Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Be careful what you wish for

A busy fourteen at the Ribs this week, Sam took Cyclades Kemet (thx Sam for the correction ! ) out for another jaunt with five before embarking on a more personal and less bloodthirsty missive with Love Letter, and Robin threw on the lights in Powergrid, introducing more people into the classic highly regarded Euro.

More than that, I can't really say. Richard got butchered in Powergrid, but loved it and is eager for a replay next week.

My attention you see, was taken by the dark and twisted tale of the survivors of a holocaust - The Quiet Year.

Bondy bounced into the Ribs clutching a newly printed PDF game in his eager grasp. It's all about telling a story about post apocalyptic survivors, he said enthusiastically. It'll be your kind of thing he told me. How could I refuse ?

The Quiet Year is self described as a map game, where you get to build things, and draw what's going on. In no uncertain terms however, the game is actually an indie cooperative roleplaying game, with the map forming the focus point of driving an almost completely invented narrative along.

The scenario sets up explaining that you are a small band of survivors some 60 to 80 strong, outlines a few rules to structure what you can do in 'your turn' and gets you to decide what environment your merry band will find themselves in and what resources are available - or more likely not available. A small town on a desert highway Tremors style with an abundance of fuel ? A hidden enclave in the mountains, Tripods style with an abundance of coal ?

After setup play is taken in turns, with each player resolving a random event card ( the event cards are fairly non specific and require a good amount of player input to fill in the blanks ) and then choosing a single thing to do - starting a new project, putting something up for discussion, or adding something new to the map.

In our case we had a forest community that was abundant on wood, but short on squirrels ( don't ask ). A bizarre set of decisions led the community to attempt to build a high rise apartment block from wood and to turn an abandoned and bone decorated railway station ( again, don't ask ) into a jail cell. An early discussion amongst our community as to who should be leader resulted in a mild consensus that the person with the strongest survival skills should be the alpha.

Cue from Bondy, a suspicious and timely emergence of "Karl Beaverson"  the wilderness and survival expert who had been watching the group for sometime and had now shown up. Just in time for those leadership questions. A quick vote for leader instigated by Ewan, and the newly emerged from the forest Karl Beaverson won with a 60 / 40 split of the vote.

But the 40% were not happy.

At all.

Myself and Luke were not happy at this newcomer getting himself voted as the supreme leader. And so the 40% of the community simmered.

Luke then introduced a new fact - Karl Beaverson was in fact a former Jackal. An evil do-er. A bad seed. Someone not to be trusted. Bastard. Uproar in the community. But Karl was still leader. Tensions started to rise as all thoughts of building a community in the post apocalypse were put aside for the greater questions of who to trust, who to burn, and that what we really needed was some authoritarian head bashing.

It was all getting very Battlestar Galatica. But without the robots.

With our newly completed jail with its bone and skull adornments, I launched an undertaking to round up Karl and his cronies and throw him in jail.

Duly completed, the 60% of the community took offence at Karl being deposed.

Goddamn weak liberals.

Weapons were forged, a militia was armed, faithless attempted escapees from our wondrous community were tracked down and forced into slavery - along with Karl and his cronies -, and a rescue attempt for Karl was put down in murderous fashion.

Giant frogs were found, Blimps circled overhead, and our communications expert was caught trying to escape into the wider world. For his sins, he was given over to the medical team for 'scientific education', where he was chopped up and experimented on 'for the greater good'.

That's alright then.

Our community had obviously taken a dark turn somewhere along the way. Murdering people. Cheerful advocates of Slavery. Jail cell adorned with a steadily increasing number of bones, skulls and cadavers. A no nonsense authoritarian and well armed militia.

Hmmmm. At this point the question was raised. Are We In Fact The Bad Guys ?

Putting aside such weak minded debates, we forged on, discovering prophecies and dark warnings that told us that to really get our community on its feet, human sacrifice was required. Death by boiling mud pit in fact.

Brutal murder and slavery aside, human sacrifice was perhaps a step too far.

So another town meeting was called about it.

And a winning scientific plan was hatched. The slaves would be used as the first sacrifices, and if after a week things had improved, clearly the sacrificing was working and we should embark upon it as a solid community agenda.

The slaves were sacrificed.

Things got better. Science had proven that human sacrifice really did work.

The community added Human Sacrifice to its growing list of community rules. The militia now with a new purpose set to the task of scouring the wilderness for survivors - survivors we could bring back in chains before plunging into the pit of boiling mud. We had reached our darkest, lowest point. In a vain attempt to get some perspective on the matter, the abandoned radar and communications tower was fired up, and a dialogue with the floating blimp people was attempted... but the end of our time was advancing fast upon us.

As the year came to an end and Winter gripped its icy fingers around the survivors, a revelation was discovered - strong evidence that we were in fact The Jackals, the bad guys taken to a bit of community building. Was it true ? Were all the punished bad guys, actually the good guys. Were we evil doers ? Were all those attempted escapees trying to tell us something about our community ? As a signal was finally received in the comms tower from the blimp, and a crackly voice came on the line, Who Are We ?. . . the game ended.

The identity of the survivors a mystery. The Quiet Year was anything but - full of murder and mayhem.

It has been suggested post game, that not every group turns so very dark. And perhaps the worst problem to hit other communities is that of a crop failure. Not that of ritual murder, live human medical experimentation, preying on the weak and slavery.

But as Nietzsche says, Beyond Good and Evil, there are no rights and wrongs, only survival of the fittest. And our militia was very fit indeed.

The game was a blast to play. But obviously, being a free format roleplay kind of game, it absolutely hinges on who is playing and what interactions are going on. I think this is a game that can spectacularly fall flat with the wrong crowd, or even the right crowd in the wrong mood. I am also not sure about some of the guidelines and constraints going on. The discussion action seems interesting, but it's made clear that you can't make any decisions in a discussion. It's literally just a discussion with comments made. If you want to actually make a decision, you probably have to raise a project. Which is a unilateral action - everyone else can take a hike. This makes discussions a bit weird - as in, you know they have no real outcome and they are a bit of a waste of time. Possibly. Perhaps the game is making a statement about the nature of chatty politics - it achieves nothing. Only Doers get things done. This also brings up another conflicting kind of mechanic - in game you're not supposed to talk about the community or decisions outside of your actions. So if you actually want to say something useful on what's going on, you raise the discussion action. However, it seems perfectly natural that people comment on what's going on as it happens. Oh that's good. That's bad. That looks stupid etc. Expecting a stony silence from the table would.... destroy any atmosphere I think and result in a much gloomier uninteresting experience full of suppressed thoughts.

The game actually has a mechanic for this - you can take a token if you really disagree with something. If you are outraged or otherwise. Perhaps all play should be silent then, and when someone does something you disagree with, all you can do is glare... and take a token. But this seems a highly peculiar and non interactive anti social kind of play experience to me. I can't believe this is entirely what's expected.

The game could also suffer from a lack of imagination. If you are stuck with what to do, things could become very hum drum. The events whilst in some places really do force a direction on the community, for the most part they are vague outlines, allowing you to tailor the events in the narrative of what's going on in front of you.

It's also not entirely clear what the right kind of balance between hardship and success is, and whether it really matters at all. Of course at its heart its a roleplaying experience, so those questions are moot to an extent, but the game has a bit more structure to it than a completely freeform story telling exercise, there is a question of survival and being ready in time, but there are no in game kicks to really bring this home. I think it would have been nice to have had some events that really prey upon deficiencies more, or give benefits to things that have been solved.

Interesting game. Some thrown together roleplay mechanics and guidelines to allow people that perhaps wouldn't otherwise try a bit of roleplaying to at least paddle somewhere in the waters.

This is almost the other end of the spectrum but on the same line as the Arabian Nights game. Where that is driven by ( effectively ) Wandering Monster Tables, and has as it's heart the random monster generation tables and snippets that have been part of D & D since year dot, A Quiet Year is instead all those random encounters removed and replaced with the random side plot hooks that adorn a well written scenario. A loose and freeform sandbox environment with no goals and no penalties.

Great fun. But, I suspect, flawed as a game. More of an interesting management team building exercise to be run by an experienced hand. Your Mileage May Vary. But in a way that's a good thing. You certainly can't roll your eyes at The Quiet Year and bemoan you've played it all before, and are sick of the sight of worker placement. It's edgy. And different. And has scope to succeed. And fail.

The evening ended with a game of The Resistance Avalon. Percival, Mordred and the Lady of the Lake turned up this week to complicate affairs, and despite in theory the scales being slightly tipped in favour of the good guys, the minions of Mordred won yet again. Although they had to win three sudden death consecutive quests to achieve that. Great stuff. I learned something useful - getting the Merlin role AND explaining to newcomers what was what, AND narrating the series of commands to tell people to open eyes or not at the start of the game . . .  . makes your head hurt. I found it tricky enough just to cite the starting script without giving away the fact I was Merlin with a stupid mistake, let alone play the game.

Addendum : The Quiet Year also saw :
A mass outbreak of Gonorrhea.
A bird flu outbreak.
Discussion of cannibalism.
A tunnel leading to a room full of computers powered by a hydro plant.
A forge.
A windmill.
A derelict highway.
A disused railroad.
A sawmill.
A rail container full of seeds.
Which was then sabotaged.
By Karl.
Karl then dying whilst slaving in the fields. He has set himself on fire failing to achieve more arson.
Serves him right.
An impending invasion of giant car sized frogs.
A fishless lake but with edible weeds.
Sven Kowalski, master of the forge, father of charismatic daughter Sam - who thought the forge would be a great idea.
Joe Bell, telecommunications expert and prominent community member, until he was dismembered. And experimented on. Arguably still a useful community member.
Weapons being prioritised over tools.
Lots of weird prophecies and superstitions.

The horror doesn't look so bad from up here.


Sam Blackwell said...

The quiet year sounds interesting. It seemed like a lot of fun was had, but like you say, very group dependent.

By the way, for the sake of being pedantic, it was Kemet, not Cyclades, which Rich won. Then Love Letter, which Rich won. Then a quick round of Skull & Roses, which Rich won.

Luke said...

Great synopsis of the quiet year, Bondy should put up a scan of the map for completeness.

I did look online for other people's games and although they all included some violence and betrayal our community would have been the baddies in their game...

Minitrue said...

The quiet year was a challenge to summarise. Not sure I succeeded. Like herding cats. I think you had to be there, but hopefully everyone else gets the flavour of the craziness.

Thanks Sam for the corrections ! Sorry I really wasn't paying attention, Love Letter looked groovy.

Mr Bond said...

I think you've done a good job there, John. Though I see you still blame Karl Beaverson for the Community's failings. Poor Karl.

I'll dig out the map and put up a scan.

Minitrue said...

Karl was clearly evil. With his fake Beaverson name. Ha ha.

Karl Evilson more like.

Mr Bond said...

Map is on. Probably makes everything more confusing for those who didn't play.

Minitrue said...

Ha ha, the map is awesome. Good job !