Tabletop RPG Review: Overlight – Free RPG Day 2018 & 2020

I was intrigued by this game, particularly by the visuals, when I first saw the Free RPG Day 2018 book Birthright of Khar-Ulan.  I remember flipping through it and again, really liking the art.  But I also remember it didn’t have any game mechanics and looked like it might just be an introduction to the setting of the new tabletop RPG Overlight.  For whatever reason, it ended up on my shelf, unread.  Two years later, on Free RPG Day, they put out The Lost Spire of Tziuhquatl with quickstart rules.  Great!  Well, they also went on my shelf, unread.  Until now.

I’m going to talk about this all out of order, but in doing that, I’m highlighting one problem I had with these books.  In my opinion, the opportunity of Free RPG Day is for a company to give a good sample of their game, a reason someone would want to pick up the full version. To this end, putting in the quickstart rules for your game is, I would argue, a key element.  You don’t need the full rules with all the various knobs and whistles.  Just give me enough that I can try it out.  That also includes pre-generated characters.  Afterall, you don’t need to give me all of your character creation rules as part of the quickstart.  Give me some characters with enough info on them to deal with what’s featured in your sample adventure.  The basic rules.  A few pre-generated characters.  Bam.  Now, we’ve got a foundation.  That is, sadly, lacking in the 2018 book.  It is, thankfully, included in the 2020 one.  Lessons had been learned.  It is in the back of the book, strangely.  That’s fine.  That’s a choice.  It’s not the one I’d have made, but whatever.  It’s fine.

As far as the quickstart and the system go, I think they’ve given you enough to go on in The Lost Spire of Tziuhquatl.  There are a couple places in the adventure that reference the main RPG rulebook, which isn’t great.  But I think you could run the adventure in the book with the rules that accompany it.  The rules, however, don’t fill me with joy.  There are a lot of different types of game mechanics out there for tabletop RPGs.  There’s the D20 of Dungeons & Dragons in its many editions and slight variations.  There’s the D100 (percentiles) of Basic Role-Playing (Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, etc.)and others.  Then there are various “dice pool” systems, where you put together various numbers of dice and roll them, hoping for some kind of array of numbers.  It’s this latter dice pool that Overlight dabbles with.  However, where some similar systems, like the Year Zero Engine that is used in great games like Tales from the Loop and Alien, keep things fairly intuitive and easy, Overlight awkwardly adds in fiddly bits that seem to do little more than complicate things that should be simple.  There is some jargon, which is not uncommon in tabletop RPGs, that doesn’t help (“luminous,” “radiant,” and “brilliant” successes, for example).  But that could be overcome.  No.  It’s the addition of the Spirit Die and Spirit Flares, “bumps” and such, that really make it head-scratching.  Reading it was confusing.  I watched a YouTube video explaining it and I think I might be even more confused.  I started getting flashbacks to Diaspora and its Inception-fractal of mini-games for accomplishing…anything.  I’m not a statistician, so I could be way off base, especially having not played the actual game, but the difficulties also seem weirdly skewed.  Having played some games that use dice pools, the fact that you need two dice to come up at some level of success before you start to succeed…that seems like a problem.  I haven’t actually played the game.  Maybe it works better than it reads when you’re at the table.  Maybe it’s got a steep learning curve, but once you’ve got it, it’s great. It wouldn’t be the first game (Deadlands, I’m looking at you).  And admittedly, this is just the quickstart rules.  Maybe the full rules make it seem less obtuse.  However, as presented here, I don’t see it.  What I do see is that it probably wouldn’t be too hard to port over to the Year Zero Engine, which is what I’d probably do (Everway might also be an interesting option, though it might require a bit more adjustment).

On to the adventures.  The Lost Spire of Tziuhquatl is pretty cool.  I really like the vibe and some of the encounters.  I could see the thing taking on a sort of pressure and desperation, because of the plague that seems to be spreading.  Also, I like that the scenario has a lot of room for finding non-violent solutions to problems, either through roleplaying or through using your head instead of just punching stuff. The book does have pre-generated characters.  That, along with the quickstart rules, means you should be able to play this sample game out of the book.  Great.  Birthright of Khar-Ulan feels a bit more “standard” in its progression.  Some bad guys did some bad things.  Someone asks you to go find them and take care of the problem they made.  Boom.  You do it or you don’t.  Even so, the adventure does give you some wiggle room for making choices, finding alternate ways to do things, and avoiding combat in some places.  I don’t think it’s as interesting or as fleshed out as The Lost Spire, but there’s still potential for fun.

As I read through these books, I was repeatedly hit by the notion that I’d have absolutely loved this game if it had come out in the 90s.  I’d definitely have bought the core book and I’d probably have tried really hard to run it (and probably failed to find enough folks who’d be interested).  It’s exactly the strange twist on genre that was (and still is, for that matter) my bag.  There are some themes and general vibe of this that would have been right in line with the early work on my Conquest of the Sphere setting.  In fact, I could definitely see lifting both of these adventures, though especially The Lost Spire and running it as a Conquest of the Sphere scenario.  Obviously, some adjustments would have to be made, but as far as the plot progression, factions, and local area, it would work pretty well.

I like this.  I’m intrigued by this.  If someone I knew and trusted were going to run a game of Overlight, I’d be first in line to sign up.  I just don’t think I’m in a place to want to run it myself.  And if I did, I imagine I’d be plugging in a different set of mechanics.  This setting calls out of a simple, free-flowing game mechanic, but it’s saddled with something weirdly crunchy and fiddly.

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