Free From The Yoke – UFO Press in partnership with Modiphius
I find Powered by the Apocalypse games fascinating. I’ve played a little, read some, and am blown away by their elegance. As someone who likes running campaigns/chronicles/series that have tight themes, I love how PbtA games have clear design goals in mind and gameplay focused towards achieving those goals. I also like how they force me to restructure my point of view on an RPG; the angle my mind approaches the rules. With Fate, I had to really take a mental leap from traditional mechanics and with PbtA too – and it’s very refreshing (plus I feel smart when I finally “get” how they work).
PbtA rules function as a conversation. Players describe actions and the GM describes how those actions change the situation. You can actually play relatively freeform until a “move” is activated. A move is an ability or action triggered by the fiction, but only if it’s necessary. Using the examples in the book: if you’ve built a wooden palisade, you don’t need to roll your Disarm move to avoid a hail of arrows – you’ve already done it because fiction-wise it makes sense that a barrier will block that attack. Essentially, you play the fiction first, and rules only activate if the fiction hasn’t accounted for the result (no palisade was built, or was left unfinished). The GM in Free From The Yoke doesn’t have “moves” but rather “reactions” which are hard-coded responses that take effect in certain situations, but also just give names to “typical” GM actions. The GM never rolls dice, so rolls are all player-facing. In personal combat, a GM’s character could have a move “Riposte”, which automatically damages an attacker who misses. That’s it – it happens because the move says it happens upon a missed attack. On the players’ side, a move in this same personal combat could be “Follow-Up” – dictating that if the PC carries a secondary weapon, they do another point of damage when they hit in melee. They must be carrying a secondary weapon, or the move won’t activate.
Die rolls are 2d6 + the relevant stat. 10+ is a full success, 7-9 is mixed – a partial success or success with consequences, and 6- is a setback, when the GM uses a Reaction.
Free From The Yoke is a PbtA game that is part of the Worlds of Legacy series – a set of games inspired by Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. Where Legacy stands out is it aims to emulate large scale and small scale events, where you zoom out from play to allow factions to exert themselves and the world to advance, then zoom in to see how the individual players contribute to or cause these events. It’s a great idea and executed nicely in FftY.
Free From The Yoke is a fantasy game, with its implicit setting taking inspiration from Slavic and near-East mythology and cultures set roughly equivalent to the 13-15th centuries. An occupying empire has just been forced out of the land, and the inhabitants now have to decide what to do with their freedom.
Using “playbooks” (character sheets that tend to contain all pertinent rules), players choose a House (a political entity), and chart our their history and standing during and since the rebellion. The GM gets one too – The Arbiter. The Arbiter is the figure who drove the rebellion and is now in charge.
“Ages” (gameplay at the zoomed-out level) are initiated by The Arbiter’s ambitions, and each Age ends when The Arbiter’s current project has concluded (for good or ill, successfully or unsuccessfully). I really like this method as it helps build a structure for the story and a guideline for the GM. While I suppose it might sound like it restricts free play, I refer to earlier – this is a tightly-themed game with rules that facilitate that style.
Collectively, the players create the pre-empire land, including maps and landmarks, then determine how the occupation affected their faction and what they did (which will affect their standing with the Arbiter!).
The order of play is very clearly spelled out – when the Arbiter declares a new project and a new Age begins, when to zoom in and out, and so on. Proactivity on the part of players is strongly encouraged – while you’re part of the same game group you may easily come into conflict with each other as you pursue your agendas!
When zoomed out you play your faction – guiding its reaction to events and managing their assets and ambitions. While zoomed in you choose a playbook for a hero of your House and play out a scene related to them. Other players may use their own heroes or sometimes take on side characters, depending what’s necessary for the scene.
While gameplay is semi-structured, the setting is designed as a skeleton, to allow as much player input as possible. This is good for replayability, as Houses will be differently designed with different players. The Houses themselves are really cool, with 8 to choose from ranging from seafarers, horse nomads, and merchants, to rivals of the old Empire, now staking a claim on the land after assisting the rebellion.
I think one of my favorite parts of the rules are mass combat. I love the idea of mass combat scenes in tabletop RPGs because of the drama they can create, but the playability of those scenes is obviously affected by the rules. I don’t mean that more abstract rules make it easier and more simulationist ones make it harder – sometimes I want gritty blow-by-blow, sometimes just want it taken care of quickly – just that they need to be well-designed to make them not clunky (and not just feel like you’re playing a tabletop wargame). Free From The Yoke uses an abstract system designed sort-of like “chicken”, where each side decides their goals and what they’re willing to risk to win. They take turns narrating the results of each action until one player backs away. It’s a great way to abstract battles while stressing the cost of the conflict.
Despite the ease of play, and the create-as-you-go style, I don’t yet know if I’d use it as a pick-up-and-play, one-shot game unless I had a full afternoon or long evening (unlike something like Dungeon World which I feel can run on a shorter timeframe). So much of the great stuff is in the ongoing play, that I think it wouldn’t do the game justice to cut it short – after all, RISK and Diplomacy just aren’t the same when you only play a few rounds.
Free From The Yoke is an extremely exciting game. Reading it puts all sorts of ideas for the setting and characters in my head and while that’s fun on its own, it really impresses on me how much more fun it’ll be to actually play it and make use of those ideas. Due to its structure I feel it’s perfect to introduce new players to gaming, as it would ease them into gameplay, and there’s a lot of media out there to compare it to (Game of Thrones, for example). If you want a game that models a post-colonial fantasy setting, forces hard decisions and puts the fate of your homeland at your feet, look no further – Free From The Yoke is waiting for you!
Purchase it here at the Modiphius webstore in print and pdf.
(Copy was provided for purpose of review).