Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Game Review: GROK?!

Cover to GROK?!
Art by Matias Viro

: Lester Burton 
Publisher: Self-published 
Engine: Custom rules-lite table-based system
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG

I picked up GROK?! recently for a $1.69 on DrivethruRPG. If had been showing up in my personalized recommendations a few times, and I thought it looked interesting from its spiel.

GROK?! labels itself as an Old-School tabletop role-playing game, It doesn't derive from older systems, but it It subscribes very strongly to Matt Finch's "four zen moments of Old-School tabletop." It relies on rulings not rules, and trusts actors and directors (players and GMs) to come up with narrative results that makes sense.

Structurally, it blends a lot from more modern tabletop role-playing games like Overlight with elements from story games such as Fate and Numenéra. Knave and MotO figure very strong in it's DNA. 

The System 

Grock uses an oracle-like system like Talisanta or VSD6 where characters roll a die and consult a table. A roll of one or two is a failure with additional consequences. A roll of three or four are a success result; a roll of six or higher is a result that is both successful and beneficial to the player character in an additional, unexpected way.

In other words, it uses the basic structure of improv. With "no, and...", "yes", and "yes and..." being your possible die result

EDIT: Lester Burton reminded me on Twitter that 3-4 is a Success in GROK?! Not an indifferent result.

Characters have three attributes that are rated as die rolls in a similar Overlight. A low stat is expressed to the d4, average stats are d6s and d8s, and exceptional stats are expressed as d10s.

Characters roll a single d12 during character generation to determine which of several possible stat arrays they start with.

Characters otherwise have a selection of traits and assets. They have seven slots for traits, of which five are occupied by personality or backstory elements, such as their place of origin, motive for adventuring, occupational background, and greatest virtue.

Assets are a series of slots for contacts, hirelings, equipment, magic spells, or anything else the player character might use to their advantage during an adventure.

Filling all your assets slots not only causes your character to be encumbered, with appropriate penalties, but also is extremely risky to their health (see below.)

When a roll is called for the Director assesses the number of factors both to the player character's advantage and to their disadvantage, then subtract the disadvantages from the advantages. If there is a positive number, the character rolls that many additional dice and takes the highest. If there's a negative number, they roll the absolute value of that number of additional dice and takes the lowest. If there are relevant traits, they may be counted for advantages or disadvantages.

Assets might determine what a character is capable of doing. For example, characters are not capable of casting spells unless they have magic spells in their list of assets. On the other hand, anyone can attack an opponent, but possessing a sword might negate a disadvantage, or even serve as an advantage if the opponent has an inferior weapon. This is all left to the Director to determine.

Starting assets maybe randomly rolled, assigned by the director, or selected at the GM's discretion.

There is also a push mechanic that allows characters to roll the appropriate die a second time and add it to the highest or lowest result depending on whether or not they had advantage or disadvantage on the original roll. Pushing requires the player to degrade the quality of one of their assets. So a sword might become a chipped sword, a retainer might become demoralized, or a faction affiliation might become strained. At which point using these things comes with disadvantage.

In situations where an injury may have occurred, or when a character made it sustained some other detrimental condition, that is placed on one of their assets slots. It cannot be removed until the player character takes appropriate measures.

If no assets slots are available, instead, appropriate harm is recorded as a trait, and the character is debilitated, which prevents them from taking actions without also pushing. If no trade slots are available, the character dies.

Overall, this feels a lot like injury from fate. Characters have a number of slots in which descriptions of the injuries and disadvantages they've accrued are collected, and they create penalties where it makes narrative sense. And so, a twisted ankle would create penalties when a character has to be able to move their feet.

The Setting 

With such an incredibly lightweight ruleset, the game has a lot more space for developing a setting. And the setting is compelling.

Art by Matias Viro
Planet Grok was a world discovered by early space explorers that, rather than having a molten core, was built around a rupture in time space they named the voidstar. The Voidstar collected both gravity, energy, and Mana. Using a combination of science, high technology, and magic, the Voidstar was harnessed to create a network of wormholes across the Galaxy, turning Grok into the nexus of an interdimensional Empire.

When the traffic through these wormholes became too frequent and too widespread, it caused a surge in the Voidstar, which destroyed the planet. It is left a crumbling planetary core, surrpunded by collection of floating planetoids with their own gravity,  trapped in a atmospheric bubble. Beyond that, a vast ring of high-tech modules, many of which lost atmosphere,  or malfunctioned, bombarding the planet with radiation. 

While GROK?! does have a setting section, it does most of it's world building by use of random tables. It has tables to generate adventures and locations at each of the strata of the planet. It also does significant world building through the asset tables for character generation, and through some of the suggested character traits.

What I Loved

Art and Layout

Art by Matias Viro
Grok?! is elegantly laid out: In general it is very easy to read because of it. It features wild fantastic furniture by Matias Viro which reminds me of a mix of surreal films like Spirited Away and Paprika if they were drawn by Mobius. The art alone was worth the price of admission. And does a fantastic job of also helping to build the tone and world.

Clever recombinations.

Rock does a great job of combining elements from very disparate role-playing traditions. We have ideas borrowed from Index Card RPG, Electric Bastionland, Fate Core, Overlight, and D&D 5e all  something unique, strange, and feverish.


GROK?! is extremely well written. The rules are light and require little explanation, but the language used to explain them is extremely clear and compact.


Planet Grok is hey weird and wonderful fever-dream of a setting where the Director can fit almost any kind of adventure they want. For my test game, I stole the plot from A fistful of dollars, and created a weird fantasy western with a touch of gamma world thrown in.

Supporting Documents

Grok?! has character sheets in both full page and index card format and a quick start guide as part of your purchase. That's a lot of supporting documentation for such a slim volume. Lester Burton certainly goes the extra mile.

Open Culture 

Grok?! is released under a CC-BY 4.0 license, making it totally open to adaptation and remixing. I am hoping to see a lot GROK?! Content emerge in the near future. 

Growth Points

Needs Adventure

When you are building a setting this weird, it helps to have either some introductory pictures or a module showcasing your idea of how the game should play out. At an incredibly slim 38 pages, grock certainly has room for more content. Barring an adventure, a more structured set of hooks might have been helpful

Film Lingo

Grok?! replaces standard language with film terminology. We hear about scenes, beats, the GM is called the Director, and the players are referred to as Actors. This embeds the game in a bit of a deliberate an pre-planned (rather than emergent) storytelling mentality that seems odd for a game that draws much of its inspiration from the Old-School Renaissance and Free Kriegspiel Revolution.

I don't find it adds much except to put it at arm's length from more traditional role-playing games. The idea of the referee or game master being a Director actually carries some very strange semiotic baggage. After all, the director has a plan, and the actors only do what they are told.

And not all players interested in acting while playing. If GROK?! were built like World of Darkness, where actual play acting is required, it would make sense to use that language a bit more. As it is, it doesn't describe what the players of GROK?! do, and misrepresents the game a bit.


I can see why grec has reached gold best seller. It's a very clever mishmash of ideas from across the Indie gaming spectrum. It's extremely light narrative focus does make it a lot of work for the gm, but the lack of rules makes up for that. It gives you the bare bones of what you need to play a game of structured make-believe.

Its design is attractive and the setting is wild. Both of which they get definitely worth the price of entry.

At this point, I play two rules light games as my go-to's been playing with my kids or just creating an off the cuff game. Those are Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 if I want a lot of action, or Tiny Dungeon if I want a more traditional dungeon crawler. In the past I have also used Troika! and Tunnel Goons just for the sake of trying something different, but neither have lasted more than four or five ddventures before my family got tired of them. Dethroning Tiny Dungeon has been difficult in my household. I think I'll give GROK?! a try. It certainly would suit my oldest son's weird and Gonzo play style. Just this week I found myself trying to defeat a coffee atronach with my beatnik sorcerer character in order to save the kingdom from total collapse during a bout of mass insomnia. This kind of story might be easier to express in GROK?! than in Tiny d6.


  1. I've always hated film terminology in RPGs, I think those metaphors are a very poor fit and just ruin the mood for me. The two media are utterly different on many levels: pacing, visual-based vs. language-based, scripted vs. emergent story, external observation vs. immersive imagination, passive consumption vs. active participation…

    And what's this "cinematic" combat that everybody seem to want, anyway? Some crappy choreography viewed through shaky camera and a million smash cuts to conceal the fact that the actors aren't actually fighting and if they did they would suck at it?

    1. Exactly! TTRPGs are nothing like the movies, and trying to make them like movies leads to nothing good.

      To hell with your action feeling like a movie. I haven't liked the action in movies since The Mask of Zorro.

      I want my games to feel like a Robert E. Howard short story instead.