Archive for the 'Murderland' Category

Murderland Wrapup

2010 Aug 28

Ha, only took me slightly less than two years to finish all those reviews. My deepest apologies to everyone who waited so long for me, especially the last four who submitted. You probably forgot you ever wrote those games!

Everyone who earned a “baked” review gets a $25 gift certificate to IPR, as per the original rules for picking winners. Those folks are:

— Jackson Tegu
— Mo Turkington
— Nathan Paoletta
— Stephen Bretall
— David Donachie
— Jason Dettman
— Ben Wray
— Marshall Burns
— Josh Roby
— Simon Pettersson
— Jesse Burneko

Wow, folks, that’s 11 out of 36 games. Nice job! Let me know if I missed anyone who got a baked review.

WINNERS: email me (jaywalt at gmail) and I’ll get you set up with your IPR $$$.

Finally, there will be a grand prize winner, as soon as I have time to re-read all the baked reviews, and they will — in addition — get a copy of In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, which will tell you more about corvidae than you would ever want to know. I’ll post the Grand Murderland Champion soon, like tomorrow.

And then we’ll be done with this contest and I’ll move on to wrapping up Game Chef 2009 and starting Game Chef 2010. Woohoo!

Yay for finishing things.

Murderland: Pies 33-36

2010 Aug 28

33. Eero Tuovinen – Valravnar for Ásagrimmr

Premise: Players takes on the roles of Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin, and the mortals or other beings they encounter while traveling the World Tree seeking information for the All-Father.

Thoughts: Eero is exploring concepts as exciting as any game on this list, but I have a few concerns that make me hesitant to plop it down on the nearest tabletop. I really like the travel mechanics for the ravens moving between the Nine Worlds and encounter obstacles. They remind me a bit of journey conflicts in Mouse Guard, but are framed by the mortal players for the ravens. Then, when the ravens arrive somewhere, they frame situations for the mortal players to play out. That whole dynamic is genius. However, though Eero tries to place the emphasis — at least according to the text — on the events the ravens observe in the Midgard, the only thing tying these various mortal events together is the ravens. Consequently, I imagine that most play groups would quickly gravitate towards viewing the ravens as the true protagonists. Doing otherwise just seems to go against the grain, like playing Dogs and focusing on the townsfolk. Somebody, I don’t remember who, said there are basically two stories — “a stranger comes to town” and “go on a journey” — and it’s the ravens who are the strangers and/or the journey-makers. So the tension between that and the GM-type role that Eero wants to give Hugin and Munin worries me slightly, especially when — compared to the ravens — the mechanics for mortals doing stuff seem much less interesting.

Conclusion: Browned, but smells really appetizing.

34. Adam Dray – Crow: Space Scavengers

Premise: This game is basically Firefly + Rogue Trader, written with a kind of “tough luck!” grouchiness that is pretty fun. It’s made to be a really short game, only a few hours, and is more a shared storytelling activity in the vein of Once Upon a Time or Baron Münchhausen than a classic roleplaying game where you advocate primarily through your character.

Thoughts:There’s a lot to like here. The character types and their moves are pretty attractive, though I wish there weren’t so many “play two cards and add ’em” moves and, instead, each move was totally unique. I like the grouchiness in the text — shut up and like it! — but it masks some of the issues with the game as written. If Jason Morningstar was writing this review, he would criticize it for being “parlor narration,” where the players are spending cards and vying for overall narrative authority rather than backing up specific fictional statements related to their characters actions (like you do with Sees and Raises in Dogs in the Vineyard, for example). I have similar concerns that playing War (the classic card game) for narrative authority is not really a solid basis for roleplaying, though I think that, with a minimum of revision, this could be really fun, especially as an intro RPG activity for folks who like Firefly. At a minimum, that would require rules whereby not every player would have to participate in every conflict and, maybe, the opportunity for players could play multiple cards over the course of the conflict, in reaction to cards played against them (a chance for escalation or trading efforts). And maybe a way for players to play cards to provide antagonism for others, rather than having that be a part of free narration. You could keep the cooperative format, though, maybe by having players draw a number of cards from the deck, representing obstacles that have to be narrated and overcome. But that’s just speculation on my part. I’m not sure what direction — if any — Adam wants to take this in, especially after all this time. P.S. It could make a wicked Apocalypse World hack :)

Conclusion: Browned; it’s definitely playable and sounds fun, but isn’t quite fully cooked.

35. Jackson Tegu – Life Histories of North American Scavenging Birds, Including the Crow

Premise: This is an emotional and provocative little game that shares a lot in common with “American Jeep” games like Penny for My Thoughts and A Flower for Mara. You play a group of people who, every night for about a week, share a dream in which they are crows together, flying, hopping, observing the mortal world. And then every day they gather together and gradually come to remember and verbally discuss their shared dream experiences. There is some built in rising action where the game builds up to the last night in which something — though Jackson never says what — may occur, reaching some kind of catharsis at the end.

Thoughts: This game is amazing just as a text, very evocative and beautifully written; no surprise since it’s by the author of The Smoke Dream. Jackson definitely has a way with conveying ethereal imagery and emotions in his writing. I have some questions in my mind about how exactly I would bring this to the other players at the table, for instance: How should I convey what the players should and shouldn’t do at different stages in the game, like how little control they have over their crow bodies on the first night? Some of that only becomes apparent as you read the entire rules document and notice differences between the instructions for different nights and days. However, the game text is short enough that everyone should be able to read it, and you could even tell everyone to read the text, silently or aloud, before you play out each day or night scene. Also, I think part of the fun and — to be blunt — artistry involved in enacting a text like this is in how the organizer presents it to the players. Just like being a good GM in a traditional rpg, being a good facilitator of a Jeep-like text like this involves a bit of charisma and careful, intentional work at presenting the game and making it happen. And even though I have zero background in Jeep or larp at all, I feel like this game points me down a road which isn’t entirely unfamiliar and encourages me to work through my anxiety and find a way to properly present the game to players. And that’s something that I didn’t expect to find here or realize was even possible. So, awesome.

Conclusion: Baked; this game rocks on toast. Like all these games, it could probably get better and tighter with playtesting, but that’s maybe not the point here. I would worry about losing the original feeling (the voice) of the text through too much revision, so maybe we should just enjoy it for what it is.

36. John Kantor – The Crows: Murderland

Premise: In this gothic and metaphysical game, players take on the roles of “Incarnations” (characters) and the “Avatars” (meta-characters, distinct from the players themselves in an unclear fashion) that are attempting to prevent them from succumbing to despair. The winner of the game is the Avatar who’s associated Incarnation has the least despair and the end of an agreed-upon time limit. I’m not sure what that means, though.

Thoughts: I was confused about the premise, especially who or what exactly the Incarnations and Avatars were, by the second page of the game and am still not certain. As far as I can tell, the Incarnations are normal people and the Avatars are metaphysical spirits charged to protect them that can manifest as crows. The main difficulty this game has is that it not only is based on “parlor narration,” bidding dice in an attempt to create or fight off despair, but the bidding process is completely disconnected from the fictional narration. Each conflict is the equivalent of every other conflict and no difference in narration affects how the bidding dice game is played. While this may work perfectly well in practice, especially in the short term, the disconnect between fiction and mechanics means that what is compelling in the dice game may have a less exciting fiction associated with it and vice versa, which can drag a game down and lead to a sense that the narration doesn’t matter and the dice game isn’t compelling enough to maintain interest by itself. This can lead to a game that is weaker than the sum of its parts because the parts don’t really add up, just coexisting beside each other, if that makes sense. In general, though, the structure of play seems reasonable. I wish there were especially fiendish things to do once your Avatar fails in its mission, loses its Incarnation, and becomes a “Shade.” That sounds ghoulish and potentially fun to be a game-wrecker for other players.

Conclusion: Warm; an interesting concept and a game with some nice layout, but a lot of the components fail to really connect, so it ends up feeling relatively toothless despite all the description that invites emotionally provocative play.

Murderland: Pies 31-32

2009 Aug 29

31. Mo Turkington – Crow

Premise: The two players take on the roles of God and Crow emulate the poetical interactions of those two figures in Ted Hughes Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow.

Thoughts: A neat concept, very clearly written, and probably the prettiest-looking document in the whole contest. I’m not familiar with Hughes’ crow poems, but the ones included are fantastic and, honestly, remind me a bit of Vincent for some reason, something about their theological perspective, I think. I can definitely see why Mo was drawn to them. Mechanically, the only suggestion I have is trying to come up with a less intrusive mechanic for Mechanism #2, which allows one player to request taking over for another. While the repetition idea is cool, my dissatisfaction with the “stealing narration” mechanic in Once Upon a Time (where you play a card that matches something the other player said) makes me want something that doesn’t interrupt the ongoing flow. Maybe a hand gesture (or poke) that shows you want to take over. Also, I imagine that, as short as these poems are, taking over for the other player may not even be necessary, assuming your fellow player isn’t a narcissist, rambling on forever. I also imagine this game would play much better if both players had read Hughes’ Crow relatively recently, since I was hoping for more concrete suggestions on how to approach playing God or Crow. On the whole, though, a nice addition to the growing number of two-player structured narration games.

Conclusion: Baked.

32. Nathan Paoletta – Witness the Murder of Your Father and Be Ashamed, Young Prince

Premise: The players play a group of princes gathering to determine how their father was murdered and who the next heir will be. By drawing tiles out of a bag, resources are allocated according to seniority. These resources are then spent to negotiate and support or dispute other brothers’ accounts of the murder. In the end, if consensus cannot be made about the murder and the heir, an endgame begins that can result in a split, a victory, or the destruction of the kingdom. Additionally, one of the princes has been secretly consecrated to Crow, the god of trickery, and if he’s named heir the rest of the princes lose, as if no heir was named.

Thoughts: The premise reminds me of the beginning of Gaiman’s Stardust — itself a reflection of Nine Princes in Amber — mixed with Shadows Over Camelot (“Mordred!”), while the mechanics are a bit like Shreyas’ Mist-Robed Gate. While I’m a little intimidated by reading through the list of tile mechanics, since there are quite a number of different things you can do with them, I have no doubt that their uses would be much clearer in play, once they start moving around and you see what the emergent strategies are. I also very much like that there isn’t a sole winner in the game. If the brother you want to be king wins, you win too, basically, unless he happens to be secretly consecrated to Crow. That makes for a much more interesting and cooperative set of tactics than simply trying to win yourself. Also, it allows the traitor prince to “bide his time” by joining the winning side, not having to reveal himself but probably dooming the kingdom in the long run. Of all the various endgame mechanics I’ve seen in the contest then, this is probably my favorite, just because of the diversity of interesting outcomes and how none of them necessarily railroad the narrative (aside from the doom one, I guess), but allow the players to negotiate it a bit after the final result is reached.

Conclusion: Baked.

Murderland: Pies 26-30

2009 Aug 28

26. Stephen Bretall – Murderland Bites!

Premise: The characters are infected with a zombifying virus and must find the cure and escape from the facility before they are incurably infected and picked apart by ravenous crows. The end game is basically a ruthless series of choices as to how everyone will end up getting killed or killing each other.

Thoughts: Wow. I can’t imagine any characters actually living through this game. It’s remorseless. Your best bet seems to be aiming for swallowing the super-virus strain and becoming a zombie vampire lord. But if the players then choose to blow up the facility — and come on, somebody will — it’s TPK city, most likely. Still, should be a fun time. I very much like the way it uses physical objects to represent the number of bullets you have and how far the rot has advanced. That’s clever, but honestly seems like an end-run around the “no writing things down” requirement, since it would be much easier to jot a few notes. I’d have to get Eric to run the numbers on the game to see if it’s really as lethal as I suspect but, unlike a couple other entries, even if there’s no chance of survival, I can imagine really having some fun with this.

Conclusion: Baked.

27. Simon Brake – One for Sorrow

Premise: A competitive card-based storytelling game, similar to Once Upon a Time, using a standard deck of playing cards. Players try to play all their cards, based on a series of rules, providing appropriate narration for each card played based on a rhyme that gives each card a specific meaning.

Thoughts: This would work way better with a custom deck of cards or scraps of paper with the meanings printed on them. I would have to play this game many, many times before narrating the meanings of individual cards would come naturally with having to look up the meanings. Also, the description of the rules that govern when I can play what cards is not written very clearly, so I’d have to sit down and write out my own more explicit guidelines. Also my experiences playing Once Upon a Time leads me to be skeptical of games of this style, which often encourage players to create very jumpy, random, lame narratives in order to win. I like the rhyming poem a lot, though. I just wish it was attached to something I felt more confident about playing.

Conclusion: Warm.

28. David Donachie – A Parliament of Rooks

Premise: The players play rooks meeting in parliament to decide who is innocent and who deserves to be eaten. The rooks take turns prosecuting randomly generated victims’ cases while each victim is potentially defended by one or more other parliamentarians. Each rook has a limited number of votes to spend either for or against the various victims and whoever successful prosecutes victims with the highest collective value (and eats them) wins and is named Lord High Chancellor or something.

Thoughts: This is a really cool structure for a game, one I’ve never seen before. There are a few lawyer games out there — like, uh, Sea Dracula — but I’ve never seen one where you actually play a legislative body. Granted, in this case, it’s a legislative body of murderous birds, but still. My main concern is that the dearth of votes — 10 per rook — will stifle the debate, forcing players to save their votes for prosecuting their victims and only leaving them with minimal opposition from the rest of the parliament. I suspect that at least twice that many votes, 20 per player, would be more effective at generating some more interesting tactics. Still, that kind of thing could be worked out with just a bit of playtesting.

Conclusion: Baked.

29. David Wendt – Raven, Wolf, and Cow: Tales from the Murderland Cafe

Premise: The players play the Norns, except that they run a cafe in the middle of nowhere. They make prophesies about the various customers in their diner, determining which ones are true by a weighted voting system. At the end, the Norn with the most true prophecies narrates what happens to the patron after they leave the cafe.

Thoughts: Seems solid enough, but I’m not sure why I care about these random people we just made up and what happens to them. Plus, the Norns themselves aren’t really interesting as characters but basically serve as avatars for the players. So in the end, I’m not sure where you invest in the fiction as a player, which is my main stumbling block here. Sure, you hope that the prophecies that are true end up being the most interesting ones, but I can imagine just getting invested in the customer’s life when they leave the diner and the game ends. If there was a sense in the text that that was the point, building this fleeting connection to a random person in a diner over a bottomless cup of coffee, that would be cool, but I didn’t get any of that.

Conclusion: Warm, but maybe baked enough if you can create really compelling content from the get-go.

30. Elizabeth Shoemaker – Murderland

Premise: Players play the classic Cluedo characters, except that they are all in trouble with the mob and, worse, are trapped in a house together with a bunch of weapons, a bad containing 2 million in cash, and are told that only two people can remain standing at the end of an hour. So the players essentially played a dark, twisted version of Cluedo (or Clue, as it’s called in the US) and try to kill other characters and end up with the money.

Thoughts: Very cool. Obviously the premise and hack of an classic board game are fantastic. Rules-wise, I have a couple of concerns. Players can use weapons or other resources to steal the victory die during the back-and-forth exchange of fighting, but it’s not clear to me 1) what happens when both players want to spend resources in this way, 2) why you would steal the die early in a fight, and 3) what good it does you to steal the die even near the end of the fight, if there’s still at least one exchange left giving you a 50% chance of ultimately ending up with it. So, right now, just looking at the rules, it seems like weapons don’t actually do anything, which is worrisome. Also, the endgame involves the first killed player serving as GM, basically, and secretly giving the bag of money to whichever character finds it first, without the other players knowing. But I really wish there were instructions in the rules about how you do that. Like maybe there would be slips of paper on which are written “You find nothing + You find nothing + … You find the money,” which the GM hands out anytime someone searches a room. Otherwise, secretly allocating the money seems very hard. Finally, the game is artificially cut short after 1 hour of playtime and my sense is, especially running the game the first time, everyone will die because the victory conditions won’t be met, since it will take time to get used to the rules and run enough fights so that most characters are dead. Two hours might be more feasible, I think. Still, definitely a game I would be excited to play, assuming I could figure out how spending resources during fights it supposed to work.

Conclusion: Browned, maybe baked if some clarity can be gained on resource use.

Murderland: Pies 21-25

2009 Aug 27

21. Danny Ozbot – If a Raven Calls Your Name

Premise: Players play townsfolk in a fairy tale village, describe their daily activities, and secretly picking a number of tokens from a pile. Then the raven player names one character and challenges them, rolling a die and potentially a) being rebuffed, b) taking the tokens, or c) killing the character, depending on the value of the die roll and number of tokens. Players can team up before the roll, however, pooling their tokens. The raven wins when they have most of the tokens. The players win if they rebuff the raven three times.

Thoughts: While the overall concept is neat, this game is mechanically problematic. This is what I would do to win this game: always pick 3 trinkets, always team up with the other players, and thus only lose to the raven on roll of 6. I don’t mind the lightness of the tactics involved here, so long as there are multiple interesting choices to make or, alternately, if what seem like tactical choices don’t ultimately matter. But here, they have a direct effect on whether you win or lose and there are clearly some strategies (actually, one strategy) that is unquestionably superior. I’m afraid that’s likely to scuttle whatever else is going on here, which is too bad.

Conclusion: Warm.

22. Jason Dettman – Murderland

Premise:A police procedural in which one player is the murderer and the other players are investigators. Coins are flipped and spent to add descriptive details and bits of evidence.

Thoughts: Reading through the rules, I honestly wasn’t that excited, but the example of play showed very clearly that play could be super-fast and fairly gripping. I definitely want to try it out now. Still, I think this game would really sing if the “murderer” player just represented the evidence / lay thereof and no one at the table could actually say for sure who the murderer was. The investigators would ultimately decide who they will charge with the crime and either convict someone or not, but the “truth” of the crime would never be revealed. That would be fascinating, I imagine, and very much like what actual police work is like, where you try not to think about your doubts after you’ve convicted someone, because you have to move on to the next case.

Conclusion: Baked.

23. Ben Wray – Murderland: Quest for the Sphinx of Quartz

Premise: Something like a deconstruction of a standard fantasy adventure game. The characters, with traits that don’t matter, adventure through the Murderlands fighting monsters and gaining Glory (which doesn’t matter), and make a random roll at the end to see who survives the trail of murderous crows that follows their bloody wake.

Thoughts: Pretty clever as a little social experiment, to see how far the trappings of a standard RPG will carry you. Answer: right to your destruction. Everything that happens in the game is essentially random and inconsequential, but it doesn’t necessarily appear that way until you get to the end. The only thing not covered in the rules is… what happens if there are only two characters left and they both are eliminated? I assume that it’s a Total Party Kill, but Ben doesn’t say. Honestly, as a game, this is pretty terrible, but as an activity, something to mess around with and hopefully have an interesting reaction to… I really like it. But the majority of the players can’t read the game beforehand, I don’t think, unless they are all willing to embrace the deconstructed randomness. Even then, I don’t think it would have the full impact unless one or two players were innocent in the whole affair and felt really cheated or baffled at the end.

Conclusion: Baked, but you would probably only play it once.

24. Dave Cleaver – Three Ravens

Premise: Three ravens take turns trying to overcome the three obstacles — the hounds, the hawk, and the lady – that guard the body of a fallen knight that the ravens would like to eat. No matter what, the ravens will overcome the obstacles; the only thing in question is which ravens will be around at the end of the game to eat the knights body (potentially all three, 2, 1, or none).

Thoughts: This is a neat little exercise, reminding me a bit of John Harper’s Mustang, though predating it by several months. The only thing that makes me squint a bit is the artificiality of the structure, where one raven goes off to face one of the three challenges and then returns. While it has a storybook quality, it doesn’t feel natural to me and makes the most important part of the game, the confrontation, feel very alone and isolating. Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s the theme or what but there’s a definite sense of loneliness in many of these games, which is interesting to watch. I do wish there were a few more details about the challenges themselves. What are the hounds like? What is the lady like? Otherwise, I would worry that the crows interactions with them would default to being similar, with the challenges trying to drive the birds away from the body.

Conclusion: Browned, but maybe baked enough if you have a group of players who are all “on” and strongly engaged.

25. Logos Seven – Thought and Memory

Premise: Players play ravens picking over dead bodies, gathering as many dice or cards from the table as they can. If the other players are greedy or impolite, you can call down Odin’s wolves, Geri and Freki, on them. Once the wolves are in play, you can trigger the endgame, in which players give each other gifts and total up the final score to determine the two winners.

Thoughts: I like the arbitrary nature of both gathering dice and invoking the wolves on others. That makes for an interesting bit of social maneuvering. However, I honestly don’t get the endgame at all. At first, I thought gift giving was another bit of social maneuvering, where you try to give away as little as possible while earning as many dice from others as you can. But the rules aren’t really set up to allow that, as far as I can see. Also, the giving of special gifts, such as Fenrir’s Will (death) is confusing and I’m not sure when or how you do that. Ultimately, I can’t see how the two halves of the game, the gathering trinkets and the gift giving, go together, at least from the rules as they currently stand. It seems like the arbitrary removal of one raven from the game is so powerful as to undermine the rest of it.

Conclusion: Warm, but maybe browned with a bit more explanation of giving Fenrir’s Will.

Murderland Reviews: Pie 20

2009 Jul 29

20. Mark Villianatos – Carrion

Premise: An educational game that can best be described as “musical chairs + smallpox,” set during the smallpox epidemics of post-contact North America.

Thoughts: I really like that Mark wrote a “serious game” for a design contest, something that we unfortunately don’t really see very much. I would have to see the game played to know if there are any issues with the mechanics or whether everyone would die in two rounds (maybe that’s the point?). My chief concern is how complex and confusing the mechanics are for determining who contracts smallpox. You count how many smallpox tokens you have, then add one if you are near an infected person, subtract one if you are alone, and then add one for a number of different circumstances… all in your head, without talking about the calculation and with, hopefully, no cheating (which might make it harder to play this game with youth). It seems like, with that mechanic, Mark might be trying to model a few too many things all at once — basically, all the different ways you might be more susceptible to smallpox infection. I would suggest, maybe, making a little printed card for playing the game, which people pick up and then use to secretly tally their infectedness each round. With that small addition, I think the game would flow really well and you could even use it to jot down a bit of info about the Fur and Crow tokens.

Conclusion: Browned, but just needs a little tally card to be baked.

Murderland Reviews: Pies 14, 19

2009 Jun 5

Hey, more pie, finally! Time to wrap this shit up.

A few interesting things have happened in the intervening… 5 months since the last pie, notably, I got a copy of Filip’s game from Danial Yokomizo (though Filip has since erased himself from SG) so I’ll review that first, and, secondly, my friend Eric playtested Josh Roby’s game Quoth the Raven at SGBoston. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for it, but Eric wrote an AP post on it.

But on to the pie…

14. Filip Łuszczyk – A Conspiracy of Ravens

Premise: A fairly gritty and realistic simulation of the life of ravens, whose only fantastical ability is the ability to communicate and understand humans and other non-raven animals (though only when they succeed on a successful roll).

Thoughts: Seems like Filip’s intentions were to create a more realistic take on Bunnies & Burrows, featuring ravens. Mechanics wise, it seems like he succeeded pretty well in this. My main concern is the lack of any guidelines for the GM, who is responsible for creating whatever amounts to a plot — though maybe this game is beyond plot, focusing on the ravens day-to-day activities, but I can’t imagine those would be very fun to play, at least not for long. There also isn’t really any information on how the ravens interact with each other, which would seem to be critical in the fundamentally social environment of roleplaying. Are the ravens loners except when they are feasting on the same carcass or mating? Do they hang out and talk together? Do they have what amounts to a “society” as we would understand it? Since Filip’s guidelines are pure rules, with no “setting” material or other background to speak of, it’s difficult to get a sense of what the players and GM are supposed to do once play actually starts… aside from trying to keep their ravens from starving to death. That later goal is probably a pretty realistic depiction of raven’s lives, but I’m not sure it would sustain for long. Then again, that might be part of Filip’s point, since he says you can play the game for “as short as an hour.”

Conclusion: Browned, but maybe baked enough for those looking for a gritty, banal play experience.

19. [Not] Ben Lehman – The Raven Story Game

Premise: A set of instructions, written to a reader who is sufficiently wicked, on how to capture a raven and have that raven tell the story of “the life you would have had without the wickedness of the world.”

Thoughts: You’ll either love this, think it’s bullshit, or maybe a little bit of both at the same time. As it stands, it’s a nice little piece of conceptual art or Fluxus, I think, but one that appear as if it hails from another time and place, a mythic, totemic culture of masks and ravens that take the form of men. That’s a neat little trick, something along the lines of Shreyas’ Mridangam and Eero’s yet unpublished (due to my own fault) game about the ars memorativa, but places huge obstacles for any contemporary audience that might actually want to play this game. Sounds like a pretty great premise for a chamber larp, though.

Conclusion: Browned, but definitely baked if you simply want to appreciate it as a set of ideas, which is most likely what the author intends.

Murderland Reviews: Pies 13-18

2009 Jan 23

Woohoo! More pie. Halfway done.

13. Sage LaTorra – Consider the Ravens

Premise: Players take the roles of ravens who are inflicting a very specific amount of physical pain and emotional misery on a chosen victim. If they inflict just the right amount, they win and presumably eat the victim. If they inflict too much, there’s “so much pain and misery that the target is over-seasoned,” and they lose.

Thoughts: Sage claims strong inspiration from My Life with Master. It definitely comes from the “timer” school of end games (MLWM, Polaris, 1001 Nights, etc.), using a central dice pool that players remove dice from as they destroy their target’s life. The two different possible endings (win/lose) are unfortunately not that exciting or well described. Additionally, there are several places where it seems like this game really wants to write things down and just skirts the requirement. Using dice to represent traits is fine, but they’re never really used as dice, just as numbers (aside from the random character creation, which is by far the most interesting and appropriate of the two options given). I’m also unsure if you really need the Need dice, since they’re only used to generate the target number the ravens are trying to hit. Better to set the number independently and then only have two dice for each player on the table. More than one die/pool for each hand is too many to keep track of on a bare table (remember Agon). Also, 18 traits seems like a lot of info about the target to generate before play begins. If there needs to be a ton of dice in the initial pool, throw handfuls on the table and generate the target’s life as you destroy it. All in all, the game is definitely playable as is, but probably needs some adjustment if it’s going to be really effective at the table.

Conclusion: Browned.

14. Filip Łuszczyk – A Conspiracy of Ravens

Premise: Well, Filip deleted the only copy of this game after he wrote it, so I’m not sure.

Thoughts: If anybody saved a copy of this one, send it to me so I can review it.

Conclusion: N/A

15. Jason Morningstar – Bodymore Murdaland

Premise: The players play a homicide detective and a bunch of suspects. The detective interrogates the suspects and, during interrogations, real quarters are exchanged between the detective and the current interviewee, establishing and denying facts. The end game determines who keeps all the money (less than $10, but an incentive nonetheless).

Thoughts: The premise rocks on toast but the execution is somewhat jumbled. The section that explains how to determine who the murderer actually is… it’s a jumble of confused grammar. That seems critical to the game and, if Jason’s intentionally being confusing (which could be), that’s kinda cool. Otherwise, I want to know how many people flip coins and who knows the murderer identity to start (the two things that are explained contradictorily). The play rules seem pretty solid, but one thing is really bugging me: there’s no way for the subjects to really interact meaningfully with each other in the lounge, when they aren’t being interrogated. Because all facts are basically established by the detective in interrogations, it’s not clear what they would talk about. Also, there’s no way for the suspects to pass quarters between each other. All money goes through the detective. Now, the game is short enough (30 min) that I would tolerate this in play, but I think it makes things less exciting. Honestly, I wish Jason would set it up a bit more like Glengarry Glen Ross, where the suspects could go out and do things on the street together (earning or exchanging quarters) between getting nabbed by the cops and interrogated (or, in Glengarry, called into the office to be questioned about the theft). That would require a longer game, though, maybe a couple hours. Playing for real money is pretty damn hot, though. Jason, fix this so I can play it!

Conclusion: Browned, but maybe baked enough if you throw it in the toaster for a bit.

16. Marshall Burns – Crow’s Hoard

Premise: This is a version of Spades/Hearts that ravens play, betting their favorite shiny objects

Thoughts: Simple and elegant, taking a classic card game structure and adding a resource gathering mechanic. I would probably want to play a few hands of it to get a sense of how the different suits interacted and what kinds of strategies made sense, but I can’t imagine any real problems that would emerge. Marshall definitely took advantage of my relative open restrictions on the type of game that could be designed. I’m not overwhelmed by how awesome the game is, but it’s definitely solid and playable.

Conclusion: Baked.

17. Josh Roby – Quoth the Raven

Premise: Players take on the roles of the Raven Lord (a trickster god), the Crow Maiden (semi-divine), the Boy (a mortal), and any number of Chorus members. Together they tell a story, with the order in which they add lines to the story constantly being shifted by their actions. The story ends soon after it narrates the death of one of the non-Chorus storytellers.

Thoughts: A neat addition to the “ritual negotiation” school of design (Polaris, Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan, Mist-Robed Gate, etc.). Each addition to the game must be said in a single breath, which is a brilliant way of limiting freeform contributions. The three main storytellers are very cool, though I wish the role of the Chorus was defined more and the Crow Woman’s quest was explicitly defined. As it is, it seems like the Boy and Crow Woman are likely to team up to resist the antagonism of the Raven Lord. The Crow Woman also confusingly seems to break her own rules in the example, where she narrates the speech of one of the characters. I also wish there was a bit more guidance as far as the content of the storytelling goes, not just the structure, since I think that’s one of the main weaknesses of structured storytelling games like Once Upon a Time and Baron Munchausen. Even if the structure is really interesting, sometimes the stories themselves fall flat, either because of “too many cook” or because they’re not really heading in a clear direction, just meandering along. Very playable and interesting, but could do with some playtesting and strengthening.

Conclusion: Baked.

18. Christopher Weeks – Crow’s-Feet

Premise: Players play people talking after their 20th high school reunion, after the niceties are over: when people stop being polite and start being real. Some of the characters are “main characters,” which are jointly controlled by two people, and the rest are just passed around as needed. There are scenes about characters’ various issues, after each of which, crows feet are drawn on the image representing the main character, pointing up or down depending on how they’re dealing with the issue. Play ends whenever the players think it’s done.

Thoughts: The guidelines for this game give it a very haphazard feel, but I think that works in this particular case, since Christopher is basically giving you light suggestions about how to structure an experience that is largely about player-directed exploration (in the normal sense, not Ron’s). Some things do feel tacked on, though, like each character being represented by two people. Interesting, mechanically, but there aren’t really any suggestions on how to do that or ways in which that obviously adds to the game. Also, the drawing crows feet, while the connection to the theme of the contest, might not be the most evocative mechanic. I do like the idea of doing something with the “this is my high school yearbook picture; this is me now” thing, though. Not exactly sure what to suggest. I really dig the simplicity and usefulness of the issue-generation table, though. That was a neat concept. All in all, I really wish there were more short-form roleplaying games (or poems or whatever you want to call them) that took this kind of loose structure, especially when exploring personal or emotional issues. I played one with Emily Care, James Brown, and Mark Majcher at GenCon 2006 and it was definitely a strong experience, even though we just improvised most of the structure. I like that Christopher gives you a premise and a little bit of structure, but trusts the group to be able to make the rest work.

Conclusion: Browned, but also earns the first special award, a Bronze Emu Statuette for making me think hard about different ways to present a roleplaying text.

Murderland Reviews: Pies 11-12

2009 Jan 19

Finally. I’m just going to keep posting these as I get the reviews finished, instead of waiting until I have a whole batch typed up from my notes.

11. Mike Sugarbaker – Moving to Murderland

Premise: Players take on the roles of three people whose otherwise peaceful lives have been interrupted by acts of violence, by to varying degrees. Play takes the form of three conversations the trio has, perhaps in a bar. By moving icehouse pieces around on a chessboard (including changing the way in which they are pointing), the players negotiate the conversation, asserting things and contradicting previous assertions.

Thoughts: Presumably, part of Mike’s intent here is for the players to, over time, tie their characters various experiences together and express a variety of different things about the affect of violence on the lives or everyday people. All in all, I think this overall setup is great, including manipulating board game tokens as a way of negotiating the conversation and providing some interesting structure. However, I have a hard time getting really excited about the way the token-moving rules are implemented. While having the characters initially defined by where their pieces are placed is pretty sweet, the ranges given to the various sizes of icehouse pieces are not very intuitive, taking unfamiliar (to me) shapes that are much more complex than just a set range of squares or the moves of a chess piece. Also, while it might be neat to see how all the different movement rules interact on the board, it’s also not clear to me that the various movements will lead naturally or interestingly towards the act-ending condition (pieces being a certain distance from their starting point). Also, the negotiation itself is a bit weak, I think, or at least could be spiced up a bit. Currently, you can 1) assert that something has happened, 2) assert how someone feels, or 3) contradict an assertion. Those are a bit generic, unrelated to the overall premise of violence and dealing with its arrival. If you could assert your suspicion, your anger, or that someone had been hurt, that might help the elements connect more. So while the premise is great, I think the movement rules could be more intuitive and have a stronger sense of purpose.

Conclusion: Warm.

12. Tomas HV Mørkrid – Raven: Claw and Beak

Premise: Players take turns describing problems that they have faced in the past while the other players play family, friends, antagonists and the like who are trying to influence the players’ actions. Players are encouraged to resolve the problems in ways that are much more destructive and violent than what they would actually do in real life and, if a player chooses violence, they stab their teddybear in one of the limbs or (eventually) torso. The narrative portion ends when all bears have been destroyed, though there is some space for closing rituals that offer some closure for the bears.

Thoughts: In my mind, this combines three different design concepts. First is an orientation towards intense emotional experiences (with or without catharsis) as a primary motivator for play, common in the Nordic larp and jeep traditions but prevalent elsewhere as well. The second is a tendency I’ve often seen in Ben Lehman’s recent design work (Bliss Stage, Land of 1000 Kings), which is to incorporate elements of players real lives into play as a way of creating instant emotional engagement. I imagine this happens in other play traditions as well. Finally, like Mist-Robed Gate, it ups the social tension (in the form of fear and anxiety) between the players by introducing a dangerous object (a knife) into the play environment. Honestly, none of these are concepts that speak to my personal play priorities, which makes it difficult for me to judge the success of the design. When I play Mist-Robed Gate, for example, I intentionally choose to use a symbolic knife rather than something that is actually dangerous. Additionally, I feel like I don’t have a lot of pent-up violent rage to direct at those who have held my life back, so the cathartic effect of destroying one of my teddybears would not be worth the loss of the sentimental object or the regret I would feel for having willingly participated in its destruction. In general, I find this game somewhat interesting as a piece of cognitive art or a Fluxus-style event score, but I can’t imagine myself actually playing / performing it. However, I don’t view it as some kind of alien artifact or “not roleplaying.” I honestly find the directness and clichéd symbology (i.e. knifing teddybears) to be a rather brutal and somewhat crude attempt at addressing issues that may be much more complicated. If there were people who wanted to deal with their pent-up rage through roleplaying, I don’t think this would be a very helpful or safe (both physically and emotionally) way to handle it. So, all in all, a worthwhile topic to explore, but there are probably much better ways to structure an experience that explores this territory, ones that focus more on creating a worthwhile experience for their participants, rather than appearing more focused on defying social norms about cherished childhood objects.

Conclusion: Warm.

Murderland Reviews: Pies 1-10

2008 Dec 2

6 & 30 blackbirds were baked in their respective pies. I’m going to summarize each pie’s basic premise, offer a few comments, and then rate each pie in the following manner:

Warm: Needs to be cooked a bit more before tasting.
Browned: Nearly there, but not quite ready to taste.
Baked: Pie, anyone? This one’s ready for a taste-test.

Here’s the first ten pies:

01. Joe McDonald – The Crows Danced Against It

Premise: The players act out scenes related to the imagined suicide of Joe McDonald, alternating between scenes that focus on people (including Joe) and those that focus on the ravens eating Joe’s body. The people-oriented scenes are timed by a backing track of three specific songs.

Thoughts: There have been a few games recently that have focused on the loss of specific individuals and the ripples that makes in the lives of those around them. Sweet Agatha and A Flower for Mara obviously come to mind. Clearly, the feeling of catharsis surrounding loss and mourning is part of the drive here, as is the inherent ritual structure of memorial services and funerals. However, while Joe’s example of play is very evocative, demonstrating that he has a strong conception of how this could play out, it’s harder to see that just from reading the instructions for various scenes. The first two scenes seem to be about release, then it turns to the events leading up to the death, and then there’s a reinterpretation at the end. Starting with release definitely struck me as unusual and I guess I wish, rather than just an example of play, there were notes indicating why the scenes were ordered in this way. In ritual services, like funerals, there’s usually a traditional order in which things occur and more-or-less standard ways to deviate from that while still maintaining a sense of natural development. But I can’t quite figure out what that development is supposed to be, in this case, which would be necessary if, in running the game, I’m effectively serving as the minister at a funeral. Finally, the premise of this game makes me a bit worried about Joe’s psychological health, but I hope he’s simply taking the opportunity to play with these ideas in the safe space of imaginative ritual.

Conclusion: Warm.

02. Jared A. Sorensen – Twa Corbies

Premise: Jared preemptively ridicules how emo many of these games are.

Thoughts: Terrible and also kinda amusing.

Conclusion: N/A.

03. Matthijs Holter – We Eat Murder

Premise: Over the course of three scenes, a group of “crows” eat someone, attack a party filled with people the dead person knew, and transform as a result of their actions. The players play the crows. Each scene is governed by different but relative simple narration rules and a socially provocative method of determining who goes first.

Thoughts: Matthijs’s game is perhaps a less ambitious, less emo attempt to do something similar to Joe’s game: create a ritually structured series of scenes that achieve catharsis at the end. Because he aims for this in a relatively straightforward, I think he’s closer to achieving it here. I remain skeptical that the benefits of the socially transgressive bits will outweigh the potential costs, but I’m unsure the point they serve in the design. Are they intended to encourage people to act uglier towards one another, breaking down social barriers? I’m not sure how that benefits the play experience. Additionally, in the second scene, it seems like some of the cards clearly need to be played in a specific order (defining the deceased’s associates, for example, before you can attack them). There’s also something hidden in the rules that wasn’t apparent to me until the second read: the deceased has been murdered and the crows are, in part, exacting revenge. This needs to be stated up front, so that the first scene can be full of hints as to who the murderer is. All in all, and interesting attempt, but I’m not sure there’s enough here to really create the kind of play experience Matthijs seems to have in mind.

Conclusion: Browned.

04. Vincent Baker – Gathering [unsubmitted]

Premise: “The leaves are falling in New England and the Elf-queen leads her army out, doomed, against the tides of the Hungry. The turning of the year is in the balance and you are the gathering crows.”

Thoughts: I think it’s great that Vincent wrote a game that’s too personal for him to share. Contests are what you make of them. It does, however, mean that he’s the only one who can critique it.

Conclusion: N/A.

05. Simon Pettersson – A Murder of Four

Premise: The players take on the roles of four dark figures — based on the three face cards and the Ace in a deck of playing cards — struggling against the world and each other. The setting of the game emerges through play and through the ritual phrase structure of character creation. Over the course of play, characters gradually die off — due to their own weaknesses — until one is left to give the epilogue.

Thoughts: Definitely one of my favorites in this first batch of pies. The structure is interesting and clear in what its intentions are, but there are emergent properties that would come out of the system in play — such as the hierarchy of roles meaning that ties often fall to the Abomination — that I would be excited to see in action, as their impact is not entirely clear. My only strong concern is stereotyping the Queen as one who rules “by skin” (equating women with sex?), but that’s vague enough that you could probably drift it towards less literal interpretations. Character creation in general is hot, a mix between Amber and Simon C’s guidelines for generating culturally rich NPCs. While setting-neutral, the system is evocative, in my own mind, of a kind of modern day underworld gangster Hamlet, though lots of different things might work well. On the whole, I’m very impressed and excited to add this to my shortlist of games to try out in play.

Conclusion: Baked.

06. Jesse Burneko – The Extraordinarily Horrible Children of Raven’s Hollow

Premise: Players take on the roles of children, adults, and ravens in a Edward Gory picture book. The children dare each other to do things that are potentially deadly for either the child attempting it or the adult it’s attempted on. Dice are rolled and gradually move around the table between various children and the pools representing the adults and ravens (who intervene in these proceedings). The endgame is triggered when only one child is left alive.

Thoughts: Brilliantly conceived and executed. While the dice mechanic most likely needs to be playtested thoroughly, to ensure that the endgame doesn’t come too soon or too late and that there’s a nice amount of give and take, the rules are simple, direct, and very clear. The only thing lacking — in my mind — is more formal descriptive guidelines, since the Gory tone seems as important as having children die in horrible accidents (which might not otherwise be amusing). More closely limiting players to storybook phrasings, very short, terse phrases (“So Saul placed his head in the alligator’s mouth”), seems like it would be more effective than the florid descriptive passages Jesse recommends. Honestly, I feel like the visual details of the Gory-esque landscape might be best left to the imagination. Still, that’s more of a personal preference than a problem with the game. However the events of play are described, I can’t wait to play this one.

Conclusion: Baked.

07. Daniel Yokomizo – Murderland Road

Premise: Memory-less patients and their doctors uncover their lost past in the hour before the world ends. To do this, patients make ritual dance motions and, directed by these motions, the doctors describe the events of the past.

Thoughts: The disconnect between the premise (which is cool and reminds me of Endgame) and what the players actual do in practice was really jarring for me. Why are the patients mute dancers? There also seem to be few opportunities for the patients to have meaningful input on the events that are told, as if you’re playing Baron Munchausen (with the other players asking questions), but the same player is always the Baron. Also, like in Mridangam, the system of dance gestures would require a fair bit of effort for everyone to learn, but I’m not sure what they do for you that makes that worth it. All in all, the avant-garde aspects seem like they would get in the way of the players who might actually try to enact this as a play experience, without necessarily making the experience worth the trouble. Potentially interesting, but I’m not convinced yet.

Conclusion: Warm.

08. Ara Kooser – Raven: Murder in a Faraway Land

Premise: In a mythic apocalypse, the world is collapsing because it has no stories. The players play a group of blackbirds — each bird with different abilities — trying to figure out what happened.

Thoughts: The premise and tone of this game are great, but the really cool aspects of it are lost in a host of confusion. The Fudge rules here, at least as implemented, don’t really support what Ara’s trying to do very well. There’s also no real guidelines on how to frame or play out the scenes, how to progress towards figuring out what destroyed the world, or how to wrap things up when the scenes are over and the end is reached. I really, really love the premise here and really wanted to like the game, but there’s just not enough here for me to really consider playing it. It’s cool that Ara took a relatively traditional system and broke it in lots of cool ways (ripping up the character sheet as abilities are lost, for example, kicks ass), but, in the end, a lot of it stayed broken instead of being reconfigured. One thing that definitely stood out: as characters diminish, they roll fewer and fewer Fudge dice, but rolling 3DF or 2DF is not simply mechanically “less good” than 4DF; it’s mechanically different in all kinds of messed up ways. That was one place, among several where the Fudge bits and the other stuff weren’t gelling well. On the whole, I’d recommend either scaling the game back, making it more playable with Fudge, or ripping the Fudge out and just making it do exactly what you want. In any case, I’m positive there’s something good here; it’s just heavily obscured right now.

Conclusion: Warm.

09. Sean Musgrave – Murderland: Descent of the Raven Queen [eaten]

Premise: “A furry voltron game,” lost to the aether of the internet.

Thoughts: So very tragic.

Conclusion: N/A.

10. Mike Sands – The Wisdom of Ravens

Premise: A group of magic fate-controlling ravens decide to help a human with their problems. Hilarity (or calamity) ensues.

Thoughts: Killer premise, no question. Also much more upbeat than many of the games here, which makes it stand out, as if Mike is thinking about “magical problem-solving but bumbling housewife TV shows” (Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie) while everyone else is thinking about people getting stabbed. The scene structure looks solid, as do player roles. The only issue I have is with the endgame, in which the human’s problems are declared solved or, conversely, insolvable. Honestly, that binary just seems not especially interesting, considering all the things that could result from your life being interfered with by magical fate-controlling ravens. I would honestly much rather seen a more open-ended conclusion or a more structured endgame which would determine, mechanically, when and how to wrap things up. Other than that, though, I really dig this as a quick little game. Clearly, the ravens’ interference could be played for laughs or more tragically, but in either case you would end up with something diverting but interesting, like an episode of How I Met Your Mother or Law & Order some other general appeal TV show that gives you a brief window into people’s lives.

Conclusion: Browned, but maybe baked enough for those who like their pie on the chewy side.