Designing a game for Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales duology

Note: I first posted this on G+ in August. I’m reposting it here now as I noodle around the idea again.

Yesterday’s #RPGaDay2017 topic, “What is an RPG you would like to see published,” got me thinking about what existing media I want to see as an RPG. The book series I keep recommending to people is Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales duology, In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice. If you haven’t read them, they’re a collection of nested stories, most obviously inspired by the Arabian Nights but drawing on fairy tales from around the world. Anyway, I wound up with some quarter-baked thoughts for a storytelling game inspired by the series. Thought process follows.

The most obvious choice is to start with Meguey Baker’s 1,001 Nights, which already has the theming and the nested stories. But in terms of feel, it doesn’t match. 1,001 Nights is very much about the relationships between the courtiers. To me, the Orphan’s Tales books are about how you can only assemble the truth by seeing things from multiple viewpoints, especially the forgotten, silenced, or “monstrous” ones. As you read the books, they reveal a series of events that eventually connects to the storyteller herself.

The revealing-events-out-of-order part makes me think of Microscope. I think creating a timeline as you play will be satisfying. But Microscope is very top-down, where the Orphan’s Tales feel more bottom-up. So maybe you create the timeline retroactively as you play out stories. But then how do you play out stories?

Multiple viewpoints and history exploration make me think of the wiki game Lexicon. In Lexicon, you fill out fictional encyclopedia entries and cross-reference them. Each turn you pick out something another player mentioned and make an entry for that, until the alphabet is filled in. In the Orphan’s Tales, the nested stories happen when the main character of the current story meets someone who tells their own story. Which sounds like a good match to me.

So the provisional play cycle is on a wiki or something else with hyperlinking and that lets people edit other people’s entries. Players all agree on a general topic for the game, e.g. Fall of the Snake-Star, and some guidelines about tone and elements. They make a post or entry to hold the timeline. Then every player writes a short tale and posts it under the main character’s name or appellation. They also make a one-line summary of the topic-relevant part of it. At the end of a turn, as a group they decide the initial order of events in the timeline.

For all subsequent turns, players pick a character from someone else’s story and write up that story. They can edit the original story to add a link and, if necessary, a mention that the character told their story. As the stories are written, players add their summaries into the timeline where they seem to fit. End when satisfied.

Flaws: time commitment to read and write stories, even if they’re short. Likelihood of people stretching any word limits you give them, exacerbating the time commitment problem. What happens when people disagree about order of events or object to elements of other people’s stories.

Missing: Some way to encourage re-incorporating existing characters and elements, from different viewpoints or different times.

Creative Blocks and Fatigue in Midnight at the Library of Worlds

One of the big issues I noted from my playtest was creative fatigue. It showed up in several places:

  1. Creating books in the setup phase
  2. As the GM, coming up with the forms of the Ravagers
  3. As the GM, coming up with Dangers for the Librarians to face
  4. As a Librarian, figuring out how you use a book to face a Danger

I think problems 2, 4, and sometimes 3 are caused by the books not providing enough creative prompts. Currently books have three properties: Title, Theme (one of 8 choices), and Type (one of 8 choices). While some titles are evocative, others are harder to work with. Adding more details about the books would make them easier to use.

However, that runs back into problem 1. In the setup phase, people roll for Theme and Type, then come up with a title. The first few book titles were easy to come up with, but people really started reaching as they got to their fifth or sixth book. If people need to invent even more details for each book, it will lengthen the setup phase, and people will get to the main game already tired.

As a last-minute addition, I added an optional variant where you pick real books, then assign them Theme and Type. This would address the issues of having to invent a lot of books, and those invented books lacking detail. I was hesitant to make it part of the main rules because I worried that I already required too many additional materials, and the variant would mean you need 6 books per person to play. I’m also not sure about the logistics of dealing with that many books at the table, although you could manipulate stacks of book cards instead.

On the other hand, Midnight at the Library of Worlds is very much a game celebrating books. It makes sense to let players show their affection for the books they love by including them in the game.

One solution for logistics is to have players fill in titles and authors of real books, but not need those books at the table. You lose the ability to open the book to a random page for inspiration, but if everyone is familiar with the books, there’s a wealth of context available.

That brings to mind another possibility, which is for me to provide a pre-generated list of books with Theme and Type, maybe even multiple lists with different focuses. I didn’t have time during the contest period to do this, but it would let players get started much faster.

Thoughts after playtesting Midnight at the Library of Worlds

I’ve been thinking more about Midnight at the Library of Worlds, my game about an interdimensional library on the eve of apocalypse. I created it for the 2016 (Atypical) Fantasy RPG Design Challenge. I ran one playtest during the contest period, and with only 3 days before the deadline, made a few revisions and called it good. But there were other issues that came up in the playtest I didn’t have time to address. I’ll talk about them here.

One of the first things you do in Library is brainstorm a lot of books. I pre-generated a list of book themes and types, then we all started filling in titles for them. There was a lot of blank page syndrome and some people seemed a bit stressed by the process. As a variant I suggest using existing books and just assigning them themes and types. I might make this the normal method, or pre-generate complete lists of books.

In addition to blocks coming up with book titles, I noticed a lot of creative fatigue and blocks as GM coming up with challenging situations, and as Librarians coming up with uses for books. I think having more context for the Library will help, and more prompts for all players. But I wonder if the resolution mechanic may also have been an issue.

The resolution mechanic is based on Night-time Animals Save the World. Like that game, the danger of a challenge is never supposed to be outright failure. You’re guaranteed to get something out of trying, even if you lose the coin comparison. I think this made it hard to think of challenges that wouldn’t result in total failure, and hard to narrate the outcomes when the Librarian lost the coin comparison.

I wanted to make a game that borrowed strongly from board games. Unfortunately, with the group I tested, this meant the Librarian players spent a lot of time (at least 20 minutes) strategizing before each of the three rounds to work out the best actions for everyone to take. On the plus side, people were engaged. On the downside, it broke up the narrative flow and means the game is vulnerable to the alpha player syndrome that plagues cooperative board games like Pandemic.

Another thing that contributes to the board-game-y feel is the way the rules and the fiction interact. In the lingo of Vincent Baker’s dice-and-cloud diagrams, the rules either go from the fiction to the cues, or from cues to the fiction, but there are no rules that do both. While I could just turn this into a board game, I think the concept is grabby enough that I want to push it more towards the RPG side.

I think the resolution mechanic also contributes to the gaminess. There’s no randomizer, so large-value coins become a resource to be managed. Now that I’m reflecting, I wonder if that’s the right feel for a game about scrambling to get out before the apocalypse. The obvious way to go would be to try a die+bonus vs TN or PbtA 2d6 10+/7-9/6- mechanic, but sticking to the rules of the Fantasy RPG Challenge I’d need to find something different. And if I could find something book-related, that would be even better. (Page numbers? Word counting?)

The last observation is about my inclusion of “Romance” as a book type. There’s a long history of romance as a genre, and I deliberately included “scientific romance” as a possibility, which was one of the early names for the genre now called “science fiction.” Modern romance is notable as a genre written for and by women, focusing on women’s experiences. However, all my players went straight for “trashy romance” and there was much giggling. I could add a sidebar going into the history of the term and genre, but that seems like too much of a detour for what is (currently) a very short game.

Overall, there’s a lot to work on. The concept seems to grab everyone I mention it to, and my playtest group generally had fun, but there were definitely rough patches.