assumedly at VMLY&R (a marketing firm). Most notably, it features a limited selection of artwork by the brilliant and accomplished Alex Lopez (readers might recall Lopez’s work on the Pathfinder: Goblins! comic book covers or his Marvel heroes portraits, more on Mr. Lopez later). It utilizes an event based player character level progression, three main character types divided into 4-5 ‘Orders’, each based off of a Wendy’s menu item. This persistent reference to the Wendy’s menu will become a stifling factor as the included adventure proceeds. Gameplay is simplified to a one-page explanation of combat actions, resting, and extreme roll results. The ‘Adventuring’ section includes a brief explanation of the Game Master’s role and then a couple pages of items. This is followed by a page of “Buffs” and “Debuffs” which has been covered extensively on social media and in other publications. Suffice to say, you ought to skip page 10 of Feast of Legends unless you’re particularly keen on terrible dietary advice. The rest of the rulebook is devoted to pre-filled character sheets (which are appreciated but oddly placed) and the included adventure, “Rise from the Deep Freeze.” Without the included adventure, Feast of Legends weighs in at about 23 pages, pretty standard for an RPG-lite. Notably it lacks any examples of play, but it is fairly obvious that this book is intended for players somewhat familiar with D&D5e and a youth of the game’s minimum recommended age of 13 would have no trouble figuring it out assuming they have watched an RPG stream or two.

“In essence, we have guests. What sort of hosts would we be to ignore this friendly intrusion? What would it say of our manners if we were to deny Feast of Legends the sort of deep and substantive review we’d grant to White Wolf or Kobold Press?”

Before the book transitions to the much larger adventure section, its major issues start to show. This book is very repetitive. Skills are copy/pasted from one Order to another, largely because many of the Orders are nearly identical for no reason other than to get another menu item referenced in the game. It isn’t as though players have expectations for this game—there aren’t iconic or literary character classes causing role overlaps similar to, say, Fighter and Ranger. Skills are the only major gameplay differentiation between Orders; characters only get one or two per level (there are only five levels). Much like the fast food that the Orders are based upon, Orders such as the Dave’s Double and the Double Stack are almost completely interchangeable. In one particularly egregious case, the A Quick Bite skill appears in at least four different Orders’ skill sets. A Quick Bite is a trash healing cantrip that heals a d4 (almost a total waste considering the characters’ 12+1d12/lvl hp pools). It is further replicated by the most common item in the game, the Nugget. Late-night Craving (grants an attack buff at night) is a similarly bad and repetitive skill that appears across three orders. The included adventure includes one mention of nighttime combat in the description for a creature that attacks during a daytime battle. It’s unclear why these skills are included at all, if anything they simply plug the holes left by missed character development opportunities. Fresh, Never Frozen is another skill that is repeated across multiple Orders, however it does serve the mechanical purpose of granting frontline characters resistance to late-game damage dealers. (Be prepared to see “fresh, never frozen” repeated ad nauseam though the rest of the book as the phrase appears at least fifteen times.)Wasted space and repetition aside, is the game system actually fun? Sort of, but not uniquely so. It is roughly as fun as a more forgiving D&D without dynamic battle maps or a proper magic system due to the fact that it essentially is D&D, mechanically speaking. Therefore any added charm in this game would need to come from the fast food cultural references and the Wendy’s branding, and this is largely a matter of taste. Suffice to say that I associate Wendy’s branding more strongly with the litter choking America’s streets than good times or enjoyable food, so that aspect of the game didn’t appeal to me personally. “Rise from the Deep Freeze” fills out the rest of Feast of Legends’s remaining 72 pages. This 6 chapter adventure includes 12 monsters (along with a handful of leveled-up variants), 3 dungeons, a handful of towns, and several mini-games. “Rise from the Deep Freeze” chronicles the party’s quest to stop the Ice Jester from freezing the beef of the nation of Freshtovia. The campaign is set in the realm of Beef’s Keep which is populated primarily by parody characters inspired by people from Wendy’s marketing and the mascots of competing restaurant chains. For the purposes of this review, I read the adventure cover-to-cover twice and attempted research on every proper name referenced. Hyper-reliance on implied parody is one of the major ways the material (or lack thereof) in this campaign fails. The majority of characters mentioned have no art and very minimal description associated with them. For example, a midboss named The Grumble appears in the first dungeon. One might assume that The Grumble is supposed to play off of The Grimace, but the beast is neither described nor illustrated. Its stat block is no help either, because the creature is faster than average and uses a tongue attack–not what I think of when I think of the purple McDonald’s mascot.

For all the praise that Feast of Legends has gotten for its production value, these are the situations where Alex Lopez’s art is really needed. I wonder what it would have cost VMLY&R to commission further artwork from him to illustrate monsters beyond the two end bosses of the game. As it stands, we’re left with missing or cursory descriptions that obfuscate the point. The Freezer Burn, for example, “strikes with the flat, blunt side of its icy fist” and “bites with jagged, icy teeth” (90). Fair enough, but what is a Freezer Burn? Is it some sort of ice goblin? Or perhaps it is more like a skeleton? No further clues are given. It has blunt sides to its icy fists, though. The Birdie the Early Bird parody monster only succeeds in breaking the game and potentially TPKing a party that has forgotten to pack ranged combat solutions, the only time in the adventure such weapons are necessary. The creature lacks any jokes or even reference to the Birdie character’s flight cap and scarf.

“Suffice to say that I associate Wendy’s branding more strongly with the litter choking America’s streets than good times or enjoyable food.”

Most of the game is severely hampered by bland, derivative, and unhelpful prose. The first dungeon of “Rise of the Deep Freeze” combines puzzles lifted from a handful of classic films/literature with cluttered, badly written rooms. Descriptions such as, “The room to the right is small. Entering really doesn’t amount to anything; there are some twigs…,” abound (41). Later in this dungeon, the ‘one-always-lies-the-other-tells-the-truth’ puzzle is reprised in the most cringe inducing way. The Tea are “two women with otherworldly auras”(42). These two otherwise undescribed characters play out the tired logic puzzle by snapping back and forth to each other and finishing each line with, “and that’s the Tea” (43). This sassy Black lady caricature is derived from the ‘clap back’ persona of the official Wendy’s Twitter account. Picturing an average GM undertaking these roles reminds me of Mike Myers’s intentionally dated Black cultural appropriation jokes in the second Austin Powers film. The second and third dungeons are somewhat better, but shed most of the puzzles for simple combat. The second dungeon features the only good joke in the book. The midboss Mucho Pan (or the Extra Bun) is based off the middle bun of the Big Mac sandwich and has the attack skill Technically a Club. That’s pretty clever.

Keck and Marin are very likely RPG gamers of some variety. I imagine they were fairly excited to develop something fun when the pitch for Feast of Legends was accepted. But the fast-food TTRPG niche was not empty. Ninja Burger, for example, has been around for twenty years and is based on one of the most original and funny premises for a game. Keck and Marin entered this space with a Wendy’s themed Game of Thrones knock-off and attempted to win over the TTRPG scene with old jokes that pale in comparison even to the corporate twitter account on which they are based. Despite that, Alex Lopez’s art might have almost salvaged this project had there been two to three times more of it, strategically placed to make up for the weak, vague writing. But even if the writing had been better, the subject matter remains problematic. So who is Feast of Legends for? Perhaps suburban 14.5-year-olds who haven’t experienced how badly it sucks working someplace like Wendy’s? Mr. Keck and Mr. Marin, if you want to work as creatives in the TTRPG design space, please just do so. You don’t need to attach your work to a vapid corporate brand that enriches a handful of selfish capitalist droolers by mistreating farmers and polluting the world with fast food trash. Your creative tendencies and your love of the community of gaming is obvious, don’t waste your efforts trying to build good will for white bread hawking, anti-labor Molochs. Don’t you have better ideas than watered down D&D with a sandwich logo pasted on it? You have to, right?