The Sundered Land: The Doomed Pilgrim in the Ruins of the Future

The Doomed Pilgrim in the Ruins of the Future is one part of the Sundered Land collection by D. Vincent Baker, available for about USD$5. One of the first games to be designed specifically for forum play, it is rules light narrative game, nominally Powered by the Apocalypse, and reverses the typical GM/Player roles.p19cc3aam710hm1bba99e19oa1rsc7

Shiny Bits

As a PDF nano-game, there’s not much to dig into here. Like the other games in the collection, each is laid out on a two-column page. There’s a photo-edit illustration that hints at a possible setting and what might lurk there, and that’s about it. For people to whom it’s relevant, the body font is readable and the columns flow from one to the next so a screen reader should follow them correctly.

Mechanics

The game leads off with a recruitment message that a GM can pretty much copy-paste verbatim, with small adjustments to take into account the particulars of the forum. The example uses “Google+” verbiage like “I’ll +1 it” so it’s on the GM to change that to “Like” or “@reply” accordingly.

Prep involves choosing from short lists some details about the Setting, Enemies, and the Pilgrim character. Setting choices are limited to brief but evocative place names like the Jungle of Bones or Jaggedlands, but nothing is said about what any of those actually contain. Likewise, a suggested opposition might be “the encamped army of a king who has sworn vengeance upon me.”Characters have two things, also chosen from a list; in my last game, one was “a vast and deadly patience,” (whatever that means!) Deciding what any of these entail is left to the players & GM to discover in play, none of them are backed with Tags or bonuses or additional rules, they’re just hooks to hang description on.

The Gameplay mechanics are very prescriptive. GM, if this happens, do that. Ask one of these questions. Eventually, when we need to go to dice, roll this and say one of these things. You could go off script or break the rules, but that would be missing the point, I think. Everything given in these rules aim to build up a solitary person on a bleak journey, who will face a few small setbacks and then a nearly-insurmountable obstacle. A nice, tidy, dramatic arc.

The kicker here is that while one person facilitates the game, it’s the players who have the most control of the direction and outcomes. I’ve used the term “GM” so far to refer to facilitator, but in truth it’s everyone else who takes care of the usual GM stuff – describing the world and threats, most importantly.

“You, my friends online, play the world. Your goal is to see me to my doom, instead of safely on my way.”

What a delightful way to both invite people to play and coax them into the role of antagonists.

In Play

I’ve ran multiple session of the Doomed Pilgrim across a wide variety of channels: text message, facebook, google+, Reddit, Discord (a persistent IRC like chat), and RoleGate, and it works really well in most settings. Reddit is a poor fit, though: it tries to sort by magic algorithms, so if you attempt it you should put a link to the thread sorted chronologically in the header. It’s worked to draw in authorly friends because of how low-threshold participation is. Newcomers and outsiders can just read the recruitment post with the player rules, skim to get up to speed, and add a post. If they get distracted it’s fine, there’s no guilt in stepping away from the game and letting everyone else finish.

I’ve also had the chance to participant as a player voice, going as far back as one of the first public games on Google+, and in a variant called Atop a Lonely Tower. As a player Doomed Pilgrim doesn’t give me quite the same payout as a traditional arrangement game, perhaps because of the sharing-nice with everyone else in the GM-full role. But the first plays piqued me to this weird thing Baker was cooking up – and in that, it worked incredibly well.

Summary

You’ve got to get at least one play of this, either as the facilitator or GM-full player role, at some point. It’s a great throwback to freeform chat/forum roleplay and offers lots of room to adapt to different settings.

Run it as a Prologue to a fantasy campaign you’re starting next week to fill in some last worldbuilding ideas.

Run it in the downtime between realtime sessions of the other Sundered Land games.

Post the invitation in the Facebook group for the boardgame club you’re trying to butter up to play an RPG.

Hack it down to the bones and use it to build up a whole new asynchronous, many-and-one game.

 

Related:

http://nightskygames.com/welcome/game/TheSunderedLand

https://boardgamegeek.com/rpgitem/213002/den-vipers (Another pack of games inspired by TSL)

e3ac2737-0f40-4ebc-a03a-199898dc11e9-428-000000679114eb5eMeguey Baker (the author of Psi*Run) has also hosted a few plays of something called “Psi*Run: The Chase” where players all say what’s happening as the wolves close in around a telepath on the run. Check out both the original game & dig up the The Chase plays on google+

 

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Space, Business Card Sized: Vast & Starlit

Epidiah Ravachol’s nano-sized storygame Vast & Starlit provides a framework for spacefaring tales using a very conversational, interactive system. Originally the game was only available in person or by sending the author a doodle and return postage, but more recently it’s been included in game bundles like the eponymous “Epimas” holiday set.

As an RPG it pushes the limits of rules per square inch to the limit, compressing everything down to a few double-sided business cards. Compared to the groundbreaking business-card format joke game “Hit a Dude” with its two rules (1. Hit a dude, 2. Play passes left), Vast & Starlit packs a hefty cargo into its 2 teensy pages (plus outside cover images).

Setting
The built-in premise introduces the characters as escaped prisoners who now find themselves in control of a starship. After that brief and open introduction, the author is hands-off about the setting specifics; everything from here out is created by the players either through question-and-answer or a clever procedural generation subsystem. Players ask one another a handful of questions to frame their characters, ideally using charged questions that imply deeper meanings, like “What would we lose by not listening to you?” instead of simple ones like “Where are you from?” The attention turns to the commandeered vessel, again using questions make the ship almost a character unto itself. “How is it temperamental?” for example, leaving more cosmetic details to be filled out later as needed. Rules for creating alien species, cultures, and environments are tucked in here too – yes, the stuff sourcebooks are made of, all summarized in a 3-step procedure where you start with something familiar and incrementally weird-ify it.

System
Players each step up into the Director stance, suggesting scenes with characters in locations dealing with whatever’s happening. Very loosey-goosey at first glance, but there’s still mechanics that spin up: the main characters in the scene are the focus/foci (ooh, proper Latin use!). If they attempt something Dangerous or Difficult, a player at the table is supposed to call it out. Depending on who is attempting it (non-focus or focus character) the action either fails during the scene or you cut away to something else, leaving the scene to percolate and build suspense, then return to resolve it and incorporate consequences from other players.

Writing, Artwork & Layout

The background of each card is sourced from NASA public domain images and while it is pretty to look at, it becomes visually overwhelming. Teensy micro-printed fonts in alternating swaths of white-on-void, black-on-orangegreen gradient, or blue! outlined in yellow made it damn near impossible for me to read the game. At this point, if I hadn’t heard such good things about Epidiah’s work (“That Jenga one” Dread and the game/zine (S)words without Master) and the company he keeps (Vincent & Meguey Baker of Apocalypse World and PSI*Run, Nathan Paoletta, etc) I probably would have just closed the file and moved along.

I ended up extracting the text for myself and that saved the day for me.

Fit & Finish

So, first off, the form factor gimmick is excellent. This was one of the first games I’ve come across to explore the “Your game is not a book, it is a…” problem and it reaches a few good solutions on the way. Fitting rules for Q&A character generation, scene resolution and procedural world generation into a booklet would be challenging, but Epidiah succinctly fits everything he needs to say onto 21 square inches. It introduces challenges to readability in a trade off for portability.

The game itself provides enough of a framework to hang a story on, but requires a bare minimum of players (rules calling for a 3rd player to weigh in preclude 2-p games, at least if you’re following the letter of the law) and pulls constant input from all those players. Vast & Starlit on its own doesn’t cover conflict resolution or equipment but a set of expansions (Bodies in the Dark, Renegade’s Technical Manual, & Stellar Atlas) cover those seemingly necessary aspects, and introduce more setting material.

I’ve watched a forum game come up with some compelling characters and setting details and then peter out from pacing issues. As an outsider, the feeling of “Okay, now what?” built quickly in the posts. So much of the game hinges on a player asserting something and then looking to the players left & right of them to confirm/alter/deny that detail. Playing face-to-face or at least in a continuous, low-latency medium like email or chat strikes me as a mandatory consideration.

Short version:

Vast & Starlit probably wouldn’t be my choice of a first foray into storygame, or of space game, or even of nano-game now that I’ve had a closer look. But that said, I thoroughly enjoy this game from a design point of view and appreciate the possibilities it packs in. I’d really like to lay out the four cards of the complete set (base game and expansions) and spend an afternoon building utterly bizarre aliens, frakking and/or fighting, hacking engineering technology and reversing the polarity of the ion fluctuators while we’re on the run.

Three warp capacitors out of five, overall – but it’s easily in my Top 10 Tiny Games list.