One of the things that we’ve noticed as we’ve spent time this year backing and reviewing various tabletop roleplaying products, both those supplemental to larger roleplaying games that we have or are familiar with, and those that are truly independent is the staggering variety of approaches in thought. Yes, there are a few that seem to rehash old philosophies, though even these offer more options (which is not a bad thing). But the vast majority of them at least try (and many succeed) in looking at the tabletop roleplaying experience with a fresh eye. There is some mechanic, some setting or narrative shift that forces me to re-evaluate what I think about game and setting design.
And so it is that we look at another one, ARC, a Kickstarter from publisher Exalted Funeral. Written by Bianca Canoza (known on the internet as momatoes) the game is dedicated to and part of RPGSEA , the Southeast Asian movement in the RPG sector. The dedication of the book has a very interesting and telling comment, which I find profoundly interesting from a game design standpoint.
“ARC is decidedly an RPGSEA game not simply because I myself am Filipina, but because it affirms the community’s stance against the idea of a “default” narrative while encouraging the players—you—to create stories close to your lived experiences…close to the boundless ocean inside your heart.”ARC, p. 11 (emphasis added)
I find that idea of creating “stories close to your lived experiences” a very interesting design goal. It’s a powerful idea, and one I can really get behind. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, both Joann and I often get more out of roleplaying experiences when we double-down on the idea of making our characters and our worlds “real” or “real-like”. That is, to come back from the fantastic toward the real and focus on characters that do good where they live. It’s not for everybody, but it works for us.
Manufacturing and Production
The physical product is a 170 page softcover book (an excellent choice for the page count). It has slicker paper, but the ink seems to be held fast. Pages and binding are well put-together and the cover is durable heavy stock. The PDF is well put together and linked. The default presentation uses spreads (side by side sheets as if you were laying the book flat), but this can be changed easily enough in your PDF browser. Bianca is a graphic artist and the book is laid out with a very unique style that showcases that artistry. It would not be fair to say that the art clashes. It doesn’t. It all seems to go together very well. I found myself having to adjust my eyes regularly to refocus as I read through the rules, however. I’ll touch more on this later. It is a unique book, however, and I am glad for the exposure to those style choices.
ARC is a fairly simplistic game, played with a few skills, a few attributes and six sided dice. The mechanic is a “roll under” mechanic, where you add a relevant skill and an approach (Creative, Careful, and Concerted) and modify it with a difficulty modifier or an assist modifier. The sum is the target number under which you must roll to succeed. The overall story known as the Doom is generated by the group in advance. This is explained in the very first chapter. This action will both set the conditions for victory by the players and the tone/genre of the game (and by extension, the characters).
Character creation is presented in a step by step manner, but the interesting thing here is that the author presents a couple of approaches to doing so. One is more, “player-choice” based and the other is “random”. I can actually see how it would be interesting to use both, and though I would probably use random more for NPC’s, it would be an interesting way to stretch one’s creative muscle to try to come up with a way that the character abilities/approaches/skills tied together in a particular genre/tone. The way the selection of inventory, special items, and spells are handled is very lightweight which I personally like. There are background questions to answer in order to think a bit about the character themselves, and then there is a mechanic for binding characters in the party together that is somewhat interesting and consequential if you try to help each other (I presume teamwork is a pretty big thing when fighting the end of the world, you know).
The next chapter goes over all the core mechanics to the system. While I’m not going to go over the mechanics in detail here, what I will say is that the play of this game has some options and style that I’ve never seen before, particularly in the initiative concept in the combat section. There are also rules for advancing characters, and they are different for “short” games than they are for groups that want to play longer campaigns using this system.
The following chapter deals with spells and offers some more interesting choices. There is an option to regain spell uses through rest, but there is also a mechanic that allows this through completion of a “ritual”. These rituals are both relevant to the spell and range from the benign to the bizarre (and sometimes even cringe-inducing), so they may not be for every table. Still, the option that it presents is, as I mentioned, one that I’ve never seen before, and that, at least, is exciting to me. The spell descriptions are simple and leave a lot open to interpretation in-game very much like FATE, which works for me because I like saying “Yes” or “Yes, and” to my players.
Following that is a chapter that discusses running an ARC game with tips and tools for a GM to use. The seven principles that it lists are quite good advice in general and the rest of the short chapter is good practical advice even though it is short. What I’m about to say, however, is something I don’t believe I’ve said about a game I’ve reviewed yet.
The appendices are where this book’s content and layout really shine.
The first five appendices are examples. Examples of character creation and heroes, an example of a scene with skill checks, an example of conflict, an example of a Doom, and then more examples of heroes. I love when authors of RPG’s take the time to put together lots of examples of how their rules and processes are supposed to flow. It does not need to be exhaustive, but it should be representative enough that a GM can extrapolate. Bianca does this quite well in these five appendices. The last appendix is a mini-bestiary. Because ARC’s Dooms are so broad in potential scope, it is not really possible to put adversaries covering every potential situation in this book (or even multiple, separate books). There are, however, enough examples that a savvy GM should be able to pick up how they are put together and duplicate it in the context of their own Doom’s genre and feel. Other books have done examples of play and even examples of character creation, but it often feels to me like it was added on. This is the first book I can remember where it doesn’t feel that way, and to me, that’s saying something.
In all honesty, the main critique I have about this product is the inconsistency in presentation from page to page. For me, it actually made it that much more difficult to read where I struggled with it. That’s not something that typically happens to me and it bothered me because it is, otherwise, a really solid offering. At the very least, what I’d recommend doing is reformatting into a “printer friendly” format (not excluding the art, just without the black on white and then the white on black with crazy colors to highlight key words that change how they strike the eye based on the background changes) and offer that PDF to everyone who purchased the product (electronic or physical). That way, people have the choice of the format they want to use. Those that it doesn’t bother can have the full, “artistic” text, and those that it does, have a version that is easy for them to access as well.
ARC is a rules-light roleplaying game written by Bianca Canzoa (momatoes) in conjunction with Exalted Funeral Press. Released as a Kickstarter in 2021, it provides a setting to allow groups to tell stories about characters that are fighting against the end of the world, but under a predetermined timeline rather than an open ended one. Combining some familiar styles of mechanics with a few unique ones, and filling an interesting niche in the hobby, this product is an excellent example of a quality, independent RPG. While the subject matter or the system may not appeal to everyone (and that’s OK), it is, at the very least, worthy of study and admiration for the different approach to TTRPG design. I would absolutely recommend this to any group looking to generate a new experience in their sessions. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles