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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Blazing a Trail: a BETA review of the Spark RPG

This is Calcifer, incredibly dismayed by my terrible pun. That's not important, though! I'm here to conduct a concise review of a roleplaying game called Spark RPG, currently winding up a pretty successful Kickstarter--but there's still time to get in on it. I suppose you'll want some explanation why? Well, let's see...

The Ember
(Get it? Because it's a concise summary--oh, fine.)

Ryan Macklin said it best, in his review of the game: "Spark is about Samwise". I don't think any other words have been more effective in shaping my opinion of a game. It's also very true; no matter how tangled the intrigues of factions in the game get, no matter how dramatic the world changes, the game remains about those central characters, the little folk, and what they believe in and hold on to.

If you've played Burning Wheel, you know how big of a deal Beliefs are. Well, this game takes Beliefs front and center. It doesn't use them to vitalize the detailed framework of an RPG (as Burning Wheel does); it makes them into the substance of the game. The game is focused around bringing characters into conflict with a moving world, and seeing how their Beliefs bump up against it. It's definitely a less harsh game than Burning Wheel, but that doesn't seem to render it any less potent.

That focus on Beliefs is melded into a juicy framework that focuses on building and running a story engine. There's a robust situation creator that makes ample use of what I call "narrative physics". You set up Factions, defined by their Beliefs, and create Ties between them. Then, you use Agendas to represent the impact that the Factions have on the world. The really cool bit comes when the rules empower the players to have some control over Agendas and Faction relationships. It's a metaplot engine that doesn't require you to work through all the details; that lets you focus back on the characters and their Beliefs, which really does lie at the core of the game.

The Not-As-Shiny
This game certainly isn't perfect or suited for everything, naturally. The core engine is solid, though parts of it seem a little underdeveloped. I suppose it might work better in play, but the Talent system seems a bit lackluster. I could be wrong on that point, though. The other big thing that I'd like to see is more delving into the Guidance chapter. It's pretty scant at parts, where there could be a massive haul of advice granted to a would-be GM.

Mind you, this is slightly unfair. I'm thinking back to Burning Wheel Gold and Dogs in the Vineyard, gold standards in "what to say about running the game". I could see a less-read GM being a bit boggled on how to make the game whirr. What I'd particularly love to see is more detail given to sections like "Draw Relationship Map", "Places With Personality", or "The Love Letter". The summaries currently provide a nice picture of the technique, but they'd really benefit from the author's touch to give more examples or explain some of the "how and why" behind the technique.

As another side note: it's actually very hard for characters to die, so if you're looking for a game where a character's life is constantly potentially on the line...this probably isn't it. But that's okay for this game, because it's not meant to be such a massively intense game as others which might fit that bill. Hollowpoint this ain't.

Wrapping Up
All-told, though, I really love what the Spark RPG is, in full. You start with a nice, pure economy: by challenging your Beliefs, you earn Influence when you end the session, which you then spend on winning Conflicts in later sessions. You add in a simple resolution mechanic: a single stepped die, which also means that you can get your multi-polyhedral fix that all geeks have. Finally, you layer that on top of a system that creates a sophisticated, living world.

It's all a very good, solid setup. It's also something a lot more paced to my liking than Burning Wheel or other games--I love them, and you can get some fantastic mileage from them, but some people just want something a bit more reflective, something that gives you the time to digest what's going on. I think this is that game. So, check out that Kickstarter, and toss it some money, eh?

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