Thursday, February 25, 2016

Seven Wonders Story Games Anthology: Two Readings

I picked up Seven Wonders from Pelgrane last week. That hadn’t been what I was shopping for. Instead I went to the site to get the new 13th Age battle scenes book. But the cover caught my eye and so I pre-ordered both of them (it’s my birthday month, so I figured a splurge would be OK). I downloaded the pre-order pdf and began to skim through it.

At that point I pretty much forgot about 13th Age.

Pelgrane’s Seven Wonders offers an anthology of seven distinct Story Games. Each has a different author, different theme, and different mechanics. They’ll all relatively light and focused on shared narrative. So they’re closer to something like The Warren or Breaking the Ice. I generally like those kinds of games, but there’s also a lot of trad in my DNA. Seven Wonders is kind of amazing. I skimmed it and then went back for a full read. I’m one of those people who picks up gaming pdfs and then forgets about them for months (the "Bundle of Holding" effect). But Seven Wonders pushed me on and I had a great time working through it.

So I wanted to do a quick “reading review” of the collection. The long and short of it is that I think it’s solid and if you like Story Games you ought to pick it up. But I wanted to give my impressions and then get Sherri’s impressions on the games. She was equally taken with the volume and tore through it. For this review I’ve opted to order the games by how likely I think it is that I’ll get them to the table. That measures more my group and my interest than the relatively quality of the game. I’ve ranked them from least to most likely.

Sherri: You are going to hear ‘tight’ used over and over in these descriptions.  All seven of the games are cleanly written and offer useful session structure and resolution methods to guide GM & players through the experience.  They all feel complete and succinct.  Examples of play and suggestions for variations are useful and interesting.  And remarkably, they each pull out and highlight different tools from the Story Game repertoire for thoughtful discussion: ways to structure play, ways to resolve conflict, ways to collaborate, ways to define preferences and boundaries.

Each game is doing something very different from the others, but they feel like a set precisely because they are each presented with great care and none repeats or talks over the others. 

Acceptable Losses by Tova Näslund
This is probably the most structured of the games. Designed for a GM and four players, each takes a pre-generated character. All four are members of a family on the brink of disaster in a dystopian future. They live in a massive apartment skyscraper where your status (and living accommodations) depend on your ability to work and generate revenue. The recent deaths of the family’s parents and calling in of their debts sets the main story.

Each character has a distinct role and set of connections. For example one sibling has the opportunity to marry and secure a position. The youngest hasn’t been able to do the common dangerous labor and so works another job that gives access to secrets. The game begins by setting up the premise and doing some loose location and detail building. Then characters are distributed and a relationship map created.

The GM has a set of pre-generated characters, tied tightly into the pre-gens’ story. Players frame scenes either “on the wall” (the dangerous workplace) or on the maintenance floor. Acceptable Losses uses the resolution cards from Itras By for any challenges. Overall the game offers a dystopia with a focus on the struggles of poverty. In some ways it might be the easiest to pick up and play, given how structured and pre-made the game is. It’s well-written and evocative enough it had me cringing as I read.

Sherri: Acceptable Losses is the fourth game in the book--it calls out its playstyle as freeform and carefully structures the experience with four pre-gens to play, enough collaborative detailing to get everyone on the same page, an untenable situation to negotiate and purposeful definitions of the two types of scenes that may be called. 

The themes and hazards are explicitly about family bonds, poverty and oppression.  The game is both personal and dark.  Each character’s self-interest is pitted against the one institution that gives them shelter, and martyrdom provides no guarantees.

The three games previous in the collection leavened the darkness with either possibility of hope or distance from the plights of the characters.  And what comes after? The next game that follows Acceptable Losses is light and cozy.  The next weird.  The last heroic. 

So in some ways, Acceptable Losses is the midnight of the soul of this book--that hardest moment that tests the mettle of a player.  And there’s good game in this moment. 

Online, I imagine we might get this game played.  There’s a big pool of folks playing all styles of games to pull from.

For our tabletop groups, this one pushes a number of political hot buttons, stoppers up the release valve of rebellion and stymies classic trad-game political problem-solving.  I completely get Lowell’s inclination to withhold this from the table.  On the other hand, I will definitely be pitching this scenario to the groups to get their reactions--I’m curious which players would be intrigued. 

Rise and Fall by Elizabeth Lovegrove
Another dystopia game, but with a broad and freeform approach. In it 2-5 players collaboratively create a dystopia. They then play through three phases: Rise, Established Order, and Fall. That’s followed by an Aftermath which serves as a kind of debrief and wind down. The world-building’s light and directed. It generates a few ideas players will explore during scenes. For characters, players design an “archetype,” a kind of character they’ll return to in each of the three parts: soldier, poet, scholar, tradesperson. As they name a particular instance of that archetype, they’ll write that on their sheet.

Play in each stage revolves around questions. A player, the questioner, sets a question, usually connected to some of the aspects set at the beginning or later established details. They also pick the players who will be in a scene. That scene closes when the questioner believes the question has been answered, and then writes down anything newly revealed. In most games, each play will get one question in each of the three phases.

Rise and Fall is well written, with extensive use of facilitator script presentations for the mechanics. I also appreciate that given the subject matter there’s a presentation of Lines and Veils. I also like that it makes specific allowance for two-player games. It also has an extensive example of play. The frame can be applied to all kinds of dystopias: sci-fi, historical, fantasy. It reminds me of a directed version of Kingdom or even a slimmed down Questlandia with easier resolution.

Sherri: Rise and Fall is the second game in the book.  It is Story Game as story engine--in this case, play and dialogue around a theme--with a simple framework and constraints to guide the play for a satisfying experience.  These games I know and love.  As much intellectual play as roleplay, your characters in Rise and Fall are the voices of an Idea.  In play, the scenes and characters are all deployed to answer questions about the dystopia--and the resulting web of discoveries looks for all the world like a writer’s mapping of a story.  The structure guarantees a beginning, conflicts and an ending--the rules act as a story machine, essentially.

Whereas the dystopian world of Acceptable Losses is personal and dark, Rise and Fall maintains distance.  You are playing variations on an archetype and illuminating the nature of the dystopia rather than the extent of your character’s suffering.  Even if the character is going through hell, it is an illustrative hell; appreciating the pathos of the situation is entirely voluntary.

Rise and Fall is a great story machine.  It’s familiar, but definitely it’s own thing. My inclination is to compare it to Caroline Hobb’s Downfall--and upon doing so, I am struck that the two games are going to deliver a very different experience.  Like any story engine, you will end up playing a game that looks and feels as much like a short story or television show as role playing can--but each one of these games feels guided by a different author.  The best of these games balance the meta-gaming (posing a question, framing a scene, resolving the outcome) with the meat of the roleplay--giving good signposts for what’s to be accomplished and freedom to throw in curveballs.  Rise and Fall is one of the best I’ve seen.

Nemesis 382 by Alex Helm
Like Acceptable Losses, Nemesis 382 offers a specific framed scenario. In this case players take the role of crew members on a spaceship headed for a black hole. All volunteered for this potentially lethal mission. The game plays out the rising tension as the ship approaches the event horizon. Ship crises and strange phenomena plague the crew, leading to a final decision about whether to continue on or turn back.

The game begins with some basic character definition, including a secret vote on whether each wants to finish the mission or turn back. That’s complemented by defining secretly the rest of the crews’ opinions. Play breaks into four acts: awakening, crises, strange phenomena, and time of decision. Each player frames a scene in each act. As the game moves one players draw cards from a Crisis and Phenomena deck. There’s some strategic choice in how and when you want to play those cards. You can even add cards to an ongoing problem. Once the cards enter play, the scene framing revolves around these. Can the crises be dealt with? What are the repercussions? After the fourth act, players vote to see whether they want to flee or complete the mission objective.

Nemesis 382 reminds me a little of Last Best Hope, a game I’ve tried to get through several times. It feels sharper and more focused than that. There is a little strangeness in that the game positions itself as hard sci-fi at the outset, but when we get to the phenomena cards, that gets a little more…fringey. I mean I think you have to do some serious hand-waving if your players are still expecting hard sci-fi. I’ll also be curious how long play actually takes. The book says 3-4 hours for 3-5 people. But each player frames a scene in each of four acts, plus the character creation and the epilogue. I suspect first plays will last longer than four hours or have to be split, but I may be terribly wrong.

I really, really hope that Helm and Pelgrane consider putting together these decks for purchase via something like Drivethru cards. A really nice set of these would make the game a go-to for convention and one-shot play.

I found Nemesis 382 interesting but with a specific focus I’d have to sell to players. Then I read the last part which blew things open for me. Helm suggests the game could be adapted for any long, potentially lethal journey into the unknown. The rules point to using it for “A trip into the Antarctic Wastes (HP Lovecraft-style)” and “The last voyage of Zheng He” among others. It would take some work, with the heavy lifting in retooling the event (and possibly phenomenon) cards. I could imagine using it as an interlude in campaign, to show a significant event elsewhere.

Sherri: Nemesis 382 made me think, “I want to play this with Alan.”  He’s the guy that I can trust to test the limits of a situation for its weirdness, its humor and its pathos.  That seems like a fruitful triangle for this scenario.  Mind you, Nemesis 382 is not silly, but there is both a serious mission and strangeness that will interfere; I treasure the humanity revealed when characters face uncertainty and the threat of failure with less than stellar professionalism.  I doubt my own comic timing--but Alan’s is spot on. 

Of course, the game smartly points out that setting the tone of a playthrough is important.  While I’m imagining the game with some humor, I’m definitely not picturing it gonzo or slapstick.  So Helm is on the money when she counsels that the players should discuss the tone and help each other strike the right notes.

Nemesis 382 is the sixth game in the collection. I could go on about its merits, but I want to play it.  I think that says all I need to say.

When the Dark is Gone by Becky Annison
The children from the Chronicles of Narnia go through therapy as adults.

I put off reading this game until last. We’ve just started our Crowsmantle campaign which has something of the same premise (inspired by NeST, The Talisman, Return to Oz, and others). I wanted to come to it after we’d started so it didn’t overwhelm my thinking.

This game plays out the PCs therapy. Each has serious problems, likely connected to shared vacations as children. They’ve repressed or changed their memories of those events. Smartly When the Dark is Gone begins with a discussion of limits, safe space, and conflict resolution. It points to one of the best things about that anthology. Each game that approaches difficult material takes a tailored approach to handling and informing players. At first I was a little surprised that this game, with some tough subject matter opened the collection. But the more I think about it, the way it presents trust & comfort and discusses structure-less gaming sets the stage for the other games.

When the Dark is Gone has a GM, called Organizer at the beginning and then Therapist later. I think they’re referring to the same role. Each player fills out a Client File Notes sheet. This includes basic details as well as defining a psychological disorder. Again the game takes time to talk about how to handle that respectfully. Clients then build two relationships with other characters. They connect these to a moment where that other person betrayed or hurt them. A few other details, a secret, a memory, something that makes you worth redemption, round that out.

Play then moves to the therapy. This is fully immersive, with little move back to system. The rules spend some time discussing improvisation and how that fits here. In play the Therapist keeps things moving. That’s mostly done through a questioning process. There’s lot of advice here- for a short game this is incredibly rich with assistance. To help the Therapist further, game includes 101 Story Seeds and a “British” & more brutal “Criminal” playset. These include sample characters and a therapist reference sheet. That’s great support for anyone wanting to run this at a con.

Sherri: At first, the premise sounded amusing to me.  Post-Narnia-Stress-Disorder? Heh. 

But that isn’t what’s going on here at all.  It’s a lot darker than that. The characters have real and destructive problems, and they’re all still mixed up in each others lives and making things worse for each other.  So you start out with a circle of dysfunctional friends and collaboratively build a forgotten dark fantastical past that shaped their relations with one another and feeds (if not exactly caused) their problems.  And maybe, just maybe, some of the characters learn enough about themselves to move forward.

It’s a cool way to reshape collaborative world-building--a framework filled in and covered over with the scraps of memories recalled by broken exiles. It puts the characters and their relationships front and center, but everything feeds back to and from ‘the place’. When the Dark is Gone is unwaveringly smart.

All the good things Lowell says about it stand for me.  A perfect first Wonder.

Small Things by Lynne Hardy
A Borrowers rpg has always been on Sherri’s grail-game list. It’s a series I never read as a kid (I watched the animated rip-off The Littles). The idea came up again when we saw Arrietty in the theaters and when Moe Tousignant submitted his Diminutive RPG for the 24 Hour RPG contest. The concept really sings for Sherri, especially as it has a kind of “Swiss Family Robinson” survival aspect to it. I’ll admit the idea of tiny persons and the colossal dangers they face makes me more anxious than excited.

Lynne Hardy’s Small Things, though, clears away my anxiety. It offers a cozy game, with tiny things doing great deeds and keeping things tidy. She has one of my favorite lines from any rpg, “If games had a smell, this one’s would be like hot buttered toast, newly baked bread and cakes, freshly cut grass and clean laundry.” Though it could be transplanted to somewhere/when else, Small Things sits in a somewhat mythical sedate England between the 1930s and 1950s (without the bother of the war, of course).

In Small Things, you play Small Things. They’re fantastical household caretakers who want to keep everything orderly for the Big Things. They thrive on work, and don’t want a house too chaotic nor too sterile. The GM, called a Caretaker, begins by collaboratively creating the House (type and family). Small Things themselves are relatively easily created, defined by several traits (core concept, special abilities, personality, look, and moniker). The rules do an excellent job of providing examples. Players can pick from those or design their own. There’s a nice and quick process of using questions to further define each Small Thing. Those can have implications later (like a Small Thing with a hero complex about another character may have trouble working with them). The process looks complicated when you read through the quick list, but I don’t think it will be in practice.

Play itself begins with the Caretaker setting a story, usually a problem or incident that begins everything. They then call on a player to set the theme of a scene, which is then played out. Then another player picks a theme. When three scenes have passed, an act has finished. Stories are broken into three acts, with the game giving advice about when certain things should fall (like resolving the problem in scene two, act three so you have one more to do a wrap up scene). Small Things offers a diceless, abstract method for resolving success which fits with the tale-telling feel of the game.

I like Small Things. Characters have a clear task and the story has a clear structure, but it doesn’t feel limited. Advanced players and GMs can add in additional elements like stranger kinds of Big Things and Things from the Outside. There’s a nice example of play, followed by several nice appendices (including scenario seeds).

Sherri: Small Things is the fifth game in the collection.  It follows Acceptable Losses, and the tone of the setting could not be more different. (Although I do like the idea that Small Things episodes are always playing on the TVs in the world of Acceptable Losses.)   Small Things is cuddly and sweet and what I expected Story Games would be before I had played any Story Games, except better.

The game makes every part of the set-up work toward establishing the ethos of the setting and defining the genre--in this case, a very particular sort of British children’s programming. I’m unfamiliar with most of the source material Hardy recommends, but every step in introducing the game to the players clearly underscores a set of conventions. Resolution is simple--and clearly the genre’s criteria for success: have exactly the right ability (each character only gets two) or use teamwork.  Some character relationships mean that teamwork adds amusing complications.

My old self might have dismissed this with a sniff and ‘no challenge!’.  But of course, I wasn’t really paying attention to what the actual challenge these games are built around.  The difficulty has little to do with the in-game problems and everything to do with creating scenes and characterizations that are both satisfying and in-genre.  It is a authorial challenge shared by the players and GMs, and when everyone’s up to the challenge, it is a delightful experience.  When genre and tone are off, these games are far less enjoyable--and often seem pointless. 

Lynne Hardy’s writing for this game has a light touch throughout. Every choice the players make, every question put to the group, every Amusing Capitalization serves the purpose of demonstrating the genre. Small Things is full of Whimsy, Earnest Endeavour and Teamwork.

Also, I am going to hack her format for the Borrowers game of my dreams.    (Thank you, Lynne Hardy!)

Heroes of the Hearth by Stiainín Jackson
I like games about places and communities; Kingdom’s among my favorite rpgs. Heroes of the Hearth does something similar, but in narrowing the premise it adds depth. And as much as I dig Kingdom, HotH looks much easier to pick up and play. When the heroes and soldiers march off to deal with The Great Threat, what happens to those who remain? Here the players take the roles of those left behind.

Like many of the other games in the volume, HotH begins with world creation. That’s kept simple and tight: five questions which can be answered with a few words and then elaborated in conversation. Then the game takes an interesting step. Rather than go through character creation, it offers gender-neutral pre-gens to choose. Players then customize these by selecting from a list of bonds. Bonds affect mechanically and narratively, revolving around strength and weakness.

Play then moves into scenes, broken into three acts. The first looks at the village a month after the departure of their loved ones. Each player frames a scene showing how they’re compensating for that absence. Afterwards players assess the strength or weakness of their character, marking that down. Then to close out the act, players narrate writing a letter to their loved one. Act Two takes up another month down the road, with rumors of the expedition’s fate trickling back. The arrival of letters from those who left caps this act. Act Three shows that the threat has not been defeated and now approaches the village. Finally the Climax looks at each character’s strength and weakness, allowing for narration of fates based on those. The game ends with an epilogue.

I really dig the simplicity of this game. It has just enough structure to make it hum. I love the idea of letters and how it reinforces the movement between acts. The game also has several pages of advice on play, elemental and useful. But then it adds a little bit more. Jackson includes an alternate scenario, complete with new questions and pre-gens. Here you play out events in a town in Occupied France, with many having departed to join the Resistance. It’s smart and quickly shows how the game could be adapted to many different settings.

Sherri: Heroes of the Hearth is an engine to tell stories about a community during wartime--a community whose heroes have left to join a battle far away.  Heros of the Hearth is the third story in the collection. It is has a good discussion about ‘playing to fail’--a necessary introduction for new players where tragedy makes so much sense in the game.  In acknowledging the nature of life during wartime, Jackson suggests the use of the X-card as a tag-out for subject matter that may be too raw for a player. The structure has a quick bit of metagaming between each scene to decide whether a character was acting from strength or weakness--and an end-game tallying of those scores to determine the overall fate of the community.  Other than that, it is about as lightweight as an Story Engine can be. Most of the energy in game is directed into playing out the scenes, within each of the Acts, the Climax and the Epilogue.

I think Lowell is upstairs right now toodling with a version to serve as an interlude in one of our campaigns.  

Before the Storm by Joanna Piancastelli
So this is the last game in the book and also the one that immediately grabbed me and made me want to play. This is the role-playing version of the intro scene from Final Fantasy X. A group of heroes has gathered. They rest around a fire. Tomorrow they will go forward to face what must be the final battle. This rpg is about that evening and the stories that come from there.

See, the whole thing gives me chills. I love the concept which never, ever occurred to me. I’ve seen it in stories, movies, and games but it never occurred to me you could play it out, or use that as a lens to explore the stories and relationships leading up to those times.

And do that in a single session.

3-5 players, 4-5 hours, GMless (with a player facilitator to lead), it uses a standard playing card deck to structure play.

And that’s all I’m going to say. You should read it and we should play it.

Sherri: You actually meant to say, ‘...we should play it NOW.’  Right?

FINAL THOUGHTS
It’s worth mentioning the strong art throughout the book. It does a great job of conveying each game’s flavor and helps makes each one distinct. The layout and text design’s the kind of clean and clear I love. I’m never overwhelmed and never feel like space is being wasted. But there’s an even more striking thing I noticed on a second read-through. Each game touches on common aspects of Story Gaming (like scene calling and methods for safe spaces). But we never get exactly the same approach or presentation. Some of that comes from having seven different authors, but it also feels like incredibly smart editing. I never once feel like I’m treading through the same material and discussion. Each game has a unique sound and the anthology works together so that any repetition hits a new note to create harmony.

Sherri: Exactly.  The editing is the eighth Wonder in this book.  What a pleasure to read!

This is a great collection of Story Games. If you like or have any curiosity about those, it’s worth buying. You can pre-order the physical copy from Pelgrane and get the pdf now