San Tilapian Studies (a casual narrative entertainment for 30-40 players)

Last week I had a party for about forty friends, many of whom didn’t already know each other but most of whom know me through some sort of game or story-related interest. A few others were people I thought didn’t know much about storygaming of any kind, but might enjoy an accessible, casual taster.

So I put together a small narrative game for the occasion. The design goals were to create something that would get people talking to strangers; that would take just a few minutes to participate in, but let people invest more time if they wanted to; that was playable even if you had a plate of food in one hand; that wouldn’t be ruined if some people arrived late or weren’t into playing; and that would produce a souvenir after the party.

The result of this project was San Tilapian Studies.

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Tabletop Storygaming: A Penny For My Thoughts

A Penny For My Thoughts is a short storytelling game about trauma and lost memory. The premise is that the three players are all victims of some disastrous experience that caused them to lose their memories. Thanks to a special mind-enhancing drug, they are able to access fragments of those past events — both their own and one another’s.

To begin, each player writes down on a card three visceral experiences or sense impressions: in ours, these were things like “the smell of rotting lemons” or “vertigo.” Then the players take turns rebuilding past memories for their characters. Each draws a card from the shuffled stack and says, for instance, “I remember the smell of rotting lemons.” The other two players take turns asking establishing questions, such as “Were the lemons from a lemonade stand?” and the player who is doing the recollection must — in good improv style — reply, “yes, and…”, accepting the offer and providing an additional detail of his or her own.

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Tabletop Storygaming: The Shab-al-hiri Roach

Thursday night’s storygame was The Shab-al-hiri Roach, which I’ve wanted to try for ages. The premise is that the player characters are all academics striving for power and status in a small but prestigious college somewhere in New England in 1919. Introduced into their midst is an uncanny archaeological discovery, the eponymous roach, which represents a Sumerian cockroach deity of deep and sinister powers.

At any point during the game, the players can choose (or be forced) to “swallow the roach,” thereby gaining power, but also making themselves subject to the roach’s commands. These commands come from a deck of cards: during each of six acts, the players draw to discover a task they have to complete this act, with different tasks depending on whether they currently have the roach. The deck of cards can also make players possessed, or give them the opportunity to be freed from possession. No one can win while roach-possessed, so there’s a trick of allowing yourself to be possessed and then get rid of the roach again — which may or may not work.

Our play session was pretty successful from moment to moment. Having the goal from the card provided some goals for players trying to frame scenes; and there’s nothing like speaking some guttural faux-Sumerian to unlock one’s hammier acting. I had a really good time playing.

But I didn’t feel that the mechanics produced a very coherent arc story. In particular, when a player’s attempt failed (the theft of some pygmy bones from a museum, for instance), the failure was pretty final and didn’t really allow for interesting ramifications afterward; so there were a fair few storylines that were developed and then dropped again immediately, forcing players to come up with new schemes instead. Another difficulty was that the setting and situation tended to encourage a lot of the same kind of action: Player character A saying nasty things about player character B to university authority C. (Or maybe it was just us?)

Also, it was definitely the most fiddly with dice of the storygames I’ve tried so far, with each resolution requiring a certain amount of discussion between players about which dice to roll (“is this a power/status roll or not? do we think my enthusiasm for gossip counts here?” etc.).

Still. I had fun with it and want to play more, as I really liked the setting and core concept.

Tabletop Storygames: Microscope

Tonight at the Seattle Storygames meetup I played Ben Robbins’ Microscope, which describes itself as “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories.”

Play begins with the participants agreeing on some very broadly-described beginning and endpoint to a history — the rise and fall of an empire, the glory and decline of a dynasty. Our group chose the history of a multi-deity religion from its inception (a sort of contract between gods and men) to its downfall (the point where the gods refused to interact that way any further).

The selected beginning and end are written on blank cards and set on the table. Players then proceed to add more cards to the timeline: named periods (which can be inserted anywhere between the beginning and the end), events (attached to a particular period), and scenes (involving a particular event, and intended to answer some narrative question about that event). The scenes are where the roleplaying actually occurs, starting from some premise and continuing until the narrative question is answered.

There are a few additional mechanics to provide some focus, and it’s possible to challenge a story choice that another player has made, though in practice we never did this.

In general, the mechanics were less concerned about creating and resolving conflicts (a theme found in both the story games I played at a previous meeting) and more about discovering and developing interesting concept threads in the world-building. Players are encouraged to move back and forth through the timeline, creating longterm repercussions for one another’s choices, or conversely setting up other parts of the story by designing prequels for them.

In practice, I felt like this design made for some very loose, uncertain play at the beginning. When the game is just starting out and the players are throwing in almost random events, there’s a sense that continuity is never going to be established. How are we ever going to link up The Great Pilgrimage with The Revision of the Dietary Laws? What matters and why? Do we all just have completely different ideas about who these characters are, or what? And because collaboration is restricted only to the contribution of periods/events/etc., you’re not allowed to propose an idea in full, by, say, laying out a whole imagined sect you have in mind. As in improv, you can only make offers and then let your collaborators pick up on them.

Later on, though, things started to come together in a fairly satisfying way, events plugging into one another and making a more complete fabric. (Sam Kabo Ashwell’s play report for the full session is here.)

Even so — and I don’t say this as a complaint, exactly — it felt to me in a lot of ways more like a collaborative world-building game than an interactive story-telling game. What we ended up with was a semi-coherent history with several major recurring themes or issues and some brightly-colored incidents. People had partitioned souls, and could use specific soul-aspects to do things. It was possible to bottle up some aspect of your soul in order to keep it under control. The Coracle Philosophers discovered the way to elevate the God of Swamps to Living status by accident during a council session, though fortunately their ritual coracle-skirts allowed them individually to paddle away and survive the deluge. The moosetaur guardians — but no, I’m verging on sacred secrets here.

In any case, it all makes a kind of performance art out of the act of invention itself. Which is cool. I think I need a few more playthroughs to really be at ease with this one, but the concept is definitely neat.

Tabletop Storygames: Shock, Fiasco

Last night, per Dan Fabulich’s recommendation, I checked out the Seattle story games meetup and played through a game each of Shock and Fiasco. Shock is about exploring social issues (whichever ones the participants choose) in the context of a science fictional future; Fiasco is about emulating the wacky, everything-goes-wrong misadventure plots typical of Coen Brothers movies. I’d heard about Fiasco before from Stephen Granade (here’s a play report of his as well as an academia-themed playset he wrote). Both were a lot of fun and went in rather goofy, unexpected directions.

Our particular play group went back and forth between actually role-playing scenes out and doing quick narration, and was really cooperative in terms of trying to get interesting, narratively satisfying outcomes for the story. Quite a few times, one player had the opportunity to help or oppose another player’s character and made the decision based on what would generate the most aesthetically effective scene. That was a lot of fun — the spirit of collaborating towards a common (if not always clearly perceived) outcome is a standout feature of this kind of play. Our group seemed to tend towards the tragic or bittersweet, preferring outcomes that were mixed success and failure for our characters.

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