Cover of the RPG Heart The City Beneath

Heart: The City Beneath is a game of unconventional fantasy adventurers who are drawn to enter, explore and lose themselves in a very corporeal underworld beneath the city of Spire. They’ll face horrific foes, bizarre locations and a mysterious and eldritch subway system. It’s from the same designers and publisher as Spire, it’s an indie darling, but what will the Ludonarrative Dissidents make of it? Will they locate the life-ending revelation they seek in its fleshy realms? Will Heart find a place in their ribcages, or turn them into a big ol’ train?


Heart: The City Beneath at DriveThruRPG

Heart: The City Beneath at Rowan, Rook & Decard


Show notes

Welcome to the proper first episode of season 3. These are the show notes covering the episode, in which we give a bit more background and information on anything we mention in passing, particularly other games, and give you a link to find out more if you’re interested.

Our thanks go to Sarah Cole for supporting this episode, and in James’s case for also giving him a lift back to London after UK Games Expo.

You’ll immediately notice we have a new theme: it is by Arcane Anthems and his Patreon page is here.

Ross’s zine is The Night Clerk, an ‘architectural horror zine’ of being trapped in an infinite hotel, and is available from DriveThruRPG and for those who didn’t back its funding campaign on Backerkit.

We are livestreaming once a month this year, as one of the stretch goals from our Kickstarter, talking on Twitch and Youtube about whatever games-related subjects seem interesting. So far we’ve done solo gamebooks, the D&D5e adventure released by NASA, and more. Click here to go to the Youtube channel to catch up on the streams so far (it’s Ross’s RPPR stream, we piggyback on it because it makes sense.)

That’s the housekeeping out of the way. On with the notes!

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Backerkit started life as a third-party post campaign addon and sales platform for Kickstarter users and is now a crowdfunding platform in its own right, heavy on tabletop games and RPGs. They do good work.

Eat the Reich is a recent RPG from Rowan, Rook & Decard, the publishers of Heart, in which you’re a vampire during World War 2 on a secret mission to assassinate Hitler and drink his blood.

Spire: The City Must Fall is another Rowan, Rook and Decard release, this one from a few years ago. You play a Dark Elf, the underclass in your ancestral home–the eponymous Spire–which was taken over by High Elves some two centuries ago. Critically acclaimed and well worth a look.

‘Show don’t tell’ is one of the canon tenets of good writing, both in fiction and non-fiction. It’s been around for at least a hundred years, though the advent of interactive (read: games) has added another level to it: let the players learn by doing wherever you can. The first level of Halo is a classic example of teaching players the various parts of its gameplay in a logical, immersive and narratively coherent way, from the basics of how to move, up to how to change weapons and throw grenades. (Halo was a launch title for the original Xbox and not just the first 3D game that many players would have encountered, but the first game with a new form of controller.) In the same way, this is why introductory adventures in RPGs tend to walk new players through the same systems and mechanics in the same order: simple interacting with the game environment, interacting with NPCs, doing actions, doing contested actions, doing combat, and so on. The Wikipedia entry for ‘show, don’t tell’ specifically mentions RPGs, so it feels weird that the Heart rulebook is so devoid of examples of play and sample structures for players and GMs to use as templates.

The three Ludonarrative Dissidents drink triggers: if you’re drinking while listening to any episode of the podcast, then you have to drain your glass any time that: (i) Ross says he ran a campaign of a game we’re discussing; (ii) James says he knows someone who worked on it, or (iii) Greg points out that the text uses the future-conditional tense. We would like to take this opportunity to apologise to your future hepatologist.

Trophy Dark is, like Heart, a fantasy game set in a dark and twisted environment that reacts to your presence and your desires, and it is generally assumed that your character will lose their sanity, their life, or worse. Based on Forged in the Dark, it has won considerable critical acclaim.

Roadside Picnic is a 1971 science fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and Stalker is a 1979 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, based on themes from the novel but more focused on the Zone itself. The Ukranian video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl is based loosely on the book and film. I (James) first saw the film in the late 1990s, came out of the cinema with an entire RPG version of it designed in my head, resigned myself to the fact that nobody in the world apart from me would be interested in playing it, and then discovered that John Tynes had already designed one and put it up for free on his website. Like the Zone, it’s still there.

There is also an official STALKER RPG, originally published in Finland in 2008 and now available in English.

Darkest Dungeon is a video game, ‘a challenging gothic roguelike turn-based RPG about the psychological stresses of adventuring’ available on Steam, while Dark Dungeons is a religious tract in comic-book form about the evils of playing D&D, released in the early 1980s by the late Jack Chick. You can read it online.

Junji Ito is a creator of horror Japanese manga of some renown, with a heavy energy of what the Germans call unheimlich. One of his better known works that also embodies the tone of much of his art is Uzumaki, in which a small town is haunted by inexplicable spirals. He’s also drawn Magic cards.

Bloodborne is a very hard 2015 video game, As the name suggests, it concerns the inhabitants of a land affected by a bloodborne plague and you, a Hunter, must kill them. It is very hard and also there is a lot of lore. People like it a lot, and the people who like it talk about it at length. It was about the time Bloodborne came out that I started to realise I was bored of video games.

Play Loops are part of the theory of game design. Put simply, most gameplay in most games forms loops or cycles, in which you will repeat actions but with different resources or options. The simplest loop in games: play passing around the table in a board game. If you want to know more, James’s Game Design Masterclass goes into the subject in more depth.

Delta Green: Impossible Landscapes is the first campaign for the Delta Green RPG, and is already regarded as a classic in the field. By Dennis Detwiller and the Arc Dream team, it’s the one about the King in Yellow, not to be confused with all the other games about the King in Yellow which are good but not as good.

Paranoia: in 2016 James designed a rebooted edition of dark-humour SF classic Paranoia (think Fallout but you never leave the vault, the vault is huge, the computer that runs the vault is insane and homicidal, and it’s funny.) Heart‘s co-creator Grant Howitt was one-third of the design team, and contributed some of the better jokes. Mongoose Publishing has subsequently memory-holed this edition, preferring to go back to a vision of Paranoia that involves selling the same jokes to people who have been buying them for forty years. However, you can still buy ours.

Sonic the Hedgehog novels: in the early 1990s James wrote a short series of Sonic the Hedgehog novels, working with Carl ‘Power Behind the Throne‘ Sargent and Marc ‘Advanced Fighting Fantasy‘ Gascoigne under the group pseudonym ‘Martin Adams’. Sonic in the Fourth Dimension, one of James’s, is generally regarded as the best of the bunch and is bizarrely quite collectible these days.

Thomas Ligotti is an American writer of weird philosophical horror, with a unique tone and atmosphere. His works were extremely influential on the first series of the HBO series True Detective.

James’s game Alas Vegas is a four-episode game of dreamlike horror in a strange casino city.

Honey Heist is the first of Heart designer Greg Howitt’s one-page RPGs, in which you play a group of bears attempting to pull off the theft of a large amount of honey. The kicker: bears are not very good at heists. It shows many of Grant’s major recurrent design themes: loose structure, story emerging through characters’ desires, and bees. It appears in a collected volume of Grant’s one-page games, but is also available as a pay-what-you-want download.

The Stacey Keach sitcom referred to is Titus, which ran for 56 episodes between 2000-2002. It does not deserve a link.

Gareth Hanrahan, splendid Irish RPG designer and adventure writer, as well as fantasy novelist, wrote the Laundry RPG which we covered in season 2 episode 5, and was our guest for the playthrough of Hole in the Sky at the end of season 2.

Bioshock is a 2007 videogame set in a massive underwater city that’s gone to hell after the libertarian systems on which it was founded didn’t work out the way the creators expected. It is brilliantly atmospheric, spoiled by moments of great ludonarrative dissonance.

Mork Borg (rendered as ‘Merc? Bored’ by AI transcription software) is an OSR fantasypunk game of a doomed world and was covered by us in season 2 episode 6.

Rosewood Abbey is a hack of Brindlewood Bay that transposes the murder-mystery game to a monkish medieval abbey. The designer, Kalum of Les Rolistes, is a friend of the podcast so we’ll sound biased (but frankly James is on the team so two-thirds of the games we feature are by friends of the podcast, or people his sister used to date, or something) but it’s very good indeed.

Brindlewood Bay is Murder She Wrote-style whodunnit roleplay with a Cthulhuish tinge. Sort-of based on the PBtA system, low-prep and with collaborative worldbuilding, its system of not having a predetermined solution to the puzzle of the murder, but simply accepting whatever the players come up with as correct, has drawn equal amounts of approbation and criticism, but it’s generally agreed that the game is excellent.

De Profundis was the first epistolatory RPG, played by writing letters to another player. It was written by Michal Oracz, originally published in Polish by Portal Games, and released in English in 2000 by Hogshead Publishing. It is remarkable in that the book is written as letters written to a third party, making the entire game its own example of play. It is a masterpiece.

Thousand Year Old Vampire is a journalling game by Tim Hutchings about being a vampire which we covered in season 2 episode 10 and liked very much.

Sword World is a Japanese fantasy RPG based on Record of Lodoss War, which was based on D&D.


If you click on any of the above links to DriveThruRPG and buy something, Ludonarrative Dissidents will receive a small percentage of the purchase price. You will not be charged more, and the game’s publisher will not receive less, so it’s a win-win-win. Thank you for supporting the podcast this way.