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. 

1500x500

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).

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!

 

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

What is Eden?

I’ve posted a summary of a session of play, and there’s a Google+ group you can join, but perhaps the most obvious question still needs answering: what exactly is Eden?

Eden is a storytelling game about talking to animals and learning of good and evil. During the game, players collaboratively draw a map of the Garden of Eden, create human characters who live there, and role-play scenes as those characters, in which they interact with the animals and other humans. There is no GM, and players all share control of how the story turns out. The game is made for three to five players, and is meant to be played in a single session of two to three hours. The game is played in essentially three phases: Map the Garden, Create Characters, and Explore Eden. A typical tabletop during the game will look something like this:

Eden materials
Materials from a game of Eden

That’s just about the most basic summary I can offer. Now let’s dive into a couple of the game’s core mechanics for a closer look at how everything works.

The Map of Eden

The heart of the world you’ll explore during the game is the map. You create the map together, taking turns describing and drawing the various lands of Eden on it. Eden is a supernatural paradise, which means you can have a frosty glacier nestled cozily beside a tropical beach if you like. Animals abound in The Garden, but you’ll only select a few to focus on; in fact, your first choice of the whole game is which animal will be your character’s favorite. This choice is critically important, and I’ll be doing a post in the future about how this choice affects gameplay.

Here’s an example of a map from a game of Eden:

A map from a game of Eden
A map from a game of Eden

As you can see, this map has a lot going on! We’ve got a beach and ocean area, some rolling dunes, a rocky cliff, a savannah, a flowering garden, and a forest with a lake. There are bunnies, elephants, a shark, hummingbirds, and other animals visible. You may be wondering about the line of circles all the way around: that’s The Wall, which surrounds and constrains the Garden of Eden. The only way out is through The Gate, which you can see in the upper right corner. All three players in this game contributed to this map, which makes it a truly collaborative effort.

Character Creation

Making characters is Eden is very straightforward. Your character will be a young adult, innocent and naive, barely cognizant of good and evil. They have a favorite animal, a skill they learned from that animal, and a moral lesson they’ve acquired through observing or talking to their favorite animal. You’ll also have a relationship with the characters on either side of you, based on helping and harming each other. The way you create these skills, lessons, and help/harm connections is narrative; everything you say about your character is supported by fiction, so the whole process is interactive and full of unexpected surprises.

Playing Scenes

After mapping Eden and making human characters, the rest of the game is devoted to playing scenes. Each character gets one scene per round, and then everyone updates lessons. That’s it! The scenes themselves follow certain guidelines: for example, your scene must shine the spotlight on your character. A great part of the game is playing as animals in other people’s scenes–being a talking animal is just fun, and I often surprise myself with what I end up saying or doing in that role. Scenes generally alternate between asking your favorite animal for help, and trying to apply your lessons to your interactions with other humans, often with mixed results.

So where can I get the game?

Look for Eden on Kickstarter this Fall!

Oh, and as an addendum to the game in the photos… sharks are super wise.

-Marc

Downfall Wins Award for Best Setting

I’m so excited to announce that Downfall received the Indie Groundbreaker Award for Best Setting this week at GenCon! Wahoo!

To me, the award being given to Downfall highlights that it’s players that bring worlds to life. After all, I didn’t make the setting, you do that every time you play. Because, really, Downfall’s setting is created each game—by the players at the table. So this award goes out to all you gamers! Keep making those awesome worlds. <3

Head over to IGDN to see the complete list of winners! And congratulations one and all!

-Caroline

Groundbreaker2016-586x600

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

Downfall nominated for Golden Geek award

pic1518161_md

Downfall has created quite a splash since its release earlier this year!

First off, the game was nominated to be 2015 Golden Geek RPG of the Year! This award, bestowed by the well-known gaming website RPG Geek, is part of their 10th Annual Golden Geek Awards. We’re honored to be nominated alongside so many other great titles from the past year.

 

In other news:

If you don’t have a copy of Downfall yet, you can buy a PDF or print copy right here on our website!

One Missed Call around the web

One Missed Call banner

Our game One Missed Call has received a couple mentions around the web.

You can download One Missed Call for free by clicking here. Give it a try with a friend!

Downfall around the web

Caroline’s game Downfall has received a lot of buzz. Check it out!

Downfall is available now in PDF and print!