Flying Circus is a heavily customized Powered by the Apocalypse game about being a dashing flying ace and also being a queer as hell kid in a fantastic interwar Europe inspired by the soft apocalypse aesthetic of Studio Ghibli films. It's clearly a labor of love, with design, writing, and art almost entirely done by Erika Chappell (other artists did a handful of the pictures), and is physically a gorgeous book. I backed it on Kickstarter ages ago, and I'm quite happy with the final product. The game is fantastical, creative, and hits its themes square on. So how about we take our shirts off and play some volleyball, Iceman?
There's a lot to love about this game. The art is great, the writing has a wonderful level of snark. One of my favorites is an aside that pilots, like babies, lack object permanence, so feel free to have threats disappear and reappear as needed. The setting is eminently playable, a hostile wilderness surrounding isolated towns in the wreckage of a Great War which smashed all the nations of the world with poison gas and autonomous superweapons. Magic is real, and fae ask for cruel bargains while dragons patrol the skies. The old is dead and discredited, and the young are picking up the pieces. Flying Circuses are mercenary bands who shoot trouble and carry out jobs of relative morality. The arc of the game is divided between flying missions and on the ground drama, blowing off stress with wild parties and brawls until they burn through the good will of the locals and have to move on.
That said, this is also a solo project, and there is a little turbulence. To have an aside for a moment, my typology of RPG player motivations breaks down to Explorers, Masters, and Dramatists. Explorers want to experience a cool story, with plot twists, interesting characters, and fantastic vistas. Masters want to choose cleverly, picking the right options and tactics to crush their enemies and earn victory. And Dramatists want to experience emotional states which are risky or inaccessible in mundane life. Any pbtA game is heavy on Explore and Drama, and Flying Circus has enough new mechanics to make it at least medium on Mastery.
The twin beating hearts of the game are clearly Dogfight and Indulging in Vice. There is a whole detailed subsystem of altitude, speed, ordinance, maneuverability, and damage, but it mostly boils down to Dogfight and some ancillary moves around Dogfight. Tactical aerial combat is very hard to do well, and admittedly it might play better than it reads. I don't expect the game to break out a full X-Wing tactical dogfight subsystem, and while it seems like both maneuverability fighters and energy fighters are possible in the system, I was hoping for a little bit more depth along the lines of John Boyd's Aerial Attack Study . As with all narrative games, it comes down to the creativity and skill of the GM, which can be hard if combat is supposed to be a regular thing. The best escape from this trap are missions with a focus other than downing the other side.
Indulge Vice is one of those ideas which I have mixed feelings about. It's a core part of Blades in the Dark, where it's a d6 used to replenish a Stress track. Go over, and you overindulge with a consequence. In play with BitD, I tend to abstract out downtime more than I should, so Vice doesn't get centered properly. In Flying Circus, you get up to 5 chances to Indulge Vice, and each chance gives a flat 1d20 roll, where results above 10 remove stress, and 3 or more results below 10 results in a consequence. Removing stress gives you XP, which can be spent on advances. Since there's more involved mechanics on Vice, it's harder to skip (good), but it's also less reliable than BitD's Stress, and it's tied to advancement (bad). And from a historical note, the life expectancy of World War I pilots was measured in days. Your PCs are much more durable, in fact they won't die without explicit permission. While one of the ptbA Agendas here is to show that glory and tragedy are two sides of the same coin, mechanical support for that theme is on the lighter side.
One of the strengths of ptbA is the system's laser focus on the Conversation At The Table (caps intended). The 2d6+k system, and the outcomes for each move, structure how the game works and gets the system out of the way. Flying Circus uses 2d10+k, and there are a lot more Hold X Forwards and special cases than is typical in the genre. The system is definitely more; I'm not sure that it's better.
I had a ton of fun reading Flying Circus, and I'm definitely more likely to play it than Night Witches. If you're willing to buy into the premise, it's looks like a solid game. But there are spots where I look a little askance. And I recognize it's not entirely fair criticism, I Have Opinions About Game Mechanics and air power. My favorite pilots are the jet-propelled renegades of The Right Stuff and When Thunder Rolled, not the barnstormers of WW1. I wish I could say Flying Circus is perfect, but very good will have to suffice.