Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The Elephant in the Room

This is a short game originating from a throwaway comment about killer whales and Agatha Christie mysteries... yes, the mind is a mysterious thing indeed.

The Room

Image result for victorian parlourYou'll need 4 or more players for this game: the more of you there are, the longer the game will take though, so 6 is probably the optimum number, but as many as 8 could work. If there are more of you, split into two groups to keep things manageable.

As with many other short games on this blog, the first thing you need is a situation, but pick something unusual rather than mundane, such as:

  • A board meeting for a company in dire straits.
  • A parlour where the detective has gathered all the suspects in a murder.
  • A team changing room at half-time.
  • A family therapy session.
  • A dorm in a prisoner-of-war camp.
  • A political leader's office at a time of crisis.
It's best to pitch one of these examples when you suggest playing this game, along with suggested characters that the players might want to portray, e.g. in the last example, you would want a President or Prime Minister, Head of the Armed Forces, Chief Treasurer, a spin doctor, leader's spouse, etc. Get everyone to choose roles and make themselves comfortable.

The Elephant

Image result for elephantThere's one catch to the above situation, an absurdist element that simply wouldn't happen in real life and which the characters in the Room are mostly ignoring: we'll call this the Elephant. After choosing the situation and the characters who are present, introduce the Elephant, which could be one of the following or something of your own devising:
  • The Room is flooded and the water level is rising.
  • There is another character in the Room, who is actually an elephant (or other creature, monster, etc)
  • The Room has terrible, cheap movie continuity and details about it keep changing.
  • The apocalypse is taking place in some form just outside the Room.
  • There's a dead body lying across a table in the centre of the Room.
  • Everyone in the room is wearing a fancy Easter bonnet.
For example, it is the parlour of an English country house and all the suspects are gathered to hear the great detective unravel a most perplexing murder; various suspects are seated or standing in the room, including one who is really a killer whale in a suit, with a false mustache.

The Conversation

To begin playing, deal out two rows of cards onto the table: one row should be face up and the other face down, with the number of cards in each row the same as the number of players, e.g. if you have 5 players, then there should be a row of 5 face up cards and a row of 5 face down cards, for 10 cards in total.

There is no set turn order to the game and anyone can take a turn at any time, but each turn must take one of these three distinct forms:
  • Dialogue: say something in character, addressing it to another character or the entire room, but do not mention the Elephant. When you use Dialogue, turn a face down card over, so that it is face up.
  • Action: describe what is happening in the room, whether as an aspect of the environment or what an NPC is doing, but you must include the Elephant. When you use Action, turn a face up card over, so that it is face down.
  • Panic: say something in character and/or take direct action in character, but you must include the Elephant. When you use Panic, remove a face up card from the table and return it to the pack.
Continuing the above example, we might see a series of turns as follows:
Image result for hercule poirot mitchell webbGreat Detective: "In actual fact, Madame Crozier was really... Monsiuer Crozier!" (Turns a face down card over)
Brash Suitor: "Great Scott! That explains these adoption papers!" (Turns a face down card over)
Ambitious Priest: The killer whale also acts surprised and knocks over the tea things while flapping its tail. (Turns a face up card over)
Brash Suitor: I turn to the killer whale and say "Steady on old chap, you splashed cream on my best trousers!" (Removes a face up card from the table)

The Finale

Continue as above until, after any turn, all the cards on the table are either face up or face down: the game ends the instant this happens and no further turns may be taken. The situation is then resolved according to the final state of the cards on the table:
  • All Face Up: the characters resolve the situation in their collective best interests, or at that very least survive it, but the Elephant may not be mentioned in the conclusion.
  • All Face Down: the Elephant is the biggest influence on the situation in the end, overturning or destroying the situation in the process.
Agree on an appropriate ending under those constraints and narrate it as a group to end the game.

In the finale of the previous example, the two possible outcomes might be:
  • All cards face up: the Great Detective unmasks the murderer, who is arrested, while the other characters express their astonishment.
  • All cards face down: the killer whale attacks the Great Detective before they can reveal the murderer's identity, then swims out to sea to be rid of its human disguise.
 I could say much more about the mechanics of the game, but then I'd have to remove a face up card from the table and return it to the deck.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Oil & Water

This is another reskin of Blood & Water, taking inspiration from sources as disparate as the 50th Anniversary of the Cybermen in Doctor Who, the TV series Humans and the musical performances of Steam Powered Giraffe; enjoy.

Service Manual

Image result for steam powered giraffe
The fabulous Steam Powered Giraffe crew
In this version of the game, the residents are all mechanical lifeforms who have found their way to each other with the common cause of hiding the truth of their existence from the human race in general and learning what it truly means to be alive. Choose a house as usual, but keep in mind the specific needs of androids & robots over supernatural creatures: they must have access to some kind of technology to maintain themselves, as well as to be viable creations in the first place.

The service manual for each character is quite different from the resident's book: not only are there different questions to answer, there are also different assumptions made about the characters throughout. On the first page, replace the normal introductory statements with the following:

I am... a brief statement about the resident's assumed human identity, e.g. "I am Petra, a bank clerk."
But I was made... a short history of their origins, indicating when they were originally built and for what purpose, e.g. "But I was made in 1951 as part of a project for the Festival of Britain."
I gained freedom when... the circumstances that separated the character from their original creator and purpose, e.g. "I gained freedom when I was scrapped due to a clerical error made by an obtuse civil servant."

The front page questions are more directed in nature than for other hacks, but you should only answer two out of three of them, leaving the other one blank. Choose whichever two you like, but consult with the other players while doing this to avoid excessive overlap of themes and stories.

I am hunted by... because... name the person or organisation that is seeking you out and state what they want from you; it could be your creator trying to reclaim their greatest work, a shadowy government agency determined to end your existence or another artificial life-form trying to secure your co-operation in their great plan to upgrade themselves. Pick something you don't want to be involved in though, so you have an incentive to hide yourself and assume a cover identity.

I cannot refuse to... describe a hard-wired instruction, some standing order you must obey when the circumstances require; it might be that you cannot refuse to fight when ordered or perhaps you cannot stand by and allow accidents to happen. It might even be something relatively trivial, like you can't refuse to do housework or drive a vehicle, but there should be plenty of opportunities for this programming to mess up your  artificial life.

I need... in order to... choose some substance, maintenance or other activity that you require in order to operate at full efficiency; maybe you need to recharge every hour for your sensors to be fully functional, or you have to be regularly oiled in order to stay mobile; perhaps you have to be fed printed words in order to retain the power of speech, or you lose directional control if you are not electromagnetically shielded. Pick some awkward design drawback that you have to continually compensate for in order to function optimally.

Image result for humans channel 4
Channel 4's Humans
On the second page, in place of the usual Strengths & Weaknesses, there are Functions & Flaws: these work in very much the same way, but you should think mechanically when choosing them. Functions represent abilities your robotic-resident possesses that human beings don't, whereas Flaws are things that humans can do easily which your resident struggles to do. Sample Functions might include superior strength, toughness or enhanced senses, along with being able to interface with and control other machines; sample Flaws are an inability to pick up small items without breaking them, being magnetic, overheating and slow, ponderous movement.

For the third page, the questions change entirely from the norm, like so:

What don't I know that I want to learn? This could be the secret of the resident's origin, the location of their creator, a way to change their programming or something more mundane, like how to reciprocate love or develop a sense of humour.
             What's stopping me? Pick an obstacle to this goal, something that complicates the matter beyond just "I don't know how." Perhaps someone is deliberately standing in their way or they lack a vital module that will enable them to learn what they want and put it into practice; they might even be wary of the truth, for fear that it will prove too much for them and they will revert to a previous, non-free willed state.

What do I know that I want to forget? Something the resident  has learned that they wish they hadn't, like a knowledge of their own life-span, the secret of a dangerous technology or a dark secret from their past; on the mundane side, perhaps they want to forget the truth they have learned about a human's lies or some intimately embarrassing confession that has been made to them.
             What's stopping me? Choose a reason why the resident can't just forget: is there some pressing action they need to take with this knowledge? Are they the only one who knows this secret, so they must guard it? Could it be of use in the future, so they must carry the knowledge until then? Or are they just learning a lesson about responsibility and accepting the consequences of their actions?

The optional question on this page are also slightly changed:
What do I like to do? A hobby or activity the resident enjoys.
What don't I like to do? A task or chore they loathe.
Who is my human role model? A real person or fictional character they aspire to be like.
What do I fear most? An event or contingency they wish to avoid and have made plans for.

The gist of the game is a little bit different: none of the characters have a human past (though they might have human memories that have been downloaded into them...) so they are all trying to create a space for themselves within modern society. The humans around them generally have no clue that the residents are robots, but if the secret were to leak out, it's likely that the residents' pretence would be shattered and they would have to move on, obtaining new identities... unless they can plug the leak somehow, by discrediting or erasing the witness, perhaps?

The game is more likely to have a humourous tone too, as the residents learn obvious lessons about being human, but this can change to tragedy in an instant, with the residents causing enormous harm to the people around them through their ignorance of the human condition and human frailty. It's worth having a more in-depth talk than usual about the type of game you want to play and where you draw the lines: how much collateral damage is it allowable for the residents to be responsible for? And how far can they go in protecting their secrets?

Friday, 2 September 2016

Flotsam & Jetsam

I opened my house to some players on the Saturday before the Bank Holiday for a game of Blood & Water using the first ever printed copy! Such excitement! I pitched a game set around being students in their first year, but once we sat around the table, this loose concept evolved into students at Berkeley in California during the 1960s, continuing the theme of supernatural equality that has crept into many of my games of late. The players and their characters were:

Image result for berkeley california 1960sElaine as Alyssa, a Witch: she gained her powers when she read a forbidden book she found in the library and gained a unique understanding of all things, plus the ability to practice ritual magick.
Daniel as David, a transformed dog: an escaped lab animal who had become human during an experiment that went wrong and felt caught between the human & canine worlds.
Jane as Yukiko, a Japanese umbrella: after 100 years, the umbrella spontaneously generated a soul, which manifested as a young Japanese woman, who sadly was immaterial and could only interact with the world via the umbrella she could not be separated from.
Lloyd as James, a Deep One: sent to dry land to study the human race in depth, he yearned to return to his family and the sea he felt outcast from.

There was also me playing Spencer, their beach house: as Yukiko had the power to speak to all things, it only made sense to give their home a voice of it's own, which turned out to be that of an ageing stoner who treated the furnace in the basement as his personal bong.

We opened on the last day of the winter break before college recommenced in early January, in an unspecified year taking place in an alternative 1960s (you'll see why later...) when the housemates discovered a beach full of dead fish, attracting protesters and the somewhat over-bearing local news journalist/anchorman Brad Rock. He wormed his way into the house by making friends with David the Dog but was immediately taken with Alyssa the Witch, pressuring her into an interview that did not end well, leaving Brad with an axe to grind against the housemates. Also around this time, James the Deep One was pulled into the sea by Dagon, who instructed his servant that the Prophet was coming; meanwhile, Yukiko the Umbrella saved some driftwood from the furnace, determined to restore it into whatever it once was... and also finding out from Spencer that the last owner of the house had "exploded."

The evening news did not put the housemates in a good light, implying that they might be some type of free-loving Communist coven; also, some further probing of Spencer revealed that exploding residents was "a thing", but only ever on the full moon after the winter solstice (the next night) and even then, only to humans, so David, Yukiko and James relaxed, at least until Alyssa marshaled them with a plan of action best labelled "Operation Don't Explode." James also tried to use his contacts with the Cult of Dagon to try to get Brad bumped off, but Lloyd was unable to convince them to expose themselves for him without getting something big from him in return.

They arrived at college the next day intent on hitting the library, but their path was strewn with thorns, or at least one thorn: Brad Rock was on campus, attempting a serial exposé of the un-American practices taking place among the students. Fortunately David was able to renew his friendship with Brad, providing a distraction the rest of them used to hit the books, looking into "Causes of Spontaneous Human Explosion"; when David & James had to go to a philosophy lecture, Alyssa & Yukiko carried on looking for information in the books, finding out that James' "Prophet" would need "Eyes to see far, a Heart to hold the truth and a Tongue to share it with all."

Image result for beach houseThe lecture turned out to be a bad experience for James, who got into an argument with Charlie, another student who kept on making counter-points to everything the professor said: when James tried to cow him into silence, it was he who got a brow-beating from the professor for trying to stifle the free exchange of ideas! This spilled over into the cafeteria at lunchtime: when the housemates got back together to compare notes, they were interrupted by an intense debate between Brad and Charlie about the state of the American People and Yukiko & Alyssa suggested that either of the debaters could be the Prophet! Campus security cracked down on the debate, fearing unrest taking hold on the campus, and somehow David managed to invite Brad and Charlie back to the beach house that night to record their debate for TV!

Then we had a montage: Yukiko recycling flotsam & jetsam in her room, David setting out bowls for everyone to drink from, Alyssa starting her 'don't explode' ritual as she felt the house throb and pulse around her, while outside, as night fell, some locals prepared for a party on the beach by building a huge bonfire out of everything they found (a traumatic time for Yukiko!) Finally, the big moment arrived, with Charlie arriving with his girlfriend Sharon, while Brad came with his PA and cameraman and they settled down on bean bags in the front room. As the mystic energies of the Full Moon arose and Alyssa tried to harness them to work her will upon the world, instead of exploding, Brad turned out to be intelligent, compassionate and persuasive: James decided he couldn't stand the thought of Brad being the Prophet, so he tipped the scales in Charlie's favour during the debate. Charlie responded by saying that he admired Brad for his vision, his compassion and his commitment to telling the truth and, as that was just what he needed, he gave Sharon the order to slit Brad's throat so that he could begin harvesting his organs for the ritual that would make him Prophet!

At this moment, the cosmic energies peaked and Alyssa attempted to seize control of them: engaging in a struggle for mystic dominance against Charlie, (also knows as Charles, of course, or Mr. Manson) she was victorious and asserted her will through three increasingly hard wishes. First, she restored Brad to life (Charlie dissipated into atoms at this point); second, she made Yukiko a real human being; third, she gave James all of Dagon's power! With much of what they wanted achieved, they wiped their brows, before there was a knock at the door... the revellers from the beach were there, this time wearing their ceremonial robes and, with the bonfire ablaze behind them, declared "We want the witch."


Thanks to all who played and ate my veggie chilli; apologies to Lloyd for continually bumping into him, I'll have to find a better position for him the next times he comes.