Indie Gems – Small Things (2016)

Small Things

Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300Designed by Lynne Hardy and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series. The fifth of these is a game by Lynne Hardy, titled “Small Things”.

The introduction begins as follows.

In Small Things you play a noble guardian who protects your House and Family from whatever may come along. Problem is, you’re only little.

The default setting is Britain, somewhere between 1930 and the mid-1950s (but without the inconvenience of a World War and rationing), but you can also set it in your country during the same mythical time period. Small Things takes place in a world of faded colours, good manners, few labour-saving gadgets and tea made in big brown teapots and left on the hearth to warm under a stripy tea cozy.

If games had a smell, this one’s would be like hot buttered toast, newly baked bread and cakes, fresh cut grass and clean laundry. It might look a bit like a Raymond Briggs graphic novel (but much, much cheerier), or Wallace and Gromit without the modern conveniences.

 This is one of those games that appears to be simple under the surface, but holds a wicked sharpness underneath.  It’s a game where each of the players portrays one of the small being, almost a spirit of the household. They are hidden from the big people, unappreciated for their hard work at keeping a household. They fight valiantly against disrepair, dust, and clutter, which threaten the Family. It seems to be a beautiful metaphor for how feminine-coded labour is treated by society, and it’s masterfully done.

When you begin the game, you collaboratively determine the kind of home, such as a country cottage, a flat, or an old home. You then pick the kind of family which lives there; anything from a big family, to grandparents, to a single bachelor. This combination of home and the family that lives there does a fantastic job of increasing the diversity of potential play experiences, and the kinds of problems they are likely to face. Simple elements combine to create novel situations, and the structure allows for episodic stories as homes or families change.

The resolution system is elegant and thematic. Each of the Small Things has a few special abilities, things like mending cloth, or closing doors. If they want to do something that they have a relevant ability for, they succeed!  Otherwise, they need to work together with other Small Things to come up with a creative solution. This structure means that the Small Things are driven together, either to cooperate, or bicker based on their personalities.  The Caretaker watches over the whole affair, by introducing wrinkles such as Big Things (people), Creatures, and the malevolent spirits of disrepair from the Outside.

Brew a pot of tea, curl up with a comforter, and enjoy the game!

Indie Gems – Acceptable Losses (2016)

Acceptable Losses

Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300Designed by Tova Näslund and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series. The fourth of these is a game by Tova Näslund, titled “Acceptable Losses”.

The introduction begins as follows.

Acceptable Losses is a freeform story game of family drama set in a dystopian near future, where people live in a self-sustaining building, large enough to holds hundreds of thousands of people. The social classes are represented by which floor you live on – the higher in the building you live, the higher your social class. Your social status can change depending on how hard you work; an “employee of the month” is announced at the end of each month, and is allowed to move up a floor, while a family that doesn’t fill their work quota is sent down a floor to be replaced. 

This game takes place in the slums of the lower floors of the building, where a community of maintenance workers are based. It looks at the daily lives of those maintenance workers, and how they either sacrifice their own hopes and ambition of the good of their families, or break away to pursue their own best interests.

This game describes itself as a freeform story game, and the description seems apt. Acceptable Losses feels, to me, as a curious hybrid of Montsegeur 1244 and Archipelago. Like Monsegeur 1244, it describes a rich web of dramatic relationships between pregenerated characters. Like Archipelago, it uses a set of prepared cards for resolution, with each card saying something such as “Yes, and” or “No, but”.  This combination of rich relationships, and simple dramatic resolution, pairs together in a beautiful way.

I think that the elegance of the game cannot be overstated. The mechanics for the game are relatively minimal, with a simple rules to handle any conflict which arises. Instead, the designer focussed their efforts toward crafting a compelling situation, rife with possibilities and drama. The game is set in a corporate archology, barely self-sufficient in the dystopian world. The crushing poverty and class-based oppression bear down on your characters, who are torn between their following dreams and caring for their family.

The game offers premade lead characters from the same family, a cast of minor characters, and evocative locations to enable interesting story moments. You define these locations be answering a series of leading questions, which help you define the world your characters live in. A question about the police station is “What do the holding cells look like, and what happens to those who are contained there?”   Similar questions exist for the bar, the harsh exterior walls of the archology, the upper floors, and the character’s communal apartment. Each fact anchors the setting in the collective minds of the players, helping them understand their character’s lives.

Acceptable Losses is a clever game and well-crafted work of art. It is worth your attention.

Indie Gems – Heroes of the Hearth (2016)

Heroes of the Hearth

Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300Designed by Stiainín Jackson and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series.  The third of these is a game by Stiainín Jackson, titled “Heroes of the Hearth Rise and Fall”.

The introduction begins as follows.

Today, we do not sing of the adventurers. Today, we sing of the people behind the adventurers. We sing of their stories. We sing of their struggles. We sing of how they themselves deal with the threat that holds their lands in thrall – the threat that dragged their loved ones from their sized. The Heroes of the Hearth.

This is a complex and well-crafted game that focusses on the loved ones whom the adventurers left behind. Each person portrays one of the various individuals from the village who are related to one of the mighty adventurers: the spouse of the Barbarian, sibling of the Paladin, Child of the Bard, or the Rogue’s betrothed. Each of the player characters are defined by a key question you aim to answer in play, such as “What are you afraid of” or “Do you really believe in the gods?”. They also have a list of potential bonds with the other player characters, such as “You idolise this person and want to be just like them” or “This person is a threat to your business”.  These few elements bring enough richness and characterization that a robust community drama can emerge.

Drama does indeed emerge out of this relationship web.  Play proceeds through a series of acts, corresponding to interactions with the great darkness. Act 1 involves the characters writing letters to the adventurers, while Act 2 involves hearing rumours and news from the front. Act 3 includes letters from the adventurers, which is then followed by an attack from the threat. In each of the first three acts, players declare if their characters appear strong or weak, in the face of the difficult situation. Those strength and weakness checks will inform how the village will respond to the threat’s attack.

The game builds these beautiful tragedies, offering player all of the tools for safety (X-card), improvisation (Yes-and), and vulnerability (playing to lose). The game reminds me in many ways to Montsegur 1244 or Witch: Road to Lindisfarne, with the pre-generated characters doomed to an inevitability tragic situation. The system is streamlined and clean, while offering ample tools for storytelling.

I thought quite highly of this game, and then I discovered the additional scenario at the back. This additional scenario changes the context of play, from Tolkeinesque fantasy to French villagers in World War II. This thoughtful, additional scenario is excellent, and has seduced me even more than the original one. The game is perfectly calibrated to tell human stories, and it’s an excellent reference for future designs.

Indie Gems – Rise and Fall (2016)

Rise and Fall

Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300Designed by Elizabeth Lovegrove and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series.  The second of these is a game by Elizabeth Lovegrove, titled “Rise and Fall”.

The introduction begins as follows.

Dystopias come from somewhere, and they go somewhere. They appear because someone is able to convince others that they are reasonable, and they disappear because someone is able to exploit their weaknesses. They rise, and they fall.

 This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

The core loop is a straightforward question-exploration-interpretation cycle, which proved its utility in Microscope scene setting.  As players, you cycle through a series of scenes that explore the dystopia. One person poses a question and picks out two characters to play through a scene that seeks the answer. When the scene is done, you write the answer down on the central ideas sheet. You continue to add more details to this sheet during play, which creates a compelling artifact.

You repeat the same process for each scene, with the role of questioner rotating around the table.  The first third of the scenes explore the rise of the dystopia, the middle third explores its operation, and the last third demonstrates the collapse.  This game stands apart from many others, though, by explicitly encouraging generational play. Each player doesn’t have a single fixed character, but rather they embody a persistant archetype such as “Artist”, “Matriarch” or “Warrior”.  During play, you create new individuals who fit in both the archetype and the society at that time, discarding characters freely.

I am fond of this game, but I feel that it is a tad understated and restrained. The framework of the game would be robust enough to handle much broader and more complex stories than the base scenario.  When I get the opportunity to run this game, I plan on hacking it into a 3-session experience, so that we can dedicate more time to explore each of the three phases of a society. I feel that this game has too much potential to be limited to a single session.

Indie Gems – When the Dark is Gone (2016)

When the Dark is Gone

Designed by Becky Annison and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.

Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”.  I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series.  The first of these is a game by Becky Annison, titled “When the Dark is Gone”.

This game starts with an excellent summary that I will steal outright.Seven-Wonders_cover_350-200x300-200x300

Imagine the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They visited a magical land, fought battles alongside talking animals and centaurs, and won a war against a powerful and evil enemy. Then they returned home, no-one believed them, and they were back to war time rations and maths homework.

What does that feel like? How did they live with the memories of what they saw? Did they end up in therapy?

This is a game about children who went through a fantastic ordeal in their youth which traumatized them. It’s an emotionally gripping and ruthlessly compelling game about a group of broken people, trying to fix themselves.  Each player portrays one adult with a psychological disorder stemming from their childhood heroics. The GM plays the role of the Therapist, charged both with the safety of the players and in encouraging productive exploration of the character’s issues.

The game is only about 40 pages of content, but it offers some of the most robust GM guidance and support that I have seen in any game.  It explains the role of the Therapist to listen and reflect back, and not to judge or create. It asks the GM to establish an atmosphere, ask open questions, allow players to choose their story, share spotlight time, maintain the pace of the game, and maintain the focus on the characters. It teaches participants on how to improvise, incorporating the advice from works such as Play Unsafe, Impro, and variety of other larp sources. Last, but most important, it offers tools for safety so that the obvious sensitive topics can be addressed.

For players, this seems to produce very emotionally rich gameplay.  Each character is defined by a psychological disorder, two cornerstone relationships with other player characters, dark secrets associated with those relationships, and one redeeming feature.  It’s a simple list of ingredients, but they do an excellent job of creating a cohesive and dysfunctional group of adults, bound to each other by their common trauma. The game tells you that your characters is hurting, and asks you to explore what part of their childhood fantasy ordeal caused this pain. It offers a chance for catharsis and healing, and the emotional Bleed off this game should be significant.

I look forward to bringing this to the table. I just need to acquire some Turkish Delights first.