AVAILABLE HERE: jessfromonline.itch.io/ihthg
Design, Writing: Jess Levine
Layout Artist: Vin Tanner
Game Design Consultant: satah
I was recently contacted by the creator of this interesting new game and provided with a PDF copy for review purposes. Unfortunately, I have yet to play a game with any of my usual gamer friends as I’ve been away with the family; bear that in mind in the context of what’s written here.
The blurb for IHtHG is pretty inviting if witty repartee is your thing. Intended as a short, collaborative TTRPG and storytelling game, the system is centred around recreating those classic duels in media. The name obviously brings to mind the idea of space wizards wielding light swords whilst making ‘phwvoom’ noises alongside their cutting barbs. For me though, the mind instantly went to pirates and a certain old point and click series where the cut of your jib was more important than your deft bladework.
Produced in ‘zine’ format and clocking in at just 24 pages, this is very much heavy in Indy vibes. All too often people get a bit panicky when anything strays far from their ideas of flying lizards and cavern-based gaming, but this remains concise and clear throughout. So don’t see this tag as a negative, instead allow yourself the chance to try something new. Indeed, as you’ll see this neat game idea could easily see its way onto the table during a more ‘traditional’ gaming session. Worth noting the line illustrations from Ezra Rose here which, despite only appearing a few times, do stellar work in conveying a short story of two combatants and the literal shattering between them.
So, without much pre-amble and fanfare (I’m gonna assume that if you’re reading this, you too also know what a roleplaying game is) we get stuck into deciding what kind of duel we’re going to have. Of course, we have a short summary and tips on safety, but these are tailored for the themes likely to crop up in game. Tension, and sometimes flirtatious behaviour oft go hand in hand with tv and movie duels, but always good to ensure everyone has clear expectations.
Setting the Scene
Without being patronising, I Have the High Ground has some simple steps to create the scene for your duel. Whether you want to imagine robed samurai standing on a windy plateau as blossoms flutter past, the interior of a crumbling clifftop castle overlooking a stormy bay, or mibbies even a futuristic galactic taverna, the descriptors here help to give a bit of form without being restrictive.
You’ll also need to decide on characters. A memorable duel doesn’t involve two John or Jane Does. A memorable duel is one where we have an inkling to a character’s motives, history, and a good idea of their cape; yes cape. As part of the set up and determining priority I have the High Ground uses a novel idea of the description of one’s cape being used. This is actually a lot simpler than it appears and I think could lead to some fun conversations between players. Without wanting to jump into hacking this at the get go, it would be really easy to alter this slightly to cover any piece of clothing or maybe even the player’s weapon itself if you are really cape averse.
Hack and Slash or Thrust and Parry
Before getting into the mechanics, it’s important to highlight some of the philosophy behind the game. Levine has really worked towards this being a collaborative rather than competitive duelling system. You could dispense with all the fluff and focus on the mechanics but then why not simply roll dice and see who scores higher right? Here we are asked to explore rivalries and engagements. What happens as the characters gain advantage or find themselves in a tight spot and fortune fails to shine. This is not a game about describing how you hit but how you stand. There is more in the posture than there is in the punch.
“I Have the High Ground uplifts the fact that tabletop roleplaying games are at their heart a form of storytelling, and the desired outcome is a satisfying story, not a dead goblin.”
It should also be noted that there appears to be a conscious decision to highlight the often-inherent romance involved in duelling and swordplay. Whether it’s bitter rivals who twist their passion for each other into hatred or the corruption of more platonic love as one falls into darkness. First and foremost, this game aims to let players tell dramatic stories around a specific scene and framework, and it looks to do that very well.
Actual rules wise, if you understand the concept of rock-papper-scissors, you’ll be able to pick this up relatively quickly. IHtHG revolves around secretly choosing one of three moves, Thurst, Feint, Parry, and revealing them to your opponent. Resolve the narrative outcome of these and score points, with the first player to score 9 being declared the winner. As I say, if you were to remove any fluff here its not going to sound overly enticing, but when you sprinkle on the flavour, its very neat and clever.
As one might expect, Thrust is an offensive action which beats Feint and losses to Parry. It’s a physical move or cruel barb. Feint beats Parry and is a provocation or bait which can leave the loser on edge. Finally, Parry is a defensive stance which could easily set up for a witty comeback. So, say you reveal a Parry to your opponent’s Thrust. As the winner you gain the point but might describe how the heavy posturing from the ‘enemy’ has left them off-balance and you easily flick aside their attack. With a glint in your eye, you throw a quip that perhaps if they spent as much time on their swordplay as they did their poor taste in fashion, they might fare better.
At the culmination of the game, the first true blow has been struck. What you say? Yes, IHtHG is purely focussed on that build up to the actual ‘fight’. You could easily hand wavy say that it was a decisive blow, but you could also use your go to system of choice to play out the actual fight. Maybe you could add some bonuses depending on how the events played out. This is a big plus for me. Whilst it might never be something I use regularly, I love when creators can work an idea to provide either a standalone game, or an effective bolt-on which can add some spice.
Do you Have the High Ground?
This is a feisty contained game which knows what it is, want it wants to do, and does so well. You won’t find a complex crunchy battle simulator within the pages of this zine, and that’s fine. Taking a really basc Ro-Sham-Bo model at its heart and adding a storytelling element is something I’m surprised I haven’t seen tried multiple times before. The clarity of writing will really help newer players get to grips with the concepts herein, and its budget friendly if you play it even only a couple of times. Aside from the zine itself, paper and pen, and even some custom tokens, you will need to bring plenty of imagination and flair.
In spite of the advice from a certain Edna Mode, don your cape, holster your sidearm, and strike a pose.
The writer of this piece was: Adam Brown
Adam Tweets from @brother_rooster