Designers: Tom W. Green III, Stephen C. Smith
Publisher: Watchtower Games
“You must make haste for you sense it is not safe to linger by the smoking remains of the ruined monastery. The black-winged beasts could return at any moment. You must set out for the Sommlending capital of Holmgard and tell the King the terrible news of the massacre: that the whole élite of Kai warriors, save yourself, have been slaughtered. Without the Kai Lords to lead her armies, Sommerlund will be at the mercy of their ancient enemy, the Darklords.”
Reading those sentences that kick off the legendary Lone Wolf collection, the most definitive Choose Your Own Adventure series ever penned, sets my loins afire like a lascivious teen emerging from boyhood. Lone Wolf and similar novels straddling the edge of game and fiction were a defining element of my adolescence and with Watchtower Games’ Fallen a desire that I didn’t even know was still simmering is now being satiated like a starving lion coming across a maimed gazelle. I’ve ripped its throat out, guzzled its blood and am feasting on its soft belly as I can’t let this game go.
While Fallen is absolutely unique it’s simultaneously difficult to fathom why no one has accomplished this before. The structure is pretty simple – one player takes on the DM role while another chooses one of three heroes to go head to head against the evil Dungeon Lord. Asymmetry is a key component as one reads story cues and assembles opposition for challenges that the legendary hero confronts. Characters and Dungeon Lords possess special abilities, utilize equipment or monsters, and manage a hand of power cards. The core challenge system is an opposed roll to generate successes with different types of dice weighted with different results. Additional symbols that are rolled allow you to inflict damage on the enemy or charge your special ultimate power. There’s lots of small mechanisms and facets to interact with but the entirety is simple and streamlined.
Over the top of this challenge system is the sexy structure of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. The Dungeon Lord will run the player through a story card that has a branching narrative offering choice where the player can rely on logic and understanding or can attempt to feed into roleplaying his specific role. The ensuing narrative is always interesting and actually pretty solidly written, never stooping to levels of cheese or camp. The style of the setting and color of language reminds me most of Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery work, leaning towards dark magic and forgotten secrets pitted against brash warriors who lean on decisiveness and bravery. It’s a powerful and invigorating story that is constantly moving like a fiery river smashing through a bend. You get swallowed into the abyss and you don’t want to come up for air.
A wide array of beautiful and practical components.
After making the choice to say pull the lever or smash in the door, you will be presented with a specific challenge based around a stat coinciding with the narrative. Typically the basis of the role is somewhat obvious as you’re going to smash the hell out of that door if you’re the Pit Fighter and relying on strength as your primary attribute. Some choices will kind of sneak up and surprise you leading to bits of flavor text and interesting story that results in a skill you weren’t prepared to utilize. That sense of unknown and stumbling through the story with a foreboding menace permeating the atmosphere is what digs its hooks in and smashes your bones.
Melding into the fantastic yet oppressive ambience is a number of touchstone elements such as an absolutely interesting character advancement system and the stellar Shadow Track which literally has momentum bouncing between light and dark. However, the overarching achievement that will keep you coming back is the subtle yet powerful shift in narrative focus placed directly on the player. The magic of Lone Wolf was that it brought you one step closer to the fiction allowing you to have a wavering hand jutting into the dark to manipulate your fate and give you a say. However, the limitations of a paperback novel were severe and the barrier was only cracked. Fallen shatters the blockade as you not only have choices in story flow but directly participate in the resolution via a nuanced system where choice and autonomy is granted. The game doesn’t give you permission to act, rather it forces you to take the reins and drive the coach, whether you take that off the cliff or not is entirely up to you and the dice. This is powerful stuff that transcends flavor text and pseudo-setting to achieve that level of immersion you only hear about in roleplaying sessions.
Overall the game is graceful and passionate but there are a couple of spots that put some pressure on the Dungeon Lord in particular to keep the pace alive. During a specific session the narrative path will be determined by three separate story cards, each forming a chapter or act of sorts for the ongoing story. The obstacle is that these cards are randomly drawn and not linked, so while the fiction runs smoothly on each individual card the story doesn’t always gel flawlessly from act to act. Similarly when picking up the dice and building his pool for the challenge, the overlord selects one of his available monsters as the main adversary. Typically the monster won’t perfectly align with the color of the challenge and will usually be selected for strategic reasons as opposed to narrative ones. This isn’t a huge problem as it either requires a player that can suspend his disbelief or more preferably a GM-type running the bad guys who can narrate a proper segue between the disparate elements. It’s best to picture the individual story snippets as perhaps three distinct highlights in the dungeon/adventure as opposed to one continuous narrative without breaks and to also imagine the creatures as an additional element supplementing the flavor as opposed to contrasting with it.
The Dungeon Lord controls one of three unique overarching personas, each with their own ultimate ability and unique selection of power cards. They feel very different and distinct, highlighting varied play-styles.
Undeniably the praise of this game is voluminous and storied but much like that narrative boundary inherent in its progenitors this game is stuck up against a wall holding it back. There’s a definite stigma attached to Fallen due to the very nature of its success on Kickstarter accompanied with exclusive content. The ire certainly is understandable on the surface as a wealth of content was available to backers that now is not here. The truth of the matter is that nothing was cut out of the retail version of this game to satisfy the Kickstarter, this version of Fallen is what the designers intended and is their vision fully realized. The game feels absolutely complete and will stand up to 30-40 plays, more if you have trouble remembering all of the story cards and each of their branching arcs.
Beyond the narrative possibly repeating in bites, you have a huge amount of variety between characters each possessing three unique arcs of advancement. There is a large treasure deck to discover and many Power cards to encounter. You could play the exact same story cards repeatedly and the experience would be drastically different depending on the creatures the Dungeon Lord draws and the evil mastermind faced. The variety is here and passing this one over will be like throwing out the most juicy and succulent steak because you couldn’t have the entire cow. When the already in development expansions hit you will have endless material that you will struggle to get to before your heart gives out while you’re eating fried chicken on your stained recliner watching re-runs of Jersey Shore.
Fallen is the triumphant story-driven thematic game that keeps me up at night. It’s like a newfound lover that knows exactly what you want and pushes all the right buttons as if it’s been studying you for years. It has me so astonished that not only does it taunt me on the verge of slumber but also while I’m in the midst of other titles, even ones I’d proclaim great. Just because 2014 has come and gone doesn’t mean you can’t yet discover one of its defining extant releases. Return to Magnamund and embark on the journey you were always destined for.