There are three example settings included: Neonihon (Shogunate Science-Fiction), Quiet Revolution (Montréal Police Drama) and The Elemental Kingdom (Elemental Fantasy).
First Impressions of the beta version
The Spark RPG has many indie elements. There’s a heavy focus on storytelling with a slightly freeform engine. There is plenty of player empowerment in the Spark RPG: although it is not GM-less the distinction between players and GM is blurred.
Why “slightly freeform” engine? For me, it hits the spot between being easy, rules-light and collaborative and still providing structure and mechanics by providing an in-game currency (called Influence).
The game is tightly connected to the chosen setting. Each setting has beliefs, factions and faces (important NPCs), ties and agendas. The world building chapter is excellent.
Admittedly, it asks a lot of creativity from the players. While reading through the chapter and listening to the Walking Eye Podcast session I was a bit at loss about clear guidelines. Yes, there is a process involved but nonetheless it sounds more like a collaborative brainstorming exercise. If I compare it to the worldbuilding in Microscope there are hard rules missing for me.
What I like is that the setting will change over time and that this is defined by game mechanics: the GM will advance most of the settings’ agendas but players do have a say, too. That’s neat!
The rules don’t bog down your storytelling experience by implementing too much crunch but there are enough mechanics to make it interesting. The most inspiring piece is the competitive scene framing. Although you have a GM she will not frame the scene every time. You need to roll one of your attributes (your “Spark attribute”) and the three highest rolls can create the scene. Any player who doesn’t get to frame the scene shares control over minor NPC’s with the GM during the scene.
All in all, it comes down to that: your character’s beliefs will clash with the setting and this will drive the story (and character development) forward. (Hello Burning Wheel…)
For this reason, character creation relies much on your beliefs and the relationship between characters. But you’ve got “hard mechanics” like attributes and talents, too. You are allowed to create your own talents.
The system’s focus on beliefs makes it a bit abstract. There is much of meta thought included. The narrative is its strong but also its weak point: there is room for interpretation. What talents do apply? Did you really confirm or refute your belief in this scene?
The Gamemastering chapter gives you good instructions. It reminds me very much of Vincent D. Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World. On that account, there was no eye-opener for me but it is still very solid advice.
Overall, the book is structured clearly. Every chapter has a small overview and there are many examples. Some of the examples are a bit redundant but most of them help you to understand the game. However, I had some minor problems with understanding some of the rules because they are stated somewhat subtly. For example, the correlation between setting beliefs, factions and faction agendas was hard to grasp for me.
TL; DR (Too long; didn’t read)
- heavy focus on storytelling
- interesting world building
- some innovative ideas
- lightweight mechanics
- room for interpretation
- “abstract” gaming/meta play
- some rules are difficult to grasp
- nothing really new in the GM chapter
- some examples are redundant
The Spark RPG is one of the more interesting kickstarters I’ve backed lately. It won’t be for everyone but if you like storytelling games, give it a look! The Kickstarter runs till April 12th. For $10 you will get a kickstarter preview. If you still aren’t convinced, check out the Open Beta 3.5 document for free.
Oh, and German customers: Sphärenmeister is one of the retailers so you will be able to buy the physical copy (+ PDF) without using kickstarter!