Murderland Reviews: Pies 1-10

December 2, 2008

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.

2 Responses to “Murderland Reviews: Pies 1-10”


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