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.
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.
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.
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):
- Lady Blackbird
- Grey Ranks
- Breaking the Ice
- The Shadow of Yesterday
- In A Wicked Age
- Don’t Rest Your Head
- The Final Girl
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?