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.