RPG Tax Review: Elizabeth Chaipraditkul’s Familiars of Terra

What is it?

Familiars of Terra is a fantasy RPG where everyone has an animal familiar, similar to The Golden Compass or Pokemon. Players create and play both Seekers–humans driven to pursue goals that lead to adventure–and their familiars.

Why did I buy it?

I love having animal companions in games. The setting’s tone is complicated but hopeful, a rare combination. I wanted to support a newish designer. I wanted to see how the card-based system worked out.

First impressions?

It has a “This book belongs to” frame in the front! There are little touches like that in the book that make it charming.

The book starts with a “Welcome” section that introduces the setting, tone, and premise. The setting is similar to our modern world, but everyone has an animal familiar and everything is powered by green energy. There was a “Vast War” about fifty years ago, and the world is still dealing with the aftereffects. There are five playable nations; the sixth nation was the aggressor in the Vast War and has since enclosed itself behind a wall. Each of the playable nations is struggling with problems in the wake of the war. I’m impressed that none of them map neatly onto real-world nations, contributing to the feel that this is a complex world and not a simple allegory.

The next chapter is Character Creation, which includes both Seeker and Familiar creation. In the setting, Familiars are more powerful than humans, so humans don’t carry weapons and any fights are between Familiars. (Like Pokemon!) Seekers have a home nation, a Calling (their core motivation), a related Promise (an activity or urge related to the Calling), Attribute scores (Agility, Awareness, Charm, Might, Wit), Titles (epithets that grant perks called Wisdoms) and/or Trophies (rare items that grant powers called Quirks). Familiars have Attribute scores, Traits (deviations from their basic animal form) and Powers. The process is clearly explained, with lists of options for Callings, Promises, Titles, Trophies, Traits, and Powers. There’s a section in the GM chapter about coming up with new options, but the existing ones are flavorful and help set the tone and fill in the setting.

The system uses playing cards. I think each player and GM needs their own deck of cards, but in my skim I didn’t see anything that specified. Cards have numeric values from 1 (Ace) to 13 (King). Simple checks have you draw the top card of the deck, add a bonus or penalty if the GM says to, and compare the value to the relevant attribute. If it’s equal or lower, you succeed; if it’s higher, you fail. In opposed checks, you and your opponent each draw a card, add your relevant attributes, and compare. Highest wins, ties are possible. So far, the system could have used dice.

Combat is where the card-based system shines. Each participant draws a hand of cards, then they take turns in descending order of Agility. Each turn, you pick an opponent, then both of you play cards face-down, use any pre-reveal Powers, reveal the cards, use any post-reveal Powers, and finally resolve who deals damage to whom. Powers range from “Play one extra card this turn” to “Look at the top 10 cards of your deck and reorder them.” It looks to make for interesting hand and resource (Power) management, replacing the spatial-tactical management of combat in D&D 3+. Neat!

The next big section goes over the different nations. I skimmed this, but it each nation has a large problem facing it, and there are little adventure seeds scattered around. It also describes the nation of Plinth, the “bad guys” (they started the Vast War), including some ideas to make dealing with them into a campaign.

The last section is the GM section, and it’s packed with helpful stuff. There’s guidance on running the game, maintaining the tone, running for children, and creating new perks. But a lot of it is about setting up scenarios and creating NPCs. There are a few detailed scenario hooks, then several random tables you can use to generate your own. The NPC section describes how to create NPCs depending on how important they are, but the best part is the collection of generic stat blocks for different NPC and group archetypes–including both humans and familiars–ready to be skinned and dropped into the game.

Overall, Familiars of Terra looks like a great entry for all-ages gaming. I think it fills a niche similar to Ryuutama, a generally heart-warming game with aspects of more traditional adventuring RPGs.

RPG Tax Review: Jacob S. Kellog’s Journey Away

What is it?

Journey Away is a light, non-challenge-based fantasy RPG by Jacob S. Kellog. In it, you play a group of friends from a small village exploring a world where magic recently appeared. The PDF is available from DriveThruRPG, with a POD option.

Why did I buy it?

The tone is similar to Ryuutama, which I love. I was curious what a non-challenge-based system looks like. I wanted to support a new designer who is interested in making nonviolent games.

First impressions

The book was shorter than I expected. The system is very light, and I think the game as a whole is targeted to groups who enjoy supported freeform. That’s a play style where the group mostly roleplays freely, but want a system to dip into for inspiration or when stalled.

The mechanical part of character creation involves writing down a list of character traits and assigning them die sizes based on how important they are to the character. Like Fate Aspects, traits should be things that could either help or hurt depending on the situation. Traits are grouped into five categories to aid player brainstorming, but there’s no mechanical difference between them. The game recommends you come up with at least two traits in each category (persona, tendencies, experience, and quirks) for a total of ten. I think this system will work best if you already have a good idea of the character you want to play.

The non-challenge-based system has you gather a dice pool from traits that may provide advantages in the situation. The GM gathers a dice pool of traits that may provide complications, with extra dice if there are other circumstances. Each pool is rolled, then players arrange the dice into pairs with one die from each pool. If the higher die is from the player’s pool, the pair counts as a “boon.” If the higher die is from the GM’s pool, it’s a “complication.” The players to the left and right of the main player then narrate the good things that happened based on the count of boons, and the bad things that happened based on the count of complications. Assembling the dice pools helps everyone get a concrete picture of what’s going on in the scene, and the possible outcomes are complex. The system could be fiddly if it were being rolled often, but it looks like it’s intended to be used maybe once a scene. There’s a couple of pages of advice on narrating, with reminders that rolling is about “what interesting things happen?” rather than success or failure.

The last quarter of the book goes into detail on the setting. There’s a map of the region the characters are from, with sections sketching out the sub-regions. Each section calls out one interesting fact about that region.  This is the part of the book I wish were more developed, because all those region facts spark great scenario ideas.

Overall, this is a game targeted at a niche audience, which I am not part of, but which I think will love it. I think more setting detail could broaden the appeal of the product–I want to know more about the world of Adhara!

RPG Tax Review: The Companion’s Tale by Laura Simpson

What is it?

The Companion’s Tale is a collaborative storytelling and mapmaking game game by Laura Simpson of Sweet Potato Press. In the game, you act as historians and unreliable narrators telling the story of a great Hero during a time of change. The game is packaged like a board game, with three decks of cards, rules reference cards, and a booklet-style rulebook. The base game supports 3-4 people. There are variants included for two players, and for 6-8. The pre-orders have shipped, and the plan is for the game to be available for order from Indie Press Revolution.

How did it get my attention / Why did I buy it?

I played an awesome session of it at a con, facilitated by the designer. I missed the Kickstarter, but was able to pre-order it on Backerkit.

What are my first impressions?

The cards are gorgeous. The three decks are the Theme, Companion Archetype, and Companion Face cards. The Theme and Archetype decks are standard poker-card size, but the Face cards are larger Dixit-sized cards that show off the evocative art. The Companion’s face takes up most of each card, but the details in the clothing, adornments, and backgrounds provide springboards for inventing stories.

The first third of the rulebook is how to play the basic game. Then comes a short section of facilitator tips. The remainder (more than half!) consists of 11 game variants.

The basic game rules are clearly explained. The facilitator tips give useful guidance about how to make the session go smoothly and bring out the most interesting aspects of the system.

There are so many variants, and as with the Romance Trilogy, they are gold for a game designer. There are two variants that change the supported player count: Duet gives rules for two players, and the Diaspora variant I playtested supports 6-8 players. Unfortunately, there are no specific rules for five players, the size of my regular gaming group. The remaining variants cover an array of themes and settings, from first contact between cultures to magical girls. One technique used to good effect in many variants is curating the Theme and Companion decks, ensuring that certain motifs come up through the game. In the Lovers’ Tale variant, where all Companions once loved the Hero, the “Love” Theme card and “Lover” Companion card are pulled from the decks and placed on the table for everyone to incorporate during their turns. It’s such a simple change, but it sparks ideas for other variants along those lines, or even randomly creating a variant. The A Tale of Villainy variant, where the “Hero” is viewed as a villain, has you curate a separate villainous Theme deck, ensuring dark Themes like Corruption, Punishment, and Vengeance are drawn during the game. The most detailed variant is Guardians of the Arcane City, which converts the game to tell the story of urban fantasy magical girls. It goes over curating the decks, gives new initial world-building questions, tweaks every phase of the game, and transforms Act 3 into a final showdown with the evil Nemesis. It’s a great starting point for making your own hacks.

2018 Retrospective

On the first day of 2019, I’m looking back at my year in gaming and blogging.


My regular gaming group had ten sessions of Blades in the Dark this year. I GMed two and played a crew member in eight. It’s been interesting seeing the variety of GM and player styles at the table, and the different approaches to session prep. I’m back to GMing next session, and figuring out a way to pick up all the dangling plot threads from my last time at the wheel.

I made it to two cons this year, and played a mix of board games and RPGs. I got to playtest a few RPGs: Stephanie Bryant’s Last Monster on Earth, MonkeyFun Games’ A Town Called Malice, and Daedalum AP’s Roar of Alliance. I always learn something from playtesting other people’s games, whether it’s about the game itself or the process surrounding it.


2018 is the year I decided to get serious about posting to this blog. I made 19 posts this year. My three most popular posts:

Blades in the Dark is my trendiest topic, followed by Ryuutama. Still, with a total of 29 posts and an average of 7 visitors a day (many of which were me), there’s not a lot of data to go on. If I were optimizing for visits I would go in for more Blades content. Since I’m currently one of three rotating GMs in a Blades campaign, that seems likely to happen anyway.

This year I also started paying my RPG Tax, an idea from Ray Otus. I am woefully behind, but I have drastically reduced the amount I spend at Bundle of Holding. I frequently fell into the trap where I wasn’t up to  reading all of my purchase, so I read nothing. For next year, I’m going to reduce my threshold for what counts as “read” to include quickly leafing-through and commenting on what jumps out at me.

At one point in November I was able to finish three posts in quick succession. Instead of posting them immediately, I scheduled them for advance posting. That gave me more time to work on my next post, which was much appreciated. I’m trying for a weekly posting schedule this year, but with a buffer of scheduled posts. This means that some of my RPG Tax reviews may go up well after I first read them, but hopefully this will be more maintainable.

Here’s to a great gaming 2019!