Buzzworthiness: Atma

Special thanks to Meromorph Games for providing a review copy of this game.

Being a board gamer primarily, RPGs are a little outside my wheelhouse. But I’m going to take a stab at reviewing something in the genre as I look at

image by BGG user tosx

Atma is an RPG system designed by Kevin Bishop and published in 2021 by Meromorph Games. The game is set in a world where the volcanic material called atma is one of the most important resources. It’s kind of a sci-fi setting, and the whole thing is card-based, so you get some ideas for playing as you go. The game is for 2-5 players, with one player acting as the game master (GM).

Each player chooses a character, which comes with its own eight card deck. One of those cards is some character information, to which you’ll kind of fill in the gaps with your own creation. The other seven cards are moves, four basic and three super. You’ll pick two basic moves and one super move, then lay them all out facedown in front of you. Each move card has more story on the back to help you develop your character more.

Meanwhile, the GM will select a setting for the game. The base game comes with three settings, and another one is in the Interlude expansion (which I also got). The GM will separate the cards for these settings into their piles – Backdrop (which gives you more information about what’s going on in the setting), Story, Scenes, Characters, Props, and Twists. The GM selects a Story and three Scenes that are going to frame the experience. The rest can be put back in the box. Everything else is just set aside.

To start of the game, the GM will read everyone the Backdrop and Story information, then will ask everyone to introduce themselves, who they are and why they’re here. You can base your character on the lore from the cards, or create your own tale. Then the GM will reveal the first Scene. Each player gets to reveal their first move, and will add one with each scene.

From then on, players will basically just narrate what happens. You can pretty much do whatever makes sense. The GM will help fill in gaps and keep things moving, and will also tell you when an action doesn’t make sense. If you want to use your moves, you’ll make a check each time based on a particular stat. This involves rolling two dice to see if it’s a success or failure, and in most cases, you get to narrate how it goes. A 7+ is usually a success, and your character will have some modifiers that might make it better (or worse). The GM might also ask you to roll when doing anything that has a chance of failure.

Meanwhile, the GM gets some tokens at the start of each Scene as well as on checks. These can be spent to enhance the scene with Props, Extras, or Twists. Props add items, Twists add wrinkles to the story, and Extras are new NPCs that pop up. These all add flavor and have different ways they can be used, though you can of course improvise. These are meant to be drawn randomly, though you can peek or even skip a card if you’re feeling overwhelmed or not sure how to use it.

As you play, characters or extras might get some harm (no one is invincible), and if they get too much, they either disappear or collapse. Each scene has its own objective to complete, so you’re working towards logically getting there while also working on the main story objective. When the story goal is complete, the game is over and everyone wins.

image from meromorphgames.com

As I mentioned, I’m not really an RPG player. And as such, the lack of structure in RPGs gives me a bit of anxiety. I like structure and rules, and while I like making a character and roleplaying as that character, the pressure of building a world from scratch is tough. And so I really appreciate that Atma gives some more structure. Of course, what happens in a game is entirely up to the player, but I think the system does a really good job of laying out the world that you’re playing in so you don’t have to do a lot of creative work on that end. This game requires no prep work before hand, you can really just take it out of the box and play.

That’s not to say that this game is completely rigid. Many of the rules basically say “just do what you want”, which still causes me some stress. But I do like how a lot of the cards work together, and their suggestions can lead to some interesting stories. In one game, the first scene saw the characters trying to fix a faulty mechanism in a wall. I pulled a prop that was a Frosty Daiquiri and left it sitting around in the open. The characters found that it not only had the ability to short out electronics, but also attracted some weird beasts. Our story happened to be about trying to repel some attacking animals, so that worked really well as a first clue. Then our second scene happened to be Saint Joan’s Resort, which was clearly where the daiquiri came from, and led us off on some great investigation.

The theme is overall very sci-fi, with robots and technology and mutant insects and all kinds of things. All the cards are individually illustrated, and it has a very consistent look. A lot of work went into the flavor text on the cards, but still leaves a lot of room for creativity.

One of the best things this game has going for it is its relative simplicity in setup. You pick the characters and a setting, and go from there. As mentioned, you don’t have to do any prep work in building the world or the characters. For some people, that’s going to be a turnoff because they really like doing all that legwork. For someone like me who is terribly inexperienced in RPGs, that was comforting. In a way, it made it more like theatrical improv, which is something I have some background in – you take suggestions, you run with them, and you play off of what others are saying/doing. The game also makes it easy for novice GMs to run a game right off the bat, though I will say that my lack of experience still made it kind of anxiety-inducing.

The token system this game has in place is, I’m sure, a way to keep the GM from being overzealous and throwing everything possible into a game. The game does encourage the GM not to hoard tokens, saying basically that you should be spending them once you get three. I guess this is how the rules make sure you’re adding content to the game.

The game does have a bit of luck with the dice rolling, as well as how the cards come out. But it’s also a pretty forgiving system. Just because you fail something doesn’t always mean you necessarily fail, which is nice. And the GM is allowed to edit content as necessary to fit the current story.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I think Atma is a great way to get into RPGs. It has lots of jumping off points for stories, it’s a pretty forgiving system, and it’s easy to set up and play right out of the box. The board gamer in me appreciates the cards, and you can come up with some pretty interesting stories in a game session.

The game already has quite a bit of variety with three locations and eight characters in the base set (plus another location and four more characters in the Interlude expansion). But that’s just Act I. Act II is going up on Kickstarter on August 2, so if this all sounds interesting to you, I’d encourage you to check it out. Here’s the preview link, which will be the project link when it launches.

Thanks again to Meromorph Games for providing a copy of Atma, and thanks to you for reading!

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