Relics: A Game of Angels Review

Note: The material I am reviewing for Relics is playtest material, and may not reflect the final product. Please keep that in mind as reading below.

Relics, by Australian designer Steve Dee, caught my eye as I looked over the image on its Kickstarter page. It evoked a wave of memories of the dark gothic feel of White Wolf’s Vampire line, and I’ve always been partial the grim and the dark in my games. Its subtitle, ‘a game of angels’, brings up images of the TV series Supernatural in my mind, and reading through I wasn’t disappointed there.

There’s a lot to unpack when utilising real world religion and mythology in a game, and there’s a thin line to walk between preaching and creating an open, enjoyable setting for all readers. For the most part, Relics sits comfortably on the latter side of that line. The Angels are not inherently perfect, glorious creations, how could they be when it is us, the players with all our own innate biases and flaws that play them? The Angels in Relics? Well, honestly, they suck, and that’s a good thing. They’re beings of incredible power with no idea how to use it, stripped of the guiding hand of their God and left to fend for themselves.

The setting I feel is easily the strongest part of Relics, it takes a lot of what people might think about angels from popular culture and redesigns it in a way that feels personal to this setting, at least through the media I enjoy. There’s an entire sidebar explaining how a fallen angel isn’t a bad thing, it’s what they do once they get to Earth that defines them, and I for one am all about that kind of personal choice in role-playing games. Yeah, this isn’t D&D, you aren’t picking your own combination of race and class and so on and so forth. But what you are picking is your story, and give tabletop roleplaying is, at its heart, a medium for interactive storytelling, that is a huge plus in my books.

Faith sits at the heart of this game, and the creator is very upfront about that, stating that Relics is “…a story about faith and belief.” Reading through though, the story itself is flexible in this matter, and I feel if that isn’t your cup of tea there’s still a lot of fun to be had here. If that is something that intrigues you, then you are going to have a ball with this setting. The lore is deep, echoes of real world religions inspire themes that bring to life a world of supernal power and the creatures who wield it.

Mechanically, Relics is an odd one. It uses the Fugue System from creator James Wallis, with Tarot cards and character elements discovered through play, not decided at character creation. I myself was unfamiliar with it at first, and while I have a great love of rolling dice there is a lot less of an emphasis on rolling high and winning at random chance than other systems I’ve played. Relics is a storytelling system first, and a game second, and that is one of its greatest strengths.

Character creation is a marathon, especially if you choose to randomly draw everything about your character, which the book subtly hints you may want to do. I can see why too, the wealth of choices available to you in this game are staggering. When making characters for the review of this, we ended up drawing for most of it, our goal was to test it out, and we could have spent our entire first session just building characters. The thematic element of turning over tarot cards to reveal your destiny is a nice little added bonus to character creation that gave us all a good laugh at the table. I suggest your Dealer (the book’s term for a GM) put on their best fortune teller act for this part, it’s just too much fun.

Gameplay itself goes through storytelling steps, the Dealer presents a scenario, the Personas (players) utilise their skills to overcome it by turning over tarot cards in place of rolling a die. I’m sure someone has done all the math to tell you which is the more statistically random or predictable option out of the two, but there is something really satisfying about turning over a tarot card. Every skill feels like a critical hit when it goes well, and reading the rules before playing we didn’t expect to feel like that. I played Malifaux for a while, which had a deck of cards instead of dice, and it felt fine. There’s just something special about tarot cards, they carry a mystical gravitas that perfectly suites the setting of the game.

The deck is stacked in favour of success we felt, though most the time it was a ‘grudging success’. One of my players was attempting to lock a demon in a room to hold it at bay until reinforcements arrived. A card was drawn, oh it’s a Minor 7. So lucky him, the demon is trapped because that was the goal he set out to accomplish. After a quick back and forth to decide what the ‘but…’ to add at the end of his success was, he is given a choice. There’s an innocent human inside the room he hadn’t noticed before, but with a quick burst of speed he could save her. The demon could get out in that time unless he closes the door from the inside and traps himself.

The tension rose, we were at the edge of our seats, then he remembered that humans were sometimes unfortunate collateral, and he slammed the door on the innocent hoping they would provide a distraction to stop the demon trying to escape. The rest of the group were horrified, everyone was invested in the results of a single draw though, and that’s what you want. A lot of games drown you in inconsequential rolls, but the back and forth nature of success in Relics helps turn even mundane events into moments for storytelling.

There’s one, particularly strange aspect of this system that warrants further commentary, Complex Tests. In short, they’re blackjack with a tarot deck and the stakes are the story. This is how a contested actions occur, and every card drawn affects the narrative. We had four Personas and the Dealer, and there was a huge action in which everyone was involved. It was some of the most involved roleplaying some of the players had gotten into for quite some time, no one was willing to let a cool card’s result go to waste, and a system which can motivate the resident dungeon crawler to sit up and take an active role in the story is a powerful one.

The final element of Relics to discuss are Memories. If you’re familiar with Fugue you’ll get how important they are. Memories serve two purposes, the acquisition of skills and the advancement of personal narrative. The interesting part? Memories create changes in a character, adding dimensions to their story and building upon their skills base, but it isn’t the character who triggers a Memory who directs it. Another player takes on the role of narrator and director, and in this character development is a communal act which is designed to bring the group closer together.

Everyone has a hand in directing a Memory, and this helps build a sense of community I haven’t really found around the table often in other games. The last game I played with communal character development was Paranoia, and this couldn’t be further away from that if it tried. Memories are triggered from a communal pool of Memory Chips, you get seven a session to share between you. They can acquire skills or they can help you succeed when you otherwise failed. It takes some getting used to in order to build a sense of sharing and collaboration with those chips, so the designer has been clever.

You may never take them, you ask for them, and everyone decides. We honestly thought that would start a fight at some point, but in reality it just helped to build the story and camaraderie around the table. That might not be your experience, but if everyone comes with the plan to work together that finite pool of chips becomes a great team building exercise. (We might have missed the part where it never mentions chips carry over to the next session though, they are there to spend not horde, don’t make our mistake).

So, overall, what is my opinion of Relics? After three sessions of play, I really enjoyed it. It has its flaws, but what system doesn’t? When one of the biggest concerns I have is that the storytelling slows down gameplay, that’s hardly a condemnation. It won’t be everyone’s game, combat is more narrative than crunch and some people really are just into RPGs to slay goblins and make gold, and there is nothing wrong with that. But if you enjoy story, if you enjoy evolving narratives, and if you enjoy working with the people around you more often than not, I’d recommend Relics to you in a heartbeat. The Fugue system, even with the changes Steve Dee has made to it, takes a bit to wrap your head around, but the end result is rewarding.

Also, as a final aside, the book makes specific mention that angels should not reveal their angelic forms, even if they preface it with ‘Fear not’. My player declared ‘Fear not mortals!’ and tried to use his angelic grace to awe a group of humans so they would stay where they were and a demon trying to escape wouldn’t freeze in awe, and thus as a team they could spot it. One Dramatic Failure later, and we have a new story to tell when explaining why his ideas are always terrible. Thank you Relics for that.

While the Kickstarter for Relics has come and gone (a resounding success), you can still pre-order your copy from the official website –

https://tinstargames.weebly.com/relics.html#/

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