It Takes A Village to Paint a Masterpiece

It takes a village to raise a child. And in fact, also a barn. We put a man on the moon and we eradicated smallpox and we act as peacemakers and invaders. We win sports matches and we elect leaders and we build better worlds. But one man and one man alone painted the Sistine Chapel. One man painted the Mona Lisa.

Art, in other words, is almost singular in our assumption of it as an entirely solo pursuit. Oh yes we venerate individual sportsman at times, but we do so with an overt and explicit knowledge that they are not alone. Rocky has Burgess Meredith cheering him on in the ring, but we speak of Stallone writing the script as him locking himself in his room with a typewriter. The theory of the auteur runs deep; we reference art by one name, even if it is a film worked on by thousands. It is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings even though the second and third company worked half a world away with their own producer, director and writers.

Obviously, some works are works of just one person in total isolation, and there’s nothing wrong with that and we should acknowledge it. But we talk as if every work of art is the same, and even in the same medium, that’s just not true. And we KNOW it isn’t true. War and Peace would never have been published if Tolstoy’s wife had not corrected, edited and transcribed his unreadable handwriting into eight pristine copies by hand. Andy Warhol’s work was literally done by a factory of people, and the classical artists had studios where their students would do some or even all of the work but it was still called a Rembrandt. Wifes, brothers, sisters, children, colleagues and conversants have completed works, expanded works, expounded works. There is no line between Spielberg and Lucas any more than there is one between Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Whenever we do acknowledge this, it is to play detective. We must know which parts belong to the true genius and which parts did not. We demand the Director’s Cut, the pure vision of the auteur, the original manuscript, which bits of Lennon/McCartney belong to whom. We’re fascinated too much by process because we think it reveals the genius of the end, and a singular genius. If we learn that Luke Skywalker was a girl but then wasn’t, we think we’ll figure out how to be George Lucas. Instead maybe we should figure out who lent over and said “try this character like that”. But capitalism loves purity culture, and it has many forms, and none stronger than the hallowed name of the singular artist – and all his helpers are worth nothing.

And that’s the point: our obsession with art as a solo pursuit is harmful. Not to mention cruel. Go and lock yourself in the cellar, we say, and come out when you’ve finished your manuscript. No, we don’t want to see “rough drafts”. Ew. That would imply artists aren’t Zeus-like Gods who draw genius out direct and full formed. That would imply that art is WORK, and then we might have to pay them or respect them or understand that it grinds the body and soul the same way working in a mine does. But art is work and it is messy and it is a hard, gruelling process, and – most importantly – it is a team effort.

That’s why we have editors, and critics and playtesters, and beta-readers and sounding boards. It’s why art flourishes in a scene of studios and cafes and cultures and communities and movements. That’s why artists who work in solitary tend to go mad: because nobody is there to help with the terrible rigours. We would never send one man down a mine or one cop to a crime scene. Don’t try to do art alone either; you may end up dead. It is dangerous to go alone, as the saying goes.

More importantly, once we understand this we understand that there are different ways to be creative and they are no less valuable. David Eddings ended up putting his wife down as a co-author because she was reading everything he wrote and commenting on it long before his editor saw it, and he finally realized that that was part of the work. And there are people whose creativity is not always best used at the head of a project, but in support. And there’s so many ways to support someone. Emotional and spiritual support, social support, and societal support – building those communities and making them work. Appollinaire was a mediocre poet but he was a FANTASTIC supporter of artists and without him building his studio there would never have been an Rousseau, a Duchamp, a Picasso or a Gertrude Stein.

All of this hit home to me this week for a few reasons. One, I realized it was the real point of the Game Chef competition. Oh yes, the deadline and the constraint of provided ideas forces you past the roadblock of doubt into publication, yes. But the real point is to build community and get reviews and feedback. It is extraordinarily hard to find readers and playtesters in this world, so much so I’ve been bugging Board Game Geek for years to have a Playtester Finder Forum, but apparently American and Europeans find them everywhere – although saying that, Klaus Teuber had only his own family to help him build Settlers of Catan. Those with money and prototypes do take drafts to Spiel, of course, but there’s much less of that for roleplaying, and we forget too that that is part of the process, and everyone who plays the game at Spiel theoretically deserves their name on the front of the box. That’s why RPGs always list playtesters, too, btw. It’s not courtesy. It’s credit for work done.

But artists can’t always find feedback, connections and support and they need it the same way a painter needs paint and a writer needs a pencil. The rush of blood when someone reads your work and responds to it as a vital as the ink in the pen and the film in the camera. You literally cannot make art without it. And that means someone needs to be around to build the tools to get feedback and connections and support and criticism and collaboration. And that is a kind of creativity, a kind of art creation. I am not the best game designer. I am not even a good one. But my friends games leap into being because I tell them how to find their way. I link them to publishers and competitions and help them find protospiels and unpubs. I respond to their ideas with my knowledge and expertise.

And we need to know that as artists it is okay to ask for help from people good at developing and supporting. I was spitballing an idea the other day and thought James Wallis might know something about turning parlour games into print and I foolishly hesitated to ask – but of course he responded brilliantly, and brought in all his expertise as a support artist. And he turned around and asked me for the same support with his art, where he is the lead artist. Because he too, knows it is a team effort, and that I have support skills.

And I beat myself up on this, and I know lots of people do. We play the impostor game. I’m not an artist; they are an artist. They have their name on the book and the box, and took lead on the project so nothing I did counts, not really. But art does not work that way and we should feel entitled and confident to declare ourselves artists. As a part of the thing. Small, perhaps, but ESSENTIAL. Crucial. As important as ink in the pen and film in the camera. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon but every single person at Mission Control and NASA in general put him there. They are part of that achievement. Art is exactly the same.

And we can and should take this as widely as possible. Professional artists have the highest rate of homelessness of any profession. When Van Gogh couldn’t get help from his brother to afford new canvases he painted over his own work. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is unfinished because he lived in a hovel and got typhoid and died at 31. If you feed an artist, if you clothe an artist, if you bring in an income to fund an artist, if you pick up the kids while they finish a chapter, if you bring them cups of tea and rub their sore shoulders, you are – and I say this with not a drop of facetiousness – an artist. You are creating art. It cannot happen any other way.

So, if you are a supporter, take pride in it. Advertise it. Sell it. Like Sean Smith and James Wallis are clever enough to do. Talk about it. Develop it. Share skills and teach skills in it. Build things to bring support together and direct it outwards. And if you’re a leader (and you can move back and forth all the time), don’t think you are supposed to do this alone. Reach out for support, it’s how the process WORKS. Art will literally kill you if you try to do it alone, and, what’s more, your art will not be as good as it should be.

It takes a village. Embrace that. Seek it. Build it. Share it. Art is life, and both are inherently, unavoidably, collaborative.

Game Chef Finalists Part Two

Much talent! So exhaust!

Redream by Ron Langton

A simple idea with lots of potential. Players write down a dream they actually had (or make one up), listing a character, a setting and a goal, called a dreamheart. Then these are shuffled and redistributed. Each player then takes turns telling the dream they’ve been given (character/scene/goal), using a hand of playing cards like the cards in Once Upon A Time, one per scene, to trigger ideas. Players can jump in with their own cards but not to steal as in OUAT but to contribute, which is a nice sharing idea. At the end of each scene the other players reward the teller with chips based on how much they liked the story. If it seemed like they were just phoning it in to easily get their goal, a player can object to the story and make an argument as to why. If he wins a vote on this motion, the next scene in the teller’s dream will be narrated by the objector, and make things worse.

This could be pretty harsh and critical, especially since the objector gets an extra turn so has a fun reason to object. It may also go against the whole idea of improv, which is to shut down criticism. I don’t mind competing in principle, though, and it’s balanced by the collaborative nature of the whole process: you have to impress others, but also, someone else is carrying your dream – and at the end of the game, you get much of the points they won for your dream. And theoretically, you may get closure on a dream you once had, which is an ambitious idea. There’s definitely a sense of accomplishment to this game I just think maybe the central mechanic needs a few playtests to get the sharing right, and the ideas are very strong.

Sisters of the Hive by Jordan Saxby

Great minds think alike, and there’s a lot of ideas like Redream in this, in that once again there’s a sense of competitive storytelling, with hidden goals and players are able to block if they feel someone else cheated. On the other hand this game is full of some very different ideas indeed. The setting is the future where everyone buys dreams from a Hive of Sisters, all of whom want to leave the band and go solo but to do that they need to be a really famous dream-weaver. And to do that they have to secretly fulfill contracts from advertisers or additional stakeholders. Theoretically, Timmy is getting a dream about ponies but maybe his parents have paid extra for the dream to actually be about him really knuckling down and practicing the clarinet.

Each of exactly four players contributes to who the dreamer is and what he’s dreaming, but each also writes a secret contract that is then shuffled and distributed. The story is then narrated piece by piece, using formalized structure (three acts of developing narrative) and formalized behaviour (ritualistic phrases and HAND GESTURES (which is a GORGEOUS idea). Too many people trying to violently shift the story towards their needs instead of following logic, or too many breaks of disbelief and the dream ends without resolution. Theoretically, everyone can win together if the stories finish neatly. But one person can win on their own if they twice fulfill their contracts. Again, some super strong ideas here and I love how people are dancing around this fun idea of story-war, but again it risks crushing improv and forces people to distinguish between a natural continuation and a “change” of story, and I don’t know how to do that. But there is a nice long example and (especially with the theatrical elements of this) I would love to watch people TRY.

Stay, Still by Heather Silsbee

Now we’re REALLY talking. This is a freeform LARP of mythmaking and speaking in code. It’s after the apocalypse and everyone but the GM is trying to decide if they stick with their current Leader for safety or abandon him and make their own destiny, because the Leader has issues. After designing the nature of the Leader collaboratively, that character is handed to the GM who acts in a dominating way while also helping the story along. The players are handed character cards (there’s only six but I think more would be easy to add) and then start roleplaying. They are each telling a fireside story at the end of the day in the wasteland, but they are also trying to encourage the group to Go or to Stay, and perhaps make their own mind up too. But the Leader can’t hear them talking about leaving or he’d punish them – so they must talk in parables. After each story. players can vote with counters in the Go or the Stay bag, and at the end the decision will be made.

That alone is a great idea – roleplaying is already about moving between levels of truth, and I’ve always found it fires up the most when it’s about metaphor, cultural coded expression and things which are known but cannot be said. Combining within a parable about safety versus freedom makes it even juicier, adding a terrible threat that enforces the use of metaphor. The simplicity of it also means this really would appeal to any audience willing to play a dramatic kind of game, and it could be used as a psychological exercise. And there’s even one more level to the game: the Leader is always male and white (and is coded with stereotypical “masculine” imagery of strength and control through strength). This is done as a contrast to so many stories where white men are saviours of a group and the group never really gets a say in it. That makes it extra interesting and important, although I wish there could be a nod to how this is stereotypical male, not actual male, but that’s just my personal bugbear. Meanwhile this is complete, fully functional, interesting, open to a different audience, clever as hell and probably should win.

Tea Ceremony by Niamh Schonherr

This is not really a game so much as a social ritual or passtime. The Host brews tea and fills cups and encourages their guests, one by one to discuss a dream they have for their future. The Host keeps the focus on each person one at a time, although others are allowed to speak and contribute to help the Dreamer explain. New pot of tea, new speaker, until everyone gets a turn. The rules also suggest it could be done with pints of beer or anything else.

I like the idea of teaching the world cultural rituals to improve socialisation and if we have to parcel them as games to do it, that seems like a good way to do it. Makes just as much sense as doing it via a lifehack or thinkpiece. And as a social ritual it doesn’t need much rules or structure, because it’s not a game. On the other hand, it’s an inch away from “take turn listening”, and I feel like it might need something more, or something less to really click. But I definitely like that it’s in the Game Chef competition. I want people to think more about games like that, as rituals, as cultural activities, as things we might just do without thinking as them as games, like picking up a stick and rattling it against the bars as we walk by, or flipping bar coasters, and so on.

The Long Sleep by Bill Templeton

The Long Sleep is definitely what (these days) is a traditional RPG, which is to say something not at all like D&D, but in the mould of storygames: there’s a well decribed and developed setting (although here with lots of blanks) that is frontloaded, players make up whoever they want to be, then they call for scenes with other characters or new characters to slowly elucidate a narrative, and mechanics take a back seat except to resolve scenes. Here that setting is a world-wide disease is leaving millions in unending sleeps, where dragonflies seem to lead people towards Epiphanies but the Undermind, which taps into the dreamer’s unconscious and subconscious, wants to lead them away. Characters don’t have stats, just story hooks of Locations in their life, important People, a short backstory and three Motifs that colour their dreams, all of which give a nice palette for the story. At the end of each scene, a card is drawn: red you get an epiphany, face card you have triggered the Undermind.

The Long Sleep is (comparatively) long, well written, polished and quite complete, it feels like a finished RPG. The setting is intriguing despite being a bit vague and it is clear about what it wants to do, even if it lets you fill in the blanks about why dragonflies and what it all means. It’s only problem is it is comparatively not very different or creative. It doesn’t really suit the theme of A Different Audience except that it actually explains calling scenes and such as most RPGs do these days. All of that puts the emphasis back on the setting…and it too, is not particularly – innovative. It’s not quite developed enough to be truly deep, either (not enough time, it’s already as I said quite long for the competition, quite the achievement) – but its motifs ARE rich and vivid as hell, backed up by excellent writing and imagery. As Robin Laws says, fluff ain’t so fluffy and the style of this game is importantly evocative. I may not have been excited by a genius new way to roleplay but I most definitely WAS transported to a summer lake where dragonflies whisper secrets and the Undermind is watching. And frankly, in 9 days, creating this good an RPG is great work, and who cares if it’s not the New Millenium?

Wings by David Rothfeder

This is the game that made me cry this year. Which makes it hard to review, with the subject matter so on the nose and so important, a topic we never talk about yet defines so much of our lives. Wings suggests that when fairies are small they have no wings so have to be carried everywhere by dragonflies. One day they get their wings and don’t need their dragonflies any more – which dragonflies want, but also fear. I love metaphors and they don’t get any clearer or more perfect. Each player makes a fairy with a Quirk and describes their dragonfly – a bit more help and structure could be useful there, especially since everything else, helpfully for younger players, comes from cards and stones draws. Your dragonfly has a hope for you which the other players can see but you can’t. Scenes rotate, with the current player drawing from an Opportunity Deck which basically sets up a conflict between parent and child, and then the players take different roles in playing it out. The outcome is determined by drawing stones, as is the lesson learned, all of which leads to ticking boxes under Fear, Independence, Defiance and Respect. The stones themselves are themed around trust, individuality, compromise and secrecy, so you can see the theme of outcomes or read them off the handy table.

I love that there’s all this lovely infrastructure to this game. You don’t need a GM to set up conflicts or ask questions or set the scene because the cards do that. You don’t need to just imagine how it ends because the stones do. There’s no confusion about how to play each role because there’s a handy guide. But it is still a creative game which will reveal a complex and difficult relationship, with insight into both sides. With the use of fairies and in-built story mechanics this could indeed be good for young girls who are just about to hit this issue, and not just good but SUPER GODDAMN HEALTHY. Nobody ever explains to kids why their parents are grieving and confused; here children will get to discover that themselves by taking on the role OF their parents, which is the best way to learn anything.

It’s not perfect – it’s still a bit confused on some of the stones and needs a tidy-up edit – but it is complete, ready to run and very creative and uses the ingredients and definitely targets a different audience in a really clever way. It’s also the most important work on the list, I think, and one I want every child to play. So maybe I am biased, but Wings should really REALLY win.

Game Chef Finalists Part One

A quick appraisal of the 12 finalists of this year’s competition. You can download and read them all yourself here.

One overall trend I’ve noticed is a general laxness of using the four ingredients. Most only use one, some none at all, and some of them are just name checks. The two most common are dragonfly and dream; they are more evocative perhaps than abandon and stillness. Nobody seems to have known what to do with abandon at all, haven’t seen one game use it except Wings (more on that in Part Two).

Dragon, Fly by Paul Beakley

A cheat on the ingredient but an interesting take on the different audience theme, this game can be played entirely as a card game. Players deal some cards to the dragon and then move cards around six locations, following instructions based on the narrative choice they make at that location, and the character they are currently playing, which is determined by suit. A dragon plagues a village and a hero must try to kill it, and the finally outcome, after the game is played, will be a series of in-character written pieces about four people in the village: the hero’s spouse, the village leader, the priest and the outcast.  Each has conflicting thoughts about the coming threat, and you explore those as they make choices linked to each location. You can keep drawing cards to determine story elements until you’re happy with your high cards in each location, but certain cards go towards powering up the dragon, so there is a push-your-luck element.

What I like about this is it really highlights the tension between game-victory and storytelling decisions which a lot of RPGs have seen as a bad thing. You may really want to add cards to the Church or the Forest but to do that you might decide something that feels just wrong for how you’ve played the character so far. Yes, you need to discard that low card but are you willing to violate your sense of narrative truth to do it? It also is specifically tailored to be a solo creative writing exercise which I think would really fit different audiences (although it does have rules for multiplayer). I can’t say how well the game works mechanically (partly because it’s hard to visualize and partly because the explanations are very unclear as they stand), but the sense of setting and character are strong, the idea is clever and it makes me want to try it to see what I get.

Dragonfly Brewing Company by Michael Wenman

I have discussed this little gem elsewhere.

Dreams of Dragonflies by D. X. Logan

This shares much in common with Dragonfly Brewing, in that it is about tile laying and similar kind of player interaction. Players collaborate to lay down a seaside landscape of tiles from start to finish, and then do roll-and-move to move their dragonfly markers along the spaces. Depending where they land, they draw cards from different decks which show a thing you discover. It’s a game on the level of Candyland, and that’s the point. The nod to roleplaying is that at the end the players gather their cards and tell a story about their dream and perhaps what it meant. The dream element is tacked on but the idea of tile laying, discovery and improvising a story is excellent for say, 5 to 8 year olds.  Some “bigger” words are also included on the cards for older players, and there are some tips for adult helpers.

All in all this feels like the right idea – kids telling stories about stuff they found – but I think it’s been done before, and this feels a little undeveloped. The tiles are a nice idea but don’t seem to mean anything, they’re just kinesthetic creation which is enough on its own I guess. Sitting next to DBC, it kind of feels like a simpler version of the former, which is a great idea FOR DBC to use. But despite my criticisms, if it came with lovely art I would give this to any kid over Candyland any day, so that’s impressive for 9 days.

Far Away From Home by Aleksandra Samonek

This reads like a fever dream, and in part that’s deliberate. Deliberate in that it appears to want to describe a fever dream of sorts, and because it’s trying to be as bare bones as possible. Players take the role of vaguely drawn characters (your only characteristics are handed to you by others in short sentences) on some kind of ship stuck somewhere after some unspecified disasters. Players take turns filling in the blanks which will lead to interesting collaborative stories. Before you’re on the ship though you write down what you – you the player – want in life and everyone else decides four steps you need to do to get it. I think the point is that the terrible ship escape is supposed to be a dream for some of you, giving you insight into your goal? Except in the dream you’re not you at all…yet you still have exactly the same goal. Which could get weird as hell.

The story-building mechanics involve each player starting a scene and it being resolved by the player on their left, then a “but then” added by the player on the right. The scenes are supposed to remove goals from your list, and then add new ones, so nothing really gets resolved unless a player hijacks a scene, which seems to have no penalty except speeding the game up. I think there is supposed to be a drive to betray each other by stealing scenes or entering scenes in a way to hand off your secret Destiny card which tells you if you’re in a dream or if this is really happening. There’s also a bizarre rule about holding eye contact and making “the Dragonfly Move”. I don’t know what the fuck that was about at all, but it sounds like something teenagers might do in a bad occult film.

Bare bones this looks like some of it could be a fun exercise but I don’t think the mechanics work and I don’t really understand the point of it or the fun of it, as it currently stands. Perhaps there are language issues as the designer is working outside his first language.

Good Night Fairy Theatre by Emily Griggs

This is a really clever piece of work, which uses a game idea I’ve been toying with for years: one protagonist, many GMs. One player takes the role of a child having a dream, the other players are dream fairies trying to make the dreamer have the kind of dream their fairy specializes in. Kids are better at competition than cooperation and instead of trying to fight this, it wires it right into the mechanics, using a dice-bidding system like Robin D Laws’ Pantheon to determine narrative truth in a scene – while the central player chooses how they react (they are of course in their own dream!). As the sole protagonist they kind of have a GM-like role, but like players they are there to be told stories by the players. Indeed, each fairy’s dream style is designed to create emotions, and if the dreamer is say, scared by a fear-dream-fairy-story or made happy by a happy-dream-fairy, they award chips (Dream Candy) to those players. In other words, the more evocative the GM the more likelier you are to win.

That’s harsh on kids who lack skills and confidence but for precocious young creative types (or with a generous, perhaps adult dreamer) this hits lots of notes for kid’s games. An instantly recognizable setting, a use of competition, and dice rolls to help generate ideas. Unfortunately that part of the mechanic is a bit vague and also uses a Rock-Paper-Scissors things I think most kids would struggle with, and the antagonism could get out of hand unless the dreamer takes control, which again, is a big deal to put on a young kid. But I think these are teething issues: another pass at the mechanics and for the right kids this would be not just amazing but also unlike anything else we’ve seen.

ISP Dragonfly by Kevin Omans

This is not unlike my recent Zombies, Probably in that it’s a game about people with terrible sins begging for forgiveness – but is about hope and redemption as well. Players take the role of prisoners who committed a crime bad enough to get exiled from all of earth, in the titular space station (phoned in ingredients here see). Once every ten years the inmates get to explain what they did, why they did it, if they’re sorry and why they should be allowed to go home – and then the inmates themselves vote on it. Unlike lazy old me in Zombies, Probably, the game comes with an excellent bunch of cards to give players their crime, the tie that binds them to earth and also what they Respect and are Repulsed By in others. The last is super clever and important because if enough inmates say, respect murdering your uppity wife, or respect not trying to go straight, or going home to wreak more chaos than a tearful apology will be far less likely to win you the game than an impassioned reasoning for why you should go back and finish the job on your wife’s sister.

To explore this part of the game, players spend the first half of it mingling around talking to each other in private conferences. They can’t reveal their crime but anything else is on the table and alliances can and should be formed (and backstabbing could happen). This adds a Survivor element to the whole thing, which makes it much more gamey and not just about who tells the best sob story. The only issue with that is the game says up to 12 can play and everyone should be allowed to pair off, which is some huge combinatoric and would take quite a while. A minor quibble obviously: this is a great and fun exercise, and the game is entirely complete and works right out of the box, and would work great for any drama class but also for a group of creative friends. If you’ve enticed them with social games like Two Rooms and a Boom or backstabbing like Battlestar Galactica, this would be a great step into a more dramatic space.

Game Chef Reviews Are In!

Reviews are always good for this kind of thing because it is unfinished; they give you ideas on where to go next. My responses in italics. Dragonfly is available here.

Review 1:

WHAT DID YOU LIKE?

The flavour and backstory for this game is very unique and really compelling. The medium of twitter is also very interesting and satisfactorily fulfils the theme. A micro-game with a smaller time commitment that can be played anytime you have an internet connection is something that would appeal to a lot of people, and could be easily played while other games are going on. The audience involvement also takes full advantage of this medium and adds a new level to it which has a lot of potential. The mystery and countdown mechanics also enforce narrative order and cohesion in a way that would be normally difficult to do through this medium.

WHAT DID YOU FIND CONFUSING?

I think the mystery mechanic could backfire. Establishing a mystery in every tweet and answering it in the next one seems like it would produce confusing and disjointed stories, though I suppose it would reflect the nature of a dream? Exactly how the mysteries work isn’t clear through the example of play either.

Good point, wish I’d had a chance to test it…maybe I will one day.

WHAT SEEMS LIKE IT NEEDS MORE WORK?

Maybe some play-testing would tighten up the mystery mechanic. I also feel like there could be a little more done with the backstory and flavour elements to get them across – I’m not sure how, but the flavour is so concrete yet has no real presence in the actual game.

I like this idea too – the dragonfly tech/corporation is neat and I’d love to find a way to explore it further. Maybe not in this game. Maybe it’s a TV show or something. Other reviewers mentioned this too.

Review 2:

What I liked: The setting, and the premise of the game both strike me as a world I would like to play in. It is well developed, and is enhanced by the choice of medium (Twitter). I also liked the clear-cut ritual phrases which called out the start, and end, of the game, and also the participation of the players. It appears very well thought out. The game is simple enough that anyone could pick it up, even without any story-gaming experience. It’s also presented very well – points for layout.

What I found confusing: The game’s text was quite clear, offering examples for any game mechanics that were not easy to grasp. The only part of the text I’m unclear on, is what the moderator’s posts between “I awoke…” and “… and they are remembered” are supposed to look like. Are they summary posts, which call out what truth the moderator is accepting from the submissions? Or are they “I dreamt…” style posts? An example would clear this up.

What I thought needs work: This game deserves a quick-start text that could fit in 140 characters (or maybe two tweets at the most), enabling players to run their own games quickly with as broad an audience as possible. Anyone should be able to post it to their feed, and start the game with little more than a hashtag at the end (or beginning: #IDreamt).

Yeah, I’d love to invent a continuous story mechanic/parlour game that everyone can play on their own feeds. That’s kind of where I wanted to go but it didn’t quite land.

Review 3:

I am always a big fan of games that try to integrate online play! I also like this take on asynchronous play. I also enjoy the setting, and the ritual phrases.

There isn’t any guidance for the GM on which posts to accept. I suppose it’s because this game belongs to you, and perhaps you have no interest in anyone running another one from a different handle. I’m also not a huge fan of games where the user may have to play to the GM to get their posts accepted, but I’m not sure if there’s a solution for that.

Very good point, I didn’t include that. The main point of the filter mechanic is to keep the story from fracturing from “hang on, which one is true?” which happens all the time when we do continuous story-telling online. I was coming from an assumption of only getting a few answers; if you got a lot and you were at risk of playing to the GM the answer would be to choose randomly.

Review 4:

I loved the concept of the game, and I think the random number in the first post is a brilliant mechanic for pacing, which was my first concern when I started reading it.

It is also a brilliant fusion of the “dream” and “dragonfly” ingredients, and a clever way to address the theme: it’s not common to roleplay/storytell in the social media.

If anything should be not perfect in this game, it is that the concept of a company developing this dragonfly technology is not exploited in the mechanics; I would’ve loved to see something like that the zero (0) post has to be an announcement of the company, echoing maybe the great Ubik novel, by P. K. Dick. The colour of that would’ve been awesome, and maybe some rules for starting paranoid threads about this ubiquitous company that manipulates this connection we have with this otherworld…

A great idea but it kind of goes against the whole everyone can play this parlour game thing. But it’s great how many people have loved the creepy setting I created in just a few paragraphs. If only that was a marketable skill, but it doesn’t appear to be. 

Review 5:

The idea to game over twitter is quite unusual and I must say it really fits the premise of this game. Although it might be hard to find players for this particular medium, I think that it has the potential to build a great community of storytellers.

The rules are simple and easy to follow, and the story-building potential is right there. It’s great to see example gameplay, as it makes it very clear how this game would look like and how the story should progress through mysteries and questions until some clear picture emerges. The idea of random numbers limiting the length of the story was a little bit confusing at first, it may be the phrasing of that paragraph (it is a bit overwhelming to a player who has never used twitter before, like myself), but it made sense in the end. Although the number does seem rather small – 17 sentences is not terribly much space to tell a complete story.

To sum up, it’s a great idea for a fun game, although it very much depends on a devoted community of players. I do like the choice of medium: the limitations of twitter tie really well with the in-game limitations of the in-game fictional technology.

Given how little time I had for this – like a day – and that I took the first idea I had and ran with it, I’m happy people are digging the idea. I think I’ve communicated how GREAT twitter is for storytelling, even if this isn’t the game to unlock that.

There’s also this lovely review by Mr Wenman (whose game Dragonfly Brewing Company I found quite excellent) touches on the same points: the setting is neat, twitter seems great for this, but it still isn’t 100% there – and it’s hard to know what the next step might be. I offer this to you, internet: figure out how to make a twitter parlour game of story building really sing.

Five Things Roleplayers Can Learn From Archer

Sure, the Archer board game was terrible, but that doesn’t mean nothing good in the realm of gaming can come out of this particular favourite show of mine. I mean, there’s this awesome supplement, and the hilarious references in Android:Netrunner and then there’s five things that will help make any RPG session or campaign run a little smoother. And look, it also works for writing in heaps of different genres and styles, and for improv, and probably computer games too. It’s like there’s this whole cluster of things we need a new name for. Story-making, maybe. Whatever. Also shut up, and let’s get started.

1. Everyone is Everywhere

Archer is a character driven show. There are nine super-strong characters each with their own schticks, catch-phrases, dysfunctions and moral failings and the purpose of the show is to bring them together and watch them bounce off each other. Yet in theory, it should be hard to put these people together: although they all work together, they have vastly different ranks and responsibilities and two characters are expected to be constantly in the field. But the important thing is that they are together, and the show will bend over backwards to make that happen, which is exactly as it should be. Because character is what matters, not logic or reason. Carol can always hear what’s going on in secret office meetings because then Carol is in the scene. Dr Krieger and Pam are walking by the office at that exact moment. Ray is an expert in exactly the thing the mission needs. And so on.

And when this got harder and harder to justify, they just went further. Cyril the accountant and Pam the HR rep became field agents. Lana stopped being a field agent so she could spend more time in the office. And there’s the one-offs: if Lana and Archer are together, Cyril wants to spy on them. Cheryl owns the railroad. Mallory is trying out the corporate package (Phrasing!). Pam even smuggled herself onto a spaceship just to get laid. Wodehouse looks exactly like the Pope. Why? Because the characters are funnier together. Nothing else matters. Any transparently bogus excuse will do, as long as people are there. Find reasons. Stupidity, horniness, a need to meddle, a lust for self-destruction, whatever. Pick one!

2. Setting Is Extremely Maleable

I know, I know: limitations drive creativity and a strong sense of tone produces a richer banquet than just the kitchen sink approach. But at the same time, logic and reason are not always your friends, and they matter less than you think they do. When is Archer set? Judging by the computers and the flashbacks, the 1970s maybe, but the phones are modern-day. And then occasionally we flash back to the 1920s because that’s just cool. This is more than just the Rule of Cool, though, it’s understanding that everything is awesome, and that suspension of disbelief is often not even the issue, because people aren’t even looking at the things in question with an eye to believe or disbelieve. And understanding that setting exists to serve plot and both of them exist to serve character. Like I said above, the point is to get the characters together, and in trouble, and doing awesome things, and nothing else really matters.

Think it would be fun to do some drug dealing tropes instead of spy stuff? You can. Make someone a country singer. It just never came up before. Put people in the field all of a sudden. Launch them into space. Add robots. Steal from every thing you’ve ever liked and colour it for your particular style. You can’t break a setting with these kinds of things because they’re not the backbone of the game: character is. And that should always be your focus at all times: not where you are or what you can do but who you are and your dramatic or comic niche. Anyone can blow up a jeep, but only one person on earth can say “Something something danger zone” as he does it. So it doesn’t matter if the jeep is suddenly a robot, or a zeppelin, or a train, does it? I’m honestly asking.

3. There Is Always Time To Bicker

Bickering has a bad rap in RPGs, and sure, with good reason. There’s the old joke about how you spent four hours planning and then the moment you walked in the door you just started shooting everything. And that three of those for hours was arguing about who had the best Sneak rolls to go around the back. Yes, bogging a game down in player bickering and not moving the story forward sucks. But in-character bickering is often the best part of the game (so much so games like Smallville and Prime Time Adventures and based almost entirely around it). It’s what turns those strong characters into truly awesome moments of explosive interaction.

And here’s the really important thing: you don’t have to choose between bickering and action. Most live-action shows and movies do, because action scenes are hard to shoot and with all the explosions going off, it’s tricky to work in snappy dialogue. But Archer is animated so it doesn’t care. Time goes exactly the speed you want it to, and focus shifts wherever the artist wants. And that allows the cast of Archer to staccato back and forth between insult comedy and kicking ass without ever slowing down. And here’s the thing: RPGs should do the same. There’s a tendency, partly because of the media being emulated and partly because of the heritage of complex rules sets, to say “this is an action scene (and in most cases, will involve lots of rules and dice, so lean into the table and concentrate)” and “this over here is a talking scene”. Sometimes this even literally written into the rules. Screw that. Always run them simultaneously. Yes, rolling dice and determining results can slow you down a beat, but look at Archer: he will literally stop mid-argument, fire a gun/blow something up/punch someone/save the day and then RETURN TO THE SAME ARGUMENT. Often he is mid-sentence. You can do that too. And it’s good because it gives both the conversation and the combat more oomph.

4. You Don’t Need An Answer

If you don’t know what to say in said argument, say that. As Archer likes to say “Oh God, I so had something for this” when he can’t think of a pun. Or “Something about you two having vaginas”. Of course the non-joke doesn’t work forever but it’s the principle that counts: keep your mouth moving even when you have nothing to say. Like finding a reason to be around, find a reason to bicker. And what is true for your mouth is also true for your legs and arms: Archer almost never stops moving and if he does it is only to get drunk. If he ever does plan, it’s off screen and extremely quick but mostly he goes with his gut, improvises or acts randomly. He doesn’t need a quip, or a plan, or an exit strategy, or even a reason.

This has to have some caveats. Archer is a jerk a lot of the time, and if you do come up with a plan, the “instigator” player who ruins it is ruining everyone else’s fun. The idea though is just to remember that you don’t always need to work everything out in advance. There’s a huge movement in gaming urging GMs to fly by the seat of their pants, but we forget to tell players to do it. It might not be your best stat or any of your stats. You might not see how it could work. Try it anyway. He who hesitates is lost, but lost is better than boring. You can always think of a reason later, too. Why’d you punch that guy? He was probably a mole. Now the GM has a NEW plot to work with. Because maybe there IS a mole. Stupidity has its narrative rewards, which brings us to:

5. Never Be Afraid to Make Things Worse

Lots of RPGs are tricky games of simulation and survival and the point is to beat the GM or the adventure through the hazards with planning, invention and rules application. In those games, you don’t want to make things worse, because if you die, the game is over. In other kinds of games, where that isn’t the mode, or that mode is in the background, you can always feel comfortable making things worse. This doesn’t mean being a jerk and deliberately tanking things. It means failure is your friend, and raising the stakes always raises the interest level, and usually the pace as well. Locked in prison? Shoot somebody. Now you have a much bigger need to escape, and fast (and Archer is also proof that all wounds heal, no matter how lethal). Caught in a firefight? Running out of bullets would leave you forced to improvise with some ridiculous stunt. Racing the Russians to a nuclear bomb? Get drunk first, or during if possible. Or eat enough soy to make your throat close up.

Here’s the thing: the audience won’t mind if ridiculously good luck or implausible bad-assitude get you OUT of a situation if ridiculously bad luck or implausible stupidity gets you into it. Add to that the fact that most RPG characters are bad-ass in some way and that narratives generally want to keep the heroes alive and kicking and your bacon is going to get saved. Just as there’s always more ninjas to fight, there’s also more cavalries to ride in over the self-same hill. And some cavalries turn out to be fires instead of frying pans, because now we’re mixing metaphors. And we can have an argument about mixing metaphors in the middle of the conversation about ninjas because it’s more entertaining that way, and it will also likely make things worse, leading to more arguments.

And yes, in some games, that’s a sign of a dysfunctional group ruining things for everyone and getting all their characters killed. But if you embrace it and do it deliberately, you can get something like Archer. Or any similar high-octane wise-cracking action-comedy with super-strong characters. And yes, those things exist in fantasy. Like, say, Rat Queens, where all these rules also apply, you’ll find. This isn’t just a guide to make Archer, is my point: it is a guide for awesome in general.

My First Experience System, or God, My Players Sucked

I’ve spent much of this year going through old boxes, wherein I have hoarded basically everything I ever owned. Nowhere is this more true than with RPGs. I spent most of my high school and university time creating RPG characters, rules, adventures and back story, with some dysfunctional playing thrown in now and then. The list below is from my first attempt to make an experience system, listing the things you will LOSE experience for. It reads, of course, like a massive cry for help and a list of all the things constantly happening in my games which I didn’t like….

  • being dull
  • waiting for the DM to do something (this means saying their character waits for something to happen)
  • being really stupid
  • not planning ahead
  • bending the rules to suit them
  • arguing amongst themselves
  • missing obvious clues
  • being over-dramatic
  • ignoring chances to roleplay
  • not playing in character
  • courting death
  • endangering others
  • forgetting the setting (eg medieval environment)
  • wasting resources
  • wasting health spells
  • being overly violent or pugnacious
  • flaunting or misusing power
  • not helping the innocent or weak
  • being chicken
  • refusing danger
  • not playing in Alignment!! (two exclamation points on this)

My Game Chef Reviews

The cleverest thing about Game Chef is getting submitters to review games. It means not just feedback but publicity for the designers! This year’s theme was games for a Different Audience and the ingredients were dragonfly, abandon, stillness and dream.

Here are the four games I was assigned:

The Dragonfly Ritual by Filamena Young

Young embraces the other audiences idea nicely with the game entirely contained within a youtube video – and a video that is entirely within the implied setting of the game. A bit like Bloody Mary or that recent viral thing with the pencils and Charlie Charlie, the conceit is that if you know the rules to this occult game you can go and conduct the ritual (ie play the game) with someone and thus be safe from some monstrous other which follows you around if you have played the game but don’t teach it to others (so it’s like The Game crossed with The Ring).

The actual operation of the game is asking someone if they want to play a game and, if they say yes, then smiling unnervingly at them until they smile back. That doesn’t sound like fun for either participant. Or interesting. I think you’re then supposed to tell them the rules of the game so they can go and inflict it on others, but I’m not sure. Overall I was left very confused by this game – not much to do and no reason to do it. It didn’t quite seem to have enough activity in it, although that may have been because of the presentation. Videos are very passive media and this contributed to the feeling that this was kind of a performance artwork rather than a game.

BUT I love the idea of those two things blurring in interesting ways and I think this was an ambitious idea in general. Presenting the game as an entirely in-universe activity told over a video is quite atmospheric and definitely a clever way to attract new gamers. It’s just that all the effort to make it atmospheric also conspires to confuse and obfuscate the intent, and for me it kept me apart, rather than drawing me in.

I wanted to like this but I just couldn’t. I want to see a second draft that builds on the original ideas though because I think they are quite strong. Oral games are interesting, youtube games are interesting, more of that but an actual game please.

The Zone by Juliusz Doboszewski

This is a microgame that is just an idea but it’s stunning in its simplicity and its embracing performance, roleplaying and fun. The intent is to imagine a world without people, after being struck by some apocalypse. The mechanics for doing so is to simply go somewhere in a big city where you live, somewhere full of things and people, and imagine them after the event. And then – and this is the fun part – to go and engage with the items and building in that space as if they are characters.

In your head Mr Pavement is telling you how it ran red with blood that one dark day; in reality you are nodding and replying to the stone beneath your feet. You will look strange but that is of course part of the intent, and there are rules for what happens if people ask you what you are doing. Thus you will fill your city spaces with weirdness in your own actions and perhaps spread such weirdness to others. Meanwhile you will also get a greater sense and understanding of the objects around you.

This game is light but that’s the point: it’s so simple you now know the rules and everyone can play it anywhere, which absolutely answers the theme of A Different Audience. It is also wonderfully fun and engaging and silly, all things which appeal to me and appeal to a large audience, including children. I hope this takes off. I hope the teens will be off Zoning this time next year. I hope we have flashmob zones in our city squares. First class work. The only fault I find is that it doesn’t use many of the ingredients – stillness is only vaguely in there, and a touch of abandon. And it might need just a touch more substance to make it hashtag-worthy, but only a touch, so as not to take away the lightness.

Dragonfly Brewing Company by Michael Wenman

All the people who rushed into roleplaying as teens in the 80s and 90s are now grown up and having kids and wanting to teach them to roleplay so we’ve seen a spate of kid-focussed RPGs and storygames in the last five years. So far, a lot of them have had a big narrative focus, like the awesome Happy Birthday Robot by Daniel Solis. But RPGs have this weird space of combining that kind of shared narrative/improv theatre space with lovely table top elements like tiled movement, stat rolling and crafting. And stripping down D&D will never make it suitable for 6 year olds. Into this gap comes Wenman, with his usual brilliance in providing tools and components, adding the perfect kinaesthetic cream to the top of a very nice RPG for kids.

Children play fairies exploring a swamp, fighting obstacles and monsters and searching for ingredients, which they can then take home and turn into delicious brews (some of which can attract dragonfly mounts) or into other useful tools to make them better at searching or fighting monsters. (Brewing is done at a still, a clever use of the stillness ingredient.) Chargen is done through dealing random cards of Personalities and Fairy types, giving stats (named Warrior, Rogue, and Scholar) special powers. Rolls are done with d6 pools, generating possibilities of successes and failures from the same outcome, which is nice. But the real genius is the game comes with 60 tiles, covered in roads and rivers and troubles and treasures. This gives children a physical space to explore, discover and build while they do the same with a narrative one. By coding them by colour, children will encounter lower threats before harder ones, so they have time to “level up” by crafting things. And of course, the items needed for crafting are stacked in another deck of cards, allowing for more wonder and exploring, and allowing children to find their own system for trading and sharing to make what they want and divide roles. Meanwhile there are guidelines for teachers/facilitators to get out of the way of this process or help it along where necessary.

There are places where the words run a little short on explaining things and sections are in the wrong order, and I think some things need tweaking or a better explanation. However all of this could be because of word limits, time limits or just a need of an editor – certainly Wenman worked hard to produce the massive volume of hexes! And I appreciate that sense of focus, it really hits the nail on the head of a different audience. Children can play imagination games, but a box full of tiles and cards is much more likely to bring everyone in, and start them telling stories when they don’t realize they are. This needs to be in stores ASAP, and of my four, gets the nod for the next round.

Journey Through Dreams by Noble Bear

Time limits are harsh. Not everything gets to be finished, and Journey Into Dream did not. But well done to Bear for submitting it anyway; it shows potential and they will get some feedback which will hopefully encourage them to finish it. The setting of the game is playing children who have all fallen asleep and share a dreamscape. Drawing a random goal from a deck, they must pursue it before any one of them wakes. Children have a Stillness rating (I think six?) and if they run out they wake up.

The goals seem to involve rescuing Favourite Things somehow (and taking them into their possession?) or, should those Things turn Nightmarish, discarding them to the Nightmare pool. This is done through rolling dice, adding bonuses or penalties from cards, and sacrificing Stillness to get further bonuses,. The mechanics fade out there so it’s all quite vague but I like that, like Wenman, Bear understands the need to provide game architecture: there is a list of forty possibly Favourite Things and a start of listing what are to be decks of Complication/Bonus cards, and Goal cards, and Spirit Animals which will give each child a special power. I think having physical cards to drive idea generation is super important for a game aimed at children, and it seems like the intent is to have counters on the cards to track things as well. However, I’m not sure children this young would understand (or appreciate) that favourite things can become Nightmarish, and that can cause you to death-spiral into waking, or that waking up is a terrible failure. And to be honest, even if there were mechanics to explain, I too am not sure how a Peanut Butter Sandwich becomes Nightmarish.

There are some nice ideas here: card drawing, encouraging children to share (they can give Stillness to those lacking) and structured turn play, but there’s nothing BUT ideas here, just sketches in the sand. Some are nice, some need revision, some seem wrong (too scary or dark) but most I’m just not sure how they work or fit together. But I like the idea of the setting and the big decks of cards, and I like the idea of children playing a collaborative board game of card acquisition, push your luck and different character powers and changing goals. I’d suggest making the rules a bit less luck based and maybe add some set matching or something for complexity, and then reskinning it to take it out of dreams. I hope this wasn’t abandoned, but just cut short for time.

107 Entries this year. That’s insane. Look at you go, you majestic swan people. Applause all round just for stepping up. It is a HELL of a beast to try and ride.