Hot on the heels of PWNED, I have another reading suggestion for you. This article is a conventional review of an RPG book. Once more, I must make it clear that I received a free copy of the game. I have only read the rules, rather than played them. So, this is a reading review, not a playing review.
Spark is designed by Jason Pitre, and published by Genesis of Legend Publishing in 2013. This storytelling RPG focuses on building worlds and challenging the characters beliefs within those worlds. The introduction describes the game as follows:
The Spark RPG is about imagining, building, and exploring fictional worlds. It gives you all of the tools and guidance you need to create an evocative and engaging Setting. It shows you how to find inspiration and collaboratively build a world with your friends. Most importantly, it teaches you how to create a place that each of you find compelling.
The game is purpose-built to foster creating dynamic, custom Settings. You can work together to create a world that interests all of you, one that gives you a context for rich stories.
As regular readers of Tales of a GM could guess, this is exactly the type of game I like to play. Collaborative, storytelling games are what I enjoy, so I had high hopes for Spark.
The Spark Bundle
The first thing which caught my eye about Spark, even before I read the introduction, was the sheer volume of material. Genesis of Legend provide the buyer with an awesome package of material when buying from DriveThru RPG. This begins with two versions of the rules: colour and printer friendly versions.
Next there is a Player Package pdf and a GM Package pdf. These are short collections of forms, a character sheet and a rules summary. It is very helpful to have these as separate documents. However, many of the icons are solid black, so printing these at home could use a fair amount of ink.
Finally, and most interestingly, the bundle includes mobi and epub versions of the rules, making Spark accessible on virtually any device. Many print publishers now offer free pdfs with a dead-tree version of a book. Genesis of Legend have found a digital equivalent, by offering multiple formats of the core rules.
The pdf of Spark is 209 pages long, with a modern, sparse layout. The bookmarks are extensive, and the internal references within the text are hyperlinked. Genesis of Legend make good use of the unique features of a pdf. Spark is very easy to read as a pdf, even on my small laptop.
There are a few beautiful, full-colour, evocative pieces of art scattered through the book. However, the bulk of Spark is in a simple, clean layout with examples of play after each section. The sample dialogue provided is a good way to illustrate the process of playing Spark, even if some of the dialogue is a little clunky. Spark has a very indie-game style layout, which allows the quality of the game itself to shine through.
In many ways, Spark is two games in one package, as in contains a setting creation process along with rules for gaming within that setting. As any game starts with the setting, so too shall this review.
Spark provides two methods of setting creation, depending upon whether the group is starting from scratch, or adapting an existing published world to Spark. Many of the processes are the same, but it helps to have checklists for each approach.
As to be expected of a storytelling game, the setting creation process features a lot of roundtable discussion. There is a heavy focus on collaboration, which should ensure plenty of Player engagement with the finished world. The example dialogues from this section of Spark focus on one of the three sample settings found in the back of the book. This combination allows the reader to see both the process, in the dialogue, and the finished product, in the completed setting write-up. A clever juxtaposition which adds to both parts of the book.
The essence of a setting in Spark are Beliefs, Factions, Ties and Agendas. The subsequent game in the setting will explore the interactions of these four core traits.
- Beliefs are the central principles of the setting, philosophical or moral ideas to be explored during play
- The Factions are the major organisations within the setting, who operate according to one of the core Beliefs
- Ties are the links between the Factions, a network of relationships
- Agendas are the short-term goals of the Factions, and serve to drive the plots of the game
This is very elegant way to summarize a setting, and in a manner which is central to the needs of a GM. In terms of the story, these are all the elements you need for the setting. The background to my new Sigil PD campaign easily slots into this framework.
- NeoNihon: Shogunate Science Fiction, a harsh planet of colonial overlords and genetically engineered peasant farmers.
- Quiet Revolution: Montréal Police Drama, a gritty, modern police drama set in a city of culture, crime, and contradictions.
- The Elemental Kingdom: Fantasy under Siege, four Elemental Orders, wielding corrupting magic, protect a kingdom from rampaging elemental monsters.
Each setting chapter gives an overview of the game, some sample factions and a list of suitable abilities for characters playing in this setting. The settings themselves provide a mix of styles, and allow Spark to be played with minimal preparation.
The core of Spark is the rules for the narrative game. Setting creation can be a fun mini-game, but the heart of Spark is a group of characters confronting their beliefs.
The Characters chapter describes how to create a Hero in Spark. Characters in Spark have Beliefs, Attributes and Talents. There are some storytelling requirements, too. Each Player needs a concept for their Hero, and Spark has a list of background questions designed to flesh out the personality and link the Heroes together.
In a game about challenging beliefs, it is crucial for the Heroes to have a set of three core Beliefs. These are at the heart of the story, and will change during the course of a campaign as the character grows and evolves. These Beliefs need not be the same as the ones defining the setting, but the best games occur where there is some conflict between the Beliefs of Heroes and those of the setting.
If the Beliefs are core to the story, then it is the Attributes which are core to the mechanics of Spark. Each Hero has four Attributes: Body, Heart, Mind and Spark. As to be expected, Body represents physicality, Heart equates to social ability and Mind is a measure of intelligence.
Spark is an usual Attribute, and covers luck, fate and destiny. It is quite a meta ability, relating to how strongly the character interacts with the story itself. I like the way Spark gives Players the option to take a stronger role in the story. However, this could prove to be a little too meta, and break the immersion of the game. I suspect the impact will very according to the Players and the style of game. I shall reserve judgement until I can see the rules in action.
Mechanics of Spark
A game of Spark consists of GM and Players making statements to drive the story forward, ideally confronting the Beliefs of the Heroes and the setting. If a statement is disputed, then this triggers a Conflict, and out come the dice.
Each Attribute has a die rating, the higher the attribute, the larger the die. The progression of the dice used are d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20. To participate in a Conflict, roll the die corresponding to the rating of the appropriate Attribute. Allies and supporting abilities add to the roll, and the highest total wins.
I like the simplicity and utility of this method. After years of playing the elegant HeroQuest 2, I despair at multiple subsystems to resolve different styles of contest. Spark has a single, robust conflict resolution mechanic, which favours the most powerful competitor, but does not assure their victory. The mechanics are simple, effective, and quickly allow the game to return to progressing the story.
The essence of Spark is the storytelling, and this is given a strong structural framework as part of the rules. The true magic of an RPG is what happens at the table, not what is written in the rules. Yet, the frameworks for storytelling in Spark are designed to help a compelling story emerge.
In addition, there is an entire chapter dedicated to providing solid storytelling advice. Part of this advice is aimed squarely at Spark GMs. However, a good chunk of this chapter applies to storytelling in any game, and thus makes great advice for all of us.
Spark is a complete storytelling package, covering setting creation, roleplaying and superb advice. It works with any setting, and even includes three sample settings in the book. The digital bundle from Genesis of Legend is brilliant value. If you are looking for a storytelling game with an emphasis on character and belief, then Spark is the game for you.
This review is not the end of my coverage of Spark. There will be some feature articles focusing on some of the highlights of the book. There will also be an Interlude in the near future, making use of the setting creation rules.
Thanks again to Jason for the free review copy.