My buddy Jay and I were speculating (well, dishing, complaining, bemoaning) on the Slack today about what it is that leads a player to be a lone wolf at the table. I’m not even sure this is an “indie” or storygame topic so much as a fact of life at many tables. Without even a faint hint of snark, here are some ideas that came to mind:

1) Desire to not have to share spotlight

I can kind of get this because I love spotlight time, but structurally privileging your own spotlight time is a dick move. Come on.

2) No interest or capacity for interpersonal scenes

There may be legit damage here, yeah? “No interest” is antisocial but “no capacity” might be a scenario too. Or it’s rooted into simpler “why I like to play” stuff, which has nothing to do with chitchat and “fluff” (barf) and everything to do with beating the game.

Yeahhhh. Not at my tables please.

3) Fear of rejection at the table

I have the most legitimate sympathy for this one, and as I was typing it out memories of exactly this thing happening crept up on me. Creative or interpersonal rejection sucks, yeah? And it’s a very nice aspiration to play only with friends who love and respect you. But we’re not all wired to give or receive those things. I’ve disinvited players for just that, after lots of talk and struggling and unpleasantness. Therapy is for therapists.

I have an even greater sympathy for this scenario in convention spaces. Safety tools don’t even begin to address the underlying fear. Some, like the X card, might be seen as facilitating rejection. Not that it’s really ever used that way, but I know that the X-Card haters bring this up as a big argument against it.

4) Fear of having fictional stuff threatened: family, friends, social connections

Yeah. There are shitty GMs out there. Sorry that happened to you. I have no idea what to say to that other than “play with different folks” and/or “flag the shit out of this as a no-go zone.”

5) Bad nerd wiring about “heroism”

Lots of really misguided ideas out there in nerdland. It’s coming in from games (rpg, board, video), from many kinds of genre fiction, or just plain lack of critical evaluation of heroic fiction. If all you’ve watched is John Wick, you know, you might want to expand your horizons.

6) Internal fantasy space about the nobility of the misunderstood loner

This one has hit home a few times in my own life. I wish I had a better grasp of exactly what the arc of the misunderstood loner was supposed to look like, because that might be a legitimately interesting thing to explore. I really dig the feels-forward playbooks in games like Monsterhearts and Masks that get at that. But in both those games, the holding environment of the game jams you up against not-loners. The character concept only works in the context of a broader community.

7) Missing some empathy circuit or gamer training that identifies people as enmeshed with communities

This is at the very edge of one of my darker theories about what’s wrong with (bad) gamers. I won’t get into it now. But: if you literally have never thought about who raised your character, who their friends are, who their rivals are, who they’ve loved, who they’ve lost…that’s weird, okay? At the very least, it means you have no interest at all in engaging with the fiction as anything beyond a tactical game. (I don’t care who my Grim Dawn character has slept with, either.) Which leads me to a more charitable take on a similar speculation:

8) Inability to engage with the game space as “fiction” and/or a preference to engage with the game space as “where the game happens”

I get it. I do. I think inability and preference are two different things on the inside of your skull, but on the outside they kind of play out the same. Happily the most popular RPGs in the world work quite well in this mode!

In lieu of a roleplaying night (I just wrapped up a ton of make believe at NewMexicon), we played out first for player game of HLAS last night.

I still dig it quite a lot, but it’s apparent that it’s the kind of game that improves with expertise and punishes those without it.

We played all new factions: the Lionkin, the Lizardfolk, the Elves, and the Undead. Only the Elves are from the base set, and the Undead see from the second expansion (and apparently are the hardest faction to win with).

Airship faceoff on the abandoned Elven continent. Definitely my favorite moment.

I feel like I had a much better grasp of the game’s rhythms this time, what the arc of development to warfare to global catastrophe looks like. The Elves destroyed the Undead capital, and then there Lizardfolk flew their battle beetle over to destroy the Elven capital. The Lionkin mostly stuck at home, advancing their capital the whole way, giving them what looked like a decisive advantage. But it ended up a tie between the lizards and the lions, broken only by the lions’ larger resource reserves.

My flying battle beetle spent a lot of time lurking near my capital. Or carrying out extreme renditions against lions and skeletons.

Twice now we’ve ended the game crazy close, and twice now the game has ended with eXtermination, ie taking out a capital. Having lost a capital last game, no way was I gonna let that happen again.

I suspect the game is really sensitive to the meta-environment of your local group of players. Now that the old hands have learned how to murder a city, I’m betting that is hoping to get harder.

Okay yes, I’m enamored of my battle beetle.

We played 4p in about 5 hours. Lots of the endgame was super minmaxy, which I don’t love but that’s how you get final scores that close.

Time to play a few more times! Lots of factions left to play.

Saturday

I’d been running on pure PLAY PLAY PLAY energy since I posted Saturday morning. Apologies for not keeping up my correspondence from the ground. I’m still recovering from lack of sleep, spine-crushing sitting stretches and oversalted road food.

First game Saturday was Inheritance, a larp from Burning Wheel creator Luke Crane. It’s a Viking blood opera for nine players. I’ve facilitated Inheritance three times, I think, but never played it. It was a huge help to already have the sprawling relationship map in my head. I played the grumpy dad of a family gathered to make claims on the estate of the grandfather who just died. I played him as the Ultimate Toxic Patriarch, which was both ironically amusing and sort of horrifying on the spot. I’d take up way too much room everywhere I went, man-spread my own wife almost out of her chair at dinner, and pretty much only focus on the last thing that made me mad, over and over, forgetting the last thing when something new made me mad.

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The view from my freshly stabbed corpse. The rest of the family is moving on with ruining my legacy and everything we’ve ever believed.

Several of the players were Pathfinder/D&D folks who had never played a live-action game before. Inheritance is as good an intro to larp for trad players as Burning Wheel is an intro to storygame-y ideas for trad players. I think everyone was blown away, there were nothing but great performances, and even the shy players got in on the fun. My asshole paterfamilias got knifed and totally had it coming. Laying on the floor “dead” and watching the family proceed to ruin everything I’d built was top notch fun. I’m looking forward to trying on more of the roles at future events.

My Saturday afternoon game was Good Society, a Jane Austen-inspired romp featuring love triangles, romantic tension, misunderstandings, and tons of social maneuvering. For whatever reason, I’ve got tons of Regency romance in my head: the tropes, the style, the expectations. No idea where it came from. It was the game that left me with the most design-oriented feelings afterward.

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The Hedonist: on brand much? Yes please, give me the hugest maw with which to chew all this scenery.

Our GM had already built a couple playsets for the con. One was romantic tragedy and super-patriarchal gender roles. The one I played was romantic comedy and full-on ultraqueer, like, gender literally doesn’t matter in any way at all.

Turns out Recency romance gets weird when you take gender out of the equation. Not bad! And by no means not fun! But also: much of the tension baked into the genre has to do with the expected roles of men and women at the intersection of class and means. Finding new sources of tension to replace that was an interesting exercise. I played a low-class hedonist (who controversially wore slacks, since we decided clothing was gendered, sure, fine) and formed a marvelous love triangle with a high-class heir (whose father disapproved of our relationship and would not grant the inheritance until he found an suitable spouse, but definitely not my hedonist) and a younger society lady (who didn’t know the heir and I had secretly engaged once and desperately wanted my advice on how to land him). My character ended up feigning a terrible illness and manipulating everyone around her. Romantic comedy!

I mentioned designy thoughts. For me, the genre of Regency romance relies a lot on unspoken gestures and coded action, and the lack of ambiguity about those things to the audience because dramatic irony is a fundamental tool of the genre. When I make a glance and quickly look away, the reader is most definitely aware of it in reader-land. But in roleplaying-land, opaque intentions are murderously hard to play toward. I’m not persuaded Good Society fully addresses that design problem.

One very nice bit of design in Good Society is that everyone has one Monologue token. During play, when you absolutely positively need a straight answer out of someone, you can play your Monologue token on someone and listen to their true inner thoughts on any given topic. “How do you really feel about your little sister’s love for that stuck-up heir who is clearly too high-stationed for her?” And so on. Monologues are great! And they do achieve that meta-release of information to the players so they can triangulate and clarify all this vague, in-genre hinting and muttering. But it’s incomplete, maybe on purpose! There were a couple moments in play where someone would demand I provide straight answers about my character’s schemes and I’m like…can we play to find out? Please? That aggravated them because they had no idea how to plan out their own play, and it aggravated me because I’m trying to engineer a Big Reveal. I’m on the side of explicit intent in most roleplaying experiences, so I can totally appreciate that drive. But I’m also eager to play toward the Regency thing that all will be revealed in good time and there’s a happy ending for everyone.

There is a lot of other neat stuff in Good Society and I encourage anyone with a fondness for Austen et al to give it a look.

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Every person at this table is a top-shelf rock star player. But even rock stars need to cut loose.

My Saturday night was, alas, mostly fueled by gin and tonics from the cash bar they’d set up for the con-goers. So of course I fell into a game of The Dark of Hot Springs Island running on B/X Essentials.

This was my third go at OSR-y play in as many years. Twice now I’ve come away bored, angry, confused or utterly neutral. Third time wasn’t the charm (spoilers!) but Hot Springs Island is a super interesting experience. It’s a hexcrawl game, where you poke around a map and find interesting things. I learned a lot about a whole style of OSR product/experience, of which HSI is apparently only one of many. This is not my jam but the things I liked about playing were: monster factions with motivations and needs (i.e. the default mode isn’t to just murder them), the very old-school value that only GP are XP, problems can be solved by rolling against your stats, and random tables generate most of the play content.

Hot Springs Island consists of a very large, beautiful book for the DM filled with a gazillion tables, lush (frequently porny) art, maps, lots of tools. But the killer app is that the players also get a book. Diegetically it’s notes about the island purchased by the characters, and it’s super detailed, interesting, illustrated, confusing, and fun to read through. We spent a good bit of time listening to monster descriptions and then fumbling through the book to find the notes. It was fun! And I don’t know that I’d ever run it. But I’m looking forward to returning to the island next year with these players.

New Mexicon: Sunday Sunday SUNDAY

Sunday is a one-slot day at New Mexicon, from 10 to 2 pm. I had been weighing what to run, kind of half-convinced that I’d tapped out my facilitation batteries for the duration. But the folks who show up to muster Sunday morning (rather than nursing hangovers) tend to be the ones ready to play hard.

I’ve been hauling around a printed, trimmed, ready-to-play set of materials for Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne for a couple years now. I first learned about it at Dreamation 2016 via multiple rants and swooning reports so I bought a copy but never felt like I had the right crowd to run it with.

Let me tell you about Witch.

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Taken shortly before the uncontrollable weeping began. I tried so hard to be “good!”

The game is freeform tabletop, meaning you’re on your butt but doing larp-y things, i.e. talking and describing and emoting, not rolling. This is not me asserting a label! Just an explanation of what you actually do.

The premise of Witch: tRtL is that, in 1305, the Church has captured a young woman and declared her a witch, indeed the very cause of the plague that’s ravaging the land. Five men are escorting her to Lindisfarne, where she will be burned at the stake, thus cleansing the land of her satanic touch and ending the plague. Tl;dr it’s about patriarchy.

The game is comprised of characters on six slips of paper, a “map,” and a pair of cards that basically say “guilty” and “not guilty.” The witch player’s character slip has lots of special instructions and cues, but at the table it looks like she’s playing out pretty much like everyone else. Everyone else is a dude: a monk, a deserter from the Crusades, an old untested knight, the old knight’s young squire, and a shifty guide who’s probably a scumbag. The dudes all have three traits to play toward and three questions you’re trying to get at, and hopefully answer, by the time the game is over. It’s a fairly typical structure for talky freeform games, but this was published in 2012 so my sense is that it’s one of the earlier ones in that mode.

When you start, the very first thing the witch player does is decide whether the witch is guilty or not. The player puts their choice in the middle of the table, next to the “map”. I keep scare-quoting that because the map is just a visual reminder of the five-ish acts you play out en route from London to Lindisifarne. You move a little token as you play.

Everyone but the witch then has an introduction scene. Look at how relatable my dude is! We’re already looking ahead at our list of questions and trying to lay down the groundwork to answer them later.

The next three acts are steps along the journey, with a little thematic/mood tag to guide everyone. In London, heading out on your journey, you’re “hopeful.” Later, in the Hangman’s Wood, it’s “threatening.” Then you get to the Cliff Top Pass and the tone is “tumultuous.” Finally you arrive at Lindisfarne, which is “decisive.” Besides the tone guidance, there are additional instructions for everyone, the order of play flip-flips, and so on.

Basically the whole game is one long exercise in emotional manipulation. It’s very effective. What I’m saying is, if you’re not up for that manipulation, this game will not be your jam. I’m a huge sucker for that but I’m also too open to it (being a dad has made me sensitive and weepy, dealwithit.gif), so I have to be careful about when I play these and with whom.

I was a total wreck at the end of Witch.

The most difficult bit of the game is the Absolution scene. Each player, in order, is faced with a decision: read a passage describing your complicity in burning this woman, or do something else. I was second in order and I didn’t have the courage to try and save her, despite the revelation that she was my sister. I’ve been sitting with this scene for days and it’s still gnawing at me. The young squire, who had once tried to marry Eloise (the witch), breaks ranks and claws at her on the pyre. The two old knights drag him off and scold him for his outburst. Pretty much the most toxically masculine things we could do. It was a very powerful sequence.

I think the very cleverest psychology/design bit of the game is that just before each man decides to burn the witch or act, Eloise finally gets her introduction scene. Only at the end do we get to see her as human and multifaceted and relatable. And our particular witch player nailed that hard. Here’s Eloise playing with the squire’s sister. Here’s Eloise sneaking a kiss with the squire. Here’s Eloise getting beaten by her father for sneaking off with that boy. Oh my heart.

Then the witch revealed that she was in fact guilty all along.

Oh my god.

It was my most impactful session of the convention. I can’t accurately call it “fun” but I’m so grateful to have finally played it. I think it was even more impactful than my one run through Montsegur 1244, a feels-forward game in a very similar vein.

And Then Even More Gaming

Remember that ongoing campaign of The One Ring I mentioned last post? Yeah. So that happened after the final Sunday slot. It happened for six more fucking hours. The hotel was empty, one other crew of ultranerds were banging out a game of Masks elsewhere in the big vacant hotel restaurant, and there we are. Not going home. Not sleeping. What is wrong with us?

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Check out these derpy nerds. Except Jahmal, that suave bastard.

Now that we’ve had a bunch of hours of exposure to the TOR rules, I’m mostly caught up again. Unfortunately it’s all gonna go away in the months it’ll be before we play again. The big chunk we all had to digest was how to integrate a slew of new rules from Adventurer’s Companion. They’re mostly combatty things: roles you can take in a battle (which adds a cinematic layer to the fight) and new maneuvers you can undertake while fighting.

(Yes, this was an massive – and necessary! – tonal shift from my Witch beatdown earlier. In fact my immediate debrief was to sit in on a game of Warhammer 40,000: Wrath and Glory. Kill monsters! Fascism! But I digress.)

What I’ve really enjoyed about the rolling TOR campaign concept and the folks who have signed up is that, absent anyone’s iron grip on system mastery, talking through all the vague bits that are part-and-parcel to trad/trindie games never feels like a heated argument. It’s more like a bunch of deeply educated, opinionated rabbis discussing the Torah. We can go way deep down rabbit holes of design intent and procedural patterns, bounce stuff around, and nobody is invested in Winning My Way.

My band of merry ultranerds spent an hour fiddling around with the after-adventure phase in TOR, the Fellowship Phase, where the characters will chill out for the winter in Rivendell. But we got all the way through the first complete adventure of Ruins of the North and will be able to start anew with whoever we care to recruit to our table next time. Fun format, wish I’d thought of it sooner.

I am so very tired now.

I’m in Albuquerque at one of my favorite indie-spirited roleplaying conventions, and reminded that I might be getting too old for this nonsense.

My tradition with this event is to road trip out from Arizona with a good friend, get here early, and start gaming early. So we played through a bit of a long, slow playthrough of The One Ring that I bring out sometimes. Nice! I’m leaning hard on the adventures in Ruins in the North, which is…fine. It’s not as good as Darkening of Mirkwood.

My first formal event I ran was The King is Dead, which after four plays continues to be my favorite con game. I have a strong aesthetic need/desire to have a mix of men and women at all my tables, but in particular TKID, so I asked for that and that was maybe weird to do at NMCon’s muster style pitch without discussing it with the organizers first. Still processing a better way to get that in the future without the weirdness.

My second game was Seco Creek Vigilance Committee, a very loose freeform about justice and vengeance in the old West. I had a super strong table of players, and great players are irreplaceable. A fine time filled with tragedy and grim satisfaction.

A corpse-eye view of two families arguing. I had just died.

More tomorrow! I’ve already died once in Inheritance, the awesome Viking larp from Luke Crane.

This is a guest post from Aaron Feild, who has an amazing talent for tracking down one- or two-page one-shot storygames. Print all these out for your go-bag and never be bored at a con again!

Hello, my name is Aaron Feild (@turgidbolk1 on twitter if you must), here are some microgame one-shot suggestions. I’ve played all of them to good effect at cons, though I’d suggest test-driving them with a home group first if you get a chance.

“Microgame” means the rules are small enough to be printed out entirely, most can be played quickly enough that you can play again or play another microgame afterwards.

Most of these require just a few reference pages and some index cards. I assume you have a selection of dice. Usually there’s no prep needed, however the creative lift is offloaded to the players at run time. I’ll note exceptions or other requirements.

As always at cons, bring your own consent tools:

Script Change: http://briebeau.com/thoughty/script-change/

X-Card: http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg

The Games

SKEW

http://www.tao-games.com/skew/

Collaborative sci-fi horror mystery generator that turns into “guess my explanation.” GM-less, everyone plays the same protagonist. You don’t even need to read through it first, but do. Plays in 2 hours tops. (Btw the protagonist will probably have strangely contradicting aspects, e.g. a man named Jennifer, a lower-class doctor, etc.; this is intentional, normalize it.)

Life On Mars

https://heartofthedeernicorn.com/product/life-on-mars-digital/

Minimalist sci-fi RPG, mechanical precursor to Fall of Magic, take turns selecting and answering simple prompts. You’re on the first crewed mission to Mars, what’s that like for you? GM-less. Sadly the physical version is out of print, so get yourself 5 nice unique tokens.

Nano World

http://www.finemessgames.com/nanoworld-a-game-of-clones

PbtA where everyone plays clones created and enslaved for one purpose. Two moves – if you are designed to do it, you do it. If you aren’t designed to do it, roll, and maybe you can do it now or maybe you never can.

Enter The Avenger

https://www.worldswithoutmaster.com/enter-the-avenger

Scripted structure around freeform dialogue of the Avenger interrogating suspects and deciding whether to kill them. GM-less, sword and sorcery. Print out two copies so people can pass them around. Needs a deck of cards (but really only 6, you can make your own set from index cards). If you’re facilitating, do not play the Avenger, and start as the Narrator role.

Invisible Empire

https://www.worldswithoutmaster.com/invisible-empire

Take turns making up fantastical sword and sorcery stories of your travels, but beware the judgment of your fellow players who represent the court of the capricious Silent Emperor. GM-less.

Ghost Squadron

https://ufo-jay.itch.io/ghost-squadron
Otherkind, Psi*Run, Ghost/Echo style dice. You died but your brain was scanned and conscripted to fight via mechs, which damages your few remaining emotional memories. Print a copy for each player. It can help to imagine a few possible military missions/alien planets ahead of time. (One rules tweak – change the Failure under Attempt to “Player says what they’ll need from another character to succeed.”)

Editor’s note: Aaron ran this for me at the Arizona Game Fair and it is super neat! I think one more round of development would be nice. I hope Jay considers doing so!

Agent Down

http://groundhoggth.blogspot.com/2014/04/agent-down.html

One person plays the Agent who has just been (nearly) killed in action. The other players frame flashback scenes of their career based on card draws. Spy action/thriller genre. Needs a deck of cards.

Snakegrinder

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/120165/Rough-Cuts-6-Micro-Games

Part of a microgame collection, although I haven’t tried the others yet. Simple dice and narrative scenes plus a little meter/xp tracking, GM-less. Snakegrinder is a Sliders-style time traveling 80s glam metal band that have to fix someone else’s problems to get home! Think Bill and Ted. Actual guitar picks preferred, but cut-outable ones are included. Strong facilitation helps.

Vast & Starlit

https://dig1000holes.wordpress.com/vast-starlit/

Simple scene-setting with narrative resolution, with a clever cliffhanger mechanic, and collaborative alien creation. GM-less. Expansions available but not necessary. Sci-fi/Space Fantasy ship of prison escapees on the run. Strong facilitation helps.

Lady Blackbird

http://www.onesevendesign.com/ladyblackbird/

Probably the most well-known on this list. Simple dice pool-building, plus narrative Keys. Space / Steampunk Fantasy. Lady Blackbird hired a smuggling crew to help her escape an arranged marriage and meet her lover across the solar system, but you start off captured. Strong GMing required.

The Oracle

http://tentacletheory.co.uk/games/the-oracle/

Weird phrase interpretation mechanic needing a novel or other tome. You play priest/esses interpreting gibberish divine speech from an oracle. PvP – each player has a hidden agenda, and interpretations are vetted by majority vote.

Other Games

Borderline entries with slightly more rules and longer play time:

Kagematsu

https://sites.google.com/site/creamaliengames/Home/kagematsu-the-rpg

Narrative scene-setting with one player judging/reacting secretly to the others. A woman player plays the man Kagematsu, masterless knight, who happens upon a war-torn Japanese village with mainly women left, under (supernatural?) threat. Other players play the village women trying to convince Kagematsu to stay and defend them. Will he love or pity them, or both? Try to work your way up the ladder of affection – or jump ahead at your peril. Technically GM-less, but strong facilitation helps. (I have not tried it, but if you don’t dig the woman player restriction, there’s a KaGaymatsu hack: http://www.gentechegioca.it/smf/index.php?topic=9371.0)

Carolina Death Crawl

https://bullypulpitgames.com/games/carolina-death-crawl/

Role-playing card game. Special cards required, which you can buy or print yourself. GM-less. Civil war betrayers try to make it back to friendly lines from their former homeland of North Carolina. Every one will die, except perhaps one. Technically competitive, but more focused on trying to work prompts in to the narrative. Eliminated players become ghosts who may larp haunting the survivors.

So Very Many More

Looking for more? There’s a whole passel of super tiny games available from the 200 Word RPG Challenge: https://200wordrpg.github.io/

I did that thing where, while doing my taxes, I stumbled across a vast, huge, unexplainable charge on my credit card. What on Earth could I have Kickstarted for $200 last year? Oh, right. Yeah. I went all-in on Heroes of Land, Air and Sea.

I may or may not have spirited this mess out of view as quickly as possible.

Seeing the ridiculous pile of boxes that arrived Monday legitimately made me fear for my marriage. The pile is absurd. I first saw the boxes in person in the boardgame section at the Arizona Game Fair last weekend.

Happily I have a mostly understanding spouse, and the boxes look like they’ll all pack down into one box once I’ve assembled everything. That means no deep culling in my pretty-much-filled, no-more-room game room.

Two hundred bux for a game does weird things to one’s brain. I still feel the sting with Gloomhaven: after the all-in and the utterly necessary organizer from The Broken Token, it’s like $260ish? I don’t recall. But that much money makes it hard to know for sure whether you’re actually enjoying your game, or falling down a cognitive dissonance hole.

I think I like HLAS. I’m pretty sure that’s not the money talking.

We got in a quick 3 player game Tuesday afternoon before our regular RPG night. Despite the vast sprawl of crap on the table, it really did go by pretty fast. Some of that was because of the quirks of our particular setup, and the fact that I had no idea how catastrophic it would be for the human faction to swat the hornet’s nest of the orc faction.

So it begins. Those little cardstock buildings are the distinctiveness of the game: you also get towers and air/sea vessels to punch out and assemble. ‘Dorbs!

The basics of the game are very straightforward. There are four races (super obvious: orcs, humans, elves, dwarves) and four continents. Each race is mildly asymmetrical: their hero pieces are different, and their buildings do different things. It’s not the radical asymmetry of Root. You spend the game pursuing the very literal 4X goals, any one of which will end the game: exploring all the regions on the map, expanding by deploying all your serfs and warriors, exploiting (abstractly; you have to build all three of your towers), or exterminating an opponent’s capital city. Yeah, so that’s what happened to the poor humans. Happily, the total player elimination isn’t so bad: there’s only one round left after anyone’s been eliminated.

You win by scoring victory points, yawn right? But there are some neat tricks: not only do you get a point for starting a fight, you get one if you play any tactic beyond “fighting.” There’s a whole nifty system where you can spend resources to execute a siege, or a first strike, or recruit serfs from the rest of the continent, barricade yourselves, whatever. And they’re all worth points. Retreating is worth negative points. You coward.

The rest of the game is spent building up your capital city, which represents the faction’s overall “technology level.” Every hero, building, and vessel improves when the capital city improves. It’s very nifty.

Honestly? The game does everything I want a 4X fantasy game to do. There are no real procedural surprises, which on the one hand is a little boring but on the other makes for a very easy-to-learn-and-eyeball game. There’s also real depth in how you might play through any of the factions. And now there are two big-box expansions and a half-dozen small-box expansions, so now there are 10 factions, support for 7 players, and just…a lot of game in there.

Our first three player game was done in about 90 minutes but I’m pretty sure our next three player game will go longer, mostly because it does suck to get overrun and eliminated. And there’s a lot to learn to get good at the game. I imagine a full seven-player game is in the 5ish hour range.

I got to scratch a big title off my storygame bucket list last weekend.

I came to the storygame/indiegame thing late-ish. The first game I’d call “nonconventional” (because I think terms like “storygame” and “indiegame” are invitations to pointless arguments, and “narrativist” drives me into a fury) was Burning Empires in 2006. Loved it, hated it, it confused me, it broke my brain, I wrote many words about it. Half my players quit on me and I can’t even blame them. Made new friends, rebuilt my brain’s needs and expectations, and here we are, 13 years later.

By the time BE came out, The Forge had been doing its thing since around 2001. Quite a few “nonconventional” games came out of the early scene and I sprinted to catch up, five years in. Of the eight listed at Wikipedia, I’ve played all but My Life With Master and Donjon. Sorcerer is sort of on that list as well, in that I’ve only played it via a Barsoom-flavored sci-fantasy variation called Dictionary of Mu at a convention several years back; straight Sorcerer remains a mystery. Those games are the beginning of my storygame bucket list.

The big one is Phoenix, the little one is our local storygames community.

I attended the Arizona Game Fair last weekend because I had heard they’re trying to build out their roleplaying offerings. And they are, but in very conventional ways: more Savage Worlds and Shadowrun and D6 and World of Darkness. So, you know, fine. It’s not (just) ballrooms of Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. But it’s still pretty conventional, because cons have bills to pay and for whatever reason, metro Phoenix continues to be a black hole when it comes to anything approaching a storygaming community. The con had nothing to offer me roleplaying-wise beyond tables and air conditioning, but my buddy Aaron Feild was attending. He has an amazing talent for finding and rolling out what he calls “microgames.” That is, complete RPGs, storygame-style, that usually take up just a page or two and run great in a one-shot format.

My face when all the con offers is all the same stuff I can get at the FLGS.

The game I got to scratch off was Swords Without Master by Epidiah Rachavol , which bills itself as a swords-and-sorcery game. It’s literally a couple pages of player-facing material. As of right now, it’s available only as a 30ish page magazine article for $4, are you kidding me with this. It’s just barely “a game” at all, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t count as one for that ballroom full of conventional convention players. But it does what it does very well.

Eidolons! Literally any inspirational art one might hope to inspire works.

The basic structure goes like this: everyone looks at inspirational art, called “eidolons,” to come up with a little seed of a character concept. Everyone is supposed to default to a Conan-esque setting filled with characters who have no master (hence the title): peasants serve the nobles, nobles serve a monarch, the monarch serves the peasants and nobles, but the characters are masterless rogues, free to do whatever they feel like. Then you write a name on an index card, doodle down a couple distinctive nouns that are hands-off for everyone else at the table (say, a distinctive sword, or an implacable foe, or a secret palace), as well as a couple other descriptors. That’s it. That’s your character.

Honestly, that first bit is the only thing about the game that structurally says “swords and sorcery” to me, the rootless wanderers at liberty to find trouble. Once you get past that bit? SWM is a set of tone management and pacing facilitation tools. It’s a storyboarding metagame. And hooboy is it a treat to play.

Mechanically, there are very few ideas but they’re very nifty. The basic game offers three kinds of phases: discovery (add to the world), rogue’s (show off your character being awesome), and perilous (show how your rogue gets out of trouble). Each phase plays out in a different-but-similar way, with players rolling to see if their contribution will be “jovial” or “glum.” And those terms are ultra-loose, there only to nudge the players toward divergent tones for their rogues.

There is a GM-ish role, called the Overplayer, who’s responsible mostly for tone management and starting phases. The phases play out until someone hands the dice back to the Overplayer, who is then responsible for moving folks to another phase.

In play, the game feels a lot like you’re scripting out a show in terms of where you feel the investment: as an author, I thought, more than as the rogue. There’s no success or failure, not really. The characters move through their stories, occasionally facing setbacks but never really failing as one might in a conventional RPG. That said, it’s also a system (or methodology or whatever else you want to call it) that you can get better at. I’d love to take a second shot at the game with players who are comfortable with their options and have a firm grasp of the game’s patterns.

I’ve only experienced SWM as a con one-shot, but there’s a robust campaign mode as well as several options for advanced play. Would it be enough to bring together players for weeks on end? Certainly. Months? Depends on the players.

The Rest of the Bucket List

My storygaming education is pretty complete, but I’m always on the lookout at conventions for well-run tables of (in no particular order):

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all storygames I haven’t played, but they’re the ones I want to play the most.

What’s on your bucket list?