Thursday, 7 June 2018

Review: Songbirds

Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you).

Songbirds is a fantasy game based on the system of Into the Odd, albeit with a lot of changes. It mixes the simplicity and adventure game core of its parent game, and then mixes it with indie narrative concepts. It is similar to Whitehack in that regard.

  • Characters are called Songbirds. They are runaway adventurers, and they have a collective debt of a set amount.
  • There are three abilities (Mind, Body, and Soul). When a character does something risky and fast, roll d20 against an ability. Equal or lower rolls succeed.
  • Everyone has a War Name (a nickname of sorts) and a True Name (they hide it as it grants power over them).
  • The standard currency is silver (100s equals 1g). Everyone gets a few items by default, plus a thing or two based on their class.
  • Class is mostly some extra background and a special ability. There are a total of 16 classes available. They are... weird. The Icarus can fly once per day, but if they fly three times beyond their reasonable limit, they die. The Knight has made a promise and that grants their sword a magical property, but if they break that promise, they become cursed. The Scapegoat can transfer damage to a willing goat that costs some money. The Sorcerer has one wish, and they also start with a spellbook.
  • Levelling up occurs when the players get closer to their goals, make a lot of money, or feel really good about themselves.
  • Combat works basically as in Into the Odd. Hits are automatic (or rather, they are based solely on fictional positioning). Damage ranges from 1d4 to 1d12, but it's reduced by the enemy's armour. When no hit points are left, damage goes straight to Body. Save against Body to remain conscious.
  • Initiative is a bit different: the roll is based on weapon damage, and the lower the better.
  • Hit points return after a short rest, while ability loss heals slowly.
  • Negotiations involve stacking a tower of dice. The taller the tower, the more distant the other party is. Longer situations (called acts) are resolved with a dice stacking mechanic of their own, potentially using polyhedrals from d20 to d4. As the party moves forward and time passes, more dice are added to the tower. The act ends either when the party succeeds or the tower falls (which is a bad outcome).
  • A special kind of act is a montage, where the party members try to gather information. Everyone says how they go about it, and the GM assigns a save to it. Three failures means the montage ends in failure (or some complication), while three successes means they get something out of it.
  • Spellcasting requires a spell book, which contains syllables. Each spell is worth as many dice (saves or damage dice) as the number of syllables in them (e.g. "Kneel" is resisted with a single save, and "Burn this building down" deals 5d6 damage). Finding new syllables is a major part of being a spellcaster.
Things I Liked
  • The text is terse, and the layout is simple to follow.
  • There are default player roles (Leader, Cartographer, Stenographer, and Historian).
  • The implied setting is very anachronistic. You can buy swords, pistols, rockets, factories, or even planes.
  • Clear terminology for the passage of time and game structures (sessions are episodes, travel and long-term stuff are acts, fights and talks are scenes, individual actions are beats).
  • Upon character death, the player has a choice to either (1) return as a ghost, (2) gift their gear to an heir, or (3) land one final blow.
  • Witnessing a fellow songbird's death warrants a Soul save or they lose 1d6 points of Soul immediately. There is a dedicated action to drag an unconscious ally's body to safety.
  • The text deals with negotiations, providing neat rules of thumb, such as favours for favours or secret for secret.
  • The montage mechanics, reminescent of 4E's skill challenges, ensures that everyone at the table is participating.
  • Animism provides a way for everyone to become clerics. Players get to determine the tenets of their patron spirit, and they may ask for divine intervention.
  • Things that really shake a character (called life changing events) require a dream journey to recover from. If it succeeds, there is some reward (like recovering Soul, learning a secret, etc.), but on a failure there can be dire consequences.
  • Seasons are only 28 days long, just like in Stardew Valley.
  • Sessions are built around dilemmas, which are designed with a few principles in mind. There are a handful of example complications, dilemmas, places, and people.
  • The sample monsters have really good mechanics. Same with the magic items. I should note that many of their abilities are quite meta (e.g. the Vampire's strength is partially based on the number of red things the GM spots in the room, and one of the magic items' ability is based on the player's natural hair colour).
  • Sample settlement and adventure included. Puts a lot of the adventure design advice into practice, and they are genuinely phantasmagorical.
Things I Disliked
  • Way too many typos.
  • The dice stacking mechanic specifically for negotiations is explained before the general stacking mechanic. There are other similar inconveniences in organisation.
  • Seriously, I cannot stress enough how weirdly the rules are presented.
  • Only four sample monsters (Vampire, Bed Gaunt, Blood Dryad, and Zombie).

Songbirds is a weird little game. I really appreciate the sort of dreamlike adventures and settings it evokes, but the presentation makes it look like the game itself was written in a dream. There are just too many typos and organisational blunders, and even with the sample starting material, I'm not entirely sure how the game is supposed to be played, as there are few procedures (most things are presented as suggestions, rather). It's an impressionistic adventure game if there's ever been one. Regardless, there are a lot of cool bits in there.

Songbirds was written by John Battle. You can get the PWYW PDF at DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.


  1. Do you still have the Into the Odd version of this? The only version available now has drifted considerably away and I'm interested in reading the ItO version as I'm embarking on a hack of ItO myself.

    1. Hit me up at the e-mail address on my blogger profile.