Post JiffyCon Debriefing

This past weekend was JiffyCon, and what a beautiful con it was. Good folks, good games, and a lovely rainy day to boot, which made it easy to stay inside all day and game. And it was a lovely opportunity to pull out and test drive two new projects.

Dread House

I’ve been working on this Dread variant over the past year with Emily Care Boss of Black & Green Games. Designed for a younger crowd (ages 10 and up), it uses Jenga, like Dread, and it’s a spooky game, but that’s about where the similarities stop.

In it you play teenagers who have dared each other to spend the night in a clearly haunted house. As you spend the night there, you explore the rooms, experiencing various chilling events and uncovering the occasionally useful item. Each player has a character which fits into a specific role (the gossip, the athlete, the nerd, the scaredy cat, etc.). The hosting duties are shared, as you get to narrate all the spookiness for the player on your right. Doing anything requiring courage–such as entering an unexplored room, splitting up the party, or eventually confronting the monster that dwells in the house–also requires a pull. If you refuse to pull, you run screaming to the other kids, who must then pull or run screaming with you.

I was perhaps most terrified of this playtest. We had three kids with us, one of which was a bit below our estimated minimum age. This was a discriminating audience who would not be the least bit shy about telling us if they were bored. They dove right into it and appeared to relish the chance to narrate the spooky events as they unfolded. It was a smashing success, but also taught us some important lessons on the limits of their attention span (the game should, once we get done fine tuning it, run for no longer than an hour).

We also learned that it is rather easy to make the game scalable to age. We found a type of rule we could write that added depth to the game, but would be naturally ignored by folks too young to care about it. There’s definitely a solid game here. Expect to hear more about this soon.

Swords Without Master

This sword and sorcery descendant of MonkeyDome has possessed me since almost the very moment MonkeyDome was finished. I talk about it here, and intend to talk about it more. But right now I just want to play, play, play it.

At JiffyCon I got to test it with the largest number of players yet (five not including myself) and it worked beautifully. We went from zero-prep to final confrontation with a three-headed simian god in just over two hours.

Listen well as I tell you the tale of “The Tomb of the Monkey King.” There are many glorious deeds to recount, and I cannot touch upon them all in this space, but I will strive to show you how they came about.

A band of five adventurers join a caravan traveling across a desert expanse that once was a lush jungle. At night they are set upon by scorpion-men who drive them into a rocky outcropping. There, under a barrage of flaming sling stones and through a bit of folly, they discover they are sitting on the entrance to a long forgotten tomb. With nowhere else to go, they flee into the catacombs.

There, in the tombs, a young light-hearted rogue named Slake finds, in the moonlight, sitting ominously alone on a pedestal a single silver coin engraved with three monkey heads. A little theft and desecration later, and the party is set upon by various guardians of the tomb, including the ghosts of monkey warriors, a mad monk, and a three-headed monkey god who seeks their blood to wet the soil so the long-dead jungle above them can once again grow.

During a game of Sw/oM, there are little notes generated and collected in the middle of the table. Tentatively we will call these threads. There are four kinds of threads: the title, morals, mysteries and motifs.

The title is settled upon either before the game starts (tonight we’re going to play “The Emerald Curse”) or some time after the first phase, as we did at JiffyCon. I don’t remember the exact moment, but once we discovered the tomb was decorated in crudely carved monkey images, Josh suggested “The Tomb of the Monkey King.” It was slapped on a note card and tossed into the middle of the table.

The morals and mysteries are generated by die rolls. They are moments when the characters either are unable to react due to some unknown force or when the characters’ actions have undesired consequences. When this happens, the players make a note, either asking a question about the mysterious cause of their characters’ inaction or simply stating the moral or lesson taught by consequence. Percy, the inexperienced apprentice mage, sends his imp familiar to rescue an ally in the clutches of the scorpion men only to be assaulted himself by the very same scorpion men, earning him the moral “Do your own dirty work.” Slake, who stole the silver coin from the pedestal, finds that he’s unable to see anything with the form of a monkey, thus preventing him from rescuing Rothgar the Campaigner and putting the mystery: “Why can’t a see the monkeys?” in the middle of the table.

The motifs start when someone hears something they like in the narration and declares that it should be the motif. Every motif card has three elements on it. When the Slake came upon the moonlit silver coin with the three monkey heads carved on it, the group decided that we’d start the motif thread off with that: “three-headed monkey, silver, and moonlight.” After that, we can add additional motif cards, again just because we happened to like what was narrated, as long as the new motif card shared an element with one of the previous ones. Once we had three of these motif cards, we can begin the end game.

The only change in the end game is that players have to start reincorporating the threads. Once all but one player has done so, the story is over and we can have a little epilogue. Our end game began when the party found themselves underneath a giant statue of the three-headed monkey king hanging from a cavernous ceiling. The statue, of course, is beginning to animate as statues are wont to do and thousands of monkeys are spilling from its mouthes, charging forth to swarm our heroes. Rothgar the Campaigner sings a battle hymn of an army famous for losing an impossible battle, and the rest of the rogues throw themselves into the fray.

Herr Doktor Professor Mansfield, a expert in the field of the undead, realizes Slake’s inability to see the monkeys was caused by a spectral simian invisibly clinging to his back and covering his eyes–reincorporating that mystery. With a blast from one of his charms, he dismisses the beast and unleashes Slake, who along with Dog Meat, a nomadic archer with an unfortunate past, tore into the swarms of monkeys–and in the latter case reincorporating a motif card that included the element “swarm.”

Amidst the chaos, Percy and his imp take their silver ceremonial daggers, carve a wide circle upon the ground and call forth an ancient, three-headed snake monster to struggle with the monkey god as our rogues make their way to safety–reincorporating that first motif card.

In one glorious, blood-soaked finally scene, we managed to tie off enough threads to bring the story to a hugely satisfying conclusion, but left just enough untied to tempt us with future adventures. This was exactly how I wanted the game to work, and couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.

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