Role-Playing Games: Gamestorm Mini-Reviews, Part 2
44: A Game of Automatic Fear
44 is a suspense game, set in the smoky, gin-soaked 50s, where fear of nonconformity runs in the blood. One player is the Director (the GM) and each other player plays a character with a statement called a Ticker that vaults them into play: someone you know has been replaced with a robot, and you’re next. Others don’t believe you, but you can tell. Radio music and lights flicker when one of them is around, or they all drive black sedans, or they have waxy skin and false eyes.
The game plays out in four rounds. In each round, every character has a scene, and every scene drives to a conflict, and we roll dice to see how the other end of that shakes out. Depending on how the player has his character approach the conflict, certain dice are rolled against the Director, who has her own special dice based on how she used Operatives of Section 44 (robots) in the scene. The players are trying to uncover the conspiracy, and the Director is trying to replace the main characters, and turn them into Operatives.
For the first two rounds, our game was pretty intense! It built slowly, with lots of evocative description and tense action. The idea is that getting turned into an Operative will always be a threat to the main characters: something to ratchet the suspense. The problem with our game was that, by the third round, it became clear (looking at the dice economy of the game) that the Director no longer had real teeth to threaten the players. We played out the third round, slowly realizing that the shadowy threats had no weight, and we wrapped it after that with a quick epilogue. The first two rounds were great, but it felt like the game kind of gave up the ghost on us, and that was disappointing.
Slammin is a delicious, hilarious game. It’s by Jackson Tegu, which means it’s not on the internet and it’s not widely available, unless you’re lucky enough to see him in person.
Each player (no GM, here) chooses a playbook at the beginning of the game, and they are all The Hipster.
You play out a week, Tues-Sat, wherein you maybe:
IMPROVE YOUR LOOK: today you scored a new thing or honed your appearance.
CHANGE YOUR JAM: today you got into a new thing and it fucking rocks.
FLOSS YOUR ACTION: today you talked up how much you’ve been getting it on.
We played fast n’ furious, reading the rules as we went. You’re basically trying to be the coolest Hipster and have sex with the most people (including stealing your friends’ hookups). On Saturday, you all go to a music show at Douchebag’s, which is of course the bar you frequent, and someone ends up hooking up with the totally hot singer.
I was pretty punch-drunk when I played Slammin’, at the end of two and a half days of furious playing, but it was the jolt I needed. It’s poking fun at the idea of the hipster while also kind of loving it. It’s also a sequel of sorts to XXXXtreme STREET luge, and in that sense it’s poking fun at indie tabletop rpg culture. Play it. If you can find it.
Shelter In Place
A LARP! My first? Yeah, my first. The particular session I played in was agonizingly discussed and dissected here, so that’s a good thing to read if you want it. I’m a little talked-out on that aspect of it, so instead I’ll talk about how I had fun with Shelter In Place.
There were about 40 people. Half play humans trying to survive in a shelter, half play zombies trying to break in and eat the humans. The game plays in three acts, and then the teams switch, and the game starts over,vso you get to play both humans and zombies in a single game of Shelter in Place. That’s rad, for starters. It’s also short, taking two hours or less to play through the whole game, both sides.
What makes it dynamic is that the humans have to leave the shelter to get supplies that are scattered all over the playspace. The zombies can break down the shelter, but not in the first act. All the players have a number; all the humans have the same number as the other humans, and all the zombies have the same number as the other zombies. When a zombie tags a human, there’s a little countdown, and then “combat” starts, wherein folks compare numbers to see who wins. It gets a little more complicated, in that while counting down to combat, other humans or zombies can rush to tap in, thereby bolstering their numbers.
At the start of the game, the humans’ number is higher, and the zombies’ lower. As the acts progress, the numbers change, with the zombies growing in strength and the humans getting more desperate. Built-in drama.
Anyway, the most fun I had in this game was just embodying a zombie. As a zombie, you can’t run. You can only shamble. Oh, and shamble I did, trying to perfect my Dead-Leg Shuffle, my Wet-Noodle Neck, and my Moan of Despair. The combats were sometimes exciting, sometimes cumbersome, and I never really got a chance to shine and just do something really cool. This was the same when I was a human. The humans all have conflicting goals, and by the second go-round of the game, we had the rules down well enough that the game ended blazingly fast. I was trying to get my bearings and figure out how to go for my goal (get involved in every combat). It’s harder to do than it seems, in the midst of chaos.
I’m not a LARPer by trade, but I figure at least part of the fun is really embodying a character and trying to approach that sense that you are somebody else. I didn’t get that as a human. Becoming a zombie was easier, and I didn’t really get sick of all the moaning and shambling (though some did).
I think the convention environment might have been going against the game a little. I could see Shelter in Place really shining at night, in the woods.
Cards Against Humanity
We ended this game on a round that included the combo “Chinese Food” and “Menstrual Blood.” It was 10am. That is how we roll, I guess? It is Apples to Apples with dirty words and disgusting situations, which should be all you need to know. I will play it again, with a beer in my hand. Done.
Religion, Faith, and Roleplaying Panel
I was on this panel with the esteemed Messrs. Ben Lehman and Joel Shempert. It was good! We wished it could have been two hours instead of one, and we wished we could have had more religious, cultural, and gender diversity on the panel, but it was a thought-provoking discussion. We hit a number of interesting topics, among them:
- How do you play an authentically religious character?
- What are you taking into your hands when you make a game about an experience that is not your own? Specifically when that experience is that of a religious or cultural minority?
- What do religion and roleplaying have in common (a lot, actually)?
If you’re interested in the whole thing, I think it’s worth a listen. You can find it right here, on archive.org
Dungeon World: Planarch Codex
Have you been to a convention? Then you know the last-day, or last-game, exhaustion that hits you. I ran this game because I had to, and I wanted to, but boy, it wasn’t under the best circumstances. I made some poor choices. In Dungeon World, your character has a list of moves that, when you do them, you have to roll dice and see what happens. So if you say you’re attacking someone with your sword, that’s the move “Hack and Slash”, and you have to roll dice and then do what the move says according to your roll. I opted to keep the sheet detailing these basic moves from the players, in the interests of keeping them “in” the game (whatever that means). The idea was that I could call for rolls as needed. About halfway through, I realized they didn’t know half of what their characters could attempt! So that was bad.
But it wasn’t all bad.
For the record, Dungeon World is a game that runs on the Apocalypse World engine, but is all about creating the play experience and fiction of D&D. So, you know, kick in the dungeon door, slay foul beasts, and get some sweet loot. The Planarch Codex is a little project that aims to let you do adventuring out on the planes and the inter-planar city using Dungeon World. Think “plane of existence.” Think weird pockets of worlds full of demons, or angels, or both. Think of a mix between Planescape and Perdido Street Station.
So I was trying to run this playtest of a nascent add-on to a pretty solid game. So the session was pretty solid, with some hiccups, where it was clear I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
The best part was probably the beginning, where we had our characters (a Rat-man, a Half-demon Half-giant, and a Marsh Dwarf with some Spiderlord blood) stealing a map from the inter-planar city of Dis that led them to a plane of endless prisons, wherein they wanted to get their hands on the famed Senys Stones, magical beads that would let them hop from plane to plane. I was pretty excited about the whole “plane” angle. There was a call-out to combat, bloodshed in the streets, then slinking down back alleyways finding their way to the prison plane. Pretty sweet, actually.