A game of climate migration in a bygone age
If you've read the other posts in this series, you may have noticed a bit of a theme. All of the games so far have been at least adjacent to (but mostly squarely in) the horror genre. This time, we're going to take a break from that and explore a game where horror isn't the focus! (Which is to say, it's also great for running horror games, but it's not a horror game).
Lost Roads is one of the most interesting Zine format games that I've experienced and played - with a novel setting and premise. It's a narrative-driven indie game at its core, with a dice mechanic that supports its core gameplay loop, that centers around moving your group from landmark to landmark, to weather the coming (figurative and literal) storm that you find at the end of each journey. It's well worth taking a look, so let's dive into a little bit about what makes it unique and some of the challenges I've encountered running it (and some advise on how to enhance the experience).
The World That Was, or, Introducing the Apocalypse
The core premise behind Lost Roads is that yours is a world that has been ravaged by climate change - whether that is man-made or natural is up to your group. The very first phase of play is a collaborative world building effort where you go around the table and determine what civilization was like before the fall: what their society was like, how did they make decisions, what were their customs and culture, what were their unique economic impacts on the world - and so on.
The world building portion of this game doesn't have much in the way of mechanics, so much as story prompts. There are a series of questions that you'll answer together - facilitated by the game master and together you will uncover the truth about the people and their downfall.
Once you've done all of that, you pick a few things that will be used throughout play as essentially a "theme" for the group that you're a part of. You see, the PCs are not the only characters you need to worry about - you're essentially the vanguard of a refugee caravan. It's your responsibility (along with your companions) to navigate the dangerous environments, stopping at waypoints along the way to arrive at your final destination where your community will finally be safe. Or you will die trying.
It was both evocative (since that's kinda the emotion you want to encourage) and kinda sad for them - next time I might do the world building for a different system and skip the destruction part and see how it goes.
The Characters and the Magical Connection To Nature
Like many other settings - magic has a part to play in the world. Each of the characters is connected to some domain of nature: Fire, Moon, Sun, Plant, and several more - which grants them the ability to perform certain acts of magic (also selected at character creation). Likewise, it's highly likely that your society had some level of dependence on magic - that connection could perhaps have also instigated the fall.
This access to magic is both a boon and a bane for the characters - it grants them great abilities, but also marks them apart from the group in the eyes of those that would stop their journey. This is further emphasized by the character's "negative" attributes, their Stain, Tarnish, and Hardship. I'm using scare quotes around negative for a very particular reason - these are the things that are pushed upon the characters, not the things that define them. The Stain, for example, is how those that would minimize or ostracize your character view you.
The characters have each been through hell and have come out the other end of it still holding on to their humanity.
I think the narrative setup of that part of character creation is really solid for telling the kind of story Lost Roads sets out to tell.
Other attributes of character creation are pretty standard and broad, there's not a lot of mechanical crunching involved in creating characters. There are still enough options to have similar characters be differentiated. A list of Techniques (skills) that the character may select from is located at the back of the booklet, but the list isn't exhaustive and can take other forms if the Player and GM agree.
Character growth is handled in a similar way to Powered by the Apocalypse games - if certain things in the narrative happen to (and usually negatively impact) your character, you earn growth. Growth is then later spent to enhance the character.
Each character also has a companion, that is skilled in one Technique, and is generally present in most scenes. This is extremely handy for a number of reasons, both mechanical and story-wise, but I want to call out one particular bit codified in the rules that is also really neat:
Do or Die - Sacrifice your life for a greater cause.
A player can sacrifice themselves in the narrative for a great mechanical benefit for another character, and go out in a blaze of glory - or a silent whimper, that's up to the player.
Having a companion on hand that you can quickly elevate into a full PC is very useful when you have a mechanic that will eliminate the PC in question allowing them to both end one narrative arc and start another one with very little downtime.
The Traversal and Looming Threat of Thunder
The main activity you'll be doing during a session is a "Traversal", which is essentially "Lead the community from point A to point B (the landmark), stopping at 1-3 waypoints in between".
Set up for the traversal is pretty simple, each Traversal has a number of "rules" that must be observed or you invite danger. These can be as simple as "do not show an open flame at night" - because it attracts monsters. They can also be bizarre and elaborate. The GM and the players should work together on some of these to come up with neat ideas, as they'll flavor the journey / session.
Waypoints just have short descriptions and a couple of ways you can get there - along with what challenges are in the way. Those challenges can be monstrous, human, mechanical, weather, anything - just what is the challenge to overcome to safely lead the community to the waypoint.
Landmarks are more involved - and you should create them with your group before you begin the traversal. You can actually create the landmarks separate from the gameplay loop, but ultimately the Landmarks have a series of key locations, and each player should take a hand in shaping the location so that they have a connection to it when the group gets there. The Landmark is where downtime activities occur.
Thunder - the Time Pressure Mechanic
No good game would be complete without some mechanism to help drive the narrative forward - comfortable people with no looming threat don't generally risk life and limb - and this game is no different. This mechanic is Thunder.
Thunder represents the coming storm and it is very very bad. You want to do your best to avoid gaining thunder during a traversal. Each thunder creates a stronger resource tax on your group as you move from waypoint to waypoint and if you have too much thunder at the end of the traversal NPCs will die. PCs might also die. The accumulation of Thunder is one of the major looming narrative threats in this game.
The Dice Mechanic
So, this is the part where I get to be both a bit excited and critical of the game design here. The Dice Mechanic is a cool combination of a few different concepts I've seen in other games. It reminds me a lot of the Burning Wheel, but less complicated.
That said, it's still fairly complex in terms of how you adjudicate the results. The GM has a lot of levers to adjust the difficulty up or down, as does the player, but because of that there's a fairly complex procedural set of steps to get through. Once you've done the resolution a few times it becomes fairly easy to memorize the steps and adjudicate them, but this is where the shortness of the format really hurts - I really could have used a few examples when I was new to the concept to really understand what's happening here.
There are some good summarizations of the dice mechanic in the reference aids for once you've gotten the steps, but I really wish there were space for examples in the core book.
All that out of the way, it's a d6 based dice system - so you won't have any trouble finding dice to roll, and it can be really quick to resolve once you understand the process. Past that, there are a few things that will modify the target number on the die, as well as the number of dice you're rolling. Then, there are some rules for how you drop a die or change the number on one of the faces.
Running the Game and Some Call-Outs
Running a game of Lost Roads is a lot like other Story Games, it fits very well in the overall indie genre. In short, it's definitely my jam. There are lots of really great ideas and hooks to dig into the characters and get them into (narrative) trouble.
Having run it a few times and gathered experience with the system, there are a couple of pointers I'd call out for anyone who's interested in running Lost Roads.
Involve the Players in the Narrative - ask questions, use the answers
Like most Story games, Lost Roads really shines when the players and the GM are collaboratively making the story and adding elements to it. The players are going to already be used to giving answers about the world from the world building phase, and they're going to generally jump at the chance to add more information to that during play.
Have them help you tie their characters into the driving fiction. Use the NPCs from their past as wedges to drive them together or apart - they'll help you, with gusto. Give them challenges that showcase their characters' personalities.
Read and Understand some key rules
There are some oft-overlooked rules and things in Lost Roads that I need to call out:
- Provisions and Components. They can be used for crafting. You can carry 3 per slot. They are extremely useful and you need provisions to survive. You can also scavenge these.
- Hope is important, and you gain it by fulfilling your Vows - which are determined by your character type. For example, a Heart gains hope by healing the injured (among other things). You need Hope to power your magic and to avoid Storm Scenes.
- GM, help ensure they have the opportunity to fulfill their vows!
- Read the Survival Roll section at least twice. Seriously, it'll take a few times to click.
Lean into the Disaster and Hope of Nature
The game itself is a call out to hope in the face of disaster - especially one of our own making. People live and fight and struggle and die. They Hope.
Make the world interesting by leaning into the themes of Hope amid disaster. Make the NPCs interesting by having them struggle, overcome, fail.
Each traversal is a struggle - which makes the rest at the end sweeter.
So! I hope I've convinced you to go give Lost Roads a look, you can go pick up a PDF copy over on Buried Key's Itch.io Page, or physical copies in certain markets. I don't believe there's currently a print-on-demand option but the Zine itself is beautiful if you happen to come across a copy at your FLGS.
A game of climate migration in a bygone age.