game chef 2012: reviews!

I’m reviewing: Drone Home, Handle With Care, Lady and the Tower and The Words. (If you’ve been reviewed here, please be in touch if you’d like to ask for clarifications.) (If you’re another Game Chef and would like a review, drop me a line! In the Chef spirit, we could review each others’ work.) (Edit: I guess I’m a bit wordy.)

Drone Home by Christina B (link)

This is a post-apocalyptic LARP, and it seems to have political and sandbox elements in it. The presentation is solid; it’s clear that having tactile cards on hand will be important for a smooth experience. There’s a simple skill system and some thoughtful consumable currencies.

I was most excited about the Humanity/Feral cards that each character gets. It wasn’t until I was reading the cards themselves that I realizes that this – the challenges and relationships established on each card – would be major engines of change and tension in the game. Having these kinds of relationships and challenges from the beginning is a strong element. (The various Disease tracks apply a different kind fo escalating pressure as well.) The ingredient use is solid (though the “last chance” theme doesn’t quite show up.

Some unclear things: the difference between humanity cards and humanity points, and whether there is some condition that occurs at 0 humanity (other than having all feral cards). The game talks about monsters and scavenging, but there isn’t much detail about what those might detail. Perhaps they are handled by the GM, but it would be good to see the intent.

The biggest challenge here is that this feels like a framework – rules for resolving challenges and building bunkers – but I’m not sure if there are external pressures or challenges that will be introduced. I’m not sure that the Humanity cards alone will provide enough tension/conflict/collaboration between groups. I would like some goals to be out there that the groups are fighting over, unique character details to give each character their own angle, and some guidance for the GMs to inject more twists into the game.

This is not to stay that a “Plot” should be central to the game. I like the freedom of players to build their own world in the ashes of the new, and the complications and constraints their Humanity traits place upon them. I think the tactile nature of the LARP environment will also open up some interesting possibilities

Handle With Care by Jackson Tegu (link)

It took me a moment to get a handle on the writing style here. The text mentions some things out of their expected order, and the meaning and feel isn’t clear upfront, but instead requires reading through the text. However, this gave the text a unique voice, and created emergent meaning that I liked a lot. A totally great sentence: “As by now you’ve assumed, the players are giant monsters.” The text definitely communicates the feel of this game.

The trading of narration through the deck of cards is clear, and I think the use of tactile elements – miniatures, props, cardboard highrises, physical presence, actual darkness – will all help creative some amazing experiences. The game is on the border of my earnestness threshold – but I think I’d want to try it or help facilitate it.

I think the balance of narrative power might be a bit fragile. Not just enforcing the careful driving of the municipal light truck, but moreover, the range of what someone can narrate with a card on their turn. The epilogue cards are also very open-ended. It seems up to social contract everyone being on the same page, basically. (I also think the exact mechanics of the light truck seem a bit awkward – maybe I’m not imagining it right – but I’m sure there’s another tacile mechanic that will work here.)

The character descriptions ask some far-raising questions. (Perhaps some of them should have some more concrete hooks to help stories get under way?) I would be curious see how their stories turn out.

A rambling aside: let me mention Kid Koala’s “Space Cadet” soundtrack. A few weeks ago, I saw a him at show at darkened gallery space; the audience was lying down on foam cushions with wireless headphones synced to the DJ’s output and strange ambient noise in the audible background. It was a shockingly chill and thoughtful experience. So when I was reading your game, this is the soundtrack I heard.

Lady and the Tower by Joel P. Shempert (link)

This is a game about exploring mysteries, and the setting is evocative. I like the Bluebeard references, and yet it’s clear that the game doesn’t have to end up in that direction. It’s up to the players’ choices to reveal different kinds of revelations. What’s interesting is that this creates a real a mystery without it being the product of a single GM’s machinations. In fact, what is at the heart of the mystery is the players’ own characters. You start play not truly knowing your own characters intentions or motivations, and you ultimately come to revelations that your character always knew (but that are a complete surprise to the player). The use of the “advent calendar” method to preserve the mystery is a cool idea, and presents a new way of packing a preset scenario for one-shot play.

There is a fragile center in the game where the players have to balance what they guess about their characters nature and intentions against what they may ultimately reveal, and how to imply some possibilities with closing off others. (For example: showing affection for another character without declaring onself as entirely devoted, if that revelation is to come later.) It simply takes a lot of balance, and there will possibly be parts of the game where a player has to reconcile what they think they knew with the text that was just revealed.

I also think there may be an issue with having the scenes progress at a leisurely pace, and not rushing too quickly to the reveals. Regardless of whether the characters want to hold their secrets close, the players most likely want to find out their own secrets, and there will be a tension to jump to reveals. However, doing this will cheapen the reveal itself, unless it unfolds naturally through the course of drama. Perhaps playtesting will help show what else will provide the right framing for scenes so that the scenes have a purpose in their own right. Open scene-framing with ambiguous characters could be intimidating.

One other cool thing about the game: the different roles are quietly asymmetrical and different. The Lord and Bishop share their broad narration of the world at large in complimentary ways; the Lady is, by contrast, limited to her internal monologue, but that is itself a commentary and calls attention to her as the protagonist in a neat way. (There is a problem that the Lady’s internal monologue might work against her hiding her own intentions from others; but maybe there’s the possibility of the Lady’s monologue as being itself an inconsistent/unreliable perspective, and that’s cool again.)

The Words by greyorm (link)

Powerful, dark and gritty, street-level supernatural urban horror. This entry has lots of flavor and knows the tone it wants to strike. It uses its elements well (four forge threads, no less) while going into its own direction. Games like this are welcome. The nature of The Words is slightly ambiguous, and I’d like to find out more.

I think the game could benefit from something more clear about what the Words are. Not a discrete definition – implications are more powerful than known quantities – but ultimately, the group needs to come to some consensus about what the scope of these powers can be. “Anything” seems challenging and broad. Perhaps it works, regardless; the cards can work for or against even the strongest fictional effect.

The mechanics are primarily card based. (Relatedly: I’d like to see what other mechanical implications of cards/hands/decks can come into play, beyond their use as a randomizer.) I like that the hand of cards is used in chargen just as it is used later in conflicts.

It see how the Sin and Integrity attributes are core to the game, and are the key angle by which a player can push harder against challenges. (Without further adjustment, I’d guess that card draws are roughly even, and then it becomes a question if either side is desperate enough to keep drawing.) It also seems that the general pressure within the game is that, as the player uses Sin and Integrity, their values will be pulled downwards until the character is deformed and ultimately eliminated. I’d like to see other reward cycles in play beyond this spiral to push the players in other directions.

I’d also like to see more guidance about the kinds of motivations, plots, kickers or agendas that a character may have. I can read between the lines and guess at some character-driven scenarios that will put the players in conflict with their Sin and Integrity, but I’d rather see a clear authorial vision about how gameplay should unfold, and how to set characters going in the right direction.

And, finally: learning more about the Words. I’m uncertain about whether this should have its own novel mechanic, or simply some fruitful setting material, or perhaps an open void where the playgroup and see what they will. The hook is there and is intriguing.