by Rich Stokes
Having my previous GMing plans for Bisbeecon XI sidetracked by a lack of preparation time, I turned to my collection of small press games looking for a low-stress substitute. I settled on Rich Stokes' Umläut: Game of Metal, a game about trying to make it big in the world of heavy metal music. I had played the game once before with the usual group of Wednesday night suspects and figured that its easily accessible theme and reasonably simple rules would have us all rocking out by the end of the night.
Whether it's technically a roleplaying game or not, Umläut is a lot of fun.
First, though, let me be clear: a lot of space has been devoted on the internet arguing what is and isn't a roleplaying game, and Umläut falls right into the area that's being argued over. Similar to the Contenders RPG it is based on and Tony Lower-Basch's Capes, Umläut is a game without a GM. Or, more accurately, it is a game where everyone is the GM, and the rules exist to tell you who has that authority at any given time. But Umläut takes a step farther back than that, having each player control the members of a heavy metal band competing with the bands controlled by the rest of the group.
If that hasn't scared you off, great - because whether it's technically a roleplaying game or not, Umläut is a lot of fun.
Umläut is a 74-page PDF (also available in softcover) with color cover and B&W interior. The PDF also comes packaged with a printer-friendly version. The art is well chosen - alternating between performance photos and concert posters for many of the bands used in the examples.
The text is clear and easy to read, provides plenty of examples, and even includes a helpful primer on types of heavy metal music - probably too lightweight for a true aficionado of the genre, but perfect for a quick overview to give to players whose musical tastes are a little lighter.
How to Play
Band creation is simple: each band starts with 1 Hope, 1 Ego, 1 Fanbase, and no Cash. They also divide up seven points among their performance stats: Technique, Power, and Stagecraft. There's an optional set of tables you can use to randomly generate the type of metal your band plays (Classic, Glam, Thrash, or Death) and even a band name (Lust Machine and Gore Cradle were both randomly generated in our game.)
The two objectives of the game are to wind up with the most Fanbase, and to end the game with Hope higher than your Ego. Play uses cards, not dice, and goes in a circle, with the person to your left acting as your Roadie - if whatever you are doing doesn't involve another band, then they're the ones you're drawing cards against. The number of black cards indicates the winner of the conflict, and the highest card determines who controls the narrative. On your turn, you can choose from a number of types of scenes - rehearsal scenes to improve your performance stats, work scenes to earn cash, publicity stunts, band member scenes to increase hope, etc. There's even a way for your fellow players to try and break up your band, if your Ego is sufficiently higher than your Hope.
And, of course, there are Gigs, Umläut's version of the extended conflict. Fought in three rounds, Gigs are always against another band and make use of your performance traits, with the winner of a Technique draw getting the opportunity to gain glory in a Power vs. Stagecraft contest. The cards are also influenced by the choice of performance type: Solid Performance, Ballad, Face Melter, or (for the higher Ego band) Showboating, each giving certain tradeoffs.
Play goes on for a specified amount of time before the endgame is reached. The endgame (also known as the Battle of the Bands) brings everyone together for one last gig, pairing up the bands in order of fanbase, and then proceeds to the epilogue where the players narrate, Behind the Music-style, the eventual fate of their bands, taking fanbase, ego, and hope into consideration.
All of my players took to the concept and game very quickly - everyone knows at least a little heavy metal, and the tropes of the stories are familiar. Most players seem to take this slightly less seriously than other RPGs, and a lot of them really get into the idea of narrating their band's failures as much as, if not more, than their successes.
The flaw - if one wants to call it a flaw rather than an artifact of the game system - is that raising Hope is very difficult, and raising Ego is very, very easy. Out of the eight types of scenes, two have the possibility of raising Hope while five have the potential to raise Ego. Both times we played, nobody wound up with a Hope higher than their Ego, which led to the bands spiraling out of control and eventually breaking up. On the other hand, it's certainly a decent simulation of the industry, and watching your band go down the tubes has the same sort of horrible vicarious glee that you can get from walling up one of your Sims in a room without food or water.
The Final Verdict
Don't let any preconceptions you have about what a roleplaying game should or shouldn't be turn you away from a night of fun. Umläut is fun, fast, simple, and well worth the price. The lack of prep time means it makes an excellent book to leave on my iPad in case we're missing too many people to pull off our regular game.
While you probably won't be stealing parts of this game to use in your own traditional games, the fact that this game is a mutation of a game about boxing proves that the core system is reasonably robust - for certain types of stories, anyhow.
Final Rating: **** (out of 5)