This is the one hundred sixty-second entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 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.
Our one hundred sixty-second random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality has just cast a line into the dark waters. It’s Rod, Reel, & Fist, by kumada1 (although the cover says Ian Hamilton presents a game by Richard Kelly), and its tagline in the bundle reads:
Save your village by landing the catch of a lifetime in this feature-length fishi…
That’s right folks: it’s time to fish.
After the unexpectedly lengthy (and great!) The Rainsdowne Players was randomly picked last time, I was hoping for a shorter pick this time so I could bring this series back to the fast pace it’s enjoyed until now. But it was not to be. Rod, Reel, & Fist is a tabletop role-playing game with a whopping 288-page book. As usual, I was too lazy to actually organize a group and play it, but just reading it to provide my impressions proved quite the undertaking. I’m glad I did though, because it’s a rare tabletop role-playing game that is extremely welcoming to players who have never tried such a game before, including first-time GMs. It’s also well written, funny and — yes — all about fishing.
By default, Rod, Reel, & Fist takes place in a magical realist version of 1980s rural Japan. The players’ village is under threat, although the exact nature of that threat is up to the players to decide. Whatever it is, it cannot be solved by conventional means. Fortunately, there are tales of a mythical Fish of Legend that could save the village, and so the players — taking the roles of Fishers they design at the start of the game — must travel to the wilds of the Old Region in search of this incredible fish. Along the way, they will explore, make camp, have the occasional run-in with dangerous animals, and catch a lot of fish.
Most of the actual rules in Rod, Reel, & Fist are related to fishing. Or rather, to Fish Combat, which also has an analogue in Animal Combat. The main difference between the two is that Fish Combat happens between a single Fisher and a single fish (although the other Fishers can Yell Encouragement, or even Tap In to take over in especially dire circumstances), whereas Animal Combat usually involves multiple Fishers and may also involve multiple animals. It all plays out by rolling six-sided dice. Fishers have a number of dice determined by their equipment and skills, while fish have a preset number of dice depending on the type (and Fishers are never sure exactly what fish they’re fighting against until they catch it). The combat plays out over several rounds, with the Fisher and the fish alternately choosing a target number (TN) for the Stand Firm roll (the fish is played by the Swamp Being, this game’s version of a GM). Then both the Fisher and the fish roll their dice and try to meet or exceed the TN with at least one of their dice. If multiple dice come up as the same number, they combine to create higher numbers, so it’s possible to reach high TNs with enough luck. If either loses the Stand Firm roll, they must make an easier Hold On roll or lose the combat. If they pass, the combat continues for another round.
This simple system is spiced up with some more strategies. Every round, the Fisher and the fish each pick one of three gambits, which operate in a sort of rock-paper-scissors way and can cause the opponent to lose some dice for their Stand Firm roll. There’s also a mechanic called Straining, in which one gives up one’s own dice to remove opponent’s dice for the round. Combine these with various special abilities of different fish, and the Fish Combat sounds like it could be really engaging. Losing Stand Firm rolls accumulates points of Stress, which make future rolls harder but are cleared at the end of combat. More permanent handicaps come in the form of Exhaustion, which is often incurred from losing combats or from unfortunate situations during exploration. It also makes rolls harder, but doesn’t clear until the party makes camp. Which is also when they can convert caught fish into Snacks, useful consumables that can clear points of Stress or add temporary dice.
All of this has a really friendly tone. Rod, Reel, & Fist makes it clear that it’s not a game where anyone dies, or suffers any similarly harrowing fate. Losing combat usually just means getting some Exhaustion, even if that combat was with an angry bear; the Fishers are not hurt, just chased off and rattled. I was pleased to see that in many cases caught fish are actually thrown back in exchange for a reward, rather than being cooked to make Snacks. This easygoing nature is a good match for the slightly silly tone of the game. Sure, there are classic fish like Fighting Bass or Lurking Catfish, but Fishers will also encounter more exotic species like Vegetarian Piranhas, Pickpocktapuses which like to steal Fishers’ Snacks, or Panfish which are basically cast iron skillets in fish form (when caught, they let you cook up more Snacks from your other fish). There are various types of Fish of Legend that are especially imaginative, with their own strange and semi-magical behaviors. All of these are described in wonderful detail in the book, including their typical habitats and special abilities that set them apart in Fish Combat. The same attention is given to a host of animals, and no less than 11 non-player characters who can be encountered while exploring the Old region. These aren’t just a few lines describing some other fishers, they’re full descriptions including appearance, behaviors, and various interactions each might have with the player-controlled Fishers.
That’s but a hint of how welcoming Rod, Reel, & Fist is to new players. There are five pre-made Fishers that players can choose from, or use as examples when making their own, each with a lengthy description that goes far beyond the minimal stats and numbers needed for mechanical play. And first-time Swamp Beings are in for a treat. The last 100 pages of the book are dedicated to guides on how to be an effective Swamp Being, including advice for running the game with different age groups (it’s suitable for the kids!), and six full scenarios to play through. We’re talking full maps, detailed descriptions of locations along with any hazards, items, or fishing opportunities they contain, tables for which fish appear at each fishing location, and specific advice on how to run each scenario. There’s a ton of imagination on display in these scenarios, which range from simple wilderness explorations to time-limited journeys, tense mystery solving in the jungle, a time loop story, and even a sort of wave defense board game (wonderfully titled “Seasonal Migration Of The Transpacific Slaughter Eels”). Rod, Reel, & Fist is generally meant to be played in one-off sessions, creating new Fishers and tackling new scenarios each time, but there are optional rules included for a legacy game in which the descendants of the original Fishers take over in future generations, and the procedurally constructed Old Region evolves over time. This book is overflowing with options.
In fact, are you not particularly excited about the semi-magical 1980s rural Japan setting? Never fear, there are five alternate settings provided, with just as much detail as every other part of the book. Take your Fishers to a post-apocalyptic martial arts Western setting with Fish Of The North Star (clearly inspired by this classic manga series), or a Jules Verne-inspired submarine adventure with 40,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Or perhaps your party would prefer illegal fishing in the cyberpunk dystopia of New West Boston Harbor? Or diving from floating islands in the sky to recover relics from an ancient magical cataclysm? There’s even a crossover setting with another game called Jovian Sleighride, about hunting for alien leviathans within the atmosphere of Jupiter, but I can’t find much info about that game anymore. Each of these sounds wildly different, but the authors manage to wrap Rod, Reel, & Fist’s rules around these crazy new settings, reskinning fish and animals into different adversaries and maintaining a delightfully weird or funny tone.
Overall this seems like a well thought out game that would be a great for beginners to tabletop role-playing games, and fun for veterans too. It’s got a ton of content to try out (and learn from) as well as guides for making up your own stuff. If you have any interest in fishing, Rod, Reel, & Fist is an easy recommendation. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $13 (totally reasonable given how much is in this book), and at the time of writing it’s also part of a bundle called Under The Sea which contains 35 ocean-related items (mostly tabletop role-playing games, a few art packs) for a minimum price of $25.
That’s 162 down, and only 1579 to go!