Shut Up & Sit Down’s Tom Brewster Talks Oath

27 September 2022
In our Favourite Game feature, we find out why Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile is the storytelling game for him

I’ve never really enjoyed a ‘proper’ roleplaying game. Being a teenager and cracking out Pathfinder or Savage Worlds, I got frustrated getting the systems ‘right’.  Fiasco involved too much acting, Paranoia created tension that spilled out of the game, and the contemplative cartography RPG The Quiet Year tickled the bit of my brain that wanted to draw rather than game.

I get why people enjoy roleplaying, but only because I’ve watched that enjoyment from a nearby bush with a hefty set of binoculars, furiously taking notes like a studious pervert. My problems stem from two of my inadequacies as a player and as a GM. As a player,  I don’t know what’s allowed within the system – what’s ‘pushing it’ – and so I retreat into being a bystander. As the GM, I feel like I’m ‘working’ – pouring emotional labour into making sure everyone is feeling good in a way that leaves me utterly drained. I thought I would never find a roleplaying game I enjoyed.

Then I played Oath.

That’s a bit cliché, isn’t it? It’s a stretch, too – calling Oath a roleplaying game is a hell of a misnomer, but let me tempt you into my palace of inaccuracy. If the goal of roleplaying games is to create ‘systems driven stories’ then Oath is a slam dunk. It might not bear the fibrous personal tales that pour from people’s characters, but instead offers political stories. It tempts boardgamers in with its board, cards, and resources, but swiftly pulls back the curtain to reveal a sticky dancefloor of negotiation and player interdependence. The game is GM-less, but still dummies the tentpole features of having one through its whiffs of setting, its story beats, and cast of characters; and so, players take seats at the table not as themselves, but as great leaders who rally troops and conquer land, sickly princes lurking in the shadows of a high council, or wizened old fools cast out onto distant shores.

These narrative roles are underpinned by deterministic ones. One player must act as the Chancellor – whose responsibilities are chiefly to maintain their rule over a land that rejects it; slotting them neatly into the villain seat. Everyone else is an Exile, forging their own path and branding the land that is not yet theirs. It’s the Party/GM mechanic funhouse-mirrored into something more structured, yes, but just as engaging and dynamic as everyone takes active roles in the story you guide together. Players create the glue between cards played as personal advisors or citizens of the sites you squabble over, they negotiate and barter, they act in their own interests or help others out because they deserve it! In the narrative! If you did this in any other conflict-heavy game this would be sacrilegious - but in Oath, it’s fair game. Why?

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This is the unctuous, gloopy core. What makes Oath into a roleplaying game is a reformatting of victory. The magic here is a central, simple touch: the world you play in continues on, and your mark upon it persists. This allows alternative ideas about what winning actually means –‘I became closer with the player sitting next to me’, ‘I secured a foothold in this part of the world’, ‘I weaselled my way into power so my legacy may live on’.

The magic in Oath isn’t neatly contained within one of these individual moments within a game – but it rises to the fore during the finale, when the landscape shifts and everyone ogles the new setup for what new stories their next game might tell, and their own place within them. It’s the best part of legacy games, a shining ‘next time on…’ title card that sticks in everyone’s head until you next meet up – the dangling narrative thread that gets my favourite people around a table at the end of a long week. For that, I cannot thank it enough. 


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