The Shadow of Yesterday is an narrativist tabletop indie RPG set in a world reminiscent of Vance's Dying Earth or Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer. A hundred years ago, the world of Near had a terrible catastrophe, the "Sky Fire;" as a consequence, part of the planet became a moon, when there had never been one in the sky before, and the civilized world, once united in the Empire of Maldor, fell into a long dark age. You play characters as trade and civilization begins to renew -- a setting reminiscent also of Moorcock's Young Kingdoms.
As a narrativist RPG, Shadow of Yesterday seeks to encourage roleplaying and storytelling rather than the min-maxing typical of more conventional RPGs; unlike, say, My Life With Master it does this not by shaping the narrative arc, but instead with systems that provide explicit rewards for playing a consistent role, and an action resolution system of high granularity.
Thus, Shadow has an experience point system, with points spent to improve stats and abilities -- but most experience is gained by following one's "keys" (the game's terms for personal beliefs and objectives). Here's an example:
Key of Conscience
- Gain 1 XP every time your character helps someone who cannot help themselves.
- Gain 2 XP every time your character defends someone with might who is in danger and cannot save themselves.
- Gain 5 XP every time your character takes someone in an unfortunate situation and changes their life to where they can help themselves.
- Buyoff: Ignore a request for help.
Your character has a soft spot for those weaker than their opponents.
Each "key" has a buyoff; you may trigger the buyoff when you want to gain additional power in an action, but by doing so, you also lose one way to gain XP. Using a "buyoff" is therefore a moment of drama.
Action resolution is via a modified FUDGE system. Actions are not normally narrated on a blow-by-blow basis; instead, one set of die-rolls resolves a larger-scale conflict, with the GM (here called a Story Guide) and player agreeing in advance on the player's intent, and on possible penalties for failure. The dice result provides not only whether the action was successful, but if so, how successful -- and this is then a guide for the players to describe what happened. In short, the resolution system is supposed to function as a guide to imagination and story-telling, rather than in the low-granularity way of, say D&D (where an individual die-roll determines, say, whether one sword stroke is successful).
The most interesting aspect of The Shadow of Yesterday is, however, the setting -- and the designer's approach to imparting it to players and gamemasters. The world of Near is quite alien: while three of the races are called humans, elves, and goblins (with ratkins making up a fourth), Near's elves and goblins are nothing like those from conventional Western mythology. Elves are sort of Randian Buddhists (all is illusion and selfishness is a virtue); goblins are somewhat bestial humans manqué without the ability to love. The cultures, too, are not patterned directly on anything readers will find immediately familiar, from the decadent feudal aesthetes of Ammeni to the strange Zaru who, per description, seem to speak something analogous to Neal Stephenson's conception of "human machine code," the underlying Ur-language the use of which actually shapes human perception (and, since this world is magical, the physical world as well).
Now, some of the strangest and most interesting roleplaying worlds have likewise gone in the direction of novelty and whole-cloth innovation -- I'm thinking both of Stafford's Glorantha and Barker's Tékumel here. The stunning creativity of those worlds comes, however, at a cost; because the world is so strange, and so elaborate, and so thoroughly conceived (at one time, you could even buy audio tapes that purported to teach Tsolyani, one of Tékumel's languages), it's very hard for new players to enter into the spirit of the game. In essence, not only do you have to learn a new set of rules, you have to learn about an entire world as well.
In this regard, The Shadow of Yesterday innovates in what I think is a very clever way: Nixon provides something of a bare-bones sketch of the cultures and races and geography of his world, but he specifically avoids excruciating detail. He says, in fact, that he encourages players and "story guides" to make the world their own, to build on his sketchy details -- and he often makes off-hand references to things in the world without providing anything beyond a name or the merest gloss, precisely so that others can, if they wish, pick up on the mention, and build their own stories exploring the mysteries they hint at.
This is particularly canny, because this is the way real, home-brew RPG settings work: a gamemaster may spend some time thinking about his setting, but it is only through play -- often months or years of play -- that he and his players jointly flesh out the details of the world. Nixon is saying, in essence, not "here is a world entire" -- but rather, "here's an interesting design sketch for a world". And in the context of a roleplaying campaign that is actually, in many ways, more valuable; rather than trying to learn and remember a myriad of details, you are given the outlines, and the details will naturally emerge from play.
I realize that at the inception of this review, I mentioned Vance, Wolfe, and Moorcock; on reflection, that's because if I were to run a campaign of Shadows, that's probably where I would go: toward the emotion of melancholy, of things lost as much as won, and a sense of elaborate cultural conflict. Indeed, the fact that this structure can support that kind of play is one of its strongest draws. Yet Nixon describes the game as "pulpy, romantic sword-and-sorcery," which at least suggests that in another GM's hands, it could feel much more like Howard's Conan series. (Or alternatively, perhaps it implies that Nixon doesn't understand that the highly mannered prose of Vance and Wolfe at least, and arguably that of Moorcock, is quite different from what might call the pulp virtues -- and pulp does have its own virtue). I prefer to think the former, at any rate: that Shadow can encompass both Gene Wolfe and Frank Frazetta.
Shadow of Yesterday won an award in 2004 as best free indie RPG of the year; the "wiki" link above is to a wiki that provides the core rules, for free. Purists may want to follow the second link, which will allow you to purchase the print edition.