The Cardboard Hoard: Initial Thoughts on Overlight
Wait, what? Writing about an RPG? Yup. I know it may seem “off-brand,” but before I got deep into the modern board gaming hobby, I was an avid fan of role-playing games. In fact, it is only because my group of friends started growing up and having to deal with more real-life responsibilities that we moved away from the campaign nature of RPGs and onto board games, which didn’t require the same time commitment and group consistency.
That said, I still love RPGs and always enjoy when I have an opportunity to play them, even if most of those plays are now one-shots either over Skype or at conventions. When I heard Overlight was coming out from Renegade, I was very intrigued, because while it looked like a fantasy setting -- it is clearly fantastical in nature -- it looked like it was designed top-down to be a completely unique and novel experience, instead of borrowing from many, many decades of standard fantasy tropes, which are still prevalent in systems such as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder.
So, after getting to play Overlight at Origins, did this bold new RPG live up to my expectations? It did, but due to a number of factors, your mileage may vary. There are really specific three points to cover -- the Overlight setting, the nuts-and-bolts mechanisms, and the specific module we played. Paradoxically, I find the strongest aspects of each are also the biggest downsides. Hear me out, I think that will make more sense when I’m done.
When we sat down, the GM told us a bit of lore and backstory, without which it would have been impossible to start the game.
The world has been reborn as the world of Overlight, with seven landmass shards floating over an endless sea, with a bright, constant light shining from above. Each of the shards has an entirely different ecosystem, as well as its own native folk, each which being unique in respect to physical appearance and cultural norms.
This level of foreign information, which was told to us in a lot more detail using a lot of explicit terminology, was as exciting as it was impossible to remember in any specific detail. It was very fresh and new. It presented us with opportunities to role play without using the crutches of traditional fantasy stereotypes. Craig, for example, was playing a character that looked similar to a chicken, while Patrick’s character resembled a furry woodland animal. Each of us came from different shards, so we had large canvases to pull our cultural experiences from without contradicting or treading on one another.
However, this was not without any downside, as we struggled a bit to remember the names of each shard, which folk came from which shard, and which physical and cultural characteristics went with which folk. It led to a lot of moments of “Craig, what is your chicken folk called? Banyari? No, that was Patrick’s character. Oops.” and “Matt, which shard is your folk from again? Pyre? That was the lowest shard, right?” It was a lot of information to process for a one-shot, although I later found out the Free RPG Day Overlight booklet contained this chart, which would have been a big help in that regard.
As for the nuts and bolts of the system, there are no outlandish elements, like Jenga blocks or tea lights. It has a fairly standard character sheet, with certain dice types -- D6, D8, D10 -- associated with character traits, although these traits do not use your parents’ D&D terms. Gone are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, etc. They are replaced with Spirit, Logic, Compassion, Vigor and more. In most cases, players will roll a set of three dice for the trait, another three for a specific skill (assuming they have a specific skill), and a D4, which can boost a roll to the next success level, or reward a player with a bonus point of Spirit. Spirit allows players to manipulate situations to their benefit, but spending too much will cause a shatter.
Unfortunately, nobody experienced a shatter in the single session we played, so I cannot speak further to their specific effects. I can say that it is quite satisfying rolling seven dice for checks, even if the bar for successes -- rolling sixes -- is a tough one, and the D4 wildcard is a fun little twist. The terms, being unique to the system, are again a hurdle, but this falls to the GM, who will be telling the players which dice to roll. In the case of our demo at the convention, this was no problem at all, even if to me, it didn’t make total sense to roll Logic and Intuition to pick someone’s pocket, where making a Dexterity check would have.
We played the first module in the Overlight book, “The Sage of the Hanging Prison," not the Free RPG module that was given out at Origins. Our party began by sitting around a table at a tea house, proving that some tropes are simply too stubborn to die, although it not being at a pub was different. I don’t want to delve too much into the details of the module, as I don’t want to ruin the story for others, but I will say that we were summoned on an urgent quest by a mysterious character, requiring us to explore the city we were in, find information through different means, and infiltrate the prison mentioned in the module’s title.
The module required our ingenuity more than our hacking-and-slashing abilities, which I appreciated, but it also required us to suspend our reservations and follow along with the plotted quest in a situation where our characters very well may have said “no thanks, I’ll just keep sitting here enjoying this tea.” I was willing to forgive the introductory module for this shortcoming, given my enthusiasm to experience the world, and because of how intriguing I found the story revealed over the course of the module -- especially given the future storytelling possibilities of where it leaves the characters. However, I know others -- such as Craig at our table -- will not be so forgiving of feeling forced along a worn plot line.
At first glance, Overlight’s biggest strengths -- its new world, lore, folk, and traits -- are also its immediate weakness, due to the barriers to entry they create, and the commitment they require to become familiar with the system. This seems to be more of an issue for the casual RPG player, such as myself, who only plays one-shots when time presents. In this respect, a game of Fiasco will always be easier, although a more shallow experience.
Having played this introductory Overlight quest, I only wish I had a regular group to continue further into the campaign, and develop a deep relationship with a character and the world. I’d be excited to commit to this system, if only time and circumstances permitted. Wherever you fit on the scale of casual RPG player to hardcore RPG grognard, I hope my initial thoughts have helped you decide if Overlight might be right for you.