Stillfleet: an Indie TTRPG review

Hey all, Danny from TFG Radio here, and today, I am going to do something just a bit different, and that is talk about an upcoming indie tabletop roleplaying game that I’ve come to love, mostly because it captures both the Grimdark and the zaniness of early 40K, all while providing its own fresh, exceedingly layered IP in a fun, easy to learn package. You know, Frontline is also expanding their wares to include a lot of the oldies and goldies of TTRPGs, so you should check them out.

Art by Ethan Gould

I love 40K obviously as I dedicate a lot of my precious free time to it, so when I say that Stillfleet is an up and coming TTRPG that easily ports into the 40K universe as well as provides its own vibrant, rich setting that has that just-right blend of atmosphere, GM freedom, and intuitive mechanics, I don’t say that lightly.

Art by Ethan Gould

Atmosphere:

The lore in Stillfleet is immediately engaging as it takes place 100 million (yes, million) years in the future where humanity has evolved, regressed, ascended, descended, and everything in between.  Such a major time jump from the present allows for a huge breadth of possibilities.  Human sized cricket-folk rub proverbial shoulders with sentient flora, time-travelling Bear-Shrew-Human hybrids that are consistently depressed (a very fun Douglas Adams riff), and well, you have standard humans, Ur-humans, post-humans, and well, so much more. 

There is a great sense of both creativity and outright fun that lives in the lore, and it really reminds me a lot of early 40K fluff that was far more comical and satirical than it is now.  You can see the DNA of a lot of the same influences in terms of SF and Fantasy here between 40K and Stillfleet, but if you like Viriconium, Tiptree, Butler, Bacigalupi, Le Guin, and well, a dozen upon dozen others, you’ll probably vibe hard on this. The lore is also plenty Grimdark with fallen societies, a ruthless corporation that employs the PCs, and of course, extra-dimensional dread as Cthulu like entities prowl the Escheresque, a higher dimension where you can travel to any point in space (and time). 

Art by Ethan Gould

Again, with galaxies to explore and 100 million years between us and now, that might seem daunting as a GM for story purposes, but the system wisely gives you a great anchor: Spindle. You start as a grunt working for a corporation that is attempting to reassert its trade power after several years of being cut off from the rest of the galaxy.  Spindle is an enigma, a solid rock space station that is almost unknowable, yet it has thousands of Stiffworks (think Stargates) that connect it to places all over existence, but for some reason, Spindle is set to be in sync with Earth.  The Company seeks all manner of technology in the hopes of learning how to recreate it.  This is somewhat akin to the Mechanicus and their pursuit of STCs. 

The world can be zany, dark, satirical, enlightening, and existential, all at the same time.  You have drones that are repurposed battle tanks for sentient housecats, you have extra-dimensional bullets, and vicious sentient space-fungus (more Cthulu than Ork).  Really, because of the distance and because the technology can take so many different shapes, it really is just a wonderful sandbox to craft a narrative.  You can visit planets with medieval levels of technology or find mysterious sentient warmachines that can warp in and out of reality to eternal extra-dimensional entities that just want to cause chaos for laughs.

GM Freedom:

The core system gives a lot of leeway to the GM, and I love that.  The designers have already produced an excellent module to get people started with a clear mission that doesn’t just solely rely on combat. Seeing as how some of the basic classes are more about being Translators, Drivers, and Anthropologists, you can easily build a team that sees combat as the last option, and honestly, as a GM, this is great because if I want a more cosmic-horror style campaign where the PCs are woefully outgunned, this gives the tools to do such. 

If you want a more Indiana Jones, dungeon diving on forgotten planets, you can do that easy enough, but you can also Space Hulk it as derelict spaceships from long extinct species are everywhere, and they really are the “dungeon” mechanic of the system, but again, you don’t have to do that.  You can focus on Earth, which still exists and is in a state of constant warfare as different species of human and even sentient bees fight for supremacy.  You can be willful servants of the Company (again, it’s a very Cyberpunk, Weland-Yutani sort of feeling) trying to come up, or you can eventually be running your own long con, or even end up working for an entirely different entity.  This is a system that doesn’t really ask or expect you to be “good” or “evil”; it leaves that up to you.

Art by Ethan Gould.

The player classes are all interesting and varied, and honestly, it goes much beyond the concept of Tank, Healer, DPS, Controller.  You do have 2 very combat focused classes, the Stillrjider (a power-armor wearing marine) or a Razi (a ranger), but that’s only 2 of the “main” classes.  You have a healer class (the Pir), the Banshee (the person who actually gets you from point A to B), a Witness (a translator) and a Factor (a leader).  There are also other more exotic classes like Blooder (a nanite driven vampire/sorcerer), a wild mage, a company mage, a thief, and so forth.  It is an interesting mix of abilities and powers, but a really interesting faucet is that at the start at least, if working for the Company, there is a hierarchy of characters.  Factors are “ in charge” according to the company, then Witness, then Banshee, so the less combat focused classes are actually given in-game command, which provides both wonderful RP hooks as well as some mechanical support for classes that aren’t designed to kill stuff. 

Art by Ethan Gould. Copy by Wythe Marschall. Design by Erich Lazar

Mechanics:

As much as lore makes a game, the actual mechanics are what determines if you are having fun playing that game, not just thinking about it, and Stillfleet has an engaging and simple system.  Instead of ability scores like Strength, Constitution etc, you have just 5 base stats: Combat, Move, Will, Reason, and Charm.  Instead of a score like 10, you assign a die size to it like d6 d12 or even a d4.  The basic character design process is that you have a d12, a d10, a d8, and 2 d6s to spread between these five stats (or 2d8 and 1d4).  You succeed on a test by rolling a target number (6 being considered moderate difficult, 4 easy, 10 almost impossible) on your given dice, so if you want to try and jump through a rapidly closing door, roll your Move and see if you get the target number.  Combat is done with a simple attacker rolls their combat dice (so if you have a d12 in combat, roll a d12) and the defender rolls their move dice to dodge (so a d6 or whatever), and if the attacker is equal to or greater, they hit. 

There are not a lot of bonuses, so the math is relatively constant, save for one key feature, boosting.  At any time, players can “burn” (spend) their Grit pool (a measure of how much mental energy they have) to add a bonus to a roll, so you can burn 3 grit to add 3 to a roll, 6 grit for 6, or even 9 for 9.  This means that you can essentially make a roll succeed (except on a natural 1 as always) if need be, but Grit is a valuable resource, arguably more valuable than Health.  Most class powers require Grit to function, so burning through all of it means that you can no longer do much, and if you suddenly need to use a power (like say operating the Stiffworks to get you home or to actually use the super awesome melta gun of doom you found), you can’t.  This adds a great resource management system to the game play as you need to make sure you have Grit to do what you NEED to do, but also use the Grit you have to be as effective as possible.  Even if you have the best possible die size in a stat, d12, you only succeed on moderate difficulty half the time, so without Grit to boost, even at your best, you are looking at 50% success rates. This again really pushes players to spend Grit, which adds to the tension and dynamism of the game. All classes need Grit equally, so managing your Grit is an exciting mechanism that lends itself to both combat heavy plays or RP heavy sessions. 

Copy by Wythe Marschall. Design by Erich Lazar

There’s also just some great nods to the actual mechanics of playing a tabletop game as some classes have access to abilities that let them learn a secret or find a necessary item, giving players a codified “out” when they find themselves stuck in a scenario.  It really helps take the edge off of a GM who wants the players to have their own agency to make decisions but also have a way to rescue them from bad decisions, either player or GM.

The mechanics are generally not too crunchy, so if you are looking for a simulator type experience, you will probably have to homebrew that up, but I enjoy the more modern, streamlined approach that emphasizes player agency more than specific rules interactions.  With all attacks being lumped together into a “combat” stat, you are free to explore how your character is engaging a target.  The game also feels a bit like 40K in past editions with plenty of charts for a GM to roll on to determine what something is.  These charts are not overly prescriptive though as they more give you a hook to build upon as it fits your story. 

Art by Ethan Gould. Design by Erich Lazar. Copy by Wythe Marschall

What drew me to this game is if doing a map and table play through, so many 40K models really make sense whether it be Mechanicum, Daemons, Astra Militarum, and even some room for some fun Space Marine conversions.  Of course, there are plenty of canonical insect people, so of course my Tyranid collection lends itself to such.   Frontline continues to expand their TTRPG offerings as well, so don’t be shy about checking it out.

So really, if you are looking to support an Indie TTRPG that strikes a lot of the same chords in tone and style as 40K, then I cannot recommend Stillfleet enough. Hopefully I’ll be able to browbeat the other TFG Radio guys into a game or two.  Thanks as always for reading, and be sure to check out Stillfleet here and here. 

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And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!

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About Danny Ruiz

Long-long time 40K player, one of the original triumvirate of head 40K judges at LVO, writer, educator, tyranid-enthusiast, disciple of Angron, man about town, afflicted with faction ADD.

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