Thursday, March 14, 2024

Golden Sky Stories Review Part One of Three

I’m tired of D&D. 

I could say that it’s just too complex for my addled old man brain, or that I can’t abide the politics surrounding Hasbro and their apparent attitude of indifference (or outright hostility) toward the D&D player community. But, the truth is – I’m tired of fighting. D&D and by extension the lion’s share of modern RPGs are designed with a focus on the tactical combat mini-game. They are all, all about fighting.

In the last dozen or so years, I have discovered board games in a big way. Board games scratch the tactical combat (and other types of tactical game play) itch very well. I want to role-play when I role-play. I don’t want to fight. So, I’ve been looking at some of the modern role playing game alternatives that try and step away from the D&D mold. Many are very niche one-shot experiences, that just don’t appeal to me. But, a few stand outs have caught my attention. One such game is Golden Sky Stories.

Golden Sky Stories

Golden Sky Stories is a tabletop role playing game created by Ryo Kamiya & Tsugihagi Honpo. The English language version is translated by Ewen Cluney and is published by Star Line Publishing. The tagline for Golden Sky Stories is, “Heart-Warming Role-Playing.” It’s a game where fighting is discouraged, if not completely forbidden. Players must find peaceful ways to solve problems. Is an RPG without combat sustainable? I’m not sure, but Golden Sky Stories has me intrigued.

The Basic Premise

In Golden Sky Stories, players take the roles of beings from Japanese mythology called, “henge” (hen-gay.) Henge are magical animals that can take human form. Note that this isn’t a human who can transform into an animal, but the other way around. This is an important distinction. While magically intelligent and able to communicate through speech like a person, henge are animals. A cat henge wants and thinks cat things, not people things. That alone creates all kinds of interesting role-play handles.

As magical animals, henge are territorial. They stay within the confines of a small rural town and its immediate surroundings, and from their point of view, everything and everyone within their territory belongs to them. Instinctively, a normal animal that has bonded with its human wants to protect them and make them happy. In this same way, the henge bond with and care for the human residents of their town. This provides the motivation and focus for storytelling.

Adopting a New Attitude

If the focus in an RPG is not combat, then all that remains is the role-playing. Players of Golden Sky Stories will need to adjust their thinking to accommodate this new method of play. Role-playing isn’t provided as merely a means to trigger the next combat encounter. Role-playing is the encounter. It’s the only encounter. This requires entering into the game play with a completely new attitude. Golden Sky Stories has rules that support this new attitude. 

Said, “new attitude,” was something of a shock for the old-school D&D nerd in me. I had to read through the rules multiple times to understand what was happening with the game mechanically. The rules aren’t complex or poorly represented, they’re just so … different. 

Your focus in Golden Sky Stories is role-playing. Role-playing in this context involves interacting with the people who populate the world of the game (controlled by a GM, called the narrator) and the other henge (controlled by your fellow players around the table.) This role-play is what the game cares about. So, its mechanisms are built around that activity.

Important Concept #1 – Connections 

When your character encounters another character, they (and you) form an instant first impression, and this creates a connection. 

Connections Are Power

In the game, as you are creating your story, you will want to make connections with every character you meet (assuming that they are connected to your story in some way.) This means that you’ll want to interact with them. You’ll want to (need to) role-play with them. Connections have a strength from 1 to 5, and this is important, because the higher the number, the more it will help you.

The sub-header for this section is: Connections Are Power. Look at that again. I can’t overemphasize the importance of making connections. Connections are about interacting socially with other characters, and that’s the main thing that players do during the game. That’s role-playing.

Contents Give Connections Context

In addition to its strength, every connection has contents. Contents is a keyword that describes the nature of the connection. This helps in the storytelling part of the role-play to inform the sort of interactions these characters might have with each other. The rules provide a list of contents for the player to choose from when a connection is made. These are: Like, Affection, Protection, Trust, Family, Admiration, Rivalry, Respect and Love. (Notice the complete absence of negative contents like hate or vengeance. I suppose a henge could feel such things, but the game system is not going to reward you for it. You can't create connections with those kinds of contents.) 

When players create their characters, they will select contents for, and form connections with, each of their fellow henge. This is a required part of character creation. Your henge know each other because you all live in this shared territory together. You have connections (each having a strength of 2,) but the nature (the contents) of those connections is up to you.

At the beginning of the story (game session) your henge only has connections with the other players. Every story begins this way. 

Important Concept #2 – Resources 

I made a point of defining connections as power in the previous section. It’s more correct to say that connections give players the power to generate resources. 

Resources Make Things Happen

At the start of the game your character only has a few resources at their disposal. As you tell the story and meet characters and form connections, your pool of resources grows. This creates a natural escalation arc in the story and the game.

Players have two pools of resources with which to get things done. These are: Wonder and Feelings.

Wonder Fuels the Fantastic

Henge are magical creatures, as such, they possess magical powers. Using a magical power cost points. These points are paid for in Wonder.

Feelings Enhance The Mundane

While Wonder is about the magical, doing normal things is enhanced by Feelings. Henge have ability scores that measure their “skills” in the human world, but when these skills are not enough, they can be enhanced by Feelings. Personally I love this notion. It’s the combination of both skill and the passion to succeed that makes someone good at doing something.

Important Concept #3 – Golden Sky Stories Is Diceless

Oh, yeah … no dice. Golden Sky Stories is a pure resource management game. This means that it’s really important to role-play in order to make (and strengthen) connections in order to ensure that the resources you need are available when you need them.

Golden Sky Stories leaves success and failure up to the player. Do you spend your Wonder to activate one of your henge powers now, or do you wait and save the wonder to do something more amazing later? If your skill isn’t quite enough to complete a task, do you invest your feelings to ensure success, or do you allow this action to fail and save your feelings for when it really counts? These things are up to you.

The Game Play Arc

At the beginning of every scene, each henge will get a number of resources equal to the strengths of all their connections with the characters (including other henge) that participated in the previous scene. At the start of the game session, because there was no previous scene, players begin with resources based solely on their connections with the other players and the town. 

Oh, yeah ... I forgot to mention that every henge also has a strength 2 connection to “the town.” In addition, each henge will usually start with a strength 2 connection to each other henge. This means that at the start of a game session with three henge, each player would have 6 Wonder and 6 Feelings. 

Making connections during the current scene will ensure that you gain more Wonder and Feelings for the next scene, thus increasing your character’s options and effectiveness as the story progresses. Any Wonder or Feelings that are not spent during a scene are not lost and will carry over into future scenes.

This then, forms the basic arc of the game.

More To Come

This concludes Part One of my Golden Sky Stories review. I still need to talk about generating Wonder and Feelings in more detail (they are generated differently.) Part two will cover this and talk a bit about creating a character.

Stay Tuned! (If you can't wait, you can read Part 2 HERE.)

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