December 7, 2023

RPG Review: Hesitation at the Gate

Artist Credit: Jabari Weathers

When is a spell like an arrow? Going by many popular TTRPGs, it’s most of the time. You cast a spell, it deals X amount of damage, you mark it off your sheet. It’s a little sad when you stop to think how often magic gets morphed into just another weapon. You have all the powers of the universe at your disposal, and the most useful thing you can do with it is hurl a fireball. Granted, shooting lightning from your fingertips is cool, but it should be the start of what you can do with magic, not the sum of it. Hesitation at the Gate gives you a glimpse into a world where magic truly matters.

Published auspiciously on New Year’s day this year, Hesitation at the Gate is the arcane concoction of Adam Blumenau. Hesitation describes itself as a game of “chasing enlightenment.” The end goal of a campaign being to stand before the Gates of Truth, reflecting on the totality of their grand journey, and pondering if it was all worth it. It draws heavy influence from real world esoteric magic traditions. If you like reading about would-be real life magicians like Alestair Crowley, this game is for you. 

Taking place in an unnamed, wondrous city-state, Hesitation is set in a niveous time period incorporating elements from the early renaissance to the late enlightenment. Your character can dabble in any number of disciplines, from being an alchemist in the vein of Isaac Newton, to demon taming witches, and everything in between. But your character is more than the sum of their magical abilities. Equally important are their relations, goals, and personality traits. The game does a very good job incorporating roleplaying opportunities into the game mechanics themselves.

Rather than dice, this game uses a deck of tarot cards to resolve challenges, which helps to reinforce the broader flavor of the setting. You’ll play with a hand of the suited cards against a randomly pulled one from the deck or against whatever the game master (called the Fatespinner) throws down. The real excitement comes from the high arcana cards (The Tower, The Hanged Man, etc). These allow you to do almost anything with your magical abilities within reason. Each one’s effect has something to do with the theme of the card. For example, if an assassin’s blade is about to pierce your heart and you have the Wheel of Fortune in your hand, you could force the universe to cause him to slip. If you have The Moon, you could cause a horde of otherworldly shadow creatures to swarm your foes. This is where your creativity and imagination really come into play. The most exciting moments in my session were definitely when somebody revealed a high arcana card and completely shifted the balance of an encounter.

Another unique feature is Orders. After you create your own character, you work with the rest of the players to build the stats, abilities, and relationships of your party. This is a really innovative way to bind your group together and make sure everyone has shared goals and interests. It solves the age old problem of why a gaggle of seemingly unrelated misfits would meet in a tavern one day and decide to risk their lives together. After seeing how this is handled in Hesitation at the Gate, it’s a wonder more games haven’t implemented a similar system. It’s one of those things that seems so simple in hindsight. There’s a good chance I’ll rework this aspect and introduce it as a house rule for other games I run.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t go into some of the issues I experienced, though. The largest of these was that I felt a little lost during character creation. You’ll probably want to read through the entirety of the manual a couple times to get a sense of how each aspect of the character hangs together (which isn’t that tough seeing as it’s just 64 pages), or maybe play with the pregenerated characters. The tarot system also takes some getting used to as well. As opposed to simply being like a game of high-card, there are trump suits involved that impact your strategy. My group kept having to refer back to the manual to see what beat what. It would probably take a few sessions to really internalize the process for resolving challenges. I don’t think these issues are game breaking, but it’s something you should keep in mind when playing with a new group.

In 2007, Clint Hocking coined the term “ludonarrative” to describe the intersection of game mechanics and storytelling elements. Put another way, the game is the story and the story is the game. The themes and mechanics of Hesitation at the Gate are woven together in a way you rarely see. For this alone, I’d say this lands in my strongly recommended category. But when you add in incredibly fertile creative setting for a creative gamemaster, the Orders concept, and tarot trick based challenge resolution setting, it makes the game well-worth at least trying.  Overall, it’s a highly ambitious game that gets way more right than it does wrong. It’s available for about $25 on right now. What’s stopping you from reaching enlightenment?