RPG Tax Review: The Companion’s Tale by Laura Simpson

What is it?

The Companion’s Tale is a collaborative storytelling and mapmaking game game by Laura Simpson of Sweet Potato Press. In the game, you act as historians and unreliable narrators telling the story of a great Hero during a time of change. The game is packaged like a board game, with three decks of cards, rules reference cards, and a booklet-style rulebook. The base game supports 3-4 people. There are variants included for two players, and for 6-8. The pre-orders have shipped, and the plan is for the game to be available for order from Indie Press Revolution.

How did it get my attention / Why did I buy it?

I played an awesome session of it at a con, facilitated by the designer. I missed the Kickstarter, but was able to pre-order it on Backerkit.

What are my first impressions?

The cards are gorgeous. The three decks are the Theme, Companion Archetype, and Companion Face cards. The Theme and Archetype decks are standard poker-card size, but the Face cards are larger Dixit-sized cards that show off the evocative art. The Companion’s face takes up most of each card, but the details in the clothing, adornments, and backgrounds provide springboards for inventing stories.

The first third of the rulebook is how to play the basic game. Then comes a short section of facilitator tips. The remainder (more than half!) consists of 11 game variants.

The basic game rules are clearly explained. The facilitator tips give useful guidance about how to make the session go smoothly and bring out the most interesting aspects of the system.

There are so many variants, and as with the Romance Trilogy, they are gold for a game designer. There are two variants that change the supported player count: Duet gives rules for two players, and the Diaspora variant I playtested supports 6-8 players. Unfortunately, there are no specific rules for five players, the size of my regular gaming group. The remaining variants cover an array of themes and settings, from first contact between cultures to magical girls. One technique used to good effect in many variants is curating the Theme and Companion decks, ensuring that certain motifs come up through the game. In the Lovers’ Tale variant, where all Companions once loved the Hero, the “Love” Theme card and “Lover” Companion card are pulled from the decks and placed on the table for everyone to incorporate during their turns. It’s such a simple change, but it sparks ideas for other variants along those lines, or even randomly creating a variant. The A Tale of Villainy variant, where the “Hero” is viewed as a villain, has you curate a separate villainous Theme deck, ensuring dark Themes like Corruption, Punishment, and Vengeance are drawn during the game. The most detailed variant is Guardians of the Arcane City, which converts the game to tell the story of urban fantasy magical girls. It goes over curating the decks, gives new initial world-building questions, tweaks every phase of the game, and transforms Act 3 into a final showdown with the evil Nemesis. It’s a great starting point for making your own hacks.

RPG Tax Review: Posthuman Pathways by Jason Pitre

What is it?

Posthuman Pathways is a GM-full roleplaying/storytelling game about the impact of technology on society, as seen through the lens of three characters. It comes as five folded pamphlets in a cardboard envelope. One of the pamphlets unfolds to become a play mat, one describes setup and character creation, and the other three give details about the game roles players take. The game is for three people, needs 14+ index cards, and claims it will take 3-4 hours. There’s a PWYW PDF version at DriveThruRPG.

How did it get my attention / Why did I buy it?

I received Posthuman Pathways for free as a reward for participating in the Genesis of Legend Emerging Voices Challenge. I’m embarrassed it’s taken me so long to get around to reviewing it!

What are my first impressions?

My very first impression was surprise at the unusual format of the game. The envelope of pamphlets makes for a compact form factor, and I think the breakdown actually works for the game. One pamphlet becomes the play mat, one has the game setup instructions, and the last three pamphlets detail the three game roles. All pamphlets except the play mat also include the overall game structure and rules. They’re small enough to be easy to hand around as you rotate roles.

During game setup, you prepare the Context (locations) and Pressures.  Each player creates a character, deciding on a name and their four drives: Status, Identity, Vision, and Ritual. For each drive, name what they value most in that category. e.g. for Status, name a social standing or political position they are desperate to attain.

The game consists of three eras with three scenes each, plus brief transitions in the middle and epilogues. The eras are the Human Era, the Transhuman Era, and the Posthuman Era. Each scene, each player takes on one of the three rotating roles: Trailblazer, Voyager, or Guide. The Trailblazer sets the scene, the Voyager plays their character, and the Guide provides antagonism. For the next scene, pass the booklets around so the Trailblazer becomes the new Voyager, the Voyager becomes the new Guide, and the Guide becomes the new Trailblazer.

The first Trailblazer kicks off the game by answering the question “What augmentation technology changed everything?” At the end of the scene, they write a new question for the next Trailblazer. If they’re stumped, the game includes suggested questions, which all push the game towards exploring the societal and cultural ramifications of new technologies. The Trailblazer also sets the broad context of the dilemma facing the current character, and then hands narration off to the Voyager and the Guide.

The Guide’s main responsibility is to provide pressure and antagonism to the Voyager, ultimately forcing them to choose whether to sacrifice one of their drives to get what they want. At the end of the three eras, a character may be down to a single drive. The Trailblazer/Guide split makes the game easier to play by distributing the usual GM responsibilities across two people, and allowing them to focus on specific aspects of the fiction.

After every three scenes, the current era ends. After the first two, time jumps forward to the next era, and each player gets to narrate a short interlude about it. After the end of the Posthuman Era, each player narrates an epilgoue for their character.

The game structure lends itself to big idea social science fiction, grounded by focusing on the lives of three specific characters. The Trailblazer questions and pressure to sacrifice drives encourage exploring the social impact of technology. A possible drawback is that in order to keep things moving and focus on the big changes, there’s not a lot of time spent on each character.  People who like to really spend time with and inhabit characters may find it unsatisfying. In that way, Posthuman Pathways is similar to Microscope. I think the focus on specific characters and the role breakdown make it easier than Microscope’s “hot seat.” I’m really curious about playing it, but it’s rare for me to wind up with exactly three people up for playing an RPG. I may see about finding a group online, or using it to outline a novel!

RPG Tax Review: Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy Part 2: Shooting the Moon

What is it?

Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy is a collection of updated and revised editions of three of her games, Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, and Under My Skin. It also includes three “Companion Games,” which are based on those three but have significant changes. For the purposes of paying my RPG Tax, I’m treating this as a bundle product and reviewing the games separately.

Shooting the Moon is the second game in the trilogy. It’s a game for three players who take the roles of two suitors competing for the hand of a beloved.

How did it get my attention?

Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon were on my radar from Forge discussions way back. I was intrigued by games that departed so far from typical RPG fare, and could be played with only two people.

Why did I actually buy it?

I missed the original release announcement for the Romance Trilogy, but saw a later announcement when it was on some kind of special sale, I think for Valentine’s. I had Breaking the Ice from way back and not really gotten to play it, but the inclusion of Shooting the Moon and the less-romantic Companion Games made me decide to get it.

What are my first impressions?

Character creation starts with sketching out the Beloved by naming Attributes, defines the Suitors in relation and opposition to those Attributes, and ends by fleshing out all three characters. Play alternates turns between the Suitors and the Beloved. In each Suitor’s turn, the active Suitor approaches the Beloved, while the other Suitor’s player provides opposition. This plays into the rivalry of the suitors. During the Beloved’s turn, they create a challenge for both Suitors.

During the various turns, you can get more dice for later rolls and for your goal by allowing other players to make trouble for or change your character. This incentivizes having characters that actually change over the course of the game, and that get into trouble, rather than having static characters who don’t face hardship.

The rules overall seem fiddlier than Breaking the Ice. I think this is because of the asymmetry in roles, with the Suitors and Beloved having different functions and responsibilities.

Like in Breaking the Ice, the Strategy & Tips section is a goldmine of useful advice, and helpful for designers trying to understand the game.  The Alone Against the World variant adapts Shooting the Moon for use as a solo game about two Seekers with conflicting Goals traveling a dangerous land. It includes evocative tables of prompts and questions, and has you map out the Seekers’ movements across the land. The Versus Nature variant is the longest. It also involves two Seeker players pitted against a third playing Nature, but has rules for up to seven players. There are six possible roles players may take, and it’s a fascinating example of how to divide player responsibilities in a GMless game.

Overall, it’s a worthy sequel or follow-up to Breaking the Ice, especially for anyone with an interest in asymmetric GMless games.

 

RPG Tax: Mars Hates Homework!

This is an RPG tax entry, where I read and comment on RPG products I purchase.

What is it?

Mars Hates Homework is a brochure-sized “quick role-playing game for 2 to 6 players.” It’s by David Kizzia of Monkeyfun Studios.

How did it get my attention?

I was at a con and saw it in a fellow player’s bag during an unrelated game, and I found their booth when exploring the dealer stalls.

Why did I actually buy it?

It sounded like a fun one-shot with a strong hook, and more likely to get to the table than some of the other games I saw there. Also I felt bad about chatting with the booth runner for so long and it fit my budget.

What are my first impressions?

The player-facing parts are written in a suitably hyperbolic style with plenty of exclamation marks. It evoked Invader Zim, one of the major inspirations. I laughed at the Martian name generation method: remove the vowels from your human name, then add punctuation randomly. They even used it for the credits!

The system is inspired by Lasers and Feelings, with the axis being School! (superior alien intellect) vs Cool! (social ranking). There’s a third resource, Fool!, which represents your ability to conceal your alien nature. Each session takes place over the course of one school day, ending with the players giving an Invasion Progress Report to their commanders. Failure at the day’s mission is not an option, so players are encouraged to lie creatively to make the events seem like a success, especially since Invasion Command knows humans even less than the PCs do!

The GM section includes details on structuring the day’s class schedule, tables for generating scenarios, how to play various adults, and other advice. The scenario tables amusingly contrast the mundane with the alien. Since each table has 6 entries, I could see getting repeats if you play a lot, but for a one-shot there should be enough material.

Overall, it looks like a fun game, especially with players who like to ham it up and are fans of Invader Zim or Third Rock From the Sun. If your GM improvisation skills need some help, the structure of Mars Hates Homework! should make it easier to GM than Lasers and Feelings. And that structure fits perfectly with the source material!

RPG Tax: Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy part 1: Breaking the Ice

What is it?

Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy is a collection of updated and revised editions of three of her games, Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, and Under My Skin. It also includes three “Companion Games,” which are based on those three but have significant changes. For the purposes of paying my RPG Tax, I’m treating this as a bundle product and reviewing the games separately.

Breaking the Ice is the first game in the trilogy. It’s a game for two players to play through a couple’s first three dates, determining whether or not they stay together.

How did it get my attention?

Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon were on my radar from Forge discussions way back. I was intrigued by games that departed so far from typical RPG fare, and could be played with only two people.

Why did I actually buy it?

I missed the original release announcement for the Romance Trilogy, but saw a later announcement when it was on some kind of special sale, I think for Valentine’s. I had Breaking the Ice from way back and not really gotten to play it, but the inclusion of Shooting the Moon and the less-romantic Companion Games made me decide to get it.

What are my first impressions?

The book takes full advantage of being a second edition. It includes common ground rules for playing all three of the games, since relationships can be or bring up touchy subjects. In addition to the main rules, each game has a Strategy and Tips section that explains nuances of the rules and roles, and a Hacks and Mods section with variants.

Character creation starts with the players discussing ways they are different from each other, and choosing one axis of difference for their characters to switch. For example, if the two players are from different countries, each could play a character from the other player’s country. The switch pushes both players out of their comfort zones, while encouraging them to look to each other for guidance and approval. Which is a little bit like going on a date!

The game takes place over three Dates, each consisting of four to six Turns, alternating between players. During each turn, the active player narrates first things that go well and then things that go poorly to build up various dice pools. There’s a menu of possible narration types for each pool that help set the tone of the game, e.g. take positive action or use words that call on either character’s Traits to earn Bonus Dice. The menus provide clear guidance for what kinds of things to narrate. The book calls them out as an entry point for modding the game.

The Other Worlds section of the Hacks and Mods contains alternate settings and setups for Breaking the Ice. Some are minor variants, like Adventures Long Ago and Far Away, which describes how to set the dates against an action/adventure story in a setting other than the modern day. The variant I found most fascinating was With the Woods, about a human who leaves civilization and takes refuge in the wilderness. One player plays the human, the other plays the natural feature (like a mountain) the human takes refuge in. The Other Worlds showcase how small changes can greatly affect the kinds of stories the game produces, and how the game’s structure can be adapted to tell stories that look very different than the default setting of modern romantic comedy.

As a designer, the Strategy and Mods sections are gold. They contain good advice from many plays of the game, and break down how and why the game works the way it does. I’m looking forward to reading more of the games in this collection.

RPG Tax: Of the Woods: Lonely Games of Imagination

Edit: Link to post describing the RPG Tax: http://games.nightstaff.net/2018/04/01/rpg-tax/ . In short, it’s a resolution to immediately read and comment on new RPG products that I buy or otherwise acquire.

What is it?

Of the Woods: Lonely Games of Imagination is a collection of lonely games curated by Brie Sheldon. “Lonely games” consist of some scene-setting text, then a series of questions to develop the situation. By answering the questions, you create a story.

How did it get my attention?

I follow Brie Sheldon on G+, so I saw the initial announcement when it was released. More recently, there was a thread about small games where someone brought it up.

Why did I actually buy it?

The recent thread reminded me that I meant to check it out, it was only $5 with proceeds going to The Trevor Project, and I’m trying to support more niche creators. I also keep thinking about doing more solo roleplaying, and this looked like a nice bite-sized way to get started.

What are my first impressions?

Haunting. Evocative. The prose snippets and questions sketch a setting and situation with only a handful of words. Some games resonated with me more than others. Hollow by Kimberly Lam is my current favorite. The games are ordered so they flow together. The last two, I Believe by Chris Bennett and Home Again by Adam McConnaughey, each add an extra mechanic.

What are my second and/or post-play impressions?

The questions about relationships and the first-person viewpoint made the game feel unexpectedly personal. I’m not sure about sharing the story that mentions a mother with my real mother, for example. I think if I paused after reading the initial text and before answering the questions to form an idea of my character, I would have a stronger alibi in place and less emotional bleed-through. But the power of the games comes from that personal place.

Also, I want to write one now.

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.