Call me a sucker for apocalyptic settings, but this one was an easy sell for me. Admittedly, with a name like ‘Summerland’ I thought it was an urban faerie setting (anything to supplement my Changeling books); but the truth didn’t disappoint. The setting is our world, after The Event caused the entire planet to be covered with a primordial forest overnight. Those that didn’t die as trees burst through buildings and vegetation obliterated roads, destroyed power and telephone lines woke up to a drastically altered landscape. Then a siren song from the forest, known only as The Call, reached out to eighty percent of the survivors. Those ensnared by The Call forget ties of family and friendship – only the forest matters, and they wander into the Deeps and most are never seen again. Some, like the Lost, forget themselves and wander aimlessly – bequeathed only a few moments of occasional lucidity. Others, like the Wild, forsake their humanity and become little more than clever animals - feral humans that stalk the Sea of Leaves.
Even now, the Call is strongest at night and those who slumber outside of the Communities will sleepwalk into the forest. As such, most travel is restricted to half a day from a community at most.
You are a Drifter, a simple term for a complex character. You are almost completely immune to the Call, able to sleep under the boughs of the forest and travel as you will. However, the source of this immunity is a Trauma suffered during The Event – a psychological scarring so deep that it sets you apart from other humans. It is a dark pain that makes it difficult to connect with others, making you unable to be a part of a Community except for the briefest of times. During the course of the game, you are encouraged to flesh out the Trauma and eventually resolve it. Only by resolving your Trauma can you ever be accepted into a Community – but in doing so, you make yourself susceptible to The Call. It is a trade-off that can act as a catalyst to wallow deeper in self-regret and despair and actively resist any type of emotional healing. This redemption tale is the heart of the game.
Summerland uses four stats (Body, Finesse, Mind & Empathy) in a points-buy system to act as the framework for characters. Each stat is given a Tag (one stat must have a negative Tag; and your highest stat has two Tags). A Tag is a descriptor which tells you something about the character – for example a PC with a high Mind might have the Tag ‘Insightful’; or someone might Tag their Empathy score with ‘Emotionally Isolated’. There is no list of Tags – players simply make up their own in an attempt to describe their character. All tags are given a numerical value too.
The only other traits are Trauma, which charts how emotionally injured a character is; and Stress, which shows how much emotional strain a character is under. Both of these traits can fluctuate (especially Stress) depending on the characters actions and the needs of the scene.
The dice rolling is based on adding the two most appropriate stats and an appropriate tag to generate a score. Depending on the difficulty of the task, the player needs to roll under this value on between two and four d6. For example, a routine task might call for two dice; whereas an almost impossible one would require you to roll under the score on four dice – a much harder proposition.
One of the most insightful descriptions in this book was that of the core philosophical concept – Intent. Ever action must have a stated intent; and a roll is only ever called for if success and failure of the attempt to invoke the intent represent two different outcomes. Conflicts arose when two individuals (or groups) have mutually exclusive Intents. This is a fundamental ideal that is built into most RPGs, but I have never seen it so succinctly or intelligently discussed – it has made me look at my storytelling in a very different light and I’ll be quizzing players on their ‘Intent’ in more games from now on. If you buy the book for nothing else, this is worth a read.
There are only two issues I have with the system. Firstly, there is the rule that if the score generated for difficulty is more than the maximum one can roll on the allotted dice, then the action automatically succeeds. I would have liked to see a possibility of failure built into every roll. Secondly, there is no system for character advancement. I’m not sure if this is the inherently narrative nature of the system, or if campaigns are not meant to last long enough that major changes in character aren’t noticeable. In truth, I think that this is very much in theme with the setting – that the PCs are ordinary folk and that the game is not heroic in nature. It firmly places the resolution of your Trauma as the reward, not the accumulation of experience points. Also, given how gritty and dark the setting is, I’d call survival a reward for most games.
The book weighs in at only 178 pages, but everything you need is here. There is a good discussion on the role of the Narrator, the involvement of players in deciding the major themes of the game and plenty of inspiration in terms of references to other media and in the plot hooks seeded throughout the book.
The section on The Sea of Leaves, as the forest is known is excellent. There is enough information that you have a good grasp on the world, but there is simply so much ‘white space’ (as I’d call it) that you can scribble in your own ideas and make the game your own. The cause of The Event is deliberately left out, and Narrators are encouraged to offer their own explanations – if any. The way that the forest has twisted the world and the animals is chilling. There are zones within the forest designated by how strong the Call is, and animals range from those in our world through to slightly more intelligent – the bear that ambles through the forest clad in a ragged blanket, the crow that spells words out in twigs, the wolf that tries to move its mouth in a (failed) imitation of speech as Drifters converse by the firelight – all are presented with plenty of inspiration to make your players edgy. There is a discussion on the possibility of the existence of ghosts and forest spirits, but this is extremely vague – with the idea that Narrators can chose how much horror or faerie tale they want in their game.
The discussion on The Lost and The Wild is well-presented and there are again plenty of examples to fire the imagination and guide how Narrators want to portray these NPCs and how the residents of this world view them. Finally, there are a selection of NPC Drifters, and some sample Communities to jump-start your campaign.
The game does deal with some mature issues, so it won’t be for everyone. Some of the practices in the Communities are repulsive, but act as ways of showing what happens to humans when all government and rules are removed and small groups need to forge their own safety, survival and rituals.
Overall, I think this book is a must-have for those interested in post-apocalyptic or horror games – it has a number of insights into gaming worth reading; a host of adaptable, unique ideas; a fantastic well-developed setting and a simple, narratively-driven system.