Atma is the latest Kickstarter campaign from Meromorph games. I’ve reviewed a couple of Meromorph games before on GeekDad, and have been impressed with how they marry great playability with fabulous stylized illustrations. Meromorph games are works of art and Atma is no exception.
New to Kickstarter? Check out our crowdfunding primer.
What Is Atma?
Atma is a card-based RPG system for 2-5 players. It’s a system that allows for creative, on the fly, storytelling within a deeply thematic world. There are no rulebooks or sourcebooks, you just grab your cards and start playing. Unlike traditional roleplaying games that rely on at least some preparation on the part of the GM, apart from having some familiarization with the rules, there is no need for the person running the game to do any work beforehand. Stories and situations are created as cards are drawn. Players and the Games Master all have free rein to make happen whatever they wish, as long as they can justify it in terms of the story.
The game takes place on a futuristic planet, filled with alien technology, shadowy factions, and uncaring rulers. Atma’s characters inhabit this space carving out whatever existence they can, whilst trying to overcome whatever obstacles their inhospitable world throws at them.
What’s in the Box?
There are two pledge levels available for two different sizes of game. $15 is a steal for the “Interlude.” This will give you:
- The Rules
- 2 Dice
- 15 Tokens
- 4 Characters – consisting of 8 cards per character
- 51 “Stage” cards. Essentially the cards that you will use to tell your story.
There is also a larger $40 pledge which gives you everything the $15 Interlude brings you but adds “ACT 1” too. ACT 1 brings:
- 8 more Characters
- 3 more stages of 51 cards.
How to Play Atma
Atma is a very freeform game, and it is harder to explain how to play than it is to play it. The Atma system is simple and elegant and definitely best learned on the go. We did get a few things wrong in our initial game but as it’s a cooperative narrative, you work together to fill the holes. Because Atma is a narrative cooperative game, as long as everybody is having fun the rules don’t matter too much.
The aim of the game is to navigate 3 scenes of a story laid out by the GM. As the game progresses, the GM outlines player goals, and together you build a narrative to bring about those goals. There are no wrong solutions.
If you do want to check out the game – due to the difficulty of playing in groups right now, Meromorph has produced an online version for you to try it out. Do check out the game overview on the Kickstarter page or Meromorph website first though. Note: I haven’t played a physical copy of Atma; all the images in this review are taken from the online version.
Most players will be characters, in which case you’ll choose one of the game’s character cards. Each character deck consists of 8 cards.
- 1 character card which gives an overview of the character and their stats.
- 4 Move cards – Each one denotes an ability your character has.
- 3 Super move cards – These, once put into play, will give your character and powerful ability and improve one stat.
The reverse side (the light side) of the cards has bits of the character’s story on them. These are not supposed to be hard and fast, but just a framework for players to hang their own interpretations on to.
Players start the game with 4 cards light side up; 1 Character card, 2 Move cards, and 1 Super Move card. As characters unlock goals, more cards are revealed, which adds to character abilities and backstory.
During play, players describe their actions to fulfill the story, but sometimes they will need to use one of their abilities – a move or a super move. In this case, dice are rolled. To attempt a move, players roll 2D6 and if they score 7 or more the move is successful. Each move has an associated stat. The value of the character’s relevant stat is added to the dice roll, meaning many actions only need a 5 or more on the dice to succeed. If tests succeed by 10 or more, then this is deemed a critical success
Beware: If payers do crazy things their characters can be harmed. Each time you’re harmed you lose a heart. If your hearts drop to zero (from 3) – you’re not dead, but actions become more difficult until you have found some source of healing.
The GM Rules.
As befits the role of GM, you have many more cards to play with than the characters. 51 of them! It’s the GM’s job to construct the game’s narrative framework. To help you do this, you have a number of different card types.
1 backdrop: The setting of the story. The backdrop cards describe where the action takes place, who its main players are, and any environmental factors in play.
5 stories: These cards lay out the story goals for the characters. This is what the players have to achieve to complete the story you are telling together.
9 scenes: In a traditional RPG sense these are your dungeon rooms or your town buildings. The locations are where the action is going to take place. Each location has a “scene” goal (as opposed to the overall story goal above) that has to be completed before characters can progress beyond it.
12 extras and “star” extras: These are effectively the GM’s characters! During the game, the GM generates tokens which they then use to play cards or uses abilities printed on them. The “Star” extras work in the same way as standard extras but have more expensive abilities.
12 props: Treasure, MacGuffins, and other paraphernalia the GM uses to add flavor to the adventure. Again, the GM uses tokens to put these into play.
12 twists: If the story is getting bogged down or your players are lacking a little inspiration, you can throw in a twist to mix things up.
To set up the game the GM does the following
Choose the stage you’ll be playing for this adventure. Separate and shuffle its story, scene, extra, prop, and twist decks.
Play the backdrop and 1 story, dark side up. If the story goal calls for additional cards, add them.
Play 3 scenes, light side up. Set the remaining story and scene cards aside; you won’t need them.
Keep the other decks (extra, prop, and twist) decks nearby, with their red token costs visible.
Keep the GM tokens handy.
What are the GM Tokens?
Tokens are the currency the GM uses to drive the game.
They’re generated in two ways:
When scenes begin. Arriving at a new scene adds to the GM’s pool of tokens.
When players roll poorly. Failing a roll gives the GM extra tokens.
Tokens create a power balance in Atma. When the players are doing well and rolling high, they tend to narrate what happens. When the GM earns enough tokens, it’s their turn to exert some control. Player failure means the GM can dictate how things get worse for them, and the tokens given at the start of a new scene allow the GM to set up the next set of obstacles. (Note: Each new scene gives progressively more tokens, making each scene trickier to navigate than the last.)
The GM can only hold onto 3 tokens at a time.
Telling the Story.
Once the game begins, players introduce their characters based on the information on their cards. There is no hard and fast rule for this (or pretty much anything else in the game). They can incorporate any bits of their character background that they see fit. Players then decide why their characters are here and how they might know each other.
Once the introductions have been made, the GM then sets the scene, by flipping the first…err…scene!
The GM reads the scene, and outlines the goals on the cards. Each card has two goals but players only have to complete one of them in order to complete the card. The GM then also decides which extra cards to put into play, such as extras, props, or twists. They also decide how whatever they introduce will interact with the given scene and the player actions.
Whilst the players roll dice to see whether their actions were successful, the GM never uses dice. The GM can use tokens to introduce new challenges, but otherwise describes everything that happens in response to player actions. As you can see this is very much a collaborative effort. The goals on cards are never hidden and all parties are working towards character/player success.
It’s worth pointing out that as GM, you don’t have to keep every card you draw – indeed I for your first few games you may not want to. GM’s may well want to take a look at what’s ahead, so you can plan a little in advance. There more random you keep things, the less likely your games will be samey, but there’s a lot going on in Atma when you first start GMing. A little pre-planning definitely won’t hurt. (If you want to pre-plan using the online trial version, set up a dummy account in an incognito browser window and log in as both player and GM. This will enable you too look at all the available cards and get used to the interface. I definitely recommend doing this, before you invite extra human players along).
This will only happen if the story requires it, but your characters can be injured in the game. Players can’t use Atma’s flexible and open mechanics to repeatedly put their characters in mortal danger. Events that would hurt in real-life hurt in Atma too. If characters are reckless or get beaten up, the GM can add “harm” to their character card. Once a character has 3 harm added, they collapse. They’re not dead – but rescue, rest, and recuperation may now be the focus of the story. If all characters collapse, it’s not necessarily the end – it’s up to the players! Can you narrate yourselves back from being mostly dead!?
Why Play Atma?
Atma is a beautifully executed little game, that has lots of potential for expansion. It’s an excellent RPG in a box, giving a multitude of stories for you to create with your roleplaying group.
Whether you will fully enjoy it or not will depend on your group. Whilst the idea of a card-based RPG system feels like it ought to be more restrictive than a more traditional sandbox RPG, the opposite is true. Where games like D&D and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (the two games I have most experience with) have open-ended worlds, the character generation process gives you a defined set of abilities, and game narration tends to be flexible but constrained by GM preparation.
Here, everything is built on the fly with almost no constraints, making Atma much more of a storytelling game, rather than one that invites you to take on a role whilst crunching numbers. My group tends to prefer the latter; we’re not natural ad-libbers. I was fortunate to play Atma with two of the more imaginative members of my group. If I were to have played Atma with all of them, it would have fallen flat, as they’re not natural storytellers. To get the most from Atma you want as many storytellers as possible. Thinking on your feet is a must, as is a desire to explore a story.
Atma’s possibilities are endless. It’s fun throwing some dice and making stuff up as you go, seeing where the story takes you, but you do need the correct personality types to join you. As long as you have that Atma is an excellent game.
The art is brilliantly evocative and all of the scenes, NPCs, twists, and locations, that I’ve used in the game, inspire interesting narrative development. The whole game is a beautifully designed set of prompts for telling an exciting story. There is some dice-slinging involved, but the game would work almost as well without it. That said, rolling high and getting a critical success, is just as much of a thrill as it is for any pen and paper RPG.
Atma is an enticing game, that once you have felt your way through your initial games, becomes an intuitive and interesting exercise in world creation. In each game, you all work together to great a unique version of events. The chances of creating the same story even after 100 plays are very slim. The cards can combine and interact in a huge number of different combinations and interpretations. If you’re looking for a quick story-based RPG fix, with a minimum of set up time that also looks amazing, then Atma is the game for you.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.