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Thursday, 20 December 2018

#RPG Are We Storytellers, Gamers, Or Both?

Midhilda and one of pet dire wolves (artist's impression)

This week's RPG session with the Tuesday Knights could, possibly, have proved to be a game-changer.

It was our first exposure to a so-called "storytelling game" - Brent Newhall's The Whispering Road - and I was anxious about getting my head around playing a game devoid of such traditional mechanic trapping as character statistics, hit points, armour class, experience points, equipment lists etc

Instead, our character's were made up of a number of traits (some were personality quirks, others minor abilities or powers) and a "need".

Further taking us out of our comfort zone, there was no definitive setting for the game and it didn't even require a gamesmaster!

Clare, whose game it was, took the role of "Architect", meaning she framed the story and set the scene, while Pete was nominated as "Driver", making it his job to ensure the story kept moving and we didn't get bogged down in rules discussions or non-gaming distractions (not, it turned out, that he needed to worry about that because we all quickly got on board with The Whispering Road).

Beforehand, via our super-secret Facebook group, Clare had nudged us to create a setting for the game: and we cooked up a snow-bound Medieval land (which in play veered between Celtic and Norse) where saints and demons walked the land, and everyone had a pet mouse as a companion.

Our characters were:
  • Ceitlen (Pete) - first born daughter of the chieftain, guardian of the clan's symbolic magical shield, whose motivation was protecting the shield and what it stood for (ie. the community);
  • Torg (me) - third born (second son) of the chieftain, a trickster and troublemaker, who wanted to prove that he could be as good a hero as Ceitlen;
  • Glau (Kevin) - a miserable farmer, gifted with a magical spade and the ability to see the future, who just wanted the snow to stop;
  • Master Mouse (Erica) - the custodian of the clan's mice, and a mentor to all, who wanted people to listen to her advice;
  • Sister Prudence (Clare) - a nun and fanatical follower of Little St Therese (patron saint of mice), who sought to stem the rising tide of secularism in the village.
After everyone described their typical day in the village, the story began with Glau coming to the chieftain with dire warnings that the snows were getting worse.

The village was whipped up into a frenzy, and, led by an army of mice to clear a path, headed up into the mountains to find the cause of the supernaturally worsening weather.

After being ambushed by dire wolves (not common in these 'ere parts), the bulk of the village were sent home for their own protection, leaving our small group of heroes to carry on.

I stumbled upon an old ruin (Torg, as a "rascal", had more traits than anyone else and these included a couple of doses of "dumb luck" as well as being the group's "magic-user"), from where we headed to an ice cave that actually turned out to be a frost giantess called Midhilda.

However, before we knew this, she had rolled a giant boulder at us, which had crushed Ceitlen's shield and shattered it in to three pieces.

While the others were determined to talk to the giantess, Torg transformed into a mouse and started to scuttle up her leg, with a typically Viking-esque bloody plan in mind to kill her (thinking he would be saving the village that way and proving himself).

However, Master Mouse called out to him to stop because they had discovered that she was simply looking for her giant boyfriend Jordmund.

Unfortunately, giants' sense of time isn't the same as ours and we discovered he'd passed through this area hundreds of years ago.

During the conversation, she also revealed that her oversized enchanted sword had been shattered, and Torg suggested that he could magically repair it using one of the fragments of Ceitlen's shield.

Ceitlen, already upset over the loss of the shield (despite Master Mouse explaining to her that it was only a symbol and she was still protecting the community), was initially not happy about this.

But then she came round to the idea and tried to claim it as her own, much to Torg's annoyance. He lost his rag, which - in turn - freaked out the giant (who couldn't handle extreme's of human emotion) and so Master Mouse and Sister Prudence had to calm down Midhilda and Torg.

Assisted by a small coterie of mice summoned by Prudence, Torg then wove the pieces of shield and sword together with some colourful sorcerous hand gestures, and went on to proudly explain that this was also forging a bond between the frost giants and our village.

And, boy, was he feeling smug about all this... right up until the point where Midhilda declared that her new magical sword would be named after Ceitlen.

Torg's jaw hit the floor (and everyone - including me - around the table roared with laughter).

In return, Midhilda handed Ceitlen with a large fragment from her old broken sword, which could be reforged into a new shield.

We all returned to the village, satisfied that our story arcs had been achieved, the magical snows had eased, and Midhilda had opened a new pass through the mountains for us.

Writing up the adventure primarily from Torg's POV and my recollections, I haven't really done the evening's game justice.

It was a surprisingly layered escapade, with everyone's actions dictated by whether they were satisfying their own character's needs or those of others in the group.

When you're not spending 20 minutes on a fight sequence, it frees up time for character development and The Whispering Road was all about co-operation and working together to achieve our goals (even when they were pulling us in opposite directions).

Although I'm not a fan of listening to "actual play" recordings, part of me wishes I'd recorded the evening on my phone to release as a podcast.

From the initial group world-building, through the speedy character creation, right up to the hilarious climax of the story and the satisfying denouement, this really was a game unlike any we've played before.

Torg
(art repurposed from
Journey Into Mystery #645)
I've always been fascinated by the simple idea of characters who are related by blood somehow, and the dynamic of Pete's Ceitlen  and my Torg unfolded brilliantly as both of us tried to one-up each other: Ceitlen with her strength and charisma, Torg with his tricksiness.

Unintentionally, as Kevin pointed out, this developed into a perfect Thor/Loki dynamic.

The whole adventure was contained to a single, two-and-a-half hour session, but - because the game was structured into scenes (with prompts for The Architect) and acts - the story we freestyled together really felt as though it came together like a movie.

I backed The Whispering Road on Kickstarter, in early 2014, on behalf of Nick and Clare, thinking it might make an interesting introductory RPG for my godson Alec (it's inspired by Studio Ghibli films, which Clare is a great fan of, and doesn't revolve around killing things that look different to you and then stealing their stuff).

Little did I realise that it would actually serve as The Tuesday Knights' introduction to the weird and wonderful world of Story Games!

I was so impressed by The Whispering Road and the story-crafting techniques the game subtly deployed throughout, as well as Clare's first stint at running a roleplaying game for adults (as opposed to her children).

There were simple dice-rolling mechanics for resolving conflicts (for instance, in a fight the roll would say whether you won or lost, not dictate a blow-by-blow account of the battle), complementing the system's aim of creating a thematic narrative, driven by the characters' needs and desires.

We weren't restricted - or bound - by the rules, in fact they encouraged our creativity and communal storytelling skills.

What's happening to us? Are we becoming New Age gamers? Are we waving goodbye to the Old School Renaissance and becoming Story Game aficionados?

I think it's a bit early to be binning all our d20 rulebooks, but I can definitely see us returning to The Whispering Road.

The evening ended with talks of a 'sequel movie' to our adventure, but, as much as I really liked all the characters the Tuesday Knights had cooked up, my mind was racing towards other settings and environments I'd love to explore via the game's very open mechanics.

It was a shame Simon was unable to make our final gathering of 2018, as it was a grand send-off to another fine year of gaming.

Following on from Simon's single evening one-shot in November (our Stan Lee tribute game of Marvel Super Heroes), The Whispering Road has certainly helped make the case for more 'one-shot' games as opposed to my need for every game to be part of a potentially never-ending campaign.

Bring on 2019...

2 comments:

  1. I find it pretty funny (more odd than ha-ha. but still a tad ha-ha) that you've not tried a Storygame prior to this. I am happy to learn you've given them a try and that you enjoyed yourself.

    I'm also pleased by the embracing of the one shot. Although I prefer long term, ongoing campaigns, I also really love experimenting and one-shots are definitely the way to go for that.

    Happy Holidays to you and all the Tuesday Knights. I look forward to reading more of HeroPress in the new year.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Our gaming time is precious, we only get together, at the most, once a month for a few hours, so have tended to stick with what we know, which usually means what we played 'back in the day' (e.g. old school favourites like D&D clones, Villains & Vigilantes, The Fantasy Trip [which morphed into Heroes & Other Worlds], Top Secret etc)

      Therefore Story Games have never really come up before because they're "alien" to what we've grown up with, and only came up this time because our planned D&D game got scuppered by a sickly DM, allowing Clare to step up and offer to run The Whispering Road for us.

      I suspect the whole "one-shot" reluctance in the past is totally down to me, as I've long had this "eternal campaign" dream (fuelled by reading about the long-running D&D etc campaigns of yore).

      Delete

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