This is the seventeenth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the
1704 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,175,279.81 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Monster hunting RPG set in a haunted city.
Fun fact: haunted cities are the best cities.
Slayers has a big “(OLD)” appended to its name in the bundle, because an updated and more complete version of the game was funded last month on Kickstarter. The Kickstarter campaign reached all of its stretch goals, and should therefore deliver a nice hardcover printed rulebook with a nice layout, filled with art. Yes, Slayers is a tabletop role-playing game, the sixth so far in Scratching That Itch, and like those others it requires multiple players (at least two) so I’m unable to truly try it. Unlike those, however, it’s focused on fighting monsters, with a simple rule system that still allows for each character class to play in a completely different way. With the rules for four classes included, as well as a bunch of example monsters complete with abilities and statistics, I was able to run a couple of test fights to see how they worked.
But more on that later. First, let’s get into what Slayers is, and how the version in the bundle might differ from the final version coming from the Kickstarter campaign. Slayers is set in a fantastical city that is just entering an industrial revolution. The City grows of its own accord, ever expanding to engulf the land around it, with districts appearing and rearranging over time. Technology such as simple firearms coexists with magic, and both are used to hunt the deadly monsters that can infest the City. Players take the roles of the titular monster hunters known as Slayers, seeking work ridding the City of its supernatural dangers, while one player acts as the GM to guide the story and control incidental characters and antagonists. The description of the City made me think of the City from the Thief games, but the author cites the Castlevania animated series on Netflix and the city of Doskvol in John Harper’s Blades in the Dark tabletop role-playing game as inspirations (incidentally, Blades in the Dark is also included in the bundle in digital form). I’ve heard that Doskvol is itself inspired by the city of Dunwall from Dishonored, which I’ve written about in two parts on this very blog.
From the Kickstarter description, the main things that were funded are additional artwork and a fancier layout for a really nice hardcover book, a bunch of additional monsters, and some pre-written scenarios from different authors. The core rules and information about the setting appear to be the same as those laid out in the early version in the bundle, but it is of course possible that tweaks will be made before the new, fancified book appears. I’m curious whether the setting will be fleshed out any further, because honestly there’s not much more to it than what I’ve written above. The book does describe two City districts as examples, but mostly it points to an upcoming City sourcebook that will flesh out the City more. It’s unclear if that sourcebook is coming as part of the Kickstarter, as it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere. Still, imaginative players will have no trouble coming up with their own locales, characters, and events. [EDIT: It seems that more lore and guidance for GMs is planned in the Kickstarter edition, and the author has given more examples of City districts already.]
While the other tabletop role-playing games that have appeared so far in Scratching That Itch are heavily focused on storytelling, with minimal rules designed to guide the collaborative tale more than anything else, Slayers is clearly inspired by classic fantasy-themed role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. While Slayers makes a conscious effort to have simpler and more streamlined rules than something like Dungeons & Dragons, it is still more complicated than anything I’ve seen in the bundle so far, and the majority of its rules are related to fighting things. The storytelling parts are still there, of course. As players pursue their Hunts, they must investigate areas of the city, track down clues, interact with people, and maybe get into a few brawls before finally tracking down their quarry and taking it out in a climactic final battle. To facilitate the non-combat parts of the game, there are ten skills that every Slayer can use to overcome obstacles or otherwise move the investigation forward. These are decided using a simple dice roll with a universal rule: success occurs on a roll of 4 or higher.
This “rule of 4+” is applied in imaginative ways across the whole game. For skills, Slayers simply get larger dice for skills they have mastered. A burly Slayer may get to use a ten-sided die for her Brawn skill, but only a six-sided die for her Deceive skill if she’s not a particularly good liar. In fights, however, each character class uses their dice differently, giving each of them their own feel as they chase those 4+ rolls. There are four classes in the book: the Blade, the Gunslinger, the Arcanist, and the Tactician. The Blade is a deft and quick melee fighter, whose attacks are based on initiating and maintaining combos of multiple hits against their adversaries. Attack an enemy and, on a hit, the Blade will get to attack again, chaining together hits until she rolls a miss. Gunslingers possess a rare and powerful revolver, capable of firing multiple times before reloading, unlike the more commonplace flintlocks. A gunslinger’s fights are all about managing bullets, choosing how many to fire at once and when to reload. Each bullet gets its own die, and some can even be enchanted with special effects. Arcanists are spellcasters, but their magic corrupts their bodies as it is used. In battle, an Arcanist can add extra dice to make his spells more effective, but this results in more corruption, and he must carefully gauge when to break off and purge the corruption lest it manifest itself in harmful ways. Lastly, there’s the Tactician, who is weak in combat themself, but starts with a pool of pre-rolled tactics dice which can be substituted in for allies’ or enemies’ rolls at opportune moments.
The strong asymmetry in how each class plays is the main draw in Slayers, but it’s not the only way in which it differs from the classic role-playing games. Slayers lacks variable damage, with no damage rolls whatsoever. Attacks that hit always do the same amount of damage. Positioning is abstracted, so characters do not occupy specific places on a map. Instead, all positions are relative to other characters. Characters who are Engaged are close to each other and able to attack with melee, those who are Near are within a short sprint from each other, and any characters farther away than that are considered Far. Moving during combat simply entails switching between these positions. Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that characters do not upgrade their equipment. Slayers are assumed to already possess a weapon and any armor they wish to use for their profession, and they do not constantly change these out for better ones found in their adventures. Advancement comes entirely from improvements to their skills and abilities. After successfully completing a Hunt, Slayers will gain some health, some better dice for their skills, and a basic or expert advance, which are class-specific perks that change how they play. Many of these employ advantage or disadvantage, a mechanic borrowed directly from Dungeons & Dragons in which dice are rolled twice, taking the better result for advantage or the worse result for disadvantage. Given the rule of 4+, this often simply means re-rolling a miss (or hit) once, but not always. By granting themselves advantage in certain situations through advances, characters can increase their combat effectiveness without needing new equipment.
With such an unusual system, I was eager to try playing through a fight to see how it works. Slayers provides descriptions of fifteen monsters, their design displaying some of the same asymmetry seen in the player classes. Each monster has a unique set of abilities it can use in combat, so each will present a different challenge. Some are dangerous in swarms, gaining attack bonuses if enough are Engaged with the same Slayer. Others can command underlings, or have special abilities that trigger in certain situations, or have extra mobility options. But I did find the themes for the monsters a little disappointing. When I think of monster hunters, I think of strange and dangerous beasts that require careful preparation to defeat, like those in The Witcher. There are some highlights among the fifteen monsters in the Slayers book, like Doctors, who resemble plague doctors but have the heads of birds, and who will forcibly administer their “treatment” to a disease they believe infects everyone in the city. But most of the monsters are less imaginative. The example Hunt in the book is all about undead, so there are skeletons, wights, ghouls and necromancers, and they’re all the same as they are in nearly every other game. Players have the opportunity to make their own monsters, of course, but I would have liked to see some more inspired creatures as examples.
Nevertheless, I picked some out as adversaries and designed a couple Slayers to, well, slay them. I opted for a Blade, Yolanda, and a Gunslinger, Percy. Their first battle was against a bandit leader and four bandits, which proved to be a cakewalk. The Slayers dispatched the leader in short order, after which the regular bandits were little threat. In retrospect, I should have had the leader hang back and order the regular bandits around, but this wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The Slayers still would have won easily. I overcompensated for the second battle, pitching Yolanda and Percy against a corpse giant, two ghouls, and six skeletons. Things went bad quickly in this fight, so I took pity on the Slayers and sent everything after Yolanda, letting Percy take shots from a distance unmolested. Yolanda died, but Percy eventually won by cheekily running away and occasionally shooting back at his foes, who were unable to catch him. If it had been a real fight, it’s unlikely that Percy would have had room to run away forever, but the abstracted positioning rules don’t make this clear. It was hard to keep track of who was near who with so many monsters milling about. GMs will need to be careful with this.
Overall, I found Percy the Gunslinger to be more effective and fun to play than Yolanda the Blade. Later I realized I was playing Percy incorrectly, letting him reload too many bullets in a single turn. Playing properly would have provided a little more challenge, but even so he would be able to more consistently contribute to the fight. The Blade can dish out a lot of damage with a successful combo, but if her first attack misses she does nothing at all. Even with the advancement that gave Yolanda advantage on her first attack, she still had several turns in a row where she completely missed her target, unable to unleash her high damage potential at all. Her defensive stance and high health made her good at weathering attacks from enemies, but it was frustrating to rarely get the cool combos her Blade class is built around. Percy, on the other hand, had one high-damage bullet and another extra accurate bullet, along with four regular bullets, and could fire up to four of them per turn, often strategically applying advantage to his high-damage bullet to give it a better chance to connect. This made him really good at consistently doing damage, but if I’d played the reloading right he’d have to carefully time breaks between firing, and if monsters ever attacked him he’d go down easily. In fact, since Percy could only attack from range, having some monsters in his face would be a big problem and make him much less effective.
Arcanists with their array of spells seem like they would be fun to play, but I’m less sure about Tacticians. On the one hand, Tacticians auto-balance to an extent: if they roll a lot of hits on their strategy dice before the fight, they will use them to grant their allies hits when they would otherwise miss (a nice way to help a Blade get her combo going, perhaps). If they roll a lot of misses, they will use them to make enemies miss when they otherwise would hit. But once the strategy dice run out, things get much less interesting. Tacticians can let their allies move or perform a quick action (like a clutch reload for a Gunslinger) during their turn, but they are terrible at fighting themselves, so they need to go all in on their support role. Would it be fun to keep giving your friends actions instead of doing things yourself? Maybe. But I suspect it would be better if there were a way for the Tactician to regain some strategy dice during the fight, perhaps through some risky gambit. Otherwise, it will be difficult to gauge the length of fights properly to make a Tactician satisfying to play.
So I’m not completely sure about all of the classes. But I barely tested them out, so I could easily be fretting about nothing. And I love the idea. Why should a calculating gunslinger and a whirling swordsman roll the same dice with the same rules when they fight? Slayers makes each character feel different, and it has such confidence in this idea that it can eschew things like equipment and detailed tactical positioning. The core concept is strong enough that I’m not surprised the Kickstarter campaign was successful, and I’m interested to see how the final version comes out. If you want a preview, the version in the bundle is entirely playable. If you missed it in the bundle, however, it looks like it may no longer be available now that the Kickstarter campaign is complete. Instead, those interested can pre-order the upcoming book for $25. It’s expected to be released in October 2020.
Well, readers, that’s 17 down and
1687 1724 to go. That means we’ve reached an important milestone: we’ve officially sampled 1% of the bundle! Well, it’s actually 0.998% 0.976%, but come on. At this rate, we’ll get through everything in the bundle in — one moment while I check my notes — 18.76 19.91 years! We better have made some progress on racial justice by then. Be sure to educate yourself on the issue if you haven’t yet, and help however you can.