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

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

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.

 

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

Curiosity killed the dog and other games: Downfall at PAX 2016

Posted by Caroline

One of my favorite things about story games is sharing them with strangers. It’s the main reason I look forward to playing Games on Demand at PAX. It’s amazing how creative and friendly people are during con play, and how quickly we go from feeling like strangers to feeling like co-conspirators, making something awesome together.

Oh and the added bonus was that Downfall was super popular–14 games played in total!

I ran three sessions of Downfall during the con, and had a fantastic time with each of them. Here’s a brief run-down of my games.

Continue reading Curiosity killed the dog and other games: Downfall at PAX 2016

A snake is a snake.

Played a great game of Eden at PAX West!

My character (Hosanna) had roadrunner as her favorite animal, and the other players chose armadillo (Seline) and snake (Sam). There was just one snake, but many armadillos and roadrunners. Each of us focused on something different during our game: for Hosanna, it was all about building paths throughout Eden. Sam wanted to understand why snake said spiders were evil, but other animals and humans didn’t feel the same way. Seline, after an encounter with a bald eagle in which the eagle said she was only good for food, wanted to figure out her purpose, and how to prove to the eagle that she wasn’t just prey. All of this resulted in Seline beating up Hosanna for trying to build a path through Seline’s oasis, and Hosanna leaving Eden without ever seeing the bridge Seline built as an apology for her violence. Very tragic.

What I found so great about this game were a few things: for one, we played fast scenes, which really moved the story along. Updating the map each round made it feel like Eden was changing with us, so that was great too. We also interacted with one another frequently, in both cooperative and combative ways. But my favorite element of the game was something of a revelation for me: I love seeing characters come to the realization that they are not their favorite animal. It’s kind of the whole point of the game, really! Your character either becomes more human, or becomes more like their favorite animal. This played out beautifully with Sam, who, in a last-ditch effort to gain insight, brought snake and a spider-loving human together and demanded they explain themselves. Both continued to exhibit all their worst traits, and finally, in a moment of insight, Sam dropped one of my favorite lines from any game of Eden so far.

“A snake is a snake. A spider is a spider. But I am not a snake or a spider. I… am Sam.”

-Marc

Are you part of the tribe?

Thursday, June 23 @ Story Games Seattle

Players: Marc, Alex, Evan, Tim

Our game began with the creation of a map of Eden. Tim chose chameleon as his animal, and placed them in a jungle. Evan selected termites and drew a devoured forest with termite mounts. Alex picked dragon as his favorite animal, and created a deadly swamp where the beast lived. I chose meerkat as my animal, and drew a dusty savannah for the meerkats to inhabit. We then added a few more creatures and details to our map: a river and lake with salmon, some elephants in the savannah, some leeches in the swamp, and a phoenix on some mountains near the forest. Next we added the wall, which was made of massive (like 50 ft diameter) steel beams. The Nod Gate was a corrugated steel door with a handprint scanner (not that our innocent characters knew what that was, but we did).

Next we made our characters. I played Iah, a young woman who knew how to watch for danger and believed that we should educate others for their own benefit. Tim was Sisera, a woman who knew how to hide in plain sight and thought that we shouldn’t let others see our weakness. Evan was Orpha, a man who knew how to build with wood and thought that we should rely on our friends, and Alex played Othniel, a young man who knew how to traverse the swamp and believed we should trust others to be strong for themselves.

The story got underway with Iah asking meerkat for help. Iah was upset because Sisera had kicked her out of a hiding place when they were being attacked by the dragon. The meerkats suggested that because Sisera had caused harm to a member of her “tribe”, she was no longer fit to be a member of the tribe, and had to be dealt with. This one conversation led to big changes in Eden. While Orpha, Othniel, and Sisera each tried to make amends for things they’d done wrong to one another, Iah began a recruitment campaign for “the tribe”, starting with Seth, Namah, and Kish (secondary characters). She managed to get most of the humans, the dragon, some meerkats, and the phoenix to join, which resulted in the dragon killing the non-tribe human, Namah. This outraged Orpha, who was her friend, and he attacked Iah, leading her to retaliate. Orpha – “We have to kill the dragon, because he killed my friend!” Iah – “She wasn’t in the tribe, so she wasn’t your friend!”

After all was said and done, Orpha had been thrown out of Eden, Othniel and the dragon spent more time together, Sisera had gone into hiding with the chameleons, and Iah ruled the tribe, with the heads of anyone who wasn’t a member on spikes around the fire pit.

A really solid session. I’d made a change to the rules that has players quickly jot down some secondary character names at the game’s outset for use later, and having those available was really handy. It allowed us to easily introduce (and remember to create) other humans besides our player characters, which is what I wanted it to do. A fantastic game all around.

-Marc