Thursday, March 10, 2016

Questlandia: RPGs I Like

Have you ever seen Hardware Wars? When I was a kid, it was the height of hilarity. A cobbled together parody of Star Wars, moments from it stick with me. In particular when Darph Nader (Vader) confronts Augie Ben Doggie (Obi-Wan). As they’re about to duel, Fluke and company shout for Ben to follow them. He lamely gestures at them, “No, no, I’ll be alright. You go ahead.”

The rest of the heroes walk away muttering: Martyr, martyr, what a martyr.

I had a moment like that playing Questlandia, where my character angled for final martyrdom…and it felt cool, but in the back of my mind I still heard Princess Leia going, “What a martyr.”

That’s apropos of nothing, except how your head gets in the way of playing, especially in Story Games with open opportunities. Questlandia has those, married to a mechanical system which slowly ratchets up the tension.

Questlandia is a 100-page Story Game centered on a collaboratively created kingdom. I’d only seen the cover and heard the name before we played. I assumed it felt like Kingdom; the cover looked light and shiny. But it wasn’t that. The subtitle- “A game of ill-fated kingdoms”- reveals the truth. Questlandia’s a darker and more complex game than I’d assumed.

WHAT IT IS
In Questlandia players create a kingdom & characters populating it. They then play out the doomed descent of this realm. There’s an interesting shift back and forth between narrative sequences and hard choice resolutions. The crunchiest part of the mechanics create a death spiral for the world.

Kingdom building isn’t entirely freeform. Instead the players have to figure out how to place elements delivered by random generators. Each kingdom has a single ambition, but multiple troubles. The group draws six playing cards to generate the latter based on suits (e.g. Hearts= sickness; Spades= war). That means a kingdom may already be heavily beset by a crisis if multiples come up. We had a nice spread in our game, but I imagine it would have felt much different if we’d drawn four Clubs and had to handle massive civil unrest.

With those details in mind, players add elements in turn to the kingdom: physical, cultural, political, etc. After this comes a naming phase and the assignment of element ownership (something I’ll come back to). Once the group has defined all of this, they can talk about how those pieces fit together.

Like kingdom building, character creation isn’t entirely freeform. Cards are drawn and placed on the table, each with a rolled die. This combination gives an identity, determines drive, and says if the character has good or bad luck. Players take turns picking which a card. Each then selects two traits and one weakness from lists provided. Next, after describing their character to the group, each player defines two relationships with other PCs. Finally players describe a Goal and an Obstacle facing their character. With all of this established, players created a map. The group handles this by setting established locations on the map or adding new ones. That completes the setup.

In turn players become the Protagonist and set a scene for their character. They establish a goal for the scene, checked during the scene resolution. The protagonist narrates what’s happening and can call in other characters. But all the non-protagonist players serve as the Opposition. They put obstacles in the protagonist’s path.  These players move back and forth between this omniscient role and playing NPCs as well as their PC. At some point the protagonist calls for resolution. They have complete control and can even move to resolution immediately. At this point the game moves to a dice mechanic for determining the scene’s results.

Scene resolution has the protagonist rolling at least two white dice, with others possible for traits, circumstances, and beyond. The opposition rolls three red dice, with more based on the situation. The opposition puts forward their three best dice and the protagonist matches those with their two best. At least one opposition die will almost always remain unchallenged. Higher numbers win and then these trigger effects, selected by checking those values on a chart. These can boost the protagonist, heal relationships, or do various good stuff. On the other hand, opposition victories generate harm, bad stuff, and possibly push the kingdom’s doom forward. After these matches and calculations, the group adds narration to explain what happens. Then the next player becomes the protagonist.

Questlandia ends when everyone has taken three turns as the protagonist. In the final round, the opposition becomes even stronger. An epilogue caps the experience. In this phase, players in turn may narrate one fact based on positive and negative currency accumulated throughout the game.

Those rules and their accompanying examples take up most of the book. The last several pages offer alternate rules, FAQs, and reference tables.

WHAT’S AWESOME?
Maps: I loved the map-making process. I’m glad it came after we’d already established a good deal, including our characters. We could then talk about the kingdom as a whole and our connection to it. We ended up modifying and coming up with new, good stuff during this process. In particular it forced us to literally get on the same page.

Language: Players come up with a set of syllables (nu, dok, kul, etc). During play you make up names and terms by combining these. It’s a cool creative exercise and establishes consistency.

Ownership: This is a dynamite yet simple idea. Each major concept the group develops has an owner. In the ownership phase, you walk through and assign them. If new elements are created, they immediately get an owner. Then if someone has a question about X thing while you’re playing, the owner answers and defines it. So if I want to know about the Sea Migrations, Plague Songs, or Legendary Weapons I ask them. I dig this. It’s a great technique, easily adaptable to any kind of collaborative project. I’d be interested to see how this would work for an extended collaboratively-built campaign with a GM.

Limits: Often you’re given concepts generated from random lists.. These results allow interpretation and don’t choke you. But they do force you to discard easy ideas and pre-planning. Great stuff came out of those limits. At first I thought the lists might be too constraining, but in practice they weren’t.

Epilogue: I like that in the end narration you have to use the phrase “Fortunately...” or “Unfortunately...” to set up your beneficial or negative events.

LESS AWESOME
Creation: I dug character and kingdom creation systems. They do, however, take a long time. We played our Questlandia game over three sessions of 2-2 ½ hours each. About half the total time went into the creation process. I suspect repeated plays would reduce that. But it does mean you’d have to run a tight ship to do this in a four-hour slot. Players should know that going in.

One Session: You get a deep, rich world that you’ve collaboratively built and then you set it on fire. With that time and energy investment, the actual play can feel short and abrupt. Since the game builds a death spiral into resolution, this isn’t easy to get around without major changes to the game’s system and even purpose.

Mechanics: The dice and scene resolution system felt opaque. It took us several read-throughs, flipping between pages to get how that worked. A few key elements aren’t highlighted as well as they could be. In particular that the protagonist and opposition only put forward a few dice. Eventually we got how it worked through trial and error. The two-week gap between sessions did us no favors. We had to relearn and re-establish the rhythm of the game.

Roadblocking: Playing the opposition felt vague. You’re wearing several hats at that point: playing NPCs, playing your character, paying attention to other players’ cool stuff, and then trying to throw a wrench into things. That you have everyone playing the opposition worked against us. No one wanted to step on toes and everyone thought someone else would provide challenge. It may be that we need to see the system in action understand play.

Flow: You play out these cool scenes, strive for goals, engage with relationships, watch drama, and THEN BOOM. Suddenly we move to an extended mechanical resolution with several stages (calculating dice, matching rolls, making picks from consequences, narrating results). There’s a stop and start to the play. It’s the same criticism I’ve seen leveled at one of my favorite games, Kingdom. To me the gear shift here felt rougher here, but YRMV. Again, more plays may ease this issue.

OVERALL
Having said that, I should draw your attention to designer Hannah Shaffer’s interview on The Gauntlet podcastThere she talks about Questlandia and her experience with it now that it’s out in the wild. She talks about a revised edition which will smooth out the resolution and optionally allow for extended play. That’s awesome and cool. I’m looking forward to that.

I think Questlandia’s worth picking up, especially with you like community building games like Downfall, Kingdom, or Rise and Fall. It’s solid for play and contains many great concepts. I didn't even touch on the strong layout and Evan Rowland's effective art. I’d suggest checking out this Indie+ exhibition game if you’re interested. You can buy Questlandia here.