Jason Morningstar's newest game, The Skeletons is out now for digital release on DrivethruRPG.
I brought my copy to Story Games Seattle this week. Ideally this game should be played in a private place with friends -- a place where you can turn off the lights and be comfortable in the quiet, darkness. For the purposes of playing in a public space with strangers, we made do with closing our eyes at the table. Did we lose out on some of the introspection? Of course. The six of us, lovers of Jason and Bully Pulpit's games, soldiered on eager to try this new morsel.
In short, The Skeletons is a game about being undead tomb guardians. It's a very freeform story game that spans millennia and our skeletons only spur to action when intruders show up. It is in the flurry of activity of defending the tomb do we see flickers of who, what, and why.
Out of the 7 available character sheets, it was only the Outsider that did not see play. This means the Silver Torc, Rusted Shirt, Tattered Cloak, Headless, Arrow-Shield, and Horror guarded our tomb.
After character selection, the next step is to sketch a few items on your skeleton and draw on the shared map. Sketching in details on your character sheet skeleton before working on the map helped our group as more than one player incorporated elements of our skeletons into the tomb at large. The holy symbol of the Headless, wound up also being seen on a silvery piece of art in an alcove.
This is a picture of the map taken at the end of play. A lot of chaos and damage occurred to our home over the many thousands of years, but seen here is a MASSIVE dark sarcophagus in the middle of the tomb. Four glyphs mark the corners of the tomb which had something to do with the Horror, Additionally there's the previously mentioned alcove on the north wall, a fountain on the west wall with its basin full of skulls, seven recesses housing large statuettes of people in varying condition and a hidden gem behind one of the statuettes (behind the mother cradling the air) on the south wall, and on the eastern wall is a mural of some sort of exodus of people being led by a cloaked figure away from devastation.
With 6 people. it felt hard pressed to develop a whole lot in the midst of these combats. We took turns going around the table indicated what we're doing, trying to not kill the intruders too quickly, as to get to our questions!
I, for one, enjoyed a few running themes that were identified early on. There's something going on with the faith of the eye involving the Silver Torc and Headless. Our Rusted Shirt also had a penchant for collecting the skulls of slain foes into the fountain basin.
Play felt long and drawn out early on for a few reasons. I think as a table, we did not pick up the mantle of declarative action as well as the game required. We did a lot of "if it's alright I'm gonna do...." and looking to the controller of the intruders for permission. One of the player in our game was quick to bring this up before a minute long Time Passes and I'm very thankful they did such.
The most important part of this game is the skeletons. Why we're here. What we're doing. Not the intruders. Not losing sight of this, we had quite a few interesting developments over the course of the game.
I'm very glad I got a chance to play this game and thankful for Story Games Seattle's perpetually awesome members willing to play with me. The post-mortem of the game yielded a fantastic and fruitful discussion about our play.
Ultimately, the game was fun, but felt like it was misfiring in a few ways. What we identified as the core culprit of the game is the combat segments of the game were tearing us away from the introspective flashback discovery that we all wanted out of the game!
Per the rules, the first few combats are trivial. We describe how we dispatch them and move on. We win automatically. I think as a group, we spent a lot of time delving into why the intruders were here and narrating a lot of their action, but I think that's a trap. Someone introduces the threat and we should move on. What they're doing is unimportant.
We were able to invoke a few flashbacks based on the circumstances of the intruders. For instance, an orc family moving into our tomb reminded Headless of her time as a nun and helping orphans, which was cool. Additionally, another player remarked how they enjoyed describing the action of the combats! A few others didn't feel the same way.
At no point in the game did we really uncover why we were all undead. We uncovered a lot of fun and interesting story elements of our lives prior to being dead and who we're guarding, but nothing about the circumstances that led us to being tomb guardians.
If I were to play this again (and I sincerely hope I do!) here's a few things I will do differently.
I will be explicit about declarations and authority of the story and not devolve into "Mother may I". I will play with fewer players. If we played this game with 3 players keeping everything else constant, each of us would have double the amount of time to speak! I will spend less time with the intruders. Quickly describe them and then we all move back to thinking about our skeletons.
Maybe a lot of our concerns are from lack of experience from the more freeform RPGs? But ultimately, we all agreed that the core part of the game is solid. We're telling a story of past lives, actual Skeletons, and the wear of time,