The Companion’s Tale Playtest Review

Last year I had the good fortune to play The Companion’s Tale by Laura Simpson of Sweet Potato Press, with Laura herself acting as facilitator.

The Companion’s Tale is a map-making, storytelling game for 2-4 players that makes heavy use of cards as prompts. It was Kickstarted in March last year. It’s inspired by Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year, but instead of a post-apocalyptic community it’s about a land in upheaval where a hero arises to save it. Nobody actually plays the hero, though. Instead, you play brief vignettes as the hero’s companions, and contribute to the world and history in a variety of ways.

The game starts with some world-building prompts. Each player is given  a question, answers it, and draws a representation of that answer on the map. From there, it moves into three acts, each made of several rounds. An act starts with the Historian phase, where every player contributes a fact. Then come the rounds. Each round, players are assigned one of these roles/duties:

  • The Cartographer, who draws representations of people’s contributions on the map
  • The Companion, who narrates a vignette as one of the Hero’s Companions
  • The Witness, who describes an event that happened elsewhere from the Hero
  • The Lorekeeper, who describes a cultural development.

The roles rotate every round, and the act ends when everyone has had a chance at each role. To close out the act, there’s a Biographer phase. In it, every player contributes some rumors or gossip about other players’ Companions. In every phase, contributions are considered potentially unreliable, and may be contradicted by later contributions.

The Companion’s Tale makes heavy use of cards for prompts. There are cards for Themes, Archetypes, and Faces. At the start of each round, you draw a Theme card for the Historian phase. Each card has a one-word theme, like “Punishment,” and one or two prompts, like “Once the people were punished by the elite.” The prompts are simple but evocative, and subtly steer the game to depict a realm in upheaval.

At the start of the Act, the players draw four Archetype cards, such as “Rival,” “Protege,” “Oracle,” or “Lover,” and lay them out. On the Companion’s turn, the player creates a Companion by choosing one of those Archetypes. They draw two Theme cards and choose one to inform their story, then finally draw a Face card with a portrait of their Companion. The three cards together provide a rich prompt to invent the Companion’s story. Since the game has you draw the Face card after choosing the Archetype, it’s harder to fall back on stereotypes, which leads to more nuanced Companions. When I played, after the Companion player chose the Child archetype, they drew a Face that was an old, scholarly-looking man. If that was the Hero’s Child, then how old must the Hero be? They decided instead that was the Child in his old age, telling his story decades after the fact and having become one of the eminent historians of the period.

I play(test)ed the Diaspora variant, which is designed to allow larger groups to play. You start play as a single group and build the core of a shared map and culture, with elements spanning the map. Then the divide happens: you split into two groups and the map into two pieces, with each group taking one half of the map. Afterwards, you play through the game mostly as normal, but after each act, you pass the Lorekeepers’ cultural contributions to each other. At the end, you get back together, reassemble your halves of the map, and then each player gets to vote on whether the divided lands should reunite.

We started with a core value of Generosity, exemplified by a large lake in the center of the map. Another prompt said that something threatened the kingdom, but people were divided about the nature of the threat. The player who got the prompt drew a volcano on one side of the map and a dragon on the other. When the split happened, I was in the group that got the side of the map with the volcano, a difference that shaped our two cultures. The volcano erupted early in the first act, destroying one of the two capitals. Our game dealt with the resulting economic and social upheaval and was fairly grounded, with no overt magical or supernatural elements. We struggled with feeding people in the wake of the natural disaster, with the main “villain” being a noble who violated our culture’s central tenet of generosity to hoard resources . The group with the dragon side of the map struggled with appeasing and taming the dragon, blood sacrifices, and giant bees.

We discovered these differences every act as we exchanged Lore sheets. Our group felt like our situation was grim, with the crops wiped out by the volcano and the hoarding noble setting up a kind of feudal system. As counterpoint, our Lorekeepers wrote about how the ruin of the capital decentralized the arts, and how the children had started to play a selfish game called “Keep.” Then we got the other group’s Lore sheet, where they had written about appeasing the dragon with pies made from blood mixed with honey. We were horrified and morbidly curious about what was going on in the other half of the realm. The other group found our Lore sheets comforting and a little quaint.

There was some downtime after each act, as whichever group finished first waited for the other group to see their Lore sheet. The breaks gave time to decompress, as the game can use a lot of creative energy.

After the third act, the groups rejoined and spent some time discussing what had happened in each half of the land. Then we held the vote. Almost everyone voted to reunite. One person on our side was concerned about whether the other side had stuck to our core value of generosity. Another on their side was concerned about how we would deal with blood sacrifice.

Playing Companion’s Tale was a wonderful experience. The prompts worked well to give a jumping-off point without overly specifying. The different focuses of the Acts gently shaped the game into a satisfying arc. By the time we got to our third Act, we had both a Traitor and a Spy among the Companions. We all tacitly agreed that the Hero would most likely meet a bad end, and it was just a question of who did the deed. It was decided when the Spy’s player drew the theme “Betrayal” in Act 3. They narrated how the Spy had come to believe in the Hero’s mission, and so gave them the final grace: they would die a martyr, and never have to compromise their ideals.

I loved the Lorekeeper role. I think a lot of worldbuilding forgets about the smaller cultural developments, and it was refreshing to make up children’s games and new slang.

In summary, if you enjoy collaborative storytelling or mapmaking, or like the idea of inventing a history through a variety of lenses and unreliable narrators, check out Laura Simpson’s The Companion’s Tale. As of February 24, 2018, it’s still available for preorder on Backerkit.

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.

 

Haven Swirl, a One-Page RPG

This was from a randomly-generated prompt:

Atmosphere RPG: Rock paper scissors resolution for a game about Farm focused on Discovery


Haven Swirl

The world was broken long ago, and life has been hard since. Wandering, you came upon Haven, a handful of people eking out a living on what was once a farm. Everyone has a story similar to yours, but nobody remembers who founded it.

In this game, you alternate between playing a member of Haven, and the world.

It uses two kinds of Rock-Paper-Scissors resolution:

Group Resolution:

Choose a reference player (the rules will tell you how). Everybody makes a fist, then simultaneously throws Rock, Paper, or Scissors. Compare your results against the object thrown by the reference player. Depending on if your result is Win, Lose, or Tie, the rules will tell you what to do. The reference player always ties with themselves.

Single Resolution:

You play one round of Rock Paper Scissors against another player.

Win – you get what you want
Tie – you partly get what you want, or it costs you
Lose – you don’t get what you want, and it costs you

Create your character:

Pick a specialty (duplicates between characters are okay):
– Crops
– Animals
– Technology
– Buildings
– Fiber arts
– Food

Pick what you’re looking for now:
– Protection
– Redemption
– Respect
– Belonging
– Knowledge
– Love

Decide why your character was wandering.

Decide what order your characters arrived at Haven. The character who arrived the earliest is called the First.

Choose one other character. You had an encounter with them that made you decide to stay. It could be someone who arrived after you.

Create the Map

Haven has one main house where everyone lives, and a few other buildings for the various specialties.

In the center of some large paper, draw the common room of the house.

Each player, draw the room of the house you live in. Draw a new building, plot of land, or room where you practice your specialty. If one exists, you can extend it.

Draw a rough multi-armed spiral extending from Haven, with one arm for each player. Each player claims a sector of the spiral; they have first say over what happens and what can be found in that sector.

Now decide on starting resources. Use Group Resolution with the First as the reference player:

  • Win – there’s a surplus of a resource relating to your specialty. Draw it in or close to Haven, in your sector.
  • Tie – you have just enough to practice your specialty most of the time. Draw the resource most limiting you in or close to Haven, in your sector.
  • Lose – there’s a lack of a resource relating to your specialty. Draw something in your sector or in Haven representing or explaining the lack.

Play

You will play out 12 months at Haven, each focusing on a different character in turn starting with the First.

Each month, do these three things in any order:

  • Have a scene with another character
  • Explore
  • Practice your specialty

Have a Scene:

Decide whether this is a flavor scene (just roleplay to develop character) or a goal scene (you want something from them).

If it’s a goal scene, roleplay until the outcome is in doubt, then use Single Resolution.

Explore:

Decide what you’re looking for, which direction you’re going from the 8 compass points, and how far. The player whose sector that falls in will frame a scene where you encounter something related to what you’re looking for. Roleplay until you feel the outcome is in doubt, then use Single Resolution.

Practice your specialty:

Describe your goal for the month and how you practice your specialty to achieve it. E.g. Have enough food for the winter by canning all the fruit that was just harvested.

Use Group Resolution with you as the reference player

  • Win – the player’s character or sector benefited from the activity
  • Tie – the player’s character or sector benefited, but the other (sector or character) lost something or was damaged
  • Lose – the player’s character or sector lost something or was damaged as a result

Special: the active player’s result counts as a Win

Draw something on the map representing the overall result.

Retrospective

At the end of the 12th month, reflect on how the year has gone. Take turns reminiscing about something that happened.

Then Use Group Resolution with the First as the reference player to determine your outlook, either for this year or the next:

  • Win: Rosy
  • Tie: Cautious
  • Lose: Pessimistic

Each narrate an epilogue about the coming year based on the result.


Influences:

  • Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year
  • Ben Robbins’ Follow
  • Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
  •  Hitoshi Ashinano’s Yokohama Shopping Trip

January Game-A-Month: Cat Cafe

It’s done! (For certain values of done.)

I could keep polishing it (and it could use more), but it’s a reasonably complete game.

CatCafev1.0

Stroke the cats by clicking and dragging the mouse. When you’ve stroked them enough, they’ll be happy and give you points. But if you stroke too much, they’ll hiss and bite you! If you neglect them, they’ll leave unhappy and you’ll lose points. The game ends after one minute or three bites. Try to get the highest score!

Update to Midnight at the Library of Worlds

I’ve made some text revisions to Midnight at the Library of Worlds, clarifying some rules and adding more explanatory and advisory text. I’ve also made a try at a basic layout.

Midnight at the Library of Worlds v1.1

I’ve had Scrivener kicking around for a while and mostly been using it as a glorified notes bin. This time around I decided to use it document compilation features. I copied the text of Library of Worlds into it, and made each section and sub-section a separate node. At the moment my Frankenstein workflow is Scrivener->MultiMarkdown Export to HTML->Open in LibreOffice->Copy Paste into Serif PagePlus. MultiMarkdown seems to be the only Scrivener export format that preserves the header hierarchy instead of converting to font+size markup. PagePlus doesn’t have an HTML import, but copying from LibreOffice seems to preserve the header hierarchy. This means I can set up all the font and paragraph styles in PagePlus and any text I bring over will automatically have them.

Brainstorming for Game Challenges

Michael Machalko’s Thinkertoys is a great catalog of brainstorming techniques. If your idea of brainstorming is “sit down with a blank sheet of paper and list things,” definitely check it out! The examples are all business-focused, but there’s one technique, the Idea Box, that I’ve found especially helpful for game design challenges.

The core of the idea box is to break your problem up into a few components, generate ideas for each, and combine them in an explosion of possibilities. Start by writing down a few categories–five or six is usually good–as column headers. Then come up with several concepts or associations for each, writing them under the headers. Think of at least five each, more is better. Then take one item from each column and combine them. I like to roll dice or use Inspiration Pad Pro to generate prompts.

For Game Chef 2016, my categories were Technology as a Theme, Use of Technology, and the four ingredients: Alarm, Dance, Sketch, and Sunlight. This produced combinations like “Anonymity, music playlist, waking up, clubbing, sketch comedy, and bright” or “Intellectual Property, spam, heists, manners, inspiration, and bleach”. Draw Fortress came out of “Security, Wiki (revise and add to what has been written), fire, ballet, pens, and the Sun.” I wound up dropping ballet and the Sun when I couldn’t make them fit, and transplanting the “revise and add” aspect onto paper.

For the Nontraditional Fantasy RPG Design Challenge, there were criteria about settings and about rules, both phrased as “Must not include X.” I found it hard to brainstorm in the negative. So I came up with a list of themes and settings that would easily meet the setting criteria, and a list of mechanics that would meet the rules criteria, and started mashing them together. Midnight at the Library of Worlds came from Bookbinding + Night-time Animals Save the World.

My full lists:

Theme/Setting Mechanic
Arabian Nights
Filipino mythology
Greek mythology
Chinese mythology
Wuxia
Steampunk/Victoriana
Dream worlds
Modern day with magic
1920s
Biblical
Babylonian
Gaelic
Bards
Court intrigue
Small town life
Fairy tales in modern-ish day (post 1900s)
Some other myths in modern-ish day (post 1900s)
Book characters
Other musicians
Teachers
High school
Witches
Inquisition
Miyazaki
Dryads
Nature spirits
Dragons
Unicorns
Baby gods learning to control their domains
Fantastical Colonial Philippines
Fantastical India
Gemcutting
Bookbinding
Painting, drawing, other art
Lightweaving
Dream weaving
Rebellion against an evil government
Ninjas
Ancient Egypt
Ancient Rome and Greece
Otherkind Dice
Do Pilgrims of the Flying Temple
Drawing stones or tokens
One-Roll Engine
Rock paper scissors
Night-time Animals Save the World
Something like NTASW, but with dice
Die pool where successes buy effects
Simultaneous blind bidding
Poker hands
Draw cards instead of rolling dice
Trick-taking
Yi Qing
Tarot
Spend finite resource
Throw yarrow stalks
Dollar auction
Second price auction

Midnight at the Library of Worlds

A game for the Fantasy RPG Design Challenge, a challenge to design the most un-D&D-like fantasy games.

Midnight at the Library of Worlds is about an interdimensional Library on the eve of apocalypse. Players scramble to collect what books they can before fleeing.

Blank Book Cards

Contest Edition (v1.0)

Update: Midnight at the Library of Worlds won the competition!