RPG Review : Flotsam Draft Rules (2018)

Category : News & Reviews
Date : August 4, 2018

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars is a GMless and diceless roleplaying game by Josh Fox (Lovecraftesque), being funded via Kickstarter now. Players portray street-level denizens of the shady underbelly of a space station, facing various threats and developing their interpersonal relationships. Think Deadwood or The Wire against a backdrop of Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine or The Expanse. Unlike many other roleplaying games, there is no gamemaster (GM). Instead, the players share control of the dramatic forces that affect them such gangs, poverty, and community.

A preview of Flotsam’s cover art by Anna Landin.

A preview of Flotsam’s art by Claudia Cangini.

As a science fiction fan, I was initially drawn to this project by the dramatic premise as well as the cool character artwork by Anna Landin (Fenix magazine) and Claudia Cangini (Night Witches, The Watch). You can see Claudia Cangini’s art in our previous review of Night Witches.

A preview of Flotsam’s layout by Stiainín Jackson.

In addition, the project calls upon the layout talents of Stiainín Jackson (Heroes of the Hearth from the Seven Wonders collection). However, the unique selling point of Flotsam is its GMless system. Josh Fox’s system takes inspiration from Avery Alder’s revolutionary Dream Askew as well as games like Hillfolk, Archipelago II and Apocalypse World.

As a note, Avery Alder has also expanded on the original Dream Askew in the (now-funded) Dream Askew/Dream Apart Kickstarter, which puts a similar yet unique spin on the GMless and diceless concept.


Archetypes of Flotsam

As in Apocalypse World, each player chooses a Playbook for their main character (called a Primary character). The Playbooks include various archetypes such as The Thunder (fighter or enforcer), The Spider (entrepreneur or broker), The Voice (a community leader), The Hybrid (a superhuman outsider, such as an android or alien), and so on. These characters will have named traits such as Strengths and Weaknesses, as well as Relationships with the characters that are most important to them. Strengths and Weaknesses are not rated in terms of numbers – they all have the same narrative weight. However, Weaknesses and Relationships have three tracking boxes each, to mark experience (from scenes in which the Weakness or Relationship has a meaningful part), which can be used to evolve and upgrade the character.

Sample playbooks for Flotsam

Another preview of Flotsam’s art by Anna Landin.

The game replaces dice rolls with a token economy, which dictates how primary characters get into trouble and get out of it. Primary characters can earn tokens by calling upon their character’s Weaknesses (personal flaws or ongoing external threats that follow them), and they can spend tokens to use a Strength or Resource to overcome all the complications and threats in the conflict they are in. In a way, the token economy reminds me of how Hillfolk encourages players to follow a rhythm of losing and winning conflicts. Similarly, tokens can be used when a character is gathering information to ensure that the information is gained without complications (with a special exception for asking questions of Spirits).


Situation: Dangerous

The game divides authorial control of the different Situations between players. This is the element that replaces the gamemaster of traditional RPGs. One player might have the Situation sheet for Gangs and will narrate the threats and complications posed by various gang elements. Another player will control Community and handle the local community factions, divisions, cults and so on. There are Situations for The Above (the upper class and people with authority in the station), Poverty (shortages, infrastructure issues, disease), The Outside (politics, trade, commerce and aliens from off-station) and Spirits (priests, gods, supernatural phenomena like Deep Space Nine’s Wormhole Prophets).

Some of the Situations of Flotsam

The procedures and division of responsibilities is explained in diagrams and hand-outs. The Principles of the game, which serve as helpful reminders of what to do and what not to do, are listed on each Playbook. Most importantly, when playing a Situation, players are told specifically the procedure of how and when they can introduce threats and complications, first foreshadowing and developing them, then gradually moving up to directly threatening primary characters.

When you play Flotsam, you keep a Playbook and a Situation sheet in front of you.

Ultimately, the biggest hurdle that players need to overcome when learning this game is being able to shift roles. For much of the game, you may be immersed in playing your primary character, or what some game theorists term “actor stance.” But sometimes you will have to act like a gamemaster, which may mean shifting your perspective to what is termed “director stance” and back. That shift in perspective is not something that all roleplayers enjoy, and that is something you should consider.

By the way, there’s a lot more to stance theory, including things like “author stance” and “pawn stance.” but for a good write-up, see this article.


Josh Fox explains how to play Flotsam


Exploring Flotsam

Reading the quickstart rules, I felt that Flotsam had the potential to open up a lot of new ground in roleplaying game design. So I gathered a group to try out the draft rules. Four out of the five playtesters had at least some experience as gamemasters, so I hoped they would take to the Situations quickly. Although all the playtesters had at least some experience with shared authorial control in storygames (Fiasco, The Mountain Witch, etc), Flotsam was a lot of new territory for all of us, even me.

An early draft of a gameplay flow diagram

During our playtest, we chose pregenerated Playbooks and Situations for a group of characters on Belt Station IV, a space station struggling through a deadly plague and a stifling quarantine. The gameplay guide explained to us how to set up scenes, introduce complications to what primary characters were doing, and how a Situation could gradually upgrade a threat against a character.

Playtest photo, from left to right: I played Fisher the Cast-Off and controlled the Spirits situation. Joshua played Barter the Spider and controlled the Above situation. Samwise played Babel the Voice and controlled the Gangs situation. Foo played Marie the Hybrid and controlled the Poverty situation. Darren played Hammer the Thunder and controlled the Community situation.

Although I normally serve as a GM in many games, I intentionally restrained my GM instincts in this session. I had my Cast-Off character get captured by some gang members early on to spur the other players to come rescue me, and I introduced some grim omens through supernatural graffiti as the Spirits player, but otherwise I didn’t actively guide gameplay, as I wanted to see how the Situations encouraged my playtesters to develop complications and threats.

Samwise (right) says Flotsam “is like the Pathfinder of storygames!”

As it turned out, two team-ups developed. Joshua and Samwise paired up their characters to deal with community protests and developed their characters’ relationship, while Darren and Foo teamed up to go rescue my character from the local gangs. At this point, Foo tried to get his Hybrid character into riskier and riskier situations in a showdown with some gang members, which resulted in a scuffle, some gunfire, and ultimately some dead gang members.

Darren (right) gets immersed into character

Sometimes, playtesting a new system is a way to find out about your own comfort zones. Although players are encouraged to use their Situations to introduce complications and threats against a primary character who is doing something risky, Foo was unhappy with this adversarial aspect of play. When Foo tried to get Marie through the gang thugs while trying not to use a token, he came up against more complications, and I had to remind everyone that not spending tokens invites worse consequences for a character, as per the rules. Foo was not cool with this. He explained he wasn’t comfortable with having other players (playing the Situations) trying to actively mess up his character, and so we agreed to ease off on it. The game ended shortly thereafter as we had to call it for time. I should mention that we didn’t actually play very long – about two and a half hours, 40 minutes of which were taken up with explaining the rules. We did manage to get a fair bit of play done nonetheless.

Flotsam lets you take the roles of downtrodden space colonists like the Belters of The Expanse (concept art by North Front Studio)

In the absence of a GM, gameplay may meander and plot movement won’t happen as fast, which as the game text advises, is fine, as we can just let things take their course. But for a roleplayer who is used to pushing plot more actively, I did feel Flotsam’s scenes can drift a bit aimlessly if players don’t actively play their Situations. The final game is supposed to come with several ready-made scenarios and settings to create juicy conflicts and drama, and I will be curious to see if these help players to get the most out of the game.

The draft rules include helpful game aids for recording notes and inspiring character creation. Game principles like “Nobody owns the world” and “Play with an open hand” are listed on the top and bottom edges of each game aid and playbook, as helpful reminders.


Overall Thoughts

Josh Fox intended for Flotsam to help deal with the issue of GM burnout by spreading authorial responsibilities so that different players can contribute to the threats and complications faced by the primary characters each session. In actual play, I found that the game won’t work well if you have trouble with adversarial play, as you will frequently face threats thrown at you by one or more other players. In addition, as with any GMless game, all the players need to learn to roll with their creative impulses and contribute to the shared world. More than any narrative-focused storygame, I’d say Flotsam will be quite a bridge to cross for roleplayers used to more traditional GMed games like Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu.

As the Kickstarter project has progressed, the creators have posted updates, such as this preview sketch by Anna Landin, which will be the basis for final artwork.

As I am writing this, Flotsam is entering its final week of crowdfunding on Kickstarter – it’s met its funding goals and a couple of stretch goals, but it’s not too late to pitch in as a backer.

I’m supporting this book because the GMless and diceless procedures have a lot of potential — for more than just science fiction games. Like Hillfolk, the system could easily be adapted to a host of other settings and campaigns.

That said, I’ve only seen the playtest draft rules and I’m aware that the final book will have a lot more useful procedures and examples, plus pre-created space station settings and more. I encourage you to visit the Flotsam Kickstarter page and see it for yourself.


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