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

Bonus Downfall Elements

It’s been a few years since Downfall hit the shelves, and since then countless worlds have risen and fallen through your stories.

One of the things I’m still most happy about is the rich and interesting worlds people create. Each session brings something totally new and unexpected. With that in mind, I mixed together some extra elements to freshen up Haven creation. I hope they bring something new to your fun; after all, the most important element of Downfall is you. <3

bonus elements

Download and print!

Posted by Caroline

Playing Eden with a kid is rad

“…so to settle the argument, our characters have a footrace. But I cheat and get way ahead! You’re just sitting there crying, and then one of your wolf friends comes up and starts taunting you: ‘What? You’re gonna let her win? You’re just gonna quit?’ So you get up and start running harder, and you win the race!” – Mom 

“What I learned from this is to… channel my anger to get more power!” – Kid

Played such an awesome game of Eden last night at Story Games Olympia. Three new players, all pretty new to story games, all strangers to me, and one of them was a nine-year-old girl! We don’t get many kids at our local story games event, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect as we sat down to begin. But I wasn’t too worried, because when I’d pitched the game earlier, the girl’s eyes lit up at the mention of talking animals that are your friends.

All three players BROUGHT IT. Seriously, such a good game. I’ll skim a few of the highlights:

  • Having somehow deleted the PDF from my iPad accidentally, I had to run the game from memory… which was actually fine and really nice, because it helped me express the rules as plainly as possible.
  • The girl chose snow wolves as her animal. But they lived in “something between a jungle and the Olympic rainforest, kinda warm, but not hot” which was also on a mountain apparently? So not a lot of snow, but some snow? Doesn’t matter, awesome choice. Our other animals included horses (the girl’s mom), giant rabbits (our other player), and sharks (me).
  • Such juicy animal gossip! Miranda (the girl’s character) prided herself on running fast—that was her skill, gleaned from the wolves. But the rabbits said Miranda didn’t really run very fast at all, actually. Dang! Sick burn, rabbits!
  • In their first scene, Miranda and Quitsal (the mom’s character) encountered each other in the brushlands. What followed was the most economics-focused, wheeling-and-dealing round of play I’ve ever seen, as the pair began making offers and counter-offers for permission to cross the brushlands—“Okay, you’ll bring me barley once a month to this place on the edge of the land if I let you take six apples?” “No, I’ll bring you oats, and not monthly, and I want ten apples!”
  • Our fourth player had her character, Ren, leave Eden in his first scene. Straight up gave in to the siren song (literally; The Gate played music, which got louder as you opened it more) and walked out. This action caused huge ripples throughout Eden and set the tone for the rest of our game. Super cool choice.
  • When updating the map after Ren’s departure, the girl added a lush and perfectly-sculpted garden to the map. “The changes have to be related to the story,” I explained, “so how did this new garden get here?” “I dunno,” she said, “but it appeared when Ren left, so it has to do with The Gate opening.” Whoa. That’s some rad magical biz.
  • Near the end of the game, my character Chael had captured a secondary character, David. Miranda and the alpha wolf from her pack were waiting as I dragged him down to her. “What do you know about the earthquake?” Miranda demanded. David pleaded ignorance, saying he was just as confused as everyone else. They talked a bit longer, and then Miranda snapped, “I’ve heard enough. Take him away!” Chael gripped him harder. “Should I kill him?” she asked. “No,” Miranda replied, “let’s bring him back to the forest. I have more questions first.” Threat of violent interrogation? CHECK.

Our map

This game, aside from being great, also proved to me definitively what I’d only known in theory: Eden is a good game to play with kids! I never felt like our young player was holding us back, and her ideas (and enthusiasm for them) kept me engaged and excited throughout the entire game. So let me end with a shout-out to you, nine-year-old Eden player! You (and your mom, and our fourth player) rocked The Garden last night!

Posted by Marc

“Hi, I’m a trout…? I’m trout.”

Recently, my friends and I shot a video of us playing Eden. It was a ton of fun (and a ton of work) to edit it down to a reasonable length, and unfortunately, compressing a three-hour game into 11 minutes means a lot gets left out. So I thought I’d take a moment to fill in some gaps and talk about my favorite parts of that game.

“There’s bears peeking around every rock!”

The starting point for every game of Eden is the map, and ours was rad. We had a river, a swamp, some mountains, and a jungle. I mean, look at that frog on a lily pad. That’s a sweet lily pad.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-12-43-17-pm

“The fire ants say you’re a dirty thief.”

A key part of setup is the animal gossip (which you see a clip of in the video), and in this game, the animals had a lot to say. Animal gossip was what got my character angry at Feiya’s character in the first place (the first scene you see in the video).

Each character in the story had their own arc, more or less. Fu Hao, played by Feiya, was best friends with the lone raccoon in Eden, who followed them everywhere. Feiya tried to mostly keep Fu Hao out of trouble, but trouble kept finding Fu Hao anyway! The grumbly yet playful raccoon taught Fu Hao to steal, which didn’t help their reputation around the Garden—but all Raccoon wanted was to have beautiful things! The only person Fu Hao really got along with was Pat’s character, Lamech, who spent most of his time with the single catfish who lived down in the marsh. Catfish was an easygoing bottom-feeder, and had taught Lamech to eat just about anything, so Lamech routinely snacked on butterflies in the meadow as well.

Butterfly 1: “Do you ever think that there’s something more than just pollen and nectar?” 

Butterfly 2: “… No.”

Meanwhile, Ben’s character Amina and her friends—the cute and lazy bears—were plotting to catch and eat catfish. Ben pushed this hard, recognizing quickly that the capture of catfish was not the exciting part of the story, but the lead-up and aftermath. Because the marsh where catfish lived was too hard to navigate, Amina and the bears planned to dam the river that fed it, slowly reducing the water level until the catfish had nowhere else to run. Ben knew it would be more fun to bring more people into the bears’ scheme, so he enlisted the help of another human in the Garden… my character Mahlon. Mahlon and her fire ants, obsessed with organization and perfection, were busy building a dome around their ant mounds when Amina managed to convince Mahlon to come work on the dam instead. So Mahlon did, and slowly but surely, the water drained away.

“This isn’t just any fish! Would you please introduce yourself?”

My absolute favorite part of the game came next. Lamech, desperate to stop the ecological destruction of his friend’s home, tried to convince the clueless bears that fish were sentient and therefore should not be eaten. Feiya’s portrayal of the trout was priceless—their anxiety about being eaten, coupled with the bears inability to conceive of trout having feelings, led to disaster, which Pat (as Lamech) and Ben and I (as bears) milked for all it was worth. Lamech knew the only way out was to try to carry catfish to the nearby hippo pond—hence the scene you can see in the video.

Overall, what I loved about this game is the same thing I love about every good game of Eden: the animals giving terrible advice, and/or the humans coming up with terrible lessons based on the advice. The players have to decide to misinterpret the animals (or not), and when they do, the results are sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant.

The glorious gamers

Many thanks again to my players Ben, Pat, and Feiya, and of course the final player that you didn’t see (but can hear once or twice in the video if you listen real carefully!), Caroline! She filmed the entire thing. ON HER BIRTHDAY. She is a true hero, now and forever. Thanks everyone!

Eden is on Kickstarter until November 10th! 

-Marc

“You aren’t an otter”

When Marc and I started talking about art for Eden, we decided to make the animals central. Your character’s favorite animal is perhaps the most important choice you make in the game, so it was natural that they be the focus of the art.

Here’s a glimpse of the art that will be appearing in the game!

bears

Polar bears have been my favorite animal from the moment my parents gave me a stuffed polar bear whom I very cleverly named Bearie (somehow short for blueberry. My first pun!). Nowadays polar bears fill me with happiness, but also with a sense of loss. Loss of childhood and loss of the animals themselves. I liked this composition with two bears under a strange sky, which I wanted to feel like a time-lapse of the stars under an aurora.


chameleon

After I played a game in which someone’s favorite animal was the chameleon, I really had no choice but to include this little guy in the book. Hide! Blend in! Always look around you for cues how to look and behave! I feel like humans have a lot in common with chameleons. In this picture he has so much color and beauty, but still he’s trying to stay unseen.


otters

I used to have an awesome t-shirt with otters on it from the Monterey Bay aquarium. It seriously ruled, and I’m sorry that I don’t still have it. In recent months I’ve been a bit obsessed with seeing a wild otter (I <3 Washington!), but I haven’t had any luck yet. Otters are social but shy. I wanted to show that dynamic by having two otters in the piece, looking at you like you don’t belong. You aren’t an otter, why are you intruding?


falcon

This one is Marc’s favorite! When you choose your favorite animal in the game you decide if there’s one or many of that animal. Both are interesting choices, but when there’s only one of an animal it sometimes makes me feel like it must be lonely. We played a game of Eden where there was a single falcon. It was wise and fierce and loyal, but ended up being left behind by its human companion. Once a character leaves the garden, they can’t return. I like to think this falcon is thinking about its missing human.


serpent

When Marc first started developing Eden, there was an animal that was always in the garden: the serpent. He offered the humans of the garden temptations to do wrong. Over time, Marc realized that having the serpent trick people into wrongdoing was much less interesting than people making mistakes on their own. So the serpent was nixed from the rules. That doesn’t mean that your favorite animal can’t be a snake though. Here we see a human who just got in a fight with her friend. The serpent is helping her calm down after a good cry, telling her that she should have never trusted another human—they’re all treacherous.


As one of the reward levels on the Eden Kickstarter, some lucky backers are going to get an original print of an animal of their choice. Here’s a peek into what the process looks like.

I stared by choosing several animals that I was interested in, then coming up with compositions for them on paper. Then I transferred the images to lino-blocks using a matte medium. You have to use specific ink to make this work, and the stuff that Kinkos prints on was perfect. Once the paper dries, you can remove the paper pulp while leaving the ink by using a little water and some patient friction (my new band name). Then 3 hours and a sore wrist later and you have a printing block!

When I got the images totally carved, I used an oil-based ink to create the print on a luxuriously soft archival paper. Once the ink dried (about 24 hours) I was able to use watercolors to add color. There was a lot of trial and error with inks and paints, but I ended up very satisfied with the results. Despite being a lot of work, I’m really looking forward to doing a few more pieces!

Posted by Caroline