Tuesday, January 19, 2010

2009: Favourite Games

I think I'm reaching the end of my run of 'What did I think was cool in 2009' posts. This one is about four notable games I played last year, and why they were fun.


Stephanie Pegg ran "Sitting Shiva", a LARP (short for Live Action Roleplaying) for about eight players. A LARP is kind of like improvised theatre: the players are expected to be fully committed to acting as their characters, moving around, continuously speaking in-character. "Sitting Shiva" took place at the wake of a friend (who was also a participant in the game, bringing a supernatural air to the event, and making our faux-mourning even more tangible).

There were two things that really struck me about this game. First, I loved how it dug into quite emotional material - we played heightened versions of ourselves, dealt with grieving and our attitudes towards death, and learned a lot about the recently-deceased (played by Frank P, in this game). There was an intense focus and full commitment to maintaining a mood as we played.

Second, with only 8 players I was able to feel involved in all of the unfolding story. My previous experience with a LARP had about 80 players, and by necessity I could only keep track of maybe 2 or 3 of the unfolding plotlines, maintain an awareness of about 5 others, and was completely oblivious to at least 5 more. Obviously, this amount of story complexity is pretty awe-inspiring and I felt like I had a complete story-experience for my character in this 80-player LARP, but I found the inability to experience the totality of the story extremely frustrating.

Stephanie's thoughts on Sitting Shiva are here.


I also played the second season of 'The Other Side', a game which lasted about six months and deals with a fantasy kingdom that's been colonised by modern-day America. Taking that basic conflict as our starting point, we created a rich cast of eccentric characters and a sprawling uber-plot that actually sort-of tied together (concerning an attempt by the Kingdom of Hell to invade the fantasy kingdom as well).

As a group, we exercised a tremendous amount of awareness of each other's strengths and weaknesses, pushing each other into hilariously uncomfortable conflicts and in-character romantic entanglements. I was also impressed at how Celeste grew to dominate the game (and discover her affinity for conflict-creating characters) through her portrayal of Fifi, the fairy godmother from Hell.

This is one of the games that my Tuesday night group has had the strongest committment to, I think and it was a pleasure to play (even if my character hardly ever got what he wanted, and when he did he was usually misunderstood). To use some RPG theory, in Big Model terms I think our group were pretty much totally on the same page when it came to the game's creative agenda: we were strongly encouraging each other to help create an inventive anime / soap opera with lots of romance, culture clash and teen angst.

There's a partial write-up about the Other Side, here.


I've played and run one-shots of Dogs in the Vineyard before, but they did not prepare for what happens when you sit down with a group of good friends and play through seven towns over half a year.

In Dogs you (effectively) play teenaged Mormon missionaries in 1840s Utah. The idea is that you travel from town to town, sorting out the extremely human problems to do with sex, pride and jealousy that inevitably emerge in tiny isolated communities holding each other to impossible religious standards. If Dogs has a genre, I think it's 'biblical noir'.

Our characters consisted of two outsiders (Emma played a prostitute who'd converted to the Faith; Malcolm played a Native American convert), and two philosophical opposites (Simon played a 'golden boy' who was completely confident in his Faith and authority; I played an intellectual from 'back east' who challenged the Faith and tried to rely on his own judgment).

We rotated the responsibility for designing towns and running them for the others. Each time we GM'd, we tried to focus on the character issues that had been revealed in previous towns. To me, it felt like an excellent TV series directed with a 1970s Western aesthetic by directors like Robert Altman and Clint Eastwood.

For me, the big discovery was that I changed from 'trying to solve the town' to 'treating the fictional townsfolk as real people, and just trying to make their lives better'. I also developed a lot of admiration for Emma's no-bullshit approach - at least once a game, she would make people surrender in a conflict just by saying the exact right thing that would cause them to realise they'd fucked up. At one point, she made Simon's character decide to retire, shattering his confidence and his Faith.

By the end, it was obvious that the game was really about the future of the Faith, as it was under threat by the arrival of settlers and railways from Back East. What was at stake was how we Faithful would respond: with violence, by running away, or by trying to assimilate, change and exercise passive resistance. The ending of the game was melancholic, and it haunts me still.

Dogs in the Vineyard: play it if you like totally character-based campaigns set in the Wild West.


At Post Box Con, I had the opportunity to jump in to a fully-prepped game of Bliss Stage. It was incredibly satisfying to unleash my inner emo for the second time this year.(*) Bliss Stage feels gritty, desperate, and deals with sweaty, troubled relationships. I love it and I want to play a full game to its conclusion.

(*) The first time I emo'd this year was during Jenni's excellent parody of Twilight.


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Billy said...

Dogs in the Vineyard. WTF? That is the single weirdest RPG concept I've encountered. Including shit that is trying to be weird.

Luke said...

DitV is a pretty revolutionary RPG and one that has had more far reaching impact than many. It also does Westerns better than most RPGs that deal direct with the subject matter. It is well worth checking out.

Steve Hickey said...

I'm with Luke, Billy. It is very much worth checking out.

For one thing, it set a new benchmark for how to explain a game (both how to play it and how to prepare for it). Its rules for deciding what's gone wrong in a town just before your characters arrive could be used to plot out 100 different and satisfying noir novels.

For another: I was continually impressed at how it focuses you on what makes people human - why should you care about them, and when is it worth fighting with them.

When Pearce played it a couple of years ago, he came away saying "I didn't expect to spend this evening playing a game about Mormon marriage protocol", yet that's pretty much the stuff that the game's really interested in.

Mormon marriage protocol, with guns.

Jenni said...

<3 The Other Side

Steve Hickey said...

Other Side = sooo good.

After a break, I'd actually be interested to see if we're interested in seeing what a Season 3 would look like.

But it totally had a great ending as is.