Umläut: Game of Metal gives you a chance to live the dream. Groupies, drugs, concerts, tragedy, acrimony, and, most of all, hilarious misadventures on the road to becoming a metal legend (or a bargain bin washout).
You’ll typically find Umläut filed under “RPG,” which is not inaccurate, but it isn’t your typical RPG. It’s a storytelling game. There’s no GM, and you can play an entire game in a single evening, although you can extend your bands’ careers into a longer “campaign” if you want. The rules are based on Contenders, an award-winning boxing RPG.
The theme of the game is simple: each player creates a metal band, including the band’s name, concept, the names of the band members and, eventually, the names of their songs and albums. Each turn you decide what your band does. You might rehearse your material, put on a publicity stunt, or just put in a few shifts at your day job to earn some cash. Most importantly, you’ll have gigs where you throw down on stage against one of the other bands.
The rulebook (illustrated with some hypothetical concert posters and other metallish images) does a good job of explaining the different types of metal bands (glam, classic, death and thrash), and even has a fantastic series of random band name generating charts in case you’re stuck. For our playtest game, Meg and I went with random names just for kicks. Her glam metal band was Naked Serpent, while my classic metal band took the moniker Screaming Wolf. Both perfectly appropriate and hilarious, especially once she decided her band was actually a gay glam metal band. The game is very open-ended, though, so Gavin and Eric chose their own band names (Ominous Dominoes and HexosKeletal). In fact, the game is open enough that it easily accomodated the fact that Eric’s band wasn’t metal at all (they were more of an art-rock 80s New Wave band) and Gavin’s band had a steel guitar and, later, two bass players (we decided their style was “world metal”).
The mechanics of the game are simple. Each band has a few statistics that determine how they perform: power, technique, and stagecraft. They also have attributes that measure how well they’re doing as a band: hope, ego, fanbase and cash. Each turn, you decide what kind of “scene” your band is going to do. Could be a publicity stunt, could be an impromptu brawl with another band, could be the singer getting stoned and walking through the desert. Each kind of scene has costs and benefits which change depending on whether you win or lose the scene. You draw cards from a regular deck of playing cards based on your band’s stats, and another player draws cards against you. The player with the most black cards wins the scene, which typically means you gain some cash or fans without gaining any ego. If you lose, you still get the fans, but your ego grows as well.
That’s not all there is to it, though. Whichever player has the highest single card gets narration rights for the scene. Sometimes, the player that loses the scene still gets narration rights. So, for example, in our game my guitarist did a work scene, making some cash giving guitar lessons. Meg won narration rights even though I won the scene, so she decided that I actually was giving lessons to the milfy mom of one of her band’s members, and that they didn’t end up playing the guitar very much during the “lesson.”
This is probably a good time to mention that this game is intended for mature players. The rule book mentions that having beer and whiskey makes the game better, and there are some overt drug references. You could easily tone the game down for teens, but the subject matter inherently leads to scandal. Our game had some drug use and a whole lot of bizarre sexual escapades among band members (that one guy’s mom got around a lot, and my drummer dated a stripper-turned-porn star). We had bands stealing members from other bands, bands stealing leather pants from other bands, courtroom brawls (and nudity)…it was chaotic and awesome.
What Umläut really comes down to is just having a lot of fun and telling the most outrageous stories possible. You can “win” the game by having a large fanbase and a hope score higher than your ego. In fact, the mechanics of the game are built around balancing ego, which can be useful but ultimately destructive to your band, with the need to gain fans and hold onto your hopes of becoming a metal god. But even the band that “loses” still gets to tell a hilarious story. It’s like constructing your own episode of Behind the Music. Frankly, I loved this game and can’t to play it again.
A few observations: the one thing I might consider changing about Umläut is that it might benefit from slightly more structure. The rules suggest you just play for three hours, then have the final gig and see where your bands’ careers end up. Our bands sort of floundered aimlessly for two and a half hours, then realized the game was almost over and started doing a bunch of gigs. Having been in several bands, I can say this is quite realistic, but it might be more fun and make the bands seem a bit more awesome if there were milestones along the way to work toward. For example, after one hour you put out your first album, the quality of which depends on certain band attributes at that time. Then an hour later you go on tour as the opening act for an NPC band, someone huge and famous (Metallica, Aerosmith, Ozzy, whoever). Just a thought.
The other thing that occurred to me almost immediately was that, with only a very slight reworking of the rules, you could alter this into a professional wrestling RPG. And I mean very slight — you’d still have power, technique and stagecraft stats, and fanbase, cash, ego and hope would work as well. Instead of a band, each player would control a wrestling league (in the 70s and 80s there were tons of regional wrestling leagues competing against each other). I think we might try this.
I know this has been a long review, but I want to end with my favorite song titles from our playtest game.
Ominous Dominoes (who spent most of their career selling modern art and putting on publicity stunts without ever playing gigs) — “Reflection in a Puddle of Your Savior’s Urine,” “Hear Without Ears”
HexosKeletal (who stole naked Serpent’s bass player) — “Punyabinezorostrixtra part Deux,” “Mephistopheles, the Second Butler’s Nephew”
Naked Serpent (who had the best band member name, Rikki Ramrod) — “Glitter Snake,” “Hammered and Enamored”
Screaming Wolf (all of their songs were about WWII) — “Hellcats & Buzzbombs,” “Destroyers of the Reich”
You can get a PDF version of Umlaut: Game of Metal from RPGnow.