The Crowley Family
This past Thursday I had the opportunity to sit down and play a story game called House of Reeds. It's designed by a Story Games Seattle regular, Sam which is super cool.
At 30,000 ft: House of Reeds is similar to The Quiet Year in that it is a map-drawing story game only it focuses on a family in a particular house. Family and house are used as literally as you want/need. Players take turns drawing cards which prompt them to do things. In House of Reed's case, rotating one at a time, a player will draw a prompt, choose a time of the year, which characters in the family, and directs a scene with the prompt in mind. Often the prompt will ask you to update the map with something new.
The four of us, T, E, R, and J, came up with a Victorian Gaslight / Steampunk / Mad Science setting was what we wanted.
The four rooms we made up were:
The Crowleys are a middle class family auspiciously inherits a London manor. We made characters simultaneously and came up with the following:
Our game was tragic to say the least. Not in an unfun tragic, but the story we ended up telling was very sad and intimate.
Within the first few years of play, Helena lost an arm in her experimentation, Victoria is upset and keeps bothering her mother for love and affection that everything's going to be alright, and to make it all worse: the bank has showed up showing that they failed to pay inheritance fees and are to be evicted. Yikes!
The remaining part of the game flows between tragedy and joy in a very heartfelt way. Helena builds herself a new arm in the workshop and then more tragedy befalls the Cromley family as the mother, Anastasia passes away from a freak accident. Coincidentally it wasn't long after we learned more about Herr Grum and what the mysterious room in the bedroom! With so much loss, the Bank waives the penalties and offers a holiday on payments for the time being.
Victoria and Helena could never quite see eye to eye. Helena is a very cool headed, rational person while Victoria is young, naive, and idealistic. Helena wished Victoria would grow up and see the world for what it was. Victoria wished her older sister would stop being so sad and live a little. All the while, Herr Grum led on that Helena working in the workshop and lab was not shocking to him at all and offered to help (insinuating he's done so before with previous owners of the house...) Eventually Helena gets sent to study in the Royal Academy of Sciences leaving only a early teenage Victoria in the house with Herr Grum.
Victoria is a temperamental teenager and confused. Her relationships in and outside the home are tumultuous and takes it out on Herr Grumm. She berates him for imaginary imperfections to his job. (Too much ice, not enough ice, the tea is too hot etc). Herr Grum silently takes it all as butler and knowing confidant in the poor kid's upbringing. Helena, at school, sends Victoria a brand new player piano to replace the old piano in the parlor. One day in a fit of rage, Victoria destroys all of it's machinations for it's reminding her of her sister. Months later, Victoria shows her vulnerability as she opens up to Herr Grum as they enjoy setting up Halloween decorations in the Foyer.
The game ended dramatically with Victoria bringing over her friend and romantic interest Gabby where the two girls chase each other through the lab before their feelings realize themselves and they kiss. Unfortunately this joy is not to last as grim news reaches the home: Helena has been badly injured in an experiment at the Royal Academy of Sciences where she must be repaired in the place that knows her best: her workshop.
Helena and Victoria think this home has been too much grief for them to bear and wish to move as Helena is transferred to a hospital near the Academy. in Helena's close call with death, Victoria realizes that she must be with her sister and asks Herr Grum to come with her on her move where Herr Grum reveals he is spiritually bound to the house.
This game was a slow burn. I had some doubts about the game at the start. It was feeling like a Microscope game that didn't do enough on the palette, but one hour into the game things were on FIRE. We all loved the game and were greatly enjoying each other's inputs.
The game also functions heavily on the cards that you draw that prompt you. I think our game was an outlier in that we never drew a single "arrival" or "build" card which allows you to add family members or rooms to the game.
In fact, we drew basically 6 cards the whole game: Eros, Progress, Violence, Move, Tradition, Departure. This was just one of those fluke moments with randomness of a deck.. all the cards were there.
If I would change one thing about the game, I would allow each person to draw two cards and pick one. Perhaps some cards are mandatory if they're drawn? I think this might cut down on some of the huge variation.
This game is definitely a game I'd play again. In fact, I liked it so much that it's in the running for my new Story Game show, Once Upon A Game.
A wartime take on the Quiet Year
At Story Games Seattle I had the honor to sit down and play a specially requested story game: "The Quiet Year"
The Quiet Year is a GMless story game about a community that takes place over a year and is played with a thing to draw on and a deck of cards. 52 Cards in 4 sets. 52 weeks and 4 Seasons. Very easy and very fun!
Instead of the borderline fantastical or supernatural post-apocalyptic village that The Quiet Year games typically espouse, B, J, A, and E played a game with the pretext that this was a realistic recent wartime event (Something like Bosnia, Syria, or Ukraine). It would take place in a major metropolitan, bombed out city. Strictly realistic.
Our game group started establishing that we're looking at something vaguely Slavic and post-soviet bloc before drawing particular things on the map: A shelled Hospital, A Downtown Subway Center Station. A Stadium full of tents, and a blown up bridge over a ravine with a river.
The four resources we came up with at the start were:
Our Food abundance came in the form of a large supermarket northwest of center city. Our water was represented by an empty, dilapidated water tower, medicine was naturally the shelled out Hospital, and lastly our electricty was represented by broken power lines.
I will describe the rest of play via Seasonal chunks as well as contextualize each turn into the bigger picture. I will probably end up glossing over more than a few details here and there, but I hope you enjoy the story!
The skies grew dark grey. The sound of distant shelling became intermixed with periods of thunder and those of us still in the capital grew apathetic of both. Life was certainly not normal in the aid camps in the Stadium. Shanty tents regimented in orderly rows lined the pitch under a large banner which read "WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS - 2011"-- Our country's proudest accomplishment. The shelling and thunder both got worse. Rumors began spreading that we weren't safe in the Stadium. We began to believe it.
A few of us began searching around at night and one of us found a deserted Nationalist soldier who told us of just how bad it was. The Nationalist government was losing. Apparently there were many spies and dissidents among the soldiers. After the incident with the bombed hospital a few days after Christmas last year, no one doubted that. With our aid stations running out of medicine, a small party of able bodies went to search the dangerous hospital in hopes of any leftover medicine. While this was going on, a traitor in our midst was discovered. An elderly man by the name of Miroslav was discovered as a sympathizer with the rebels and a discussion was had about what to do with this scum. He was held in prison pending trial.
Our meager supplies led us to go farther and farther into the city. We discovered the water treatment center was bombed, but mostly in tact and, if repaired and powered, could restore clean drinking water... which was good news since our recon of the Hospital turned up empty handed. Rumors spread of the strange and insular Artanians southeast. This ethnic group, often despised, seemed to be fairing the storm rather well compared to the rest of us.. At the peak of a heated discussion about moving camp to someplace safe, the dreary grey skies finally broke into showers and it was decided it best to move our camps to the factories southwest of town. The swampy, mucky conditions of the stadium soon convinced everyone that something had to be done about relocating.
It was during these stressful moving times that they executed the traitor Mirsolav-- the first and certainly not last person to die in this story.
We were not alone near the Factory. A small armed contingent of civilians took up a small fort nearby. Suspicious of us, but not outright hostile. It would take time to establish good relations with them.
These armed factory dwellers confirmed that Little Artania has weathered this conflict very well due to their isolation from the rest of the city thanks to the bombing of infrastructure. The rumors made it sound like heaven to us.
A disturbing sight was discovered-- a mass grave from last winter -- just outside of town. No one knows who committed it-- Nationalists or Rebels, but a unanimous decision was reached that the bodies needed burial. Our religious leaders-- our Ethnic Orthodox priesthood -- called that each person try and be identified so that they have the proper religious rights. While this conflict of community of will unfurled, the bodies remained open and unburied. Our factory neighbors offered sympathy and we grew together... despite their seemingly atheistic tendencies.
Our community's young people couldn't take our staunch, traditionalist values and tried to embrace the nihilism of it all. A small group of teens led by a 15 year old girl named Petra took to the supermarket and had a lavish party. When news of this reached the camp in the factory, our religious leaders threatened them all with excommunication.
Having enough with our hedonistic youth and our apostate factory allies, our church called a discussion about our core values about what we should do, which ended with no successful or obvious decision. Meanwhile, at night, firefights began occurring between a rebel force and our factory friends. Fearing out safety, we ventured to the subway tunnels below the ground.
With our water supplies running desperately low, a decision was reached that we must cross ethnic lines and deal with the Artanians. Water is water. While it isn't uncommon for Petra and the teens to run off... they've been gone for a while. The community is concerned. Security is increasingly on the minds of many and efforts are put in securing the subway station.
Summer became the summer of projects.
No one knows what happened to those who stayed in the stadium when we came back to it. We found it deserted... but also muddy and sort of perfect for farming. At night we hear planes dropping supplies to the Rebel force who is fighting the factory gangs still. A few able bodied men of fighting strength wish to go help them and return generosity. While a scouting mission went to find a way to see the Artanians our religious engineers wished to avoid them and focus on fixing the water treatment plant. Additionally power generators come online at the same time the rebel army comes strolling into our subway station. Welp.
Our community is forcibly taken over by the rebels and put to work aiding them. The food we are growing in the stadium is now being used by the rebels and not us. We attempt to subvert their authority, but our leaders of our resistance are caught up with the scouts who met with Artania through the subway tunnels. Our leader Dominik was publically executed, but his false confessions perhaps saved the lives of dozens. We are now forbidden from communicating with Little Artania.
The water from the water treatment plant and the power generators-- all we have worked for-- is now in the hands of the enemy.
ll is a time of trouble and questions. Our Subway fort to keep others out has become a prison keeping us in. We have no idea what has happened to our friends in the Factories...
With the discovery of the teenager Petra killed and left near the supermarket is has come for us to try and make a run for it but our community is fracturing under the stress. Half of us don't care and wish to escape to Little Artania while the other half of us wish to make do at the factories again. Both sides agree that the current state of affairs is untenable.
Almost serendipitous, the National army contingent arrives and engages the Rebels outside the Subway station. Now's the time for our escape.
We escape to the Factory, but not without casualties. Almost all of our religious leaders, Priests et al, killed.
We learn life at the factory is marginally better. Food is just as scarce, medicine is just as scarce, and without a religious leader, our community votes to elect a new leader. With all the religious males killed, our faith elects the first ever Female priest: Pavla.
Wishing to strike back against the rebels, a very small group sneaks under the cover of night to raid our previous Subway home. Unfortunately they were betrayed and are all killed-- including the betrayer (who was originally promised safety with the rebels.) We find meager rations in the slums near the factory, but food is still scarce and we're not sure what will happen come winter. We build a temporary memorial to the slain priests.
Fall ends on a bad note with an Earthquake. God's vengeance strikes the bombed out factories and a significant portion of our defenses crumbles... taking our memorial to the priests with it. Why is God so cruel to those who love him?
Finally. A good omen. As the days grow bitterly cold, we find an overturned nationalist army truck. It seems both armies have retreated out of the city... or the fighting has at least stopped for now. For the first time in a long time, there is no sound of artillery or gun fire.
Oh but if only things would get good... We quickly learned why the food truck was abandoned. The food was either in poor quality or diseased/rotten. It was in this discovery that our community lost our last child to sickness and the cold. We were devastated.
Finally, on a cold, bitter, day of Winter, we heard the news of Ceasefire.
But could we ever return to normal life?
Last night I had the pleasure of playing another game of Microscope. We were originally going to play a game of Microscope: Chronicle (and even started out that way) but our facilitator wasn’t sure about a few of the finer points of this version, so we audibled to good ol’ Microscope. There were 3 of us.
We started out wanting to tell the story of a Forum. We were thinking of retelling the story and changes of to a town square as this planet gets colonized by a more powerful imperialist space regime. After we laid our bookends, palette, and first pass, we kind of realized we really wanted to tell the story of the entire planet anyways and switched to original Microscope. This only required a rewrite of our Concept.
We were looking at some sort of tidally locked planet with dinosaur-like megafauna. We originally were going to go primitive culture, but instead went for the Sci-Fi approach. What we ended up with was basically Dune with Dinosaurs. Oh and outright War was off the table thanks to the palette.
Like almost every game of microscope I’ve ever played, the game doesn’t cohere together until about the second lens. This game was no exception as we all were on board with some serious social commentary.
You know what they say—History is written by the victors -- so without further ado…
We fade into a sterile futuristic classroom. A grizzled, uniformed professor stands before an auditorium shuffling some notes around, sipping some steamy beverage, and checking her watch. After a quick beep from her watch, the imperial classroom’s holoprojector lights up displaying an Earth sized planet with a bold label [TESSA] hanging above. The label stands as still and motionless as the tidally locked planet does.
The hololight from the planet display illuminates the vast ocean of expressionless students all neat, proper, and in monochromatic slate uniforms watching the Professor. “Attention class-- Today we will be talking about the planet Tessa and the history of her people. Now if you would please get out your holobooks and turn to page 336….”
Now I wish I could write up the entire fiction like a series of lectures post-facto, but the long and the short of the game was how the game came together and found it’s serious tone based on a single scene. The question being framed was “How did this space power station get destroyed?”
We were the bigwigs following up on the evidence from an imperial hall of justice far, far away from Tessa. It was here we learned that our land of space colony and dinosaurs harbored a very proud, oppressed people and were willing to do whatever it takes in the name of their religion and beliefs--- including suicide bombing. We ended with the revelation that the energy space station was destroyed by TIN (Tessan Independent Nationalist) suicide bombers.
It was very much a game of strong cultural identity and religious symbolism being rediscovered for this defeated people that figuratively and literally were the seeds of their own destruction. It became a tale of this Sisyphean pursuit of independence.
Our game was pretty brief, but also very hearty.
This game of Microscope went tall instead of wide. Following our tales of nationalism, we looked more into Imperialism and the dominance of the empire! What a great juxtaposition and I really wanted to thank the player who chose that as a focus. Brilliant!
It was during this time we examined a few case studies that mirror modern times. The imperialists have banned climate science, but the religious Tessans refuse to carry out Cease and Desist orders to the scientists because, supposedly, climatology is a big part of their religion! We had some Atticus Finch level defense speeches that ended up having the person on trial get acquitted! We also saw that following the destruction of the power plant, a massive crackdown on Tessan culture and the establishment of the Department of Freedom. How very 1984! Lastly we examined the economic might of the imperialists as they subsumed and monopolized the prosperous market of Dinobladders ensuring the vast majority of the wealth went back to the Imperium.
The very last thing we focused on was religion. We learned that the Tessans have a sort of Yggdrasil world tree that they revere and is a big part of their religion. We also learned that the desperate Tessans, currently broken into gangs and factions, united under a new Yggdrasil plant messiah. Too bad their desperation and need for religious answers blinded them to the real truth: This messiah was false and a weed which killed the old Yggdrasil!
Their culture, collective will, and religion slowly began to unescapably rot away.