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Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual Review


I’ve always been amused by the way player and dungeon master materials swapped size between the 1st and 2nd editions of D&D. With first edition, it seemed obvious the DMG should be bigger than the PHB. With second, it seemed equally obvious that the opposite should be true since everyone ought to know most of the rules.

That pattern has persisted with 5th edition. The new Dungeon Master’s Guide is a chunky enough tome to make it appear worthy of the asking price, but slimmer than the Player’s Handbook. What have they put inside?

The answer is a sometimes uneasy blend of advice, fluff and rules. The delimiters between theses types of material are often not clear. So you’re apt to find an important table nestled amongst, say, basic advice on dungeon building for neophyte GM’s.

This lack of struture is the biggest problem with the book overall. It feels as though the authors were never sure what the target audience for the book was, or how it might be used. There’s a lot more hand holding for new dungeon masters than I remember from previous editions. Which is great for newcomers, but conversely, it makes for a lot of material which is going to be almost entirely irrelevant to experienced players.

The best stuff by far is the fluff. There’s a lot more detail on the presumed overarching detail of the Dungeons & Dragons setting than I’ve seen in a core book before. All the inner and outer planes get a brief overview, as do the most common campaign settings. You don’t have to use any of them. Indeed the book offers copies advice on how to construct alternatives. But most veterans will lap this stuff up.

Those who recall earlier editions of the book will remember the reams of near-useless tables for randomly generating things. I was initially dismayed to see that they’re back in fifth edition, but there’s an enormous difference. This time, most of the tables are actually quite good. At worst they make decent spark points for your imagination to build on. At best, such as the dungeon generator, they’re good enough to slot in to pre-prepared play.

There are also a lot of optional rules. Plus advice for tweaking existing rules and creating monsters, classes and items without breaking things. Again, how much you want to make of this is up to you. Personally, I like the relatively rules-light approach this edition takes, allowing the story to drive instead of the mechanics. But if you want lots of add-ons and extras, they’re here.

So it’s a mixed bag, but on the whole, the good outweighs the mediocre. It’s a big boon for people relatively new to being a Dungeon Master. Where I struggle a little is why an experienced role-player would want this over the stripped down free version you can download from WotC. There’s a bigger list of magic items, with some wonderful illustrations, but anyone who knows what they’re doing is capable of winging the rest of it if necessary.


The same cannot be said for the 5th Edition Monster Manual. It is possibly the best (although not the most important) book in the core set and the only one I read from cover to cover before use.

There’s so much to love about it that I hardly know where to start. How about with every monster getting its own full-colour illustration? Then follow that up with great descriptive text, giving insights into the societies and habitats of the creatures, a reason for them to be in your world and antagonise your adventurers. It lays a wonderful veneer of reality over the pulpy fantasy beneath.

The choice of included monsters is also excellent. In place of the overwhelming plethora favoured by previous editions, this presents a sensibly edited selection. There’s an excellent variety of challenge and type, and not too many entries that seem like rough duplicates with slightly different names and stat blocks. One or two oddities slipped in, like the Flumph. I mean, has anyone really found a use for the Flumph in a game?

If this weren’t enough, there’s a new option for legendary monsters. It’s easy: they get extra “legendary” actions in combat and, if on home soil, additional “lair” actions too. Since most player characters only get a few actions per round, even at higher levels, this makes legendary foes very powerful with a minimum of rules. Frequently-used villains like dragons, liches and vampires are legendary by default but there’s nothing to stop an inventive DM extending it to make an adversary out of any archetype they choose.

One change I’m unsure about is the removal of life drain, that dreaded ability of certain undead to lower the experience of player characters. It was overpowered in previous editions, sure, but it gave undead a unique level of threat and a real reason for the players to fear them. It’s been replaced with necrotic damage that can’t easily be healed without prolonged rest. Nasty, but not in the same league. I’m sure they must have been a halfway house that could have been adopted.

Undead also showcase another interesting change, which is that certain monsters have drastically altered power levels. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this and in many cases it makes good sense. But it makes it slightly harder for DM’s to adapt scenarios from older editions by replacing like with like.

You can fall back on the dry stat blocks in the free DM’s rules if you need to. But with so much excellent art and flavour text to add depth, colour and challenge to your campaign world, this is a book few DMs are going to want to be without.

D&D 5e Player’s Handbook Review


It’s rare that the first thing to strike you about a book is a noise. But here, it was. After being so excited by the Starter Set, I couldn’t wait to get into this. So I ignored the cover and opened the book to a loud crack as the spine flexed for the first time. It was like the sound of the lock falling away from my teenage memories.

Back then, no-one ever read the Player’s Handbook from cover to cover, and I doubt anyone does now. It’s skimmed, flipped, relished. So first impressions count.

They’re good. The pages are thin but printed with a nice fake-age background. Tables are pleasingly infrequent. The art is plentiful, good quality and diverse in its representation of race, class and gender. Male Half-orc paladins stand shoulder to shoulder with scholarly female wizards. Most are sensibly clothed.

This is the first D&D supplement I can remember that encourages players to use the game to explore diversity.
“Don’t be confined to binary notions of sex and gender,” it says. It’s nice to know that D&D has moved into the modern age while preserving the things that made it special in the past.

Alongside those sentiments there are other short, but useful, chapters on role-playing and personification. Mostly, what we want are rules and mostly, that’s what we get.

You have to remember that I haven’t played the game since 2nd edition. So things that stand out to me as big changes might not seem so huge to more dedicated players.

One thing that impresses is the way in which the game has become less about specialists, more about letting players create the characters they want. There are twelve classes now, each with several archetypes.

The Fighter class, for instance, divides into three archetypes. Classic warrior fans can play a Champion. Battle Masters represent tacticians and field officers. Eldritch Knights sacrifice some fighting ability for a modicum of spellcasting power.

At the extremes, this plethora of options blend in to one another. With an Eldritch Knight in the party, you might not need a Wizard. Sometimes the overlap seems too extensive. I can’t quite see why the Barbarian and Sorcerer classes weren’t just folded as archetypes for the Ranger and Wizard respectively.

But on the whole, it works. Specialists are still best at what they do, but players can build characters as they like.

This change of focus is supported by the core mechanics. Everything works on a d20 check now, against a difficulty number. You add ability score modifiers, but also get a proficiency bonus, dependant on level, for things your class is good at.

Fighters get it on all weapons, for instance. But you can now get proficiencies in skills and tools, too. So anyone can use Thief’s tools to attempt to pick a lock. But a Rogue will get their proficiency bonus when they try – double, in fact, thanks to a special feature of the class.

It’s a great way of doing things. It’s more realistic – why, in old systems, couldn’t other classes search for traps if there wasn’t a thief in the party? The broad skill categories make it more comprehensive, so there’s few situations in which you can’t bend the rules to fit.

dnd-phb-02jpg It’s also the mechanic behind the rebalancing of the game. A key feature of this edition is that powerful characters are no longer god-like. A lone fighter will eventually succumb to an army of goblins. It works because proficiency bonuses increase slowly, and max out at +6. So a 20th level figher, with a few stat increases, is only going to get perhaps +6 on the dice more than a 1st level one.

But best of all, people can play the characters of their imagination. Common fantasy stereotypes that were near-impossible in the old system are easy now. Swashbuckling warriors are just as good as armoured tanks. It’s straightforward to combine spell and sword if that’s what you want to do.

To add flesh and flexibility to the character creation process there’s a mandatory background step. This gives you a couple more skills and some starting equipment, as well as a foundation for your character’s back story.

While a welcome addition, it’s perhaps the weakest thing in the book. In contrast to the wide-ranging races and classes on offer, there’s only a limited selection. And they’re painted in narrow strokes where they ought to be board. You can chose to be a Noble, for instance, or a Sailor . But not a Noble Sailor. And there seems an astonishing diversity of semi-criminal backgrounds, from Charlatans to Urchins to actual Criminals.

At the end of the book come spells. These are no longer divided into spells for different classes. Instead, each class has a list of spells they’re able to potentially learn and cast. This makes referencing what spells belong to what class a bit of a nightmare. But it’s nice to see the end of silly duplications of identical effects across different classes.

Casting, like almost everything else in the new edition, has become more flexible. Spellcasters can prepare a wide selection of spells during a long rest. When they cast one, they use a slot rather than losing the spell. There’s also a new idea of casting low level spells with high level slots, for a more powerful effect. These are all excellent changes. No more will wizards find themselves stuck in situations without a useful memorised spell.

The other striking thing about the spell lists is the substantial number of non-combat spells. In previous editions, this felt like lip-service to encouraging nonviolent solutions. Here, it chimes authentically with the greater focus on skills and tools rather than just weapons and armour.

So now you know what’s in the book, it’s time to end on a question. Given that you can download character creations rules for free, why buy the book?

Well, aside from the pleasure of the art and the convenience of a hard copy, it comes back to the overarching theme of what I love about this edition: flexibility. Those free rules have only four classes, with one archetype each, and a cut-down selection of spells. Reading this Player’s Handbook felt like unlocking my imagination to polymorph into whatever fantastic character it desired. That’s in stark contrast to the rules, restrictions and specialisms that characterised earlier editions. The free rules feel a bit like those earlier editions. If you really want to let your mind run free, this is the book for you.

Five days with Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons


At age eight I was rummaging through a book stall at an agricultural fair, and I found a book that would change my life. It was “What is Dungeons & Dragons” and it stood out like a monstrous thumb among the worthy tomes on seed rotation. If I hadn’t bought it, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this column right now.

I haven’t played D&D in 20 years. I gave up at the advent of third edition, deciding it wasn’t worth re-learning the rules all over again.

Now, fifth edition is out. And my eldest daughter is eight, the age I was when I discovered the game. The co-incidence felt like a sign: it was time to teach the game to my kids, and rediscover it myself, too.

So I picked up a copy of the Starter Set.

Day 1

The box contains some nice marbled polyhedral dice, some basic rules and an adventure. Tempting as it is to start with the latter, I felt I ought to brave the rules first.

It felt intimidating after such a long time. And while the booklet is slim, it was a little hard to piece things together. There’s no character generation material. Instead you’re given five pregenerated adventurers to run. Some of the rules you need to understand things like levelling up is printed on those character sheets, which is a bit confusing.

Once I had it though, it felt like slipping into a warm bath of wonderful nostalgia. These rules didn’t feel like third edition, with its confusing plethora of feats and tables. This felt like the game I remembered, but cleaned up, streamlined yet at the same time made more flexible.

Every stat now has a plus or minus modifier, and it’s used to change a d20 roll. You compare the result against a difficulty number to see if you succeed.

Sometimes that difficulty is fixed, like the armour class of your enemy. Sometimes it’s a vaguer call from the DM, like the 15 that’s suggested for a “difficult” task in the rules. But that basic system, supported by simple rules for a broad sprinkling of skills and proficiencies, is all there is. It’s all the game really needs.

Everything else is just like it used to be, only better. Everyone levels on the same advancement tables. Spell casters have flexible “slots” instead of having to memorize fixed spells, but the principle is the same. And the maths of the system have tweaked to ensure that the power differential as characters advance is big, but no longer vast.

Quite suddenly, after 20 years, I’m desperate to play this thing again.

Day 2

First things first, though: I need to read that adventure. It’s called The Lost Mine of Phandelver, a corny title right out of the D&D history books.

With that emblazoned on the title page, I’m expecting a classic, by-the-numbers dungeon crawl. But I’m in for a surprise. The adventure has four parts, the first and last of which are standard, but exciting, dungeon delves.

Between, however, are two glorious free-form sections. These see the characters exploring first a town and then a number of wilderness locations, looking for clues. No railroads here: the players can, and likely will, wander around until they’ve gathered the clues they need.

This might seem a big ask for a novice Dungeon Master. But the adventure book is full of helpful hints on how to keep things running smoothly.

After all these years, I think I’m going to need some of that advice. I do the rest of my prep work as best I can. I collect all the figures from my D&D board games and make copies of the character sheets. Just standard fighters for the kids so they don’t get bogged down in rules, and a cleric for me, so they don’t get killed.

I show my eldest the box, and the dice. She recognises the logo and gets very animated. But it’s bed time. To be honest, I’m not sure who’s more excited: me, or them.

Day 3

I’d been planning to wait until the afternoon to run the game, but as soon as they’re up, the girls are pestering me to get going. So we eat breakfast, clear the table and I set up a makeshift DM screen from the box.

I don’t spend any time explaining the rules or the concept of role-playing. The idea of pretending to be someone else in a fantasy world is as natural to them as breathing: they do it playing together every single day. I’m both worried and curious about how they’ll handle combat.

At first, it’s adorably naive. However everyday the concept of role-playing might be, they know nothing about this paradigm. Within ten minutes they’ve fallen into a pit and walked past some gold because they don’t know to check for traps or search for treasure. I use my in-game character to nudge them in the right direction.


Then they run into some goblins. Their first instinct is to try and sneak past, but the greenskins are guarding the entrance to a cave. After searching for a back entrance, they get stuck in.

It’s a riot. They’re learning to behave sensibly in the game environment. After the guards, they refuse to light a torch in case it attracts attention and ask my Dwarf to lead them around with his night vision. They explore the caves, rescue their friends, down the big bad in the final cavern.

In the showdown, everyone gets knocked out except younger daughter. She’s terrified, rolling the dice then hiding her eyes and squealing in case she misses. But she does it: with a little dice fudging, she saves the day.

Fifth edition has both experience points and a “bookmark” system where you gain levels at specific points in an adventure. This is one: everyone goes up to level two and is very proud, even though they don’t quite know what it means.

Day 4

In the morning I ask the girls what their favourite part of the game was. “When we found the treasure!” says the eldest, carefully toting up the gold pieces and adding them to her character sheet. “When I saved everyone!” says the youngest, her eyes shining with pure, unadulterated glee.

“Do you want to play some more?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

Yesterday, they learned everything they needed to move to the next part of the adventure, but they’re too young to piece it together. They whisper conspiratorially, planning what to do next, but they can’t decide. So I use my character again to help them work out where to go.

This session is much more based on role playing and skill checks. It showcases how powerful and flexible the new system is, but the youngest finds it a little dull, and starts building towers out of all the pretty dice.

They end up scouring the crowd in a tavern for clues. They order “fruit whiskey” at the bar. Elder daughter is loving all the slowly-peeling onion rings of the scenario, and tries to piece the mystery together. They don’t have all the clues yet, though.

Eventually they face off against the main antagonists in this location, a bunch of human brigands. They’re not happy about fighting other people, and decide to use the flats of their weapons to knock them out at first.

It’s interesting that they had no such qualms with goblins.

They hit on a plan to try and scare members of the same band by carrying round tokens of their previous victory, and fronting it out. We use more skill checks to see if it works, which are just as thrilling as combat.

It does work. One of the surrendering guards tells them there’s a horrible “eye monster” guarding the next cavern. They’re both apprehensive and excited about meeting it.

They tip-toe into the cave and ask to see a picture of the dread beast. Usefully, there’s one in the scenario booklet, so I show them.

They both run screaming out of the room, in a delighted panic. I think that’s a good time to end today’s session.

Day 5

It’s Monday again, after the high of the weekend. Time for me to go to work, and them to go to school, and everyone to reflect on how things went.

For my part, I’m bowled over by this edition. These basic rules run fast and smooth. Even the cut-down set in the box feel like they could be easily manipulated to handle most situations.

It’s almost the game I remember, except tweaked to be the game I always wanted it to be.

Although the details you need are annoyingly spread out over the booklets and the character sheets, new players can get everything they need with careful reading. And the supplied adventure is excellent, giving you a reason to buy the box over just downloading the free version of the rules.

As for playing with such young children, it went better than I dared hope. They’re primed by their own play to accept this kind of game. I hope they never grow out of that.

Part of me feels like a bad parent for introducing them to what might be the nerdiest thing in my whole nerdy cabinet of nerd hobbies.

But most of me feels like I’m riding a Unicorn across a galaxy of sparkling pixie dust. I’d forgotten how much fun role-playing could be. And I’d never imagined how much extra fun it would be doing it as a family.

I know what we’re all doing next weekend.

Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game Review


There have been many, many attempts at blending role-playing games and strategy games. Until recently, almost all fell foul of the fundamental mismatch between playing co-operatively in the imagination and competing on a board.

The latest iteration is Pathfinder: the Adventure Card Game. Based on the famous role-playing game of the same name it may be the purest distillation of the adventure game concept yet. It’s smart, simple and packed with potential variety. But for all the benefits it boasts it trips on perhaps the most basic hurdle in game design: it just isn’t terribly interesting to play.

The base game comes in a quite colossal box which is largely empty, leaving space for expansions. It’s entirely card based, which is a good thing. Cards are about the only way you can shoehorn enough colour and variety into a tabletop game to even approach the fecund imaginations of GM’s everywhere.

You prepare by building a lot of decks. Each player selects a character and chooses cards for their decks based on that template. A warrior might be instructed to take lots of weapon and armour cards, while a mage will have spell and blessing card instead. There’s pre-selected decks for those that want them. But trust me: this is the best part of the game, as engaging as putting together a set for your favourite collectible card game. You won’t want to miss out on it.

Then comes the drudgery of preparing location decks. The locations you use depend on the adventure you’re playing. For each location you take a certain number of cards of different types, just like building a character deck. So the Goblin Tunnels have lots of monster and barrier cards, but a farmhouse is more likely to have helpful items and equipment. Unlike the character decks you draw these at random from the box, so the contents of each deck comes as a surprise.

The game then plays out with each player drawing a card from their current location and resolving it. Most cards, after resolving, get removed from the location deck. The final goal is to locate a villain that’s hiding in one of the decks and defeat him. But if you uncover the scoundrel and haven’t yet closed other locations by defeating the henchmen lurking there, he can run away. So you keep hunting until you defeat the big bad or a 30 turn timer runs out.

There’s no denying it’s pretty exciting. No-one has the least idea of what’s in those decks, or where the villain and his henchmen are ensconced. With such a huge selection of cards to pick from, the surprises come thick and fast. Zombies and Shadows mix with Harpies and Ogres. Deadly pit traps can nestle up close to potions and chests of treasure.

So why, then does the game feel so flat once a few turns have passed? The problem is the resolution mechanic. For all the bloated text in the awful rulebook, which makes the game appear far more complex than it is, resolving comes down to one thing. You look at a target number on the card you’ve drawn, pick some corresponding dice off your character card, roll them, total the result and try to beat the target.

That’s it. That’s how it works when your warrior is swinging his longsword at a goblin. That’s how it works when your absyssal sorcerer is force-blasting a skeleton. That’s how the thief picks locks, how the priest heals heroes, how the bard recruits allies.

That is, in effect, the entire game.

As you might expect it’s nowhere near enough to convincingly differentiate all those different cards. The result is that colour and flavour drains out of everything you encounter. All the richness and imagination of a fantasy world that’s been years in development rendered into two-tone by a weak and pointless mechanic.


After a while it gets so bad that the only difference between turning over a treasure and turning over a monster is whether the encounter hurts or benefits your hero. In both cases you still just look at a number and roll dice to beat it. If the card feels no different in play, why make the effort to differentiate it in your imagination?

It’s made worse by the co-operative nature of the game. I find most co-ops either too random or too predictable but it’s a mechanic that seems comfortable for adventure games. But when the core of the game is so trivial, there’s nothing to co-operate over. Decisions consist of nothing but unguessable risk-reward gambles.

It reminds me a lot of Talisman, a game that suffers from many similar complaints. But the slight extra complexity in Talisman is just enough to bring its fantasy thrillingly to life. The movement on a board gives it an extra element of spatial strategy. And most crucial, its competitive nature ensures the game stays taut and compelling long after Pathfinder has become flatly repetitive.

At this point you’re be justified in asking why such a bland, boring game is riding so high on the popularity wave. I’m glad you asked, because there is a reason. It goes back to where I opened this review with the building of character decks.

After each adventure your characters, naturally, get rewards. Sometimes it’s treasure cards drawn from the box. Sometimes it’s a new feat which allows you to customise your character’s skill and abilities. You’ll have picked up various geegaws during the adventure, too. Either way, you’ll have more cards in your deck than you started with.

But here’s the kicker: you’re still reqired to fit in with the card counts associated with that character template. Some feats increase the amount of different cards you’re allowed in the deck. But you’ll still have to sit down, sort through your loot, and decide what to keep and what to discard.

This is a superb example of how the packed the game is with clean, intuitive yet thematic mechanics. Your deck limit is a brilliant yet simple way to mimic encumbrance. There are lots more. Your deck is also your life pool, and wizard types have a bigger hand size than warrior types. So they go through their cards quicker, making them simultenously more flexible yet more fragile than their brawny brethern.

However, this plethora of breathtaking design makes the central draw, dice, roll mechanic even more infurating. With so much creativity on display elsewhere, why is the core of the game so clunky and pedestrian?

But I digress. One you’ve re-arranged your deck to your liking it’s back to the lather-rinse-repeat tedium of adventuring. But the sense of advancement is palpable. Lots of games succeed in making characters feel more powerful as they play. Only Pathfinder succeeds in making them feel so uniquely personal to the people that play them.

Does the draw of slowly bonding with a character as you tweak their deck to your liking outweigh the dead matter of the adventure itself? Only just. Yet there’s another consideration. Pathfinder was obviously designed to be played as an ongoing campaign, but this starter set contains only a sixth of the required material. There’s another five adventure packs to purchase to complete the story.

Each scenario takes thirty to sixty minutes to play, and there’s maybe 35 scenarios in the campaign. If you find the campaign sounds appealing enough to make you want to invest that kind of time and money, then Pathfinder offers a unique, but flawed, card-based RPG experience. For the rest of us, who want a bit less commitment and a bit more game, we have to carry on waiting for the ultimate marriage of role-playing and strategy.

The Quiet Year Review

Quiet Year cover

The world is full of things that should not work, but somehow do: pineapple on Pizza, or mixing opera and hip-hop, or making jokes about death. Some examples are personal, others largely universal. And to that last list we can now add a game called The Quiet Year.

The Quiet Year calls itself a map-making game, but it isn’t really, even though you do make a map as you play it. A lot of people seem to refer to it as a role-playing game but it isn’t that either, since it actively discourages you from the minutiae of its character’s lives. It’s one of a small but growing group of storytelling games, where a simple structure is used to explore the player’s imaginations.

All games share the same basic setting: a year in the life of a small post-apocalyptic community. They’ve just survived one war and at some point in the next twelve months another will begin, ending the game. What happens in between is up to you, a deck of playing cards, and some pencils and paper.

The setting is left deliberately light on detail. At the beginning the players collaborate to chose a physical setting for their community and flesh it out with a few key details. Some wooden huts, for instance, built near a poisoned lake in a forest clearing, short on food. These details are drawn on paper to begin the map that will be the focus of the game. What ended modern civilisation is not explained, nor is the founding of the community or the nature of the conflicts that shape its past and future.

This lack of detail feels very strange at first. With such a minimal framework, players start out grasping for foundations on which to build their tale. Plentiful examples in the short rulebook help a bit, but the whole thing is just too overwhelmingly strange. Not to mention the social awkwardness associated with telling a collaborative tale, not wanting to speak out with a bad idea, or accidentally choosing a wrong narrative turn and annoying your peers.

To try and combat this, the game then proceeds with players taking highly structured individual turns. First they take a card, look up its meaning in the rulebook, and choose one of two options listed to resolve. For example the six of diamonds says that outsiders arrive in the area, and asks that player to decide either why they are a threat, or how they are greeted.

It’s these cards that are the heart and soul of what makes the game work. The designer is clearly some sort of terrifying psychic. Or possibly he spent a very long time refining the choices on them to make sure they were likely to mould in to the evolving nature of the story. Either way, it’s the cards that suddenly provide the missing pieces of structure that the players need to work with.

And they’ll grasp on to those structures like they’re drowning in the limitless seas of their own imaginations. Grasp the structures, haul their bodies up onto the land and start to build. What began as awkward, hesitant suggestions will become stronger, more confident, start to interweave with one another into a coherent whole.

And this is where the cards reveal their majesty. The first few times you play the manner in which the questions and choices they pose will mirror things you’ve already mentioned in your fragile narrative threads and help you explore and strengthen them defies belief. I guess there are things about a post-apocalyptic community that are more likely to come up for discussion than others: finding food, avoiding predators, other survivors. But it still feels just a little bit like magic.

Quiet Year map

Once they’re decided on the effects of the card, the player then gets to choose from introducing a new thing to the map, starting a discussion about something that affects the community, or beginning a project, the progress of which is tracked by counting down a dice.

Through both card and action, the active player is totally in control: they decide how the card is interpreted and how their chosen action impacts the game. Discussion isn’t forbidden, but the clear intent is to keep it limited, leave the active player in charge and thus keep the game moving along. Other players can signal dissatisfaction or disagreement with the active player by taking something called Contempt Tokens.

The purpose of these tokens is simply to remember disagreements. They’re an interesting idea: there are curious social dynamics around accruing too many, or indeed too few of them which can start to leak into the game. They can be put back into the pool if someone feels the Contempt has been atoned for, or spent to allow a player to make a deliberately selfish decision.

But they’re the one thing in the game that doesn’t seem to work very well. Players are generally more interested in collaborating to make a compelling story to have serious disagreement or indeed to spend their Contempt to do nasty things to the community. There’s a shared goal to move things forward and that makes major disagreement rare. Or maybe I just played it with polite people.

Eventually the cards begin to dwindle and at some point, late in proceedings, the Frost Shepherds arrive and end the game. Their nature is left as obscure as everything else in the metagame, for the players to explore and decide themselves. As you do so, you’ll realise that you’ve told a tale of extraordinary richness, full of detail and wonder and drama. And you’ll wonder how those bare-bones mechanics helped your group fill in so many of the blanks you started out with.

There will still be blanks at the end. The sudden conclusion will undoubtedly leave many unresolved crises, unexplained mysteries and unexplored areas. But then again, so do most of the best stories. It’s disappointing, but strangely satisfying. And you’re left with a filled map to remember your exploits.

You can play the game with minimal household equipment. Buy a rules pdf, stick it on your smartphone and you can play it anywhere. Alternatively there’s a properly produced version with text on the cards and spiky contempt tokens in a little bag. The designer takes seriously the idea that his games should bring people together: if you want to buy The Quiet Year, or another one of his games, you can pay for it with good deeds.

I like this game a lot. I like the way it helps people pull the gossamer threads of a story they never knew existed out of thin air with minimal effort. It’s easier to pick up and play than trendy storytelling RPGs like Fiasco. But it’s not for everyone. Many of those I played it with were hardcore board gamers, most were quite suspicious of such an open ended game and some remained so after playing. But others joined the flow and watched their minds blossom into strange and wonderful shapes. Take a Quiet Year to yourself, and find out where it takes you.