14 May 2021
Odder than Ever
Blending simple rules with a sickly-sweet overdose of imagination, Electric Bastionland is a mesmerising slab of game design that somehow feels crisply modern and punkishly old-school at the very same time.
The game was developed as a sequel of sorts to creator Chris McDowall’s Into the Odd and on a very basic (and deeply reductionist) level could be described as a ginned-up dungeon crawler with an aggressively minimalist ruleset and a kooky Victorian aesthetic. However, while it’s certainly accurate, this label barely scratches the surface of what makes Electric Bastionland quite so appealing.
For some the lure of the game will come through its aesthetics, which are scrappy and elegant by turns. Others, for a setting that smashes steampunk and eldritch horror into a satirists view of British society (tucked away in a dark corner of the book you can find the process for paying a visit to The Queueing Society).
Underpinning all this, however, is a stiletto-sharp focus on immediacy and impact.
This is apparent right from the moment you sit down at the table, when you are informed that your little party have somehow accrued a £10,000 debt. The only practical way you can pay this off is by treasure-hunting. Here’s a tip-off that shows where some loot might be hiding. Off you go.
There’s no time to hesitate and no way to avoid consequences. The game pushes you forward at every moment, handing out choices that always end up achieving something. The Conductor (Electric Bastionland’s preferred term for GMs) is constantly instructed to avoid avenues of play that might end up preserving the status quo, and instead offer paths that shake up the situation.
This philosophy even bleeds through into the fundamentals of the ruleset. The heart of it is very obviously drawn from classic Dungeons & Dragons, with a d20 taking centre-stage and players rolling up a truncated list of familiar stats. However, every single possible piece of mechanical folderol has been chopped out and shot.
Attack rolls, for example, have been scrapped entirely. In the world of Electric Bastionland every single attack and ability does exactly what it’s meant to, with a character’s hit points representing their ability to dodge and jink out of the way of serious harm. Once they run out you start losing points of strength, and with each blow you’re more likely to black out and start bleeding everywhere.
Indeed, the only thing that even approaches a typical skill check comes in the form of saving throws, which take an achingly old-school approach of trying to roll under your relevant stat on a d20. Even then, you’re really only going to be making those when you intentionally do something dangerous.
This makes for an intensely simple game to both play and officiate. You can probably get through a session after a two-minute explanation, and even if you want to be as thorough as possible the ‘rules’ part of Electric Bastionland’s rulebook runs out at page 15.
Most of the 300-odd pages left in the book are devoted to the closest Electric Bastionaland comes to traditional classes – your failed careers.
These explain what your character did before being forced into the grubby life of a professional looter, and provide tables that outline both why you left and what gear, skills or mutations you managed to snag on the way out. Some of these paint pictures of relatively conventional jobs, albeit with a steampunk-ey twist. A tuk-tuk driver, a street urchin, a professional gambler. Many of them, however, delve deeply into the weird.
And we aren’t just talking run-of-the-mill, gothically quirky weird of the rook tamer and the corpse collector either. Roll right (or wrong?) and you’ll end up playing as a former ‘Actupressurist of Inanimate Objects’, ‘Constable of Birds and Creeping Things’ or ‘Good Dog’. Who is, more or less, a dog.
Stripped of the context of the setting and the brutally violent game, these elements could easily be silly. However, there’s something so unsettling about the ever-shifting world of Electric Bastionland that allows it to work. The strangeness is less that of a brightly coloured drug trip, and more the creeping confusion that comes of visiting a foreign supermarket.
The result is a game that demands to be played. Maybe you’ll pay off your debt, maybe you’ll be blended into soup by an arcane turbine somewhere beneath the city. Either way, it’ll be an experience worth having.
PLAY IT? MUST-PLAY
A riot of bizarre imagination that makes the most of a minimalist ruleset
If you liked Mörk Borg’s old-school sensibilities but wanted a bit more substance, you owe it to yourself to check this game out
Designer: Chris McDowall
Publisher: Bastionland Press
This article originally appeared in issue 55 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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