Review | Songbirds 3e by Snow
brilliant, intimate, and inspiringly weird
Disclaimer: I was part of a playtest group for this game before release, and was the editor for a revised version of the game.
Songbirds 1e (released in 2017, now unavailable on the internet) was the very first RPG I made the decision to read for its own sake, instead of by necessity to play with friends. It enthralled me—it was terse, witty, imaginative, and played with convention in fun and thought-provoking ways. I've always wanted to run it, but figured I'd never get the chance to.
Now I know I won't, and I couldn't be happier.
Songbirds 3 is like coming home to a town you only half-remember, one that's grown sprawling and mysterious in your time apart. Some things are still familiar, some things appear familiar but quickly peel away into the subversive and weird, and a lot of things weren’t there when you left at all. I found a lot of joy in experiencing these juxtapositions as I read: having my expectations played with in ways that made me raise my eyebrows, shake my head, or crack a smile. Those moments felt, somehow, like discovery, despite being plain on the page—a secret behind a waterfall, a love note under your pillow, bright clever things placed with purpose and care.
There's a lot of harping in certain RPG circles about the good and bad of "design intent", but I’ve always thought those discussions were missing the point. I don't care what, specifically, the person who wrote a game intended, I care about, well, care—I want intentionality to be present, front and center, whether I agree with it or not! Songbirds passes that test with flying colors: Snow's passion, experience, and creativity crackle across every page, leaping out in little lightning-arcs of surprise and delight. The whole thing reads as deeply personal without being parasocial—it's a story, or maybe a bunch of stories, someone desperately wanted to tell. This is a game that believes in itself, deeply and unabashedly.
Those kinds of games always tend to be my favorites, regardless of whether I actually enjoy playing them or not, but this one has the benefit of also being extremely playable—the rules are straightforward and evocative, chargen is fast with a lot of cool, narrative-piquing options, and bestiary is one of my favorites I've had the pleasure of reading, up there with Luke Gearing's V2:Monsters&. The layout is crisp, uncluttered, and appealing, with enough personal touches to make it much more than a paint-by-numbers of the Explorer's Template. As a first release, there are still some rough edges (mostly copy-edit errors), but nothing I think would significantly impede play. And god, does this game beg to be played: there are so many deftly-woven hooks, tantalizing loose ends, and sly little implications of the world beyond the page, a setting-without-a-setting that feels fresher and more exciting than anything I've read in recent memory.
More than anything, Songbirds 3 feels like what every hopeful heartbreaker, yearning retroclone, and scrappy house-game table hack wants to be when it grows up. The first edition's influence permeates the text but never stifles it, in the same way your brooding teenage self is still a part of you—but now it's gone out and seen the world, suffered love, earned some scars, and is that much richer and more beautifully strange for it all.
If you have even the slightest interest in fantasy roleplaying beyond the gaze of the all-devouring Dragon, this is essential canon. It is the blood and heart and soul of why I love these kinds of games, and I can't recommend it enough.
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