Lately, a pay-what-you-want Micro-RPG named „Fleshscape“ caught my attention. The eight page PDF contains a few rules and an interesting idea: the player characters slip into the role of leaders of a primitive nomad tribe (think „stone age“ here, or “early Native American civilization”) in a world where the whole of the surface is a grotesque landscape of living, impossible flesh, organs and bodily fluids.
In fact, the game is about the tribe the players form (together with some NPC, created by the players and the GM),about the aim the tribe tries to achieve (stated by the players) and an enemy of the tribe (again, chosen by the players). The few rules of the the game (about two pages, and two more pages for the character- and tribe-sheet that do include further, necessary rules as well) make it clear that this game is meant to be player driven: the players state the goal, the players state the enemy. The GM uses what is provided (the aims and actions of the PC, the enemies the players created, and the fleshscape itself and its inhabitants) to provide challenges the protagonists need to deal with during their journey. A further arrow in the quiver of the GM is provided by the “bounds” of the PC. Each of them has one (or later: more) special relations to other members of the tribe (good or bad). These generate XP when they are played out during a game session, but also provide the GM with an indicator about what to incorporate into the game.
The rules are as simple as one may expect from a micro RPG: each character has a few special advantages (among them “Flesh Moulding”, the thing one could call magic in this game world), three stats (Brain, Muscle and Guts). In a test, the player throws a number of d6 equal to the characters stat: 4+ is a success, the number of success need to accomplish the task is determined by the GM. XP (named “Survival Points”) are used to buy new traits (but not to increase stats, but some modify stats) or to manipulate dice-rolls during the game. Aside from wounds to the body, PC may suffer wounds to their mind and soul as well (as even to them, some of the things they face are true horrors), but healing comes naturally and rather quickly (unless somebody got maimed). Items are crafted by the characters (with the help of their NPC, perhaps) and give a bonus (more dice) in a certain situation, or provide some ability (e.g. “stores items“ or „gives shelter against bile rain“). All weapons and armors are crafted by the characters, too.
There are no cities, only tribes and camps. All items are made from flesh, sinew, bone or organs, all harvested from the surrounding fleshscape, from monsters and beasts… or other humans. The fleshscape is mostly inedible (to humans, at least) and there are NO plants. There is hair, but no plants. Fire is made from the fluids of a common type of maggot (which ignites itself after mixing), and there are no herbivores. Carrion eaters (like maggots) feed on the fleshscape, predators eat the carrion eaters, stronger predators eat the weaker ones and humans are somewhere in-between. At the top of the food chain are the god-like true dragons: leviathans of flesh that are so gigantic that their parasites are monsters the size of a hut, and their dead bodies, should they end up as such during a fight with another dragon, are rotting mountains and landscapes in their own right.
The flesh of the beasts is mostly edible, but instead of water there is “clearblood” that flows from the fleshscape in some places. The monsters are grotesque and strange, and so is the land.
What I like about the game world:
In as little as about two to pages about the world, the game provides it all, in a nutshell. It is “sword and sorcery”, but with bones instead of steel and a shamanistic/psi-like flesh-shape “magic” instead of sorcery (and the latter is pretty much free form). There is no defined civilization, and there is no real need for one: each tribe will have their own taboo, each tribe will fend for survival, and the player´s tribe may or may not stumble into some more “advanced” civilization than that of roving nomads. The game is about exploration and traveling, but demands a different approach by the GM: there will be no patrons that will give tasks to the characters. They will not loot gold and riches and magic items. They will try to hunt and gather and craft. The “basics” of what they could (or have to) harvest is provided with the game rules. Just in examples, of course, but enough to provide the GM (and the players!) with the necessary concepts.
What I like about the rules:
The GM -never- rolls a die. Not a single one (except when it comes to random tables). Not even in combat. Every monster has a difficulty (the success the characters need to achieve a hit “or something” against it), an “armor rating” (that reduces the damage of an attack) and a kind of “force” rating that tells how much damage it deals to a character that does NOT succeed in an action against it (or helps the GM to judge what -else- it might do instead). While I have not tried that by now, I know from my years of experience as a GM that this will speed up combat IMMENSELY.
Another thing I like are the rules for armor. Whenever a PC (!) receives damage, a test is made to “soak” that damage. Armor adds to the soak roll OR the player may decided that an armor or a shield is DESTROYED, and all the damage is ignored instead. This makes for an easy “things-break” rule in regard to armor ( and shields) that both feels natural and makes sure that the PC will keep crafting things.
What I do NOT like about the rules:
I see two problems there: first of all, the “Flesh Moulders” (magic flesh-shapers) do not have a REAL disadvantage. The trait is acquired like any of the others and it is rather powerful. In my opinion, their should be some SERIOUS disadvantages to this power.
The rules for “combat” seem to need some second thought and clarification. The rules-as-written are nice for one-on-one single combat or against a single monster that is so big that it may easily hurt ANY NUMBER of opponents that dares to engage them at once. In regard to “mid-sized monsters” (humanoids, hounds and the like), the rules might not -really- work. Imagine three PC fighting against three “flesh hounds”: as they fight one-on-one, a character that does not manage to achieve some success in his or her action against a fleshhound will either be bitten once or gain some other disadvantage. When two of the fleshhounds are killed and only one is still alive, it will (by RAW) effectively be thrice as dangerous as before: if all characters fail in their action, they ALL will suffer. Of course, GM can easily find a work-around for that, but I am missing a little paragraph in the rules section that addresses that issue.
Last but not least, the number of NPC that form the tribe should be increased (I won´t go into detail here, everyone that reads the rules will know what I mean), and I personally suggest to have tribes of at least 30 to 50 members.
Do I recommend the game?
This depends on who you are. If you are an experienced GM who has a taste for the weird and visceral things, if you have a group of players who share this and want to try something new (that incorporates a bit of “shared world building”), you SHOULD give it a try.
Newbees might be in for a rough ride, as micro-rules mean that the GM needs to make up some rules on the spot AND the players must be “seasoned” enough to flow with this instead of attempting to sabotage it for their own “gain” (like there is a real gain in “beating” the GM… but some kids still think so at the start of their journey into roleplaying games). In addition, the game needs a creative GM -and- creative players: the players need to come up with their own goals here, where most other RPG provide goals/”quest givers” to them (and the players just need to create characters who have a reason to achieve it and the means to do so).
Is it worth your money? As soon as you actually play it, yes it is! And if you are able to use it as a source of inspiration for other games, it should be worth some money to you, too. Sadly, I guess my friends cannot currently be coaxed into giving it a try. But then again, I would need to wrap my mind about some house rules first, too.
UPDATE: The publisher has replied to my review on drivethrupg.com. Have a look at what he says, too (as it would be pointless to copy & paste it).