The re-imagining of The Quiet Year by Avery Alder and Mark Diaz Truman.
We introduced a few more monsters as the game progressed, a spirit elk, and some ancient spirits, but ultimately we never felt like a community, We felt disjointed.
The game doesn't allow for discussions like TQY does. It felt like there were just multiple stories going on that didn't feel connected. We had nothing to do but explore, which is different than The Quiet Year, where fixing your scarcities is always a good fallback strategy for what to do on your turn.
I would gladly play this game again, but given the choice between it and The Quiet Year, I think I'd rather play the later. The Deep Forest seems to have taken away some of the mechanics of The Quiet Year that make it feel so good to play. I think the aim was to allow for players to interact more as monsters in the game, but it didn't click for me.
If you've played The Deep Forest or even The Quiet Year, I'd like to hear your thoughts on your experiences!
Players: Tony, CJ, Zane, Eric
System: Blades Against Darkness
Blades Against Darkness is an upcoming Swords and Sorcery/Western hack for Blades in the Dark. The game takes place in a frontier setting composed of guns and strange magic. We have civil war technology and monsters and magic are strange, absurd, and alien. Our city of Ironwood was formed as a hub of economic activity (lumber if you could guess by the name) and sits on top of a ruined volcano and home to the ruins of once powerful sorcerer kings. This was session #2 but will be my first write up.
Before we jump into the report, here's a quick Dramatis Personae:
Tony, Pangit, the goat horned godson Chosen to debauchery.
CJ - Staven, an Ushdvani PTSD war veteran Widowmaker
Zane - Thron, the manipulative Edroshani Copperhead
Eric - Gwala, the forsaken Ushdvani Warden
Phil - Jikali, the ostracized and enigmatic Trau Chimera
Last session, our band of tomb robbers blew up a demonic power plant in the Ashlands, and so we started this session off doing downtime! After a brief discussion if our antics constituted 4 aggro or 3 aggro, we settled on 3 aggro (aggro being this hack's mechanical replacement for heat) as well as 5 coin for looting these obsidian tablets to sell to the Trau-- the "simple merchants" who lived on this continent for millennia.
Our actions in downtime really played on what we did last session. Our contact for our first mission put pressure on our poor, indebted Thron, that the location we blew up was supposed to be given to the Grey Foxes company. She needs a new spot to be found, FAST to make good on her promises to them and its up to poor, hungover Thron to solve it. Gwala was injured after some bad rolls and encounters with some steam vents. I spent the downtime healing my burns and ended up pissing off the earth spirits who were assisting me. They need me to restore the earth by dumping some alien god relic into the sea of magma its perched over. Apparently it gives the earth spirits bad vibes. ,
Staven and Panjit end up trying to recruit for the church of Pan.. Panjit's religion, Staven thinks a Bacchanalia would do the mind and body right and delightfully helps Panjit plan this.
Phil couldn't make it tonight, so we roleplayed his Chimera (wizard) off talking to the skull of the sorcerer king he found last session.
The rest of our downtime actions were in response to Thron's escapades. We all decided that figuring out a new adventure spot (and one that Thron's friend could give to the powerful faction, the Grey Foxes) could be done together and so we reconed the ashlands and think we found a good spot to adventure in.
We didn't get too far into our mission before having to call it for the night. Downtime ended up taking quite a lot of time! However we were able to find a secret way into this engineer compound where one of the buildings was COVERED in ice in the middle of a basin in a volcano!
We learned last week that a lot of ice like that usually means golem activity. Golems are mechanical constructs (wands, tools, machines, etc) imbued with a spark of the creators soul which, when pushed to the limits, absorbs heat from the world around it making things very cold.
It was also extremely dark where we were going, so as a Warden, I invoked powers of animals, and called upon the ability of an Owl to see in the dark, until someone suggested I use the power of an Anglerfish! And so it was. Anglerfish Gwala is now the lightsource for the party!
We get close to the building when we find the remains of previous adventurers. Apparently some sort of ghost like being did a number on this party… and it was at that moment we saw a spectral fin breach the floor and dive back below. Some ghostly animals from the nearby fossils must have been attracted to either this place or our magic!
We proceed with caution until we get to the room with this MASSIVE silver tomb. That’s where we stopped!
While this particular session wasn’t as strong as my first taste, I’m still excited to come back for week 3!
Blades Against Darkness is so good! This game is much a work in progress, but it has a lot of potential. Its flavor stems from a gritty fantasy/western crossed with dungeons that are more in line with HR Geiger and the Metroid video games.
The playbooks themselves are very interesting! Each one is a riff on your classic D&D class archtype- Chosen are your cleric, warlock, and paladins, Widowmakers are your fighters, Rogues are your Copperheads, Chimeras are your wizards, and Wardens are your Druid/Ranger/Barbarians. Each one’s moves make you go, “OH MAN I WANNA PLAY THAT” which is quite an impressive feat!
When you go on an adventure, the GM starts a sort of “grind” mechanic like you would in Torchbearer. Every 4 moves the GM makes a move! The alien-ness of our dungeons is also a very nice touch. Last week, I made the observation that dungeon delving in Blades Against Darkness is like your whole team is hacking into a secure facility. Now not every dungeon is like this, but for the first the dungeon we did—the Ashlands Powerplant—it occurred to me that this dungeon is similar to hacking in cyberpunk! The party links up and enters this dungeon which is itself a sort of monumentally massive supercomputer. The dungeon sort of registers the hack, and begins to find and trace its invaders and send response things at the invaders. Treating the dungeon crawling aspects like your racing against the tracing clock was awesome! Its an analog I really wanna see more of as we play. Hopefully it doesn’t get stale.
As with most RPGs I play, my dice cursed me with horrible rolls this and previous session and more level 2 harm is just around the bend for me… but the thing with blades and blades games, it captures the best parts of PBtA format games of having failure fall forward and progress the story in interesting ways.
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,
It's been a while. You haven't seen your crew in AGES. Not since the Catastrophe. But something needs your attention: a problem only you and your former team can solve. Looks like it's time to set the record straight in One Last Job!
One Last Job, by Grant Howitt, is a collaborative story game about the action genre. The setting and period are interchangeable, but the mechanics of the game pivot around this genre and setup: we are all characters who have worked together in the past to do something and that something ended up BAAADDDDDD. Betrayals, Deaths, Scars, Scorn, etc. You know-- your classic action movie setup. And you know what? It kills.
Four of us got together Thursday night and play it at Story Games Seattle so this meant we kicked it into GMless Mode. It was super cool for Grant to offer this version of play. The big thing about GM/GMless games are that the requirements of a GM never actually leave a game. The responsibilities are usually necessary for anything to happen, but instead of one person doing it, it comes to all of us players share the mantle of GM and the responsibilities therein.
What's really cool and great about One Last Job is that character creation is done in play AND the players will describe one another's characters. After choosing a setting and a little background, the "boss" of our team begins to assemble the team. One by One. The "thing we're setting off to do" will have a "problem" and this "problem" can only be solved by the one man/woman with the skills to do it: Player 1. So Player 1 will then describe what they're doing when the boss shows up to recruit him or her. After they catch up and agree to do the mission, Player 1 recruits the next player doing exactly what the boss did last time.. and so forth.
Our group wanted Fantasy and we went with stopping a Demon Lord's rise to power. The big twist that we went with this evening was that we were doing Suicide Squad style. We were all major villains taking on a larger threat! We discovered that our group assembled to defeat the Demon Lord before, but it didn't all go to plan. A character betrayed the party during their last showdown.
I started off by playing the former betraying party member: Magherri the Succubus. Magherri controlled a palantir like device and contacted our first character, Carthak the barbarian in his shadowy castle made of thick stone. Carthak was warned by Magherri that Ogrim has returned and is gathering power and must meet at the stables outside a remote inn. The Demon Lord Ogrim's skeletal armies block the way and it's only by his strategic cunning can we dare assault his fortress! So, following after was gathering Vul'adan Ghul the Necromancer for her ability to handle the magical wards and traps, Sasha the occultist for only her insane god could grant her the vision to navigate the hallways of madness, and Tarion the thief for unlocking the relics of power which will disable Ogrim to be destroyed!
The game started off a little janky as I shook off the rust of playing this game and realizing I must explain both player AND GM parts to people. It's a dice pool game and we are trying to get X successful ticks to beat the obstacle of this scene. Success relies on getting other players to tell anecdotes about your character and their past to give them equipment, legendary tales of prowess, or scars from before.
Given the hard start of the game, things were running smoothly by the second GM and we're all understanding the flow of Grit, anecdotes, and throwing d10s around. Ogrim was finally killed.
So apparently you can "win" at Remember, Tomorrow.
Normally tales of grizzly corporate espionage, mergers, cybernetics, and walled garden software ecosystems for higher education have no place for the small timers. A place packed full of greed, cynicism, and existential indifference, you'd think there's no room for personal victories. It's a future that practically assures that the underdogs get kicked, beaten, and go hungry. Play ball with the corps or enjoy the gutter. But not this time.
Remember Tomorrow, by Gregor Hutton, is a cyberpunk game featuring easy rules, fast character and faction generation, as well as goal focused play.
The point of Remember Tomorrow, is to see characters try to accomplish goals. Each character has a defining fictional goal. Something to do with their motivation. Dr. Flinder, for example, was driven to cure a genetic syndrome! Should Dr. Flinder play the game and complete their story goal, they are written out of the story. The way you score goals is by checking off 3 boxes: Ready, Willing, and Able. (which are also your 3 stats!).
The game is about multiple single protagonists in the same world and seeing their lives get crisscrossed and screwed over by entities bigger and more powerful than themselves. The multiple point of view story-telling format of this game certainly makes the game feel more like you're telling a story straight out of a Gibson book.
Players take turns either introducing new characters into the story, cutting deals with factions(organized, established opposition like a gang, corp, or group) to raise stats to make it easier for them to achieve their goal, or adopting a faction (gang, group, or corporation) and having them go after another player looking to harm their stats.
Look-- if I lost you in those paragraphs, the key take away here is that you want to see your character's goals satisfied and the only way your character can grow and complete their goal is to have another player challenge them!
We played a modified version of the game that speeds up play which is valuable for a one shot setting like this one. For more information regarding these fixes see the bottom of this post!
Okay. So Ben Robbins facilitated this game for us 3 fellow players. We had two characters and two factions to start with. Out of the gate, we had Dr. Peter Flinder who wanted the vanity and glory that comes with solving THE major medical issue of the time. He was lacking the readiness to really solve this issue. Research would have to be done!
I made Alan Red, a middle management financial investor who was passed up on a promotion and offer to become Partner at the firm because my boss stole his algorithm's credit. Similarly to Dr. Flinder, Alan was needed to get more ready for his task.
The two firms made up were the German Kramer Korp (where Alan Red worked) which is basically your standard mega-wall street investment bank and Holistic Prosperity, Inc which was some quasi-lifestyle cult-of-personality wellness institute around Dr. Anderson Rollston's beliefs in the human body. I'm sure you can see which factions were set up to challenge who!
What's important to keep in mind is that this game is not static. We don't play these 4 characters the entire night. In fact, the enjoyment of Remember Tomorrow comes from the fact you can drop and add other characters into the mix. You should be following the fun.
I'm very glad we had Ben here to facilitate this game. Because it was through this advice we ended up with our self-proclaimed victor of Remember, Tomorrow.
Sam Doyle was a hitman who's twin brother died as an unwilling guinea pig to one of Holistic Prosperity Inc's research clinics. Sam was going to make the world pay by killing Dr. Anderson Rollston!
So, before we get to that, our game started off with good Dr. Flinder was struggling with his research. The comments on his debut findings were mixed... to put it generously.
Also not going so well was Alan's career. Alan stewed with rage at his Boss as he perforated a slice of prefab chocolate cake with a fork at the company's "Congratulations" meeting for his boss the whole duration.
A few events pass and Alan's career is on its last legs. He desperately is looking for a high risk high reward investment to prove his value. He finds it in Dr. Flinder's research. A cure for the cybernetic feedback disorder, the Otomo Syndrome, could spell billions of cash and crack the cybernetics market wide open.
In comes Sam Doyle, grimly determined to find information on his brother's killer in the clinic he passed away at. He gets what he wants, but he's noticed and fights his way out. The kerfuffle causes HDI to start shaking up who might be behind the break in. Dr. Flinder makes their list of suspects!
Eventually a new character and new faction enter the mix! Annalise just finished high school and tech savvy. She was passed up to go to Harvard due to a technicality in her criminal records as a 10 year old and because of this, wants to hack into the college's libraries and make them free for everyone! Opposing Annalise is the accredited Higher Education Information Bureau.
The game went by so quickly. While each scene was one on one, you couldn't help but listen as players went back and forth until a conflict arose which caused dice to roll... and boy did our dice roll! We had some crazy high numbers on our dice (which isn't good in this game).
The person who seemed to make any progress was Sam! Sam finally got into a position to take down and kill the head of HD, Inc on his North Atlantic private island. The way the dice turned out, not only did she succeed wildly, she spent her dice reducing the power level of the faction. Additionally, since the character retired, another conflict roll occurs doing damage to the faction and she reduced the power level of the HP inc faction to zero! She killed the company!
This was awesomely narrated by Sam's player (not me) and Ben (playing HP inc for this scene) about how we see higher ups of Holistic Prosperity were turning a blind eye to this assassin. They wanted their aging visionary out of the picture! But they underestimated Sam. Sam not only got in undetected by the corporation and killed her target, she killed him with the same experimental drug that killed his brother!
The consequences of this drug and its revelation to the world in the autopsy meant ruin for the HP Inc! We ended the night there.
So Remember Tomorrow has a lot of complicated rules to it. Story Games Seattle, after numerous play throughs, distilled the game into this faster paced essence. The changes can be seen below!
The complete rules changes are here!
Fall of Magic, by Ross Cowman, is one of my favorite games because its simplicity in rules combined with voluminous, evocative potential make it a fantastic introductory story game.
So, what is it? Fall of Magic is a map-based story prompt game centered around the player characters escorting this NPC character called, The Magus, to a far away land where Magic was born. It is a fantasy world and magic is supposedly leaving the world and the magus with it. It is deliberately vague fantasy designed for you to imprint it with the baggage of your own favorite famous fantasy novel worlds as you desire.
I played Fall of Magic last night with two folks who never played it before. (I myself have played it 2 other times.) One player is a new regular like me to Story Games Seattle, but the other is a new face having only played Fiasco before!
Every game of Fall of Magic begins a similar way. We take turns selecting a name and role from the map as our characters. What the implications are of choosing such a name and role, well, that's left for us players to decide through play.
Harp, Fox of the Mistwood, played by A
Justice, Golem of Ravenhall, played by B
Kabu, Raven of Ravenhall, played by Me
In the first hour, we learned a lot of backstory. Kabu was a criminal from a far away land. He's cunning, ambitious, and arrogant. His crime leaves him indentured to the Magus.
Harp is a literal Fox. She chafes under her form and seeks a way to return to being human.
The Golem is named Justice and a grizzled war hero. His limbs have been replaced with animated stone, now faulting as magic of the realm wanes.
While this may have been fun, I could tell my two friends were a little confused and maybe even disappointed? I decided during our first break to talk about it. I asked them if they're having fun and if we should keep playing. They both chimed in truthfully saying they're having fun but it wasn't expected. They thought there would be more roleplaying between characters instead of just so many soliloquies and dictated scenes.
I realized this issue stemmed from my first scene! My first scene was establishing the Raven as a scribe and demanding to join the Magus on his journey! The fact it was a solo scene, I think made my players think the game is different from what it can be,
During the break we read the advice/tips part of the rules aloud as well as me giving my speech about the best advice is listening to other players and being obvious and using clichés/tropes.
The second hour of play was way different than the first hour. We really were having fun and had some very awesome scenes. We left the "past" and buildup and really started playing with each other and encountering problems! Our Grey Rangers were lepers led by an Bronze-Mask wearing old friend of the Magus. He was upset with the travelers who should have known better than to come to the Mistwood after the summer solstice! The game just kept getting better and better from there!
In conclusion, the Golem a soldier, augmented with magic stone after injuries in the Battle of Swine Hill long ago journeyed with the Magus to the end, for with the end of magic would also mean his death. Kabu, an arrogant rogue impressed into service of the Magus bit off more than he could chew in Isstalia and became a literal Raven! He too joined the Magus and Golem entering the glow. Coincidentally, Harp, following in the aftermath of Kabu's transformation was turned back from a literal fox into her human form! Her ending seemed more positive.
Fall of Magic can be purchased here: http://www.heartofthedeernicorn.com/store/
A while back, I featured Fall of Magic on my indie RPG show, Once Upon A Game. If you'd like to see this game in action, watch the video below!
There's no one game for everyone.
This last Thursday, I played a game of Microscope: Echo.
The premise behind this game of Echo was stellar: The Nimble Fox and the Son 2K13 was the best video game never released.
Due to business politicking, the Japanese Great Firewall Game Company sunk the to-be magnum opus of their best designer, Katsu Fujitsu, leaving him and his family destitute and exiled to America.
However, as Katsu lay dying on his deathbed, he told his progenitors of a secret. A secret he kept with him this whole time, that there's a code in the games he made that would let them go back in time! Using these codes, they can go back, restore the family legacy, and make sure that The Nimble Fox and the Son 2k13 got the claim it deserved! If it were only that simple, however. Because Kim Jon Non and the DPRNK also wanted that game, but all to themselves and for the glory of their leader!
The game played well. We were all contributing and adding gorgeous ideas and twists on established ideas, We learn that Katsu sacrificed a lot to make The Nimble Fox and the Son 2k13. We witnessed sabotage by DPRNK spies sent to take the game while it's being developed, we witnessed his family being exiled as a matter of honor. It was a really cool game with a lot of cool ideas going.
And then we had our first break.
As facilitator of the game, I use breaks to gauge the game and the group and more than half the group (both new to Story Games and Microscope) said this isn't the game for them. It felt like being punched in the gut. I don't want to say or admit I didn't take it personally, but of course on many layers I took it personally. Instead of acting out defensively, I wanted to know more. It turns out that both players disliked the amount of prep involved in the game of microscope and microscope echo in particular. Both players also encouragingly mentioned that if it weren't for my facilitating they'd probably would have bailed or at least have had a FAR WORSE experience.
This was a watershed moment for me as a facilitator, because here we are, playing a version of my FAVORITE RPG EVER and I'm told that two of the players don't like it. Also it turned out one had to leave early anyways, so we finished the game with one more focus.
After the game we spoke at length about what we liked/didn't like about the game and what happened and how we could improve. The biggest complaint by far was the amount of prep time involved. I cautioned the group that Microscope falls probably on the medium part of story games with prep and that they should ask facilitators (now that they have a metric!) about the amount of prep in their next game! (I did tell them to come back and try a different game!) I also recommended Fall of Magic because Fall of Magic is an amazing, prepless game that seemed their speed.
Both players had IMMENSE talent and creative minds. The few scenes we did do were awesome (Kim Jon Non visiting Katsu on his deathbed was particularly great!)
I do hope they return to Story Games Seattle.
It isn't everyday you get to play a game with its designer. Originally Downfall's game was to be facilitated by me, but after Caroline asked to join my table there was NO way I'd feel confident enough to facilitate a game for its own designer. We were joined by another story game veteran and friend of mine, Tim.
Now, for those who haven't seen my first encounter with Downfall or saw my video play of it, Downfall is a game about societal collapse. Society has a cancer at its heart called the flaw and this flaw is gunning to take the down the world as we know it. One hero rises to the occasion to get society to see this problem for what it is and save civilization from itself, but tragically will fail. This is a game where the hero loses.
Like all games of Downfall, the first thing we do is come up with a flaw and describe what it means. Since my previous two games were Nationalism or Pride I was hoping for something different. Immediately Tim and myself jump to the same flaw: Complacency.
Caroline is excited as well and begins to ask us what we think complacency means. This quick discussion was incredibly important. We settled on complacency not necessarily being okay with the status quo, but being fine enough to not want to change it. Complacency implies a certain threshold of dissatisfaction, but the effort to make the change is perceived as too great or costly for what is gained. It has a lot in common with Tradition so far that "because we've always done it" is the same icing on this flaw cake, but Complacency is made with the ingredient of "because changing what we do requires too much effort" instead of "because our way of life is deserve of being protected/repeated because it is a part of what makes us who we are culturally."
Design note/opinion: Starting with the flaw first, before anything else is done is a very deliberate idea. I think talking about the flaw, not in a contextual/setting format (yet) allows everyone to really explore and flag what they want in the game from a thematic angle. Everyone sharing what they think the flaw means, to them, allows for each of us shape the game in a way that's fun for everyone and hits the right notes!
The next part of the setup of Downfall was coming up with our game's elements. Elements are the creative seeds or palette which inspire us and our setting. Our three elements for defining our culture were Rain, Wheel, and Ink.
The combination of all 3 of these yielded a lot of discussion. We weren't entirely sure how all three of these things would work together. My first idea seeing Rain, Wheels, and Ink was Mad Max post-apocalypse with Ink clearly being an analog for oil. Caroline suggested in a similar post apocalyptic vein that we do Waterworld instead. Tim had this idea of waterwheels from rain for power and I immediately began thinking of steamer ships/gambling barges with waterwheels. We began to composite a form of all of our ideas. We're looking at this hive of ships lashed and pulled together stuck in a sea of oil which relied on rain. It was a really unique setting!
Design note/opinion: Elements are probably an unspoken hero of the design of Downfall to me. Seriously, the choices in the book for elements just OOZE flavor and ideas on how to twist these concepts shape our world. The decision to use three elements instead of one or six is about the right size to ensure us as players of this game DELIVER on these elements in the game. I think the moment when the Flaw and the elements are decided on is one of my favorite times of this game. It's that "okay so how does this all fit together?" moment.
It vaguely feels like that time as a Dungeon Master when you roll on a random encounter table and are stumped when you get THAT MONSTER in THIS RANDOM LOCATION and are forced to be like, "so why is THAT here?" only now three people get to experience that at the same time. I found out that Caroline's husband Marc played a big part in the creation of Elements so big shout out to Marc!
So how do we start putting the pieces together in our setting and haven? Traditions. In Downfall we select 6 traditions total to be eligible sacrifices to the flaw in our haven. Let me tell you-- Complacency is HARD to represent in flaws. Our traditions became a hodgepodge mix of "old ways of doing things that probably should be fixed, but never gotten around to it." I unintentionally came up with the reason why. Our society's justice system emphasized Duels. Serious disputes were settled on the dueling grounds. It was strongly emphasized to settle matters beforehand or before they get this far. Because dueling for your life and belief was how things were secured in the life of our haven, people were reluctant to have their voice heard. Our society was left with a decrepit monarchy ruling from the largest steamship overseeing a society where shoes were assigned to you from birth and everyone is named after one of the 12 founding names.
I really loved Caroline's addition in our game that families stay together. Divorce is an EXTREMELY rare occurrence. I loved her take on complacency in relationships and how her mind jumped to that during the first round of traditions. I never mentioned it at the table, but that was like tasting chocolate for the first time. I immediately CRAVE to do that in my games from now on. As a player and gamer I should pay more attention to that lens and explore that space more often!
Design note/opinion: I think the physical symbols of the traditions are important in this part of the tradition building because these symbols become interactional items in fiction. These symbols are props for us players to use to establish routines in our game that occur and use as foils and juxtapositions over the course of the game to see how our society is changing! I thought, at first, that the symbols aren't very necessary, but now after the third game I definitely see their reincorporation throughout the game should be stressed. They are an excellent tool.
With our haven and setting established, it was finally time to make characters. Our hero was Boots, a lowly orphan-like girl who worked as a Cobbler. Cobblers in our setting were a nice term for the person responsible for gathering the dead from duels, disposing of the bodies, and storing of their shoes for reuse by others. We all agreed that we kind of were after a "vs the empire" kind of story so we had our hero Boots be against the Monarchy. Our Fallen and primary antagonist would be Boots best friend, Zephyr. Zephyr grew up alongside the same social status as Boots, but would be promoted to become a distinguished member of the monarchy's government. In fact, she was married into the royal family because of Boots giving Zephyr some fancy shoes one time as a gift! Ouch! (Yay reincorporating elements!) Last but not least, our pillar was Spoke. Spoke was an older lady who was in a rough marriage and took pity on boots. She was a sort of parental/guardian figure for Boots.
Our gameplay and scenes were completely on point this game. Tim, Caroline, and myself brought some really, really good ideas to the table. Our abilities to keep recycling and reincorporating fictionally established elements (foreshadowing Zephyr's rise), discovering how Boots dreams of a bigger life and it being framed as her being just "unhealthy and can never appreciate what she has", and the ultimate Downfall where Boots lead a revolution against the government who ultimately escapes on their self-powered steamship was just amazing. Caroline forced me near the end, as the Hero, to make a choice. Boots was pressured as leader of this new band to return to a method of government that requires the application of force and fear to rule. She became what she hated. Beautiful stuff. That's why I play games!
Design note/opinion: Each "round" the pillar describes how the flaw is progressing and corrupting a tradition as a sort of primer for scenes. Then the hero makes a scene and then the fallen returns the favor with a scene of their own. Having erroneously skipping the pillar's description of the corruption before, scene framing was much easier this time around.
So in summary, I love this game. Please, please, please check out Downfall if you ever get a chance. It's an amazing game.
Last night at Story Games Seattle, 4 of us played Lovecraftesque. Players were B1, D, B2 and E (the facilitator).
This was the first time I facilitated a game at Story Games as well as the first time I ran this game for 4 people.
So Lovecraftesque is a game that simulates the experience of a Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, or Stephen King novel or film-adaptation. It's about coming together to tell a story about a single character's accelerating plummet into the depths of despair and supernatural terror. We will lay a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of disturbing clues that hint at the horror to come, but we will ultimately create, discover and describe this final terror only at the end of the game based on these clues.
The 4 of us came together and decided we wanted a particularly modern era albeit somewhat remote. After some discussion, we decided modern day middle east was what we wanted. We came up with a few locations that we could use in future scenes. We knew we wanted a main location to be an ancient city. We went with Syria’s ancient Palmira. We also wanted a university, an “on the way” traveling scene, and a Syrian village and coffee/tea house.
Our witness to the horror was a brilliant and compassionate Doctor Hafsa Al-Damasqi. She works as an Ancient Cultural Anthropologist at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts.
The Hall of King Aldimir is a game with strong themes of cosmic horror and the futility of mankind's actions against the vast, uncaring universe.
Viewer discretion is advised.
Our game began with a scene at Miskatonic University. Doctor Hafsa has been called into the office of her boss, Dr. Tamasz Skiba. Apparently there’s been a dreadful accident: Their friend and colleague, Doctor Lorremeer Kofka, has been found dead near in his office at the work site. Doctor Lorremeer has been near a breakthrough and found evidence pointing to the location of fabled Hall of King Aldimir, an opulent and eccentric Assyrian king. We learned that Doctor Lorremeer died mysteriously. He was in fine health, but died in with no signs of forced entry or break in.
Due to the tumultuous political climate and the prestige of finding this location, Doctor Hafsa will have to cut her holiday short and fly to Syria to take over Doctor Lorreemeer’s work (Game note: there was questions about what a watched “does” at the start in this first scene.)
On the flight over to Syria, Hofsa was talking to some of her fellow researchers. We learned some backstory about the source of Dr. Kofka’s breakthrough. Apparently there’s a scroll found with the dead sea scrolls that had the key. This scroll supposedly had a “curse” in writing on it, dooming whoever finds the Hall of King Aldimir. Doctor Hofsa begins having restless, dreamless sleep on the plane.
The plane touches down in Syria and we cut to being en route to the excavation site. Some lab equipment breaks. We arrive at the site and during the clean-up/unpacking/inventory check, Doctor Hafsa found out more about the death of Doctor Kafka. The doctor/medical examiner said that the doctor apparently had died days ago, but his body had no signs of decomposing. Apparently no workers would go in here saying it was cursed. She enters his office (and apparent scene of his death) for the first time alone. Doctor Kafka’s notes sat on his desk under a paperweight of a two-headed bull paperweight. (Game Note: the “what does a watcher do?” is long resolved and we’ve found a solid game groove.)
We fast forward a few weeks. Doctor Hafsa is having disturbing nightmares about a strange door. She is exhausted all the time and begun making sloppy requests for items and oversights. Her notes are incoherent. She’s apologizing to a staff member who was wondering why she ordered a telescope (which Hafsa did not remember ordering!) when there’s a loud crash near the dig site. Doctor Hafsa drops her coffee and the spills upward against gravity. She rubs her eyes thinking it’s her brain misfiring from a lack of sleep. Commotion in the dig site is heard. The news is bad—someone’s hurt.
Doctor Hafsa rushes to the site and sees a Syrian boy pinned underneath an ancient column. Part of the antechamber’s pillars has fallen and revealed a strange, circular door behind a broken wall. Hafsa focuses on caring for the boy, praying for him, holding him, as her staff members run to get the doctor/medical examiner. Things look grim for the boy. She closes her eyes and prays for the boy. It's then the boy begins to blabber incoherently in a language she cannot understand. It’s a strange language. Something like Proto-Ancient Assyrian. He then goes silent for a second and looks up at Hafsa. The boy passes before the medical examiner could arrive, but in his final moments, looking in the eyes of Doctor Hafsa, the boy BEGS her to not open that revealed door.
It’s only after the passing of the boy that Doctor Hafsa realizes that this is the door from her dreams! This ornate, near perfectly circular door that defies the normal Assyrian architecture. She forbids anyone from exploring or doing anything with the door as long as she can out of respect for the boy and her own fear..
Few weeks later, on a satellite call with her boss, Doctor Tamasz back in Miskatonic, she learns that her wasteful spending and lack of progress has been noted and if she doesn’t find this hall soon, her funding will be pulled and she’ll be out of job. She chooses her career and this discovery over her own well-being and honor of the boy’s wishes.
It is door opening day and the staff has gathered around this strange door in the antechamber. Doctor Hafsa is afraid of what could behind this strange door, so personally leads the opening of it. She’s too compassionate to risk another death on this expedition.
There’s a strange, square hole near the door that must be the key to opening it. She cautiously puts her hand in the old alcove fearful of what could be waiting for her. Her hand passes through cobwebs and dirt and grime until it finds gears oddly smooth. She sticks her hand between the gears and finds a central turn style which she twists. The door begins to shake. Dust falls from the top of it and she feels a sharp pang in her hand! She forces through the pain and continues to twist. She feels her hand go fiery hot, numb and swell. She continues to turn the gear until a click before she sprains and scrapes her hand out of the alcove, pushing out a small scorpion as well.
The door opens like a collapsing spiral in itself in a clockwise fashion before receding into the ceiling. Behind the door is a gigantic banquet hall with another door at the end. In this hall are dozens and dozens of skeletons in ancient, noble robes. The banquet table looks to be untouched by time. Flowers, serving plates of Fruits, nuts, decanters of dark red wine, and strange meats adorn this lavish golden table along with exquisite silverware. Doctor Hafsa steps through the door and realizes this room, for being so old, has no smell. Nothing smells here. Her hand was definitely stung. She turns around to see her staff and then the circular door shuts behind her sealing her inside. ( Game note: We have now finished part 2 and decided this is the perfect time to transition into the horrific conclusion part of the game. Time to ramp up the horror.)
Doctor Hafsa has a crisis of faith and feels regret for opening the door. What has she done?! She begins moving towards the back of the room near the other door. Ancient Assyrian Cuneiform writing sits above the door, but begins to shift and twist into modern Arabic with the message of doom to anyone who passes through this door, decreed by King Aldimir, Lord of One Thousand Worlds.
She begins hearing whispers in the same language as the boy. Her vision blurs and snaps into sudden clarity. The room is opulent and decadent. Men and women are eating and engaging in obscene sex acts. The meat on the table is human flesh. This is some sort of devilish bacchanalia.
The whispers are getting more and more intense! Hafsa makes the decision and opens the cursed door. Behind the door is the same exact banquet room. Only as her vision saw it.
She rushes through the horrific scene touching as little as possible to the door at the end of the hall. She must escape! She opens the door and is suddenly stabbed in the chest by a man holding a wicked and alien looking bronze spear. She feels her life leaving her as the members of this grotesque orgy begin to feast on her. She opens her eyes and she’s in the banquet hall again as it looked with just skeletons and the fresh food.
She feels the shadowy pain of where the spear would have impaled her. Should have impaled her. She feels the venom coursing through her arm as well. She struggles to the other side of the room and opens the door on the other end of the hallway and winds up in the office of her boss back in Miskatonic University!
In this ornate office along with Doctor Tamasz is Doctor Kofka. Alive. They both calmly ask if Doctor Hafsa is ok. They comment how she looks unwell. She has a class in 20 minutes! She shakes her head and responds confusingly. It’s only then does she realize the three of them are speaking that strange proto-assyrian and understanding each other. She’s sweating and the room is spinning. She’s now standing on the wall and as the room contorts. Her boss and colleague are now standing, from her perspective on the wall that is the floor. Behind her is a large mural which has contorted and covered the mahogany office door. Was that mural there before? The mural is a disturbing perspective of King Aldimir’s banquet hall. The angles of the room are warped and unnatural giving the room strange depth. Instead of skeletons in the banquet hall, the bodies in the painting appear dead, but remarkably preserved. The twisting perspectives cause her to trip into and through the painting into the hall once more.
She tries to regain her footing. The room begins to come alive and ignores her presence. The preserved bodies begin to chant and in ancient proto-assyrian begin to welcome King Aldimir to the banquet. She looks confused since there’s no conceivable exit or entrance anymore. King Aldimir just fades into existence is standing at the head of the table. Looking at it, our poor doctor looses any sense of strength, The king is utterly alien and mentally incomprehensible. Its appearance and proof of existence drains all human conceptual notions of good, evil, religion, and morality out of existence.
The king addresses Hafsa in a posh, brittish accent, questioning her decisions to interrupt this banquet and why. She begs for forgiveness from this awe inspiring being and only wished to discover the knowledge of this ancient culture. It scolds her and humanity’s folly at attempting to learn the universe. Professor Loremeer died because of this fact. He died because he learned the truth: King Aldimir rules every world that exists and does not exist and everything that is and was or could. It invites her to join the banquet.
A middle class family has gathered around a TV after dinner. CNN is reporting how ISIS has destroyed the ancient Sumerian City of Palmira and killed a research team there. The family comments how barbaric ISIS must be to destroy a cultural site like that.
A year later, in Miskatonic University, a prodigious young student is pouring over the scroll and any notes left over from the Doctors Loremeer and Kofka. She spots a mistranslation in her notes. The real site of King Aldimir’s Hall is in Greece.
Black screen. Roll credits.
The four of us had an awesome time with this game. We each count this experience near the top of the charts as far as RPG fun. I know this was the best experience of a horror game I've ever had. 11/10.
After the game we took a break, walked around, until we got ready to get a drink at a local bar and decompress some more about our game and what we liked/didn't. We all agreed that this game would be best with 3 people.
Additionally, we thought the game struggles at the start to find its cadence (as most story games do) but once we found it, the game just opened up and played itself. We also agree the cards may or may not be helpful.
The four of us cannot wait to play this again. The majority of the table spoke about the next time they play, we'll scale back the tempo of the horror. We agreed our game felt more like a Stephen King novel-turned movie than a Lovecraft story. We all still had fun, but now that they've played it once, they would like to try a slower burning style of story.
We all agreed the setup for the game is kind of wonky still. We spent a lot of time discussing locations, but locations weren't really even used that much and went with what the fiction wanted anyways. We think what would be important is establishing the "horror speed dial" of the story early on. We were thinking about alternative ways of beginning a game like this. This is my answer for most setup games, but I'd like to try it with a microscope palette.
(Someone on another forum wished I explained more about the structure and build of the game instead of just the fiction so here we go cross-posting...)
So structurally, Lovecraftesque is like a dance of 3 roles that builds and speeds up at the end. The three roles are Witness (The PC), the Narrator (The GM), and the Watcher(s) (Details/Questioners/NPC players).
The basic step of the dance is investigating a clue that is tied into the final horror.
-The Narrator frames a scene that focuses on the goal being the answer to this question "What is the Clue the Witness encounters that hints at the final horror?"
-The Witness explores the scene with the Watcher complimenting both Narrator and Witness descriptions with evocative language, mystery, and supplementary fiction.
-The Watcher/Narrator/Witness relationship can be "Narrator uses watcher like a random table of fiction" or "Watcher probes Witness or Narrator about a sight, scene, smell, taste, touch or feelings there which." This relationship of roles, I think, gets easier and better the more times you play this game. Like I mentioned earlier, in a game about horror, uninterrupted descriptions and pacing is kind of important.
(RE: Roles. I indicated this issue in the notes part of the story where appropriate. I was the initial narrator and, without realizing it, ended the first scene with the two watchers just sitting there not contributing. We went back and talked about it and remedied the situation as facilitator asking the Watcher to ask questions that probe what the Narrator's asking. Prod at senses. How things sound and look and smell. Things fixed themselves pretty quickly. Also, no one had any problem playing the witness. After I became a Watcher, I began asking the narrator questions such as "could you elaborate on how Professor Loreemeer's source of his breakthrough?" and such and that's when we learned it was the dead sea scroll. The watcher next to me followed my lead and slam dunked it with "so what the warning given on the top of the scroll to those who read it?" In the decompression at the end of the game, we spoke about it and mentioned they are players who learn best from example instead of reading. YMMV.)
We pass our roles to the left after the conclusion of a scene. Scenes must have 1 clue but can have more. This first part of this dance concludes after 5 clues are had. (usually 5 turns). These clues dance and skirt around the horror and should be veiled in rational explanation. Violent reports are heard secondhand. Curses are folklorish and not to be believed. That was simply interference on the radio. etc.
Following the first 5 scenes, the music picks up and now clues get evermore blatant and less obfuscated by logic and the laws of nature and man. The length of this musical crescendo is dictated fictionally with the Narrator able to transition to the next part after clue 6, and forcibly by rules, by turn 9.
In the Syrian game, we finished clue 6 (the food on the table in the hall wasn't stale) and decided, fictionally, now's the time to start Part 3.
So in part 3, the music picks up again even more. Here strict order of roles crashes down. The roles serve as masks we wear and exchange now. We hurriedly describe vignettes of the Witness' actions as they get closer and closer to the horror. At least 3 turns but less than 5 iterations are had by the 4 of us (12-16 descriptions).
Following along fictionally, this is where she has her crisis of faith and the words shift and bend. She has her visions and the reveal that door opens into her vision was, like everything, provided by a fellow player and it blew. everyone's. mind. when it happened. We were all about it. We continued to weave in the clues from parts 1 and 2 in an increasingly horrific manner the closer we got the final horrific climax with the King.
In that final climactic scene, roles come back, but it is mostly Narrator with full control. Witness is told to "enjoy the ride" and mostly comment on the horrific experience and struggle in vain.
Following which is the Epilogue, which is the nice bow on top of this box of lovecraft, once again told by a narrator, where we tell the fates of the witness and how the horror lingers to this day.
Horror, as a genre, is not something you can portray easily in a roleplaying game.
Often times the frightening nature of the terror is combative instead of frightening. Players play a game so their characters can succeed and live on! The fear of dying/losing is a primary motivator, right? It instills a cost. The risk of death is often times the sole tension of RPGs. I was skeptical if a game without that sort of particular stakeholdership in a character could work, but I'm here to tell you that it does. Swimmingly.
Lovecraftesque is a GMless, Prepless, and Diceless game that utilizes players switching between 3 roles: The Narrator (GM), Witness (PC), and Watcher (flexible detail-filler role). The narrator sets scenes that always star the Witness character that direct the witness to uncover a "clue". A clue is always something weird or alluding to the supernatural. No one knows what the final horror will be until the climax of the final scene, where a player volunteers to play Narrator and give their theory of what the horror was based on the previous clues!
The game's strength comes from its' structured parts. The game is played in 3 sequential parts. The first part of the game has the Witness uncovering clues that only allude to the supernatural and not in danger. The second part is where the heat starts getting turned on. The clues become more overtly supernatural and the Witness can be threatened. The third and final part of the game is the climax of the story where the clues come together and the Witness encounters the horror. The game ends with the following narrator delivering an Epilogue which details the follow up about the witness (if any) and how the horror continues to leave its mark on the world.
So why does Lovecraftesque succeed at emulating cosmic horror literature? Well, from a game design perspective, I think the narrative distance between Witness and player makes it so that the Witness is less agent and more victim the entire game-- as what we come to expect from a Lovecraftian tale. Because the game is also structured around a single particular witness, the game is more intimate than a story of three-plus souls hunting down the occult. What makes the witness tick, what they're thinking and feeling, all get expressed and explored more intimately than a game such as Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG. (Not saying CoC is a bad game, per se.)
By establishing the tone of the game early (Investigative Horror/Heroic Horror/Comedic Horror) players proceed to buy-in to a game with established tropes that should be utilized. Investigative Horror usually ends with the main character unable to defeat the horror and often times dying or being rendered insane by the literal revelations that are entailed. I think this tone combined with the collaborative setting/witness design phase of the game serves a lot like Palette would in Microscope.
I played a 2 player game of Lovecraftesque where neither of us had played the game before. The setting and Witness we constructed was a female communications officer during the cold war stationed in a remote electronics listening post in the mountains of Alaska. Our locations reflected our ideas perfectly: We had our station base, an army resupply center far away, we had a radio/antenna array in a crater, a remote cavern network, and a lake covered in mists.
The entire setup of crafting the era, witness, and scenes laid the perfect foundation for the type of story we wanted to tell. I can tell you my mind was jumping around to ideas about spooky radio stuff, intuit monsters, and strange cosmic phenomena.
The final horror was amazing and the emergent narrative of our game felt very crafted and polished for very little effort.
You can catch the full VOD of this game on my youtube channel. I will be playing this game again this week on Wednesday where I hope to play with a Watcher and utilize the card mechanics to see if/what changes.
Looking back at this game, I really enjoy the game as is. The game has a ton of replayability and depth for being so light on rules. Like any story game, the first few scenes suffer from "player-bearing" syndrome as we try on these fictional clothes, but the game smooths out as our storytelling brains "synch" up. This is a personal plus for me, but this game doesn't do much with the existing Lovecraftian mythos. I think this game lends itself the best to portraying a new set of cosmic horror undefined, but inspired by the original tales. There's nothing stopping you from making the final horror a shoggoth or something, but I advise players that not every monster has to be something you've seen before in literature. This game really can let you create a new, novel horror.
Lovecraftesque is made by Josh Fox and Becky Annison. It was recently funded on kickstarter and will be available for purchase at a later date. I also wanted to personally shout out and thank them for tackling the racism/xenophobic tendencies of their inspiration allowing this game to approach horror with a more diverse and open-minded sentiment.
EDIT: I played the three player version of Lovecraftesque last night and the Watcher certainly rounds out the pacing of the game. Being able to pose questions from the narrator's stance of "what eerie thing was in so-and-so's pocket?" is creatively great. I think a narrator's pacing/cadence of words, allowing pauses for the watcher to supplant additional details without breaking the pace/tension is a skill of the game that will come with further play. After playing with the cards, me and another player did not find them particularly necessary. I could see the ability to jump in as narrator/another role would be useful in, say, a 4 person game.
Here's the video of last night's 3 person game:
(Want to play? Here's a pdf link to the barebones version as hosted on Lovecraftesque's kickstarter page.)
Sources for photos- Bing search and Lovecraftesque kickstarter.