Tabletop Storygames: Polaris

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 11.38.30 PMPolaris is a tabletop RPG in which you know from the start that all the protagonists are doomed, and their civilization is doomed, and everything is ruined and is going to end in flames. This is exactly what happened in our recent session. I also can’t remember an RPG session in which I’ve laughed so much. It was great.

Okay, back up. Polaris is framed on the website linked above as a game to take 12+ hours. We needed to compress it into an evening’s play, so instead of having each player be a protagonist, we instead set it up to be about two protagonists and two players who were playing antagonist roles. Each of the protagonists was the knight of a civilization that had already partially fallen to The Mistaken; the latter, in our game, were a kind of body-jumping demon eager to bring about the end of time.

The mechanic enforces the idea of character corruption while leaving a lot of room to work out how this happens. In each scene, a protagonist is confronted by one or more characters played by the antagonist-player. These may be enemies, but it’s often more effective for them to be a friend trying to dissuade the protagonist from doing his knightly duty, or a family member asking for personal rather than public loyalty, or something of that nature — characters who have the ability to sway the knight through persuasion or deception or simply by presenting a conflict of priorities, rather than by direct opposition. The scene escalates into conflict, at which the protagonist and antagonist engage in a kind of narrative bidding process, which for us went something like this:

Protagonist: I lunge at Musca with my sword and run her through.
Antagonist: …but only if, when you kill her, you also destroy the sacred crown you’d come to seek.
Protagonist: …but only if, even though the crown is broken, there are shards I can take home with me.

There are also mechanics for rolling back part of the negotiation if you don’t like where it’s gone, also using key phrases (“You ask far too much”), but we didn’t invoke those as much. Things specified in the conflict stage can get quite large in scope; at one point a negotiation wound up narrating how the character would die, who would survive afterwards, and about five years of subsequent civil war and chaos. The entire extinction of the Polaris people was put on the table, but ultimately bargained down to a deal where they just had to leave the north pole and go to live in warmer, less happy climates.

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Tabletop Storygames: Monsterhearts

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Monsterhearts is a story game set in a high school, albeit a high school attended by vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of strange powers. And it’s less about their monstrosity per se than it is about interpersonal confusions. (At one point, my character, a wiccan able to conjure up visions, had to try to explain birth control and teenage dating customs to her boarding school roommate, a werewolf who had grown up feral.) The game comes with a set of “skins” — different preset monster types you can be for the duration — and each monster naturally has its own powers and abilities.

The mechanics of the game emphasize the fact that characters know themselves incompletely and control themselves even less. Everyone has a “darkest self”, a side to their personality that can be triggered if things go sufficiently wrong, in which they’ll be motivated to do antisocial or outright evil things. It’s possible for any character (on winning a roll) to turn on any other: sexual attraction is not entirely at the discretion of that character, though no one else controls how the character reacts to being attracted.

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Hide&Seek: Tiny Games Kickstarter

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Tiny Games is a Kickstarter-funded app offering rulesets for dozens and dozens of short, simple games, designed for a variety of social situations: games to play at the the pub, on the train, in your living room. Hide&Seek has years of experience doing installation-style games at museums and festivals, including the very cool Searchlight game demonstrated at the GDC Experimental Games Workshop this year. The Tiny Games collection includes work by a long list of well-known experimental game designers.

I’ve enjoyed all the Hide&Seek work I’ve encountered, and I especially like the playfulness of this concept, as a source of social lubrication and fun when no one happens to have a pack of cards or wants to commit to a playthrough of Arkham Horror. Or you just want to do something new.

There are only a couple of days left on this project and it’s still shy of its funding goal, so if it sounds like something you might be interested in, check it out.

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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