Friday, August 23, 2013

Review: The Quiet Year

I enjoy telling stories. I really do. That is why I role-play. While I like building and fleshing out a character and giving them real motivations, I find that I am more drawn to creating the world and being arbiter of situations. So, ultimately I am drawn to being a game master or dungeon master and I am fine with that.

However, over the many years of doing this I have found out two things:

First, that playing these types of games has opened me up to endless possibilities and the ability to drop hooks that can unfold into months-long drama at the drop of a hat with nothing planned. Seriously, at any moment in my life, no matter what I am doing at the time, if someone were to look at me and say, "I walk into a bar. What do I see?" I would rattle off some interior setting off the top of my mind and fill it with random denizens just begging to be talked to. Why, there's a young man, possibly too young to be in the bar, making up some fanciful story to try to impress a disinterested woman. A broad man sit sullenly at the bar drinking alone and staring blankly ahead, some of his scars look fresh. A young set of brother and sister twins eye you as you walk in and whisper back and forth to each other as they look at you sitting uncomfortably close to one another. A figure sits back at a corner table, bored with everything, as a servant seems to hang by him and cater to his every need.

Who are these people? I have no flipping idea. And I won't, unless you go up to talk to them and then I'll spontaneously make up something that may become in interesting hook and take the story for a new swerve. And this is brilliant and fun.

The second thing that I have l learned is that I have become handicapped in my storytelling. I am used to the structure and setting of role-playing games to create these wonderful stories. I rely on the structures of the mechanics and other players to help direct everything. If I were to try to sit down and write a story, I would come up with a setting and perhaps some interesting back story and the background world would be dynamic and interesting. Then I'd create a protagonist for my story and... I'd falter. I'd say, "Alright. You're in town. Where are you going and what are you doing?" And, of course, it wouldn't answer because this is my creation. But for so long in my life, stories have been interactive pieces. So I've become handicapped by certain expectations as I craft a story.

Anyway, what that gets me to is my desire to try storytelling in new formats. I've kind of had a growing interest in independent role-playing games. Sure, there is still structure to telling the story, but I'm not ready for cold turkey yet. Instead, I want to expand on my vision of what that structure is and slowly open myself up to that dynamic world.

So, that being said, the first of the independent RPGs that I tried was "The Quiet Year" by Joe Mcdaldno.

I'm going to break up any anticipation or suspense by stating right out from the start that this is the best and most interesting "game" that I have played in years.

It isn't a role-playing game, as you don't really take on the role of characters. I mean you do, sometimes, but generally you act as waves of thought in a community.

It is a map-drawing game. Two to four players collectively explore the struggles of a small community after the collapse of civilization. How did civilization collapse? That is up to you. It may never even come up. But it's a game about creating challenges and seeing how a community develops and grows and ultimately how they deal with hardship. Individual named characters will make appearances, but for the most part, you are creating hardships like a perverse scientist looking down at his experiment and provoking reactions to test a breaking point, while simultaneously acting as currents in the community as you react to these trials.

The game starts with this beautiful paragraph that is read aloud to everyone:

For a long time, we were at war with The Jackals. Now, finally, we've driven them off, and we're left with this: a year of relative peace. One quiet year, with which to build our community up and learn again how to work together. Come Winter, the Frost Shepherds will arrive and we might not survive the encounter. This is when the game will end. But we don't know about that yet. What we know is that right now, in this moments, there is an opportunity to build something.

Who are the Jackals? What are the Frost Shepherds? Perhaps you will define that. Perhaps not. But really, with any community struggling to survive, the focus isn't on the past or the future, but rather the right now.

The game begins with the group of players deciding collectively on where the community is. Someone might suggest a forest. Or you might pick a desert. Or maybe on the rocky cliffs near the ocean below. Then everyone, in turn, adds a feature to the map. Let's say your group chose the forest, someone might say, "There is a swift flowing river that runs through here" then draws a river on the map. Another might add, "There are mountains off to the west here", then adds them to the map, while another might add, "The trees in this area are all dead" and then they draw them on the map.

The map is the game. Everyone draws on it. No words, just sketches. They can be as crap or as beautiful as you can muster, but that is what you are: the map.

Next, each player chooses a Resource. You could say Fish, Protection from Predators, Clean Drinking Water or anything else you decide. Regardless of what is chosen, each of these will somehow be important to your community. Then one is chosen to be an Abundance, while everything else is a Scarcity. So you may have an Abundance of venison, but have a Scarcity of shelter. These are things important to your community, so you can be as esoteric as you want as you are creating a community that holds these things in esteem. In our first game, I picked one of our Scarcities to be "Children". So there, I not only defined that there were not many (if any) children in our community, we held them in regard and children were important to our people.

Once those details are set, you draw a card and the card asks a question that you must answer. This is how your community is defined. You can play this with a standard deck of cards, as there are 52 weeks in a year, thus there are 52 cards. You break them down by suit and shuffle them randomly. You draw the Hearts first, they represent Spring. You draw Diamonds next, which represent Summer. Clubs is next for Autumn. And finally Spades represents Winter.

The Spring cards ask questions that will establish the landscape of the community and it's inner workings. The Summer cards will bring bigger threats and bigger opportunities. Autumn cards bring danger and things can be bleak. Winter, however, brings an ironic hope as the community starts to rebuild after the dangerous Autumn, but it will abruptly end when the Frost Shepherds arrive by drawing the King of Spades.

But what type of questions are on these cards?

Each card has two questions on it. You can choose which to read and answer. After you answer it, you add the relevant feature to the map. For example, the 3 of Hearts has these two questions: "Someone new arrives. Who?" or "Two of the community's younger members get into a fight. What provoked them?"

These sound like simple questions, but you find yourself defining so much by what you answer and what you don't answer. For example, someone new arriving might be a young woman, vulnerable and escaped from slavers looking for protection in your community. Or it might be a religious prophet speaking of an end days prophecy that he is trying to prepare your people for. Or I might choose that two younger members get into a fight over who is the father of a recently born child. Or perhaps the fight was over the accusation of stealing food for an aging and sick father that the community had determined was too weak to spare food for.

So by the very nature of answering a simple question, you are giving the opportunity to define so much. If the fight was over stealing food for the sick, then I've established that our community rations food only for those who will help the community. But all of these things that are established can be revisited later or bring out further conflict down the road, especially as a player then takes their action.

After resolving a card, the player then takes one of three actions:

The first thing that they can do is to "Discover Something New". It is as simple as that and you decide what it is. It could be that you've discovered wolves have moved into the area. Or perhaps you discovered a series of caves at the foot of the mountain. Or perhaps you've discovered the ruins of a city to the east. Again, you can be more open with your choices. In our game where our Scarcity was children, one of our discoveries was that one of our members was pregnant. But all you do is make up a discovery, mark the map if necessary, then move on.

The next action that you can take is to "Hold a Discussion". It is exactly what is sounds like and it is brilliant. Here you reflect voices in the community. You can either make a short statement or pose a question, but everyone weight in with a sentence or two and you simply reflect waves of thought in the community and it is brilliant. For example, let's say that I had answered the above card with the woman being chased by slavers. I ask the group simply, "Should we take her in or send her away?" One player might say "We take her in. We cannot abandon someone in need." A second player may respond, "If we bring her in, we are inviting the slavers to come for her and us. We send her away." After everyone has their say, it's done. Nothing is resolved. Everyone just voiced thoughts in the community.

The last action you can do is to "Start a Project". These projects take 1-6 weeks to complete (though larger projects can be broken down into stages) and a six-sided die is used to represent how many weeks are left (remember, each turn is a week). Projects can be things such as "We're going to build a fence to keep in the sheep we found." or "We're hunting those wolves" or "We're scouting the enemy's camp." Players agree on how many weeks it will take and the die is lowered by 1 each turn until completed. Once a project is completed, whoever started it gets to describe how it turned out. It could be "The pen works well to hold in the sheep" or "The other camp is readying for war and has their focus on us."

There are other minor mechanics, such as taking Contempt tokens to represent when you disagree with actions taken, but really, that is the whole game right there.

It is bittersweet when the Frost Shepherd arrive. You do not know what happens to your people, but you will find you are surprisingly attached to them, despite the fact that they were nothing more than lab rats in your machinations.

But this is the perfect game for me. I am a DM, a GM and a StoryTeller. I am used to building a world and filling it with NPCs. But... it isn't the playground for PCs that I ultimately determine how challenging their life will be and how much reward they will have. Instead, that is shared. The world is built together and I've never really experienced anything like that before. You don't come out of "The Quiet Year" with stories about that time your thief made his saving throw and got a critical hit backstab on the orc leader to the cheers of the other players.

Instead you are left with thoughts.

And I think I like that better.

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