Rewrite the Ending Together

I see a lot of anguish on the internet. Sadness that the latest epic franchise didn’t stick the landing, or didn’t turn out quite the way you hoped, or maybe threw characters under the bus and utterly betrayed what you thought the whole concept was.

Other people’s fiction will always disappoint you. Because those creators are only human. Their feet are made of clay and they don’t know what’s in your heart or brain. And maybe the ending was perfect for them, exactly what they wanted. Cool, but that doesn’t mean it works for you.

Yes, you could sit down and hammer out fan fiction with alternative endings in your lonely writing cave, but I have a much better idea:

Replay the ending together with story games

Get some friend together, and instead of all grousing about everything wrong with the books/movies/comics/series you love/hate, play a do-over and make it what you want!

Give that movie an ending you like. Make it yours.

Ben Robbins | January 8th, 2020 | | 2 comments

A Kingdom In Letters

A clever player asked me an interesting question: could you play Kingdom with characters writing letters on their turn instead of playing scenes? Very unexpected and very intriguing. The more I think about it, the more I think that not only could it work, it could be fantastic.

The one-sided monologue of a letter opens up a very different flavor of narrative. A character can dive deeply into their thoughts or concerns, without any immediate dramatic response. Sure, maybe your letter recounts a daring raid you executed on the castle and all the lives lost, or maybe you just ponder where your Kingdom is headed, wallowing in doubt and regret.

To start off with, create your Kingdom as usual. This player specifically asked how it would work with only two people, and in that case I’d would recommend each player make two characters instead of one to give you a little more material to work with. For three or more players, stick with one character each.

On your turn, instead of playing a scene, your character writes a letter. It could be to another main character, a secondary character, or even just a journal entry talking to yourself. All players get to see the letters no matter who they’re written too and can decide for themselves how much their characters know about what happened. Include a postscript noting mechanical effects, like predictions, highlighting popular attitudes revealed by Touchstones or what boxes get checked.

Does the next letter have to be a reply to the last sender? Not at all. We may never see that actual reply, even if that recipient is the very next player. Each letter could jump much farther forward, showing us the struggle over the Crossroad unfolding over time. Focus on the stuff that interests you rather than just covering the obvious. Seven pages of personal reflection and then one postscript that the barbarians are at the gates.

Want to get even more radical? Get rid of character ownership. On your turn you can pick up the quill as any of the main characters. You may even be describing them seeing characters other than the one you’re writing doing things and using their Roles to shape the Kingdom. Effectively on your turn you could be controlling the actions of all the characters except the one you’re writing the letter to.

And the wonderful bonus of a letter-writing game is that you are creating an actual chronicle of your story as you go. But the same events might be viewed very differently by various letter writers. To avoid a Rashomon-like spiral of confusion, make sure it’s clear what actually happened versus what is just opinion. Did the Baron save us from the mob or conduct a coup? That depends on who you ask, but we definitely know he lead a cavalry charge straight through the crowded marketplace. Was it justified or cruel? Was he a savior or a monster? Only history will decide.

Ben Robbins | November 22nd, 2019 |

Goody Patience of Salem

Ahhh, Salem! Good old terrible Salem!

I’m no stranger to the Salem Fiasco playset, but this time around we had sexism, racism, and assorted acts of bad parenting… honestly witchcraft was the least of our problems. The witches might have been the most level-headed folks in town. They certainly caused the least damage.

I love story games that dig into all the wrinkles of bad humanity, like how people can do terrible things and think what they’re doing is okay and makes perfect sense, because there are real people like that and damn if I don’t wish I understood it, so I explore it in the “safety” of role-playing games. The trick, when you’re dancing with the darkness, is making sure everyone at the table is on the same page and we can distinguish the players from the characters. If you can’t… kablooey and misery.

Ben Robbins | November 7th, 2019 |

It Was A Monster Mash

You know how some ideas sound terrible on paper, but in the moment they work perfectly? Amazingly, even? That was this game.

Our original game plan fell through, so Andy, Marc, Caroline and I switched to an off-the-cuff game of Follow. Marc had been wanting to play ghosts driving people out of their haunted house. Reverse Scooby Doo and very pre-Halloween! And the Turf quest would be a good fit. But Caroline thought ghosts would be a bummer. What about monsters instead?

Hmm, monsters. What kind of monsters? Demons? Naw. What about classic movie monsters, the Wolf-man and Frankenstein and all that?

But wait: what if the monsters in those movies had secretly been *real monsters* all along. No makeup! But only a few sympathetic studio moguls knew the secret and when those movies declined the monsters had taken up residence in a castle built by a sympathetic celebrity in the Hollywood hills. Where they lived in hiding for decades… until some instagramming influencers and tech bro developers wanted to turn the old castle into a hip bed & breakfast.

It’s Monsters versus Millennials! And yeah, one selfie-stick later we were busting out the “who are the real monsters???” jokes.

So many great characters. The Bride of Frankenstein! (“Uh, weren’t you married to Frankenstein’s *Monster*?”) The newly pacificist and probably vegan Wolf-man! A totally fake Invisible Man, just pretending to be invisible and hiding under his wraps because he feels more at home around monsters than humans!

And yes, our second challenge was an actual Monster Mash, as the monsters threw a party to try and raise morale after a crushing first challenge defeat that saw them abandoning the hapless and in hindsight kind of beloved “Gill”, the cowardly Creature from the Black Lagoon, to the county Sheriff. No one said to bring disguises!!!

Andy, Caroline and Marc all brought a beautiful blend of the funny and the pathos. A pile of great moments.

And if you told me that you played a game where Oliver Hardy (yes of Laurel and Hardy) revealed himself to be a Highlander-like immortal (and also an advisor to the Mummy when he was still a Pharaoh in ancient Egypt) and used what I’m guessing was ancient Atlantean technology to escape this mortal coil, I’d probably say “uh wut?”, just like you’re doing now. But trust me: it was perfect.

Ben Robbins | October 20th, 2019 | ,

Great Players

I know a lot of great players.

If there were an Earth-threatening crisis that could be solved by the power of play and I had a red phone, I could pick up that red phone and I would know who to call to save the world.

What do I mean by great player? Knowing the rules? Yeah that’s important if you’re teaching a game, but “rules mastery” is definitely not what I’m talking about. Someone who makes up cool stuff? Someone who talks in funny voices or has their character do amazing things? Naw, none of that. I mean, that stuff’s fine, but that ain’t it.

When I cast my baleful gaze on someone and think “that’s a great player”, it’s because I can see that, deep down, they pay attention to the balance at the table. They contribute (because you definitely should contribute) but they also actively lay ground for others to contribute. They’ve tuned their senses to the dynamics unfolding between the other players instead of just sitting in their own head, imagining their own fiction. They try to raise up everyone at the table, instead of just rocking the spotlight. They know it’s a union, not a solo performance. They want everyone in.

That’s excellent play. It doesn’t matter what the system is: if you’re playing any role-playing game with other humans, that’s the secret sauce. As I’ve said before, it’s empathy that makes games great.

Some will observe that in the traditional GM model, the GM often shoulders that responsibility for everyone, or at least tries to. But really everyone should be doing it, because it’s a golden avenue for the players to appreciate each other and bond (shades of Initiative: the Silent Killer).

When you have a player like that, you know you can drop them on a table with any mix of strangers and those people will be in good hands. And that’s a skill I’ve kept my eyes peeled for while running Story Games Seattle for 8 years, so I could put folks together in games with maximum odds that everyone would have a good time.

Yes, experience can help, naturally, because gaming is a weird group activity and there are a lot of interesting social dynamics that you don’t normally encounter. But it’s also raw temperament and personality. I’ve seen people who have barely played any games and I already know they get it. I would put any table in their hands with total confidence.

And guess what? Most of the people who I *know* are great players don’t think of themselves as that great at it. Because they’re modest, yes, but it’s deeper than that. The kind of person who is thinking about everyone else at the table is not dwelling on how awesome they are.

Am I talking about you? I’m probably talking about you.

Ben Robbins | August 30th, 2019 | , | 2 comments

Names Are Hard

Ever have a hard time coming up with a name for a great game because nothing captures the magic, stew about it for ages, then come up with a totally different idea for a game, think of a great name for that new game, then realize that name would be even better for the first game you’ve been struggled to name since forever?

Yeah, me too. We should start a club.

Ben Robbins | August 10th, 2019 | | 2 comments