Oooh! How has a game surprised you?

This is a nice question. I love surprises! Mostly love them.

Bad surprise: prepping for Coriolis, super excited to try out the next iteration of the Mutant engine (which I’ve played and loved in Mutant: Year Zero, Mutant: Genlab Alpha and Tales from the Loop). Doesn’t work. All the good stuff is gone, lots of dumb new things got added that don’t really work.

I pride myself on being really good at pulling out the core essence of any game through reading and play. When I can’t find the fun, I tend to blame the game. Sometimes I know it’s me, though. It’s not me when it comes to Coriolis. Or Rogue Trader. Or 13th Age, although in that game’s case it was 100% a stylistic mismatch. But it was a surprise because I really thought everyone would be into the advancement grind. They were not.

Good surprise: Montsegur 1244 the first time. It was an early foray, for me, into the totally systemless, GMless, freeform space. It’s got some soft emotional manipulation build into it, mostly via the march of scenes toward an inevitably tragic end. I also chose a way-too-raw characterization for my main and secondary characters. I was left really shaken, and I gotta say it continues to surprise me. I’ve got surly old grey gamer bona fides which usually comes with a big dose of cynicism, and my experience with Montsegur was undeniably powerful.

Another good surprise: King Arthur Pendragon. If “trad” games had built their traditions upon KAP, I don’t know that I’d have ever moved on to other schools of design. This continues to be, for me, the most effective game for building a big, sprawling family drama with super deep investment and unironic play. Just amazing. I’d love to get it going again someday. I’ve fiddled with other throwback “oh hey remember this?” games but this is the one time I felt like I’d uncovered forgotten gold.

And my latest good surprise: Bluebeard’s Bride. Super interesting design, weird structure, doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve ever played. Ostensibly PbtA but really far afield in that style. I had the advantage of having played it with the amazing Katherine Fackrell at the helm this year. But it surprised me anyway on so many levels. Mostly I was intrigued by how experimental it is, like, as in it not really working or playing like any other RPG while still having the trappings of conventional play.

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0 thoughts on “Oooh! How has a game surprised you?”

  1. Oh damn, Rogue Trader, yes. After trudging through character and ship generation for 2-3 hours we played for like 45 minutes before I said “you know what, fuck this game” and that was it.

  2. I really liked 13th Age until suddenly, swiftly and definitively, I didn’t. So I guess it surprised me by changing from fun to unfun so fast. I feel like it’s a great implementation of the core D&D conceit, but some of the bits just got so much more love than others.

    Montsegur… yeah. That was a case where I was surprised by how hard people played it all around the table. The guy across the table who was playing my wife made himself a modest little headscarf that he would wrap on every time he played her in a scene, and his body language was transformative. I honestly think it broke his real-life heart a little when I accused him in-character of being unfaithful. Amazing how much that game is able to pull out of people. Oof, and when I handed Kimberley Lam (playing the little boy) a dagger and told him to protect the Grail (one of our card prompts) with his life and we both instinctively knew where the scene had to break, and then Kim had to go run off and get a hug. Dang that game is so good.

  3. Weird surprise: sending Paul Beakley my second copy of Rogue Trader and having him rip into its core and finding the words I couldn’t to describe the problems I had with the game.

    It was also my turning point in RPGs from trad to less trad games. I’ve been paying the price (physically, mentally, wallet-ly; for better or worse, till death do us in) ever since I mailed that book to Arizona.

    Best thing I ever could have done regarding this hobby.

  4. David Benson I mean games where it’s real easy to slip into an ironic tone. D&D is super easy to play for laughs, for example. Some combination of tropes and rules and nostalgia and culture. That’s not “the game,” it’s the whole package

    Like, I never felt like I could or should push anything “funny” in KAP. It was neither grim nor dark, just played super straight. Power and family survival and glory and existential threats and faith are all serious topics, I guess.

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