Murderland: Pies 33-36

August 28, 2010

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.

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