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.