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XP: Pulse

17 Nov

Pulse is an interesting game to me. On one hand I feel like it is what I wanted Microscope to be. On the other, it is a mixed experience. For the first half of the game I feel like the game isn’t delivering and by the end I love it. I’ve played it twice now, and that was my experience both times.

So, I’m going to complain a bit. The text is very unclear in some spots (well, the translation is, anyway), and I just don’t know if I’m understanding it or not. Some sentences are missing words – important ones, too. Turns out, after a brief exchange with the game’s designer, some of these mystifying clauses are left overs from earlier stages of the game’s development. The end product is actually a much simpler game, which I think is a very good thing. However, there is no guidance for various sections, and asking good questions in the Investigation Phases is super important. Expect to lean on your intuition for your first few playthroughs. The fiction you create is always unexpected and super interesting though. So it works, even if it feels like it may not be running smoothly.

I feel as though this game isn’t a story game (I guess, actually, it’s not billed as one, though I got that impression). I think it’s actually some kind of stealth freeform theater game. By the end you are acting out a peculiar tribunal, and you are invested in defending your interpretation of events. I honestly think it bears many marks of being pseudo-jeepform in style. At least, that was how it struck me. When I run it again I plan to emphasize those elements and see what happens.

A short XP, but I really don’t have much else to say. I am absurdly fond of Pulse, but it has it’s warts. I think the final version of the game – which is a later revision from the GameChef entry – addresses most of the speed bumps I’ve mentioned, if not all of them. I think a patient read (while making notes) and a little inspiration could make for some memorable experiences. Also, it’s a fairly slow game, and I found it very useful for playing when my mind feels thick. It warmed me up for the second day of Technicolor Dreams, and that was kind of a life-saver!

I know I’ve whined a lot here, but this is actually a very positive review. Pulse will be one of the games I use to introduce new players, right next to Fiasco and Archipelago.



22 Aug

SKEW 8 20

Last RSG we game SKEW, the new surreal science fiction story game by Ben Lehman a spin. Two spins, actually, and great spins they were!

I confess that reading the text itself did not leave me super excited to play. I was curious, I like the genre and flavor, and Ben’s games are some of the best anywhere. But, as soon as we sat down to play things really kicked into gear.

SKEW takes place in a sequence of Phases that guide the story into, and possibly out of, misunderstanding. Players take turns narrating what happens to the protagonist and their world (unlike many role playing games, there is only a single protagonist shared by the table in SKEW) in one or two sentence turns. This is very reminiscent of one of Ben’s earlier games, Hot Guys Making Out.

A simple token economy paces the encroaching weirdness, and eventually, one player at a time will speak for the weirdness of this bending reality. The short turns keeps the pace of the game brisk, which accommodates for a large group of players. This also allows for a steady stream of creativity. Since things change so quickly you have to listen attentively to your fellow players. This prompts very functional play, and may be one of the chief reasons we had such a good time.

Our first game took about an hour and a half, and the second took about an hour. The second game was facilitated by one of the players who had no experience with SKEW beyond the first game.

Clearly, SKEW is very accessible. After the game we reflected on our play, and many of the players commented on how this would be a good game to play with non-gamer family members, or in one players case, how it might be used in her classroom.

For our plays the early Phases were the most fun and exciting, and while the later Phases didn’t drag, they were not as poppin’ and the first few. In one of the final Phases the players ask questions of the GM (the player who speaks for the weirdness) as they try and figure out what is going on with reality. Both of our games slowed during this Phase. In our second game we distinguished between asking questions about the details of the established narration, and asking questions about the nature and workings of the weirdness. This was a critical distinction for our play, and is something I will mention in my future plays of SKEW. The text itself isn’t terribly explicit on this, but I feel this approach is likely in the spirit of the rules.

Our first game saw a postal worker attempt to deliver a non-euclidian package to a superspace processed cheese factory only to become a kind of sentient metaphor for certain elements of Greek mythology via a Hero’s Journey quest against a implicitly nihilistic minotaur while on an errand to replace Hermes.

Our second game was the story of Napoleon, a ukulele playing islander who got caught up in a rock ‘n roll battle of the bands with Nordic Gods, Satan and the miserable souls of hell at sea after sounding the lowest pitch possible given the diameter of the physical universe which happened to free an entangled titan. Napoleon successfully (?) re-created God from the kindness in his grandmother’s soul by way of a strange parent-child paradox (“it’s complicated”).

I have no doubt that each player would sum up these games differently, but hey, that’s SKEW. You don’t tell just one story, you tell a spectrum of possible stories, and each is as crazy as the last.

Read more about SKEW here: Enjoy!

XP: Kagematsu

29 Jun


Sorry it’s been a while since the last XP. I played Monsterhearts that week, and I’d already written about it, and I didn’t have anything to add. But I’ll make up for it now with a huge review of Kagematsu!

Kagematsu is a romance game set in feudal Japan. The most interesting thing about Kagematsu is not it’s subject matter, but rather the highly gendered lens through which that subject matter is viewed.

There isn’t much to say about the game’s mechanics, and there is a lot to say about the game’s process, so let’s get this out of the way. The mechanics are clear, coherent and simple. They do exactly what they mean to and nothing more. Even the slightest glance at the meaning of their implementation shows thematic insight (such as Charm vs. Innocence – as you lose Innocence you gain Charm, which is a statement about gender and sexuality). Elegant and practical! Moving on.

The killer app of Kagematsu is that the text asks a woman player to take the role of Kagematsu and everybody else to take the role of a Townswoman. The Kagematsu Player is “Scene Manager” and has the first and final say on scene framing, but can also delegate a portion of scene framing ability to the other players if they choose. Kagematsu can even frame the Townswomen into scenes, saying what they are doing and where they are doing it. On the flip side, the Townswomen may never speak for Kagematsu. Even if the Kagematsu player allows a Townswoman Player to set the scene, it is still up to the Kagematsu to enter that scene how he will. Finally, my reading of the texts suggests that it is not in the spirit of the game for Townswomen Players to offer suggestions on scene ideas until the Kagematsu Player asks for their input.

However, the Townswomen decide which affection they are going for, which is resolved by a die roll. Which means that Kagematsu has no say over that – only how it comes to pass (if it does) and what he thinks of it after.

There are a number of observations one can take from those data points.

First of all, it is a very gendered statement. Kagematsu has all the narrative power, and the Townswomen just have to fit it however they can. However, Kagematsu also has the responsibility to frame scenes. Let me tell you, Kagematsu is looking at framing probably forty to fifty scenes. Half that would be exhausting. Which means, that despite the asymmetry of power distribution between the genders here, actually it sucks for everybody. This is a play critique of gender inequality and how, by performing this form of oppression as a culture (which we certainly do) we do harm to the whole of our culture.

Second, it is also interesting to note that for all of his narrative power, Kagematsu does not have control over his fate. It’s dice rolls all the way down for him, and his success or failures are blind to his input. He may color his actions, but ultimately he will be ushered through his destiny with no choice and no voice. Even the Townswomen get to choose whether or not they die, but not Kagematsu.

The Townswomen, however, ultimately succeed not based on the die rolls, but based on Kagematsu’s Love for them, which is completely independant of the Townswomen’s success at the die rolls.

In fact, winning an Affection Roll has two mechanical effects, lowering Fear (which helps Kagematsu, not the Townswomen) and Acts of Desperation (which, if used to win a roll, are somewhat more likely to each Pity instead of Love for the Townswomen, and actually work against her), and neither directly help the Townswomen. The only was a success on a die roll helps a Townswoman is if the fiction described after changes the tone of the scene so that the Kagematsu Player chooses Love over Pity. But, since Kagematsu gets to say how that transpires, Kagematsu would be leading the conversation in which he convinces himself that he loves this woman. So I am going to maintain that the outcome of die rolls has only a small effect on the overall success for a Townswoman.

Which means that the Townswoman finds her success in her fictional actions and the actual roleplay by the player. Which means that her actions in game do have a direct impact on her success. For not having any voice in other parts of the game process, the Townswomen have the only voice here! This “judgement mechanic” that weds the fiction to the eventual outcome is super slick. That it is also used in the inverse of the rest of the mechanics to complete this gendered statement is quite remarkable.

I have only one gripe about this game – for a one shot, it takes quite a while to play through to it’s natural conclusion. if you hunker down for a full play, expect 6-ish hours. This is one of the rare cases where I think the constraints of the RSG event actually improved play. We effectively added a rule that at 9:25 Kagematsu abandons the town. This really encouraged the players to frame strong scenes and play right to the point. It was very tight and had more energy that the full “natural” play I was in a few nights later. It’s not exactly to the spirit of the game, but it did focus our play to a very beneficial end.

I would highly recommend this game. There is a reason Kagematsu has a legacy f influence in the story game world. This one is definitely staying in my bag as a go to game from here on out!

You can find information on Kagematsu here.


XP: Spione

27 May

Having read nothing more than the woefully inadequate blub by the designer on the game’s website, I really had no idea what to expect from Spione.

I get the sense that the game text supplies a lot of context and background information that I, personally, would have been glad to have. I haven’t played in many spy fiction games, and part of the reason for that is that I struggle with the genre. I just don’t know what to say or how to say it sometimes. I would be happy to play Spione again, and probably in more than one session, but I’d like to read that book first and soak up as much detail as possible.

One of the neatest features of the game is the way scenes are handled. Players may chose to continue and old scene or begin a new one for their principal character (if they have one) or for another player’s principal. This cycle is interrupted by Flashpoint, which is essentially the conflict resolution system for when interests conflict.

This paces out the story in a very organic manner. You cut back and forth with the interests of the group and bring all stories to a boil at the same time. It’s very cinematic and its super easy to follow.

Flashpoint uses a deck of cards to determine who gets to say what when and how far they can go with it when there are competing elements in the story. Just like the scene cycle, this is a very transparent way of doing business.

The strengths of this game are in being simple, clean and flexible. The weaknesses in this game are when the game is not those things.

When developing the principal characters, who are spies, a player must sort through what felt like dozens of sheets of identities and organizations, and then whip up a connecting tissue of background data.

Those sheets were extremely hard to follow. I never did get how to read the organization sheet (a flowchart of concentric boxes with no instructions on how to read the diagram), and the identity sheets were very poorly laid out for such simple information. I felt like I needed to do something with all of that information, but had no idea what it meant, nor any inkling of how or even why I should use it. Starting the game was very disorienting and I think this could have been avoided if this information was presented in a readable and non-overwhelming way. It would be an easy fix.

Worth a look see!

XP: Love in the Time of Sied

25 May


Love in the Time of Sied is a gentle refocusing of Archipelago for a Nordic/Viking epic saga. My infatuation for Archipelago is, by this point, well documented, and frankly, LitToS makes no improvement on Archipelago. The text includes some odd statements and presentation at points, which was a little perplexing. But, it comes with a ready to play scenario that is reasonable easy to jump into. So, if you are looking for Archipelago without needing to do quite as much set up, this would be a fantastic choice.

For the most part, the strengths of LoiToS are the same as Archipelago. The game gets out of your way and gives you only the tools you need to tell an awesome story in a functional way. It’s easy to shoot from the hip and get awesome results each time. The weakness of the text are generally non-existant once you get to actually playing.

We had kind of a situation on our hands when we started: we had only three players instead of five. This is not ideal, and required some careful juggling of the other roles in order to optimize our results (King, Knight and Siedkona is what we went with and it worked sooo well). We opted to take some time to a history building and Key Phrase introduction exercise since we had so few players. I was a little unsure of this at first (feeling that the one reason I would play LitToS is so we didn’t have to do this), but we had time, so why not?

This included one player asking another a kind of leading questions about this history of the realm. While the player answered we used the Key Phrases to fine tune it to  our tastes. This was done in a kind of narration style and not a role-playing style. We ended up with a synopsis of the history and an outline of their mythology.

And the way it intersected with our play was brilliant. It was so easy to make intuitive and consequential moves in the narrative. Our game only lasted six scenes, but they were super tight, brought major developments each time, and honored the previously established fiction so thoroughly that we were surprised again and again how beautifully interwoven or story was. It was a peak experience and possibly the most satisfying game I’ve played at RSG ever.

It’s really tough to pinoint what makes these peak experiences happen. The game was flexible and builds in calibration of tone and expectations. All three of us were on our game as storytellers and gamers. It was noisy. We started pretty late and had a long break. We were down two players. The text is weird. Only one of us was any kind of familiar with the culture in question.

I’m inclined to say that a light dusting of complication as we had helped to keep us alert, on our toes and focused on making it a good experience. When you have to take every opening in the story in order to make it a good experience, well, you keep a better eye out for those openings, and you take them. Whatever it was, we had a simply amazing game.

XP: Dirty Secrets

23 May


I was really skeptical of being able to have a positive gaming experience with Dirty Secrets.

I had to read the text three times just to be able to order all of the information in my brain. There is so much paraphernalia. The mechanics are anything but transparent.

But, despite all that, the game rocked.

Many of the procedural conventions which may seem a little arcane at first dove tail quite nicely into the other mechanics and this in turn helps to establish a sense of genre. In particular, I’m thinking of the first person narration and the witness grid (though, the witness grid will be hard to work with if you neglect the first person narration).

The liars dice resolution system is a very fun was to emulate the experience of solving a crime, and it lends strongly to the feel of the game, but the players will need to be prepped on how to play that effectively. Also, the Advisors have got to be contributing to the fiction – the Investigator and their opponent will have their hands full with statistics and trying to bluff and call bluffs.

One of the strength of this game, which takes just a little bit of faith, is the function of the witness grid. The witness grid ultimately determines the pacing and conclusion to the story. But, in the meanwhile, the events get very convoluted as it asks you to connect dots farther and farther apart. But this is a great boon, even if its not clear from the get go; we would not have had a story about the stolen remains of a mass grave any other way. Every player gets to have the experience of discovering the details of the mystery as the game progresses. This is not often so well achieved in a table-top game.

I find that I have less to say about my positive gaming experiences. All of the game components are much more invisible when they aren’t clashing with each other, the fiction or the players. In any case, Dirty Secrets is definatley worth your time if you enjoy the crime genre at all.

XP: They Became Flesh

9 May


I have very mixed feeling and experiences about this game. And you guys are probably getting the feeling that the majority of our gaming experiences at RSG are disappointing. I swear this isn’t the case!


I had an awesome play of this game with Elizabeth Sampat at Gamestorm. And it felt intuitive and obvious and it clicked and sang. I went away feeling like I knew exactly how it worked.


Then I read the text. And it almost seemed like a different game. And our play felt like a different game.


Alright, I gotta get some things off my chest.


Elizabeth, WHY are the online character sheets a kickstarter backer only resource? What the crackling hell is that about?


Why aren’t Revelations explained in the text? A reader could almost miss that, but it’s one of God’s main tools. Not to mention, any advise on how to use them effectively. Or any advise on how any of the players do anything effectively.


This text lacks a discussion on play style and approach. It appears to assume that a certain style is obvious. This kind of assumption is a cardinal sin of game texts. And seriously, the game is only thirty pages long. It would have been no issue to add in even five pages of discussion on this.


Every role needs more assistance from the text in terms of how they apply pressure and how that influences the other players. Every players needs more guidance in regards to how the conversation and story is built.


As a result, our game played out backwards. In retrospect, it began with the climax and moved towards the opposition. Even after having an excellent model from my own experience to draw on, at the table I felt powerless to mediate the relationship between the players, the game and the fiction. This was one of the most unusual experiences I’ve had at the game table.


Further, because the game is so open ended to various approaches, it suffers from a certain kind of incoherence as players all pull in different directions. The social atmosphere became somewhat polluted.


I really want to like They Became Flesh. I think I love the game it means to be. But this text is woefully incomplete and fails to do justice to the absolutely stellar concepts within. Much like many older story games, this game will not be widely accessible until there is some public wisdom about how one actually plays this game.


XP: Under the Bed

8 May


Under the Bed is a light weight story game about the trials of childhood. Those of you that know me know that this subject is right up my alley. Our enthusiasm was really strong, which is good, because that was the primary thing that carried us through. Though our play was overall positive, there were a few things that we noticed that kept our game from being Great instead of just Good.


The text is not quite clear in some parts, and there were a few typos that require you to abandon some sentences all together. The order in which the text presents the information leaves the reader feeling lost at points, but the text is so short that this is quickly overcome. However, the biggest shortcoming of the text is that it doesn’t convey what play looks like very well.


For our play, this came down to two issues.


First, the conversation of the game takes place between only two people at a time. This can be a little frustrating, since other plays may be sitting around for a while before they get a chance to speak. The Favoritism mechanic, while interesting and effective for its purpose in Conflicts, exasperates the conversation issue, and makes it even more unbalanced. The only immediate alternative is for each player to say only a sentence or two each time and keep it snappy. However, this strains the story as the Child is confronted with a constant stream of Conflicts.


Second, our group felt like there was not enough guidance for how the Child acts through the collective will of the group. Are Conflicts all symbolic, and taking place in their imagination? Or, does the Child actually use the toys in his real life to face his Conflicts? I suspect the answer is somewhere in between, flowing between the real world and imagination (or an imaginary edit of the real world), but we never struck a comfortable rhythm for this.


The best part of the game was definitely the creative toys – Obsolete Microwave and Single Plastic French Fry both stuck out to me – but it was too bad new toys had only a 50% survival rate.


Unfortunately, most of this report is fairly tepid. I really like the premise and the weight of the game, but the pace and content of the conversation was a little unwieldy. Were I to play this again, I would play with perhaps four players, and I would have to makes some tweaks (though I’m not sure what I’d do at this point). We had fun, but it came mostly from the personality of the players and their toys rather than from the engineering of the game itself.

XP: Shock: Social Science Fiction

21 Mar

IMAG0320Shock: Social Science Fiction is probably my go-to scienfe fiction story game. It is almost infinately flexible, it allows the players to focus on the things that matter most to them, and it guides the story to a climax very effectively.

Now that I am more well played than the last time I visted Shock: SSF, I can see the Primetime Adventures bloodline shining through. Through the set up and in conflict the players often take a kind of director perspective to the fiction. Out feeling was that we were not resolving conflicts between the characters in the fiction as much as we were storyboarding the rest of the scene between the players. Though this is not a complaint of any kind, this does affect what kind of experience the player has and how one engages the game through play. This was a foreign mode of play for one of our players.

One side effect of this director perspective (and that of the resolution mechanics too), is that some heat is taken off of the personal conflicts between characters. However, the cerebral and abstract threads of the fiction are much more approachable than in some other games. Like always, know what you are looking for and what you are getting.

My only criticizim of Shock is that the resolution mechanics interrupt gameplay, bringing us out of the fiction for several minutes. The diceplay is tightly woven and deceptively involved. It looks like it should be very simple but once the dice hit the table you find out that there is way more to it than you thought. At least one player will need to be very familiar with the text for this not to be a frustrating experience.

On the otherhand, the dice and numbers do capture the aesthetic of the game in a very beautiful way.

A one-shot is not the natural environment for Shock. There just isn’t enough time to get more than a taste of what the game does. Though I determined the shock ahead of time, should I find myself running a one-shot again, I’d pick the issues too and get right to *tagonist creation. But, the issues and the world would need to be fairly familiar for the other players to buy into quickly and fully. Consider a near-future game. Then, play tight scenes that open at the threshold of the conflits and strike for the juiciest bits of each scene right away.

I am very excited to try Shock: Human Contact in a long format now that I have revisted Shock: Social Science Fiction. This summer, perhaps.

XP: The Drifter’s Escape

12 Mar


This game was on backup at the last RSG, so it wasn’t announced proper with the rest of the games. In case you were wondering when we played this.

I’m still trying to figure out how to make a game of the Drifter’s Escape really pop. I’ve had a few confusing sessions of this game and a a few decent sessions, but it’s not really clear to me what made the difference for each session.

But, I’m pretty sure it comes down to the Drifter much of the time. How the Drifter decides when to make a deal or not seems to set the pace for the game. On one hand, it’s pretty tough for the Drifter to be successful with a deal, so the Drifter usually only makes a deal when it’s really important to them. In and of itself this is fine, but deals are what makes things happen. A lack of deals mean the Devil and the Man have to keep on raising the stakes of each scene until the Drifter feels obliged to make a deal.

Before long the scenes get so crazy that the Drifter has no sense of hope. The player can no longer buy into the Drifter’s struggle, and then has little incentive to make a deal they have a slim chance of winning. This unchecked escalation of stakes has been present in every game of Drifter’s Escape I’ve played.

So what can be done about this?

Drifter, use every resource at your disposal. In particular, re-write goals immediately before making a deal often. You don’t need to re-write all of them, and you don’t need to do it before every deal, but take advantage of this. You need to rack up Dream quickly.

Drifter, redeem somebody as soon as you think a person can help you do something big. Remember, you also pick the deals, so you can set yourself up for assistance. But, you will need to have Dream to spare in order to keep this up.

Devil and Man, make demands frequently. This is really the only say you get in what kinds of deals are struck. Drifter, be willing to take them up on this. A Demand isn’t just an opportunity for them to own your future, it’s an opportunity for you to keep your Debt to them in check.

Devil and Man, keep a gradual and incremental escalation of trouble and danger in the scenes.

Devil and Man, when you make deals with the Drifter, your cost doesn’t need to be all bad. The more the Drifter enjoys your cost the better. You don’t have to go easy, but you don’t need to make them cringe every time (of course, the poker you play with the cost is something to consider too. What does the Drifter think is in your hand based on your cost?).

Finally, focusing on the icons of Americana lends the Drifter’s struggle more meaning than simply having terrible luck. This too may influence what the Drifter find important, and thereby influences what they are willing to deal for.

This is a curious game with a gripping premise, but perhaps it lacks a certain kind of direction to the players. It’s a journey worth taking, but you have to remain willing and open, or you may be frustrated.