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.