HERE SHE COMES – ROCKIN THRU TIME! TIME CELLIST!

Price of Admission: PDF $5 , $12 printed via DriveThru

Pop this open right quick and follow along, okay? PDF character sheet / rules helper.

Bottom line up front: So take Dr Who but make it a woman Doctor and instead of a Timelord, she plays the cello. Pit her chosen teenage companions against the Maestro of evil, Tchaikovsky, who shreds guitar and uses ninjas to enact TIME SHENANIGANS.

Also, dinosaurs in tophats crash the premier of Hamilton.

This is a super silly game through and through, but anchored on a solid telling-a-story framework. What randomization is needed is taken care of with smile-worthy mechanics like Rock-Paper-Scissors and origami fortune tellers.

Shiny bits:

Quirky candy-striped design throughout the booklet that looks and feels like a kid’s coloring book.

There’s a section that addresses Accessibility for the movement-impaired. That’s a responsible consideration!

Character sheet fits a comprehensive rule summary.

Best. Randomizer / resolution techniques. Ever.

Under the hood:

The game is divided into five discrete phases, or Acts, which help frame up a tidy story arc no matter what kind of craziness happens.

Phase 1 is mostly in the hands of the game leader – the Conductor – and helps breeze them through the Lonely Fun aspects of game planning. An outline for an evil speech is laid out, players and Conductor contribute possible ideas to throw “in the hat” and as the monologue is delivered, ideas are drawn to fill in. If you’re thinking about improv games, you’re on the right track.

Phase 2 helps create the characters – relationships are shuffled up to connect each character to the one on the player’s right.

During Phase 3, each player gets to pick an action scene where the kids will help Time Cellist fend off the Maestro’s army of ninja clones and stop one of the Mayhems. These scenes are about the kids overcoming fears, trying hard, working together, and all that. They’re not about whether one manages to punch a specific ninja, though. Resolution is handled with Rock/Paper/Scissors, the lead player squaring off against the Conductor. If the player wins, progress! If the Conductor wins, the ninjas pull off some of their Mayhem plans. Oh, and if they tie, here’s the kicker: a Time Paradox-dox-dox-dox happens.

What that means is that something absurd happens… the Hindenburg drops in for a textbook landing right in the middle of the Coliseum, the Founding Fathers get in the way while trying to use a Selfie Stick, or, yeah, top-hat t-rexes. This right here looks pretty darn fun, but could get wayyyy out of hand depending on how creative everyone gets.

So, here’s where the writing style really rocks and gets to the heart of what many games just assume. There’s good direction to make sure no single action can end the scene outright (you can’t just say, “I’m going to grab back the pen that they use to sign the Declaration of Independence”), each has to be a small part of it. The text walks the Conductor through this stuff that’s usually taken for granted – set up the scene, push for the conflict, how to resolve it – like an improv theatre textbook.

After each player’s had a scene in the spotlight it’s time for THE BIG SHOWDOWN in Phase 4. WITH THE MAESTRO HIMSELF. And since Time Cellist is all about the trappings of silly childhood games the showdown is played out with rounds of slapjack. Every time a jack is slapped (as per the standard international rules of slapjack), the winner says how they (character or Maestro & ninjas) tilt the battle back and forth, until cards start running out. A player without a deck is eliminated – LOST IN TIME AND SPAAAAACE – unless there are tokens remaining to allow the Time Cellist to perform some fantastic rescue. Players also have the chance to sacrifice their character to stop another character from being LOST, too. It’s all rather heroic.

BUT WAIT. One more thing. So remember when the Mayhem scenes were happening? For each of those that the Conductor/Maestro/ninja side won, they can call in a New Rule during slapjack. Slapjack can already continue indefinitely and this opens another door to break it.

Anyway, back to the good stuff. Once the big climactic battle that Team Cello is guaranteed to win, one way or another, is done then everyone not LOST will be around for Time Cellists after-school-special speech. “Hurray, girls, you did great! The Maestro wasn’t able to complete his evil plans thanks to your smarts, and your newfound patience, and your getting over a crippling fear of balloon animals!” Then everyone figures out an afterword using a “cootie catcher” fortune teller, even those that got LOST IN TIME AND SPACE. Their scene just ends up surreal interpretation of the oracle:

“You know what would be funny? We established that Billy really likes to dance.I think it’s 1987 and we fade in on a young kid watching a Madonna video on MTV.

As they’re showing the row of background dancers behind her, the camera pans over and we see Billy, now a teenager but still dressed like a cowboy, with a big smile on his face dancing up a storm.”

Back matter: appendixes cover how to play the various games & make a cootie catcher oracle, ideas for relationship connections, and there’s a sweet list of time paradoxes that you could lift for any gonzo game.

Wrapping up: For such a simple game at heart, there’s a lot of little moving parts. Granted they’re giddy fun moving parts and not something lame, like damage-type-versus-armor-type tables. The rules start big and handwavey but then zoom in on things that really do matter. The game promises very little prep but asks everyone to bring knowledge of a time period.

Overall, I’m really torn. There’s a lot here that’s exciting so I don’t want that to be lost. And it feels like an awesome game to run for kids… Pick whatever they’re studying in History/Social Studies, or the setting from a movie they liked, come up with goofy shenanigans, play some card games, and one-up their favorite cartoon.

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Message in a bottle: Callisto by VSCA

Check out Callisto! It’s available as PWYW on DriveThru

When I first saw Brad J. Murray posting on Google Plus a few years back about his forthcoming game I came to it with a handful of preconceptions. Lots of dice (like Hollowpoint) or a straight take on a pulpy genre, like he did for sci-fi (diaspora). Maybe a wargame with character arcs. What I experienced reading the “1.0” version of Callisto was one of those “ah ha!” moments where you recognize someone is presenting something unique or upending something familiar so that it looks completely different. If you remember that forest temple in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that rotates 90 degrees so that you’re running around on the wall, that’s the sort of disorienting feeling I got as I dug into the 20-ish pages of Callisto.

Callisto was in a state of “Living Beta” when I first dived in but was already complete and iterations just distilled it.

Setting

This seems like a perfect place to begin, since this is one of the aspects of Callisto that’s been overhauled since the “1.0” version. An “Age of Sail” setting was intrinsic to the first set of rules and while the theme didn’t grab me, I could understand how it informed the original rules. By the most recent update, the wording now uses the Age of Sail Navy / Army as a worked example for how a referee could configure their game. Otherwise, I’ve played in both a low fantasy game and a high tech one situated on a space station.

System

This is where I was completely caught offguard! The system involves almost no mechanics, no randomizer and very little direction from the Ref once it’s in motion. Everything needed for a character might fit on a Post-it note, like the hippie-est of storygames, but it somehow still manages to evoke the seriousness of a game of Diplomacy.

The rulebook is, as I mentioned, only about 20 pages excluding covers and credits; most of that is clarification for the Referee (borrowing a term from wargaming heritage, that of a truly neutral 3rd party to adjudicate on behalf of the rules). The Referee’s creative responsibilities are front loaded: discus with the players what kind of game will be played and summarize it in a few Tenets, draw a map with some Locations, create a list of Characters who each have Roles, Contacts and a few Resource dials and the most significant aspect, their Narrative Authority (or Authorities), and finally coordinate everyone by some sort of messaging system representing Letters.

Some example Tenet sets might be “17th Century Europe,” or “Hard Sci Fi plus warp drive and a few sentient alien races,” or “post-apocalypse; magic is real – it’s ritualistic and brutal.”

The map only needs to be detailed enough to show relative position and have some evocative labels. The Character sheets might be as sparse as “Pegula (Orc), Sword-and-Shield of the Empire,

travels with a Large Army and has great Wealth,

Goals: Quell the Lizardfolk Uprising, Retake Orc Homeland”

Once the game is in motion, the Referee steps back and checks their inbox daily for new messages – everything sent between characters is CC’ed (if using email) or otherwise sent to the referee – and they compare what’s being said in the letters to the character’s Narrative Authority. Anything said outside of their Authority might be true, but could be a simple rumor or a strategic lie, anything covered by their Authority becomes fact. The Referee distills this down into periodic (AM/PM, daily, 48-hour) news posts that reflect the most interesting version of the truth.

Let’s say Ariani sends a two-page letter describing her compelling victory at sea over Benjamin to a few other players. She doesn’t have Narrative Authority over “Deciding the outcome of Naval Battles” but it’s still great, and unless challenged by someone else’s letter it should spread as a strong rumor in the news. If Caleb – who does have that Authority – writes in a letter about Ariani’s victory, it becomes truth. Were he to flippantly write it off as her force being outmaneuvered and routed, however, her letter becomes lies spread to save face.

This could feel disenfranchising for some players, especially if they feel like their version of the truth makes the best story. The challenge here is to be able to operate at three levels: a Character who is trying to “win” by achieving at least some of their Goals, an in-the-thick-of-it Player who is aware of the significance of their words because of the distribution of Narrative Authorities, and a 10000-foot-view Player who is willing to see their character lose standing mechanically and fictionally when their words are revealed to be merely their own interpretation of events.

The majority of the rulebook is focused on how the Referee can guide their players as painlessly as possible. For what it’s worth, “Write letters to people whose addresses you have; letters full of action that falls both within and outside your Authorities. If you need to lie or ask me a question, please do so. Oh, and don’t spam.” summarizes 90% of the player-facing core rules, but invites even more questions than a thick rulebook would. The author tries to address many of those questions but quite a bit of it is left to the Ref to reassure their players, “Yes. Really that simple. Really really.”

Toward the end, Callisto includes guidelines for framing your own setting with different Powers (Narrative Authority and otherwise), different resources, and ways to represent Locations on maps. For Age of Sail – plug in the Navy & Army rules, give lots maritime routes. For game in space you could use a hex-map of systems created just the way you would for Traveler. Exploration? Military focus? Suggestions for handling both of those – and the reinforcement that Callisto is not built to simulate the conflict itself.

Fit & Weight

I’ll start this section with what it won’t fit: No matter how you play Callisto, be ready for a longer-term game, it simply won’t work as written in an evening or a day or even a weekend, set your expectations more in terms of weeks or months. It won’t play “face to face” and it isn’t designed to, but I don’t doubt that an adventurous group could hack that – picture the backroom dealings of Diplomacy and then the referee pulling everyone back to the main table to announce a round of News.

But if you’ve got a large-ish group (say, 8-15) of people interested in playing that can put on their “author” hats for a half hour during lunch or before bed to write some notes, you’ve got your crew. Busy adults often cite lack of time and an aversion to overly-complex rule sets as barriers to (re)entry to the RPG hobby, so Callisto might be a way to reconvene a former gaming group or a few friends who travel too often to set up a regular game night. It also fits the niche of “internet friends” from social networks, forums, or IRC.

Writing, Artwork & Layout

There is still some work that could be done in future “dot” updates (e.g. “2.1”) to highlight key rules – callouts among the conversational text, terse wargame-style outlines, Fate Core bookmarks. Anything in this vein would be helpful even for a same so mechanically simple. The font is easily readable and the pages have a weathered-paper look. I’m usually a fan of plain-text-on-white, but the thematic relevance far outweighs my minimalist preferences. Ah, but I’ve left the best part of the presentation for last: the gorgeous and evocative cover painted by Juan Ochoa – who I hear is also collaborating with the author on other projects.

Message in a bottle

If you’ve ever thought “Yeah! Wargame! Wait, this tome is the rulebook? Oh hell naw.” this might be the way for you to tell those grand-scale stories. If you’re jet-setting every week and only have a few days here and there to deal with real life at home, this asynchronous format might be what fits into your timetable. If you really like counting your troops, maxing your stats, and activating mechanics but you don’t care about purple prose, Callisto probably isn’t for you. But no matter your initial impressions, spend a few minutes to read it. It might be the quirky game that puts the wind in your sails.

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.