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.

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 givenĀ  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.