Saturday, 25 December 2010

Review: Itras by

Itras by means the city of Itra in English. It is a Norwegian roleplaying game written by Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsen, illustrated by Thore Hansen. It was published in 2008.

First Impressions
The book is a gorgeous little thing. Measuring 17,5 x 24,5 cm, with 153 pages, its format makes it stand out among other gaming books. The cover illustration hints at a weird and fantastic setting, with a smoking man in fedora and trench coat, men with heads of animals, a cityscape with factories and bars, and a strange tower. The image is rich in details that suggest a world where things are quite different from what we are used to. On the book's title page, it says, "Itras by, et surrealistisk rollespill [Itra's City, a surreal roleplaying game]." I had two Norwegian rpgs to choose from - Itras by and Draug - and I chose the former based on looks alone.

The Book
Sov, sov lille mann
Livet er en drøm.
Over mørke morildvann
Seiler du mot nattens land...
Alle er alene.

Sleep, sleep, little man
Life is all a dream
On dark waters, burning bright,
sail towards the land of night...
Everyone's alone.

                        -Berecuse, André Bjerke

The book is divided into three major parts, first the setting, then the game, and lastly an example adventure. In the introduction, it references surrealism, a cultural movement from the 1920's. This is one of the major elements of the setting, as the realistic mixes freely with the fantastic and the surreal throughout the world of Itras by

Throughout the book, Thore Hansen's characteristic artwork helps the mind grasp the weird and the wonderful people and places presented through the writing of Giæver and Gudmundsen. The language is fresh and unpretentious, and the text is sprinkled with small vignettes further conveying the mood and theme of Itras by.

The Guardsman outside the door looked very stern.
"Are you Mr. Fusel?"
All Mr. Fusel could do was nod.
"We want to ask you a few questions regarding the death of your wife."
"Albert?" Mr. Fusel's wife asked from somewhere inside the house. "Who's at the door?"

The designers wish that the gamemasters and players make the city their own. To underline this, they ask you to complete a few exercises. The first thing they ask you to do is to take out a black marker and make big, fat lines over two-three paragraphs you don't like. Thereafter thy ask you to put things in. At the end of the setting-chapter there are a few blank pages intended for this use, and they also ask you to write in the margins, between lines, or wherever else you want. Next you are asked to fill in details on places or persons in the book, using scraps of paper and a stapler they wish you to, yes, staple your own paragraphs into the text. The last such exercise yo are asked to perform is to kill off at least one of the characters in the book, preferably in a public and violent manner.

Månetårnet - The Tower of the Moon

The Setting
At a glance, the city is a mix of the Roaring Twenties and the Threadbare Thirties. Men wear hats which they politely tip when they meet acquaintances on the street, smoke from factories rise towards the sky, and streetcars rumble through the streets. Automobiles are beginning to replace horses, telephones and radios are becoming more common, and aeroplanes are the newest thing. Beneath the veneer of normalcy there is a dark side; cannibals prey on the poor (and sometimes the rich as well), giant spiders head important government offices, and the deep catacombs beneath the streets house wonders and terrors most wish to ignore.

Itras by lies in Limbo, and was created by the dreams of the goddess Itra. At its centre lies the Tower of the Moon. Here reality is at its most stable, and the further out from the tower you get - in any direction - the more plastic and unpredictable it gets. While pretty much anything can happen in Itras by, the surreal, dream-like nature of the city means that these things blend with normalcy. The social problems of the man with the musk ox head stems more from his clumsy nature than the fact that he has the head of a musk ox. There are prides of backyard-lions (once escaped from Itra Zoo) living in the city, chain-clouds on the horizon, talking apes (some of which holds prominent positions), and a street that only exists on Fridays.

If you were to get in your automobile and drive out of the city, you would first see large manors belonging to the Import Nobility. Thereafter you would pass farms and villages (some inhabited by strange sects, others by solemn, dark-eyed people who rarely see anyone outside their close family). You are now entering the Rim-zones. Then, as you get closer to the remnants of Moherat's Wall, the terrain becomes wilder, and reality more unpredictable. Here monsters and mad scientists inhabit ruins of ancient castles, and creatures from outside prowl the valleys and forests. They say that when you can no longer see the Tower of the Moon, it may be to late to turn.

Over the centuries, Itra has vanished, and now the spider goddess Nindra rules the city from the Tower of the Moon. Her children, the Arachnids, head important government offices, and her web of control and intrigues touch every inhabitant of the city. Still, the spider goddess works in mysterious ways, and her designs are seldom understandable to her subjects. There are other deities living in Itras by as well, side by side with thousand-year old sorceresses, evil geniuses and mysterious wisemen. Several factions are working to control the city, some seemingly harmless, while others will not shy from violence to achieve their goals.

Itras by is a place where everything can happen, and it does.

The Game
The mechanics of Itras by is quite unlike anything I've encountered before. In fact, mechanics isn't a good word, as there are precious few rules. First off, let's look at character creation. There are nine steps in this process:

  1. Talk to the GM and the other players.
  2. Idea - jot down a few words and sentences describing the concept of your character.
  3. Background - write down a short story, or make a short list of events and people in your past.
  4. Dramatic abilities - find a few qualities, abilities, or characteristics intended to generate play.  This may be something the character is good at (like playing cards), or something that sets the character apart from other people (like the fact that he has the head of a dog).
  5. Personality and values - write down a few adjectives describing the character, e.g. easygoing, thrifty, dark humour.
  6. Goals and intrigues - decide on a few things that will drag your character into play. Does she wish to become a famous actress, is there an ancient curse lying on his family, did your father vanish under mysterious circumstances on your thirteenth birthday? Stuff like this.
  7. NPCs - create at least one person your character has a relationship to, be it an enemy, a rival, a friend, a relative, or a lover.
  8. The other PCs - weave the other characters into your own. Each member of the group should have a connection to at least one of the other characters.
  9. Other details - Now fill in the details needed to make your characters into an inhabitant of Itras by: name, age, appearance, where you live, habits, occupation, et al.

That's it. No dice, no points, no stat-blocks, saves, or skills. Hell, there's no character sheet. How do you decide whether your character succeeds in a given task or not? Well, first of, you, as a player, are expected to tell the story of your character. If you think there's no way in hell she will be able to wrestle the big ape to the ground, you should describe what you think will happen together with the GM. 

The other way to do this is to draw a resolution-card. There are eight resolution-cards, ranging from Yes, and... through Yes, but only if... to No, and... The neat thing here is that if you decide to draw a card, another player, or the GM - your choice - draws the card, and decides what happens based on the draw.

Lastly, there are 26 chance-cards. These cards are intended to further and/or change play, to provide aid or clues in game, to challenge the players (including the GM) and to underline the surreal nature of Itras by

Examples of chance-cards are Nemesis!, your arch-enemy enters the scene, if you have none, now you do; Masquerade, everyone, including the GM, changes roles for the remainder of the scene. Your role is now played by the one on your right; Do not stare into the dark..., your character has an irresistible urge to do something she'll regret. Do something you'll regret.

Itras by is very much a storytelling game, and it is very different from the mainstream of our hobby. It is a game that challenges the habits we've gotten used to, as well as our imagination. I do not think this is a game fit for everyone, but I believe that with the right group it would provide a fresh breath. There are certainly elements, both in the setting and in the method, that could be integrated in other settings and games, that would spice up play.

On the setting, there are many similarities with Trey's The City, and if I ever were to run a campaign in either, I would steal heavily from the other.

This is one of the coolest games I've ever bought, mostly because it is different. I found myself reading the book with the same level of immersion as a novel. As I turned the pages, the picture of Itras by became clearer and more nuanced. The game has been translated to Swedish and Finnish, but sadly, if you don't speak these languages, you're out of luck.

Lastly, this vid is from the Itras by-homepage. What language there is is Norwegian, but your ability to understand it is not essential for viewing. It gives a good impression of the surreal mood of the city, but as there are a few disturbing clips in there, I do not recommend watching it if you're squeamish.

Itras by homepage
Download Chance- and resolution cards in English (text only .pdf)


  1. Really like the pictures to be honest.

    And the translation sounded interesting.

  2. It's definitely a breath of fresh air. The process of character creation and simplicity of the mechanics remind me a little of Fiasco, but with a highly unconventional setting and ambitious expectations of the players. I especially like the absence of dice and the numerical being replaced with dialogue and the semantic of the cards.

    It certainly doesn't sound like everyone's cup of tea. It's hard even to imagine quite how it would play - I think you're right that you'd need the right group. How to keep everyone on the same page, or even in the same library?

    As for the art, as well as being haunting, it seems now to match the setting very well.

    All of this will go into the mix and keep my mind busier even than usual.

    Thanks, Harald. Not only for a review, but for a very good review!

  3. I was reading your review thinking "this setting sounds like a 'fellow traveler' with the City" and then you went and confirmed it. ;)

    The art's cool too. To bad there's no English version.

  4. Hi!

    Thanks for a nice review and walkthrough of the book. I was especially impressed by your grasp of the setting.

    Merry X-mas,
    Ole Peder Giæver

  5. @Ole Peder:

    Thank you, and thank you for making Itras by.

    God jul!

  6. While short and simple, this makes me think of the new FATE engine with the whole weaving stories stuff (something I found appealing for Dresden Files).

    Very cool. Is it available on Amazon perhaps?

  7. No its not on Amazon, it can resemble FATE by a fraction, but without anything resembling its mechanincs.
    Itras By is a very fun game, but it has almost no mechanics beside the draw a card and fate happenstance, beyond that the game is ruled by the players and the gm by using their own narrative control: telling the story.

    You can buy it here:

  8. I have the book and I love the city and how it is presented. However, I have come to realize that I am very much a traditional gamer. Would it be heresy to convert it to say Savage Worlds and run it like a regular game? ;)

  9. @Havard.
    According to the die-hards, probably, yes. While I'd certainly like to run the city, I'm not convinced the "system" (quotation marks appropriate) is my cup of tea.

  10. Havard & Harald; you have my blessings, whatever that counts for. ;) One of the chief ideologies of the game is that it's your own, to do with As Thou Wilt.

  11. There is a englisch Version from Vagrant Workshop: