ERA – the Game That Neil Forgot

I do laugh to myself, sometimes, when people still refer to me as a ‘games designer’. Duty and Honour was published 17 years ago with Beat to Quarters coming one year later. That’s a lifetime ago really – and before someone asks, no, I am nowhere nearer a second edition of either of them.

I did write another game at the time, one that I had totally forgotten about until recently when I was idly looking around my game shelves and happened upon a copy of ERA ‘Epic Storytelling Game’. I had a look through it again for old time’s sake and you know what? I can’t work out whether it is the epitome of car crash 00’s game design (in the 2010s)  or something that was way ahead of its time!?

ERA has a number of design goals. The first is that could be played with one GM and one player, or on GM and two players or one GM and one player with two characters. So you could play, for example, Batman, but also Batman and Robin. James Bond or the Men from U.N.C.L.E. – you get my drift.

The second is that games last around one hour. I designed it to play with my daughter who was maybe 15 at the time and was just getting her gaming feet wet. (Newsflash – she now has a more active gaming life than I do…)

The third was that the game required creativity to create a series of iconic scenes. Any game had to have a fight, a social scene, a chase etc. It’s baked into the mechanics.

So far so good? Let’s get our 00s design on then, shall we?

Character Generation

Game statistics are elements, each one representing an action (and subsequently, a type of scene). So in the standard fantasy setting of the Dragontooth Mountains,  Fire represents fighting, Craft represents magic, Granite represents wisdom and knowledge, Song represents charisma and Ice represents speed and agility. Each element is allocated a die from an array and a pithy sentence – or aspect – that describes it. So you might have

Fire d10 Immortal Palace Guard

Characters also had three trappings (equipment) and five lores (background aspects) that were each allocated a die, an element and an aspect. You could choose the elements too. This was one of the real features of the game. For example, compare these two lines:

Fire d8 Great Sword of King Argen
Song d8 Great Sword of King Argen

The first is a great martial weapon, which cleaves its foes. The second is a sword of ceremony that gives the bearer great status when presented. It’s the same item, but manifests in different ways. If you had the second, you still had a sword and you could still use it, but you weren’t getting the dice associated with it, unless you were involved in some courtly drama or tense noble stand off. 

Challenge Structure and Resolution

Each game of ERA consisted of seven scenes, and seven challenges. In true 00s style, this was a conflict resolution style game, so you only engaged with the mechanics once to resolve the scene. 

The first and last scenes of the seven are Gateway Scenes. Oh, I forgot to mention that Scenes have Elements too. So a tavern brawl would be a Fire scene, whereas a chase through a crowded market would be an Ice scene. Gateway scenes act as the entrance and exit of the story, and the element is defined by the GM. So we start with an ogre attacking a village and the Hero having to fight it off? That’s a Fire scene.

The player (or in subsequent scenes, the person who didn’t define the element) then adds another element. So if the player wants there to be a magical side to the scene, they would add Craft. If they wanted their character to be able to use sweeping oration to affect the ogre, they might add Song instead. You can’t have double elements – no Fire+Fire. Let’s go with magic? So the scene is now a Fire+Song scene.

We have a bit of stakes setting (because it was the 00s) and then the player gathers their dice pool – one of the elements, two of their trappings and two of their lores. They have to share one of the elements with the scene, so in this example you can’t choose an Ice trapping or a Granite lore.

The GM, meanwhile, is looking at the ogre and doing the same. NPCs and Monsters have fixed numbers rather than dice. So you might end up with the following:

PC: d6, d6, d8, d8, d10
Orge: 3, 3, 4, 8 (because the Ogre only has four things with Fire or Song)

The GM now allocates those numbers into three totals – say (3+3), 4, 8 – and the player allocates their dice against those totals.

Orge Player
6 vs d6+d8
4 vs d10
8 vs d6+d8

The player rolls the dice and is looking for their total dice roll to beat the ogre.

Orge Player
6 vs
d6+d8 rolls 4+8 = 12. Victory!
4 vs d10
rolls 2.  Failure!
8 vs d6+d8
rolls 4+5 = Victory!

Don’t pick up those dice though, because there’s more to come!

To resolve the conflict, each person makes a statement about something that happens related to the stakes of the conflict. You get one statement per victory you gained. Taking turns, the next player can mitigate the statement a little, with their statement, or they can accept it and then use their statement to do something else. And you cannot make the smae statement twice. You can only mitigate a statement rather than wholly deny it. It becomes a nice little game of chess. For example:

The player says that they give the ogre a mortal wound!
The ogre says that the wound isn’t mortal, but it has a horrid gash across its face

The player says that the ogre flees the village

And that’s how the scene resolves. With a bleeding face, the ogre runs away and the village is left wondering what prompted the attack?

Well, the player won, so the GM narrates the next scene. It can be any element as it is a Pathway scene. They choose Granite and the chieftain tells the player to travel into the hills to ask the Wise Women about the ogre. The GM makes it a Granite+Craft scene to add some magic, and the player loses. 

Now the player (as the loser) chooses the next scene. It cannot be a Granite scene – that option has gone, and all that is left are Fire, Ice, Song and Craft. The player chooses Ice and describes an ambush from a pack of skittering goblins seeking revenge.

The game carries on until all five elements have been used – and yes, this means you have to get creative to make scenes as the elements run out, but it stops someone focusing down on one element and allows for some too and fro.

The final gateway scene is always defined by the player and can be any element. It is the climax of the adventure. Hurrah!

And the rest?

There are rules for wounds (a wound has an element and a number/dice depending on what caused it, so the ogre might have a Fire wound of d8 ‘Gashed face’ which can be used by a player as an extra die should they come across the ogre again), healing (a declaration), death through declarations, and advancement (die size increases, no trappings etc)

You could have a companion or a partner. A companion was a whole NPC character who works alongside you. They have a lower array to build them, and they can sub in some of their dice for yours in conflicts. A partner was another player, and in conflicts one person choose to be active whilst the other chose to act as the companion. 


The game came with two fantasy settings – the Dragon Tooth Mountains (the adventures of the White Bear Tribe against the Morna the Crone Queen, the sabretooth god Kel-Sha-Resh and the Winged Ice Serpent) and Caliphport, a sword and sandals ‘arabian nights’ style setting with some stereotyping that makes me cringe nowadays…


And then a funky section on designing cycles of play, making monsters challenging, tiered monsters and monster abilities, and most important hacking the game to other settings by changing the names of the elements!

All of this and more in a neat little 98 pg A5 book. It even has references to Google+ in it!

Why didn’t ERA work?

Well, it sold a few copies. It was the last game I sold at a Games Expo and I cleared by copies on the first morning. However, it soon disappeared beneath the radar. Why?

Life, I suppose? This was my post divorce game and supposedly a head clearer to allow me to move onto new projects. However, 2014 was on the cusp of the world going to shit and my new lifestyle and the disintegration of Collective Endeavour as a vehicle for my games meant I wasn’t enthused to plough on with design and promotion. 

Ten years on, I look back at ERA and part of me thinks that in the current gaming environment where solo games are exploding and 1-on-1 games are in fashion, it could be a thing to revisit? Or maybe it should stay as a memory of my games with the kids?

Anyway, if you want to see the madness first hand, the game is available on Drivethru on PWYW. Don’t pay for it, for God’s sake!!

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