ERA Epic Storytelling Game (Review)

ERA Epic Storytelling Game by Neil Gow is exactly what the title says: it’s a narrative storytelling RPG where the players play larger-than-life-heroes. It is aimed at one GM and one or two players and short play.

Layout

ERA is a 54 pages PDF with bare-bones layout. It’s nothing fancy but it works. I personally don’t like the choice of fonts in this game but that’s a small nitpick. There is some artwork but unfortunately no bookmarks. To summarize, it clearly shows that this is a game by a small publisher. Nothing too fancy but it works out.

Content

ERA is divided in two parts: game play and the included setting pack.

How to create a hero

Every character consists of five Elements: Fire (strength, might), Craft (intelligence, magic), Song (presence, charisma), Granite (wisdom, knowledge) and Ice (speed, agility). The savvy role-player will see some similarities to the standard DnD attributes. The nice thing about the elements is that they differ depending on the setting pack. For example, Caliphport, an Arabian Nights setting, uses Sand and Wind instead of Granite and Ice.
Every hero has dice ratings in the five elements ranging from d4 to d10. Furthermore, she can choose three Trappings and five pieces of Lore, again with a dice rating. Trappings are more or less assets: weapons, armor, charms, spells etc. Lore shows the connection between the hero and the world: earlier achievements, status, relationships to NPCs and so forth. The trappings are also chained to an element but also have some description to it, i.e. Lore d 10 First Son of the Bear Tribe.

Character creation gives the player enough options to make a well rounded and interesting character. The combination between element, die rating and description makes a robust, versatile and fun system.

How to play the game

ERA uses a very structured approach to gaming. In this regard it reminds me of Mouse Guard with its distinction between Players’ Turn and GMs’ Turn. The framework ensures that there are different kind of conflicts and that the game has a defined three-act-structure: you begin with the First Gateway, an intro scene, afterward there are five Pathway Scenes, culminating in a Final Gateway scene. This helps keeping the game within the 1-2 hour time slot the author has envisioned. Furthermore, it prevents “meaningless” scenes without a goal: every scene revolves around a conflict where two forces clash.

Again, the author keeps within the metaphor of elements: Every scene consists of two elements. One element is chosen by the GM (called Storyteller), the other is chosen by the players. Who chooses first depends on the scene and who has lost the previous conflict. There are also rules about which elements are allowed in the current conflict but I won’t go into detail here.
Keeping in check with the previous definition of elements in the character creation, Fire scenes are physical conflicts, Craft deals with magic, demons or godly terrors, Granite is about discovery or relevation of knowledge, Song is persuasion and manipulation and Ice scenes give us chases and stealthy challenges.

There is no task resolution for a single challenge. Everything revolves around conflict: one scene (see above) = one conflict = one conflict resolution. There is quite a heavy dose of meta-gaming involved. The game utilizes shared scene framing so it demands active players who want to share the responsibility of creating an engaging story.

Either the GM or the players frames the first part of the scene and chooses one element. Afterward, the other continues with framing and choosing a different element. Every party defines their intent: what do they want to achieve in the conflict? (This is again very like Mouse Guard.)

In the second phase the players assemble their dice pools from their applicable Elements, Trappings and Lore. Only one player can be the active one, if there is a second player he can help but doesn’t roll. Assembling the dice pool should be narrated. It reminds me of Cortex games and can be lots of fun. You can only use a die if the corresponding trait fits into the narration AND if it belongs to one of the elements the conflict consists of. For example, in a Fire and Granite conflict, you can only use traits which either belong to Fire or Granite. It doesn’t matter if your highest awesome trait is a d10 in Craft for you are known to be the most fearsome magician the kingdom has ever seen: it isn’t one of the appropriate elements so you can knock it off.
NPCS’ dice are translated into a challenge rating (CR) the players need to exceed.

Afterward, the dice and challenge ratings are divided into three phases. In every phase the player rolls and tries to beat the CR. If she is successful she is allowed to narrate, otherwise the GM has the control. Interestingly, you can’t determine the outcome of the conflict in narration yet. If you did or did not achieved your intent is determined in the next step.

In step 4 every party can make one declaration for every won phase. If you want to achieve the intent you defined at the beginning of the conflict you need to make it into a declaration. The other party is allowed to partly alter your declaration with the cost of one of their own declarations.
You can also apply wounds as a means of taxing the opponent. Losing a conflict is not the end of the world. ERA is much about story and losing just means that there is a twist or some cost for achieving your goal.

The conflict resolution may sound very theoretical but in actual play narrating, dice pool building and declaring facts flows quite nicely. Nonetheless, there is a disconnect between declaring your intent, task resolution and achieving your intent. Again, this is the same as the conflict system in Mouse Guard. The whole thing comes off as narrative but thus pretty “meta-gamey”: you always need to keep in mind that you are only allowed to create facts after you have won a phase and thus have won the right to a declaration.
This can create problems if one of the players wants to truly “immerse” herself into her hero character. This is a pure-blood story game and thus requires some narrative effort from the player as well.
The system needs you to make good and careful use of stating your intention.

For me, there is also a resemblance to John Fiore’s two-player-game World vs. Hero where one plays the world (NPCs, environmental hazards) and the other plays the hero(es). Clearly, the underlying premise is the same: one GM and one player.
Wait? Didn’t you say that you can play ERA with two players? How is it the same like World vs. Hero then?
Yeah, I know, I know. Remember the part where I explained that only one player is allowed to be the active player in the game? This mechanic makes it similar to WvH. Actually, the second player is “demoted” to a companion in the conflict. If you play the game with one player this player can have a companion character with simplified stats. With two players none can take a companion but the inactive player takes the (mechanical) role of a companion.

There is also a small section about advancement. The heroes are already very capable and good in what they do. Notwithstanding, “leveling up” is something many players dig. At the end of the session (called cycle) players are allowed to step up one of their dice ratings, get a new Trapping or Lore, or heal wounds.

Advice for the GM

The thing I’m most interested in a new game is how easy it is to create and manage NPCs.
Adversaries come in four flavors: minions, standard, elite and legendary. Fair enough and a good distinction to balance out an encounter. Now comes to brilliant part: you only need to create a monster or NPC once. Afterward you can scale it to the four adversary levels. The complicated part is that a monster also consists of the three-parts-trinity: Elements, Trappings, Lore. Everything is statted out with dice ratings, appropriate elements and descriptions. This makes creating a complete monster stat block on the fly difficult.
The book falls short on explaining how exactly you choose the amount of Elements, Trappings and Lore and how to allocate dice ratings. NPCs are not exactly build like PCs. Some of them are similar enough but some defy the rules. In a conversation with the author I learned that you more or less wing it. For important threats you use the same rules as for building a hero. For less important threats you can drop some details.
Neil Gow wants to address the explaining problem in an errata in the next couple of weeks so I’m hoping for more guidelines in the future. However, the fact remains that the default monster creation mechanic isn’t the fastest on the planet.
Actually, my idea is: instead of creating a fully fleshed out monster you just concentrate on the parts which are relevant in the specific conflict. As there are only two active elements you just decide which traits the NPC has and slap some dice ratings on it. If you really want to go pro you leave out the dice ratings and decide on the challenge rating directly.

Example: You need to create some skeleton minions for a FIRE and ICE conflict. You decide that the minions can fight fairly well and they are a pack so they get “Element: FIRE 2 Skeleton Fighter Pack” (this would be a die rating of d10). Do they have some Trappings or Lore? They have awesome weapons so they’ll get “Trapping: FIRE 3 Well balanced Katanas” (corresponding die rating for minions = d12). They can draw fast so the last stat is “Lore: ICE 1 Draw Fast” (d6).

Groups of minions are created the same like a single opponent and inanimate objects have a fixed CR chained to an element, i.e. a magical trap would be 1,1,1 Craft.

More advice on how to prepare the game and how to make it interesting for the players fits onto two pages. It’s solid stuff about pacing the game, gathering player input and being a fan of the characters while still providing good challenges. The round-robin-character of scene framing makes a profound game preparation impossible. The author suggests using the adventure seeds of the setting packs and some of the fleshed-out adversaries. He stresses the need for a suitable gaming space so everyone can talk freely.

Setting Pack “Dragon Tooth Mountains”

The setting is a high Fantasy setting in the North. So there are tribal mountain people, a queen and her goblin horde, animal spirits and dragons. Kudos to Neil Gow for providing example heroes – something that’s missing from many games and which I always hate as it means that you can’t easily pick up the game.
Next is some blurb about the different factions with fleshed-out example threats. These range from human NPCs to hell spawn minions and mountain giants – great stuff.
The setting pack concludes with five adventure seeds like an awakening dragon or the death of the king of the mountain tribe.
While I’m not too excited about the fairly standard background I like the fact that you get a whole slew of NPCs, monsters, factions and adventure seeds. Some of the monsters are pretty epic and will make your players feel like legends.

My thoughts on ERA

ERA sets out to be a quick storytelling game for a small group of two or three players. In my book, the game has surely achieved its goal. Although there are not many rules I wouldn’t call the game rules-lite. The rules enforce a certain type of game play and can’t be ignored without significantly changing the game. The structured approach to the narration provides a good framework for a short game play session. You need to like meta-game-elements and scene framing from a player’s side. It can get a bit kinky due to the separation between intent, conflict and declaration.
This is not a game for everyone but if it falls into your niche it’s simply brilliant.
If you like Mouse Guard but it was too complex for a pick-up-game you must take a look at ERA. For me, it makes some things right which I didn’t like with Mouse Guard (i.e. the fact that you needed to decide your approach in a conflict beforehand).

The game is pretty versatile and while the first two setting packs (Dragon Tooth Mountain which is included in the rulebook and Caliphport which you can buy separately) focus on fantasy ERA is by no means restricted to this genre. I know that there is a super setting pack in planning. Per default ERA maps nicely to games with a power element, may it be magic, psi or supers. For all that, I can imagine a modern game without paranormal elements as well.

Things I wish for: I found some sections hard to grasp. I would like to see more examples and/or some clearer wording. Examples include the dice allocation to the three phases when you have more then three scores, wounds made by NPCs (“they do not roll and simply match their score against the table below” – which score?) and healing wounds when you have received them in a immediate preceding declaration.
I really wish for more clarification on creating the opposition. Also: digital bookmarks, please. I know that the author will address the first in an upcoming errata.

Things I would like to see in the future:

  • Clearer guidelines on creating adversaries: see above.
  • Re-skin it to your pleasure: a monster/NPC bestiary for re-skinning it to your own game/setting (Neil Gow has hinted that he plans to do this)
  • Expanding the game: ERA is balanced towards 1-1 (or 1-2) but can you play it with more players? Should you? How?
  • Zooming in: one GM and one player – can’t you do away with the GM and play it purely solo? (I played a solo session and it’s a bit kinky owing to the fact that writing down the conflict phases takes much longer than narrating it in normal mode)
  • A matter of scale: the default assumption is that the PCs are legends who can take on dragons and gods – but what if you want to have a more gritty game where the best you can hope for is driving away the dragon for killing it is impossible?
  • I wanna play Space cowboys in a Far Future!: tips on how to convert existing settings to ERA. Converting characters shouldn’t be too hard – I would just build them from scratch using the adjusted ERA core rules.
  • More Space cowboys: more published settings for the future (they will come, check out patreon if you want to support the project)

To put it in a nutshell

ERA Epic Storytelling Game is one of the games which excite me a lot. I have some minor problems with some of the explanations (see above) but nothing which breaks the game. ERA perfectly fits down my alley as I like narrative games with a structured conflict resolution (in contrast to task resolution). The best of all: the game is Pay what You want! That means that you can get this little gem for as much as you want (yes, free is an option, too but I think it’s worth more than that).


Links:
ERA Epic Storytelling Game (aff)
Caliphport Setting Pack
Patreon for supporting more setting packs