Fedora Noir – PDF Advice

I’m a big fan of picking up games in PDF. I have a beautiful library of games on my tablet that I can whip out for a game night or a convention (remember those? *tiny tears*), and instead of lugging around a big bag of books, I just have to remember to charge my ancient iPad mini. Besides, it saves me money and it saves some trees. All good stuff.

Usually, the only thing I end up printing from a game book’s PDF is a couple of character sheets or a playset. But what about when the format shifts from being a PDF of a book to being a PDF of a card deck? It gets a little tricky.

Just like you wouldn’t print a whole book out, I don’t think you should print out all the cards for Fedora Noir. Here are the ways I would use the PDF:

Online Play

In designing the game, I focused on making it a gorgeous physical deck. But I also really wanted people to be able to play without the cards, especially online, so I set up an online card deck that anyone can access using Story Synth. 

It includes everything except the settings and actors. If you want to play with one of the included settings, you can use your PDF to share the relevant pages, or plop a screenshot of the one you choose to use over in your shared notes document. 

Print & Play

I wouldn’t print  a full card deck from the PDF since it would use a lot of ink and wouldn’t look nearly as nice as the professionally printed deck (which should be getting in the mail around March 2022). Instead, here’s how I would run an at-the-table game using the PDF:

  • Read the Instructions cards from your phone or tablet. You can pass it around the table, or one person can read each page. Just make sure you complete the procedures as you go. (You can also print these out as regular pages, or two to a page, if you don’t want to read from your device)
  • Make an X card at the table using an index card.
  • Make little standing cards that say each role and pass those out instead of the role cards. Give each player a notecard in case they want to make notes about their role.
  • Answer the case questions from your PDF.

The only things I’d recommend printing are the Chapter Cards and the “Playing the Story” card. In total, it’s 8 pages, black and white if you use my suggestions below: 

  • Chapter Cards: The chapter cards are the only cards that have important information on the backs. I laid them out in this document to be a little more printer-friendly: Fedora Noir Chapter Cards – Print and Play
  • “Playing the Story” card: This is optional to print, but quite useful to have in front of each player. Print directly from the PDF (page 13). You can print 4 copies per page and give one to each player.

If you want to print any other cards (for example, settings cards or actors): Your printer/computer may have different options. On my Mac, when I go to print, I click on “Layout.” Then I select “4 pages per sheet.” They will be a little smaller than the tarot size, so if you’ve got eyes like mine, you might do 2 pages per sheet. Just print these single sided. There is no reason to print the backs.


Whether it’s online or in person, I hope you get a chance to play the game soon! Enjoy!

-Caroline

Haberdashery

(Written by Caroline)

  Most of the games I play are focused on a general type of story — Downfall (collapse of civilization), Kingdom (explore community dynamics), Epitaph (explore a single life), etc. For the most part, I enjoy playing games that have a lot of flexibility in terms of tone (Follow for instance can be just about any tone, regardless of whichever quest you choose) or setting (I obviously love games that let you create any setting you like). 

Fedora Noir is a little different. With Fedora Noir, I was designing a game to emulate a specific genre (more like Fiasco or By the Author of Lady Windermere’s Fan), with the goal of encapsulating what makes the genre awesome and rules that enable people who aren’t familiar with it to still create those stories (we don’t need to get into whether ‘noir’ is a genre, I’m going to assert at the very least that hardboiled noir is one, and the game captures the cinematic mood of a noir, so there).

Development was further complicated by the fact that it was a pre-existing, unpublished game. I also had to make it be the best version of itself as it already existed, which already started out very, very good. These are some of the design choices that I made to accomplish those parallel goals:

Focus the Hat

The original roles in Fedora Noir were the Detective, the Hat, the Partner, and the Dame. The Dame changed to the Flame, but the Detective and Partner stayed more or less the same, with a little added character creation procedure. 

The Hat, on the other hand, saw a couple changes. First of all, the Hat is awesome. I would never have come up with the idea for the Hat myself, that’s all Morgan’s brilliance. But there were some balance issues with the design. For one, the Hat wore (forgive me) too many hats. The Hat was responsible for 1. narrating the Detective’s thoughts, 2. solving the case, and 3. framing every scene. 

I decided to focus the rules on what made the Hat the best tool for telling a detective noir — the voiceover. The Hat no longer frames every scene, and the rules don’t tell the Hat to solve the case. We all do that together, and mostly in the background. Instead, the Hat uses their energy to create dramatic irony, context, and witty one-liners throughout the game.

Set the Background

Morgan and I were really excited to hire writers to create a variety of settings for Fedora Noir. The settings all have a few things in common inspired by the genre, including brutal class disparity, bitter and counterculture characters, and corrupted power.

Some of the other locations include a necromancy school, the suburbs, and a lunar base
Some of the other locations include a necromancy school, the suburbs, and a lunar base

I also wrote a short procedure for how to create your own setting at the table, because how could I not. <3

Learn the Rhythm

Dividing a character between two players is tricky, especially for experienced role-players who are used to describing their character’s thoughts and feelings. It’s an inherently odd (but super cool) part of the game that requires a little bit of practice.

So I made a warm-up script. Three actually. The first chapter (more on chapters later) starts with the Detective and the Hat reading a script together that demonstrates how to pass play back and forth. When the script stops, the Detective and Hat keep role-playing, with the momentum of the script giving you something to talk about and an understanding of the back and forth rhythm of the roles. It gets you in the practice of giving the other player space and shows you how you can prompt the other player into doing or thinking about something.

Play the Arc

Perhaps the most time-consuming part of making Fedora Noir was watching all the movies. I wanted to design the game because I loved the original version, not necessarily because I knew a lot about film noir. So Marc and I sat down to watch some great movies (28 according to Marc’s notes).

To make sure the game followed the typical structure of a hardboiled noir, I designed a chapter framework. There are 7 chapters, each of which has 3 prompt options to choose from. The chapters help keep us on the rails of a detective noir while focusing the conflicts and camera on the characters’ relationships. I tried to strike a balance between keeping things open ended while giving enough structure for players who aren’t familiar with the genre to effortlessly create an awesome movie plot. 

The Flame chooses one prompt for chapter 3, then frames a scene.
The Flame chooses one prompt for chapter 3, then frames a scene.

Each chapter has one scene, followed by up to four ‘moments,’ which let us do short camera shots of the action between scenes. Moments are great for quick exposition, introducing strangeness or something threatening, or moving the case along. They also feel very film noir-ish. You can narrate a long camera angle or describe a cool moody snapshot without having to make a whole played scene. They also help us keep the game short, so you can create a film noir in about the time it takes to watch one.

And More

There’s more little bits that I changed from the original game, all with the goal of keeping it true to its original vision and emulating a specific type of story. I’m excited for people who played the original to get a look at this new version, and I’m extra super excited for people who never played it to create some awesome noir detective stories. <3

Fedora Noir is on Kickstarter for one more week.

There’s always another Kingdom

(Written by Caroline)

   I don’t have the numbers — I’m not the spreadsheet guy in this game. Actually there are two spreadsheet guys (Marc and Ben, although I’m going to give the gold to Ben on spreadsheets), a sparkle who wears different cool glasses each week (Al), and a person (me) who apparently frames scenes with the fewest people in them, according to an aforementioned spreadsheet guy (2 is the right number of people for a scene folks. No questions). 

So I’m not totally sure what number of sessions we’ve done (60 maybe?), or how many kingdoms we’ve created so far (8? I really could go count those now, but I won’t). But we decided to take a little break from our Kingdom 2nd Edition game to try out some things that had been on our to-play list. 

Al is responsible for all this art. Blame them for how cute Flutterbutter looks as a Parish. (There are 131 entries in our Kingdodex. I think we have a problem)
Al is responsible for all this art. Blame them for how cute Flutterbutter looks as a Parish. (There are 131 entries in our Kingdodex. I think we have a problem)

After a very long 2 month hiatus (which included a spin-off fashion show game, see above), it was finally time to jump back into our Kingdom legacy game, Kingdomon. It’s Pokemon themed and it’s unsurprisingly amazing. You can read Ben’s write ups on it over at Ars Ludi and see some pretty cute fan art too. (We are the only fans of Kingdomon, despite how many times we’ve tried to make our friends and family listen to us ramble about this week’s Tappycat drama). 

But we’d already made everything! There was no new Kingdom to create! Or so we feared. But the beauty of Kingdom Legacy is there’s always something new right around the corner. You can Microscope-it-up (as we say in the industry) and create big ideas across wide amounts of time, as everything else gets re-contextualized and made all-the-cooler.

So yeah, we found another angle to explore what it means to be in a community with Kingdomon (Kingdomon = Pokemon, keep up). We’d already done classic battle stuff, living in harmony with them, sports, middle-school scouts, Team Trouble, Starter Town, voyaging across the sea, and a hyper-neon cyber dystopia (with digital Kingdo!).

As Al and Ben and Marc goofed off about pretzels or olives or something, I raised my little hand. Boom! My idea: Kingdomon as religion. That’s right! We’re busting out the ancient temples to the Kingdo-gods! No one tell us they are just adorable animals because we are about to take this way too seriously. 

And when we’re done with this kingdom? I’m not worried we won’t have another idea. There’s always another Kingdom.

Sunset in Santa Teresa

The air hums with energy as the sun sets the sky afire with pink and red. Classic 80’s tunes blast from the stereo of a passing convertible. The waves lap the sand in a steady rhythm. But all is not well in the beachside town of Santa Teresa, and the task of uncovering the truth falls on our Detective Pasquale (played by Morgan), his Partner Billy (Fred), his Flame Esperanza (Caroline), and of course his Hat (me, Marc).

fedora noir susnset in santa teresa

It’s a classic game of Fedora Noir, quick, fun, and full of betrayal. Not to mention some great Hat one-liners.

Our game opened (and would later close) with Pasquale alone on an empty street, looking out at the ocean and thinking deep thoughts. We then cut to a case in progress, where we learned that Billy was an intern (Partner: “Will I be getting paid for this?” Detective: “Of course.” Hat: “Absolutely not.”) and the actual go-getter of the operation, while Pasquale was a lazy layabout who let other people do his work for him. They actually made a great team, and when a new threat arose in town, they were on the case. Of course, Pasquale also had to contend with his former lover Esperanza, who wanted to get back together. Her past betrayals had hurt him too much to allow that to happen. Then someone went missing and the case landed in Pasquale’s lap. After a lot of following people around, getting accosted by drug dealers, and roughing up thugs, the climactic finale saw Pasquale and Billy sneak aboard a huge yacht and discover Esperanza at the heart of the crime ring. They got to leave with their lives, but not much else: Pasquale had to drop the case and walk away, tail between his legs.

There are many things that make Fedora Noir work well. First is the dynamic between the Detective and the Hat. Playing these characters is a joy because it’s basically tag-team storytelling. During this game, I’d suggest something the Detective should do, and Morgan would immediately and deliberately not do that thing. It created a lot of hilarious moments, but it can also make some serious dramatic tension when the Detective knows something but isn’t saying it aloud. 

Second is the pacing. The game is set up in a number of chapters, and each one is carefully crafted to move the story forward just enough to keep things going, but not so fast that we don’t have time to learn about our characters — who are, in fact, the true focus of the story. In our game, every act fed into the next, and by the end we’d told a cohesive story almost effortlessly. 

Third is the characters. As I mentioned, the dynamic between the Detective and Hat is good stuff, but the conflicted relationships with the Partner and Flame also add a lot of drama. In our game, the Partner was optimistic, competent, and big source of comic relief, while the Flame was very much the femme fatale, offering the Detective a chance to make it big if he’d only compromise his morals.

Fedora Noir is on Kickstarter for one more week. It’s easy to play online (like we did in this game) and perfect for a short, one-shot gaming session. I hope you’ll check it out! 

Posted by Marc

My Haven for a Hat

(posted by Caroline)

  I would rather hide under a rock than talk about my own games. I’m just very shy and busy (hello parenting). But! Getting ready for the Fedora Noir kickstarter pretty much exactly 7 years after I did the Downfall kickstarter got me comparing the two games and thinking about my own journey as a game designer.

Downfall and Fedora Noir are very different games. In Downfall, you lovingly create a world that you know is doomed to destroy itself. It’s a game about the macro reflected into the micro — we see a doomed civilization reflected in its doomed Hero. It’s typically pretty epic stuff. Fedora Noir, on the other hand, is very focused on small-scale conflicts, like the tension between a detective and the people who care for them (or used to, anyway). As different as they are, both games are stories that focus on a single character. 

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I play and design GMless games because I love sharing narrative control with my fellow players. The way that our different perspectives and voices pull and weave a story together constantly amazes me. Equally sharing authority over the story is, to me, what makes story gaming so wonderful. That’s an easy thing to do in an ensemble game, where no one character is the main one. We just take turns swapping player characters, and every player gets more or less equal screen time. But how do you make one character the main one while still sharing the spotlight between players? 

In Downfall, I decided to tackle that issue by designing the game so that each person takes turns playing each of the roles. We create a nuanced Hero (and Fallen and Pillar) by sharing them. We learn more about a character as another player develops them. Then when it’s our turn, we can change that character or explore them in other ways. When it’s your turn to be the Hero, you are the focus of that round’s scenes. But everyone gets a turn, so over the course of the game we all get to be in the spotlight about evenly.

In Fedora Noir, the rules handle the problem of sharing the spotlight by dividing the role of the main character between two players. One player is the Detective, narrating their speech and actions. And another is their Hat, narrating their inner thoughts. By splitting the character between two roles, we balance the stage time for players while giving the character a ton of depth, not to mention dramatic irony.

fedora noir kickstarter icon city 2

The other two roles — the Partner and the Flame — are defined by their complicated relationships to the Detective. Even when the Partner or Flame frame a scene, it’s about the Detective and their relationships. When you play the Partner or the Flame, you’re a supporting character, but you also drive the central conflicts within the game. 

The game pushes you towards intimate conversations with conflicting motivations, and by focusing on one character split between two players, we intensify the drama. A conversation between the Flame and the Detective about what their future holds is made more dramatic when we hear the Hat’s true feelings… and then see the Detective do something else. 

In Downfall, we explore how the Hero changes and is changed by their world… but in Fedora Noir we see how the Detective is challenged by their relationships and their own inner voice, the Hat.

Fedora Noir is on Kickstarter from July 20-August 10, 2021. The video is hella embarrassing (but also kind of great).

Have Yourself a Merry Little Game Night

written by Caroline

I’ve done quite a few Christmas themed story games throughout my life: Santa Kingdom (rob-Santa’s lap is too hard!), Campaign for Santa Follow (Can we get David Attenborough to voice our penguin candidate’s political ad for next Santa?), and most recently, how the Grunch Stole Follow (a heist to end all Christmases, literally). But I think we finally did it: the ultimate Christmas Story Game. It was holly. It was jolly. It was poly. And by that I mean it was political. That’s right folks:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love played with me, a story game called Mars Colony.

There’s trouble in the North Pole, and only one woman has enough tinsel and nog to find the true meaning of Christmas. Yes, that’s right, it’s everyone’s favorite Christmas mom, Kelly Perkins!

Marc and I have always loved Mars Colony. It’s delightful to play a two-player game where we can explore big issues, zoom in and out from personal to political drama, and then test our ideas against the cruel, cruel dice. It’s a true gem, and if you haven’t played it yet, I really highly recommend playing it just as written. We took it a little off the rails. In a good way.

By choosing to play in an alternate setting, we gave ourselves a bit of extra work. We started with changing our “colony” organization; the game is set up with an executive body, a legislative body, a media apparatus, and an external governing body. Our Mayor’s office obviously became the Santa Dynasty, Mayor was Santa of course (Deputy Mayor became Santa Jr, Son of Santa). We created a Cold Coalition of various Christmas creatures. The News Network Corp. became the Christmas Special, in charge of Christmas propaganda. And Earth Coalition, the group which sends Kelly Perkins to Mars, became the Children of the World. Kelly is selected because she’s the most enthusiastic Christmas mom, Jayson’s mom to be specific.

At this point we remembered that we were supposed to create a list of “fears,” things that frighten us about our real life government. We wrote some Christmas fears instead. Some highlights:

  • Christmas is too material focused
  • Presents aren’t good enough
  • Naughty list, and
  • Can’t keep up the cheerful attitude after the holiday. Woof 

Next up was establishing political parties. To make them, you choose a political guide from the real world and then establish whether it’s a dominant, minority, or fringe party. We ended up with The Holiday Party (traditionalists, 34th street stuff), The United Workshops of the World (socialist), Cheer.O (the . is pronounced “point” – big tech), and the Christ in Christmas Party (conservative Christians… but like penguins so it’s fun).

I played Kelly Perkins (and yes, her outfits were extremely festive), and Marc played “the Governor”, essentially everyone else in the North Pole (You know Dasher. We also had Son of Santa, the ultimate tech bro; some cute nutcrackers; an abominable snow thing; and plenty of cookies  and elves). We set up a host of problems facing the North Pole and gave Kelly a complicated relationship – a rich and ambitious lover, the Mouse King. Squeak! 

In Mars Colony, Kelly describes solutions to three health markers and rolls dice to see if they succeed. If you ever roll and fail, you have the option to lie to the colony and make it seem like a success. If you roll a special kind of failure though, all those “deception” points can trigger a scandal (it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the picture). It’s a beautiful system that pushes Kelly to compromise her ideals to at least get something done, and it leads to some pretty heavy drama.

Two hours of hilarity later, and Kelly had actually solved a lot of the North Pole’s problems: labor had been satisfied by festive parties, certificates of appreciation, a sleigh-pop performance, a day off, and permission to get back to basic toy-making. Christmas organization got under control, and Kelly managed to put the brakes on anti-Santa “the fur-trimmed devil” propaganda. 

In the final scene, Christmas magic was saved by giving Santa a rotating cast of sidekick characters throughout the years. Think elf on the shelf meets the Zodiac. The Mouse King’s dreams of becoming the new Santa partially came true, and Kelly gave every Christmas parent a hell of a lot more work to do.

The dice had Kelly’s back, and she solved all of the North Pole’s problems with only two lies and no scandals. It was statistically and fictionally ridiculous, but I couldn’t have asked for a better holiday special.

<3

Life, Death, and What Happens in Between

posted by Marc

I wrote Epitaph to be accessible to all sorts of players — people who’ve played a hundred story games, people who chose Epitaph as their first game, people who feel comfortable in the spotlight, and people who prefer to listen. My goal was to create something anyone could play. That’s why I designed the game the way I did. I want to talk a bit about what you do on your turn, after the setup steps are complete and it’s time to dive into the life, death, and legacy of the main character (the Departed).

On your turn

The timeline-building stage of the game lasts as long as you want; each round, players decide together if they want to play another round or go to the epilogue. When it’s your turn, you have your choice of making a Snapshot, Scene, or Remembrance.

A Snapshot is a summary of an event in the Departed’s life and a description of a single moment from that event, as though we’re looking through a photo album and telling little stories about the pictures we see. They are the most straightforward method for adding new events to the fiction because you simply say what you want to have happen and boom, it happened! 

A Scene is a role-played conversation between players that takes place during an event in the Departed’s life. Playing a Scene in Epitaph gives you a chance to hear the voices of the people you’ve been talking about and see how they interact with each other.

A Remembrance is an honest description of a shared experience given from the perspective of someone who knew the Departed. Remembrances are a truly special way to add detail to the Departed’s life, because they let you do something the other two moves don’t: be biased. You play as someone who knew the Departed and you talk about an experience you shared from that character’s perspective, which means you can throw as much shade or praise as you want.

Why it works

I believe Epitaph is a stronger game for having three possible moves on your turn instead of one. 

First reason? You always have a choice, and all three choices are meaningful. Unlike games where you complete setup steps and then do the same thing on your turn every time, Epitaph always presents you with three options. None is better or worse than another, and none becomes off-limits after use or stops being effective at some point during play. You can always do any of them, and you’ll always be adding to the fiction in a substantive way.

Second reason? Sometimes you’re just not in the mood to deliver an emotional monologue as the Departed’s ex-girlfriend, or play the scene where she came out to her parents. And that’s fine. Epitaph’s three-move structure accommodates varying levels of comfort and energy. Wherever you are at the moment your turn arrives, there’s a move to suit you. Just want to add something to the timeline, no questions asked? Snapshot. Want to set up a juicy scenario and then not be the Departed (that’s right–you don’t have the play the Departed in Scenes you create) and watch the sparks fly? Scene. Got some strongly-worded opinions of the Departed to share? Remembrance. Snapshots, Scenes, and Remembrances ask you to approach the fiction in different ways, leaving it to you to decide which feels best in the moment.

Third reason? Each option creates a different sort of fictional result, which makes your story round and robust. Snapshots allow you to build events from whole cloth, which is useful for “fleshing out” the timeline or when you want to make sure a certain thing happens a certain way. Scenes are exploratory; you won’t know what’s going to happen before they start, so you have a chance to be surprised. They’re also more personal because you hear the voices of the characters. Remembrances are a chance to expand your understanding of the social world your Departed inhabited. You gain insight that you can’t obtain through Snapshots and Scenes. 

Why I made it this way

I’ve played a lot of story games. I got into the hobby back in 2010 thanks to my wife Caroline (one of the very first things we did together after we met was go to Story Games Seattle, the local meetup) and haven’t stopped gaming since. My experience with many, many different game systems has helped me develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and so the design choices I made for Epitaph were intentional. They also took a lot of work and iteration–I’m not remotely capable of designing a great game on the first try! 

So why did I make Epitaph like this? The main reason is because it’s fun. I tried a version of the game where all you did on your turn was make Scenes, and the only difference between each type of Scene was when it happened. It was okay, but not particularly exciting. When I came up with the other two moves (after many laps around my office building on breaks), I knew I’d landed on something special. 

But there’s more to it than just entertainment value. I structured the game this way because of my backgrounds in teaching and story gaming.

As a teacher, I know the value of scaffolding–that is, putting supports in place to help students slowly and methodically reach new heights of understanding. I employ this same practice in story game design. If I ask you to come up with a piece of fiction–say, how the Departed died–it’s much easier to do if I give you a series of questions to guide you toward a good answer. That’s scaffolding.

I know I’m pretty outgoing and extroverted most of the time, and like I said, I’ve played a lot of tabletop RPGs. When I sit down at a table of strangers to play a story game–as I’ve done often as a facilitator at meetups and cons–I’m rarely anxious or uncomfortable thanks to my personality and level of experience. But I know others don’t feel the same way I do, and it was vital to me that I make the game accessible to all kinds of players. That’s why you get three choices of moves and each move lets you do different things: no matter what your level of comfort or experience is, you can contribute meaningfully to the story. You’ll never feel like the group is “carrying” you through the game. I want everyone who plays Epitaph to feel like they made the story just as much as anyone else at the table, and I hope the way I’ve set up the moves makes that happen. 

So there you have it: Epitaph, as she is played! I hope you’ll give the game a try and let me know what you think! 

Epitaph is on Kickstarter until October 6th!

 

Author / Actor / Audience

Posted by Marc

At any given time when you’re playing a story game–beyond the trappings of the setting, the characters, and the mechanics–you’re performing one of three functions: author, actor, or audience. Most games do not explicitly tell you this is what you’re doing, but nearly all include the roles in some form. Knowing how these functions work can improve your ability to scrutinize game designs, so let’s dive in and see what we can uncover. 

The Three Functions

You’re an author when you’re creating fiction. This includes things like making characters and locations, describing facts about the game world, and explaining what your characters do or how events happen. The plot of the story also falls under this umbrella. You’re exercising authorship whenever you decide the direction a story will go, such as when you have a character make a certain choice or when you bring a new situation into the game.

Authorship is foundational to story games. It is what makes them story games and not, well… just stories. When you read, watch, or listen to a story, you’re only the audience. If you read a script out loud with or for others, you can also be an actor while being the audience. But unless you write or create fiction yourself, you’re not an author.

You’re an actor when you portray a character. Most roleplaying games ask you to do this at least some of the time. Whenever the other players call you by a name that’s not your own, you’re probably acting in the role of a character from the story. Acting in this sense is improvisational, not scripted, and is much closer to “having a conversation” than “putting on a show”.

Strong acting skills are not generally a prerequisite for a successful story game. As I like to tell players when I’m introducing them to the hobby, “This isn’t improv theater. Nobody is here to judge your performance.” Your ability to portray a character isn’t the focus of the game, nor does it affect the outcome of the story. You can get away with a lot by saying things like, “And then the queen gives a rousing speech that inspires and motivates her army!”, thereby skipping the acting entirely. But you’re still called to act when you are asked to think like your character and say what they do.

You’re the audience when you observe and enjoy the unfolding story and the characters you’ve made within it. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re passively observing; as a member of the audience before a live performance, you have the ability to influence the outcome based on your reaction to what’s happening. Whenever you listen to the other players weaving new elements into the tapestry of your shared tale, you’re the audience. 

The audience role is essentially the default. If you’re not actively answering questions or making up new fiction, and you’re not portraying a character, then you’re the audience. You as a viewer have ideas and preferences for how the story might go, and while you cannot influence the direction of the story very much as the audience, you’ll have considerable ability to do so as soon as you take on one of the other roles again. 

Three Functions in Action

These three roles are neither static nor mutually exclusive. As you play a story game, you rapidly swap hats, often within a single scene or even a single sentence. This is where the magic happens: you can simultaneously be acting, authoring new fiction, and enjoying the contributions you and the other players are making. It’s a very special experience and one that, at least for me, makes story gaming compelling in a way few other mediums can match.

I’ll start with my own games as an example. The three functions appear in both Eden and the forthcoming Epitaph. In Eden, players are authors when they create the Garden and their characters, and when they decide how the Garden and its inhabitants change over time. In Epitaph, they’re authors when they work together to create the Departed, when they build Moments on the timeline, and when they dive into Snapshots, Scenes, and Remembrances.

Yet even as they author new fiction, players can also be actors. The line becomes insubstantial any time a player is portraying a character (or animal in Eden), because everything that character says and does is being invented at the moment the player says it–they’re writing the plane as they fly it, to twist a metaphor. This is one of the main things that sets story game roleplaying apart from stage acting–in a theater production, everyone knows what to say because they have a script. No scripts in story games! (unless it’s Daniel Wood’s My Daughter, the Queen of France, and even then the joy is in rewriting the “script” through iterative scenes)

The audience role is happening throughout play too. Every time it’s not your turn in Eden or Epitaph, you’re watching what the other players create and enjoying the new directions they take the story in. And even when you are in the midst of authoring or acting, you’re also watching yourself and thinking about your own contributions. If you’ve ever been suddenly struck with an idea for your next turn that’s so good you go, “Ooh!”, you know the feeling I mean: being excited about what you’ve just created is one of the richest joys of story gaming.

This is the most unique feature of tabletop roleplaying: the ability to be your own audience and to be thrilled by your own ideas alongside those of the other players. Good movies, good music, good books, all of these can stir powerful emotions in you–but you probably didn’t create them. You simply enjoyed them. With a story game, you can invent brand new things and then turn around and immediately admire what you’ve made. 

Taking It Further

When it comes to utilizing the three functions, most story games strike a balance, but certain games focus more on one than the others. For example, Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year does not have players roleplay as specific characters, so the acting function is downplayed and the authorship increased. In games like Jake Richmond’s Sea Dracula, acting and audience take the stage while the author function is minimized. This goes even further in LARPs with pre-built scenarios such as Jason Morningstar’s Juggernaut or Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu’s Sign. In these sorts of games, the emphasis is almost entirely on acting, as the creation of the characters and story is already complete before the game starts, with only a few details left up to the players. To be clear, players are still authoring the story–they’re just doing it with more constraints due to the already-existing fiction.

Most games don’t tell you when you’re engaging in one of these functions, but some do. The best example I can think of is Ben Robbins’s Follow. When resolving a Challenge, players are first asked to judge what the Fellowship is doing from the perspective of their main character. This is author and actor together, as players try to imagine what their character thinks and feels. Then we zoom out for our second choice: as a player, do you feel like the characters did what was needed to accomplish the Challenge? This is an author and audience level question, because you are examining the characters’ actions you’ve just invented to see if they meet some (admittedly arbitrary and fictional) standards for success. Follow explicitly asks you to step out of the story and think like an author, which I think is why this stage of play works so well: it draws your attention to your function and grants you space to examine what you’ve just made.

So where does all this lead? When it comes to game design, understanding these functions allows you to zoom out of the game a bit and analyze each step or phase. A talented designer is able to identify what they’re asking their players to do at each stage of play and tailor the rules accordingly. When you want your players to be authors, give them the tools they need to make choices that will create a better story. When you want them to be actors, give them the structure they need to step into that role as easily as possible. When you want them to be the audience, make it easy for them to enjoy that experience and focus on the story.

Let me give you a couple examples of good design choices that enhance players’ ability to fill these roles. In Caroline Hobbs’s Downfall, players are asked to come up with six Traditions within the culture of the game’s setting, the Haven. But instead of simply giving that instruction and letting players loose, Caroline lightens the creative load by having them choose culture ideas from a list, tie those ideas to the Flaw, and create the Traditions in two steps: behavior or belief first, then symbol second (but of another player’s culture item). This process makes authorship so much easier because it doesn’t ask players to come up with ideas completely out of nowhere.

Similarly, helping players with acting is important for any roleplaying game. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco does this with graceful simplicity. Each player receives a predefined Relationship with the characters to their left and right, and at least one pair of players also have a Need that both their characters share. These small details are actually critical to the game’s success, because they give players a baseline for how to act. “Talk about the crime you want to commit” is all well and good, but “talk about the crime, except you’re also bitter exes” is easier to step into because we as players know instinctively what kinds of things people with that sort of connection might say to one another. 

Overall, it’s not so important to be able to identify which function you’re filling while playing a game. But if you’re a game designer or are critiquing a design, it can be useful to identify which role players are being asked to step into and then analyze how the game’s rules support player success in that role. Does the game provide guiding questions or principles to help players be better authors? Does it give them clear frameworks for how to act when they’re called to role-play? Does it invite them to be better audience members by making it easy for them to focus on what’s happening and to “yes, and” what others have brought to the story? The process of refining a game’s design is never easy, but this framework of author / actor / audience can give you some terminology to help find your footing as you begin the journey.

The Farnsworth Problem

posted by Marc

It was October of 2010, and I was a rookie player at the Story Games Seattle meetup. Seated with me were three others–our facilitator Emily, and two fellow newbies named Pat and Shuo. The four of us cracked open Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco and chose one of the baked-in settings, the Old West. We rolled our dice, made our characters, and unleashed mayhem.

Several hours of laughter later, we parted ways with funny moments to cherish. Of particular note was the strange custom in our town of High Mesa: bar patrons would toast with one glass of whiskey, then smash it on the table and drink from a second glass instead. Our characters were a hilarious mix of scoundrels and marks, but one in particular deserves special mention: Dr. Farnsworth, a snake oil salesman who ended up wandering blind in the desert at the end of our story, the victim of his own hubris. When we left the table that night, none of us expected to see any of the weird rogues we’d invented again.

But six months later, Dr. Farnsworth returned.

It was another Story Games Seattle Meetup night in May 2011, and I sat down with my friends Pat and Shuo to play Fiasco again. This time we picked the Reconstruction setting, and as we revealed our characters, Pat dropped a bomb on us: he would be reprising his role as Dr. Farnsworth. We set the game one year prior to the events of our game in High Mesa in order to facilitate this. The doctor’s reappearance was not something we planned or expected… and it turned out great.

Some months after that, Pat, Shuo and I decided we’d had so much fun with our Reconstruction game that we wanted to play yet another round of Fiasco, but with the focus entirely on a younger Rhett Farnsworth (before he obtained his fake honorary title) as he became the scheming con man we knew and loathed. We set a date, gathered at a bar, and dove in.

And it sucked. We ended up quitting after just a few scenes.

Why did the game fail? It wasn’t the players–Pat, Shuo, and I were seasoned veterans by that point, having played dozens of story games over the preceding year. We knew what we were doing. It wasn’t the system–Fiasco is about as solid as a story game gets. Was Farnsworth so unlikeable that we couldn’t stand to keep the spotlight on him for that long? No, we’d worked to make him sympathetic and relatable as we set up the game, so it wasn’t that either. What, then? Why did our third game with this character bomb when our second was such a hit?

We’d fallen victim to what I call “The Farnsworth Problem”.

The reason the third game didn’t work was because we forgot one of the most important rules of story games: play to find out. When we started our second Farnsworth game, the inclusion of Farnsworth added value because the character was a nod to the past–a fun cameo–but he wasn’t the sole focus of the game. We’d put just as much effort into creating the other two characters, and the interplay between the old and the new led to a unique, unexpected story. Furthermore, there was still much of his tale unknown and untold. All we had set in stone was the fact that he survived to the end.

Contrast this with our third game, where we set out specifically to tell Farnsworth’s story. That would’ve been fine if we didn’t already know so much about Farnsworth, but the problem was this: we’d already played the game before we sat down to play. We had a checklist in our heads of what Farnsworth had to be, do, see, and become (based on everything we’d learned in the first two games), so there was very little room left for us to add anything new to his story. Telling his tale didn’t feel like creating new fiction as author/actor/audience. Instead, it felt like we were coloring in the margins of a painting that was already largely complete.

Playing to find out means walking into scenes and interaction without knowing how they’ll end. It means allowing your ideas for the story to be fluid, and being willing to let yourself be surprised by what others bring to the fiction. It does not mean being completely unaware of what will ultimately happen to the characters. In fact, many great games give you the ending up front (e.g. Downfall, Metrofinál, Microscope, my forthcoming title Epitaph) and ask you to play the parts leading up to it. This doesn’t ruin the story: it enhances it.

The Farnsworth Problem is, fundamentally, one of playing the game before you play the game. We knew everything we wanted to know about Farnsworth, so there wasn’t anything fun left to do with his story. Could we have found a way to make it work? Maybe. We could have tried doing what we did in the second game: create an interesting cast of other characters and tell their stories alongside Farnsworth’s. But even that might not have saved the game, because the constraints we put ourselves under in order to make Farnsworth’s story turn out how it was “supposed” to turn out were so limiting that we would’ve spent a lot of our time stopping the game to say “wait, that doesn’t work because he has to do XYZ”–which is what we did throughout our third game.

To avoid “pulling a Farnsworth”, be mindful of how much of your story you’ve already got mapped out in your head before you play. Is there a certain outcome you need to have happen? That can work if it’s broad (e.g the Hero fails), but the more specific the parameters, the less room there is for exploration, discovery, and surprise–the very things that make story games satisfying in the first place.

 

No Boundaries

“Dinosaurs are like lame dragons.”

“What?”

“That’s why they died! They didn’t have magic!”

“I don’t think that’s right. That doesn’t sound like real science.”

“We don’t want people reading science. Studies show: the more people read about science, the less they read about fantasy!”

-exchange between a fantasy-obsessed customer service rep and a mildly confused bookseller in a game of No Boundaries

Retail Hell

Back in July, I decided to take part in an annual event called Game Chef. This is a game design competition where participants are given a theme and four elements and must create an entirely new game based on those items—in just 9 days. I decided I had to give it a shot because… well, it started with a walk. Caroline and I were out strolling through our neighborhood and she mentioned that Game Chef was about to begin. I’d never tried it before, but had always been curious.

“What are the elements?” I asked.

“Yarn, smoke, cut, echo,” she said.

“And what’s the theme?” I continued.

“Borders,” she replied.

Yarn… smoke… cut… echo… borders… the words swirled in my mind, turning over and over, each one drifting into and out of focus as I pondered how I could weave them together into a cohesive whole… and suddenly, I knew what to do. How to make it all fit. How to push the theme to its limit and right over the edge.

So I made a game about a failing bookstore chain.

No Boundaries is a GMless story game for 3-5 players about dysfunctional relationships at work. You play as low-level employees of a bookstore called Boundaries Books & Cafe, and have “crossed the line” with the characters to your left and right in some way. The story takes place over a year as the suits at corporate try (and inevitably fail) to stave off bankruptcy; every three months, management implements a stupid new plan to “save” the company, which always goes awry. It’s a game about generally unstable people dealing with the slog of a low-paying retail or food service job, where every worker is little more than a replaceable cog in a slowly-rusting machine—funny, yet poignant.

As I said, I wrote this for Game Chef. I managed to play it twice within the nine-day design window, but when the day came to submit it… I forgot. Straight up forgot. Quite embarrassing! And perhaps fitting since it’s a game about incompetence…

Anyway, the game is available to download for free; give a try and let me know what you think!

Posted by Marc, who looked like this in 2008:

Coffee man-boy

yeaaaaah