Review of Goblonia

Celebrim

Legend
Goblonia was published in September of 2022 and is one of the best Indy games I’ve ever encountered. In terms of the desirability of having this in your collection, I’d put this up alongside classics like Dogs In the Vineyard, Ten Candles, or Dread. While it’s not the most original game you might encounter - it is heavily inspired by Blades in the Dark for example – it offers what I think is a near perfect mixture of elements that you would want in a casual RPG that doesn’t demand a lot of investment, but which rewards skilled thespianism. It is I think a near perfect game for impromptu one shots. I personally wouldn’t run it as a lengthy campaign, but it is the sort of game which I could totally see players wanting to continue and progressing over time either alongside a more crunchy game as a change of pace or else for a group that doesn’t meet the stereotype of an every week tabletop RPG group like extended family can’t meet regularly or a group that has its usual interests in board games and cRPGs but also has enjoyed branching out into story games.

Goblonia is available at DriveThruRpg right now on sales as part of their try a new game for the new year, and as one of the best new entries of 2022 this is a perfect time to pick it up. If you are undecided about Goblonia and have no interest in running a campaign, I strongly recommend spending $5 to pick up the pay what you want ‘Quick and Dirty Edition’ that has all the rules you need to start play. The more expensive rulebook is mostly focused not on the rules but describing the setting and how to run an RPG within it and on more extensive campaigns. Even it can be picked up for $15 right now.

There is an enormous number of things to like about Goblonia, especially when running shorter games. First, its setting straddles a line between grim and ridiculous, so that you can tune the game to be either over the top ridiculous loony fun or else dark, horrifying and more serious drama as would suit the enjoyment of the group. The game can be as cartoonish or gritty as desired, and you can tune the style of play as a GM just by altering the menace and persistence factors of tasks. If you want, you can allow goblins almost unlimited scope of action with little persistence, and the game will play something like farcical superheroes. If you up the persistence and reduce the scope of actions, them it's a grim and gritty world of urban fantasy noire. You can focus on the mad cap zaniness of bumbling goblin terrorists implementing the stupidest plans for the least reasonable of ends in what is explicitly a futile effort to free themselves for the tyrannical rule of their fey betters, or you can take the plight of the goblins seriously with all the horror, tragedy, and pain that the setting entails. Whatever works for your group, from fart jokes to Shakespeare to Shakespearean fart jokes is going to fit perfectly in the setting. Unlike some more pretentious story telling games, I think this is going to work fine no matter what level of thespian skill the group has and is not going to be threatening in any way. It’s really hard to role-play a goblin wrong.

Another quirky feature that adds a lot to the experience is the fortune system is based off of drawing from a pack of ordinary playing cards – one pack per participant – and conflicts are resolved through simple card mechanics familiar to anyone who plays Poker or Rummy or the like. Face cards if used in the contest create success with complication. Jacks for example represent injury, while Queens represent succumbing to the temptation to stop resisting the Fey overlords, and Kings represent catastrophic complications. There is also a nice rewards system for leaning into failure, which can be especially useful if it’s obvious you are going to fail anyway. It’s a very light weight system, but it has enough math and calculation involved to engage the tactical game centered aesthetics for players who focus on winning. Moreover, like the Jenga mechanics of Dread, the rules create a natural timer that almost forces sessions to come to conclusion within the natural space of time leading to lean story arcs with good pacing without a lot of heavy lifting by the GM and only minimal illusionism to steer the game to a finale on time.

Because the system is light, character creation is equally lightweight. Premade characters are easy enough to do, and experienced RPers could probably go from no understanding of the rules to having a character ready to go in under 5 minutes. However, there are plenty of opportunities for self-expression as the game uses a simple set of classes each with their own customizable moves and calls, similar to other games like the Apocalypse engine.

I do have one nitpick with the game and that’s with the six ability scores. I get what the author is going for here, but I don’t think it quite works. The idea behind the non-traditional six ability scores is to define them broadly enough and vaguely enough that they don’t become straight-jackets around player creativity. Instead of describing what the character is good at, they are intended to describe the approach to problem solving the character is good at. This works well enough for a one shot that you are probably not going to notice problems the first time you play or even the second. Some groups may blithely go on and never have a problem with it. But as a long time GM who is sensitive to these sorts of things, I worry about how this vagueness is going to create tension along two lines. The first is that in my opinion, the fundamental rule of an RPG is “Thou Shalt Not Be Good at Everything”. That is to say, all the rules of an RPG exist to ensure that characters have limitations. And as written the open-ended nature of the ability descriptions means that they don’t really have limitations, and the game mechanics like most rules light mechanics strongly reward going deep with an ability rather than broad with them. It’s much better to have 4 points in one ability than 1 point in 4 abilities. Indeed, no points or one point is just about useless as you really never want to test anything without a total bonus of 4 or better. (The reason for this is that if you have a bonus greater than 3, you can take the powerful step of removing cards from your hand.) Invariably there are going to be players that either have or develop game focused aesthetics and the desire to win who optimize and try to avoid failure, because that’s just one of the ways most players have fun. But even if they don’t, you’ll still run into the problem where it’s just not clear or there is going to be disagreement over whether the proposed action meets the definition of the ability. That is to say, at some point an ability ought to have limitations, otherwise what’s the point of having six of them or testing fortunes anyway? And that vague and unclear meaning is going to lead to table arguments. The author foresees this and advises the GM to simply allow the player to persuade them and give in, but I think that advice is really only going to be fully functional for one shots and otherwise for a limited number of groups with a limited number of aesthetics.

So I would advise anyone that is thinking about running this for a campaign to lay out what abilities can or can’t do in a somewhat more rigorous fashion or even slightly alter the definitions. Briefly, summarizing the lengthy descriptions, the six abilities as presented are conceptually: “Solving problems by direct action” ("Bash"), “Solving problems by evasion” ("Scram"), “Solving problems with your mind” ("Figure"), “Solving problems with your body” ("Finagle"), “Solving problems by interacting with objects” ("Tinker"), and “Solving problems by interacting with people” ("Wheedle"). A couple of things become obvious when you lay things out this way. First, these abilities overlap in a very non-traditional manner. They aren't discrete. Most things could fit in more than one category, which is the intention. Secondly, properly selected any two of these abilities covers pretty much all possible things you can do. And lastly, not all of these abilities are as broadly applicable and easy to employ as the others. In particular, “Bash” is defined so broadly as written that it covers basically all attempts to solve problems. It’s literally the ability of solving problems, and contrary to what expectations you may have from other games or from a name like “Bash” this includes even things like bribery or brute intimidation. I really struggle to come up with anything that is focused on task resolution that isn’t Bash. Implicitly, it doesn’t include running away (supposedly the forte of its logical partner "Scram") but since it is also the ability of moving fast then you can just claim that your goal is to be somewhere else and it’s able to do that to. Paired with Scram for the rare times you need stealth, and it’s easily the most overpowered combo in the game. Which is also why the "mage" profession of Kook is the most overpowered class, since it not only gets the best combination of paths, but it’s also the only profession that starts with a complementary total problem space covering pair of paths. Next to Bash/Scram, the combination of Tinker/Wheedle is probably the next most broad and easy to use, while the Figure/Finagle pair of paths are weak narrow and awkward. Figure in particular because as written it mostly involves the passive ability to observe or understand rather than actual actions that interact with the world is awkward in play and solving this often involves some sort of meta call like adding “Math is my friend” to every statement that robs the system of its intended power and creativity while blatantly breaking “Thou Shall Not Be Good at Everything”. The point of this digression is, if you don’t want the mechanics of the game to be defined by metagame wheedling of the GM, and you want to have nice pre-consensus at the table as to what ability any give player’s proposition is actually calling on, you should probably hammer down these abilities into maybe a bit more rigid of framework. Otherwise, you risk each path becoming no more than an adverb added to each proposition.

But that is ultimately the minor nitpick of a long time GM and rulesmith with the vice of “gobsplaining” everything in excruciating detail. This is a rules set I think every table top GM should own, so pick up the Quick and Dirty, play it, and if you had a good time buy the full rulebook.
 
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