10th of December: Puppetland


Oh, that wicked Mr. Punch!

Author/Designer: John Scott Tynes

From: The Indie Initiative Bundle

I heard about Puppetland game way, way back, when I first started looking into Indie Games. But alas, it was out of print, and I wasn’t into buying games in pdf.

Flash forward a great many years, and suddenly it popped up in a bundle. So of course I had to get that bundle, so that I could figure out what all the fuss was about.

In Puppetland, you play puppets in a land of puppets. The land was created by the Maker, the human who created all of the puppets, in order to keep all of the puppets safe. But the evil Punch killed the Maker, and took over as ruler of Puppetland.

Now Punch’s former lover, Judy, leads a resistance movement against Punch, while most of the puppets live in fear of the tyrant and his cruel minions. The players will play puppets in this world, trying to overthrow Punch and revive the Maker, so that all will be right again.

The game is a fair bit different than many other early Indie games. This may well be because it originated before the Indie movement really took of; apparently, the first draft of the game was created all the way back in 1995.

The rules of the game are deceptively simple. There are three:

The First Rule: A “tale” or session of the game lasts precisely one hour of real time. After that time, the game will end, and the Puppets will find themselves back in their bed again the next morning. Even if they died during the previous tale. During the hour the game lasts, you can narrate a far longer span of time in the fiction, simply by saying what amount of time elapses.

The Second Rule: When you sit down at the table playing Puppetland, what you say, your puppet says. Including “I reach for the rock to hit the Nutcracker with”. As such, all puppets will be continuously narrating their own actions: “I shall take this rock and hit that mean nutcracker over the head with it”. If someone must break character, they have to stand up from their chair – and ideally go over to the GM to whisper into his ear.

The Third Rule: Everything must be presented as if this was a story being told. This rule is mostly for the GM: The GM should always speak in the past tense, as if narrating a storybook. “The rock hit the nutcracker straight in the back of the head. ‘Crack’ said the nutcrackers head. Then he slowly fell forward and landed on the floor”. Of course, it also goes for the players, who should talk like characters in a storybook. That means that profanity is no good, while the morality of everything that happens is black and white: the good are good, and do nothing evil, while the bad guys are evil through and through.

Characters are created by selecting the kind of puppet (finger, hand, shadow or marionette), giving it a name, writing down what it is and what it can and cannot do, and drawing a picture of the puppet on the character sheet.

The overarching plot of the game is pretty well set – overthrow Punch and revive the Maker – but the individual tales could be anything: overcoming Punch’s minions, getting secret information, saving someone from Punch’s wrath or maybe interfering with Punch’s nefarious doings.

There is no system for combat, except what the GM deems a feasible outcome – bearing in mind that good should be able to carry the day in the end. Death is not usually final – at first. The 16th time a character dies, however, it will be for good.

My impression: Wow. This is a fascinating and disquieting game to read. The immediate impression is very cute and quaint – but when you dive into it, there is a really ugly side to this game. The minions of Punch – his boys are nasty creatures created from the flesh of the maker (!), and you can expect puppets to be tortured and murdered throughout the game for such heinous crimes as being unhappy.

The world of the puppets is described in just enough detail to make it both realistic and absurd. For instance, the puppets have to eat, which means sitting around, pretending to eat. Otherwise, they will grow hungry. The game is full of these quaint little details that give me a really good impression of the feel I’d want the game to have.

The rules… are weird, but I find them strangely charming. Even if they don’t give “proper” resolution mechanics of any kind, they steer the conversation, and give some general guidelines to provide the kind of story it wants. Dice or cards would get in the way, I think, particularly since there’s a limit on the time the game is allowed to take. Including a time limit is not only an unusual thing, I think it would be necessary in a game like this – it’s hard to maintain the kind of focus required to only speak in character for very long, but an hour should be fine. It also helps set the scope of each tale to roughly what could be covered in an evening’s bedtime story reading.

Speaking of that, the game has a conflict between silly children’s story and visceral horror. Where the tone ends up in any given group would depend a lot on the individual GM, and I expect the game to grow darker as the sessions go. I do not think of this as a children’s game, however.

Puppetland is not a game for everyone, but with the right crowd, I think this game could really shine. If you have someone who can relish both the humour and silliness of the puppets and the darker stuff underneath, you could tell some really interesting stories. Incidentally, I think this game has more players in common with Itras By than with Atomic Robo – it has some of the same surreal vibe and communal storytelling that Itras By also has, but not nearly as much action as Atomic Robo.

How would I use this: I would like to try this game out for a few sessions. I don’t think I would want to spend many evenings playing this game – but with hour-long sessions, you could squeeze one into an evening before a board game, or something of that kind.

It’s also a game I think I could play with new players who have a bit of an acting, storytelling or literary bent. Someone who might not want to roll loads of dice, but who can get behind the peculiar acting inherent in this game.

9th of December: Atomic Robo


Save the world with Action Science!

Author/Designer:Mike Olson et- at.

From: Bundle of Fate +3

Today, I’m taking a look at the Atomic Robo RPG from the Bundle of Fate +3. This was a difficult one to choose from – I was tempted to go with Baroque Space Opera instead, and Unwritten: Adventures in the Ages of Myst beckoned as well. But I’ve heard some interesting things about Atomic Robo, and so I decided to go with this instead. And by pure coincidence, this turned out to be a fun-house mirror image of Itras By from yesterday.

Atomic Robo is based on a series of comic books about the atomic robot, Atomic Robo. Robo was created by Nicola Tesla, and since his creator’s death, he has been in charge of a company building on all the super-science secretly invented by Tesla. And so today, Robo leads a band of Action Scientists going out to battle nefarious conspiracies trying to take over the world.

(What is an Action Scientist, you ask? The book has a good example to explain it: Imagine an archaologist, carefully excavating some site, or maybe dating potsherds in the lab. Now think of Indiana Jones, going on adventures, dodging traps and discovering mystical artefacts in remote locations. Action Scientists are to science what Indy is to archaeology.)

The Atomic Robo roleplaying game is built on the Fate system, with a few special quirks of its own. As in other Fate games, a character consists of a number of skills, some stunts and some aspects. Atomic Robo organises the skills in “Modes”, gathering a set of skills to do with the same type of actions. Each character has three modes at different levels (one Good, one Fair and one Average), choosing from the four Standard Modes (Action, Banter, Science or Intrigue) or creating or adopting a ready-made “Weird Mode”. Weird Modes are skill sets that are tailored to a concept beyond the generic Action Scientist mould of the gamer. Example Weird Modes include Robot, Dinosaur and Reporter (cause reporters are weird, man).

Stunts are ways your character can bend the rules of the game. The game recommends building stunts on the fly, and provides a list of sample benefits a stunt can provide, like a bonus to a roll or an exception to a rule. Weird Modes often provide mega-stunts that provide benefits beyond those of a regular stunt, but a mega-stunt also comes with drawbacks to counterbalance.

Finally, each character will have five aspects: one concept aspect (like “I am the atomic robot” or “Ape professor”), one aspect for each of the three modes, and finally an “Omega Aspect,” giving the character a direction or a goal. The concept aspect should be created before the game starts, but the other can be created during play. Each aspect gives you one Fate Point that allows you to influence the game. You gain more in different ways, including when you surrender a fight or when your aspects complicate things for you.

The GM version of this is the Budget and the Reserve. For each scene, the GM receives a certain budget of points to spend on making lives difficult for our heroes. When an NPC aspect is compelled, the GM gets a point into his “reserve”, to bring to bear in a dramatically appropriate scene.

Throughout the book, bits of the comic is used to illustrate aspects of the game. So when explaining the use of Compels, it shows a scene from the comic where Atomic Robo is compelled. This visualises the mechanics, and gives the book a lot of colour and interest.

My impression: This is in many ways the opposite of Itras By. Where Itras By allowed for a wide range of stories and characters, but did not really give enough guidance for how to do so, Atomic Robo gives a lot of guidance and step-by-step instructions on how to use the system, but it seems a bit narrow in the kinds of stories and characters you can play.

This may well be because the game is supposed to be a beginner’s introduction to Fate. The game seems tailored to helping both players and game masters get into the game as quickly as possible. For the players, there’s a quick and easy way to build characters that allows you to begin within twenty minutes. Saving the creation of advances, aspects and stunts for during the play allows the players to create mechanical elements for when they need it, and hopefully have a good sense of who each character is, and what they need to work. There is also a more in-depth mode of character generation, for when you want something a bit different.

For the GM, there are random “plot generators”, loads of useful advice (both generic and specific to Atomic Robo), plus the financial aspects of the Budget and the Pool. I think this might help inexperienced GMs to understand the game better. On the other hand, I think I might be annoyed at the restrictions inherent in the very mechanical way this is built.

The game has a very particular kind of story in mind, and has a couple of neat little sub-systems to assist that. First of all, the Brainstorm. This allows the players to come up with a hypothesis for something in the game – which is then true! It’s potentially a fun tool to putting some Science! into the game, and making players help give the world flavour.

Second of all, Tesladyne, the company the characters work for, has skills, and can be developed by the players. This is a great way of giving some cohesion to the game, and making everyone feel like part of something bigger

All in all, I like the game. In some ways, it feels a little like a modern version of Spirit of the Century, and I think it does a good job of capturing a certain kind of science fiction story. Also, it’s a very easy and accessible version of Fate, and I wouldn’t hesitate to hand this to an inexperienced GM, knowing the budgeting system and the other structures in the game would help them make a good game. Similarly, building characters with modes makes it very easy to create solid characters, without spending hours poring over lists of skills and stunts. Creating things on the fly means I could help players by saying “What do you want to achieve right now”, and then creating an aspect or Stunt in the moment.

On the other hand, it lacks some of the charm of something like Spirit of the Century. The more firm structure is also more rigid, and I suspect I might get frustrated with the ways the game wants me to run things. Also, I’m not sure I like the GM budget – while it’s a good way of helping new GMs make a balanced game for the players, I think I prefer fudging things when playing a relatively traditional game like Atomic Robo.

How would I use this: I would play Atomic Robo with a group of newbies, to introduce them to Fate, particularly if I ever teach adolescents again. I might also try taking it out for a spin if I ever wanted a one- or two-off game of enjoyable action to play with more adult players. On the other hand, I don’t think this would ever replace Spirit of the Century as my game of choice for silly, pulpy adventure fun.

8th of December: Itras By

08 GiaeverGudmundsen-ItrasBy

Wonderous adventures in the surreal city.

Author/Designer: Ole Peder Giæver & Martin Bull Gudmundsen

From: The Indie Sprimg Festival Bundle

I believe I first really heard about Itras By (Itra’s City) back in 2010, when Niels Ladefoged Rasmussen and Anne Vinkel (of recent The Good Roleplayer Must Die fame) wrote a scenario for Fastaval called The Boy and the City, which was set in Itras By. Also, I know one of the authors, Ole Peder, so I was curious to look at the game he’s made.

Itras By is inspired by the surrealism movement of the early 20th century. It takes place in Itras City, a wondrous place of (literally) bull headed people, vanishing streets and anarchists smoking cigars made from flakes of the sky. It’s a city of beauty and humour, but also of strife and tragedy.

The game presents you with a very open frame for creating your characters. You can be anything or anyone you want, from a beggar in the street to something akin to a god. Before you create your characters, though, the game tells you to talk with the group and come up with a concept for the characters, and for the campaigns. Are you a club of revolutionaries, the crew of a ship embarking upon a voyage, maybe bored rich youths out for adventure – or just a group of neighbours living in the same house?

Each character is made up, first, of a concept. This is similar to many other games, but even more important, as the rules place so few limitations on your character. You will then write a background, “dramatic qualities” (aspects that you will be able to bring to bear in dramatically loaded situations) “intrigue magnets” (that the GM will use to create plots you are interested in) and supporting characters connected to your character.

Resolution is done by drawing from a special deck of cards, giving results such as: “Yes, but… The character succeeds, but there’s a tiny detail that doesn’t go quite as planned.” Or: “No, but… The character fails, but another positive thing happens instead, unrelated to what she was aiming for.” It is then up to the GM and the players to interpret the card in the situation.

The game starts off with a long setting chapter, and finishes with several sample scenarios and sample campaigns, to give you a feel for how the game works. The prose of the book is very literary, quite poetic and a tad dreamy. The whole book is liberally sprinkled with some nice drawings of some of the weird creatures and places in the book.

My impression: The book of Itras By is a beautiful thing to behold. I’d almost wish I had a physical copy, just to be able to take it out and look at. It could almost serve as a coffee table book. The art style is very appealing, and helps underline the feeling of the book exceedingly well. Meanwhile, the layout of the book is pleasing, and also supports the mood of the book.

The setting, meanwhile, is equally wonderful. I am the kind of person who has bought many a role-playing book, not with any intention to ever use it for play, but simply to read the descriptions of the setting. The setting of Itras By is like that. Each section is wonderful, and filled with great ideas and inspiration. I would love to delve further into the setting.

Which brings me to the weak point of the book: the part where you actually sit down to play with the game. This whole part seems very vague, and doesn’t really give the reader the tools to create a good game of Itras By. To be fair, this is probably at least in part because they want to give the players as much freedom as possible to create the game they want in the setting.

On the other hand, when the game tells me to come up with a concept for a character, it gives me just one short paragraph to do this. Now, in a game like Vampire, that would be fine – the game has already given me several constraints to work within, like the clans of the game and the city the game is set in. But in Itras By, anything goes. That means that a lot more work goes into figuring out who and what you want to be. This doesn’t just go for character concepts – creating a campaign concept is left very vague as well.

The problems continue when we get into Dramatic Qualities. These are the only “crunchy,” mechanical bits of your character. But the game gives very little direction as to what you’re going for here. Anything can be a Dramatic Quality – or not, depending. Depending on what? On what you feel like! Well, how many do I get? Oh, as many as you like, but between one and four is a good number.

And then, once we have our characters and get into the actual play portion of the game, the vagueness continues. The whole chapter on playing the game is mostly filled with general roleplaying advice, like how to get into character and not to try to prevent interesting things from happening to your character. All of it is great advice, and I might well give those pages to anyone playing any kind of roleplaying game – not least traditional games like Vampire or Unknown Armies. But it doesn’t really tell me how playing Itras By is different from any of those other games. The game does put a lot of emphasis on improvisation, which is not commonly found in other traditional games. On the other hand, it’s still not really something special about Itras By.

The resolution mechanic is probably the most innovative thing about Itras By, in all its simplicity. The resolution cards are simple and easy to use, but it seems like they give a lot of fodder to the story. It’s a really clever way of introducing very nuanced input to the story, without just going into different degrees of success. A “Yes, and…” result is radically different from a “Yes, but…”, and gives the players and GM some good cues for how to adapt it to the story. It also focuses on the story-based, improvisational nature of the game.

The game also comes with some “Chance Cards,” allowing you to introduce some randomness into the game. These look interesting, though I’m a little worried they might not always be beneficial to the game. I’d have to see them in play to pass judgement – it’s certainly an interesting concept, and if the group can handle them, I think it could be a great boon for a game.

From the above you might conclude that I dislike Itras By. That is not the case. I’m intrigued by the game, and I can see the possibilities for some great games in this city, using these rules. But I would have liked some more guidance for both the players and the GM, to ease them into the world of surrealistic roleplaying. As it is, I would love to play this game with players who have played a good number of Story Games and Indie rpgs before, people I know will be able to spin good stories within the loose framework of the game. On the other hand, I would not give this book to players who are not used to communal storytelling – that might well lead to disaster.

How would I use this: I would love to play a short campaign of a few sessions of this. I think this game would be very well suited to campaigns of a limited span, exploring one main storyline. On the other hand, I don’t think I would want to do a campaign with no agreed end-point – I don’t think the structure would hold up to long-term play.

7th of December: A Penny For My Thoughts

07 Tevis-PennyForMyThoughts

Remembering other people’s lives

Author/Designer: Paul Tevis

From: The Bundle of Holding +2

Today I’m bringing you a game from the very first bundle I got from Bundle of Holding: The Bundle of Holding +2. I think Monsterhearts was what persuaded me to get that bundle, but that’s not the game I want to talk about today. Instead, I’ve taken a look at A Penny For My Thoughts, a game I remember Oliver talking about back when we were playing Indie games together when we lived in Aarhus. I’ve never played it, though, which is why I decided to read through it for today. The game is a product of the Game Chef competition, an annual design challenge, where participants are asked to design a game based on a number of ingredients, in this case “memory”, “drug”, and “currency”.

A Penny For My Thoughts is a game about memory and personal stories. In the game, you play a group of amnesiac patients who have been administered a dose of a drug that allows you to see each other’s memories. The idea is that the others are free of the emotional trauma that caused the amnesia, and as such can get into the memories that the person are shutting out.

In the game, you write a number of “Memory Triggers” – brief phrases that will spark a memory. Everybody writes a number of triggers and put them all in a hat, a tin or something similar. Then, on your turn, you draw a trigger and read it out loud. You will then ask each of the other players in turn to ask you a “guiding question” – a yes or no question about the memory, to which you must answer, “Yes, and”, and then elaborate on the answer.

When you are done asking questions, you will narrate the memory. There’s a catch, though: you are free to narrate other characters and the world around you, but whenever you take considerable action yourself, you must ask two other players: “What did I do or say then?” Each of them will give you an option for what you did, and you must choose one of them, giving that player a penny from a little stash in front of you. When you are out of pennies, the memory is finished, you wrap it up, and take one penny from a central stash.

Then the player with the most pennies (sort of – there’s a more complicated rule I won’t explain here) takes the next turn. This continues until each player has done three memories. At that point, the game is over, and each player will decide whether to retain their pennies – and their memories – or give back the pennies, going back into amnesia.

Most of the book is written from the point of view of the doctor administering the drug, explaining to the patients how to carry out the procedure they are about to undergo. The game text is designed to be read out loud while playing, such that you can pick up the book and play with very little preparation. The last chapter of the book is written from the author’s point of view, giving some advice and explaining the inspiration and design process of the game.

The game is intended to be played in a realistic, present-day setting, and in the appendices, there is a “Facts & Reassurances” sheet to that effect. “Facts & Reassurances” is the game’s way to coordinate expectations about setting and tone, to avoid clashing visions causing a problem for the players. The game does provide other versions of “Facts & Reassurances”, allowing for instance a Bourne Identity style secret agent game, or a game of Lovecraftian investigators in an asylum.

My impression: First off, I want to mention the tone and layout of the game. It is designed to look like a case folder, and the tone of the doctor comes through quite strongly. On one hand, this is a bit silly. On the other hand, it sets the mood for the game, and I think it will help ease the players into the game very nicely.

The game itself is clearly heavily inspired by improvisational theatre (something Tevis himself acknowledges). I’ve done some improv myself, and I recognise many of the moves that the game uses. Drawing cues from a hat and getting heavy prompting from others are both ways that improv helps participants get into the scenes. This seems like a very good way of doing a game like this, as it effectively stops the players from planning, and instead gets them into the flow of the story. The storyteller knows as little as the other players about where the story is headed.

On the other hand, this may also be a turn-off for many players who like more control. And while I think it might be good for them to learn how to relinquish control and go with the flow, a game that rotates so heavily on that mechanic needs players who can accept that premise for the game.

All said, I like a lot of things in this game. It would seem the game has some very sound mechanics that give good support to storytelling, and teaches some good habits that could be good to have in other games.

I’ll be honest, though. While I like the game, and would be perfectly happy to play it, it doesn’t really get my blood flowing. I think part of that is not having experienced the game in full flow. But part of it is also the way the game seems a little like an exercise, and not quite as much as a game. I’d have to try it to really pass judgement on it.

How would I use this: I would love to give this game a try, just to see how it works. I would prefer to do it with some players I know to be good storytellers, though, as I’d be worried the game would drag with players who are not comfortable with this way of storytelling.

On the other hand, I could also see myself using this game as part of a storytelling or writing workshop. The game aims at fining the emotional content of a scene and making problems for a character, and could be a good exercise in writing potent scenes. Also, you could definitely use the game as the basis for a short story, or even for a novel.

6th of December: Cthulhu 101

6 Hite-Cthulhu101

(Almost) everything you wanted to know about Cthulhu, but was afraid to ask (and understandably so).

Author/Designer: Kenneth Hite

From: The Bundle of Tentacles

This is from a bundle of cthulhoid gaming stuff, including several eldritch and tenebrous little games. But I didn’t need to spend untold aeons to ruminate over which game to pick. See, I have spent many an unquieting evening engaged in Cthulhuvian roleplaying – and I’ve even read several stories in the blasphemous world imagined by H. P. Lovecraft and his disciples. But I’ve always felt a little bit like an impostor. There is such a large backstory to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, and I’ve never been quite sure which dark and horrifying tome to turn to first. Well, never fear, Kenneth Hite is here with this handy little introduction to the wonderful world of Lovecraft.

The book is 130 pages, but it feels much shorter. The pages are small and the writing large, and peppered throughout by cute little drawings of Cthulhu, Lovecraft and other, related characters. It’s divided into bite-sized pieces. Some answer important questions such as “Who is Cthulhu?”, “What happens in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’?” and “What’s the deal with August Derleth?”. Many others are lists of things, like “10 things things H.P. Lovecraft liked”, “10 things H.P. Lovecraft did not like” and “14 wrong ways to spell ‘Cthulhu’”. Hite has also included lists of some of the best stories by H.P. Lovecraft, best stories not by Lovecraft (featuring and not featuring Cthulhu), as well as cthulhoid films, games, comics et cetera.

My impression: I went into this book expecting a primer on Cthulhu mythos, and that’s pretty much what I got. As a matter of fact, it might even be a bit too basic – I don’t feel like I learned too much new stuff, and I would have liked a little more on the parts of the Mythos that is not directly related to the Big C himself. What about the Dream Cycle, for instance? Or maybe a little about the philosophical underpinnings of Lovecraft’s work?

On the other hand, I was well entertained throughout the book. The book is clearly meant to be entertaining, and it is witty and polemic throughout. At the same time, I did learn a number of things about Lovecraft, his writings and the writers he inspired. It is clear that Hite has a knowledge and great passion for the Cthulhu mythos, and his views and opinions often shine through.

As such, this might be more of a Cthulhu appetizer than a “Cthulhu for Dummies”. That’s not such a bad thing, though – the world of Lovecraftian fiction and games can be difficult to penetrate, and this provides for good and enjoyable introduction for the beginner, while at the same time providing more experienced Cthulhuoids with a nice brush-up on the genre.

How would I use this: If I had bought this book as a physical book, instead of getting it as a pdf only, I might well have put it next to the loo – it seems the perfect format for a toilet book, with nice, bite-sized chunks. As it is, I am most likely to use the hit-lists of stories and films, to find out what to seek out first in my quest to gain proficiency in Lovecraft. And if I am ever playing Call or Trail of Cthulhu, or something similar, with people who are unfamiliar with Lovecraft, I might well hand them this.