Review: Gazetteer, A Gygaxian Storygame

What is it?

Gazetteer is a structured storytelling game by Kimberly Lam and Levi Kornelson that follows the escapades of the pompous explorer Duke Arbold. One playthrough of the game produces a region map suitable for use as a hexcrawl adventure. It’s designed for asynchronous/online play on a forum or social media, in the vein of Doomed Pilgrim in the Ruins of the Future from Lumpley Games. Gazetteer is available as a Pay-What-You-Want download from Drivethrupg.

Why did I buy it?

I saw a playthrough of Gazetteer pop up on G+ a while back and found it entertaining. I kind of forgot about it until I saw a thread about Lumpley Games’ new in-development game Wizard’s Grimoire, which reminded me of it, so I went back and looked it up. I also saw an excuse to break out HexKit.

First impressions

The PDF is 15 pages, with 5 of them taken up by a play transcript and resulting Gazette entry. The rest are play instructions, aimed at the facilitator of the game.

The facilitator takes the role of Duke Arbold, a puffed-up noble who goes on expeditions to publish travelogues (gazettes). He drags with him various servants, scouts, and other staff (portrayed by the other players), and his frustratingly astute scribe Podrick.

Setup involves finding or making a region map and deciding on some “themes,” elements to help set the tone and genre of the game. The Duke player also needs to come up with a paragraph or two of starting description and a leading question to start things off, such as “Scout ahead and tell me, what is that structure I see in the distance?” The game starts when the facilitator posts or reads aloud the included text, the introductory paragraph, and the first question.

Most of the time, the Duke will take the first answer anyone posts as true, but has the option of incorporating everyone’s answers. The Duke then incorporates that answer into new narration and poses a new question. This continues until the Duke player feels the escapade has wrapped up.

The game text describes how to shape the narration to give a satisfying experience, and gives a lot of advice and examples on asking questions to achieve it. Roughly, the group should explore the area, the Duke should get them into trouble and worse trouble, and then the group escapes.

Afterwards, the facilitator writes up a gazette entry in the persona of the Duke, then adds footnotes and a d6 table from Podrick’s point of view.

I mentioned Podrick before. Podrick is a special character who exists to undercut the Duke’s pompousness. She’s presented as the observant and practical member of the team. The rules call for the Duke player to occasionally ask “What was that, Podrick?” In those cases, whoever answers first answers as Podrick. Her footnotes on the gazette entry give the facilitator a way to provide more detail while staying in character.

Overall, the longer text and transcript of play make me feel like I have a better handle for how to facilitate this game than Doomed Pilgrim. Also, the persona of the Duke makes a great hook to get people in character.

Second or post-play impressions

For various reasons my regular group couldn’t make it to game day, so I decided to pull Gazetteer out as a way to get some gaming in even with sporadic availability. I threw together a map with HexKit and started an email thread.

I think email was a little awkward for the game, which encourages short snippets rather than long thought-out responses. Also, since we were playing as a group, I felt some pressure to make sure everybody got a chance to chime in, which slowed the pace of the game and probably contributed to it bogging down partway through. It took us about 4 days total to finish, and then I made the Gazette entry.

On the good side, playing Duke Arbold was a lot of fun! I enjoyed narrating his puffery and making bad decisions out of arrogance and obliviousness. (Of course he drank the mysterious vial of blue liquid one of the servants brought back!) Everyone quickly latched on to the style of narration and contributed wonderful details to the setting. People also enjoyed the asynchronous aspect of it; one player couldn’t make it till later in the day and commented it was a delightful thread to catch up on.

If you’re interested, here is our Gazette entry: The Forest of Lies and Deceit (PDF).

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