"but wait, David," I hear you cry. "Why five stars for a PBTA game? Did you not swear an ETERNAL BLOOD OATH against PBTA when it killed your parents?"
It's true, PBTA did kill my parents and burned down my family farm, then chained me to the wheel of pain for 20 years. But Flying Circus has finally broken me free, not only of my physical chains, but the chains of hatred as well. And to explain how, lets disregard the setting (which is fantastic, but many PBTA games have fantastic settings) and instead look at what makes this game so much better than the average PBTA game and, in fact, better than MOST roleplaying games period.
Firstly, lets talk about resources. In this game, you are playing bisexual biplane b'pilots (who may or may not be thiny vieled She-Ra expies), doing merc work in a soft-apocalpyse (so, the cities are destroyed, but the rural countryside is mostly untouched - if overrun by brigands and pirates and monsters.) The primary focus of the game is those flying combat. Where a great deal of PBTA games would have a move like, say...
Roll 2d6+Fuckill. On a hit, you fucking kill a vaugely defined amorphous chunk of bad guys that may be one guy or an entire army depending on whether the GM's blowing north by northwest. On a partial hit, you do the same, but worse. On a miss, the GM sets your hair on fire. Not your character's hair. Yours. And the way most of the probability curves work out for PBTA style games, you've got, like, a pretty good shot per roll to let the GM set your hair on fire or explode the puppy orphanage. And that's if you're good at your stat. Heaven help you if you have a +0 or a -1!
Flying Circus ditches 2d6s in favor of 2d10s, and has stats as high as 10. It also has multiple systems by which you can get advantage (far more generously than I've seen in many PBTA games.) But what's more important, it TIES A LOT OF ROLLS TO RESOURCES. The go to move for killing a motherfucker in the sky is "Dogfight", which requires you to expend Speed. You get Speed by losing altitude or pushing your engine (which have their own interesting subsystems as engines take wear, and as the ground gets closer.) The more speed you spend, the more you can lean into a turn, the higher your bonuses, the more likely you'll drop yourself right on some Goth bastard's tail to shoot him to pieces.
The combination of a more generous probabiltiy curve (I don't actually know if it is from a mathy perspective, all I can say is that it felt more fair, which is what actually matters!) and the ability to wager resources to improve your chances already creates a delightful tension in the mechanics that is just...missing from most PBTA games I've played. In those games, the tension is only "will the dice fuck me, or will I manage to not die." Which isn't a good feeling. I like rolling dice, and game systems that discourage you from rolling dice aren't my cup of dice.
But wait, the mechanical excellence continues: Once you actually SHOOT at the bad guys, gunfire has a delightfully wide liminal space of effectiveness to ineffectiveness - it's very rarely a "complete miss" or a "complete hit" happens, and even those possibilities are modified yet more by more interesting, engaging choices. Did you focus purely on the enemy (thus opening yourself up to a hard move from the GM) and thus get a to choose where your crit location is? Did you load your machine guns with incindiary bullets, so your shots through the wing set the enemy plane on fire? Do you have FREAKING LASERS on your plane? Cause you can have LASERS too, those are helpful.
The end result of these mechanical choices - and a bunch of similarly well thought out systems - turns air combat into a high flying, high thrills, high stake adventure where you have meaningful choices every round, get stuck into dangerous situations with regularity, but you also never feel like you're being cheated. The game also sidesteps a thematic issue that can crop up in some PBTA games where a previously undescribed threat (bears) snaps into or out of the quantum substrate depending on your rolls. Whiff the perception check, bears. Succeed the perception check, no bears. Well, unlike, say, a game where you're a bunch of boring "adventurers" on this "ground" i've heard so much about, in Flying Cirucs, you're sexy BIPLANE pilots in the SKY. That's the exact kind of place you expect to have some fucker in a red triplane to come dropping out of the clouds when you least expect him before putting a spread of bullets into your radiator, forcing you to wingwalk while your observer desperately holds the stick steady and the fucker in the red triplane keeps buzzing you. He's not even shooting, he's just flying past, waggling his wings, not that I'm bitter or anything.
So, the flying combat is great! But it's also supported by a deeply fun mechanic for building up stress and then burning it off when you touch tarmack (this is inaccurate, most of these planes land on grassy fields.) Basically, the more traumatizing your mission (what causes trauma varies upon your character archetype), the more stress you get. The more stress you get, the more fun you need to have on the ground to burn the stress off (1 stress becomes 1 XP, so this is actually important for character advancement.)
- Rock and roll
- Getting into a fist fight with that asshole from Rosetta Squadron who keeps making cracks about your plane
- Deciding to wager your entire wardrobe on a straight flush in the hopes of seeing your rival pilot get naked
- "Borrowing" an automobile for a drunken joyride through a sleepy rural village
- Communing with the Old Ones who slumber eternally beneath the sea.
The stress mechanic is really the glue that holds the game together and creates a marvelous push and pull of character actions. Your pilots aren't responsible adults - most of them are barely twenty. They're hopped up adrenaline junky teenagers, usually on the run from shitty homes or shitty towns, who are finding themselves in a big, scary, wonderful world. Every other day, they almost die. They DO NOT MAKE GOOD DECISIONS. At first, at least. The game includes a mechanical and narrative system for learning to vent your stress more responsibility, and even has a really sweet mechanic for retiring a character at the end of their adventures. Everyone's gotta grow up some day, after all.
And this leads into the last part of the system: The upkeep. Fun is expensive. Planes are more expensive. Medical care for the time a Gremlin pulled out your alternator mid flight and you had to put down without an engine and you rolled, snapped your wing and shattered your arm in six places is also expensive. All this stuff comes out of the paycheck you got for your LAST mission - and it's pretty clear the creator of the game has worked pretty hard to give PCs a razor fine edge of profit and loss, requiring careful selection of jobs (there's a handy random job table for GMs who can't think of anything) and negotiations before taking to the air. Usually, you will constantly be scrambling for just one more measly thaler, and if you fall behind, your employees might start to unionize. I know, just because they haven't been paid in weeks, the expect some kind of "compensation" for their labor. What ingrates!
(Serious note: Anyone who employs strike breakers in this game is officially a bastard.)
The end result is a routine of flight, combat, daring heroics, partying hard, regretting your choices in the morning, getting paid, slapping down funds for repairs and bills, maybe saving up for that sexy as fuck new engine you've been eying, then you get a new job: 20 thalers for flying some cargo to a town? Sounds too good to be true! OH FUCK! DRAGONS! DRAGONS EVERYWHERE! Then you land with your tail still on fire and get drunk and sleep with your wingman, even though he's dating your mechanic, and you get caught trying to sneak out and it's a whole THING...
Throw into this a fantastically detailed setting of high fantasy and exciting diselpunk technology (anyone who refers to the advanced technology in this setting as "steampunk" will report for disciplinary action) and you have a crackling, lightning bottle of adventure and excitement.
Buy it now!