I am primarily based out of a smaller city with limited access to brick and mortar tabletop gaming and comic stores so, when I manage to get into one, I always try to see what gems I can find. It was on one such adventure that I came across a beautiful black hardcover with gold embossing, sadly shrinkwrapped in plastic. This was my first encounter with Epyllion: A Dragon Epic from Magpie Games.
Epyllion is an incredibly unique game in which you play through the life of a dragon. As the game progresses, you (and the other players) will explore the world and society of Dragonia as you grow from a young drake to an elder dragon and until you ascend on to a higher plane.
The game uses the increasingly popular Powered by the Apocalypse rule system, which is reasonably simple to learn and allows for a cooperative world-building process that doesn’t require a huge amount of pre-game preparation by the person running the game (in Epyllion, called the Dragonmaster). The Dragonmaster’s job is not to tell the story, but to guide the players as they tell the story themselves.
Six months ago, I hadn’t more than heard about Powered by the Apocalypse, but since then I have seen more and more titles using it. After reading through Epyllion, I found that I couldn’t simply review it on its own. I wanted to know how much of the content was based on the author’s vision and how much of it was driven by the rule set being used, so I went out and looked for something different with which to make a comparison. I found MASHED by Brabblemark Press, which I will also be reviewing soon. There are still a few elements and themes that I’m still not sure on but, unless another Apocalypse game crosses my desk, I’m satisfied to only be mostly sure.
Epyllion, like other games that use Powered by the Apocalypse, is not based on dice rolling and combat. Players aren’t playing their way from one linear encounter to the next, as dictated by the person who runs the game. Instead, they are guided and prompted by the Dragonmaster as they build the world around them.
Each player starts by selecting one of six character templates called Playbooks. Each Playbook is designed to help bring the player’s character to life and contains unique abilities, limitations, and details, plus all the character specifics that that each player adds on their own.
Each Playbook also gives a set of Moves for that character type. Moves are not like your typical RPG abilities that you can chose and enhance to get stronger, although there are similar advancement mechanics as your dragon grows and ages. Instead, Moves manage the uncertainty in a situation, and are triggered by specific actions to help determine the impact (not specifically the outcome) on the collective fiction being created. It’s not uncommon for one Move to result in a second one being triggered for another player or the Dragonmaster, building and shifting the story in fun and unpredictable ways.
Another interesting feature is something called Friendship Gems. A player gives one to one of their clutchmates when they exhibit a specific virtue that their own dragon values. These gems are spent or returned as part of specific actions to help or hinder situations. The other side of this interpersonal bonus system is the Shadow Track. In certain situations, a dragon may have to take a mark on their Shadow Track to represent being drawn closer to the Darkness (the intangible “big bad” that permeates Epyllion). Whenever this happens, that player must take an appropriate action to express the change in their character, until they are eventually consumed by the Darkness and become their Shadowself, a darker and more selfish version of their original character. It is possible to be trapped in this state of being for only a short time, or over several sessions, until they are able to redeem themselves and clear away the Darkness.
Overall, Epyllion is like nothing I have encountered in the past. The rule book is well balanced and organised, giving a good background on the world of Dragonia and rules that players and/or the Dragonmaster need, without being overly long winded in any area.
Something that the Powered by the Apocalypse system encourages as a whole is telling stories that aren’t simply superficial, encouraging players to confront difficult topics. That could mean fears that players have (like spiders) or could be potentially uncomfortable things like race, gender, and sexuality. Epyllion helps to keep the game fun and comfortable with a feature called the X-Card, which is an optional tool to manage difficult content. It acts as a sort of no-questions-asked veto that, when used, simply says a player (including the Dragon Master) is not comfortable with <blank> thing and it gets changed.
In that same vein, I am going to bring up a delicate topic that Epyllion directly addresses. I’m bringing it up not because I agree or disagree with it, but because it can be a hot button topic for some people. The dragons in Epyllion have no sex or gender, and use dragon specific, gender-neutral pronouns. Instead of She/He they use Dre, instead of Her/His they use Dris. Depending on their socio-political ideas, a potential player could simply accept this as part of the lore, but they could also react in a strongly positive or negative way. I would hate to have someone purchase this, only to find that something that small becomes a deal-breaker for them or their group. The only other thing I will comment on about this is that I found the use of these pronouns moderately difficult to read, often pulling me out of the flow of whatever that particular passage was attempting to convey.
Magpie Games does offer a certain amount of online support for the game, such as easy-to-print copies of the Playbooks. The rulebook also briefly mentions additional resources such as a Dragon Deck (of NPC dragon cards) and the Encyclopedia Draconica supplement, which gives players and Dragonmasters a chance to delve more deeply into the game and its lore. I was able to find the Dragon Deck on Magpie’s webstore but I couldn’t find the Encyclopedia Draconica anywhere, and neither product were even referenced on the URL given in the rulebook.
Overall, I think Epyllion is a fabulous product and has the potential to give players a very unique gaming experience. I don’t know that I am 100% sold on the Powered by the Apocalypse system personally, but that is me speaking as a player, not a reviewer. The proliferation of games using these rules shows that there is certainly a market for this style of game, but it hasn’t sparked a real excitement in me.