Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Seven pages of knavery: Cruel & Unusual RPG

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I play mostly through the web these days, but I am still on the lookout for strange and new games that strike my fancy. I am not particularly hot for the so-called Old School Revival, that to me too often feels like people talking about how they would play, if they actually sat down to play, but are in fact too busy discussing the Byzantine minutiae of a pretty wooden gaming system that was developed before they were born. People that take themselves too damn seriously for my tastes, and that often flaunt unlikely degrees in Political Sciences or Modern Letters, usually applied to Fantasy Fiction (with a paper on P.K. Dick, or H.P. Lovecraft) or the Social Dynamics of the Gaming Ecosystem.
So, I often roam DriveThruRPG looking for something different – and if I maybe will never play it, well, at least it’s new.

A good example is Cruel & Unusual, a small, fiendishly clever game published by Sinister Beard Games and designed by Oli Jeffery; the game caught my eye thanks to a beautiful cover by artist Lenka Simeckova, and turned out to be something I will certainly, sooner or later, spring on my unsuspecting players. Possibly in a public place, when public places will become available again in the future.

The idea of Cruel & Unusual is that the players are down-on-their-luck, and more importantly broke individuals of great ambition and precious few scruples. Not criminals, mind you, but people that might contemplate crime as a way to achieve their goals.

The system, that is contained in just seven nicely laid-out pages, makes character creation quite fun, and … different, as characters are defined by a degree of Cruelty and Unusual-ness, by a curse (like having sold their soul to the devil, or having a mortgage, two children and a spouse) and a profession or vocation of sorts (say scientist, maybe insane, or stage magician, or solicitor).
And then a name. A rather pompous, P.G. Woodehouse-ish name.
Not necessarily their actual, real, proper name, but a name.

From there on, is mostly improvising, and the occasional roll of one to three D10s, depending on the circumstances.

The basic idea might remind someone of the vastly more popular game Fiasco, but while Fiasco leaned more on a Quentin Tarantino-esque style, Cruel & Unusual is more tongue in cheek and sophisticated, and cites Mervyn Peake among its inspirations. There is a gusto for the grotesque, and a more British sense of black humor to the game.
Granted, a lot of players might not click, so to speak, with the premise of the game, but those who do, are probably going to have a hell of a good time.

Cruel & Unusual can be had, in digital form, via DriveThruRPG, for the price of a take-away pizza, and is a game to be played, and not to be discussed. Which is perfectly fine with me.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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