To say Penny Arcade and Lone Shark Games’ Thornwatch has been anticipated would be an understatement.
Back in 2009, readers were introduced to The Lookouts, a fantasy version of the Boy Scouts…if the Boy Scouts fought basilisks. They were so popular that they made a return in 2010. And again in 2012. With each visit to Eyrewood, Penny Arcade artist Mike Krahulik and writer Jerry Holkins made it clear that this wasn’t just a project that they were touching on occasionally. The Eyrewood had, if you’ll pardon the pun, deep roots. In 2012 we saw the Lookouts summoning the mysterious Watchers of Thorns (where the quote above comes from). But it was in the ten-part comic “The Tithe” in 2013, that we got our first deep dive into the warp and weave of Eyrewood, how its denizens, Lookouts, Daughters, and Thorwatch alike, all interacted.
By now, it was clear that The Eyrewood wasn’t going anywhere. Krahulik was busy posting blog after blog of concept art, game ideas, and play test sessions, as he tried to hit on a combination that made sense and brought together his love of tabletop and role playing games (while trying to address some of the player interaction problems he saw in both). Then, master game developer Mike Selinker (you might know a little game he put together called Pathfinder Adventure Card Game or maybe Betrayal at House on the Hill) got involved and brought the talent of his company, Lone Shark Games, to bear on the project. The result, announced today at PAX West, is the Thornwatch Kickstarter.
Thornwatch is a unique game that rewards player inventiveness and storytelling, provides strategic combat opportunities, and gives you the flexibility to play as any character you want from session to session, while still progressing through an evolving story.
At the beginning of each game, one player chooses to be The Judge (the GM) and the others choose a Thornwatch member for the session (there are five to choose from, each with their own unique abilities and traits). Like in the comics, the Thornwatch are ghosts, summoned to the Eyrewood for a variety of reasons, depending on the knot that has been tied. Each knot corresponds to a different story board that The Judge must ready.
Once everyone is set, The Judge lays out the Thornwatch, enemy, and denizen cards in a row in front of him. This is the momentum track and it serves as the initiative tracker for the game, as well as an indicator of how tough the enemies you’re facing off against will be. The closer they are to the root of the momentum track, the more damage the Thornwatch will have to do to them to get them to move to the right and off the track altogether. It’s a rather clever system and one that makes a lot of sense in the context of the story – as enemies are wounded, fighting back becomes harder and the Thornwatch can get in more attacks. Unless, that is, they have powers that counteract that. Each character and enemy has a variety of powers at their disposal to affect the momentum, inflict or heal damage, or tweak movement. These are powered up over time, from round to round. Each story has a goal that players are working towards as a team. This can be as simple as saving villagers or as complex as defeating a massive end boss. As members of the Thornwatch are damaged, they accumulate Wounds in their hand that can hinder their available actions when shuffled into their deck. If there are no more Wounds to be assigned, the Thornwatch is dismissed and The Judge wins. Either way, when a story is completed, players can choose the next story and either receive a boon or bane depending on their previous success.
Each round, players can move, set down powers, ready powers by using tokens from their hand, use fully charged powers, or discard their hand to get rid of Wounds. They can also describe something that exemplifies the trait of their character (chosen when their character manifested in the Eyrewood). If their description is deemed sufficiently in character, The Judge can reward the player with Hero Dice to use at their discretion to help improve an attack roll. The Trait cards are written with a flourish that reflects Penny Arcade’s style and invite you to craft stories around them. While some are extensive, the shorter ones are just as much fun. The “Angry” trait simply reads “She had only been alive for five seconds. And she was already tired of it.” Throughout the game, there are touches like this. Each power and ability card has a question on it to prompt role play. Like the Second Wind card that lets you pull two cards from your discard pile back into you hand; but it also prompts you to elaborate with the question “How did you know you would need to do that again?” The game regularly nudges you to role play, to have fun building the world as opposed to just moving characters around and rolling dice (though you certainly can do that do). More than any other game I’ve seen, Thornwatch literally rewards players for role playing.
The art, even in the pre-production PnP version, is arresting. Krahulik’s talents have grown prodigiously over the years as he’s evolved as an artist and it shows in the painterly style of the game. The colors are rich, the brush work moody, and the characters and enemies rendered with unmistakable attitude. The board itself is ethereal and lends itself to free-form movement than you would expect from a card combat game. That might be because Thornwatch is truly a hybrid that combines the best elements from several different types of games.
What’s great is that you don’t have to wait to play Thornwatch. Lone Shark Games is encouraging people to download and give feedback on the full-featured Print-and-Play version available on the Kickstarter page. The rules are just a tad bit different (there’s no special dice, so you’ll have to substitute standard d10s); but everything you need to run a Thornwatch session is in the package. If you’re at PAX West this weekend, Thornwatch play sessions will be available where you’ll be able to get the Knot of Wings. Since the members of the Thornwatch are summoned spirits, they don’t accumulate XP like traditional characters. Players instead gain Knots that will help them in future games, no matter what Thornwatch character they choose.
The Kickstarter launches today and, given the pedigree of Lone Shark Games (they’ve created some of GeekDad’s favorite games and have successfully created some amazing Kickstarters) and the star power of the Penny Arcade team, this is going to be one hot campaign. The pledge tiers are thankfully simple: $78 gets you the base game, you don’t have to pledge more for add-ons or additional stories. There are additional tiers; but you’re not getting extra game components, instead those pledging at higher tiers receive things like exclusive Pinny Arcade pins, custom wooden boxes, and signed components. It’s safe to say you’ll want to get in early and keep an eye on the surprises that pop up. There’s even a five-part “Riddle of Thorns” to be solved throughout the campaign. I’ve been following the saga of Thornwatch for a long time. I’m impressed with the polish of the final product and excited to play through with my kids. Games that reward role play are rare. Ones that also engage you through unique play systems are even rarer. Ones that look amazing while doing both? Well there’s just one game I can think of that does all three.